Refusing the Gangster God: Why I’m Orthodox

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Godfather_puppetmaster.jpg

Why did I choose to become Orthodox? This is a question with a potentially long answer so I’ll highlight why. It came down to one question:

Why did Jesus die?

I was baptized Catholic and then went through a few stages of Protestantism as my mom sought a different expression of her faith. If memory serves me correctly, she had become alienated from the Catholic focus on original sin and persistent guilt. The idea of “if you don’t follow these rules then you will go to hell” was no longer something to settle for. Catholic guilt was the real deal in my family! As my family was going through some rough times the way God looked was alienating.

When my mom married my step-father we joined him in the Presbyterian Church (USA). As she puts it, that church was the first time she heard the Gospel preached and she met God there. It was a powerful experience for her and she has remained Presbyterian ever since. I was just in junior high school so I pretty much just fell asleep as usual.

In between naps, it was there that I hooked into evangelical Protestantism. I found an identity there. As with my mother evangelicalism eventually fit. It was my first real faith journey and it lasted from the end of junior high school through seminary. I was a very comfortable Calvinist through my middle year at seminary. So what changed?

Doctrinally it came down to one idea: I could no longer accept the notion that God needed to satisfy His own law and its consequences by killing off His Son. The idea that Jesus died to fulfill a legal contract God made with a humanity that didn’t keep up its end of the bargain seemed absurd. It was as if the presence of Jesus himself was relegated to a background status because none of that in itself was meaningful in closing the deal on sin. God the judge. God the gangster. God made an offer that we couldn’t refuse. Since we refused it we deserved death. But since we can’t possibly satisfy a king and judge like God, God had to suck it up and do it for us. It is as if God is shackled to His own Law. Love is in the service of justice and Jesus serves justice on the cross. Jesus came to die. My exposure to the church Fathers beginning with St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation turned my understanding of God upside down.

St. John's Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church in Sharon, PA

St. John's Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church in Sharon, PA

My first experience in an Orthodox church was at St. John’s Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church in Sharon, PA. It was for a Religion in America class where we were to visit a faith not our own. I knew just how different Eastern Orthodoxy was so a group of us went. It was confusing and off-setting. I was uncomfortable. Then a weird thing happened. After the Liturgy a woman behind me said, “Is your last name Tatusko?” I told her it was. It turns out that we were related. The name Tatusko is not that common. There was a strange connection made right there that would never leave me.

In Orthodoxy Jesus didn’t come here to save us from God’s wrath, He came in order to heal what was broken. The most broken aspect of human life is death itself. That’s the Gospel I heard in the narratives. This was the same God who raised Lazarus, who welcomed prostitutes and tax collectors, gave sight to the blind, and told a man to pick up his mat and walk. God is a God who heals wounds in spite of the fact that we cut ourselves open every day. God healed death by dying and raising from death. He did this not to satisfy an immutable Law, but because the very nature of God is Love. Grace steps in where justice fails. Because God is Love and that is what God revealed to us. As the Paschal Troparion is sung:

Christ is risen from the dead
Trampling down death by death
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life.

Before we were born the work of Christ to destroy death and the imparting of the Holy Spirit was accomplished. It continues to be present. This is not just a semantic issue. It cuts to the core of our very understanding of God. This works itself out in the practice of Orthodox faith through the saints of the early church to today. Those related ideas and practices are to discuss another time.

That was the main difference. That is why I sit in front of the Iconostasis every Sunday in the presence of my Lord.

For more see Scot McKnight’s post on the Atonement here.

  • Casey

    I just discovered your blog and have enjoyed reading it. I can definitely relate to the spiritual journey you’ve described. I grew up Baptist, then became Presbyterian (USA), and now belong to an Episcopal church that has an Eastern-Orthodox-leaning soteriology and spirituality.  To me this approach makes more sense than anything I had ever known. I look forward to reading the Philokalia book you recommended on a different thread (I am familiar with this through Way of a Pilgrim but have never studied it). Feel free to share other things that have been helpful to you. I hope the Orthodox way continues to become more accessible to more people.  Peace be with you. 

