Monday, 12 April 2010

Saturday Before Thomas

After those things Jesus and his disciples came into the land of Judah, and he remained there with them and baptized. Now John was baptizing in Ainon close to Salim, for there was much water there; and people came and were baptized. For John had not yet been put into prison. Now there occurred a discussion concerning purification between some of John’s disciples and a Judean. And they came to John and said to him: ‘Rabbi, he who was with you beyond the Jordan, he to whom you have borne witness, see, he is baptizing and all come to him.’ John answered and said: ‘A man cannot receive anything unless it has been given to him from Heaven. You yourselves bear witness to me that I said that I am not the Christ but that I have been sent before him. He who has the bride is the Bridegroom. The friend, then, of the Bridegroom, he who stands and hears him, rejoices with joy on account of the voice of the Bridegroom. That joy of mine has been fulfilled, then. He must increase but I must decrease. He who comes from above is above all men. He who is from the earth is from the earth and speaks from the earth. He who comes from above is above all men. And what he saw and heard, to that he bears witness and no one receives his witness. He who receives his witness has put his seal to this, that God is true.’

(John 3, 22–33)

We would like to take this Gospel for the Liturgy of Saturday of Bright Week as our starting point to share a few reflections for the Easter season. First of all, we would like to remark on the Holy Spirit. In the life of the Orthodox layman, it is the Holy Spirit who ‘gives’ from Heaven the charism of ministry to the body of the Church. It is not something we arrogate to ourselves. We see that St John the Baptist—than whom there is no one greater born of woman; he who, if you are willing to receive it, is Elias who is to come again—is careful not to arrogate to himself the title of Messiah or Christ. By divine calling he is the ‘friend of the Bridegroom’ but in his own eyes nothing more. He rejoices to hear the voice of Christ and is content with this joy: he himself must decrease while the Christ must increase. Similarly, properly speaking, the priesthood is not a profession the way ‘doctor’ or ‘lawyer’ or ‘engineer’ is a profession that by ourselves we can choose to adopt; the priesthood is a calling given from God to the layman to minister to his body, the Church. This calling is given from the Holy Spirit, as St Paul remarks in one of his epistles when he discusses the charisms and the charismatic ministries. And just as St John did not arrogate to himself more than God gave him, it behoves him who is called to a ministry to be careful not to arrogate to himself more than he has been given. Moreover, just as the Messiahship of Jesus Christ was validated by St John the Baptist, who saw the Spirit descending and remaining on him, so a calling to ministry to the body is validated by the Bishops of the Church—after all there are no ‘charismatic priests’ in the Orthodox Church; you have to be ordained by a Bishop, who has to be willing on his own judgement to ordain you.

The next point we would like to make concerns the interest of the followers of ISKCON (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness) in Mount Athos and the Jesus Prayer. We made a post on the matter here. We then received a number of comments which we haven’t posted. The authors took us to task for not taking Arnold seriously. Arnold was the person who wrote to us asking about a supposed tradition on Mount Athos that would have the name of God non-different from himself—hence, compatible with ‘Hare Krishna’ and hence making Mount Athos a place where Arnold would be well received and feel at home with his practice of ‘Hare Krishna’. Here is what one ‘John Moschus’ had to say:

Dear Orthodox Monk,

Your dismissal of the interesting phrase used by the seeker Arnold, namely, “the name of God non-different from himself” as nothing but Hinduism is a little too pat. I think Arnold’s query deserves a little more reflection or intellectual effort than merely a quick googling of the phrase, associating it with Hare Krishna or some other form of Hinduism, and then dismissing it as not Orthodox. That’s actually not quite fair. For in fact, the idea of the name of God being not different from God himself is not unknown in the Orthodox tradition. In Orthodoxy it is known by the name of “onomatodoxy”, and as a doctrinal movement surfaced most recently in the Russian Orthodox Church in the early 20th century, where it was known as “Imiaslavie”. With the publication of a book in 1907, called “In the Caucasus Mountains” by a much revered Russian schemamonk and hermit, Ilarion, where he spoke of his own experiences with the Jesus Prayer, and his conviction that the name of Jesus was not different from God Himself and could work miracles, the Imiaslavie movement became very popular with Russian monks on Mount Athos. A great controversy ensued with both proponents, such as the great saint, John of Kronstadt, and opponents, such as Archbishop Anthony Krapovitsky, in hot disagreement. The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church eventually declared Imiaslavie a heresy not unlike pantheism. Unfortunately, a full discussion of whether the name of Jesus is non different from God itself or whether it is really a form of pantheism (invoking the dreaded term “pantheism” is an easy refuge for anyone unwilling or afraid to look closely at the implications of any doctrine that draws close to “non-dualism”) was cut short by the October Revolution in Russia, but not before the pre-Marxist government sent a gunboat and two transport ships with troops to remove the offending monks by force. The great Pavel Florensky, Orthodox priest and mathematical genius, was a proponent of Imiaslavie. Florensky insisted that some mathematical functions, such as transfinite numbers, can be understood properly only in the context of the Imiaslavie philosophy, in which the name of God is not different from God himself. I can’t claim to understand this insight. Nevertheless, my point is only to say that to dismiss as nothing but Hinduism the idea that the name of God is not different from God is not quite fair, and that there may be much more that can—and should--be said about it in an Orthodox Christian context, especially as the concept has drawn a seeker to look more closely at Orthodoxy.


J. Moschus

We should also point out that someone linked to our post on the ISKCON website with a tongue-in-cheek title something like ‘Looks like Arnold won’t get to be a monk on Mount Athos!’

We have been reluctant to get into the issue of Imiaslavie because we think that it is a red herring. We were given links in other comments to articles in Wikipedia on the Imiaslavie movement. Of course Wikipedia has the status of ‘Father of the Church’ if not ‘Father of the whole universe of human discourse’, but let us leave that aside for the moment. We went through all of this stuff, as much as we could stomach.

First of all, Mr Moschus, it seems to us that you are being disingenuous. You are, it seems to us, taking St John Kronstadt out of context. Remember this is the Saint who was treated as an incarnation of God by some Russian sectarians and who suffered great anguish over that (see above about ministries in the church and not arrogating more to yourself than is given). We saw what seemed to us to be the quotation in context that you were basing yourself on, and there is a gross distortion of the meaning if you think that St John of Kronstadt was preaching that the name of God is non-different from himself.

Next, the adjudication of the orthodoxy or not of Imiaslavie by the Russian Synod may or may not have been interrupted by the Revolution of 1917. In Orthodoxy, however, that is not necessarily an important issue. If you’re wrong in Orthodoxy, you’re wrong. Orthodoxy is not a legalistic religion that needs a formal legalistic determination of error to discard a wrong belief. If you don’t believe that, go to Mount Athos and inquire of the Abbots there, or anyone else there for that matter, about Imiaslavie. According to our own information there are no practitioners today of Imiaslavie on Mount Athos, or if there are they are under deep cover.

If someone is interested in a historical treatment of Imiaslavie, with we believe some reference to Ilarion (if it’s the same Ilarion), he might look at Nicholas Fennel’s The Russians on Athos.

Next, with regard to Pavel Florensky and his transfinite numbers only being understood in the context of Imiaslavie. This is silly. The mathematical layman finds it hard to understand that there is a variety of ‘infinities’ in mathematics, not all of which are equivalent (commensurable). For example there are an infinite number of integers and an infinite number of real numbers. But there are more real numbers than integers: when you put the integers and the real numbers into a correspondence, there are always real numbers left over. That’s just the way mathematics is. It’s the same way, only more so, with transfinite numbers. It’s like saying that a square has two dimensions and a cube has three—that there are more dimensions in a cube than in a square. It has nothing to do with Imiaslavie or the nature of God but with the nature of mathematics. In this regard it should be pointed out that Florensky was influenced by the theories of Bulgakov concerning ‘Sophia’, which have never been received by the Church. This is not stuff you learn from the Fathers of the Church. Mr. Moschus, if transfinite numbers can only be understood in the context of Imiaslavie, then in what context can 4-dimensional Minkowski Space-Time (the mathematical formalism of the Special and General Theories of Relativity) be understood, not to mention infinite-dimensional Hilbert Space, the formalism used in Quantum Mechanics?

