Christian Existence and Modern Existence. 1. The problem of Science

Modern Existence and Christian Existence
1. The problem with Science

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. 1 John 1:1-4

‘He [Adam] moved contrary to his nature, madly (ανοητ0ς) and of his own initiative, making a bad use of the natural faculty which had been entrusted to him in his constitution with an eye to the unification of what was separated, so as rather to separate things united’ Maximos the Confessor. Quoted in ‘Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses’ Jean-Claud Larchet Volume I, p65

“We murder to dissect” William Wordsworth ‘The tables turned’

It needs to be said at the outset that my aim here is not to ‘have a go at science’ Rather to reveal the changes in the Church which led to it as a way of Knowing the World. I am very aware that contemporary Science is waking up to the interconnectedness of things – from Quantum Physics to Neurobiology. However in a world created by the privilege given to the Scientific way of Knowing, and it is all but total – ultimately our humanity is lost. For we are only human in relation to God, and all that is. Science starts from the assumption that the World might be known apart from God – further it is a way of knowing is attractive to us because of its tendency rooted in the human, to Power over that which is, Rather than Love for . . .


I had a mind to call this series ‘Things fall apart . . .’ picking on a line from WB Yeats poem ‘The second coming.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Yeats is writing here at the end of the First World War, but his words if anything have yet more powerful echoes and resonances in the world in which we live, or rather, I would say the Culture, the Times . . . things fall apart, the Centre cannot hold – and of course this seems to be as true of the Church as of the World, and I would suggest, the two are not unrelated . . . Jesus says to his church ‘You are the salt of the earth . . . you are the light of the world’ If there is no salt or light . . .

Christian faith is at its core integrative. To walk in the light of Christ is to become whole, integrated. ‘God was in Christ reconciling the World to himself’ 2 Cor 5:19. This is the path of our healing. The Person so being healed, integrated, becomes a source of Integration for that over which they have dominion, If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.  Romans 5:17 their being inextricably woven into all that is in Christ.  ‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together’  Col 1:15-17
That ‘things fall apart’ – that all around us and more especially within us is dis-integration [I recall with horror the recognition of the Horcrux in Harry Potter – saving a life by breaking it into parts . . .] can only mean that the Christian Existence has been largely abandoned in our day, even amongst those who profess otherwise. We may well ask ‘whatever happened to any practical understanding of how we might ‘grow up into our salvation (healing)’?

This disintegration is closely associated with the Scientific outlook – it is its fruit, but that Outlook is itself not a thing which sprang out of nowhere but is itself the fruit of a Root distortion of the Christian faith which ushered in what we now call ‘the Modern World’.

That said, whilst we will in these early weeks be concerned with the way in which things Have fallen apart, my longer aim is rather the Christian view of what is, a view summed up in a word which recurs several times in the New Testament – that is Koinonia – which might be taken to express a woven togetherness of things. What is more this Koinonia expresses a powerful HOPE for Existence made known to us in the Incarnation, the Life Death and Resurrection of a first century Palestinian Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. And that this Koinonia is made known in the Church, most clearly Revealed in the Eucharist. ‘The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a Koinonia in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? 17Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.’ A truly Cosmic Koinonia is the End of all things in Christ – and in a few weeks time we shall return here, but first . . .


At the outset I’d like to state that my thesis is that the Modern World is ‘a culture of things in separation’, ‘things apart’ of ‘disintegration’ — e.g we are all too aware, not only as Christians of a culture of Individualism – but there is much more; and that our cultures many disquiets are precisely due to these manifold separations, but more, that it was changes in the Church, specifically in our Western tradition which I dare to suggest were the cause of Modern Society, and furthermore and highly ironically as such a view of things is antithetical to Christian existence in the world. Which is perhaps why Modern Western Christianity seems so helpless and ‘irrelevant’ in the face of our existence today. ‘Having the form of godliness but lacking its power’  2Tim 3:5
A hapless parent looking on aghast at its errant child wondering what on earth it has done wrong.

If at the heart of Christian Faith is Salvation, The Integration – the God Man – Jesus of Nazareth – why is a world which Western Christianity has given rise to, so profoundly inhuman, for so it unquestionably is. Except Western Christianity which was for a period so dominant and dominating has turned ‘faith’ into something that it is not.

The Essence of disintegration, its fruit is Violence. The argument for non-violence as essential to the Christian life is rooted profoundly in Integration. Only in disintegration can Violence be known.

As Wordsworth puts it ‘We murder to dissect.’ Like a small enquiring child we have a tendency to ‘take things apart, or better break things apart to see how they work’ but then sit amongst the ruins knowing not how to restore them.

We live in an era of unparalleled Violence, to which we have become so accustomed to that apart from a vague unease, we barely notice it. The monk Thomas Merton writing back in the 1960s says ‘There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.’ Conjectures of a Guilty bystander. 1965. Thus quote from 2014 ed. p81 Non Violence – Peace. The capacity for Peace destroyed by the Violence of Activism

We are all of course accustomed to ‘busyness’ in one form or another. We take the words of Jesus ‘Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden . . . and I will give your rest to be little more than a spiritual gap in the day of our ‘important business’, and so we succumb to Violence. I recall sitting on some church committee or another where every half hour there was a two minute ‘pause for prayer’ It reminded me of that most violent of motor sports, Formula 1. A two minute penalty in the pit lane – engines running. Conversation almost inevitably carried on as if nothing had happened . . . It is a matter of some wry reflection on my part that the one text which whenever I preach on it, always provokes a response is the story of Martha and Mary.