  • Cous

    Welcome to Patheos! I look forward to following your blog – as a Roman Catholic who went to school in the basement of a Greek Orthodox Church, I’ve always had a weakness for icons and stricter Lenten fasts ;)

    While the phenomenon of “Catholic guilt” is the result of an unhealthy interpretation of the Church’s teachings, the presentation you give of the Eastern Orthodox view of redemption also strikes me as unhealthy, with its emphasis on death as the main thing that Christ came to fix. The most broken aspect of human life is not death, it is rejection of God, of which death is one of the major consequences for humans; consider fallen angels, who have immortality and yet are eternally damned. The defining feature of Christ’s life was not His death, but His total love for the Father and conformity with the Father’s will, and His death was part of this continual manifestation of that love. This is not to diminish in any way the unspeakable significance of His death and our total unworthiness of such a Redeemer, but all I wish to say is that He conquered death only by conquering sin.

    The Latin Church for sure, and I would assume the Orthodox as well, has emphasized different aspects of redemption at different points in time (wrathful judge vs. patient father; fear and trembling vs. “the Lord is my shepherd;” sin as rule-breaking vs. sin as a failure to love fully). Heck, you’ll get the same range in “flavor” just between a Jesuit and a Franciscan living at the same time. All this to say, I don’t see a substantial/doctrinal difference between the churches on this point.

    (also, PTS? I have to ask: Bent Spoon, Halo, or T-Sweets?)

    • http://notes-from-off-center.com drewtatusko

      Hi Cous.

      I think your criticism makes sense, but what I was addressing is the significance of the cross alone. The atoning activity begins with the Incarnation. The Incarnation sanctifies the image of God in humanity by enjoining human nature to God’s nature. Christ is the image and likeness of God in a human being to its fullest. He is the deified human. In this way God has healed the image of God in us. The ministry of Jesus continues this revelation of God as one who heals. That doesn’t mean it’s always pleasant. Sometimes you need some salt to heal a wound.

      • Cous

        Thanks for the clarification, your point is well-taken. Christians do often fixate on the death of Christ as the only part of his life that’s relevant to our redemption, instead considering his human life as a whole, beginning with the Incarnation.

  • http://www.orthodoxconvert.info Timothy Copple

    I can appreciate the interest in the atonement. It is also one of the issues that endeared me to Orthodoxy, only because it finalized a theological journey I’d been making. I’ve written about it on my own website:

    http://www.orthodoxconvert.info/Q-A.php?c=Salvation-The%20Atonement

    Nicely put.

  • cowalker

    “In Orthodoxy Jesus didn’t come here to save us from God’s wrath, He came in order to heal what was broken. The most broken aspect of human life is death itself . . . . God is a God who heals wounds in spite of the fact that we cut ourselves open every day. God healed death by dying and raising from death. He did this not to satisfy an immutable Law, but because the very nature of God is Love.”

    I’m still confused. If God isn’t bound by some law of his own making, why didn’t God simply forgive Adam and Eve–and every sinner since–without punishing them with death?

  • Walter

    The wage of SIN is death. SIn bring the death to sinner.
    God is life.The one who alienate or foresake God who is life is death. Death is the natural consequence that must happen after we sin. Sin kill and punish the sinner, not God.

  • Walter

    “The more he distanced himself from life, the closer he approached death; because God is Life, and the deprivation of life is death.God did not create death; it was we who brought it upon ourselves. ” Saint Basil

  • S

    cowalker asks a good question. I have heard in an Orthodox Bible study that death (or blocking off the tree of life) was itself a merciful act by God, to protect Adam and Eve from living forever in their sinful state. That is why Jesus’s life is part of our redemption too. He lived a fully human life in perfect harmony with the Father.

  • neanderhummus

    Leviticus 17:11 For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.

