First Sunday of Advent


Waiting cracks
the glass,
spiderweb fractures,
spreading branches
of inevitable, prospective failure,
weakening promises
no longer able to carry
the heaviness of hope
and the impatience of generations.

Trust is a fragile thing,
hard to hold together
with stories aging into legend.

Too much time has passed.

Psalm 26

"men of bloodshed"  

The opening petition of Psalm 26 is: "Vindicate me!" 

The poet stands in the middle of a blood-soaked world, full of harm, violence, and deceit. In the midst of all this wickedness and evil, the poet cries out, asking God to see, to vindicate, their struggle to be a person of integrity and peace in a world overrun by men of bloodshed.

The lonely path of the righteous in a dark and evil world. 

It is a difficult thing to keep your heart pure, to move with kindness in a world filled with men of bloodshed. It is a difficult thing to cry out for peace in times of war. It is a difficult thing to speak the truth in the face of lies. 

The path of the righteous is a lonely path. It is a difficult thing.

Paul's Gospel: Part 1, Christ Died for Something

Back in August and September, our Bible class at church was going through the book of Galatians. My turn in the teaching rotation had me sharing reflections from Galatians 2. 

To recap, some Jewish Christians had come to the church in Galatia preaching that Paul's Gentile converts needed to become circumcised. We can also assume they wanted the Gentiles to observe other parts of Mosaic Law. In rebutting this teaching, Paul's rage is palpable in the letter he writes to the Galatians, and he says some very intemperate things about the false teachers. 

In making the contrast between his gospel and that of the false teachers, Paul says this in Chapter 2:

We know that a person is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we ourselves have believed in Christ Jesus. This was so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified.
And at the end of the chapter he sums up with this:
For if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing. 
So much has been written about the theology of Paul. There's the Old Perspective. There's the New Perspective. To say nothing about the Catholic and Orthodox perspectives. Plus, to be honest, there's really a bunch of new perspectives. So there's a lot of hubris in my trying to share in a short series what I take to be "Paul's Gospel." But in this series I'd like to share what I think is at the heart of how Paul envisioned the Good News. Toward that goal, I think a critical clue comes here in Galatians 2, where Paul is concerned about Christ "dying for nothing." There was something in the false teaching being spread in the church of Galatia that was marginalizing or canceling the work of Christ. And getting clear about the nature of that marginalization, I think, helps clarify the content and vision of Paul's gospel.

Now, according to the "old perspective" on Paul, the Lutheran perspective, the teaching of the Jewish Christians in Galatia was marginalizing the work of Christ because they were attempting a "works-based righteousness." They were trying to "earn their salvation." In this older, Lutheran view, the issue here is a works-based righteousness versus a gospel of grace. Earning your salvation versus accepting it as the free gift of God, something that you could never earn. And yet, as the new perspectives on Paul have argued, this vision is only partly true, and because of this also prone to distortions.

One of the biggest distortions I pointed out to our Bible class concerns how the Jews thought about the Law. The Jewish people weren't trying to "earn their salvation." They weren't legalists beholden to a "works-based righteousness." For the Jewish people, the Torah was a gift of grace. The Law was shelter and rest. A safe harbor. Sanity in an insane world. Just read Psalm 119, the great ode to the Torah:
Oh, how I love your law!
I meditate on it all day long.
Your commands are always with me
and make me wiser than my enemies.
I have more insight than all my teachers,
for I meditate on your statutes.
I have more understanding than the elders,
for I obey your precepts.
I have kept my feet from every evil path
so that I might obey your word.
I have not departed from your laws,
for you yourself have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
I gain understanding from your precepts;
therefore I hate every wrong path.

Your word is a lamp for my feet,
a light on my path.
Now, it is true that in the book of Galatians Paul describes the Law as a power that brings us under a curse. We'll get to that issue in this series. But Paul is clear to say in Romans that the Law is holy, spiritual, and good. That description of the Law shows that Paul has not rejected the vision of Psalm 119. The Law of God is a lamp to our feet and a light for our path. So, as Paul is keen to point out in Romans, the problem here isn't with the Law.

Another distortion we also have to be alert to in thinking about Paul's gospel concerns the Greek phrase pistis Christou. Most translations translate pistis Christou as "faith in Christ." That is, we are saved by having faith in Jesus. But as many of the new perspectives on Paul have argued, pistis Christou might better be translated as "the faithfulness of Christ." That is, we are saved by something Jesus has accomplished.

Now, I'll admit that, for a lot of Christians, these debates about pistis Christou can seem like splitting hairs. Because both translations--"faith in Christ" and the "faithfulness of Christ"--seem both necessary and true. Christ saved us in his atoning work (the "faithfulness of Christ") and we need to accept that gift by faith (having "faith in Christ"). And yet, the two ideas are different. 

Let me give an illustration. Imagine you're in a burning building and you fall unconscious due to smoke inhalation. You later regain consciousness, waking up outside the building laying on the grass, firetrucks and firemen all around you. You've been saved. Someone entered the building, found your unconscious body, and carried you outside. But as you look around, no one is standing near you. You know you've been saved, but don't know how or by whom. You having "faith" in that person and in what they did for you is irrelevant. You might even wonder to yourself, "I don't believe it." Still, you've been saved. Your "belief" or "disbelief" doesn't change anything. You're alive.

In short, the translations "faith in Christ" versus the "faithfulness of Christ" highlight the subjective versus objective aspects of salvation. Since Martin Luther, we've highlighted the subjective aspects of salvation. We need to "believe." We need to "have faith." Salvation has to do with a change in my mind. It is a wholly subjective phenomenon. The translation "faithfulness of Christ," by contrast, highlights the objective aspects of salvation. Your mind, in this view, isn't involved. Christ is the firefighter who carries your unconscious body out of the burning building. Objectively and factually, you've been rescued. And you having "faith" had, and has, nothing to do with it. 

The point to be observed here is that we can distort Paul's gospel by thinking he's asking us to "accept Jesus into our heart" when he's really just pointing out facts about our changed reality. This circles back to Paul's point about Christ dying for "nothing." Believe it or not, Christ did something, something that the Law couldn't do, as good, holy and spiritual as it is. 

To understand Paul's gospel, therefore, we need to understand that Christ died for something. What I hope to do in this series is describe that something.

"Lord Willing"

Out at the prison, we were in the book of James and discussing this passage from Chapter 4:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will travel to such and such a city and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring—what your life will be! For you are like vapor that appears for a little while, then vanishes.

Instead, you should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
I grew up in a world where we said "Lord willing" a lot. 

"We'll see you next week, Lord willing."

"Lord willing, when we get home."

Over the years, though, I've repeatedly encountered people who get theologically triggered by saying "Lord willing." 

The concerns go to issues of providence and theodicy. Specifically, if we claim that the "Lord wills" for us to travel safely, then does that mean the "Lord wills" the traffic accidents on the road today? Is God "picking and choosing" who lives and dies on the highways?

To be sure, there are problematic visions of providence out there, and I don't mind anyone leveling criticisms at those. But when I think about what's being said in James 4, and the "Lord willing" refrains from my youth, I don't think the issue on the table is predestination. The issue is, rather, humility. 

To say "Lord willing" isn't to say that God is a puppet master picking and choosing who has a safe trip home or an accident. To say "Lord willing" is, rather, an admission of our frailty, dependency, and mortality. As it says in James, we are but a vapor. Saying "Lord willing" brings my finitude into view, that my time in not in my hands. To say "Lord willing" is a memento mori

I think old timers said "Lord willing" a lot because they lived in agrarian cultures, where they had little control over the elements that affected their crops. Their fate was not in their hands. They had no power to make it rain. Saying "Lord willing" put them in a proper frame of mind. Farmers had to be humble. 

But as we move further and further away from those times and places, we grow more prideful, thinking that we can control our own fates. I don't think we bristle at "Lord willing" because of theological concerns about providence. I think we chaff at "Lord willing" because we don't like to admit our lives are not in our hands. I think we avoid "Lord willing" because we've lost the humility of our ancestors. Our technology has insulated us from our neediness and dependencies. They prayed for rain, we turn on our sprinkler system. They sat on front porches fanning themselves through hot summers, we turn on our air conditioner units. 