Consider the Violence of the motor car. of how it has contributed to the tearing of the fabric of community as we find ourselves able to go far and wide – of how it systematically creates Violence in our world through its destruction of the created order and the covering in asphalt of everything, ‘You pave paradise, put up a parking lot’ As Joni Mitchell puts it. Of how their manufacture excavate and poison the place of their ‘construction’

Or – Violence from another not unrelated angle – the daily energy release from the combustion of oil is equivalent to 6000 Nagasaki atomic bombs, or two of the largest atomic explosions ever, the 50MT Tsar bomb detonated over Northern Russia in 1961. The total energy release from all fossil fuel combustion, is equivalent to the Krakatoa volcanic eruption happening almost on a daily basis, and fossil fuel energy release is only two thirds of the energy released on a daily basis. Energy accumulated over ages unimaginable to we mortals of three score and ten, released as it were in an instant . . . things fall apart.

Of course to suggest that the collapse of social structures, the plant and animal kingdom, and indeed the biosphere, which we are living through in what some writers have called ‘the great acceleration’ (more than half of all concrete ever produced has been made in the last 25 years) might seem absurd. Yes we can make a connection between this energy release and climate collapse, and perhaps link that to ‘the sixth great extinction’ as non human species disappear like water flooding from a ruptured dam, but human social structures?

This would not be a difficult idea to those of earlier ages, but to we moderns such thinking is to say the least a little odd, cranky or just down right laughable. But that is I suggest because the Modern person can give no account of the human or indeed of ‘existence itself’. Of what in its deepest essence it is to be a man or a woman – a human being. Before any Revolution it would be wise to ask – ‘but what exactly do we mean by ‘human’?? It almost goes without saying that we have no answer to this – indeed we do not even consider the question.
And lacking such an account any manner of violence is not only possible but unleashed upon the world, in the name of this or that ideology, Communism, Fascism. We cower at the thought of the Holocaust, 6 million Jews – or the 20 million murdered by Stalin, or the many millions who died under the great leap forward,  . . . or that great ‘god’ of our age, ’convenience’ for we have become accommodated to as many deaths of unborn children every year, let alone the untold misery of our consumer lifestyles, so called. How many die on the altar of convenience? No one it seems is all that troubled to ask the question of this smiling faced idol

Yet I want to suggest that it was Western Christianity which gave birth to this modern culture, and which is dying as a result, as is perhaps the entire Creation. For Church and Creation are woven together

We need a place to start . . . all accounts of Human existence and its meaning need as it were a place from which to start – so let us for a moment consider a picture of human existence.

[Picture of the ‘Crucified Man’] Vertical – Earth to heaven: Horizontal – Neighbour to Neighbour

We proclaim Christ, and him crucified . . . But what does it mean to proclaim Christ crucified?

The theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote a book a few years ago called ’The Crucified God’ – it is a very important work on the centrality of the Cross when considering human suffering and God’s response. I would like to suggest that we do not forget that Jesus is also ‘The Crucified Man’ and that as such he is paradigmatic for what it truly means to be human – not disconnected but utterly woven in, nailed into place between heaven and Earth, and between neighbour and neighbour, even if the neighbours are thieves.
Modernity and its reliance on scientific understandings has taken the man down from the Cross, disconnecting us, unweaving us from the Koinonia of Existence Life itself which can only be known in relation to a profound Love of God for his Creation and our Love for one another – subjects on which ‘science’ has nothing to say – but we hear the world in science – particularly as English speakers which is the most ‘scientific’ language to date

But just how has this happened? What happened in the Church? How did the Church create ‘Science’ as we know it and why is this such a problem for us?

Sub thesis
What we do in the Church is of inconceivable significance – and when we tamper with things ‘we do not know what we are doing’ – we can only give humble and hearty thanks every moment of our lives that from the Cross Jesus prays ‘Father forgive them for they do now know what they do . . .’

I would like to argue here that when Pope Leo IX got out of the wrong side of bed one day in the C11, perhaps he stood on that lost nail? – he set in process a chain of events which have led to our ecological peril and ‘things fall[ing] apart . . . This of course seems like an absurd claim – but I suggest that this is because we are so trained by our Modern world in seeing things in a particular way – through a lens of disconnection, that we do not see how things are woven together. Or to use the language of the Scriptures,we do not Behold!

We will all have heard the following poem

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

So what of that medieval Pope (the nail in the poem if you like – the start of a chain of consequences). . . of course the very words medieval pope suggest to us Moderns a problem 🙂 [not fairly I hold, but thats another question] A controversy in the church had been long brewing but it was thought had finally been put to bed – it was a controversy that showed up a widening fracture between the Church in Rome, and the Church in the East, or more precisely Churches – for Pope Leo IX decided of his own free will, as THE Pope, to reinsert a line in the creed which the Eastern Churches could not agree to. Previously within the Church the prevailing idea had been that controversies would only be decided by Councils of the whole Church – sitting together to come to a mind on a matter – dealing with the difficulties of a truly Koinonia, or woven together existence, but for whatever reason, lost in the mists of time Rome finally decided there was no point being first amongst equals – after all this business of having to agree stuff, of waiting for the Spirit to illumine the hearts and minds that The Church might have the mind of Christ was SO tedious . . . Why not Just Be First and decide for yourself?? {Perhaps we can discern here the antithesis of the group of Grace, humility, that is Pride.

