Your Online Cup of Tea
Part of the problem that people have with the sacramental worldview is that they believe we are creating an intermediary between us and God. Rather, pure “spirituality” is “direct” contact by prayer. This is partly due to a lack of understanding (or rather ignorance of) the Orthodox notion of divine energies or uncreated grace. Without such, it is not difficult to see how some people relegate all pure interaction with God to the realm of the immaterial. Accessible in a relational way only properly to the mind. The following is a quote which sparked a conversation on this very topic. I think it shows some of the implications behind certain objections. As well as why they actually have a very limiting view of God’s interaction with humanity.
“The doctrine of uncreated grace, which was first adumbrated by the Cappadocians, was a solution to the problem of how God could remain utterly transcendent and yet at the same time be active in an intimate way in the material world. For the iconophiles God, who is holy by nature, is present as a deifying energy in every human saint and as a sanctifying energy in the saint’s image. Veneration by the faithful ascends through the icon of the saint or of Christ to the prototype; sanctifying grace descends through the icon to the venerator. For the iconoclasts the fundamental problem concerning the veneration of icons was the idea of participation in the divine energies. They held that the immense gulf between the material and the spiritual, the created and the uncreated, could not be bridged by any sanctified matter apart from the Eucharistic body of Christ. This suggests that they could not admit a real distinction between divine essence and divine energy” – Henry Chadwick’s Foreword to “Images of the Divine – The Theology of Icons at the 7th Ecumenical Council” by Ambrosios Giakalis
Guy: Is the author saying that grace comes through the icon? If so, oh my…
Me: Yes. We are sacramental after all. It’s no weirder than the bones of Elijah or the tissue of Peter or the spit of Christ or the vibrations of sound in speech bringing with them the power of God.
Guy: And now we can have direct access to the LORD without the need of any kind of intermediaries, either personal or material. Know you don’t pick up the phone nor send an email, but rather can have a direct talk with YHWH.
Me: It’s not either/or. Plus we are not Gnostics. God isn’t here to just relate mentally or apart from our physicality. But with the entirety of our being. Which includes the material. This relationship is not one primarily of propositional knowledge or me saying a few words here and then. But complete union. Which is demonstrated by the transfiguration and the and resurrection of Christ. The sacraments of the Church as participating in Christ, anticipate the New Heavens and New Earth where matter and spirit work as one, because Christ is the beginning of the New Creation.
You actually have it in reverse. God is not so far that we need physical intermediaries. He is so close that even in the physical we can connect with Him. Creation and God are not opposed. Rather it is sin that brings about the disunity of matter and spirit, which the incarnation and resurrection resolved.
We are connecting directly with God through these things because God through His divine energies is present in physicality. The point of prayer is union. Which isn’t limited only to the spirit but to the body too. So one is praying to achieve union in soul and via materiality *and* prayer uniting our bodies to God’s sanctifying power.
The problem is you see it as 1) an either/or situation and 2) a relationship with God is primarily mental, that is why the body has no place in it for you. Prayer has as its end union of the entire being with God, as such it includes but transcends speech and mental contemplation. You call it more direct access but it is really a relation with your ideas of God, mental abstractions. If however prayer is about actual participation in God and not a mere relation with your ideas about God that you get during prayer or direct your thoughts to during prayer, then there is nothing wrong or less relational about the fact that we interact with Him through matter or with our bodies. Unless you wish to say God cannot indwell and work through matter or He has no interest in such. Both of which are denied by Biblical history or the narrative of scripture which ends in a glorified/deified creation.
Your hang up about “through” as opposed to “direct” is actually a false one. By saying you have relations through direct prayer as means of grace as opposed to through the body, you are saying God graces only comes by the mediation of thoughts. That is your thoughts formulated in prayer, and thoughts that arise during prayer or reading your Bible. But God is not a thought or idea. So even in that instance it is not “direct” access but mediated, although through an immaterial means. Unless you wish to say thoughts don’t actually exist so that there is no intermediary. But if man has an immaterial nature and God responding through immaterial means isn’t destroying the directness of such a relationship, then why is it a problem that man being a physical being, God can’t work through it without destroying the directness of the relationship? If we were only spiritual and God decided to work through a material means, then your objection would be valid. But if I am physical and God enters into physicality to unite with me, there isn’t then a block between me and God, but He is reaching me just as I am.
However we do not think that a mental intermediary is as direct a relationship as one can get. Rather an actual an ontological union of God with our spirit and body which we do not have to *think up*. That direct experience of God is what glorifies the soul and body as is we see in the transfiguration. That naked and direct union with God is the goal of all prayer. And your problem is either you believe God cannot ultimately unite with and deify materiality, which is to deny incarnation and resurrection or you believe God has no desire to do so. Both of which are false.
Guy: Are you saying GOD is *now* materially present? There is a reason Hebrews used a very particular definition of faith. Seems to me, that you need something material to *trigger* your faith. But perhaps I am missing something with the EO.
Me: God is present in all things by his divine energies. Things only exist by their participation in such. And far from being a crutch, sacraments are actually a real test of faith. As a former evangelical where my relationship with God was primarily a mental one, the sacramental worldview makes me refocus and realises that God is more than just at work in my head. But present in a mind independent fashion. And wants a union that transcends a mere moral union, where our wills are aligned. The sacraments have been a real test of faith and trial because it forces me to stop treating God like thought I have access to my head, but a distinct person at work *out there*. His presence not being something that can be emotionally whipped up but a reality which I need to wait upon someone who isn’t living in my head to give me. The sacraments and icons force me to constantly face the reality that behind this physical thing is a reality my senses cannot detect. That God is really present. That there is a whole other dimension at work. That this bread and wine are far more than they appear. If anything this doesn’t make faith easier, it makes it harder. It’s all nice and dandy to say this bread is symbolic of some event that happened years ago which you believe happened. It is completely different to be faced with that same bread and be told “This is the body of Christ.” The question is always *now* do I really believe *this*? That is hard. That is truly believing what we have not seen.
Guy: If you think worship is mere mental and emotional stuff, you got it wrong my friend. Which is actually the reason ex-protestants give for converting to Orthodoxy. I *feel* like in heaven, etc, etc.
In the other hand, I have no doubt the woman at the well understood what Jesus meant by “In Spirit and in truth”.
True faith is not triggered by physical means, true faith comes by the Spirit. I don’t need physicality to remind me of GOD and his importance on my life. Perhaps it is for you. But it is certainly not a necessary condition as true worship is what Jesus told to the woman at the well.
Me: I don’t think worship is just that. You have misunderstood what I said.
I am showing that you either have a view of worship/prayer which is just that and as such works through mental intermediaries only, which puts you in the same boat as those saying God works through physicality in respect to intermediaries.
Or like us you deny such and admit the goal/end of prayer and worship is an actual union in which case there is no issue with physicality unless you say God cannot commune with matter or does not want to.
In fact, the Orthodox who holds that grace comes icons, has less of an intermediary than the one who says it comes through reading and hearing the Word, to the exclusion of icons (ignoring for the moment that sound is material). By reading and hearing, grace and illumination are coming via the medium of thought. But God is not a thought. And neither is the human receiving the grace. Yes they have an immaterial aspect to them, but immaterial does not of necessity mean abstract. So there is always in that case a medium between God and the person. Even though God works through it. But the one who receives grace from the icon, is receiving from matter. And they themselves are matter. This means there is a more direct contact with grace. The possibility of God working through the icon shows the possibility of an immediate union with me in all that I am. Not just spirit, but matter. Matter matters, and that’s the spirit of the incarnation.
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