They said "Lord willing" their entire lives. We never say it at all. And between us, who sees life more truthfully?

The Sophiology of Sergius Bulgakov: Part 6, God Will Be All in All

This will be our last post surveying the theology of Sergius Bulgakov. There is a lot more that could be explored, but I don't want to exhaust you. I do hope, though, that you've found this series thought-provoking. While I don't expect many of us will start showing up at church speaking of "divine Sophia," I do think some of the insights of sophiological theology might stick with you. The panentheistic idea that we exist in God. That our existence is rooted and grounded in divinity. That God works with our agency and choices cooperatively and synergistically. That God is not the cause of the world but its Creator. These are profound ideas worth, I think, the price of admission to this series.

In this, our final post, we'll wrap up by looking at Bulgakov's eschatological vision. 

Given that our existence exists within God, that our being is rooted in divinity, Bulgakov contends that: There is "an ontological connection...between our world and the world to come. They are one and the same world in its different states." And yet, this transition is not a smooth evolutionary process. Between this world and the next there is a "chasm." Something beyond our world enters our world, precipitating a radical transformation. Regarding the apocalyptic, "end of the world" imagery in the Bible, Bulgakov writes:

The fire of the world and the convulsion of the elements are symbolic images of the unimaginable, since the end of the world lies beyond the world's present being, transcends it. The idea that the cosmos is transformed, not abolished but transfigured, is expressed in images of the destruction of the old heaven and old earth and the "creation of a new heaven and a new earth."

...[The "end of the world"] is a renewal of the created world. It is a creative action of God upon the world.

Which bring us to the question everyone is keen to ask: What is the fate of humanity in the new heaven and earth?

As we know, traditional eschatologies posit a bifurcation here. The saved go off to eternal blessedness, and the damned to eternal torment. But given what we've learned about Bulgakov's theology, you would be correct to expect that he believes something different here.

Specifically, created existence, even in the next world, continues to possess a grounding in the divine, continues to exist within God. There is no other way to exist except in God. Relatedly, salvation isn't a unilateral act of God (as believed in Calvinism), but is, rather, synergistic and cooperative. Consequently, a open connection with God is never abolished, not even after death. And the reality of this connection allows Bulgakov to describe a vision of universal reconciliation. 

The Incarnation and resurrection of Jesus creates this ontological possibility. In the Incarnation all humanity was united with God. And in Christ all humanity was resurrected. As Bulgakov writes:

In Christ's resurrection...the whole human race was pre-resurrected, receiving the power of resurrection: "Christ is risen from the dead; he destroyed death by death and given life to those in the grave," as the Easter hymn says...The God-man is the all-man, and his resurrection is ontologically the universal resurrection...

Because all of humanity is connected to God's divine life the resurrected life of Jesus, with its power over death, is universally available to all of humanity. More from Bulgakov:

The resurrection of the dead is universal...The universality of the resurrection corresponds to the universal power of the Incarnation, in which the Lord assumed the entire human nature without any restriction or exclusion; and in his glorious resurrection all humankind is raised.

After the universal resurrection, secured for all of humanity at Easter, there is Judgment Day. Standing under the scrutiny of heaven, our lies and sin will be exposed to the light. This exposure is symbolized as fire in Scripture, a fire that does not destroy but purifies and transforms. Bulgakov:

Human being [will be] clothed in Christ, who is the Truth and the Life, by the life-giving Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Truth. This means that every human being is inwardly confronted with the truth about himself. Every human being sees himself in truth, by a vision that is not abstract but living, like the consuming flame of a fire from whose light one cannot hide, for all will become visible...

No falsehood, no self-deception, no error will have a place in the kingdom of truth, and this "exposure" by the Spirit of truth is already the judgment. By virtue of the truth this judgment becomes for everyone a self-judgment, a shedding of the veils of falsehood and self-deception that cover emptiness...This illuminating and transfiguring power is expressed in the image of fire, not natural of course but "spiritual," which will penetrate the "spiritual" body and the spirit itself. The fire of the future age consumes, but it also transfigures, illuminates, gladdens...

[E]very human being will be placed before his own eternal image in Christ, that is, before Christ. And in the light of this image, he will see his own reality, and this comparison will be the judgment. It is this that is the Last Judgment of Christ upon every human being.

Most importantly, our confrontation with Christ will result in repentance, as Bulgakov continues:

It is impossible to appear before Christ and to see Him without loving Him. In the resurrection there is no longer any place for anti-Christianity, for enmity toward Christ, for satanic hatred of Him, just as there is no place for fear of Him as the Judge terrible in His omnipotence and the fury of His wrath. The Lord will come as He was on earth: meek and humble in heart, though now in glory. But his meekness and humility will burn hearts by their love and their judgment. God-Love judges with love the sins against love.

In light of this, it is the fate of every human person to come to Christ. For Bulgakov, this outcome is the moral logic of creation. If God created the world then God will rescue the world. Bulgakov writes, "While belonging to the creaturely world, all human beings are, so to speak, obligated by God's love to live in divine life, in glory and deification. This is God's inalienable gift to creation, the completion of His work on the world." In this sense, the beginning of the world and its final redemption should be considered together in a single creative act. What God begins in creation God brings to completion in the new heaven and new earth.

Of course, as we face the exposure of Judgment, human beings find themselves, in that moment, further or closer to Christ. Our moral resumes vary. Consequently, eternal life implies growth rather than stasis. The vision of the afterlife here is one of gradual purgation and developmental transfiguration as we move from glory to glory. Because of this, eternal life is eternally dynamic and creative. Bulgakov:

Creaturely eternity is becoming, growth, ascent from glory to glory...[This growth] excludes the immobility and unchangeability of creaturely eternity...Infinite stages of eternity, an unending ladder of ascent from earth to heaven, are introduced here...The life of the spirit is constant creative activity and spontaneous mobility. Both the stupor of immobility, which is taken for eternity, and inert thingness are alien to this life. The spirit is actual and perpetually dynamic...Eternal life is a path, not a way station, not a stagnation in some nirvana. It is creative ascent in the reception of divine life and its revelations...

Eternal life, or eternal bliss, is deification, the reception of divine life, actualized in sophianization: "God will be all in all." 

Given the openness envisioned here, the specific question can then be asked and answered. What is the fate of those in hell?

For Bulgakov, hell is a problem for all of humanity. If one soul is lost, that affects everyone. As Bulgakov says, "Salvation not only concerns everyone individually, but it is also the business of the love, prayer, and effort of all of humanity, both of its healthy members and of those who are sick and need healing. Hell is therefore an affliction of all humanity." Consequently, Bulgakov continues, "The existence of hell is surrounded not by the cold of an egotistical indifference but by the radiant cloud of the caring love of saved humankind...In the Church, the one humankind is not divided into two and is not reconciled with the severing of one of its parts -- hell -- but sorrows over this part... [For] heaven does not exist in its fullness as long as and insofar as hell exists."

There can be no final healing, then, if humanity remains eternally separated. Nor will the creative act of God come to its final completion. Thus, in the end, all will be saved. Bulgakov:

[H]ell's torments of love necessarily contain the regenerating power of the expiation of sin by the experiencing it to the end. However, this creative experiencing is not only a passive state, in chains imposed from the outside. It is also an inwardly, synergistically accepted spiritual state...This state is appropriately perceived not as a juridical punishment but as an effect of God's justice, which is revealed in its inner persuasiveness. And its acceptance as a just judgment corresponds to an inner movement of the spirit, to a creative determination of the life of the spirit. And in its duration ("in ages of ages"), this life contains the possibility of creative suffering that heals, of a movement of the spirit from within toward good in its triumphant force and persuasiveness. Therefore, it is necessary to stop thinking of hell in terms of static and inert immobility, but instead to associate it with the dynamics of life, always creative and growing. Even in hell, the nature of the spirit remains unchanging in its creative changeability. Therefore, the state of hell must be understood as unceasing creative activity, or more precisely, self-creative activity, of the soul, although this state bears within itself a disastrous split, an alienation from its prototype [the Image of Christ]. All the same, the apostle Paul defines this state as a salvation, yet by fire, after the man's work is burned.