And so the Great Schism happened. It is interesting that in the West we have until fairly recently forgotten The Great Schism. I was intrigued by one of Bishop Kelvin’s blog posts written before I came here – about ‘Why the Church is in the state it is in’ He listed many reasons people gave, some of them historic. He included the Constantinian settlement – and of course who can forget The Reformation, before dismissing all of them. As I read I found myself asking, ‘but what about The Great Schism’? For it was not on the list – yet I suggest it is the root of our difficulties – after all if the Unity of the Church is the thing Jesus prays for, such a monumental split is of some ‘material’ significance? Of course we as Protestant Christians of a sort have grown so used to these things we barely give it a moments thought, so trained are we by the water we swim in. we have enough denominations to have one each . . .

I say ‘material’ significance most deliberately. For at the heart of our faith is The Incarnation – the weaving together of heaven and Earth, of matter and the Spirit of God in Jesus Christ. The focus of this is of course the Eucharist. We might say therefore that everything Matters. If the Body of Christ – which holds everything together – is divided, then perhaps things fall apart – IF that is we accept a different understanding of things – one which pertained well into the middle ages. That Spiritual and material were woven together and one could not treat them in isolation. True Sacramental existence.

Shortly after Rome had in effect declared a form of UDI, certain things started to happen in the West. Rapidly there came to a head the issue of the nature of the Eucharist and the doctrine of Transubstantiation quickly became (Western) Church teaching. If the body of Christ The Church, is a profound, if perhaps not The Profound heart of all human existence, and The Eucharist is the the physico-spiritual expression of that, then fiddling around with the Eucharist is perhaps NOT ‘a good idea’ . . . How interesting that no sooner has the Unity of the Church been so disturbed, than the heart of the worship of the Church begins to change . . . Things fall apart . . . and so to Science and why as Christians we DO have a problem with it, but why in particular ‘a Scientific world view’ leads largely to an impoverishment of our faith . . .

The Great Schism – and it is much much more than the loss of a nail, set in course a train of events. If the Church is divided, then the woven togetherness of the Creation is at best under threat – that Koinonia, and events transpired or conspired to lead us down a path we had not thought before to follow – indeed within a very short space in time, The Church in the West was thinking previously unthinkable thoughts . . . and in that regard I introduce another character to the play – William of Ockham. In the Thirteenth century this fransiscan monk (surprisingly given our present thoughts about St Francis) suggested something utterly obvious to us, but a highly novel thought at the time. Put another way he created a set of glasses which distorted our view of the world and which we have worn since our birth – we always forget we are wearing glasses 🙂

Ockham suggested, contrary to all the previous thought of a thousand years of church tradition, that things were discrete and could be known in their totality by observing them. Now its really important to recognise that Ockham IS a theologian! He is not a medieval Richard Dawkins, out to get Christian faith. He’s grappling with ideas from within Christian culture and The Church. In large part because at this point in the West there wasn’t anything or anywhere else!
As all theologians were at that time, Ockham was what we call a natural scientist. He was looking into the ‘nature’ of things, and at a stroke radically changed the way we look at the world. [It must be said that for at least a hundred years his ideas were only entertained in incredibly high brow circles, but the rise of the modern University saw them spread like wild fire]

Now HERE is the thing. IF as I suggest Reality is Koinonia – a woven togetherness by which we cannot know anything except in relation to everything else – we cannot know or decide on the truth of something unless we understand the whole, then the World is Mystery to us.
But if we decide that there is no Essential relationship between things – then Ockham made the world in a sense a very much easier place to live. Indeed he is famous for ‘Ockham’s rasor’ The idea that the simplest explanation is the right one . . . that idea of course is essentially a biblical fundamentalist trope also – ‘the plain meaning is the main meaning’ Biblical fundamentalists are not at all medieval, they are thoroughly modern.]

Ockham in effect argued that this was not the case, that things might be known we might say ‘in and of themselves’ (BTW this thought also leads us to the modern idea of the self) This was a disastrous step.    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, – and I suggest if we might move from the nail of Pope Leo and the Schism, Ockham is the horseshoe. Now people were persuaded – we might say ‘set free’, but that is a difficult concept – persuaded that they might look at the world as a collection of objects – lacking in any essential [sic] relationship . . . we are introduced the world of objects and the objective observer. This was a double disaster for the nature of our existence.

Firstly it opened the door to our separation from one another – but more radically, also from God and Creation.

