Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Wisdom of John of Sinai: Hope

In his chapter on faith, hope, and love, John dedicates the overwhelming majority of his time to love. It is, after all, the greatest of the three and the only one that is given as "the very name of God Himself." He does spare a moment talk about hope, the kind of hope that cooperates with love and sustains us as we flounder in an illusory isolation from God.

Hope is the power behind love. Hope is what causes us to look forward to the reward of love. Hope is an abundance of hidden treasure. It is the abundant assurance of the riches in store for us. It is a rest from labor, a doorway of love. It lifts despair and is the image of what is not yet present. When hope fails, so does love. Struggles are bound by it, labors depend on it, and mercy lies all around it. The hopeful monk slays despondency, kills it with his sword.

Monday, March 28, 2011

"Trinket Evangelism"

I thought this was a particularly trenchant critique of the way Christians do evangelism in America. The author obviously slants his criticism toward the Orthodox Church (of which he is a part), but I think his criticisms hold just as true (if not moreso) for evangelical Christianity which thrives on "marketing" the Gospel as if fifteen minutes could save you fifteen percent or more on your salvation:

Conversely, if we are not to self-ghettoize, then we also ought not to be overly aggressive in adopting any and all “missionary” methods. Really, billboards? Really? “This blood’s for you” with a picture of a chalice? Come on. We’re not going to win that one people. Budweiser will always be more popular. Is the Gospel a less consumed competitor of Bud? Or of Coca-cola? The same holds with “trinket evangelism,” in which we print icons on anything with a surface size of at least two square inches. It’s all just about “the Great Commission”? Yes, but only if you realize that Great Commission has a liturgical context. As soon as you do that, I think you’ll pause before marketing Orthodoxy as mere commodity. It is one thing to admit many in America use consumerist language to speak of their adherence to Orthodoxy (whether “cradle” or “convert”). It is quite another to promote that model as the model and to embrace it with all the vigor of a small evangelical parish being outgunned by the local Mega-church that stays strong despite its revolving door of membership.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

In Other News

The pope is calling for a quick suspension of the use of arms by all sides in the Libyan conflict. I cannot help but hope that this plea is an extension of his previously expressed beliefs about war.

Sunday of the Holy Cross


Revelation 2:2-5a,7

I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first…He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God

Genesis 2:8-9

And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.


Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, 21

Paradise therefore will be restored, that tree will be restored which is in truth the tree of life; there will be restored the grace of the image, and the dignity of rule. It does not seem to me that our hope is one for those things which are no subjected by God to man for the necessary uses of life, but one for another kingdom, of a description that belongs to unspeakable mysteries.


Traditionally, the Sunday of the Holy Cross is not a time for somber reflection on the necessity of the cross or to stress penitence over its horrible nature. Instead, it is a time to focus on the victory which the cross achieved on our behalf. We venerate the cross—not as an icon or an idol but as an event, an act of God—and take comfort in the peace which it affords us. As we cross the halfway point of Lent, many of us sorely need this kind of comfort.

It is interesting to note that the Tree of Life provides a great bookend for Scripture as a part of the greater matrix of creation and recreation. In the beginning God creates us with the potential and the purpose of eternal life, not in the sense of a perpetually beating heart or firing neurons but as participation in His infinite Life. When the world is made anew again, he promises us, as he promised the church at Ephesus in Revelation, a share again in that life which we separated ourselves from. Standing gloriously at the center of this great historical chiasmus of creation and redemption is the cross. The ancients saw a type for the cross in the great trees of promise. In Genesis it represents what we lost; in Revelation it represents what has been promised to us again by grace. The true tree of life, however, is the cross where access to this life was thrown open anew. It is there that Death is conquered, not by cheating mortality through wiles or power but by allowing Life to be subjugated to the humiliation of fatality and proving Life to be greater.

Let that be a comfort to us now. Our trials are transient, and we cannot let them dull our great love for Christ. With the Ephesians, we must repent and press on in the good work of God who has already achieved victory for us if we only will join Him in it.


Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?
Thanks be to God, who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
--1 Corinthians 15:54-55,57

Friday, March 25, 2011

Feast of the Annunciation


Luke 1:46-55

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever

Psalm 119:81-83

My soul faints with longing for your salvation,
but I have put my hope in your word.
My eyes fail, looking for your promise;
I say, “When will you comfort me?”
Though I am like a wineskin in the smoke,
I do not forget your decrees.


