Ladders of Ascent

I am trying to read St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent* for Lent this year. I say trying because I was in the midst of The Mystery of God at the start of this season, so I waited until I was done that before starting this. It struck me as a disciplined way of reading. I am, as it works out, still stuck in the Introduction by Kallistos Ware (the most prolific translator and introducer of the Orthodox world), which is itself illuminating.

I thought I would share some of my pre-reading thoughts with you. Mostly about ladders and ascent.

First, the image of the ladder is not restricted to St John Climacus (of course). It comes into Christian spiritual writing from the vision of Jacob in Genesis 28:10-19 (‘Jacob’s Ladder’). In this vision, Jacob sees the angels of God ascending and descending between heaven and earth. Here is William Blake’s painting thereof:

I always find Blake’s images striking and thought-provoking, even if, like his poetry, they are not strictly orthodox.

Met Kallistos mentions that St Gregory of Nazianzus (Oration 43, 71), St John Chrysostom (Homilies on John 83, 5), and Theodoret of Cyrrhus (Historia Religiosa or History of the Monks in Syria 27) all also used the image of the ladder as a metaphor for the spiritual life. Those three are St John’s precedents — the image also comes later in the West in Walter Hilton’s Ladder of Perfection.

The idea of the ladder is, of course, of a metaphorical, spiritual ‘ascent’ to God from the lowly life of this earthly world. It is worth stressing that, overall (despite use of physical imagery), the biblical and traditional view of God and ‘heaven’ is that He is not in the heavens (that is, the sky) but as close as our very breath. Heaven is all around us. The Kingdom of the Heavens is right here (an important modern contributor to this is Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy).

The heavens are here, but our senses are dulled to them — dulled by sin and by fallenness. We need to climb ‘up’, back to God, back to heaven. And so, using an image drawn from Scripture as well as some Platonic teaching, the image of the ladder goes up.

For interest, the classic anonymous text of fourth-century Christian Syriac spirituality is The Book of Steps — there, we ascend to Christ by a series of steps; there are two paths, one of which is easier to stay on but slower to reach the goal than the narrow one. We also have images from Christian piety of ascending mountains — St John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mt Carmel, for example, or many references, such as in St Gregory of Nazianzus and St Gregory of Nyssa, of ascending Mt Sinai and like Moses.

We have all, through our shared, fallen, human state, as well as our own actual sins, to which we are, sadly, in bondage, moved away from God. Christ, however, has opened up the gate that we may return. This is the ascent. It can be arduous for us at times, but we have more than a Guide in the Good Shepherd who has shown the pathway and will carry us if need be.

The ascent of the mystic into the cloud of unknowing is nothing other than finding the Holy Trinity. And we can start the climb wherever we are, lay or monk, husband or wife, student or job-seeker, CEO or priest, housewife or factory worker. Let’s climb the ladder.

*Two things: Climacus is a latinization of Klimakos, which means ‘of the ladder.’ The name varies; it is often as quoted above in English (as in the translation by Norman Russell for The Classics of Western Spirituality, which I am reading), but sometimes just The Ladder sometimes The Ladder of Paradise.

Untaming God: How the Fathers can help save modern Protestants from small theology

A friend recently posted on Facebook the famous passage from C S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

I would argue that today’s Protestant, especially the evangelical variety (speaking from within that tradition) has a tendency to tame, to reduce God and the Christian world. God is made smaller and domesticated, taken from His place as the Holy One (and therefore Wholly Other) to my best friend or my genie or the Dude Who gets me into Heaven or whatev.

I realise that’s a crude caricature, and it certainly isn’t true of all evangelical Christians. But I do think we have a minimalising tendency that can be harmful at some levels. For example, the endless war with Rome over justification by faith alone through grace alone or the inner-Prot fights over predestination can obscure the fullness of the Christian life and the bigness of our untame God.