And again, for Bulgakov, this salvation of the lost, through the fires of hell, goes to the very logic of creation itself. "Otherwise," says Bulgakov, "creation would appear to be an error or failure, since it would end with the eternity of hell, even if this were accompanied by the eternity of heaven. An eternal separation of humanity into the elect and reprobate is clearly not the final meaning of creation. One must therefore suppose that this separation has an inner proportionality of grace that assures a final positive sum of all the pluses and minuses of history, a universal harmony, total and beautiful."

As Bulgakov powerfully concludes: 

"Only deification is capable of justifying creation. It is the only theodicy."

The Sophiology of Sergius Bulgakov: Part 5, Human Nature and Grace

Given the damage of sin, how does Bulgakov's sophiological theology envision grace and salvation?

I think the first thing to note is that Bulgakov is an Orthodox theologian. Which means that, for Bulgakov, salvation is more ontological than forensic.

By forensic I mean the Protestant focus on human guilt and divine forgiveness. For many Protestants, these forensic ideas are captured by what is called penal substitutionary atonement. In this view, being "lost" means standing under the judgment of God as a sinner. Salvation is having this judgment removed by Christ who paid/atoned for our crimes by taking the penalty upon himself.

For the Orthodox, by contrast, being "lost" isn't a forensic issue but is, rather, an ontological predicament. Due to sin, human being is weakened and made vulnerable to the powers of sin and death. It is this weakness and vulnerability that demands attention. Consequently, where Protestants have exclusively focused upon the death of Jesus in their forensic discussions of salvation, the Orthodox have focused upon the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and Pentecost. For in these events God comes to strengthen human being, and through this connection triumph over the powers of sin and death. Thus, the Orthodox vision of salvation is less about "forgiveness," a forensic focus, than upon theosis, the divinization of human being. Salvation is an ontological transformation.

With that understanding in hand, you can anticipate how Bulgakov would place Sophia at the heart of salvation. Again, Bulgakov's issue is divine mediation, how God relates to creation. In a conversation about salvation, then, especially one with an ontological focus as with the Orthodox, the question of grace concerns how God works to rehabilitate human being that has been wounded by sin. How does the divinization of human being and creation happen? As Bulgakov says, what we need here is an "ontology of grace." He writes:

Two aspects are naturally distinguished in the doctrine of grace: the sending down of grace by God's power and its reception by creation. The relation between these two aspects and their effects, as well as the foundation and ultimate goal of this relation, must become the object of theological (or, more precisely, a sophiological) interpretation.

Crudely speaking, how do nature and grace "dock" when they "make contact," what is the nature of this relation? 

For Bulgakov, the "docking" between nature and grace is sophiological. Grace comes to us from the Divine Sophia (the divine life of God) which draws the creaturely Sophia (the created world) to herself. The path of salvation is sophiological. The creaturely world soul is slowly drawn into a participation with the life of God. Western theologians describe salvation in a similar way, as coming to participate in the life of the Trinity. The Orthodox sophiological tradition agrees, but digs deeper, trying to explain the "how" this could happen, an attempt to understand the "ontology of grace." For example, what do you mean by "the life" of the Trinity? What is this "life" you speak of? Well, for the Orthodox sophiological tradition the life, or ousia, of God, is Sophia. Thus, to be drawn into the life of God is to be drawn into the Divine Sophia. And how can this happen? Because, as we've seen already in this series, human being is already grounded in the divine life, already, as the creaturely Sophia, connected to the Divine Sophia. And because of this ontological connection, divine connected to divine, creaturely Sophia to Divine Sophia, there is, if I can but it this way, a natural path for theosis. The sophiological connection between God and humanity is that path. As Bulgakov says, "[The] ontological possibly of 'salvation' through deification is predetermined by the very creation of man in the image of God."

Simply stated, if salvation is an ontological predicament, a question of how human being is to be reconnected with and drawn into the life of God, the Orthodox sophiological tradition answers that question by positing a divine connection between God and humanity. That is to say, since human being is grounded in divinity it is predisposed to enjoy divine life with God. In the Incarnation, Resurrection and Pentecost, a sophiological pathway is established between God and humanity. The road is opened for theosis. 

There are three critical points at work in this vision. 

The first is that the wound of sin never wholly or completely severs our sophiological connection to God. Again, because we exist, we are rooted in divinity. And that divinity continues to maintain a bridge to God. As Bulgakov says, "This connection [between the Divine and creaturely Sophia] is never interrupted, never terminated, for otherwise the foundations of being, unshakably laid by God, the Creator and Almighty, would crumble away." Sin does not erase the image of God in humanity. As Bulgakov argues, the effect of sin is "only a certain darkening...of the image of God with the weakening of freedom, though man is seen as preserving the capacity for good in counteraction to evil. Therefore, man's creative power is, in general, preserved." Because our humanity is founded upon divinity, our fall cannot be a total catastrophe. Sin darkens the image of God within us, and weakens us, but the image is not eradicated. 

Secondly, sin does not destroy human freedom. Nor does God override human freedom unilaterally. God works with human freedom relationally. God cooperates with human freedom. Bulgakov's vision is synergistic, God's will and our will is a partnership. As Bulgakov argues, 

Divinity can act upon the person only by interacting with it on the basis of creaturely freedom...[God] acts without coercing; that is, He persuades, limiting his power to the measure of creaturely receptivity. This is precisely synergism, as the form of divine providence with regard to human beings...

Divine providence is therefore a dialogue of God's wisdom and omnipotence with free creaturely life...Providence shows absolute skill and inventiveness in correcting and fulfilling the actions of creaturely freedom [in] guiding the world to salvation; but it always respects the originality and freedom of creation...The relation of the Creator to creation in "synergism" always remains meek and restrained, the kenosis of God in creation...God waits for creaturely freedom...

Ontologically, man cannot get rid of freedom even if he so desires, for it is the mode of the very being of the creaturely spirit...Creaturely freedom is naturally afflicted by selfhood, from which it can free itself only by voluntary self-renunciation, in the death on the cross. Therefore, the supreme freedom is the one that is manifested in the obedience of the Handmaid of the Lord: "be it unto me according to thy word" (Luke 1:38)...Through this acceptance we discover this will that acts in the whole life of the world. This faith in divine providence does not paralyze our creative activity in freedom and does not condemn us to the quietistic passivity of fatalism. On the contrary, it reinforces our will to search for the right way to accomplish God's will in us and through us, in true "synergism."

An obvious point to make about all this is that Bulgakov is completely rejecting Calvinism, its view of "total depravity," the bondage of the will, and the monergistic doctrine of election, where God alone acts in effecting salvation. 

The final point to make concerns how grace relates to human nature. As noted above, given the sophiological connection between God (Divine Sophia) and the world (creaturely Sophia), human nature has an innate, natural capacity for God. As Bulgakov argues, 

Between "natural" or creaturely being and supernatural grace there must be an ontologically positive relation, without which grace would be deux ex machina, an ontological violence done to creation, and not the elevation of creation to its proto-image [in the Divine Sophia]...

The existence of "natural" grace is a necessary precondition for the reception of grace in the strict sense. This reception presupposes in creation a conformity with divinity that is actualized in deification by grace. "Natural grace" is precisely the humanity that contains the image and likeness of God. In virtue of the divine image and likeness, human beings are called to Divine-humanity, which is the union of the two natures in Christ. Divine-humanity extends to all humankind, which possesses "natural grace" or sophianicity by its creation...

All the aspects of grace and the modes of its bestowal have as their sole purpose and content the elevation of creatures to deification, the imprinting of the image of divinity in the creaturely likeness. Outside of this relation, in the absence of "natural grace," that is, in the absence of the conformity of creation with its Creator, such an imprinting would be an ontological coercion, just as impossible as the transformation of an ape into an angel or a stone into a human being...