C. H. Spurgeon, “The Believer Not an Orphan”

In the absence of our Lord Jesus Christ, the disciples were like children deprived of their parents. During the three years in which He had been with them, He had solved all their difficulties, borne all their burdens, and supplied all their needs. Whenever a case was too hard or too heavy for them, they took it to Him. When their enemies well nigh overcame them, Jesus came to the rescue, and turned the tide of battle. They were all happy and safe enough whilst the Master was with them; He walked in their midst like a father amid a large family of children, making all the household glad. But now He was about to be taken from them by an ignominious death, and they might well feel that they would be like little children deprived of their natural and beloved protector. Our Saviour knew the fear that was in their hearts, and before they could express it, He removed it by saying, “You shall not be left alone in this wild and desert world; though I be absent in the flesh, yet I will be present with you in a more efficacious manner; I will come to you spiritually, and you shall derive from My spiritual presence even more good than you could have had from My bodily presence, had I still continued in your midst.”


The Lord is faithful, which is a comforting thought as the fast wears on and we begin to languish in the desert. The Feast of the Annunication (which, in truth is more of a lightened fast in practice than an actual feast) is rather beautifully and meaningfully situated so near to Easter. While the date of Easter always dances around, the Annunciation is always commemorated precisely nine months before the Nativity. As we approach the climax of Christ’s earthly ministry, his passion and resurrection, and recall his promises to come again and to complete his work on earth, we are reminded that two thousand years ago, in a manger, in a stable, in the little town of Bethlehem God proved that He knows how to keep a promise.

He told the Israelites that He would send someone into the world to overcome sickness and poverty and suffering and, ultimately, death. This is the content of the Magnificat; Mary magnifies God for having fulfilled in the child of her womb all the promises of the prophets. And He was, in fact, faithful, far beyond what could have been imagined. He came himself and, rather than setting up a temporal kingdom of the earthly sort, he inaugurated a spiritual, eternal kingdom in which he invited all men to participate. This is the final promise which finds the first seeds of its completion in the annunciation to Mary.

So we recall two things today. The first is that we are not abandoned in this wilderness to live in a constant state of deprivation and self-denial. Easter is coming and, with it, the glorious culmination of our shared journey with Christ. We will walk with him to the cross, and while he finds only violence there, we will find peace. The trial of Lent, however, is only a microcosm for our greater struggle. We await an even greater day when the truths which are typified in Christ’s resurrection become actualized in our own salvation. The Annunciation reminds us that we serve a faithful God, a God who exceeded the wildest possible hopes and expectations of His people when He sent his only Son in the flesh to conquer death. He will not abandon us in our greater turmoil, in this life which is still very much in the clutches of sin and death. Thanks be to God.


Father in heaven! You speak to man in many ways; You to whom alone belongs wisdom and understanding yet desires Yourself to be understood by man. Even when You are silent, still You speak to him, for You are the one who says nothing, yet speaks in order to examine the disciple; the one who says nothing, yet speaks in order to try the beloved one; the one who says nothing, yet speaks so that the hour of understanding may be more profound. Is it not thus, Father in heaven!

Oh, in the time of silence when man remains alone, abandoned when he does not hear Your voice, it seems to him doubtless that the separation must last forever. Oh, in the time of silence when a man consumes himself in the desert in which he does not hear Your voice, it seems to him doubtless that it is completely extinguished. Father in heaven!

It is only a moment of silence in an intimacy of conversation. Bless then this silence as Your word to man; grant that he never forgets that You speak also when You are silent; give him this consolation if he waits on You, that You are silent through love and that You speak through love, so that in Your silence as in Your word You are still the same Father and that it is still the same paternal love that You guide by Your voice and You do instruct by Your silence.
--Soren Kierkegaard

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Wisdom of John of Sinai: Humility

Gregory Palamas spoke of preparing ourselves to experience and to know God through fasting accompanied always by prayer and humility. In a similar way, John enjoins humility in order that we may speak more appropriately about God as participators in Him:

Do you imagine that plain words can precisely or truly or appropriately or clearly or sincerely describe the love of the Lord, humility, blessed purity, divine enlightenment, fear of God, and assurance of the heart? Do you imagine that talk of such matters will mean anything to someone who has never experienced them? If you think so, then you will be like a man who with words and examples tries to convey the sweetness of honey to people who have never tasted it. He talks uselessly. Indeed I would say he is simply prattling. The same applies in the first instance. A man stands revealed as either having had no experience of what he is talking about or as having fallen into the grip of vainglory.

Our theme sets before us as a touchstone a treasure stored up safely in earthen vessels, that is, in our bodies. This treasure is of a quality that eludes adequate description. It carries an inscription of heavenly origin which is therefore incomprehensible so that anyone seeking words for it is faced with a great and endless task. The inscription reads as follows: “Holy Humility.”

