The Ring of Fire

The icon of the 'parousia' shows how Christ is both the source of joy and the source of anguish

The icon of the ‘parousia’ shows how Christ is both the source of joy and the source of anguish

Before I begin with assessing the 3rd part of Alex’s critique of Jesus as a Savior, I need to explain the conception of Hell in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Hell, unfortunately, is depicted to many at a young age as Dante’s Inferno, a place where demons will torture you in gruesome ways beyond description (never mind that Hell was “prepared for the devil and his angels”), a sadistic and malevolent place that makes the worst of human atrocities seem banal. Johnathan Edward’s Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God comes to mind. Of course, many who study theology in any of the three major Christian traditions (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox) come to realize that hell isn’t an over-amplified version of the Soviet Gulags. Many describe it as the absence of God, but even this is not correct.

Hell, in the Orthodox tradition, is God Himself. God’s grace, or His energies, pours out to all unconditionally at His second coming, and affect each individual depending on the state of their relationship with Him. If a person spent their life living the life of theosis, coming to know God and participating in Him, drawing ever closer into infinity with Him, combating the passions, overcoming sin, learning love, charity, patience, humility, etc, then they experience the fire of God as warmth and joy, one which will continue to deify them for eternity.

Those who have chosen instead to commune with their passions, desires, with anything other than Christ, will experience these same energies as pain, though it is quite literally God’s love that pierces us. We are no longer able to run away from our passions which we have made into our gods, and as they choke us, our own conscience condemns us for having chosen death over Life. It is, as St. Isaac the Syrian says, “the scourge of love” that afflicts us in the afterlife.

For a more robust presentation, as well as its history in Scripture and the Church Fathers, please read this article. With that, let us examine Alex’s piece:

Madoka doesn’t punish those who don’t believe in her or fail to thank her. Jesus sends nonbelievers and sinners to hell

As I mentioned above, Hell is a condition one finds oneself in having rejected Life and communed with sin and death, having made our passions our own god(s). If we are in hell, it is because we have chosen these things instead of Christ, and our reaction to seeing God’s love and grace, the “scourge of love”, is going to hurt. God will return to earth to transform His creation, and He will (and does) love all.

A true savior doesn’t ask for compensation for his/her services.  A savior gives freely without hope of admiration for doing good deeds. And a savior most certainly doesn’t turn right around and slap the ungrateful in the face.  This is why Jesus isn’t a savior at all. He’s a mafia boss offering protection that nobody asked for.  And if you don’t pay your dues, he’ll get back at you another way.

Let’s get one thing clear, theologically: Christ does not need us at all. He doesn’t need us to worship Him, He doesn’t need us to love Him, He doesn’t need us to pray to Him. The Holy Trinity is a communion of Three Persons that are fully within one another and yet distinct: the perfect communion that all men strive towards. God went to the Cross freely and redeemed all of mankind, regardless of whether or not they would accept Him (which is what Pope Francis was trying to say awhile back). There is no compensation for this gift, it is given freely – no works could ever achieve it. Though, I must be clear, I am not advocating Protestantism: while works done outside of Christ can not earn us salvation (i.e., Pelagianism), once we are baptized into Christ and are members of His Body, works are transformed and indeed are salvific (“work out your salvation in fear and trembling”). But at no point does God owe us this. Furthermore, to reiterate, hell is our experience of God when He returns, and He is going to return to save His creation whether we want him to or not.

In contrast, Madoka doesn’t demand any worship whatsoever.  In fact, her circumstances actually make worship impossible because only Homura knows that she ever existed and besides the words of the “prophet” we can never even determine objectively that Homura’s claims are true.

Man’s worship of God is his way of participating in Him, and thus being deified by Him. The effects of worship are going to be for our benefit since, as I just said, God doesn’t need it. One of course may choose not to worship God since love is freely given, but I do put forward that this is the response man has when he truly beholds God’s glory (something no one reading this has probably done). The disciples themselves were dumbfounded when they saw this, Peter telling the Lord that he would be willing to build three tabernacles (and as a theological aside, the light beheld was nothing else than the uncreated energies of God). I’m sure Alex would disagree with me on this, but that his prerogative.

Furthermore, Madoka doesn’t require worship because the metaphysical tradition that is being emulated in the show is Buddhism, in which Karma flows through each person and which there is no central deity that is the ground of being. For me to critique this would to enter into a far larger debate which I have no intentions of doing in these responses.

She did what she did because it was the right thing to do.  This ties in with the secular outlook on why we do good deeds and why Madoka is once again an awesome example of a humanistic hero.  Like Madoka, if we live our lives freely doing good deeds, the only reward we really need is the happiness of knowing that you helped someone out.