    1 John 2 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

  • isaaccrabtree

    We have heard some people trying to excuse this most pernicious disease of the soul, in such a way as to endeavour to extenuate it by a rather shocking way of interpreting Scripture: as they say that it is not injurious if we are angry with the brethren who do wrong, since, say they, God Himself is said to rage and to be angry with those who either will not know Him, or, knowing Him, spurn Him, as here: And the anger of the Lord was kindled against His people; or where theprophet prays and says, O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, neither chasten me in your displeasure; not understanding that, while they want to open to menan excuse for a most pestilent sin, they are ascribing to the Divine Infinity and Fountain of all purity a taint of human passion.

    For if when these things are said of God they are to be understood literally in a material gross signification, then also He sleeps, as it is said, Arise, wherefore do you sleep, O Lord? though it is elsewhere said of Him: Behold he that keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. And He stands and sits, since He says,Heaven is my seat, and earth the footstool for my feet: Isaiah 66:1 though He measure out the heaven with his hand, and holds the earth in his fist. Isaiah 40:12And He is drunken with wine as it is said, The Lord awoke like a sleeper, a mighty man, drunken with wine; He who only has immortality and dwells in the light which no man can approach unto: 1 Timothy 6:16 not to say anything of the ignorance and forgetfulness, of which we often find mention in Holy Scripture: nor lastly of the outline of His limbs, which are spoken of as arranged and ordered like a man’s; e.g., the hair, head, nostrils, eyes, face, hands, arms, fingers, belly, and feet: if we are willing to take all of which according to the bare literal sense, we must think of God as in fashion with the outline of limbs, and a bodilyform; which indeed is shocking even to speak of, and must be far from our thoughts.

    And so as without horrible profanity these things cannot be understood literally of Him who is declared by the authority of Holy Scripture to be invisible, ineffable, incomprehensible, inestimable, simple, and uncompounded, so neither can the passion of anger and wrath be attributed to that unchangeable nature without fearful blasphemy. For we ought to see that the limbs signify the divine powers and boundless operations of God, which can only be represented to us by the familiar expression of limbs: by the mouth we should understand that His utterances are meant, which are of His mercy continually poured into the secret senses of the soul, or which He spoke among our fathers and the prophets: by the eyes we can understand the boundless character of His sight with which He sees and looks through all things, and so nothing is hidden from Him of what is done or can be done by us, or even thought. By the expression hands, we understand His providence and work, by which He is the creator and author of all things; the arms are the emblems of His might and government, with which He upholds, rules and controls all things. And not to speak of other things, what else does the hoary hair of His head signify but the eternity and perpetuity of Deity, through which He is without any beginning, and before all times, and excels all creatures? So then also when we read of the anger or fury of the Lord, we should take it not ἀνθρωποπαθῶς ; i.e., according to an unworthy meaning of human passion, but in a sense worthy of God, who is free from all passion; so that by this we should understand that He is the judge and avenger of all the unjust things which are done in this world; and by reason of these terms and their meaning we should dread Him as the terrible rewarder of our deeds, and fear to do anything against His will. For human nature is wont to fear those whom it knows to be indignant, and is afraid of offending: as in the case of some most just judges, avenging wrath is usually feared by those who are tormented by some accusation of their conscience; not indeed that this passion exists in the minds of those who are going to judge with perfect equity, but that, while they so fear, the disposition of the judge towards them is that which is the precursor of a just and impartial execution of the law. And this, with whatever kindness and gentleness it may be conducted, is deemed by those who are justly to be punished to be the most savage wrath and vehement anger. It would be tedious and outside the scope of the present work were we to explain all the things which are spoken metaphorically of God in Holy Scripture, with human figures. Let it be enough for our present purpose, which is aimed against the sin of wrath, to have said this that no one may through ignorance draw down upon himself a cause of this evil and of eternal death, out of those Scriptures in which he should seek for saintliness and immortality as the remedies to bring life and salvation.

    - St. John Cassian, The Institutes, Book VIII.


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