John will relate a number of traditional definitions for humility, all of which he says he considered while trying to discover the true nature of humility. He notes, quite aptly, that humility is more than the absence of pride; it is a positive and indispensable virtue.

To exalt oneself is one thing, not to do so another, and to humble oneself is something else entirely.

Many have attained salvation without the aid of prophecies, illumination, signs and wonders. But without humility no one will enter the marriage chamber...

He defines humility first with reference to its opposite and then with an analogy from nature:

If the outer limit, the rule, and the characteristic of extreme pride is for a man to make a show of having virtues he does not actually possess for the sake of glory, then surely the token of extreme humility will be to lower ourselves by claiming weaknesses we do not really have.

A lemon tree naturally lifts its branches upwards when it has no fruit. The more its branches bend, the more fruit you will find there. The meaning fo this will be clear to the man disposed to understand it.

This idea of humility, which we would probably call self-abasement or (worse) low self-esteem, is totally foreign to our culture. Reading it, we are almost instinctively compelled either to reject it or to try to soften its force. John, however, seems to mean precisely what he says and gives an example of its value when temptation arises:

Demons once heaped praise on one of the most discerning of the brothers. They even appeared to him in visible form. But this very wise man spoke to them as follows: "If you cease to praise me by way of the thoughts of my heart, I shall consider myself to be great and outstanding because of the fact that you have left me. But if you continue to praise me, I must deduce from such praise that I am very impure indeed, since every proudhearted man is unclean before the Lord. So leave me, and I shall become great, or else praise me, and with your help I shall earn more humility." Struck by this dilemma, they vanished.

We could stand to apply a liberal helping of humility to our problems in an effort to outwit the enemy.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Patriarch Bartholomew on Fukushima

This is a couple weeks dated at this point, but it is nonetheless important to disseminate. The Ecumenical Patriarch has issued a statement regarding the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. In it, he offers a standard message of condolence and support for the people of Japan. He also takes the disaster as an opportunity to remind us all that the way we interact with God's world has and will continue to complicate and intensify the ramifications of already cataclysmic events. Here is a portion of what the Ecumenical Patriarch had to say:

The disastrous ramifications of this event will become more evident over the next days. Of course, with regard to the earthquake, no human response is adequate. The causes and results eclipse human words. Nevertheless, with regard to the explosion of the nuclear reactor and the aftermath of a nuclear adversity, there is indeed a response that we are called to make. With all due respect to the science and technology of nuclear energy and for the sake of the survival of the human race, we counter-propose the safer green forms of energy, which both moderately preserve our natural resources and mindfully serve our human needs.

Our Creator granted us the gifts of the sun, wind, water and ocean, all of which may safely and sufficiently provide energy. Ecologically-friendly science and technology has discovered ways and means of producing sustainable forms of energy for our ecosystem. Therefore, we ask: Why do we persist in adopting such dangerous sources of energy? Are we so arrogant as to compete with and exploit nature?

I do not know that I agree with everything he has to say and I certainly do not like the way he has phrased some things, but the Ecumenical Patriarch does Christians a service in reminding us that we have a comprehensive duty to work for God on behalf of creation and with creation.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas


Matthew 5:8

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Isaiah 58:3-11

“'Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?'
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the LORD?

"Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

“Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, 'Here I am.'
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the LORD will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.”


Gregory Palamas, To the Most Reverend Nun Xenia, 42

You cannot extinguish a raging fire by slashing at it from above; but if you pull away the fuel from below, the fire will die down immediately. So it is with the passions of impurity. If you do not cut off the inner flow of evil thoughts by means of prayer and humility, but fight against them merely with the weapons of fasting and bodily hardship, you will labour in vain. But if through prayer and humility you sanctify the root, as we said, you will attain outward sanctity as well.


Reference to Gregory Palamas seems much more appropriate for the Feast of the Transfiguration than for Lent, at least upon first blush. After all, he dedicated most of his polemical career to defending the uncreated nature of the Thaboric light. Yet, mixed into that debate, was a constant focus on knowledge of God through experience of Him, and experience of God through a purified heart and the mediating power of Christ.

I have made reference before to encountering God (in Christ) in the Lenten fast, and I stand by that language. It is important to remember, and both Gregory and Isaiah remind us of this, that it is not the fast itself that facilitates this experience. It is, at best, a secondary cause. The outward fast is intended to engender in us both prayer and humility. In truth, we find that this follows very naturally in practice. Particularly with reference to food, the nagging nature of hunger and the knowledge of the cause of that hunger is a constant call to prayer and a persistent reminder of our own fragility and finitude.