For example, I was recently involved in a discussion about early monasticism, and people were displeased with the attempts by the Desert Fathers and other ascetics to live in the Adamic state not only in terms of walking with God in the cool of the evening but also in terms of diet and relationship with the natural world (using some ideas from Peter Brown, Body and Society, which I’ve never read). Where, wondered the Scottish Presbyterian deacon (not anyone from my church, don’t worry), is Christ in this? Didn’t he take our sin away? Are they not aware that the price has been paid?

I proceeded to explain that the discussion of this-life holiness is not necessarily the same as next-life reward. Christ has paid the price, yes, but these men were concerned how we live as a result. And if Christ has removed sin, we can once again life in the state of Adam, trusting in God’s grace.

The tendency revealed here is the fear that whenever Christians start discussing how we should live in practical details, we will forget justification by faith for some reason. Theology and the Christian life has been reduced to a paltry caricature of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Cheap grace, rightly derided by Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship, is a short step away.

Another manifestation is the quest for bare minimum Christianity. By this I mean what is the least I need do for salvation? What is the least I need do for the Eucharist or Baptism to ‘count’? What is the simplest version of the Scriptures? While this can help strip away things like, say, papal indulgences and such, it can also lead to non-sacramental visions of Christianity, such as contemporary Salvation Army practices.

The Fathers can help. They’ve certainly helped me. While I’m not yet an expert on the entire patristic period of Christianity, I’ve read a lot of them and a lot about them, from the Apostolic Fathers to St John of Damascus (saint of the week here) and the Venerable Bede (saint of the week here), with focuses (foci?) on the early ascetics from St Antony to St Benedict and on the fifth century.

These readings have helped regrow my vision of Almighty God and the Christian life (alongside dabbling in mediaeval mystics, of course). The high-flying world of Trinitarian thought in the Cappadocians and its modern explication by Christopher A Hall in Learning Theology with the Church Fathers and by John Zizioulas in Being As Communion has helped me stand in awe before a God Who is so much bigger than ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ Christianity. Such theology can bring you to your knees and truly worship in Spirit and in truth — I would argue better than any Anglo-Catholic incense or low-church contemporary music ever can.

And for those who are rightly concerned about the intellectualising tendency that oft comes with high Trinitarian theology, the fifth-century has helped me enter into the messy bits, too. It all sounds so academic to say that Christ is one person with two natures, fully God and fully human, the God-man. But when you start seeing how this plays out in the sermons of Leo the Great (saint of the week here), you see that this means that God entered into the muck of our sordid lives, into a world of pain and sorrow, taking on the form of a slave, associating with the poorest of the poor. The ethical consequences of the two-natured Christ? Give to the poor and love abundantly; never despise those who share the same nature as the God you worship.

This is not minimalist theology but maximalist theology that takes hold of us and makes us ready to receive the God of Life Himself and be transformed as a result.

The ascetic fathers also help transform us. They remind us that we are called to pray continually, without ceasing. Evagrius Ponticus declares to us that contemplation of the Holy Trinity is the highest calling of the Christian; he also gives us some practical advice about how to fight temptation. We are given thoughts on our own thoughts and how to control them, how to assess our dreams, how to live day by day. We are shown a radical call to forsake this world and live for the next. We are called to help the poor. We are called to live humbly with our fellow brothers and sisters. We are called to radical obedience to the commands of our Lord Christ.

I’ve spoken before about why evangelicals do read the Fathers (here and here and here). This, I believe, is why they should — to rediscover the untame God, wild, powerful, unstoppable, majestic, glorious, awesome.

Chesterton strikes again!

