As a final assignment for Christian Doctrine seminarians are required to write a set of statements that attempt to formulate their current stances on the major categories of systematic theology. What follows is my own attempt to encapsulate my views.
More than any other piece I’ve posted to the web so far, this assignment reminds me that the seminary process is one of continual shifts and changes. As I learn more, I frequently find the need to go back and address some early positions that no longer make sense in the ways that I originally formulated my ideas.
So with this in mind, and an understanding that this was a snapshot at the end of the Spring ’07 semester, I offer you a chance to see what was going on in my beliefs…
I. Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience.
The canon of Scripture is most broadly defined by the various branches of the Orthodox Church and includes the Jewish Tanakh, the Christian New Testament and the additional texts of the Roman Catholic, Greek and Slavonic traditions as taken from the Septuagint.
Scripture, when illumined by the Holy Spirit, is sufficient for the revelation of the gospel of God’s unfailing love and grace, the current human condition and the remedy of atonement. Scripture comprises an abundance of diverse voices which provide examples both positive and negative of the gospel. Discerning the difference between the two is a matter of meditating upon the characterization of Jesus Christ as a reflection of God. Actions consistent with this image move in the direction of the gospel message of unity and reconciliation, while negative examples provide us with portraits of how focusing on individual or ethnocentric desires leads to a breakdown of God’s Shalom and suffering in this world.
The canon could conceivably be enriched by additions which provide further elucidation of the gospel message to a particular time and people. Though the canon is closed (based on the shared heritage of Christians and the first seven ecumenical councils), other texts may be considered sacred by either individuals or communities, as they are lead by the Holy Spirit and the other authorities.
Tradition as expressed in both the liturgical practices of the Church and also our history of interpretation provides guideposts along the journey. Often through exploring past controversies and their solutions we are able to avoid traveling around the same mountain over and over. However, tradition in and of itself is insufficient as a locus of authority.
Since the Enlightenment, Reason has also played a vital role as an authority within the faith. Through reason we are able to discern errors in the factual correctness of received scripture and tradition, allowing us to either rethink the way that we do things or to at least understand that perhaps a more metaphorical approach may be required in the face of new facts.
Finally, Experience serves together with Reason as a check over Scripture and Tradition. If the realities of our own experience don’t match up with what we find transmitted to us by our forebears, then we are given reason to search for other meaning, in our quest. Experience alone is not enough. For example, I am loved by God though perhaps my own experience hampers my perception of that love.
Ultimately it is the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit which facilitates the use of Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience in discerning the human condition and the invitation of God to perfect community and peace.
II. The Divine.
All descriptions of the Divine are limited by the finitude of the language, thought and feeling of the present human condition. Therefore, all attempts to define or characterize the Divine are by their very nature less than wholly efficacious. Within Christian tradition the Divine is most commonly referred to by the label "God."
God is the Other which provides the contrast against which we are able to see our human condition. Eternal source of all goodness and life, God is without measure, limitation or boundary in all dimensions of space and time.
While God is all glorious, mighty and powerful and the ultimate source of all things, God is also all loving kindness, seeking the ultimate Good in all things. Though these two characteristics may appear to be in opposition of one another they are harmonized by understanding that what humanity defines as good within the confines of our finitude is in no way binding on the bigger picture that eludes our limited faculties.
God exists in three distinct yet inseparable faces, by tradition referred to as the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit or by function as Creator, Redeemer and Advocate. Though conceivable that the Divine may contain more faces, the Trinity is based in the recorded words of Jesus of Nazareth who claimed that he and his Father were one and that after his (Jesus’) departure humanity would receive the Holy Spirit who also proceeds from the Father.
As Creator of all things (more in part IV), God exists within all things and maintains all things. However, all things are not God. As God consists of a nature that inhabits the universe (immanence) and yet extends beyond all that is created (transcendence), some things we can know about God by observation and describe in positive terms while other characteristics of God can only be described by what God is not.
The Christ is the immanent nature of God as perceived through the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Though Jesus himself was made of the same physical matter as the rest of humanity, his life provided witness to the Christ spirit in his perfect and unfailing reflection of the loving nature of the Divine with which he was in constant communion. We know the loving and life-giving nature of God by looking at and reflecting on the nature of the Christ as revealed through the constant reflection of the nature of God. Jesus embodied in human form the essence of God.
The Holy Spirit is the name used to describe the spiritual presence and nature of God that communicates with, sustains, inspires and empowers us as beings within the world. By the inspiration of the presence of the Holy Spirit we are able to see the image of God in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The Holy Spirit empowers those who embrace and live according to act in ways that defy baser human responses and the apparent laws of the natural order (i.e., miracles).
While tradition holds Christ as the second person of the Trinity the idea of first, second and third persons within the Trinity is not an order of importance, but perhaps a standard order of listing persons. The Divine Logos present at the creation of the world, but so also the action of the Holy Spirit also has been present from the dawn of human history. Through the Holy Spirit the Creator is able to break in upon the human condition, illuminating and mediating between Maker and that which is made. In opposition to the filioque clause, the Holy Spirit proceeds directly from the Creator without the mediating influence of the Christ. In the perichoretic dance of the Trinity, each member interacts with the others in a perfect unity without any sense of hierarchy that the filioque interjects. In the words of the Athanasian Creed, the whole three persons are coeternal together and coequal, Unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity.