In essence, the outward fast creates within us an inward fast, a true fast of the kind that Isaiah describes. It is a fast of good works and dedication to God. It is a spiritual fast that is helped but not summed up in our physical fast. Self-denial becomes a means of affirming God. This isn't to say that we need to abolish the self in order to truly affirm God, because, in Christ (and the experience of God he brings), we find the only true and substantial affirmation of our being. Humanism--of a genuine sort--embraces the true essence of humanity which is perfected and typified in Jesus Christ. In essence, by emptying ourselves and approaching Christ in the forty days of fast we enounter ourselves as we ought to be and as we truly will be some day.

So by grace we are offered the chance to die to ourselves in order to find our life in Christ, to be purified, and, ultimately, to see God.


Oh that my words were written!
Oh that they were inscribed in a book!
Oh that with an iron pen and lead
they were engraved in the rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me!
--Job 19:23-27

Friday, March 18, 2011

Pope Says "No" to Religious Wars

The pope is publishing his second of three books on Jesus. Included in this volume are some interesting points that are stirring up a fair bit of discussion (particularly his exoneration of the Jews). More interesting to me, seems to be that the pope,

also insists that Jesus never advocated violent revolution, as some liberation theologians have suggested, saying violence was not His way no matter how valid the motivation.

I wonder, very genuinely, whether or not he would include in this the various wars which have been fought by or approved by popes in the past. I may need to purchase the book myself to satiate my curiosity.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Wisdom of John of Sinai: Temptation

We should not spar with demons. We should make outright war on them.

A similar call to arms is, of course, issued by Paul in Ephesians 6. Christians are called to a total war with the spiritual forces of evil, as we should be. After all, it isn't as though evil is interested in a friendly tussle with us. Evil is out for our total destruction, and it is armed for the task.

Amid all our efforts to please God, three pitfalls lie, prepared for us by demons. First is their attempt to impede any sort of worthwhile achievement; and if this fails they strive secondly to ensure that what we do should not be in accordance with the will of God. And if the scoundrels fail in this too, then they stand quietly before our soul and praise us for the fact that in every respect we are living as God would wish.

That is a shockingly comprehensive list of the ways humanity can be tempted to sin. Either we can do nothing at all, we can do things which conflict with the will of God, or we can glory in whatever good we accomplish.

In response, John suggests two paths to avoid falling into temptation. The first is vigilance.

The man who has conquered the passions has injured the demons, and by pretending to be still subject to them he deceives his enemies and remains invulnerable to them.

The second is fear of God.

We should be afraid of God in the way that we fear wild beasts. I have seen men go out to plunder, having no fear of God but being brought up short somewhere at the sound of dogs, an effect that the fear of God could not achieve in them.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sunday of Orthodoxy


John 1:1-5,9-14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Exodus 33:12-19a

Moses said to the LORD, "See, you say to me, 'Bring up this people,' but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, 'I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.' Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people."

And He said, "My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest."

And he said to Him, "If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?"

And the LORD said to Moses, "This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name."

Moses said, "Please show me your glory."

And he said, "I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name 'The LORD.'


John of Damascus, Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images, I

Of old they who did not know God, worshipped false gods. But now, knowing God, or rather being known by Him, how can we return to bare and naked rudiments? I have looked upon the human form of God, and my soul has been saved. I gaze upon the image of God, as Jacob did, though in a different way. Jacob sounded the note of the future, seeing with immaterial sight, whilst the image of Him who is visible to flesh is burnt into my soul.


The first Sunday of Lent commemorates the "Triumph of Orthodoxy," when Empress Theodora in 842 restored the icons to the Church of the Holy Wisdom and the iconoclastic controversy finally ended. Without delving too deeply into the history of the controversialist theology of the question over iconodulism, it is important to note that the issue was not primarily about "praying to idols" (which is how Protestants, in particular, are apt to view it). It was the last great Christological controversy of the unified church. At stake was the idea that God came in the flesh, a flesh which appeared just like your flesh or my flesh. Christ's body was one which, according to John, "we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands" (1 John 1:1).

This, the Incarnation, is the greatest of the Christian wonders. The idea that God would pass before Moses and that Moses could actually see God (whatever that means) baffles us. The Incarnation was something more, because, unlike Moses, humanity was allowed to see God face-to-face. John not only saw him and heard him, but he touched him. It is with this in view that we must read the prologue of the Gospel of John. The Word through which everything was made, which was with God, which was God, on which John lavishes such lofty theological language is the Word which became flesh, who in the form of a man consented to be perceived with our vulgar senses.