As I read The Thing, here are some highlights from Chesterton’s pure awesomeness:

I am very fond of revolutionists, but not very fond of nihilists.  For nihilists, as their name implies, have nothing to revolt about. (12)

To serve God is at least to serve an ideal being.  Even if he were an imaginary being, he would still be an ideal being.  That ideal has definite and even dogmatic attributes — truth, justice, pity, purity, and the rest.  To serve it, however imperfectly, is to serve a particular concept of perfection.  But the man who rushes down the street waving his arms and wanting something or somebody to serve, will probably fall into the first bucket-shop or den of thieves and usurers, and be found industriously serving them. (13)

He that hath ears to hear and will not hear may just as well have them bitten off. (17, out of context, but amusing)

This fight for culture is above all a fight for consciousness: what some would call self-consciousness.  We need a rally of the really human things; will which is morals, memory which is tradition, culture which is the mental thrift of our fathers. (22, speaking on humanism)

There will be Diocletian persecutions, there will be Dominican crusades, there will be rending of all religious peace and compromise, or even the end of civilization and the world, before the Catholic Church will admit that one single moron, or one single man, “is not worth saving.” (27)

The problem of an enduring ethic and culture consists in finding an arrangement of the pieces by which they remain related, as do the stones arranged in an arch.  And I know only one scheme that has thus proved its solidity, bestriding lands and ages with its gigantic arches, and carrying everywhere the high river of baptism upon an aqueduct of Rome. (34)

If a wealthy young lady wants to do what all other wealthy young ladies are doing, she will find it great fun, simply because youth is fun and society is fun.  She will enjoy being modern exactly as her Victorian grandmother enjoyed being Victorian.  And quite right, too; but it is the enjoyment of convention, not the enjoyment of liberty.  It is perfectly healthy for all young people of all historic periods to her together, to a reasonable extent, and enthusiastically copy each other.  But in that there is nothing particularly fresh and certainly nothing particularly free. (42)

It is perfectly right that the young Browns and the young Robinsons should meet and mix and dance and make asses of themselves, according to the design of their Creator. (44-45)

Even a short and simple length of straight and untangled wire is worth more to us than whole forests of mere entanglement. (46)

the divine dogma that Pigs is Pigs. (46-47 context not needed for awesomeness to ensue)

Why the Holy Trinity Matters

Considering the two facts that a: God is the source of all that was, is, and evermore shall be, He is very important, and b: He is Trinity, then the Holy Trinity is of utmost importance.

Believing in the Holy Trinity is, therefore, a big deal.  And I mean actually believing — belief not merely as the assent of the mind or the conceptualisation in the brain, but the actual trust and reliance upon something, trusting on something so much that it changes your worldview and lifestyle.  While it’s true that some people who claim to be Trinitarian believers are boors, jerks, and swear-word worthy, their boorishness is not related to the doctrine of the Trinity one whit.  Indeed, it runs entirely counter to it.

As Trinity, as three persons “with” one substance, God is an ultimately (ontologically, even?) relational being.  His being is one of communion, and I think there is an importance difference between communion and community, for we are all part of various types of community from clubs to professional organisations to neighbourhoods, but communion is a much deeper connection, a stronger union and interaction of persons than community.  And God, being Trinity, is communion.*

If the root of the universe is a being who is communion, and if we start taking this fact seriously (as well we should, since we were made in the very image of this Holy Trinity), then how we live changes.  We will discover our own ultimate personhood through communion with God and with one another.

Fellow human beings will not be entities for exploitation, but fellow-sojourners to be embraced.  Relationships will be taken seriously.  Mere community, while acceptable at some times and places, will not be enough for some relationships and communities — some form of communion will become necessary for the community to be remade in the image of God.

And if the root of the universe is a being who is a monad or a simple One or not even actually a personal being, the communion is deprived of potency.  Who cares?  I mean, we’re all for community.  But deeper connections are not necessarily where our personhood will play itself out fully.  The concept of surrendering myself to another so that I may be free is not present at the root of a universe wherein the Ultimate Cause is not Trinity, is not a Being of self-giving love.  I think the ramifications are many.

