27 November 2009

The Shipwreck, or Salvation May Not Be What You Think

Like many converts to Orthodoxy, I have family who are firmly Protestant and, moreover, make use of opportunities of family gatherings to challenge me (or, as they would put it, save my soul from the cult I've joined). As a catechumen, and the first year or so after reception into the Church, I--somewhat shamefully--took great delight in these arguments and heated discussions over the festive dinner table. This was wrong, I regret it deeply, and, unfortunately, it has set a now hostile tone for whenever certain members of my family are present.

However, at yesterday's American Thanksgiving celebration (held this year at the home of my parents, and prepared almost exclusively my yours truly and my mother, the handmaiden of God, Ita), I found myself once again set upon by those who think that I have damned my soul by joining the Orthodox Church. It is, after all, too "Catholic" (because of the liturgical worship, priests, going to Confession); it is also, simultaneously, too "pagan" (because we pray to the Saints, who are leftover pagan gods, and worship Mary as a mother-goddess). Sigh. Now, interspersed among the fundagelicals and pentecostals in the family, there are also a few mainline protestants (primarily of the Methodist stripe), who are about as broadly and ecumenically minded as it comes. We have different issues than I have with the other family members, but, God bless my Methodist grandmother, she sought to deliver me from the post-dressing harangue by saying "As long as he believes in Jesus and is saved, that's good enough for me, and should be good enough for anyone who calls themselves a Christian."

Of course, this prompted one of my mother's first cousins to ask me if I was "saved."

I should have just said "Yes." Lord help me, I should have and ended it right there. But, instead, I have an honest answer with "Not yet, but I'm working on it."

Instead of giving you the blow by blow account of what I said (for, unlike Plato, I am no good at writing dialogues), I shall simply summarize my thoughts on the matter in straight prose, with, I hope, fewer words and less digressions from the main topic:

In thinking about salvation, let us leave aside proof texts for a bit. As Abelard pointed out, the Bible is just a text, from which one can get a yes and a no answer for almost any question. That is to say, it is a text that is not meant to be used as a systematic treatise; one gains one's understanding of the instructional material therein (especially St. Paul's Epistles, from which any argument on salvation would draw) through the eyes of interpretation, whatever interpretive framework to which one may subscribe. Since this would not be fruitful, let us begin another method of understanding...one that looks at the point of such stories as we may find, and try to tease out the symbolic meaning therein. That is, after all, the primary method through which the Lord taught those who did not understand Him.

On the topic of "salvation" one story, in particular, stands out to me from the New Testament. In The Acts of the Apostles, the twenty-seventh chapter, St. Paul is on a ship on the way to Rome to be judged. The ship encounters a terrifying storm, but St. Paul assures all aboard that, while he was praying, an angel appeared to him and assured him that all the people on the ship would be saved.

As you may recall, after he made this declaration, the ship continued being battered by the winds and tossed by the waves for some fourteen days. Most of the cargo had been tossed overboard, trying to keep the ship afloat, and the scriptures tell us that the men on board had not eaten for many days. St. Paul instructed them to eat (for which he gave thanks to God--perhaps even performed the Eucharistic service?), after which, the rest of the food on board was thrown into the sea. After this most desperate action, the sighted land; attempting to anchor the ship in a bay, the ship ran aground and was wrecked. The centurion in charge commanded everyone to jump overboard and to swim to shore. And all aboard were, indeed, saved.

But note here that God did not calm the seas, as He had for His disciples upon the Sea of Galilee; nor did He even provide them a safe harbor in which to anchor their ship. Instead, the ship was wrecked, and the people swam to land. One could even say, they saved themselves with their efforts. Does this mean that St. Paul lied? Surely the same angel that God sent to tell him they would be saved could have saved them in a more direct fashion? Was it mere human agency and determination that got those men to the shore?

Perhaps it was. But it was also God who did what He said--no one who was on the ship was drowned or lost at sea. Human agency and Divine agency cooperated together to accomplish the Divine will. There is no contradiction here. These men could not have been saved from the sea if God had not willed it; nor could they have been saved from the sea if they had refused to swim.

This is the context, then, in which I answer questions about my salvation. I have been ordered to jump overboard and swim. I am swimming--somewhat fitfully and taking on a lot of water from time to time, but that is the nature of the contest. If I were to give up, and let myself sink, I would not be saved. But, having faith means believing that God will give me the strength to continue to swim, if I continue to swim. This is what St. Paul meant when he said to the Church at Philippi "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." (Philippians 2:12-13).

It is God's good pleasure for us to be saved, and it is for us to work toward that salvation, through the power of God at work in us (that would be, the Holy Spirit, through communion with the Church). So no, I am not "saved." It would be presumptuous in the extreme for me to say so. But I am working toward salvation--badly, falling constantly, failing to keep even the simplest of the Lord's commandments--but refusing to give up or give in, because to stop would bring the only certainty a man can have, which is being given up over to sin and death.


Brigitte said...

Very nice. Did it sound as good when you said it? :) Gives me a great visual, and I can imagine it will help me if I have to engage in such a conversation (again). I am the lone Orthodox soul in a family of Protestants as well. I love how you point out how we are simultaneously Catholic and pagan at the same time to them. lol.

Justinian said...

