4. Encountering Living Orthodoxy, September 2003 to the Sunday of Orthodoxy (25 February 2007)
St. Maximus and Soteriology
Having completed the Father Seraphim biography and the collection of his letters over the Christmas 2003 holidays, 2004 opened with some light popular reading, and soon my family’s first solid exposure to Great Lent in the Orthodox Church. I worshiped at my first Bridegroom Matins service, and experienced some of the most profound and moving services during the Triduum. Although I had attended my first Pascha service the previous year, 2004 was the first for us as a family. It was an amazing and wonderful experience.
Spring gave way to summer, and in June of that year we totaled our car. But the Lord watched over us, and kept us all safe. One of our parishioners, Patricia, helped us get back home that day. A generous gift, our insurance settlement, and a most blessed timing, meant we were without a vehicle of our own only for a couple of brief weeks. We were able to get a good, safe and dependable vehicle.
The rest of 2004 was pretty mundane, in terms of Orthodoxy and our home. Which was good for us. We began to see how normal life as an Orthodox looked, and I was given yet more time to ensure that my conversion to Orthodoxy was genuine and without romanticism.
The year 2005, however, brought for me a new set of important theological developments. Perhaps one of the best things, in terms of my growth in understanding of Orthodoxy, to come out of the beginning of the year, was a post on the Church’s Tradition. That led to a series of exchanges between me and Kevin on the Tradition of the Church (the links to all of the posts are summarized in this final post). And that set of exchanges led then to a later series of posts, which, after the exchanges got underway, I called a soteriology diablog between various interblogolocutors.
The reason why this exchange was so transformative for me is that it led, through a personal recommendation from Perry Robinson, to a reading of Joseph Farrell’s Free Choice in Saint Maximos the Confessor, as well as Farrell’s translation of St. Maximos’ dialogue with Pyrrhus. In fact, I was so taken with Farrell’s book, I read it twice, once in April and then again in September.
It was the examination of the gnomic will of the human person that really opened up soteriology for me. I’d been working on an incomplete seminar paper on free will, and so this issue was fresh in my mind. Too, I was wrestling with the tension between “working out your salvation” and “saved by grace.” This was not a new struggle. I had faced it in my fourth year of Bible college. I had been raised with an almost semi-Pelagian understanding of salvation, that at times bordered on legalism. In college I grew to better understand grace. But this led, for a time, to a bit of antinomianism. The pendulum swung back to a more moderate spot, but encountering the Orthodox notion of struggle reawakened the tension and how to understand it.
St. Maximos gave me a mechanism and a schema by which I could understand the libertarian nature of human free will, and its ascetical nature of struggle and virtue. (Not all libertarian accounts of free will understand, let alone try to incorporate, the askesis of struggle and virtue in the deliberative will—Robert Kane is a notable and welcome exception.) It was that conceptual change that helped me to better grasp the Orthodox understanding of salvation, and St. Paul’s admonition to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”
It became clear to me that it was the habitual action, the continuous struggle, the life of the repentance that was, indeed, the point. It wasn’t a juridical declaration from God on high. It was, rather, the union with God that God fashions from our freely willed ascetical struggles in choosing that union, that love. It wasn’t that my struggle somehow earned God’s favor. It wasn’t that my efforts somehow merited grace. It was, rather, that in the struggle, in the effort, God in love freely energizes in me the infinite goods of his grace to not only do but become by his grace that which he is by his nature.
Gone was my semi-Pelagian, Restoration Movement understanding. It now made sense to me how it is that the Orthodox Church is, in some ways, the most ascetically demanding of Christian bodies, and the one place where I have come to know grace, to come finally to realize that God is, indeed, the lover of mankind. Not a God of wrath and judgment, but the God who is love, and who in love, extends his divine goods toward me that I might not merely know about him, but know him in my very being, insofar as my being can contain the tiniest sliver of that sort of knowing.
And once this development had worked its wonder and grace in me, the second major development was on its way.
[Next: The Summer of True Philosophia]