And like John of Damascus, we can testify that we have seen God and that his image is burned on to our souls. We see him through the testimony of those who have come before us. Even if our eyes do not perceive him directly, we stand in an unbroken spiritual chain with John and countless others who did see him thus. More fully we see him still, as I firmly believe that Christ is really and substantially encountered by every Christian in every age. He truly indwells as the image of the Father, enshrined in our souls, making us temples of divinity. Still more glorious is the promise that we will yet see him in eternity. Traditionally, the text for this Sunday is later in John 1, where Jesus promises his disciples "You will see greater things than these…Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man" (vv. 50-51). We know that this promise holds true even for us, and that we can hope for a time when we will see Christ glorified at the right hand of the throne of the Father.

Lent should be a time to encounter Christ, specifically in his suffering on our behalf. Each of us has wandered into our own spiritual wilderness and committed to be tried for forty days. If you seek him, you will find that Jesus is waiting for you in that desert. When the devil tempts you to break fast, you can say "Man does not live by bread alone" and trust that these are the words of the Bread of Life. He will sustain us all.


O our Savior! Of ourselves we cannot love thee, cannot follow thee, cannot cleave to thee;
but thou didst come down
that we might love thee
didst ascend
that we might follow theee,
didst bind us around thee as thy girdle
that we might be held fast unto thee;
Thou who has loved us, make us to love thee,
Thou who has sought us, make us to seek thee,
Thou who, when lost, didst find us,
be thou my thyself the way
that we may find thee
and be found in thee
our only hope, and our everlasting joy.
--Edward Bouverie Pusey

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Critique of Virtue Epistemology's Critique of Cartesian Skepticism

On a whim, I read through the article by John Greco on “Virtue Epistemology” in the second edition of MacMillion USA’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Most of the article I found to be very enlightening, and certainly I thought the virtue epistemology deals with Gettier problems very handily. I was less impressed, however, when Greco turned virtue epistemology on skepticism. He sets up this scenario from Descartes:

René Descartes believes that he is sitting by the fire in a dressing gown. Presumably, he has this belief because this is how things are presented to him by his senses. However, Descartes reasons, things could appear to him just as they do even if he were in fact not sitting by the fire, but were instead sleeping or mad or the victim of a deceiving demon.

He proceeds to remind the reader of the definition of virtue epistemology. Virtue epistemology alters the classic definition of knowledge as true, justified belief in an effort to exclude true beliefs which are justified but nevertheless arrived at accidentally or through deception. Instead, virtue epistemology suggests that knowledge is true belief which is arrived at through intellectual virtue. Only when the true belief is reached through the right exercise of reason is it truly knowledge. With this, Greco answers Cartesian skepticism.

…to say that someone has an ability to achieve X (hitting baseballs, for example) is to say that he would be successful in achieving X in a range of situations relevantly similar to those in which he typically finds himself. But then possibilities that do not de no occur in relevantly similar situations…do not count in determining whether a person has some ability in question. For example, it does not count against Babe Ruth’s ability to hit baseballs that he cannot hit them in the dark. Likewise, it does not count against our perceptual power that we cannot discriminate real fires from demon-induced hallucinations. Accordingly, virtue theory explains why our inability to rule out Descartes’ possibility of a demon is irrelevant to whether we have knowledge. Namely, knowledge is true belief grounded in intellectual virtue. The fact that our intellectual faculties would be unreliable in world where demons induce perceptions is irrelevant to whether they count as epistemically virtuous in the actual world.

There are two problems with this argument, and the first ought to be obvious. It is by no means self-evident that demons do not induce incorrect perceptions in the accurate world. The assumption that they do not and that the problem may be therefore dismissed as theoretical represents a bias which Greco enters the argument with. Even if he does not believe that demons actively deceive people, he lacks the epistemic tools to prove definitively that they do not. I doubt that Descartes would have been very much convinced by the argument, “That’s all well and good, but demons do not in fact possess people in the actual world.” What is even more galling, is that this line of reasoning only applies to the possibility of demon possession. Certainly Greco would not suggest that in the actual world people do not in fact sleep or go mad. If our intellectual faculties are admitted to be unreliable in a world where we sleep and go mad, then that is very relevant given that in the actual world we both sleep and go mad.