The vision here is that God uses this innate and natural connection to grace to cooperate, synegistically and relationally, with the human person to draw us deeper and deeper into the divine life. Grounded in divinity, humans have a natural capacity for grace. Our nature is to seek and rest in God. Sin doesn't erase this capacity. Sin does, however, weaken us, which means that God must actively seek us. Otherwise, we'd be lost. But we, for our part, must also reach out and seek God. Salvation engages us in active participation. As Bulgakov summarizes:

Grace is not a divine coercion over the human nature; it is not something accidental, something alien to man, that does not have to be, that exists as a kind of happy caprice. On the contrary, grace is the actualization of the Divine-humanity of which the seed was implanted in man by virtue of his creation in the image of God and which was accomplished through his communion with God in the Incarnation and the Pentecost. Grace gains this power in the gradual and unceasing approach towards one another of the divine nature and the human nature. In grace, man knows and realizes the foundation of his proper being. "Not I, but Christ liveth in me" (Gal. 2:20), by the Holy Spirit, who unites God with man. Life in Christ is given to man, and is also proposed to him as a goal; he is a temple of the Holy Spirit.

Psalm 25

"I wait for you"

That declaration--"I wait for you"--is heard twice in Psalm 25. It's such a plaintive cry.

With the cry "I wait for you" I'm put in mind of Advent, which is right around the corner. It has long been observed that low-church Protestants who try to appropriate Advent just don't understand Advent. For many, Advent is just a way to extend the Christmas season. But Advent and Christmas are two different seasons, each with distinctive emotional tones. Advent is to Christmas as Lent is to Easter. 

A lot of the problem is hymnody. Low-church Protestants just don't know that many Advent hymns. They know "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and maybe "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus." And that's pretty much it. This makes it very hard to plan worship for the four Sundays of Advent when you only have two songs to sing over and over again! And so, worship pastors are forced to prematurely dip into the Christmas carols. Expectant groaning and waiting is displaced by joy and celebration. I remember a few years ago at my church when the very first hymn on the very first Sunday of Advent was "Joy to the World." That's like saying "He is Risen!" on Ash Wednesday. 

All this isn't just liturgical snobbery on my part. Waiting is at the heart of the religious life. 

At the start of the spiritual journey waiting on God is experienced as frustrating and alienating. God seems uncaring, passive, and delaying. There are severe temptations here. Waiting can sour into disillusionment and disillusionment can curdle into unbelief. 

But as you spiritually mature, waiting is transformed into deep soul work. You come to realize you've spent most of your time waiting on some good outcome to transpire. Waiting on God to "do something." You slowly come to see that you've never really been waiting for God. You've been waiting for some favor or blessing, but not for God himself. 

I've waited for this or that, but I haven't waited for you

The Sophiology of Sergius Bulgakov: Part 4, The Elemental and Damaged World

Given what we've discovered about the sophiology of Sergius Bulgakov, the everything is spiritual panenthism, one could rightly describe his theology as "optimistic." Humanity and all of creation is founded upon divinity. That's a really beautiful and captivating idea. 

Which raises the question: What about sin and suffering in this "everything is spiritual" world? 

Let's explore those aspects of Bulgakov's theology in this post.

In a sense, Bulgakov's sophiological treatment of sin, suffering, and evil flows out of his optimistic vision of the cosmos as founded upon divinity. Specifically, creaturely freedom plays a central role. As Bulgakov says, "Evil comes from creaturely freedom." A related issue here is creaturely becoming. Since the creaturely Sophia has a life that is marked by a degree of autonomy from God--the contrast between the creaturely and Divine Sophia--it is characterized by finitude. And finitude implies boundaries. As Bulgakov says, "Perfection is what is sought by, not given, to creatures." Given these limitations of creaturely life, there is a capacity for error and imperfection. Bulgakov: "The creative self-determination of creatures is subject to imperfection and error [which] allows for different paths and possibilities." Creation, then, is on a journey of becoming, actualizing, and seeking its final end, but these paths are not fixed or predetermined. Bulgakov:

Error and imperfection are, in a certain sense, the privilege of creatures, since their relation to the world is neither automatic nor instinctive. If the world were an would operate with the precision of a mechanism or with the infallibility of instinct, but then there would be no place for creaturely creativity, which is synonymous with life. 

Concerning creaturely freedom, as an Orthodox theologian, Bulgakov subscribes to the traditional view of a "double fall," an angelic rebellion followed by a human one. Much of the evil and chaos we observe in the world is a wound and sickness Satan has inflicted upon the "world soul" of the creaturely Sophia. As Bulgakov says, "The world soul becomes sick with demon possession." Human rebellion also contributes its share of damage. 

Beyond the choices made in creaturely freedom, angelic and human, creation itself is characterized by raw powers and vital forces that are, as yet, untamed. Bulgakov:

[T]he world receives an independence to follow its destinies. This independence is realized in the world soul as the universal connecetedness, the total unity of creaturely being. The world soul is the creaturely Sophia in her actualization in being...[T]he world soul actualized the instinctive and, in this sense, blind thirst for and power of being. Her diverse elements sprout to life not only in harmonious agreement but also crowding one another, in a kind of "struggle for existence," according to their elemental nature. And this elemental nature contains not only the principle of life but also "Chronos devouring his children." It is not only...divine abundance but also...its own imperfection.

Therefore, in its proper being, the world soul is divided into "heaven and earth," as it were, the world of the angels as bearers of the sophianic prototypes of creation and the world of earth's reality, which has beneath it the seething tobu vabohu ["without form and void" from Genesis 1.3], the primordial chaos. Creation arises through the elemental forces of the world soul that it contains.

Summarizing, due to creaturely freedom life is open to creative possibilities, and some of those possibilities are marred by error and imperfection. In addition, creation itself is infused with raw, vital, and elemental forces that can be both destructive and harnessed for creative ends. These elemental forces are a source of life, creativity, and abundance, but they can also bring about suffering. The raw force of nature, in the words of Bulgakov, possess a "blindness and elemental character."  

Looked at, then, as a whole, creation is in an unfinished state. Bulgakov: "It follows that the world in its actual state is by no means a perfect and finished mechanism, a mechanism that does not require active care or the guidance of God's providence...[Creation] can be subject to perversion and damage, being transformed from God's garden into an accursed earth. Through this perversion, the world, despite the sophianic roots of its being, can resist the ways of God."

Give this situation, the perversions and damage, along with the blind elemental forces, creation is set on a journey of becoming itself. In both its openness and raw potentialities, creation is unfinished. Thus, when God created the world, he didn't create a static, final perfection. Creation is not a glass menagerie or a fine china display. Humans are not robots or God's doll collection. Created life is, well, life. Open. Vital. Raw. Free. God created elemental forces and creaturely freedom as the raw materials for a creative endeavor. Creation is a task. Bulgakov:

Once it is summoned into being by God...[the world] faces the task of becoming itself, of actualizing its perfection in the creaturely Sophia on the basis of creaturely freedom. Therefore, in the life of nature, we have both the shining of the creaturely Sophia, the revelation of paradise, and the seething of the blind element, natural chaos...Nature is the symphony of the world that seeks the harmony of the spheres and to overcome its own dissonances. 

God and humanity work together in this, helping creation fulfill the task of becoming itself. And, obviously, humanity cannot do this task all on its own. God must act to help humanity tame creation and to overcome its damage, imperfections, perversions, and error. Grace is needed. We'll turn to that in the next post.

The Sophiology of Sergius Bulgakov: Part 3, God is Not the Cause of the World, but its Creator

After two posts, you might be asking, "What's the win here in exploring Bulgakov's sophiology? What's to be gained by thinking about this strange, new thing?" 

Well, I hope you saw one win in the last post. The panentheistic vision of Bulgakov's sophiology reveals to us that all of creation, because it exists, because it is real, is founded upon God's divinity. Everything is spiritual. And this, I would argue, is a critical and valuable insight. Sophiology rebuts the perverse materialism that haunts our increasingly post-Christian world. To borrow from Hunting Magic Eels, sophiology is a very enchanting theology. In the imagery of Stephen Freeman, instead of living in a two-story universe, with God upstairs in heaven and we downstairs on earth, we are, instead, living in a one-story universe where God is, in Freeman's words, "everywhere present and filling all things." 

For example, Bulgakov describes the creaturely Sophia, the divine foundation of creation, as "the world soul," God's life inhabiting, sustaining, holding, and catalyzing creation. As Bulgakov says, Sophia is "the life of the world," "she is the eternal foundation for the soul of the world, the soul of the soul." Humanity, thus, has a dual nature, what Bulgakov calls "divine-humanity." As he describes, "The roots of a person's being are submerged in the bottomless ocean of divine life and get their nourishment from this life." And all of creation has this dual character: "All of creation has in God a supratemporal foundation and through this foundation participates in eternity, for the creaturely Sophia is the image of the Divine Sophia."

