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Truth & Existence

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  • Christopher Orr
    *By Fr. Stephen Freeman * http://fatherstephen.wordpress.com/2008/09/27/truth-and-existence-a-second-look/ *The original article (which follows) was published
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 27, 2008
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      *By Fr. Stephen Freeman


      *The original article (which follows) was published in August (not long
      ago). However, questions that continue to arise tell me that I need to
      publish it yet again. I will here emphasize its connection with the
      Atonement. Theories of legal indebtedness as the problem of sin are
      certainly popular in some circles of the Christian faith - though they do an
      extremely poor job of giving a proper account of the largest portion of
      Scripture on the point. St. Gregory Nazianzus was not unfamiliar with the
      image, but dismissed it as repugnant in the extreme. He is not a minor,
      isolated father of the Church, but one of the primary architects of the
      Ancient Church's statement of the doctrine of the Trinity. He cannot simply
      be dismissed as "odd" on this point. Scripture, both in St. Paul and St.
      John, make the strongest possible connection between sin and death. Our sin
      is not the result of an indebtedness, but rather the failure to live in
      communion with God. Humanity did not incur an unpayable debt at the Fall,
      but rather entered the realm of death (as God had warned). Theories of the
      Atonement which found their popularization in the Middle Ages in the West
      and more recently in the Protestant world, should not be allowed to set
      aside the ancient inheritance of the teachings of the fathers. We are a
      walking existential crisis - verging on non-existence itself. This is not a
      result of God's wrath, but the result of our rebellion against the "good God
      who loves mankind" and our preference for death over life. I can think of
      nothing more central to the Orthodox faith, which is to say, the faith as
      delivered to the Church by Christ. May God give us grace to apprehend the
      wonder of His gift of salvation.*

      Perhaps one of the greatest contributions of Orthodox theology to
      contemporary thought is the correlation between truth and existence. I am
      not well-enough versed in writings outside of Orthodoxy to know whether this
      correlation is made by others as well - I have to drink the water from my
      own cistern.

      This understanding has been a particular emphasis in the teachings of St.
      Silouan, the Elder Sophrony of blessed memory, and the contemporary
      Archimandrite Zacharias, a disciple of the Elder Sophrony. Their own
      teaching is nothing new in Orthodoxy, but simply a restatement in modern
      terms of what has always been the teaching of the Orthodox Christian faith.
      Indeed, it is a teaching that could be solely supported by Scripture should
      someone so require.

      But the correlation is exceedingly important for religious teaching and
      understanding. The modern movement of secular thought has been to move
      existence into an independent and self-defining realm, relegating God and
      religion to a specialized interest of those who find themselves religiously
      minded. This is the death of religion - or rather a religion of death. For
      as soon as our existence is moved away from God and grounded in something
      else, God Himself has been abandoned. It is not possible for God to be a
      lesser concern. Either He is the very ground of our existence or He is no

      There were those within liberal protestantism (Paul Tillich comes to mind)
      who sought to make the correlation between existence and God - but
      frequently the result was a God who was reduced to a philosophical cypher
      (Tillich's "Ground of Being") and relieved of all particular content. To
      speak of God as "Ultimate Concern" as did Tillich, is only to have spoken in
      human terms. I recall many fellow students in my Anglican seminary years who
      found Tillich helpful in a way that Jesus was not. The particularity of
      Jesus made the demands of existential reality too specific. Indeed, it
      revealed God as God and not simply something that I cared about.

      Instead, the Orthodox language on the subject has been that God is truly the
      ground of all existence, and that apart from Him, everything is moving
      towards non-existence. It is the Scriptural correlation between sin and
      death. This shifts the reality of the whole of our lives. Prayer no longer
      serves as a component of my personal "spirituality," but is instead
      communion with the God Who Is, and apart from Whom, I am not. It teaches us
      to pray as if our lives depended on it - because they do.

      By the same token, it moves our understanding of what it means to exist away
      from mere biology or even philosophy and to its proper place: to exist is to
      love. As Met. John Zizioulas has famously stated, "Being is communion." In
      such a context we are able to move towards authentic existence - a mode of
      being that is not self-centered nor self-defined, but that is centered in
      the Other and defined by communion. Sin is removed from its confines of
      legalism and mere ethics and placed at the very center and character of
      existence itself. Sin is a movement towards non-being. In contrast, to know
      God is to love and its greatest test is the love of enemies. As St. Silouan
      taught: "We only know God to the extent that we love our enemies."

      This is not to reinterpret Christ in terms of existentialism, but instead to
      understand that Christ is, as He said: the Way, the Truth and the Life. His
      death and resurrection are the movement of God's love to rescue humanity
      from a self-imposed exile from true and authentic existence which is found
      only in communion with God. This is a rescue of the Atonement from obscure
      legal theories of Divine Wrath and Judgment, and restores it properly in the
      context of the God who created us, sustains us, and calls us into the
      fullness of His life.

      It presses the question upon us all: "What is the truth of my existence?" It
      presses us towards living honestly and forthrightly before God - not
      finessing ourselves with carefully wrought excuses and religious
      half-measures - but calling us to a radically authentic search for God.

      The Orthodox faith asks nothing less of its adherents. Though even Orthodoxy
      can be warped into half-measures and religious distractions - this is not
      its truth nor the life that is taught by the Fathers, the Scriptures nor the
      words of her liturgies. In God "we live and move and have our being." There
      is nothing that can thus be placed outside of God. There is God or there is
      delusion. And even delusion itself has no existence - but its mere pretence.

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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