It may, of course, be objected that when we sleep or go mad (or even are possessed by demons) that we lack the intellectual virtue that is a prerequisite for knowledge. While that may very well be true as a theoretical way for ordering reality, there is a problem with applying it practically. The evaluation that Descartes is sleeping is only possible from an exterior standpoint. For Descartes, who is concerned with his own ability to know whether or not his perception is reliable, he is impotent to accurately deduce whether he is sleeping or not. Certainly those who are mad would be the last to admit that they lack the epistemic virtue necessary to possess knowledge. It may be nice for Greco to be able to point to an asylum and say that virtue epistemology explains why the true beliefs of the inhabitants are not knowledge while his is, but as the knowing agent he is actually incapable of demonstrating that he is not in fact in that asylum being pointed at from without by those he believes are inmates.

What is left is an epistemology which is sound in theory but no more immune to the problems of skepticism in practice than any other theory of thought.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Wisdom of John of Sinai: Fasting

It's Ash Wednesday, and Western Christians around the world are joining their Eastern counterparts in the observation of the Great Lent. It seems appropriate now to look briefly at what John has to say about fasting:

To fast is to do violence to nature. It is to do away with whatever pleases the palate. Fasting ends lust, roots out bad thoughts, frees one from evil dreams. Fasting makes for purity of prayer, an enlightened door of compunction, humble sighing, joyful contrition, an end to chatter, an occasion for silence, a custodian of obedience, a lightening of sleep, health of the body, an agent of dispassion, a remission of sins, the gate, indeed, the delight of Paradise.

For all the benefits of fasting--and he certainly believes there are many--John does not pretend that fasting is a cure all or that it saves in itself. Of King Manasseh, he writes:

I note that Manasseh sinned like no other man. He defiled the temple of God with idols and he contaminated the sacred Liturgy. A Fast by all the world could not have made reparation for his sin, and yet humility could heal his incurable wound.

The essence of the fast was not merely abstaining from food but pursuing humility in which true value lied. This came, however, though hard fought physical exertion.

The Lord understood that the virtue of the soul is shaped by our outward behavior. He therefore took a towel and showed us how to walk the road of humility. The soul indeed is molded by the doings of the body, conforming to and taking shape from what it does.

This toil in fasting is by no means easy, and John does not neglect the real struggle which fasting entails even for the monks he oversaw. He gives a number of lengthy instructions for when to be most alert and how to train the body to fast. His wisest piece of advice, however, and the one most certainly aligned with the spirit of Lent is this:

Make the effort, however little, and the Lord will quickly come to help you.

It is with this faith that we can persevere.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Clean Monday


Mark 1:40-42

And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, "If you will, you can make me clean." Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, "I will; be clean." And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.

Isaiah 1:16-17

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.


Augustine, Confessions, 8.20

Finally in the agony of hesitation I made many physical gestures of the kind men make when they want to achieve something and lack the strength, either because they lack the actual limbs or because their limbs are fettered with chains or weak with sickness or in some way hindered. If I tore my hair, if I struck my forehead, if I intertwined my fingers and clasped my knee, I did that because to do so was my will. But I could have willed this and then not done it if my limbs had not possessed the power to obey. So I did many actions in which the will to act was not equaled by the power. Yet I was not doing what with an incomparably greater longing I yearned to do, and could have done at the moment I so resolved…The body obeyed the slightest inclination of the soul to move the limbs at its pleasure more easily than the soul obeyed itself…


The two Scriptures seem to convey very distinct messages. In Isaiah, God commands quite clearly that the Israelites cleanse themselves. He puts the burden of their moral degeneration and the responsibility for rectifying it solely on the heads of the people. In contrast, in Mark we see the leper approach the Lord and beg to be cleansed. Out of a movement of benevolent pity, Jesus cleanses the leper based on nothing more than his sincere request. These parallel tendencies appear throughout Scripture, both the call to cleanse oneself (2 Tim. 2:21) and the heartfelt plea to be cleansed (Ps. 51:10). Sin is both moral bankruptcy whose fault is ours alone and the pernicious disease which requires the salve of the Great Physician.

Augustine engages this paradox, if indirectly, in his turmoil in the throes of conversion. Alone in the garden, he struggles to understand why it is so easy to compel the body to move and yet so hard to compel the soul to will. He desires to be turned wholly to God, but his will is not so easy to move as his limbs. Paul, in Romans 7, depicts a similar struggle where he knows what he ought to will but his sinful nature wills something else. Both realize that we are both responsible for willing what is good and incapable of truly actualizing that will unaided.

As Lent begins today, this tension is critical to understanding the heart of the fast. On the one hand, we know that we are called to purify our lives: not merely to remove vice but to pursue virtue. The ethical demands which God makes of His people are tremendous, and we are expected to conform ourselves to them. At the same time, we are utterly insufficient. The goodness of God is infinite, and no matter how thoroughly we make attempts to conform to it, our efforts are finite. By their very nature, they could never suffice to make us pure.