Once again, I pointed out in my first post the problems any kind of moral system derived from a physicalist paradigm run into, and that it leads us eventually to moral nihilism (amongst other things). If there is no ontological basis for calling something good, if there really is no ought, then honestly, why should I care? If there is no rational basis for morality, then why give it the time of day? Look, I’ll be blunt, unless this problem can be solved – which I don’t think it can for the physicalist – for one to tout Secular Humanism is just as deluded as believing in an ‘Old Man in the Sky’ who gives us rules to follow [pro-tip, no Christian should believe in this anyways – it’s heresy]. Neither system is based upon reality, which is why I have never understood this New-Athiest obsession with Secular Rights. If naturalism is true, then human rights don’t exist. “You have all these rules [Batman], and you think they’ll save you…”

Christians all too often do their good because they’ve been told that “belief is not enough to save you, good works are needed, too,” and so they help others because it’s been mandated by a higher power.  Or more selfishly they put up a facade of kindness because doing so will reap them rewards in the afterlife.

Yes, many Christians begin fighting against their own self-will, which is inclined to sin, because they know that it is by their works they will be judged. However, doing good deeds to avoid hell has always been seen as the most base way to be saved and betrays a spiritual immaturity in the believer (after all, “perfect love casts out fear”). As one progresses in their relationship with God, one finds oneself doing these acts out of love for one’s neighbor, and a genuine desire to encounter Christ with every person we meet since all are made in God’s image. Do not many children learn not to misbehave first by more corporal forms of punishment, and then slowly out of a love for their parents? The main reason I fear to upset my Mom and Dad is not because of any kind of punishment, but because of the disappointment and grief I would cause them. I love them both, and as such I want to bring joy to them, not the opposite. The fear of God is supposed to become a fear of being away from God because we love Him.1

As for the “facade”, one would think that God could see through this given that He is omniscient. However, from Elder Paisios the Athonite:

Elder, Abba Isaac writes, “No kind of repentance that takes place after the removal of our free will 2 will be a well-spring of joy, nor will it be reckoned for the reward of those who possess it.” How can anyone repent without exercising his own free will?

– One may be forced to repent, having fallen in the eyes of others around him, but such repentance has no humility. This is how I understand it.

Do you mean that there is repentance that is not voluntary?

– Yes, it is compulsory repentance. I ask you to forgive me for some harm I have caused to you so that I may be spared the consequences, but I have not changed inside. A fiendish person will pretend to have repented, and will proceed cunningly, offering prostrations with feigned kindness, to deceive others.

When someone goes to tell his sins to a Spiritual Father merely because he is afraid of going to hell, even this is not true repentance. He’s not repenting for his sins, he’s afraid of going to hell!

True repentance means that one is first aware of his sins, is pained by them, asks God for forgiveness, and then goes and confesses them. This is why I always recommend Repentance and Confession together. I never recommend Confession alone.

Notice, for example, what happens when we have an earthquake. You see those who have a good disposition will be moved deeply, they will repent and change their way of life. But the majority of people keep this fear of God only for a short period of time; and when the danger is past, they resume their former sinful life. This is why, when someone told me that there had recently been a very strong earthquake in his hometown, I told him, “It shook you up, but did it really wake you up?” “It woke us up,” he said. Then I said, “Sure, but you’ll go back to sleep again”.3

Back to Alex’s piece:

You should never be compelled to do the right thing because you’re hanging to the edge of a cliff and someone who can save you tells you that you must dedicate your life to your rescuer, otherwise you’re going to get pushed.

Of course, as seen above, this isn’t why Christians should be doing good works either. However, let’s just roll with this for a second: why can’t I do good works for this reason? On what ontological grounds can you show me that this would be wrong? If morality is arbitrary and irrational, then really I could do ‘good’ or ‘bad’ works for whatever reason (or lack of) I want.

Looking at the flip side of the situation, what does it say about the character of the helper if all they’re thinking about is how being nice can be of some benefit?

Note that earlier Alex said there was an innate reward in doing good, which is “the happiness of knowing that you helped someone out.” Couldn’t this be an impediment to good works since it is ultimately striving after a fleeting feeling of self-satisfaction rather than thinking about the other person? Couldn’t, hypothetically, someone do good works solely or largely for these positive feelings about oneself, and thus build up a mental image that “I am a kind, loving person” or “I am charitable and selfless”, etc?

True salvation is given unconditionally and Madoka passes this test where Jesus fails.

True salvation means one is saved from something. Christ, if we follow Him, saves us from the powers of sin and death and transfigures us into loving, righteous, joyful, deified human beings. Quite literally, “ye are gods.” He just won’t do it against our will.

1It is here that I break off with my Protestant bloggers: works are indeed salvific, but only works that are done in synergy with Christ, or works in Christ. In this case, we are co-workers with God in our salvation, and are transformed by His grace that we must cooperate with. This is not Pelagianism, nor is it ‘meritorious’ – it is the classic Christian doctrine of synergy. For more, see: Russel, N. Fellow Workers with God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis. [amazon] One may also see the article I linked at the beginning of this post.

2Given the context of the passion, I think it is clear that St. Isaac doesn’t mean the removal of “free-will” as a facet of man, or that he literally loses the ability to choose. This becomes clearer by Elder Paisios’s example.