Thanks :) It probably didn't since I was being interrupted, shouted down, and questioned pretty harshly.

I am not the only Orthodox Christian in the family; my mom was received when I was, and my dad followed a year later. But, I am the one singled out, probably because I'm too stupid to just smile and wave.

And yeah, arguing with them about Orthodoxy is like trying to explain the sun to a blind man. Of course, they usually retreat to their anti-Catholic arguments and start quoting the Epistle to the Romans to me, lol.

This is nothing, though, compared to the argument that was had two years ago at the Christmas gathering over the rapture and the "end times." I don't ever want to go there again :D

I hope you're having a blessed Advent Fast. Dia dhuitt!

Brigitte said...

Hearing them talk about the rapture and end times leaves me speechless...and thankfully so because it brings to mind all kinds of funny (to me) videos I've seen about it...who knows what I'd say :)

Anonymous said...

One of my pastors explained the Orthodox answer to "Are you saved?" by saying: Yes, I was saved (by Jesus); yes, I am saved (through Baptism) and Yes, I hope to be saved ( through prayer, the Sacraments and good works.) We have the tools, the Best Way, but no guaranty.
Subdeacon Bob

Anonymous said...

Just to add another thought: I like your swimming analogy for dealing with the question of being saved. What about coming from a large Catholic family, though? Christmas gatherings lead to the same discussions of why the East "left the Church". I do have fun trying to remind family that it was Rome that left the Path and then I rely on +Kallistos' book on the Orthodox faith for the correct histoical facts. He is a great Apologist!
Subdeacon Bob

Zoe G. said...

You sure talk a lot for a hermit...heh!

Any hesychasm on the horizon, perchance? ;-)

Justinian said...

Subdeacon Bob: LOL--Did St. Basil write that tri-partite answer? Truly, you can distinguish Orthodox writing, usually, because it frequently says the same thing in three ways. So very Trinitarian. We only have a few Catholics in the family, and most of those are on dad's side (and we don't seem them much anyway)--so I have never had the opportunity to really be in direct confrontation with Latins. But one of the things St. Photios makes clear in The Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit is that when arguing with those outside the Church, the argument must, necessarily, change to meet the situation; as a philosopher by nature and training, that's been one of the hardest things for me to accept--that the Church can even sanctify sophistry--but, reading the writings of the Holy Cappadocian Fathers, it becomes quite clear that this is so.

I think Met. Kallistos is a good writer, and a very entertaining speaker. I don't always agree with him or his interpretation of historical certain historical events and developments, but I have a soft spot for him since the second "Orthodox" book I read was The Orthodox Church. Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment!

Zoe: Haha, you caught me red-handed, I'm afraid! I'm loquacious past the point of good sense sometimes. 'The Hermit' moniker is actually a holdover from older, pre-Orthodox days...but I kept it because, well, there are elements of hermitage that appeal to me. Of course, that's all too common (according to St. Ignatius Brianchaninov) among those who are at the lowest rungs on the spiritual ladder. :D I am afraid that the path of quietude is so far beyond my current situation that I dare not even think of myself in those terms. Thanks very much for reading my blog, and leaving a comment!

Brigitte said...

I just remembered this quote which I read in my Lives of the Saints. I think it is great advice--too bad I forget about it most of the time!

--A Hermit advised, “If someone speaks to you about a controversy, do not argue with him. If what he says makes sense, say, ‘Yes.’ If his comments are misguided, say, ‘I don’t know anything about that.’ If you refuse to dispute with his ideas, your mind will be at peace."--

Anonymous said...

(sighs and hugs Justinian)....so sorry to hear of all the arm wrestling. :) LOL! It' s very familiar to me however. Your grandma sounds like a really cool babushka! :) It could be worse though: you could surrounded by "intellectual atheists" like I am. ;)

It's taken me many years to keep my mouth shut and even then I am not always successful. There is a certain amount f grace though in being the target.

Justinian said...

Thank you, my friend; and, indeed, I have been surrounded by intellectual atheists before (and count a few among my friends). They are a different sort of challenge. :D Although I admit, sometimes I feel the urge to take St. John Chrysostom's advice: "If you hear a man blaspheming, slap him in the mouth and so sanctify your hand."

Amen! It is indeed good to be persecuted for righteousness sake--I heard somewhere those people are the ones who are going to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven :D

Anonymous said...

Wonderful essay on salvation, Justinian! I want to share it with my wife. Thanks for writing it out. I know I've told you this before, at least I think I have, but you do have a way with words, a gift. Yes, I too am trying to stop always having to speak my mind regarding controversial matters. It doesn't lead to anything good, for me or the hearer.

Justinian said...

The wisdom to know when to speak, and the grace to know when to shut up, are things for which I pray frequently. Alas, that I am too hard headed to get it, most of the time. But, thank you so much for the compliment, my friend! Writing comes naturally--if only spelling and and more consistent logical flow did as well. I tend to write oratorically...that is to say, I write as if I were talking the words on the page. Sometimes, this leads to textual oddities :D I'm glad they don't in the way too much. You and your family remain in my prayers, Todd.

Anonymous said...

"I tend to write oratorically...that is to say, I write as if I were talking the words on the page. Sometimes, this leads to textual oddities :D I'm glad they don't in the way too much."

You're too modest.

And thank you for your prayers! God is answering.