In our Accompanying book, ‘Everywhere present’ Father Stephen Freeman lays the blame for the ‘Two story universe hypothesis’ which we have all grown up with, at the door of of the C17 european religious wars – I suggest he’s missed the loss of the nail, the horseshoe, the rider and the message and moved straight to the loss of the battle 🙂 However if you want to find a philosophical shift, a change in the world of ideas which led to the religious wars – Ockham and his ‘nominalist’ philosophy is a better candidate and here comes the problem with science

Previous to this point things could not be understood on their own, in isolation, only in Participation or Koinonia. And that also meant the relation also of the Creation and the Creator – of Life and the Life Giver . . . The fallout from Ockham’s thought was this – that Creation might be known apart from the Creator, and that the human might also be known, AND that the human might be known apart from the Creation also . . . We shall come in a few weeks time to the Modern loss of the Human, but Ockham’s thought sets the train in motion . . . and sets up the conditions for what we call ‘science’

Now science is an interesting word – what does it mean? Answer ‘Knowledge’ The word science was not unknown before Ockham of course. Knowledge was important – and Theology was the Queen of Sciences, why? Because she pondered the mystery of our existence in the light of the knowledge of God. Bound up, as was Ockham in daily, and annual cycles of prayer and devotion. Theology said, to truly know anything or anyone, you must first know that all existence is bound up in God, made known to us in Jesus Christ, the Koinonia of Heaven and Earth . . . So prayer and worship was central.
BUT Now Ockham’s idea suggested something unheard of and in retrospect truly terrible [lit.] That one might as it were ‘park’ God here, and consider Creation (or as it became known ‘nature’ – point to which we shall return) over there. In other words to use picture language – we might stand in the gap between the discrete objects ‘God’ and ‘Nature’ and with our back to God look at nature to try to understand it. [And note the change of language. Creation is understood in relation to the Creator. But ‘Nature’ is understood in separation. This shift is the invention of ‘Nature’ – or as we now call it emphasising our distance from it ‘The Environment’]
Remember Ockham had said that things could be known in and of themselves. Yet this is an illusion. However with Science it is a very Power Full illusion [sic] Any observation involves ‘Interpretation’ We might call this ‘the experience of a thing’ We have no direct access to any thing. But Science in a primitive form promised such access. Yet, as the neuroscientist philosopher Iain McGilchrist says Science is ‘just one way of looking at things, a way which privileges detachment, a lack of commitment of the viewer to the object viewed’

Allied with the thoughts of John Duns Scotus (John of Dun, the Scot) who had suggested that God and Creation shared in Being, Ockham’s thought created a canyon of separation in the minds of humans – one which we are so used to we don’t even notice it. [it must be said that this was no overnight shift – even Isaac Newton 400 years later does not Assume this, but its assumption does underly his work – God and Nature sort of separated off – what Science cannot explain provides the space for God – God of the gaps – but note this is a Separation all the same]. BTW interestingly, Newton was primarily also a theologian. Although Modernity was already well established, like the collapse of the Greenland glacier, it had not yet accelerated, yet it was well under way. And Newton had terrible trouble with the Trinity. He said it could not be because The Bible said it could not. Here is an example of the modern approach. The Tradition of the Church is now seen in separation from The Bible. So the paradigmatic ‘Modern Scientist’ who pondered the force of this body upon that body – things in separation, had a theological problem with The Trinity . . . Koinonia? No, things fall apart.

To be a scientist in the Modern sense was at the time of the Schism and Ockham a very strange thing – it was to take as a Given that the Creation Could be known apart from the creator, in separation from. It created the illusion of Objectivity and subjectivity . Which is a problem. Because if it is true that in Christ and the Church God and Creation are intimately woven together in Koinonia, then Science is horribly blind. It introduces a way of looking at the world and our existence which is antithetical to the Truth of things because it takes a starting point that God is irrelevant . . .

This view – this way of seeing things was most eloquently allegedly expressed by Napoleon mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace who presented his model of the solar system to his master. Napoleon asked ‘but what about God?’ and Laplace answered ‘Sir, I have no need of that hypothesis’ . . . Put another way, if I don’t have to put God into my equations I can get an answer, and of course Ockham’s razor backed it up. [Oddly enough I read recently of a suggestion that some of the fundamental ‘problems of Science are easily resolved by reducing everything to 2 dimensions – Ockham would have at once been appalled and approving . . .]

Now I for one, with a science degree am not come to bury Modern Science (although it would help if we took the time to understand that it is far from the monolith we tend tot think it is  there is a world of difference for example between my own discipline, Physics, and psychology, or economics for example) — nor am I about to argue that ‘The Bible says one thing and Science another and thus we must choose’ – as I suggested earlier the idea ‘The Bible says . . .’ is itself a product of the same philosophical root [Briefly reading the Bible apart from  its place as living scripture in the worship of the Church,  is a curiously modern idea]

But . . . yes everything before the but 🙂 . . . BUT I suggest that given that ‘science’ this particular form of interpreting the world so dominates so very much of our world, in large part because of its power to predict and thereby control certain aspects of  our lives, aspects which we have been taught to particularly value – e.g. H&S 🙂 – that what we might call ‘scientific thinking’ extends into almost every aspect of the Modern Culture – that is provides The Glass through which we try and understand the world and leaves our faith under question. It has formed the world at which we look and so it is self reinforcing.

