Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Revealed in darkness; hidden in the light

The classic stance on the nature of God, one to which I have long subscribed now, is that He is totally transcendent, ultimately unknowable and inaccessible. The greatest spiritual leaders of the Christian tradition (John of Sinai, Gregory the Theologian, Pseud0-Dionysius, and Gregory of Nyssa all spring immediately to mind) conclude their great quests for knowledge and experience of God with the revelation that the closer one gets to God the more that person realizes that He is so very far away. Yet, as I read St. Serafim he seems to emphasize precisely the opposite, that is the accessibility of God for the truly devout man. It seems to me, and you be the judge, that his theology is reacting to the Enlightenment. It is expressed best in these two quotes:

"In our time because of the almost universal coldness toward the holy faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, and because of our inattentiveness with regard to the acts of His Divine Providence concerning us, as well as to the communion of man with God -- because of all this -- we have reached a state in which we may be said to have withdrawn almost entirely from the true Christian life."

"Now some people say: '...Is it possible that men could see God thus clearly?' Yet there is nothing obscure here. The lack of understanding is attributable to the fact that we have strayed from the simple vision of the early Christians and, under the pretext of enlightenment, have entered such a darkness of ignorance that we consider inconceivable what the ancients grasped so clearly; even in their common talk, the idea of God appearing to men had nothing strange in it."

He provides a number of proof texts for his point of view, but more interesting to me is the connection I see to the Enlightenment. In an ancient world that had no aversion to the idea of the miraculous and revelation, the unkonwability of God was emphasized. As a reaction to a world that now rejects the miraculous, St. Serafim instead stresses that accessibility of God to the person of true faith, one living the "true Christian life." In fact, his whole theology centers on the acquisition of the Spirit of God as the purpose of the Christian life. God is something gained by the doing of good works in the name of Christ, and trading those good works for grace. In market language, he suggests that the Christian should "Gather up the capital of the blessed abundance of Christ's Grace, [and] deposit in the eternal bank at a rate of interest unmeasurable in earthly terms." God is not only accessible, but his blessings are commodities that can be traded at a favorable rate for the Holy Spirit.

It makes me think about two things. First, it strikes me as ironic that now, as we live in a time of darkness, God should be viewed as accessible, not only by St. Serafim, but by Pentecostals, Holiness churches, other charismatic groups, and anyone who conceives of God more as a friend and less as an untouchable monarch. Second, I wonder if perhaps, in his fervor, maybe St. Serafim hasn't quite gotten back to what "the ancients grasped so clearly," that even the most precise language cannot begin to grasp God, much less the crude language of modern economics.

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