3John Sanidopoulos. Elder Paisios: On True and False Repentance. From Elder Paisios of Mount Athos Spiritual Counsels: “Spiritual Struggle” (vol. 3).

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Whenever a Bell Rings…

TWWK has recently been running an online anime group that’s watching Haibane Renmei. Unfortunately, the time slot is too late for me since I have to get up extra early on Sunday’s to unlock my Cathedral (that’s being a sextant for you!). The show is one that I have been meaning to watch for quite some time now, and have started multiple times. It’s easy to see the parallels to Christianity: on a superficial level we have angel wings and halos, and on a deeper level we have some of the things that are mentioned over at the Beneath the Angels. That said, I want to take a different route, one that is anti-Christian, but not in the sense of secularism. I speak of one of the earliest heretical groups in the history of the Church: the Gnostics.

For those who don’t know, Gnosticism was a religious movement that began in late antiquity, around the same time that Christianity began to spread throughout the Roman Empire.1 While Christian Gnosticism has become popularized by the works of authors such as Elaine Pagels, Gnosticism itself was not a unified movement and appeared in various other religions including non-mainstream Judaism and paganism. Though a full covering of Gnosticism is not my intention, there are a few key doctrines that I’d like to touch on, some of which can be seen in the first episode of Haibane Renmei.

One of the key teachings in Gnosticism, influenced by its Platonic heritage, is that the created world of matter is inherently evil; the soul was originally part of the divine but fell into the world of matter where it is now trapped. Salvation consists of receiving divine knowledge (gnosis) via a mediator of some kind. Upon learning, the Gnostic could no longer be affected by the world, and as such was immune to falling away. Thus some expressed their rejection of creation by extreme asceticism, while others indulged in any debauchery they could think of since it had no affect on their soul.

Now, one may wonder what any of this has to do with Haibane Renmei. While the falling into created existence resembles Rakka’s dream of falling, the connection is superficial at best since the dreams of each of the characters varies, some having no inherent connection to Gnosticism. Futhermore, Rakka’s birth is an event that is celebrated; the kids gather around (despite Reki’s warnings) and look on in awe at the giant egg that has materialized in the storage closet. Everyone waits with anticipation, glad to have another join their ranks. None of this resembles an aversion to the material.

Haibane Renmei - Rakka gets her wings

Yet, the scene that can most aptly be described as a baptism – the emergence of Rakka’s wings – has a far different feel. The moment is preceded by a longing to return to the world, to have one’s memory and identity restored, and the sobering conclusion that such a feat was impossible. The Gnostic saw salvation in consisting of learning that they themselves were part of the divine, and thus Rakka’s forgetfulness of who she is mimics the Gnostics previous enslavement to the world in which they do not remember their divine origins. As Rakka’s wings spread, the music playing is a far cry from anything resembling joy, and the blood, violence, and sheer amount of pain all point that there is an inherent tragedy in what is taking place. Rakka’s birth into being a Haibane carries an inherent fallen character: it is the result of losing one’s identity, and becoming something that is no longer human.

Baptism, for the earliest Christians, was not just a symbol but an actual participation in Christ’s death and resurrection. The early Christians knew that after their baptism they were likely to be persecuted, tortured, and killed, and yet they went to the font (or lake/pond/river) willingly, knowing that the principalities and powers of the world, the satanic powers that be, could not prevent them from joining the Body of Christ. This rejection was seen in a practice in the early baptismal rite, one that has continued today in the Orthodox Church, in which the catechumen faces West and is told to blow or spit upon Satan. They were then faced East for the rest of the service, showing their leave taking from the kingdom of this world, and embracing the kingdom not of this world.

There is one other facet of Rakka’s ‘baptism’ that resonates more with the Gnostic narrative: that it is inevitable. I am, admittedly, making inference via the Platonic roots of Gnosticism, but nevertheless I feel that my observation is not without warrant. The souls that were caged within flesh were the result of the fallen world, which was a by product of the first aeon’s fall from the divine Pleroma from within God. The relevant theological point is that in Platonism, and hence I’m assuming in Gnosticism, there was no distinction between God’s will and his nature, his grace and his essence. These distinctions were made by the Church Fathers (St. Athanasius and St. Gregory Palamas, respectively), but were unknown to Plato or the Gnostics. Thus, since the fall of the first aeon must have been from God’s essence, it was inevitable that it would occur, and that all the events that occurred after would as well (in short, determinism). While the acquisition of gnosis freed one from the bonds of fate, the initial entrapment of matter seems to me as the result of fate. Thus just as the Gnostic was forced to be trapped in his material body, Rakka had no choice but to become a Haibane. The lack of freedom, to say the least, is disconcerting.

1For an excellent summary of Gnosticism, see Antonia Tripolitis, ‘Chapter V: Gnosticism,’ in Religions of the Hellenistic-Roman Age (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002). The information here comes from this chapter.

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