Put another way, if everyone around you speak German and you speak let us say Lea fakatonga, or Te Reo, you are going to feel bit out of place and wonder whether you are wrong – after all the only other solution is that the whole world has gone mad . . . and life in Modern Germany is so comfortable compared with our previous existence . . . because Science is So prevalent it is The language of the Modern Western world, moment by moment reorienting our existence, a language from which all understanding of God is erased. Language after all is the expression of a culture, a life. Recently a leading Japanese business man ( I think) said that in order to be better scientists, the Japanese would have to learn English 🙂 )

Of course this is not a unique situation 🙂 A friend of mine translated the bible into a language in which there was no word for God, having been a culture dominated by Bhuddism. We might consider science as another example of Mongolian – all the more so when I came across the first mongolian I’d ever met, a convinced Communist and thus of course someone to whom the idea of God was utterly alien.

In other words we are drilled in a certain language a way of seeing the world, one which we as Christians we may wish to suggest is less than ideal, ultimately for our humanity. For the Christian gospel is the gospel of Jesus Christ, the GOD-HUMAN, the intersection of heaven and Earth, indeed the Koinonia of Heaven and Earth. Losing sight of God in the Christian Tradition also less to losing sight of the human, for not only is our way of understanding God to be found in Jesus Christ – ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the father’, so too our understanding of the human – or as Pontius Pilate, not knowing what he was saying would have it ‘Behold The Man’

We would want to say that apart from knowing God we cannot know our Creation in any way which fulfils who we are, only in ways which will lead towards our own disappearance. And that that knowing is LOVE which is that way in which we lose any sense of Object, or Observed. Personal Knowing is in the end deeply mysterious.

’Science’ at the end of the day is utterly impersonal – utterly in its own terms objective and thus objectifying – and thus there is a significant problem with Science. Put another way in describing a Universe apart from God it creates a World from which it appears God is Absent.

Fundamentally Science is a non participatory way of Knowledge – whereas in the classical Christian Tradition All Knowledge is Participatory – which is why we use the language of Knowing for Sexual relations etc.etc. ‘I have no knowledge of you except in relation to myself. I cannot know myself except in relation to you and God in Jesus Christ’ I cannot separate out my Self from Reality

There is no out there Objective ‘Other’ – ‘Love your neighbour “as yourself”’ – “My Life is with my brother” Anthony of Egypt. It is an account of existence that is deeply relational – and to see things as apart is deeply unrelational, deeply inhuman, and deeply wrong.

The consequences of such knowing are as we shall see nothing short of catastrophic for Creation and for the human

I close with a couple of short passages from John and Paul

John in his opening to his gospel,of Jesus Christ says

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.’

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Lent Course 3 – The Jesus Prayer. A more helpful understanding of Sin – The Passions or Desires

A Lent course – for St John the Evangelist, Roslyn

Praying in the Name of Jesus

‘The Jesus Prayer’

  1. A more helpful understanding of Sin.

The Passions / Desires.


Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.

This Jesus is

“the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;

it has become the cornerstone.”


There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’

Acts of the Apostles Chapter 4 vs 8-12

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”


[This text is a conflation of two sets of notes which were used as the foundation of the class.]


We watched the first 15 minutes of this video



As we have prayed this ancient prayer, we have reflected on a simple song lyric. ‘Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart. Lord, I want to love everybody in my heart. Lord I want to be a Christian in my heart’ How these words touch the meaning of the Jesus prayer, in that we recognise be it ever so dimly something in the depths of our being which keeps us from that for which we were created, to Love God with all we have and all we are and to love our neighbours as if they were our very selves. That recognition may cause us to cry out “Lord Jesus Christ. Have mercy on me”

First we have considered that when we pray, we are entering into something far greater than our own senses perceive. St Paul paints a breathtaking picture for us of Jesus Christ who is our Life and the one to whom we pray.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Colossians 1:15-17


We used the illustration of Resonance – or lack of – it to think about our lives in the light of this Reality. In the same way that the better we were conversant with the culture of the song we heard in the first week, the deeper its impact might be upon us. So the more closely our lives conform to that of Jesus, the better they resonate, indeed Resound with His great hymn of Love and Life.

Then we considered how to some extent we knew within ourselves this separation between the Reality of the Life of the Risen Christ and our own. We reflected upon the powerful story of Jesus healing the paralytic. Of how Jesus’ deepest act of healing is the forgiveness of his sins, and how the physical healing was almost incidental. This relationship between Sin and illness is very significant, but we also were reminded that in our culture the tendency to individualise our existence, not to see our lives woven together, might lead us to either make simplistic connections ‘you are unwell because you have sinned’, or rejecting those suggestions, to suggest there is no connection.


But from the earliest times in the Church, Sin was understood in terms of a form of illness, indeed a form of madness – a terrible contradiction of our true nature as God’s children. [It is perhaps interesting to reflect that in this age where often people scratch their heads regarding physical illness and its relationship to the Love of God, our perception of Sin is very weak.] This understanding of Sin however is perhaps not the understanding we have been taught or grown up with in the home and elsewhere. However it is the understanding which continues to be the understanding of our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox tradition of the Church in which this prayer took root and continues to flourish.