The creaturely Sophia is also the "entelechy" of the world. Entelechy was a word coined by Aristotle, and it describes how being actualizes in moving toward its final goal, how the potentialities of being come to be fully realized. So, it's not just that creation has a divine foundation, the "world soul" is also dynamically and actively drawing creation toward its final end. Creation is "going somewhere." Since the creaturely Sophia abides in the divine Sophia it is through this "Sophia-connection," to put it awkwardly, that God is drawing all of creation into a sharing of his divine life. As Bulgakov says, "The creaturely Sophia is becoming the image and likeness of the Divine Sophia." This is the Orthodox idea of theosis and divinization.

Now, you might find all of this a bit too mystical or woo-woo. But that is precisely why we're doing this series. Whether or not you can follow or agree with all this Sophia stuff, exploring this unique area of Christian theology should, at the very least, push back on some bad habits of mind. Deistic habits like imagining God at a distance, living "upstairs" in heaven. Also materialistic habits of mind that fail to see that everything is spiritual, that because things are real they are resting on God. Some mystical Christian woo-woo just might be what the doctor ordered. 

Beyond sophiology interrupting the bad habits of our overly deistic and material imaginations, it also interrupts how our theological imaginations have been colonized by causality. Thinking of God as a "cause" has been a pernicious habit of mind which has resulted in a lot of consternation and confusion. As Bulgakov says, "this conception of God as the 'first' cause of the world represents an age-old misunderstanding, which must be eradicated from both philosophy and theology." A goal of sophiology is to help us see that God is not a cause. 

According to Bulgakov, one of the mistakes of the Western theological tradition has been to imagine that God relates to the world through causality. That is, when we say that God "creates" the world we imagine this as a cause/effect relationship. God is the "First Cause" or the "Uncaused Cause" setting off a chain of causation. This is a mistake, according to Bulgakov. God's relationship to the world is sophianic, not causal. What might this mean? Well, when we imagine the relationship between a cause and its effect, we imagine something mechanical or deterministic occurring. Also, the relationship between cause and effect becomes severed over time. If the cueball hits the eight-ball the eight-ball moves away. After being struck, there is no enduring "relationship" between the cue ball and the eight-ball. In short, imagining God's relation to the world as being causal creates the deistic, God-working-at-a-physical-and-temporal-distance imagination which sophiology is trying to overcome.

Describing Sophia as the "world soul," then, is simply an attempt to posit some living, vital, and animating connection between the world and God. A casual, mechanical "deadness" does not describe how God relates to the world. God is not the Big Domino that pushes around us little dominos. Rather, through the sophianic connection, God's life is filling and vitalizing creaturely existence. Instead of deterministic chains of cause and effect, creation is suffused with creative and vital potencies and energies that flow from the spiritual foundation of the world. 

In addition, sophiology restores Personhood to the connection between God and the world. God is not a cause, God is a Person. Consequently, God's connection to the world is not mechanical and causal but wholly personal and relational. Taking an image from the Psalms, in God's relationship to the world "deep calls to deep." Following Martin Buber, God's Thou addresses our Thou. Creation is not a machine. Creation is a relationship.

Now, if you're imagining here, in my descriptions of the vitality of the "world soul," something like the pagan conception of Gaia and the divine feminine principle of the world, a potency and power that catalyzes, vitalizes, animates, and energizes all of creation, a pervasive and dynamic spiritual power that makes the cosmos crackle and pop, well, you're close to the vision of creaturely Sophia. The key difference is that the pagan vision of Gaia is pantheistic, whereas the sophianic vision of Sophia is panentheistic. Here, then, is another win in investigating sophiology for those who are interested in exploring connections between Christian theology and pagan spiritualities. 

Okay, then, if God is not to be considered a cause, how does God relate to the world? According to Bulgakov, God is not cause but Creator. Bulgakov:

To determine the actual relation between God and the world, another category must be used, a category for which there is no place in the immanence of the world. This category must be used to [preserve] both the positive connection between God and the world and the ontological distance between them. This category is not cause, or motion, but creation and createdness. God is not the cause, or mover, of the world. He is the world's Creator (as well as the world's Preserver and Provider...), and the world is God's creation. Philosophical and theological usage often do not notice the entire essential distinction between these categories...Translating the language of creationism into the language of causality, people say and think that the createdness of the world signifies the world's causal dependence upon God, whereas what actually exists here is a difference that approaches oppositeness...God the Creator is above and outside the causality that exists in the the world itself. In this sense, God is not the cause of the world but its Creator, just as the world is not an effect of divine causality but God's creation. God and the world are not related as cause and effect by analogy to the mechanical causality of the world...They are linked in another way, by another connection...

Sophia, the Wisdom through which God creates and sustains the world, is this different connection. Recall, Bulgakov's big theme is divine mediation, how God relates to the world. According to Bulgakov, most of Western theology (wrongly) thinks about this relation as being mechanical and causal. In contrast, Bulgakov posits Sophia, which replaces a dead, mechanical, and impersonal connection between God and the world with a living, ongoing, vitalizing, and personal relationship. Sophia replaces the Domino Idea of God as "first cause" or "prime mover." Here's an overly simplified way of describing this:

Western Domino View of God's Relation to the World:

God --> Cause --> World

Sophiological Creational View of God's Relation to the World:

God --> Sophia --> World

God <-- Sophia <--World

Notice, in the sophiological view, that God relates to the world through God's own life, Divine Sophia giving life to the creaturely Sophia. Notice also how that divine life doesn't just create the world, but acts to draw the world into the life of God, which is theosis. Creation, then, isn't a one time event. Creation is an entire journey that starts with a birth but fully culminates in sharing the life of God. This entire span, from birth to final goal, is God's creative relationship with the world. God is both our origin and our end.

The theological wins here, in my estimation, come in how this vision of the world helps us escape the materialistic, reductionistic, and deterministic imaginations we find in the scientism of people like the New Atheists. But even among Christians this scientistic imagination reigns. Viewing the world as a machine, and God as a mechanic who tinkers with it, is, sadly, the default way Westerners--Christian and Non-Christian--tend to think about the world. In this sense, the pagan conceptions of Gaia and the divine feminine are more Christian than how most Christians in the West think about the world. Where most Western Christians think of God as the Big Cause in the Sky, pagans see the world as suffused with divine power, life, and potencies. And the pagans have the better imagination here. Consequently, exploring Orthodox sophiology can be good medicine for Western Christians whose imaginations have been bent by viewing God's relation to the world as being that of a cause to its effect.

So, write this down and put it in your pocket so that you won't forget:

God is not the cause of the world, but its Creator.

The Sophiology of Sergius Bulgakov: Part 2, Sophia and Panentheism

In the the first post I argued that the key concern of Sergius Bulgakov's sophiology is divine mediation, how God relates to the world. And at the end of the post I suggested we reflect upon what "bridges the gap" between us and God. I then quickly took that question back, noting that positing a "gap" between us and God speaks to a misunderstanding that Bulgakov's sophiology is trying to overcome. Today, let's dig into that.

Perhaps the most direct way to describe Bulgakov's vision is to observe that his sophiology is explicitly panentheistic. Some of you might know what that means, others might not. So let me explain.

To start, many Christians imagine the relationship between God and the world this way:

God, in this view, creates a world separate from himself. Once created, God interacts with the world from "the outside" as it were, entering the world from "beyond" the world's ontological independence and autonomy.

The first thing to quickly note is that, from an orthodox Christian perspective, the view above is totally false and completely wrong. Theologically speaking, it's the worst. 


Well, for a couple of reasons. To start, you're imagining God as an object who exists alongside creation. Second, look at the picture. What is holding the world in being? It's just hanging there, suspended "in space," as if it possessed the power to hold itself in being over the void. And lastly, what is that "space" in which God also seems suspended? What exists in the space beyond the boundary of God's being? What is the origin and nature of that ontological ground and field? And wouldn't that space, since it was holding both God and the world in being, be ontologically more fundamental and primary than God himself? If so, then God wouldn't be God--that is, Being Itself--but a being, a god grounded in something greater.

