Category Archives: Theology

Taking off the Mask: Love, Truth, and Communion

by Aristotle Papanikolaou

When we first meet someone, we do not immediately expose to them our deepest secrets, the events in our lives that we are most afraid to reveal, which could include our own actions, something that has been done to us, or something that has happened to which we are indirectly related. We would not reveal to them certain truths, such as if we had killed someone in a car accident, regardless of who was at fault; or if we had been raped; or if we had an alcoholic uncle.  Although we may reveal some truthful aspects of our lives, such as our names, where we live, or where we work, for the most part we are always presenting ourselves to strangers, to our family members, to our friends, and even to our self, with masks on. The mask protects us from the penetrating objectifying gaze of the other; it keeps the other from knowing who we are; it allows us to control the image that we hope to project onto the world, and to ourselves.

In the fallen world, life is one big masquerade party where we parade ourselves in “garments of skin.” And, yet, the mask cannot always protect us from the projections that others place upon us, or that we place on ourselves. Continue reading

On the Toll Houses Again: A Byzantinist’s Thoughts

by Eirini Afentoulidou

David Bentley Hart’s recent article on the toll houses is very welcome in that the discussion has turned away from refuting the occasional “pro-toller” to a scholarly and detached examination of texts and contexts and the theological implications of their worldview. I do not intend to explain that the notion of the aerial toll houses has never been the official dogma of the Orthodox Church, as this has been demonstrated in other publications, notably by Stephen Shoemaker on Public Orthodoxy (although I often have to explain this to colleagues who are not acquainted with how theological authority worked in Byzantine Christianity). References to the toll houses are found exclusively in pastoral/edifying texts, usually side-by-side with other, rival notions of posthumous judgment. There was a consensus among the theologically educated, as there is now, that attempts to speak about afterlife are figurative, fragmentary and not conclusive – although most contemporary Christians would not agree with their pre-modern co-religionists on the necessity of constantly keeping the horrors of the judgment in mind as a means to avoid doing evil. Yet, as a Byzantinist, I am fascinated by the texts on the aerial toll houses and wish to share some observations regarding two points: the democratization and the individuation of judgment that distinguish these texts from notions on posthumous judgment found in other Late Antique and Byzantine texts. Continue reading

Seraphim Rose and David Bentley Hart Two Orthodox Responses to Modernity

by Christopher Howell

One might not expect Seraphim Rose and David Bentley Hart to agree on much, but they do share one crucial perspective: that modernity is essentially nihilistic. However, while their diagnoses of modernity may be similar, their prescriptions are diametrically opposed. To stem the tide of modernity’s nihilistic encroachments, Rose rejected ecumenism as a modernist heresy, and he later promoted a patristic style of young Earth creationism against evolutionary biology. Hart, on the other hand, promotes instead ecumenical unity and the importance of creation as a philosophical and theological doctrine, not a historical event per se, that can be harmonized with science (provided science is rescued from its tendency to reductionism). Such distinct responses highlight the degree of variability within the American subspecies of Eastern Orthodoxy.

In Rose’s view, nihilism is the “root of the revolution of the modern age,” and this nihilism is not just a lack of faith but rather an active belief in nothingness: “No man…lives without a god,” and the god of the nihilist is “nihil, nothingness itself” (Rose 2001, 68-70). It begins with the rejection of God but manifests itself in four modern schools of thought: liberalism, realism, vitalism, and destruction. His clearest critique is on liberalism, which he describes as a more urbane nihilism—tempting, but ultimately flawed, because it cannot evade its own fundamental problem: its inability to justify its own existence (Rose 2001, 33). Likewise, Hart has written that the modern predicament is to “believe in nothing,” which he clarifies is not a faith in just anything, but rather “in the nothing, or in nothingness as such” (Hart 2009, 1-2). Hart shares Rose’s view that contemporary political liberalism is a “soporific nihilism,” but his discussion traces a different intellectual genealogy (Hart 2017, 323). Continue reading

Nor Height Nor Depth: On the Toll Houses

by David Bentley Hart

Among a great many Orthodox scholars in the academic world (especially when they gather together in hushed colloquy among the shadows and feel at liberty to speak strictly entre eux) it is often taken as depressing evidence of how radically the public intellectual culture of Orthodoxy in America has degenerated in recent years—how, that is, it has declined from the urbane, scholarly, perhaps slightly Mandarin sophistication of the generation of Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff to the fundamentalist, doctrinaire, and yet deeply uneducated primitivism promoted principally by former Evangelicals in the John Whiteford mold—than the increasing respectability of the myth of the aerial toll houses. At one time, the notion that every soul, once it has departed this world, is conducted by angels through a gauntlet of twenty stations situated in the atmosphere above, in each of which it is arraigned by demonic prosecutors for sins committed in life, and from which it may proceed onward toward heaven only if it can produce a compensatory “toll” of evidence of good deeds (for want of which, it will be dragged down to hell), was at most a fragment of quaint folklore, found in this country only among marginal eccentrics, like Seraphim Rose. After all, it seems like such an embarrassingly puerile picture of things; if nothing else, it obviously hearkens back to ages in which the physical universe and the spiritual order of reality were more or less indistinguishable from one another, when it still seemed natural to think of God’s heaven as being literally situated beyond the sphere of the fixed stars, far above the planetary heavens and the sublunary aerial region of mutability, and to imagine the departed soul’s passage from this life into God’s eternity as in some sense involving the traversal of a real spatial interval between the earth and the empyrean.

One can be distracted by the cosmological imagery, however. It may well be patently absurd to confuse the soul’s journey to God with an actual cosmic itinerary—and that through a Ptolemaic universe—but no doubt all of that could, in a pinch, be allegorized away without any real impairment to the essential spiritual narrative. Certainly we do not reject the spiritual teachings of ancient and mediaeval Christians simply because their imaginations were confined to a cosmos in which an absolute qualitative division between physical and spiritual reality did not yet exist. The authors of the New Testament inhabited a reality in which a clear separation between the cosmological and the metaphysical, much less between the natural and the supernatural, had not as yet taken shape in anyone’s mind. For them, Christ’s descent into this world was at once a movement from transcendence into immanence, but also a movement through space from the unchanging divine aeon or realm above the heavens, down through the concentric spheres of the planetary and lunar heavens, into the realm of generation, alteration, and decay. Conversely, our ascent to God in and through Christ was understood as at once a sacramental, mystical, and gracious passage from death to new life, but also an ascent in and with Christ through the encircling heavens into God’s eternity above. Both Christ and those saved by him, in this vision of things, traverse the spiritual and moral chasm of estrangement between God’s empyrean and this cosmos, but also (in some sense) the actual physical interval between them. Or, at any rate, so it was believed.

Nevertheless—and this is crucial—Christians also believed that those intervening heavens, in the wake of Christ’s conquest of the hostile powers reigning over them and governing the world below, will no longer be barriers between God’s heaven and the world of the Age to come. And herein lies the great problem. The true scandal of the toll houses teaching is not the antique cosmology it shares with, say, the Apostle Paul. It is, rather, that the very notion of such barriers to the soul’s ascent constitutes nothing less than a contradiction of the entire narrative of salvation that Paul actually proclaimed. Continue reading