Note the language of Peter when he addresses the Jewish leaders in the passage at the head of this paper. There is ‘no other name . . . by which we must be saved’


A parting of the ways and a new teaching

{A brief history lesson}


Our Western understanding of Sin owes much to something which happened almost 1000 years ago, when the church divided. To the East the Churches of Byzantium, to the West the Church of Rome. In the immediate aftermath of this split, the Church of Rome underwent several changes, one being that there was a move to what we might call a ‘Juridical’ model. Rome of old had been the seat of what we know as the ‘legal’ system, and the theology of the Western Church had always to a degree been influenced by this, but without the modifying effect of the Greek based Eastern Churches, ideas which have their roots in legal systems began to profoundly affect the teaching of the Church on Sin.


Sin as a Moral condition vs a Sickness


This is important re the words of the Jesus prayer. When we pray ‘have mercy on me’ it is not because Jesus stands over us about to punish us, but that he is near to us desiring to heal us. The word ‘Mercy’ in Greek is very close to the word for Oil, which of course is used in anointing for healing


So Sin as a condition took a back foot, and sins, the symptoms of the condition came to the fore. It was in this Juridical atmosphere that the idea that upon the Cross God was punishing Jesus for ‘all the wrong things we have done’ (as a Christian song has it) – the doctrine of Penal Substitution came to the fore. A ‘sinner’ in this regard instead of someone who is bound – paralysed – by sin and cannot do what they desire in the deepest part of their hearts, like a form of sleep paralysis, became no different to someone who had committed a civil offence and ended up in the courts.


This had multiple consequences. For example many of us grew up being told to ‘be good’ where being ‘good’ consisted in not doing anything naughty! But more troublingly, everything became a matter of transactions. You did something wrong, and you were punished. But because this punishment was ‘separation from God’, something had to be done, someone had to pay the fines! So Penal substitution – Jesus pays the penalty. Yet in our hearts we still know that separation from God . . . To come back to the illustration we used at the beginning of last week, the Western answer, Jesus pays the price for our sins, doesn’t deal with our deepest need – to be restored to the full Likeness of God


For many western Christians, the idea that ‘sin’ is a matter of ‘doing naughty things’ is so ingrained, often through our upbringing that we might readily agree with Penal Substitution or at least its premises, and like the lady we heard of last week, try not to be troubled by the fact that that we go on sinning – that we are not healed of the condition of Sin. And for some of us, we did so well at not doing anything wrong, that like the Pharisees, like the eldest son in the parable of the Prodigal, we really think we have no problem. Sometimes it is our fall into Grave sin which is the point where we realise we are not Good


The Eastern Church continues to teach that Sin is as it were an illness of the Soul – a form of Captivity or soul paralysis. We are held captive by Sin. Indeed their diagnosis is far deeper than that in the West, where Sin is ‘our ongoing tendency to do naughty things’.


We might paraphrase the Eastern Diagnosis thus – ‘Your condition is far worse than you might imagine. But the Healer is One who even raises the dead’


Seven deadly sins . . . or Ten paralysing Passions?

The idea of Seven Deadly Sins is well known, even to those outside the community of faith, but this like the Legal turn with regard to our sins, is also a product of the West. After all, if we are guilty, there have to be ‘sins’ we have committed. But these are actually a corruption of the earliest teaching of the Church on the Passions or Desires. [Desire is a more helpful word]


The Eastern Church teaches that the root of our problem is the distortion of our desires. Desire, which is create Good – gets distorted. Put simply ‘We do not Love God, we do not even want to Love God’ The distortion of our Desires are the Root of our illness.


Having set out on the journey to follow Christ in Baptism, the early Christians soon found themselves impeded and carefully diagnosed our condition most elegantly in terms of these Passions


Pride – Vain glory – Sadness – Anger – Fear – Gluttony – Lust – Acedia – Self-love – Love of money


It is important to note that all of these Distorted desires have the effect of distracting us from the Source of our Life, that is The Risen Christ. This is our problem. The Wages of Sin is Death, not in the sense of a penalty, but a natural consequence. Our Life is in Christ. All that distracts our attention from Him is cutting us off from Life.


Of course The benefit of our continual praying the Jesus prayer is in this respect two fold – it directs our attention to the source of Life, who is also the One who can heal . . . And it also points out something else which the Western View obscures. Obviously if we do something wrong, we commit a sin, there is nothing we can do to to undo what we have done – but if our essential problem is that we are sin sick, then as with any condition, we can participate in our healing. There are things we can do which either help or hinder the healing. Within the Eastern tradition, The Jesus Prayer is The prayer response, and we will look more closely next time at this – How do we take up our mat and walk?


But for now we must attend to one key aspect of praying this prayer which we must needs be aware of.


Last week I used the illustration of My heart as a pond! It was an image that had formed in my mind and which I took to my Spiritual director. The thing is this, and especially it may be true of those who have been brought up to ‘be good’. When we hear all about Jesus forgiving our sins, we can hardly come up with anything worth writing home about (this sometimes is why Grave sin can better alert us to our state)

Our Enemy, and the Eastern tradition is not coy about The Evil One, is very content with this state of affairs. Leave things undisturbed – but if we invite Jesus in, then things get stirred up!! So it is VERY common to start praying the Jesus prayer and realise that we are in deep deep trouble!