So, you see the problems.

If the imagination in the picture above is wrong, so is this picture:

This view, you likely know, is called pantheism, where God and the world are simply identified. This view is also rejected by orthodox Christianity. According to orthodox Christianity, while God is immanent in creation God is also Wholly Other and transcendent in relation to creation. Also, many of the questions noted above continue to persist. 

Okay, if the two pictures above are illicit, what view is compatible with Christian metaphysics? That view is depicted here:

This view is called panentheism. As you can see, God is represented here as the totality of Being. God has no boundary or edge. (I know the edge of the slide is a boundary, but you get what I'm driving at. This is the best I could do in communicating apophatic mysteries with a PowerPoint slide.) Nothing can exist outside or alongside God. God is the field of Being in which beings exist. Consequently, the world doesn't exist independently of God. The world has to exist "within" God. God creates and continuously holds the world in being. God is the "ground" upon which the world stands. 

And this is why, to return to the end of the last post, there can be no "gap" between you and God, between the world and God. Because you exist your being is continually present to and held by God. As Bulgakov says, "the world participates in the spirit by the fact that it is real." Because you are real you are connected to God. Everything exists because God is touching it. It could not exist otherwise. And because of this, as Augustine said, God is closer to you than you are to yourself. As the Psalmist declared: 

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
Or as Paul declared in Acts 17, "God is not far from anyone of us. For in him we live, move, and have our being."

Bulgakov's sophiology is an attempt to describe this panentheistic vision. As Bulgakov says, "The world exists in God." He goes on to describe: "In the Christian conception...the world belongs to God, for it is in God that it finds the foundation of its reality. Nothing can exist outside of God, as alien or exterior to him. Nevertheless, the world, having been created from 'nothing,' in this 'nothing' finds its 'place.' God confers on a principle which originates in himself an existence distinct from his own. This is not pantheism, but panentheism." 

The central implication of Bulgakov's panentheism is this: the world is suffused with divinity. The world is intrinsically divine. Everything is spiritual. As Bulgakov says, "Only the divinity of the existent God is, and there is nothing apart from and outside of divinity...The whole power of the world's being belongs to Divinity."

And yet, to the contrast Bulgakov makes above, God's Being is different from our being. Everything is spiritual, but we are rejecting pantheism. The world is not God. But the world, existing within God, participates in the divine life which is its origin and source. 

In Bulgakov's sophiology, Sophia names the divinity of God and is identified with the substance (ousia) of God. As Bulgakov declares, "the divinity of God constitutes the divine Sophia" and that "Sophia is Ousia." Summarizing, Bulgakov says, "The three persons of the Holy Trinity have one life in common, that is, one Ousia, one Sophia." Now, if this raises some Trinitarian questions in your mind, you're not alone. From the start, there have been concerns that Bulgakov's sophiology introduces a fourth person--Sophia--into the Trinity. For his part, Bulgakov denied this, and made attempts to clarify that Sophia is not a person of the Trinity. But for this post, we won't wade into that controversy. For now, when you think about God's "god-ness," God's divinity, God's nature, substance, and ousia, that, for Bulgakov, is "Divine Sophia."

Now, given that God has created the world from within his own being, Sophia now has two aspects. Divine Sophia, again, is God's own divinity and substance. The divinity of the created world, by contrast, is what Bulgakov calls the "creaturely Sophia." Simply, creaturely Sophia is the world. As Bulgakov says, "The created world, then, is none other than the creaturely Sophia." In light of Bulgakov's sophiology, our picture of panentheism can be relabeled this way:

You can think of creaturely Sophia as the divine aspect and ground of the world, our creaturely existence, which continually connects us to God's own divine life, the Divine Sophia. As Bulgakov writes, "the primary foundation of the world is rooted in divine Sophia." Since the world was created "out of nothing," it needs some ontological backing. That backing, that ground and foundation, is God's divine being. Bulgakov: "That Wisdom, which is an eternal reality in God, also provides the foundation for the existence of the world's creatures." 

Sophia, then, is the "link," the "connection," the "tether" between God an the world. Again, this is taking a cue from texts like Proverbs 8, where Sophia says, "When God established the heavens, I was there" and:
when he set a limit for the sea
so that the waters would not violate his command,
when he laid out the foundations of the earth.
I was a skilled craftsman beside him.
I was his delight every day,
always rejoicing before him.
To conclude, the big take home points from this post are as follows. First, there is a contrast between creaturely Sophia and divine Sophia. We reject pantheism. However, because the world exists within God, as the creaturely Sophia, everything is spiritual. As Bulgakov writes, Christian panentheism affirms "the fundamental divine character of the world." 

Even more simply: Because you are real you are connected to God. 

The Sophiology of Sergius Bulgakov: Part 1, Divine Sophia and the Issue of Mediation

Over the summer I spent some time exploring the theology of the Russian Orthodox theologian Sergius Bulgakov (1871 – 1944). Bulgakov's name kept coming up in conversations among theologians I follow, so I read The Bride of the Lamb and Sophia: The Wisdom of God: An Outline of Sophiology. In this series I'd like to share some summative reflections on Bulgakov's theology, what I took to be helpful and interesting.

A couple of notes here at the start of this series.

First, I am no expert in Bulgakov, and there were portions of The Bride of the Lamb that I don't know if I understood. Like most of you, I'm just a guy who is trying to understand things outside of his area of formal education. Consequently, if there are any readers who are experts in Bulgakov who want to jump in at any point to correct or educate, please feel free.

Second, I expect most of you will find Russian Orthodox sophiology to be very weird. This is a stream of Christian theology that will be very alien to most readers. You will likely find this strangeness off-putting. I expect even seeing the word "sophiology" is making some of you say, "This series is not for me. I'm checking out." And if that's your reaction, let me offer this encouragement. Russian Orthodox sophiology is foreign to how many of us think about faith. But the reason I went down this rabbit hole is because this stream of thought has some pretty interesting and helpful insights. So when I'm talking, say, in the early parts of this series about things like "Divine Sophia," don't get overly freaked out. Keep reading past the oddity to get to the interesting implications.

Which brings me to my last encouragement. One of my passions is explaining difficult theological ideas in ways that are simple and accessible. Remember, I'm the guy who described Rudolf Bultmann's notion of demythologization as "Scoobydooification" in Reviving Old Scratch. I delight in using cartoons to explain German theology! My goal in this series isn't to get you lost in the theological weeds. My goal is to share Bulgakov's thought for a general audience. Yes, you'll read the word "sophiology" a lot, but I think I have a knack for explaining this sort of thing, so stick with me.

With those encouragements offered, let's begin.

Most theologians tend to have a big issue or question they are especially focused upon, their "project." Bulgakov's project, in my view, concerns divine mediation. Specifically, how does God relate to creation? What "mediates" this relationship? What is going on when the Absolute makes "contact" with the relative, when Eternity makes "contact" with time, when the Infinite makes "contact" with the finite, when Heaven makes "contact" with earth, when the Divine makes "contact" with the mundane, when the Spiritual makes "contact" with the physical?

Already you might think we are getting lost in the weeds, but the issue of mediation is a question that fills your spiritual life. How does God answer prayer? How do miracles happen? How does the Holy Spirit help me get through the day? Does God control all the events in the world? When it comes to such questions, our imaginations and intuitions are all over the map, but all these questions are really about a single issue: mediation. How does God "connect" to our world?

Most of us imagine that the relationship between God and the world is causal. God "causes" things to happen in the world. God shoves, and the world responds. Just think back over the questions above--prayer, miracles, the activity of the Holy Spirit, providence. I expect as you imagine God's actions in those areas you imagine them as causes, God causing things to happen in the world. 

Orthodox sophiology is going to go in a different direction. I'll have more to say about this in a coming post, but instead of causality Orthodox sophiology is going to argue that mediation happens through Divine Wisdom/Sophia. God doesn't shove the world. Rather, God inhabits the world and we inhabit God through Divine Wisdom.