III. The Will of God.
God’s ultimate goal is to bring the entire created order into an understanding of God’s very nature as source of all goodness and love and life. How we as humans come to this conclusion (the specific details) is open to a multitude of possibilities. However, it is the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of individuals and corporately that provides the spark necessary to imagine the loving nature of God required for a person to ultimately feel secure enough to embrace God’s love.
The final state of all things moves inevitably toward a state of God’s own perfection, in which the Creation will in the fullness of its created capacity mirror the essence of the Creator. The point at which this state will be reached cannot be measured in terms of human time and is expressed in terms of a "hope" of universal reconciliation to God. God unbound by the constraints of time and space and endowed with infinite compassion, love and mercy, is able to wait until all entities of the created order come of their own accord to their own understanding of God’s nature and embrace the perfection of the Divine. God will not force a change of mind or heart; as such an act of violence is beyond the nature of God.
God’s will for the individuals who make up humanity while alive and participating in the created order, is much more fluid. While the ultimate goal is the reconciliation of all, there are no guarantees that such will be achieved within the limited span available to each human while alive. However, unfettered by the limitations of the human condition into which we are each born, we will have ample opportunity to witness God’s love in the hereafter, continue the process of revelation of God’s goodness and reach the seemingly inevitable conclusion of (at some point) accepting communion with the God of life and love.
Before there was time the Divine presence danced together in a perfect community of mutual love with no need of any other (perichoresis). And yet, for reasons unknown, God felt it a good and pleasing thing to create our universe in all of its dimensions of what we see and what we cannot see. So God (metaphorically, of course) opened God’s mouth and spoke a poem of the deepest, purest, life-giving love: a song that God continues to sing and whose very first joyous peals are still moving outward from the God-source, creating space and time wherever it travels. From the harmonics and interplay of the song humanity has arisen if for a brief time and as the planet we call our home continues its flight outward from the Source the layered meanings of God’s poem continue to unfold.
V. On Being Human.
In a measure of the Creation Song (IV), humanity appeared on the planet we know as earth. Whether this particular snippet of the melody is found elsewhere or only here we do not know. However, it would be unwise to assume that our appearance at this particular point in the created order is fundamentally unrepeatable in another movement in the God Song.
We are enlivened by the very breath of God and bear the imprints of God’s own image: a desire for community and relationality which we satisfy through contemplation of God’s inner life and participation in the Divine Dance. Humans are natural born worshipers, always looking for something with which to engage our energies and attentions. In our ideal state we worship the Divine and participate in the dance that contented the Divine before our appearance. Our inner life is sweet and fulfilling when we are in sync with to the Creator’s tune and step. But for most of us this is a journey that we view in terms of growth to maturity.
Finally, human beings are reflectors of anything on which we focus. When we are focused on God, we reflect all the glory of the Divine in its infinite perfection. As long as we are correctly focused, we participate in the Divine perichoresis, experiencing contentment and joy in the Unity of God.
VI. The Human Condition and Sin.
The imago dei with which we are created includes an incredible amount of energy and desire intended to be shared within the Divine Dance. However, our desires, when misdirected, become a great source of suffering both to ourselves and to those around us. Rather than expressing the love of the unity of God, we may seek other ways of satisfying our need for relationship. In popular parlance, we are consumed by a need to fill the God-shaped hole left in the center of our being. Within the finite world of our perceptions this presents a problem: as we wildly flail about and grasp at the people and things around us in an attempt to fill the void within, we are unable to recreate the Divine community for which we long. But moreover, we exacerbate the problem in a world of finite resources as we take from others in order to satisfy our needs.
Suffering may also take on the form of "natural evil." Earthquakes, floods, disease, famine and death are all realities of our human lives. These serve as goads lest we become too focused on the here and now. Suffering spurs us on to seek relief and reminds us that complete peace and joy are found only in our communion with the Divine.
VII. The Christ.
In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ spirit was revealed to humanity. Because of his complete identification and unity with the Divine, Jesus effected the union of the finite and the infinite. Within his consciousness he was in constant contact with the Divine, following a psychological model of the incarnation. By his words and deeds he was able to demonstrate the nature of the Divine. Through his obedience he modeled the disciple’s response to the call of the Divine. His resurrection is a sign of approval given to us by the Divine, and a communication to all who would follow in this path that we are not limited by the threat of death in this world.
Through the urgings of the Holy Spirit, humans are awakened to a recognition of the Divine. We cannot accomplish this for ourselves and are totally dependent on the efforts of God to reach out to us for this awakening to take place.
For Christians such an awakening takes place as we are exposed to the life of Jesus Christ. However, others may also be awakened to this reality without a knowledge of the historical Jesus or participation within the Church in its organized revelation within the natural world. These "anonymous Christians" (to use a Roman Catholic term) are awakened are also awakened to the presence of the Divine by the inbreaking of the Holy Spirit.