Look at these early verses from Mark


They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ 26And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ 38He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ 41Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ 42Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ 45But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

Jesus steps into the world and all of a sudden sickness and demons are everywhere! We tend often to think of the presence of Jesus as far from disturbing, after all, what business does he have with us? He is here to comfort us in our difficulties, not make more for us 🙂 But of course he is not making difficulties – He is All Light. When we invoke him in prayer – light shines, which the darkness cannot stand and starts to kick up a fuss. The pond is stirred and all of a sudden we realise things are a lot murkier than we might have thought.

One Important note – Jesus never exposes more than he gives us grace to cope with and we pray MORE fervently Jesus Christ have mercy on me a Sinner.

Of Balrogs and Smaug!!

Our approach to Spirituality in the West – a word not used in the Eastern tradition – can leave us is a dangerous state. We do not do this walk together we need experienced guides. Even basic meditation should really be always an accompanied journey.

Older traditions are far wiser – such journeys are always accompanied

Jesus prays ‘Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ If we are blind to our sin – why do we have such pride in our capacity to understand what happens when we pray


One or two comments

Firstly, and we shall return to this, one of the great weaknesses of the Western Church is its lack of Tradition, or sense of the meaning and Significance of The Tradition. Anglicanism properly understood is well described thus – Based upon Scripture, interpreted by Tradition and applied to our context by Reason. But for many, perhaps most of us Anglicans we have little sense nowadays of ‘Tradition’ which is perhaps why what we call reason is let loose on Scripture, often to tear it to pieces

The Jesus Prayer as we have been exploring lies within a powerful apprehension of Tradition as ‘ the living faith of the dead’ – or perhaps better, ‘the living faith of the cloud of witnesses’ [Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad] At the heart of The Tradition is the Liturgy of the Church, both of which in modern terms are seen as somehow a barrier or irrelevant to the Spiritual Life. The Tradition understands them as indispensable, indeed that to journey without them is at best most unwise, at worst perilous in the extreme, or madness.

In both the East and the remnants of the once common tradition in the West, any ‘individual practice’ must be rooted in the shared life of the worship of the whole church. In this respect we think especially of The Prayers; Auricular Confession and the guidance of Elders; Study of the Scriptures (and we might add, the writings of the Saints); and The Eucharist. The Jesus Prayer is a practice of the Church and can only be fully apprehended within this context.

[Some Orthodox writers would say, within the tradition of the Orthodox Church, and we should be mindful of their counsel and slow to seize hold of a practice which until recently was barely known in the West. Our penchant for practices, as if they were technological tools, to be picked up and discarded at a whim, like a spanner, or worse something to be practiced until we grew bored or give up is at best most unhelpful.]

Second we have problems with words. What I mean by this is that certain words have unhelpful resonances for us. For example, as illustrated above ‘The Church’ is a phrase which generally as people with a largely Protestant heritage we have an inbuilt problem with. We may well think – what is the Church? In some respects we think ‘it may be helpful to me and my journey’, but in others it is like practices ‘disposable’. No doubt, some of this is a deep unconscious apprehension of troubling Church history, when as we all know, the Church has born little resemblance to The Body of Christ.

Or ‘sinner’. Again some of us may well have grown up being taught to ‘be good!’, and that to be a sinner was to be one who was ‘bad’, but ‘sinners’ are those amongst whom Jesus is to be found. It is sinners Jesus calls! Being a Sinner is actually the condition which draws Christ close to us. Of course we are all sinners, but perhaps lacking an apprehension of any particular sins we commit, being blind to our context, we may find this a difficult word to associate ourselves with

Or we might think of the word ‘mercy’. We think of someone pleading for their life, which in a sense we are as we pray the Jesus prayer, but in what sense. As we may well be aware, the sense of ‘mercy’ we are crying for from a Western perspective is that ‘God might not punish us for our sins’. Yet if we return to the Scriptures in which we find the Genesis of the Jesus prayer, the tone is very different


Lent Course – Praying in the name of Jesus “The Jesus Prayer” – 1. Resonance

A Lent course – for St John the Evangelist, Roslyn

Praying in the Name of Jesus

‘The Jesus Prayer’

  1. Resonance

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.

This Jesus is

“the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;

it has become the cornerstone.”

There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’

Acts of the Apostles Chapter 4 vs 8-12


“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”


First – a song 🙂

(‘Lord, I want to be a Christian’ The Proclaimers. Coincidentally, the video link contains pictures of New Zealand)

I was out praying and walking the other morning when it came to me that this song connects so well with the Jesus prayer. For the one who desires to Love God in and through everything, this prayer is the journey we make . . . and to pray the Jesus Prayer is to make a journey. We might say that it is the prayer of the Disciple. ‘Lord, I want to be a Christian, in my heart’

  • A very simple prayer
  • A very ancient prayer
  • Not ‘just another prayer’ . . . although it may be treated as such.
    • Used by millions of Christians every day, and often all day
    • A prayer which takes us into the deep roots of our faith and our existence
  • A prayer which by Grace we may learn to ‘pray without ceasing’, Constant prayer is an essential aspect of a lively faith. Four times Paul exhorts us to this
    • ‘Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer’ (Romans 12:12)
    • ‘Pray at all times in the Spirit’ Eph 6:18
    • ‘Continue steadfastly in prayer’ Col 4:2
    • ‘Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus’ 1 Thess 5:17-18
    • And with Jesus ‘Stay alert! Watch and Pray that you do not enter into temptation’


But first, CONTEXT.