Your response here is likely, "I don't know what you mean by Divine Wisdom." Let me explain! Let's start by looking at Proverbs 3:

Happy are those who find wisdom
and those who get understanding,
for her income is better than silver
and her revenue better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called happy.

The Lord by wisdom founded the earth;
by understanding he established the heavens;
by his knowledge the deeps broke open,
and the clouds drop down the dew.
A couple of things to note. First, Wisdom is personified here as a woman. Second, Wisdom is how God "founded the earth." Third, through Wisdom God maintains a constant and ongoing relationship with the world. We can "follow her paths" and she is a "tree of life." We could look at other passages in the Old Testament, New Testament, and the Apocrypha (which is a part of the Orthodox canon), but Proverbs 3 is enough to make the point. 

Now, I expect for most of my readers that the female personification of Wisdom in the Bible, and her role in the creation of the world, has been largely ignored. Or if not ignored, then taken to be a bit of Old Testament poetry that has little theological import. But the Russian Orthodox tradition took this feminine image of Divine Sophia and ran with it, building a theological tradition known as sophiology

Again, for Bulgakov, Sophia is how we are to think about divine mediation. Taking a cue from Proverbs 3, God doesn't make contact with creation via causality, but through Wisdom

Now, many readers might see a connection here between the Old Testament vision of Wisdom and the New Testament idea of the Logos, which is associated with Christology (e.g., John 1: "In the beginning was the Word...All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being." See also Col. 1.15-17). However, Orthodox sophiology makes a contrast between Sophia and the Logos. Most strikingly, the Orthodox retain and embrace the feminine personification found in the Old Testament, and don't allow that to be folded into the masculine image of the Son. Second, Orthodox sophiology associates Sophia with all three persons the Trinity and not just the Son. So, when we say "Sophia" we are naming the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit collectively and in their unity. 

Okay, all this gets us started. The take home points are this. First, Bulgakov's sophiology is concerned with divine mediation, how God relates to and interacts with the world. What is the connection between our lives and God? Right out of the gate you should be intrigued, because this issue sits at the heart of so many questions we have, from prayer to miracles to the activity of the Holy Spirit to divine providence. 

Second, according to Orthodox sophiology God relates to and interacts with the world through Wisdom, Divine Sophia. Admittedly, you don't know what that even means or looks like right now, but I hope you're at least a little curious. Just ponder for today the "gap" between you and God. What bridges that gap? What connects you to God? What's the tether? According to Orthodox sophiology, what connects and tethers you to God is Divine Sophia. Put Divine Sophia in the gap connecting you to God, rather than some mechanistic view of causality, and you've taken the first step on the journey in exploring Orthodox sophiology. 

In fact, according to sophiology that we're even imagining a "gap" between God and ourselves goes to a misunderstanding that sophiology is trying to overcome. More on that tomorrow.

Psalm 24

"clean hands and a pure heart"

The poet asks, "Who many ascend the mountain of the Lord?" And the answer comes, "The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not appealed to what is false, and who has not sworn deceitfully." 

In Hunting Magic Eels, I make the argument that the biggest threat to faith in the modern world is what I call "the mystical-to-moral shift." We believe that goodness is the goal of faith, rather than seeking God. This moralization and politicization of faith, given how politics is increasingly becoming an arena of moral identity and performance, instrumentalizes God and the life of faith. God becomes a tool to become good, faith an instrument for a political agenda, church a technique for moral self-improvement. 

Phrased differently, God is perceived as means and goodness as the end. We believe in God, go to church, pray, read our Bibles, follow the Golden Rule all in order to become a good person, increasingly a politically inflected vision of a good person.

This instrumentalizing of faith undermines faith because, as we all know, you can be good without God. And you don't need to believe in God to vote well. There are many non-religious ways to become a good person or subscribe to the proper politics. And if you don't need God, faith or church to be good, well, what's the point? If you can get to the end by other means, God, as a moral or political tool, can be left behind. 

In Psalm 24, all this is reversed. In Psalm 24, goodness is how you get to God. Goodness is the means, not the end. God is the end, the goal, the final destination. Who can ascend the mountain of the Lord? The one with clean hands and a pure heart. As Jesus said, blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God. Or as 1 John says, the one who loves knows God.

God is the goal, and goodness helps me on that journey. Not the other way around. 

Faith, Fidelity, Loyalty and Allegiance

Out at the prison we were in the book of Hebrews and reached the famous Chapter 11, described by some as the "Hall of Fame" of faith.

The chapter concludes with this:

And what more can I say? Time is too short for me to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the raging of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, gained strength in weakness, became mighty in battle, and put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead, raised to life again. Other people were tortured, not accepting release, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Others experienced mockings and scourgings, as well as bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they died by the sword, they wandered about in sheepskins, in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, and mistreated. The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and on mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground.
This is a text that deepens what we mean by "faith." We often assume that the Greek word pistis means something thin, as in "belief." To have "faith" is to "believe."

But pistis (faith) means something much more than "belief." Pistis is better translated as fidelity, faithfulness, loyalty, and allegiance. To have faith means to keep faith -- to hold fast, to endure, to remain, to stay, to never falter or betray. Faith is an inseverable bond. An unbreakable promise. An unshakable commitment. An unwavering loyalty. Faith is courage, endurance, and steely resolve. Faith is the blood of the martyrs.

Another way to think about this, especially faith-as-allegiance, is that, in the Biblical imagination, there is no space for free moral agency. Every space has a Power or a Lord. The only option before you, therefore, is to whom you will swear allegiance. As Bob Dylan sang, "You've gotta serve somebody."

This is why the opposite of faith isn't "unbelief" but idolatry -- betraying your love, breaking your promise, serving another lord. And again, the issue of idolatry isn't here a mental game, a game of "believing" in this or that. Idolatry, says the theologian William Cavanaugh, is less about your metaphysical or ontological beliefs than a lifestyle that betrays your fundamental allegiances:  
Idolatry is not primarily considered to be a metaphysical error, a question of ontology. The key question is not what people believe but how they behave. What constitutes idolatry is usually not the mistaken attribution of certain qualities to material objects, but the attitude of loyalty that people adopt toward created realities ... Idolatry is primarily a way of life, not a metaphysical worldview ... the Bible appears to consider allegiance most commonly to be the decisive factor in separating idolatry from true worship.

Messianism and Apocalypticism in Jewish Thought

Back in August, I saw that my friend David Benjamin Blower was engaging with an influential essay by the Jewish historian of religion Gershom Scholem entitled "Toward an Understanding of the Messianic Idea in Judaism."  I'd never heard of Scholem or his essay, so I read it and have gathered below some summary thoughts and reflections. 

At the start of his essay, Scholem describes three views that characterized Jewish thought regarding the law during the Jewish Diaspora, what he calls the conservative, restorative and utopian views.

The conservative view was the simple and pressing urgency to conserve, preserve, and observe the law under conditions of exile where the Sinaitic Law could not be fully observed (e.g., the temple no longer existed, affecting how one might obey the statutes in a book like Leviticus).  

The other two views were the restorative and utopian, from which Jewish Messianism emerged. According to the restorative view, the coming Messianic age would restore Israel to its former freedom and glory. Israel would be restored to a state where the law could be fully observed again. In the restorative view, an idealized past would become a present reality. In the utopian view, by contrast, the Messianic age ushers in a future that has not yet been realized within history. Something new enters the world.

While different on the surface, Scholem makes the point that, within Jewish thought, the restorative and utopian visions of the Messianic age are really points of emphasis rather than opposed visions. The reason is due to how an idealism informs and is informed by each perspective. In the utopian vision, ideals from the past are projected forward onto an idealized future. In the restorative vision, an idealized past is recovered and realized with utopian expectations. As Scholem observes, "The completely new [utopian] order has elements of the completely old, but even this old order does not consist of the actual past; rather it is a past transformed and transfigured in a dream brightened by the rays of utopianism." You see this same sort of dynamic in how many Christians long for a lost Christendom, idealizing the past and projecting that forward in a utopian political fantasy. 

Having described the idealism of the restorative/utopian Messianic vision, Scholem turns to describe how these Messianic visions relate to Jewish apocalypticism. The issue here is how the Messianic age relates to history. Specifically, does the Messianic age come about from immanent processes within history? Or does the Messianic age require God's intervention from outside of history? 