A second matter, besides the whole issue of communion and personhood, is the matter of worship.  The Holy Trinity is ineffably sublime.  When I read the Fathers about the Trinity, I am taken to greater heights of awe, wonder, and worship.  This is a God to whom I would give glory.  If God is a modalist God, or a monad, or a unitarian God, or the spirit of a dead man from another planet, he is less than the revelation of God found in Scripture.  Far less worshippable, this much is certain.

And it is from worship of the most Holy Trinity, He Who Is three, the three-in-one, the Unity in Trinity, three co-equal and co-eternal Persons, that my desire to live according to this God’s Way stems.  Why follow a lesser God?  Commitment to other views of God may be deep and even total, but the question of priority is thrown into stark contrast.  I can’t express it properly, but I cannot see an abandonment of the Trinity without grave implications for the life of holiness in all its matters of morality, ethics, and discipline.

This is a plea.  Take the doctrine of the Trinity seriously.  Read up on how truly amazing He is.  Stand in awe of Him.  Worship Him.  And model your life upon the life He has shown unto us in His revelation.

*For a better and unmangled (and very long) explication of this, see the Eastern Orthodox theologian John D. Zizioulas, Being As Communion.

A. W. Tozer on the results of improper belief

In The Knowledge of the Holy, Tozer writes:

A right conception of God is basic not only to systematic theology but to practical Christian living as well.  It is to worship what the foundation is to the temple; where it is inadequate or out of plumb the whole structure must sooner or later collapse.  I believe there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God. (2)

Throughout my reading of this book I was trying to think of how a misunderstanding of God’s attributes could lead to the results Tozer relates, for I want to desperately to believe him.

My answer was found in his chapter on the love of God.  One of the points made throughout The Knowledge of the Holy is the interrelatedness of the divine attributes.  A loss to one means a loss to the others.  And thus come the errors through a misunderstanding of God’s love.  Yes, God is love.  However, we must not overemphasise this teaching to the detriment of the other divine attributes.  We must also avoid imagining that love is God, or imagining that God’s love is the same as ours.

There are Christians abroad in my tradition (Anglican) who hold that sexual sins — same-sex sexual acts, pre-marital relations — are not actually sins, and some are even blessable.  Some such people also act as though sin in general is no big deal, or that sin only refers to the big, criminal things, such as murder or only refers to the great social injustices of our age.  This stems, I believe from a gross misunderstanding of God’s love, and, in fact, of love in general.

If God loves people, why would he condemn them for being how they are made?  If God loves people, why would he condemn them for doing things that are perfectly natural?  If God loves people, why would he wish to put any restrictions on them at all?  Does not love mean to seek the pleasure and happiness of the beloved?  If you love someone, do you really want to restrict that person’s behaviour?  A loving God cannot, therefore, condemn certain behaviours that have recently become social acceptable, for to do so would be to marginalise those who behave in such a way.

Yet if we back up and look at every vision of God in the Scriptures, from Noah to St. John the Divine, do we not get a sense of a truly majestic Being, full of grandeur, greatness, and completely different from us?  A Being whom Ezekiel finds himself at a loss of words to describe? (See Tozer, p. 7)  What, besides pure, unbounded love, are God’s attributes?  A. W. Tozer gives us:

  • Incomprehensibility
  • Holy Trinity
  • Self-existence
  • Self-sufficiency
  • Eternity
  • Infinitude
  • Immutability
  • Omniscience
  • Wisdom
  • Omnipotence
  • Transcendence
  • Omnipresence
  • Faithfulness
  • Goodness
  • Justice
  • Mercy
  • Grace
  • Holiness
  • Sovereignty

Such a one as that would surely establish boundaries for our daily living.  God condemns our wrong behaviour, be it socially acceptable or not, because He wants to see us living in the fullest, most whole way possible.  If we think that His love is like what I described above and do not take into account the other divine attributes, we will miss this point and start condoning sin.  And that leads us down a treacherous road to licentiousness and heresy.

Woe is us!