The natural born worshiper begins a gradual alignment with the sacred dance, resulting in release from the zero-sum struggle and a new set of desires as modeled by the Divine. Focused on the infinite, all-loving, all-life-giving God, the worshiper is transformed into the very image of the Creator, learning to enjoy and enrich the sacred dance. This follows in the line of thought of the Eastern Orthodox faith known as deification.
IX. The Church.
The Church is divided into two pieces: the expression of community as seen on the earth and the Church Universal.
The Church Universal is the body of all believers who have been awakened by the Holy Spirit and have embraced the Life of the Divine. This body exists independent of space and time in communion with God.
As expressed within the earth, the Church is seen in bits and pieces, separated by denominational labels and doctrinal beliefs. Here, the Church is the herald of God’s love and desire for communion with all of humanity. Her doors are open wide to receive all who would seek a relationship with the Divine. Within the Church are smaller communities that adhere to traditions and disciplines that have proven useful to members over time. Exclusion from an earthly community does not in any way affect membership in the larger Church Universal, which requires only consciousness of and participation in the Divine Life.
X. Sacraments, Ordinances and Practices.
Two primary ordinances of the communal life of faith provide a framework for the Christian life: Baptism and Eucharist. In addition to these, the practice of prayer provides access to the Divine Life.
Baptism may be performed with an infant as a sign of the covenant shared by the Christian community. There is no communication of supernatural grace involved. Rather it serves as a sign of the promise of the community to support the child’s spiritual welfare. (This follows the ideas or Zwingli.) Adults who commit themselves to a life of following the example of Jesus are baptized as a public testimony to the change that has already occurred within them. Should an adult wish who was baptized as an infant wish to undergo baptism again as a sign of his/her personal embrace of the path modeled by Jesus, that’s fine. There is but one baptism, and whether we are washed by the water at birth or later in life by decision, both acts are witness to one reality: the desire of the Divine to break in on this world and share in community with the creation.
The Eucharist serves as a ritual reminder of the death of Jesus Christ. In and of themselves, the elements of wine and bread do not convey any particular spiritual grace to those who receive them. However, in the interests of ecumenical harmony, I have no problem with using the metaphors, "This is my body" and "This is my blood" as part of the liturgy.
Eucharist is a ritual reenactment of the murder of Jesus of Nazareth. It symbolizes the sacrifice made by Jesus in the name of following a path of Truth to its consequential conclusion. The Eucharist serves as a regular reminder of the example of Jesus’ love and the cost of his obedience to the direction of God. There is no special infusion of grace that takes place during the Eucharistic meal. Rather, during this time participants may be caught up in the revelation of the Divine presence about them, thus feeling energized and restored. That presence is always a reality; however, the Eucharist is a means by which focus of attention can be turned towards the Divine.
Because all are called equally to participate in the Divine Life, any follower of Christ may perform the acts of consecration for Baptism or Eucharist. No special status or ordination or licensure is required. For this reason, a believer may partake of the Eucharist even alone as a way of focusing on the Divine which is always present.
In addition to the two ordinances, the practice of prayer has also proven essential to the Christian community. Through this ritual, believers are able to focus on the constant relationship with the Divine which may otherwise not be perceived as being present. Believers may pray in solitude or with one another as a means of centering on the Divine presence. Through this practice, consciousness of the Divine is raised and participants may again experience a refreshing or recharging of their spiritual energy levels.
XI. Final Things.
Eschatological doctrine is divided into two parts: those things which are seen and those which are unseen. The former occur within our perception of a stream of events within the physical world, while the latter deal with states that transcend our life in the here and now.
On the earth, drawing from the lessons of human history, it appears that things will only get worse. This pessimistic view is based on humanity’s tendency toward focusing on limited resources (rather than the infinite transcendence of the Divine) and taking by force what we perceive that we need. We have turned our intellect towards channeling the forces of the universe against one another, creating more effective and powerful ways of destroying one another at every turn. Though we experience moments of communion with the Divine and with one another, they are fleeting and asynchronous as we focus on ourselves and one another rather than on God. There are more of us alive now than have died in the history of the world, competing for limited resources and operating out of a system of fear that our needs will not be met. If our track record is any indication, we will continue to invent greater ways of destroying one another and our fixation on immediate needs will continue to cloud our better judgment, making expedience the more attractive option over planning for long-term stewardship of our world.
We cannot speak with certainty about what is to come in the hereafter; however, returning to the Will of God (Part III), I rest in the hope of the future outside of the confines of this life. In the presence of a God of infinite love and life, unbounded by the temporal restrictions of our earthly existence, we will at last be reconciled in unity with God. In effect, Origen’s apokatastasis will eventually be realized as all things enter into the Divine dance once again. Exactly how that will come about I am not qualified to venture. However, in the face of not knowing, I can choose to think positively or negatively. I’d rather strive for the positive thought. The alternative is unbearable.