As described by Scholem, Jewish apocalypticism was "a theory of catastrophe." The Messianic age introduces a discontinuity within history as the present age ends and a radically new age begins. Apocalypticism, Scholem continues, "stresses the revolutionary, cataclysmic element in the transition from every historical present to the Messianic future." During this time of travail, what Isaiah calls "the Day of the Lord," the world experiences the "birth pangs of the Messiah." That idea, also called the "Messianic Woes," should be familiar to readers of the Apostle Paul. 

The central idea of Jewish apocalypticism concerned the transcendent intervention of God in bringing about the end of history. As Scholem describes:
It is precisely the lack of transition between history and the redemption which is always stressed by the prophets and the apocalyptists. The Bible and the apocalyptic writers know of no progress in history leading to the redemption. The redemption is not the product of immanent developments such as what we find in modern Western reinterpretations of Messianism since the Enlightenment where, secularized as the belief in progress, Messianism still displayed unbroken and immense vigor. It is rather transcendence breaking in upon history, an intrusion in which history itself perishes, transformed in its run because it is struck by a beam of light shining into it from an outside source. The constructions of history in which the apocalyptisist (as opposed to the prophets of the Bible) revel having nothing to do with modern conceptions of development or progress, and if there is anything which, in the view of these seers, history deserved, it can only be to perish. The apocalyptists have always cherished a pessimistic view of the world. Their optimism, their hope, is not directed to what history will bring forth, but to that which will arise in its ruin, free at last and undisguised.
As many other scholars along with Scholem have noted, our modern vision of "progress," that history is "going somewhere," is rooted in the Jewish and Christian eschatological imaginations. However, this vision of progress is immanent and disenchanted. Rather than seeing "transcendence breaking in upon history" where history is transformed "because it is struck by a beam of light shining into it from an outside source," the secular and humanistic vision of progress is brought about through purely human agency and work. We will save ourselves. We become our own Messiahs.

This immanentization of the eschaton is understandable given how, as Scholem goes on to note, Messianic expectations have always created political temptations. Instead of waiting upon God, we want to participate in or help speed up the coming of the Messianic age to, in the words of Scholem, "force its coming by one's own activity." But according to the Bible, as Scholem observes, "the Messianic idea is nowhere made dependent upon human activity." 

And yet, Messianic movements, both Jewish and Christian, frequently overstep their bounds here, grasping at the levers of history to bring out the end of days. As Scholem describes, "Ever and again the revolutionary opinion is that this attitude [that God alone brings about the end of history] deserves to be overrun breaks through in the Messianic actions of individuals or entire movements. This is the Messianic activism in which utopianism becomes the lever by which to establish the Messianic kingdom." Messianic hope fuels a desire for a better world, and those utopian desires create what Yoder called "revolutionary impatience." Instead of waiting on God in hope, utopian political revolutions, what Scholem here calls "Messianic activism," step in to take control of history in the name of God. What we see here is how Jewish and Christian visions of apocalypticism can converge upon secular visions of political revolution, an immanentization of the Kingdom of God.

At this point, Scholem makes some interesting comments about how Jewish and Christian apocalypticism influenced each other. Scholem argues that various streams of Christianity, especially those taken with millennialism, have been tempted by "Messianic activism," the desire to create a political Kingdom of God within history. Current visions of Christian nationalism are an example of just such "Messianic activism." By contrast, Scholem contends that, within Judaism, "this activism remains singular and strangely powerless precisely because it is aware of the radical difference between the unredeemed world of history and that of the Messianic redemption..." That is to say, Jewish apocalpyticism knows it must wait upon God for the redemption of history, whereas many Christians become politically impatient. I do wonder, though, how Scholem might want to revisit this clean contrast in light of the history of Zionism and the modern state of Israel. 

For its part, if streams of Christianity were politicized by Judaism, streams of Judaism were spiritualized by Christianity. In Judaism the "mystical aspect of the interiorization of the Messianic idea" began to take root, the Kingdom of God less a political revolution than a matter of spiritual transformation. We see this mystical vision developed in Jewish Kabbalah. 

After making these observations, Scholem turns to talk about tensions between the restorative and utopian visions of Jewish Messianism, and how those have affected Jewish thinking about the law. Recall, the contrast here is a vision of restoring an idealized past or looking forward to something wholly new. In the restorative vision, the law would, during the Messianic age, be able to be fully observed and practiced. But in the utopian view, a new reality emerges, and it stands to reason that parts of the law would no longer be needed under the new conditions of the Messianic age. Prior restrictions under the law, necessary within history, would give way to freedom. According to Scholem, this Messianic hope, the law giving way to freedom, introduced into Jewish thought an "anarchic element" along with "antinomian potentialities." Whenever and wherever Messianic hopes begin to break into history, old restrictions and prohibitions are thrown off in anticipation of a soon-to-be realized Messianic liberty. Scholem mentions the Apostle Paul here as an example of one who, as a Messianic Jew, most definitely struck his Jewish contemporaries as anarchical and antinomian. 

Scholem here turns to Jewish thinkers who, in the 19th and 20th centuries, wanted to shut down the disruptive aspects of Messianic expectations by marginalizing the role of apocalypticism in Jewish thought. Their goal was to create a "purified and rational Judaism." According to Scholem, the "rationalism of the Jewish and European Enlightenment subjected the Messianic idea to an ever advancing secularization...Messianism became tied up with the idea of the eternal progress and infinite task of humanity perfecting itself." According to this rationalistic vision of Judaism, apocalypticism was "meaningless, empty nonsense." 

Scholem takes a close look at Maimonides as an example of this rationalistic development. Seeking to contain the disruptive elements continuously being introduced into Judaism by apocalyptic fever dreams, Maimonides argued that the messianic age would be a wholly immanent phenomenon, requiring no transcendent intervention from God. As summarized by Scholem, according Maimonides "The Messiah must prove his identity to justified skeptics not by cosmic signs and miracles, but by historical success. Nothing in any supernatural constitution of his guarantees his success and makes it possible to recognize him with certainty...Only contemplation of the Torah and the knowledge of God within a world that otherwise operates entirely according to natural laws remains." In a word, apocalypticism is wholly ruled out. The Messianic age occurs immanently as developmental progress, though guided by the Torah, within history. In contrast to apocalyptic Messianism, Scholem describes this vision as a "rationalistic Messianism." 

Having traced the strains of Jewish Messianism and apocalypticism, Scholem ends his essay with some reflections upon "the price demanded by Messianism." 

Specifically, while the Messianic idea was a gift of the Jewish people, it was offered during the time of her exile when she was "unprepared to come forward onto the plane of world history." Messianism, thus, created some emotional cross-currents. On the one hand, during the exile the Messianic idea gave the Jewish people "consolation and hope." But on the other hand, these same hopes clashed with the grim realities of Jewish life in the Diaspora. Messianic expectations create an emotional squeeze. As Scholem observes and expresses a concern about this squeeze:  
There is something grand about living in hope, but at the same time there is something profoundly unreal about it. It diminishes the singular worth of the individual, and he can never fulfill himself, because the incompleteness of his endeavors eliminates precisely what constitutes its highest value. Thus in Judaism the Messianic idea has compelled a life lived in deferment, in which nothing can be done definitively, nothing can be irrevocably accomplished. One might say, perhaps, the Messianic idea is the real anti-existentialist idea. Precisely understood, there is nothing concrete which can be accomplished by the unredeemed. This makes for the greatness of Messianism, but also for its constitutional weakness.
One hears echos of Tolkien here, when he described history as "the long defeat," where nothing can be done definitely or irrevocably accomplished, where one must wait in hope upon God's eucatastrophic action. Hope sustains, but it can also produce passivity if nothing definitely can be accomplished by us in this world. There is also, here, the Christian belief that we live "between the times," a season of expectant groaning where hope is mixed with lament. 

And so, we toggle back and forth. Consolation and hope in the face of a life lived in deferment sits in tension with the revolutionary impatience of "Messianic activism," the temptation to take history into our own hands. These are the cross-currents of apocalyptic expectation. As Scholem says, in this life Messianic hope "never finds true release" yet "never burns itself out."