So we dedicate this time to purification and to prayer, two sides of the same theological coin: our need for cleansing. Let neither aspect be neglected. This time is an opportunity for reevaluation and rededication but also for renewed fervency in prayer and humility. The more we relinquish to God, the more we realize how dependent we were on Him all along.


Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

--Ps. 51:1-4,13-17

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Forgiveness Sunday


Matthew 6:14-15

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Genesis 45:4-15

So Joseph said to his brothers, "Come near to me, please." And they came near. And he said, "I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, 'Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; do not tarry. You shall dwell in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, and your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. There I will provide for you, for there are yet five years of famine to come, so that you and your household, and all that you have, do not come to poverty.' And now your eyes see, and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see, that it is my mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father of all my honor in Egypt, and of all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here." Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them. After that his brothers talked with him.


Alexander Schmemann, “Forgiveness Sunday”

Now, forgiveness stands at the very center of Christian faith and of Christian life because Christianity itself is, above all, the religion of forgiveness. God forgives us, and His forgiveness is in Christ, His Son, Whom He sends to us, so that by sharing in His humanity we may share in His love and be truly reconciled with God. Indeed, Christianity has no other content but love. And it is primarily the renewal of that love, a return to it, a growth in it, that we seek in Great Lent, in fasting and prayer, in the entire spirit and the entire effort of that season. Thus, truly forgiveness is both the beginning of, and the proper condition for the Lenten season.

One may ask, however: Why should I perform this rite when I have no "enemies"? Why should I ask forgiveness from people who have done nothing to me, and whom I hardly know? To ask these questions, is to misunderstand the Orthodox teaching concerning forgiveness. It is true, that open enmity, personal hatred, real animosity may be absent from our life, though if we experience them, it may be easier for us to repent, for these feelings openly contradict Divine commandments. But, the Church reveals to us that there are much subtler ways of offending Divine Love. These are indifference, selfishness, lack of interest in other people, of any real concern for them -- in short, that wall which we usually erect around ourselves, thinking that by being "polite" and "friendly" we fulfill God’s commandments. The rite of forgiveness is so important precisely because it makes us realize – be it only for one minute – that our entire relationship to other men is wrong, makes us experience that encounter of one child of God with another, of one person created by God with another, makes us feel that mutual "recognition" which is so terribly lacking in our cold and dehumanized world.


At one and the same time, Forgiveness Sunday and Judgment Sunday stand in stark contrast and harmonious unity. It is necessary that we should all first recognize that we stand under judgment before we can truly appreciate forgiveness. Because we so often live as if we have no sin, as if our “politeness” and “friendliness” satisfied God’s ethical demands, we often pay lip service to our need for forgiveness. We sing about it in our songs and preach about it from our pulpits, but we live our lives like people constantly wronged by everything from our government to the person in front of us in the express line at Wal*mart with twenty-two items. We are so busy feeling aggrieved that we forget to grieve for the sins that we commit against God and against one another.

It would seem that Fr. Schmemann and the Joseph cycle represent two ends of the full continuum of the human capacity both for evil and forgiveness. On the one hand, we have a conspiratorial plot to commit fratricide and a brother’s willingness to do better than to forgive and forget when the tables of power are turned. On the other hand there is the somewhat more frightening tendency that we all have to be self-involved and apathetic just beneath the surface. The difference between them is that we all recognize that the former is wrong and have been taught to forgive when we are wronged and (to a lesser to degree) to seek forgiveness when we have wronged another. What Schmemann points out is the pervasive kind of evil that has become so common place that we do not think to seek forgiveness for it anymore.

We’re under the mistaken impression in our society (and I realize that I am beginning to wax philosophic) that to behave rightly toward one another is to behave in such a way that you wish it would be universally mandated that everyone behaved thus. That moral imperative allows for me to be only insincerely polite to you because all I expect or want is your facile kindness in return. God demands more than our cultural expectations, and if we think critically enough about it, we will recognize that we owe more to one another than the kind of honey glazed apathy that we insulate ourselves with.

To recognize this, the Orthodox observe a rite of forgiveness in which they prostrate themselves before one another or before a priest and each asks forgiveness of the other. It is an important gesture performed with the right intention, as it reminds that in approaching Lent it is not only to God that we owe repentance nor only from Him that we seek forgiveness. Instead, it is to our brothers and sisters, our yokefellows, those who bear the image of God and who are being transformed into the image of the Son. We can rest assured, however, that in a community with the Redeemer as its head our forgiveness from other Christians is no less sure than our forgiveness from God.