Let us look at the real issue. The real issue is the nature of God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In the Burning Bush, in the Septuagint Translation used in the Church, when Moses asks, ‘Who shall I say has sent me?’ God replies, ‘say that “I am that which I am” has sent you [our free translation from memory]’. The Judeo-Christian (and even Islamic) tradition has always considered God to be transcendent to his creation: he is not the same in essence or substance as his creation.

In the 14th Century, the presence of God in his creation and the problem of the mystical knowledge of God was analyzed in the context of a defence of the Jesus Prayer by St Gregory Palamas, an Athonite monk and saint. St Gregory took that presence of God in creation as having to do with the presence of the ‘uncreated energies or actions’ of God in his creation. But the ‘uncreated energies’ of God were never considered by St Gregory Palamas to be the substance or essence of God, but the activities of the uncreated essence of God. In other words, in the Orthodox Church, grace is considered to be uncreated. However, grace is considered to suffuse or permeate or transfigure that which is graced, not to be of the same substance as that which is graced. Similarly the mystical knowledge of God that the Hesychast experiences is attributed by St Gregory not to knowledge of the essence of God—in Orthodoxy that is not possible either in this life or the next life—but to the presence of the uncreated energies of God in the created spirit or nous of man, and in the case of saints, even in the body.

This is the significance of the statement in the Gospel reading that he who is from above is above all men[1]. What the Church has always understood by this is that the Word of God—he who is in the presence of the Father, he through whom all things were made, he who is God—came down from Heaven and was incarnated by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary. Jesus is the Word of God become man. The Orthodox Church has always held that the Person of Jesus Christ is the Word of God and that the Word of God when it became man took on a complete human nature, so that Jesus Christ is one person (the Word of God) in two natures—a human and a divine nature, the one completely human and the other completely divine. As St John Damscene points out in the Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, the Son or Word is equal to the Father except for the relationship of being begotten from the Father and the Spirit is equal to the Father except for the relationship of proceeding from the Father.

These statements presuppose that ‘I am that I am’ who spoke to Moses in the Burning Bush is different from his creation. As St Maximos the Confessor remarks in the Ambigua, we cannot even predicate ‘existence’ of God, because God is beyond all creation and ‘existence’ is a predicate that properly belongs only to what is created, not to the Creator. Hence, according to St Maximos, God is beyond existence. This is a radical transcendence. This is completely contrary to the notion that the name of God is non-different from himself. Moreover, so that what is implied in this latter statement can be understood, on the ISKCON site, there is reference to a physical place, in India we believe, where the place itself—the stones, the trees, the grass, the whatever—is considered to be non-different from Krishna. Hence in worshipping or glorifying (not just venerating) the stones, the trees, the grass, the whatever in that place, one is worshipping or glorifying Krishna; one is worshipping or glorifying God—and, Mr Moschus suggests, the same God who spoke to Moses in the Burning Bush. But, Mr. Moschus, no one in the history of Judaism or Christianity has ever suggested that the Burning Bush is non-different from God himself. The contrary.

We can now understand the Gospel passage a little better. The transcendent God has sent St John the Baptist to bear witness to the Messiah. The Jew of the time took this to be a man who would restore the Kingdom to Israel, as is clear just before the Ascension in the Acts of the Apostles. St John bears witness. He must now decrease, having heard the voice of the Bridegroom, of the Messiah, of the Christ, while the Messiah must increase. And St John goes on that he himself is from the earth and speaks from the earth whereas the Christ, Jesus to whom he has born witness, is from above. This being ‘from above’ the Church understands to refer to the fact that Jesus is the Word of God of the same substance with the Father, the Word of God who has descended from heaven to save us, his lost sheep, who are from the earth—the creatures of God. The transcendent God in his infinite mercy has taken the form of a slave—of a created being—in order to save that created being, man. This is God’s love. May his grace be upon us.

Χριστός ανέστη!

[1] or, perhaps, ‘all things’; the text is ambiguous on the referent