Whenever we dare to speak of prayer we make many assumptions. When we think about Context we may think of our own lives and culture, but to Pray is to enter a far larger world, a far greater context and leaves us with many questions.

How do we Orient ourselves within such a world?? (The verb comes from the practise of lining churches up to face East, towards Jerusalem – Orienting them)

What does it mean to pray?

Why do we pray?

To whom do we pray?

Who is it that prays?

Who am I?

What does it mean to ‘be saved’?

What is the goal of our faith?

Prayer, Faith, Salvation are words which do not belong to our everyday existence, yet we assume we know what they mean. Our answers to these questions will profoundly shape whether we merely Say the Jesus Prayer, or come to Pray the Jesus prayer.


We live in an age of disconnection and technique. We no longer think ‘everything has its place’ even in the world we can see, let alone that which is only revealed in faith, so we might think that we can just ‘use’ this prayer – without any understanding of its context. If we are alert to these things then at least a rudimentary understanding of the significance of context is necessary is we are to pray in this way . . .


It would be very easy to teach ‘The Jesus Prayer’ as a simple ‘prayer technique’. Rather like I could teach you to sing this song . . . ‘My Young Man’ Sung by Kate Rusby (Pure Records)

But truly to pray is to enter far deeper than simply ‘practising a technique . . .’ one may speak, indeed pray with the tongues of men and angels, but utterly miss the goal. This goal we may perhaps slightly better understand through considering how we approach a song like the one we have just heard


From Words to Language

From Admiration to Identification

From Repetition to Resonance

This is a song Kate wrote in memory of her Grandparents. The ‘young man’ of the title is her maternal grandfather whom she never knew, and it is as it were ‘sung by her grandmother’. Her Grandfather was a coal miner in the Yorkshire coalfields, and coal dust gave him emphysema which turned him from a strong man, to one who is in his later years cradled on the lap of his wife. Just the story itself is touching and indeed there may well be themes in it which turn it from being ‘just another song’.

For me, undoubtedly its sad beauty lies in my identification with Yorkshire, a county where I lived many years, and the sound of the Brass ensemble which Kate asked to accompany her singing. The accent of her voice, and the meek mournfulness of the Brass goes deep. (Although, we were a bit posher than that where I grew up in the country away from the coal and manufacturing culture which generated the great Brass Bands. Our village band was a Silver band J)

But of course, for all but Kate, we will all be in one degree or another mere observers – we may Admire, but our level of identification will never be total. You and I are not Kate 🙂

But the Jesus Prayer is given precisely that we might enter into ever deeper Identification with Jesus. Our Life is in Him – and as strings resonate, so every fibre of our existence is given to thrill to and resonate with the Life of God made known to us in Jesus Christ – As St Paul puts it in the letter to the Colossians – ‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.’


We might express ‘being a Christian in my heart’ as being perfectly in tune with Christ Jesus.

If we are to pray this prayer, indeed in a sense if we are to pray meaningfully at all we need to understand at some level the roots of the deep longing which that desire to ‘be a Christian’ in my heart – why is it there? Why for example do I find that song resonates, if not because I want to be a Christian, in my heart 🙂


St Augustine says these familiar words ‘You have made us for yourself, O lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’

Some of us have been unhelpfully trained in ‘instant Salvation’ – but from the first this has no place in The Tradition. Paul, again.

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.

Sadly, too many Christians have gone astray, because they substitute a ‘Christian’ form of Paul’s confidence before meeting Jesus for Paul’s. The outcome is that their ongoing need of Christ becomes very vague. Something happened to me in the past. I might ask him for guidance on some life decision, but . . . Jesus is seen as central to the faith in some doctrinal manner, but not the living beating heart of all we say and do and are as Christians. And tragically this culture has produced Christians who are hesitant to name God, let alone Jesus. And many false Spiritualities grow up in which Christ is not central. Put simply this is a question of ‘When Peter stand up and full of the Holy Spirit says “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” What does he mean by ‘saved’?’

Unless we understand this, we cannot lay hold of the medicine of the Jesus Prayer. As one well educated Christian said to me recently ‘praying to Jesus that he might have mercy on us – well it sounds so negative – surely we’ve moved past that?’

But for all our ‘confidence’ still that song ‘I want to be a Christian, in my heart’ may well resonate. We hear the Great Command – the Word which brings us Life ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ And feel the gap between that and the reality expressed by that disarmingly honest Saint, Theresa

‘Lord I do not Love you, I do not even want to love you, but I do want to want to love you’ Theresa of Avilla




“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”

This week, set aside say five minutes a day – find a quiet place and say the prayer over and again – with attention. Attention to Jesus, Attention to yourself.

Whilst this is a prayer one can pray all the time, if we are going to Resonate, we need to start gently and attentively. A ‘space’ in which to do this is helpful.

It is not recommended to go beyond this for now, especially if we are starting out


Next Week: Jesus and healing. Sin and Salvation. We do not know what we are doing


Recommended Reading : The Jesus Prayer. Frederica Mathewes-Green