O Lord give me strength to refrain from the unkind silence that is born of hardness of heart; the unkind silence that clouds the serenity of understanding and is the enemy of peace.
-- Cecil Hunt

Friday, March 4, 2011

Patriarchal Homily for Lent

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has issued his 2011 Catechetical Homily on the opening of Holy and Great Lent. In it, he reminds us that while Lent may seem toilsome, the pursuit of God becomes a delight to those who undertake it wholeheartedly and persistently:

Of course, focusing the intellect on the work of knowing God, in order to return it from passionate dispersion, comprises a toilsome and time-consuming labor. However, it is necessary and definitive for our spiritual wellbeing and social life. The way of virtue appears difficult and extremely unpleasant to those who undertake the journey; yet, not because it is actually like this, but because human nature has become accustomed to the ease of pleasure. For those who have succeeded in reaching the middle of this journey, in fact it appears pleasant and effortless.

The whole homily is a quick and pleasant read. I encourage everyone to go look at it. If nothing else, however, you should take this exhortation--which the Patriarch closes with--to heart and share it with other Christians around you who you know are undertaking Lenten fasts:

Beloved children in the Lord, upon entering the arena of Holy and Great Lent, we paternally exhort you not to be afraid or lazy in assuming the most important task of your life, namely the spiritual arena of work. Instead, be courageous and strong, so that you may purify your souls and bodies of all sin in order to reach the Kingdom of God, which is granted already from this life to those who seek it with sincerity and with all their soul.

May the grace of God and His boundless mercy be with you all.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Wisdom of John of Sinai: Pleasure vs. Joy

It is traditional to read St. John of Sinai's (known in the West primarily as John Climacus) The Ladder of Divine Ascent during Lent, and I can understand why. It was in researching this work for a class (selected with the highly scientific eeny-meeny-miny-moe method) that I first began to focus my academic and spiritual life on the mystical monastic traditions of Eastern Christianity. In addition to being a potent work of spirituality--for which it has been rightly recognized--it is often overlooked as a brilliant contribution to Christian ethics. It is this combination of spiritual nourishment and moral exhortation, along with John's pithy literary style, that makes the work a perfect companion to Lent. It meets us in our spiritual destitution and leads us step-by-step (literally) toward a glorious God who willingly takes each of us by the hand and leads us into His inexhaustible goodness.

While the Lenten fast has not yet begun, Cheesefare Week (or Maslenitsa) is very much a part of the season. In the East, and particularly in Russia, this week is a final period of feast and celebration before the somber weeks of the fast. While significantly tamer than the way we prepare for Lent in the West (with that time honored tradition of women exposing themselves for costume jewelry), it is still a time for indulging in as much pleasure as possible.

John of Sinai will contrast these illusory pleasures with joy, the true and enduring delight of the human heart. Of the former, he says:

The mother of all wickedness is pleasure and malice. If these are in a man, he will not see the Lord; and to abstain from the first without also giving up the second will not be of much use.

For John, as is the case with all vices, pleasure is a corruption of a virtue granted by God. Pleasure takes the delight which we ought to feel in God and transforms it so that instead we delight in sin. In a way typical of Eastern mystics, John sees the solution to this malformation of the good in prayer. He advises:

Rise from love of the world and love of pleasure. Put care aside, strip your mind, refuse your body. Prayer, after all, is a turning away from the world, visible and invisible. What have I in heaven? Nothing. What have I longed for on earth besides You? Nothing except simply to cling always to You in undistracted prayer. Wealth pleases some, glory others, possessions others, but what I want is to cling to God and to put the hopes of my dispassion in Him.

The rewards--or perhaps more accurately, the consequences--of such a disposition are by no means meager. In fact, they are real in a way that the transient "joys" we strive for could never be. In God, who is the ground of all substance, is found the only substantial joy available to creation. John holds nothing back while describing the person who has found joy in God:

Holy love has a way of consuming some. This is what is meant by the one who said, "You have ravished our hearts, ravished them" (Song of Songs 4:9). And it makes other bright and overjoyed. In this regard it has been said: "My heart was full of trust and I was helped, and my flesh has revived" (Ps. 27:7). For when the heart is cheerful, the face beams, and a man flooded with the love of God reveals in his body, as if in a mirror, the splendor of his soul, a glory like that of Moses when he came face to face with God.

If you're getting your hedonism out of your system before Lent (or if you live everyday like it is Mardi Gras), just remember that it is during Lent that true joy is sought. Everything else is as grass.