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Chasing the Incarnation

This post from Reditus perfectly makes the point that I have discussed, but less effectively, in my series on dualism.


A haunting image that has been etched into my mind manifested itself to me in a Russian Orthodox church during the All-Night Vigil for the Feast of the Annunciation. At a certain point during Matins (I won’t bore you with the context too much), the bearded priest stood before the icon of the Annunciation and chanted one of those old leftover ancient Slavonic chants with censer in hand. I am not sure why this made such an impression on me: it was a good hour into the service, and I know little Old Slavonic (I can sort of muddle my way through understanding what is going on.) The priest wore a sky blue phelonion gilded in gold, the robust baritone voice echoed through the church, and the melismatic chant reached back into time and grabbed from it some hidden reality that gleamed like the clouds at dusk…

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When is a Sacrament not a Sacrament? Validity and Liceity

In the process of looking at Apostolic Succession, we’ve looked at some of the (occasionally complex) terminology involved, and we’ve looked a bit at the major churches that claim Apostolic Succession.  I want to look next at how the various churches recognize–or refuse to recognize–these claims.  In order to do that, though, I’m going to have to talk a little bit about sacramental theology.

A sacrament, in the words of the Baltimore Catechism, is “an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace“.  The churches claiming to have Apostolic Succession have (with a few nuances in one or two cases) retained the sacraments as part of their worship and practice.  The number is traditionally set at seven:  Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist (or Communion), Confession (or Reconciliation), Matrimony, Holy Orders (ordination of a man as deacon, priest, or bishop), and Anointing of the Sick (or Extreme Unction).

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Apostolic Succession

I shared my post about the Gospel of Thomas to a Facebook group, and one of the members suggested I do a post about Apostolic Succession.  I’d never thought to do that, frankly; but it does tie in with some of the things I’ve written about here.  Moreover, Apostolic Succession is something of which many non-Catholics and non-Orthodox may have never heard.  Even  many Catholics and Orthodox may have only fuzzy ideas of the concept, despite its extreme importance to their respective churches.  Thus, since it’s a legitimate topic, I think I will indeed discuss it here.

In any church or religious organization–or any organization at all, for that matter–two of the most fundamental questions are “Who’s in charge” and “Why are they in charge?”  No human organization can lack some type of leadership.  Even among hunter-gatherer tribes that have little structure, there will almost always be one or two older men or women who are the informal leaders of any group endeavor.  They may not “call the shots”, but they get things done, leading by example and by the respect in which they’re held.  Heck, get a group of friends together for poker night or Superbowl Sunday or a road trip, and it’s easy to see that a few of them are actually organizing and getting things done with the others following their lead.  True anarchy is impossible–someone is always in charge, however informally.

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Angels: Fallen Edition

Having written a lengthy post on angels, I now turn to the other end of the spectrum.  Demons, in one sense, are no different from angels–they are merely evil angels, or fallen angels, in traditional terminology.  Still, they are worth looking at separately, as the scriptural basis for traditional teachings on demons is somewhat different from–and murkier–than that on angels.

“Demon”, to start off with, is from daimōn (δαίμων), which in Classical Greek merely means what we’d refer to as a “spirit” or a minor deity.  There was no moral status implied–daimones could be good, bad, or indifferent.  Some were even thought to be tutelary spirits–what we’d call “guardian angels”.  The daimonion–“little daimon” or “daimōn-like thing” of Socrates is an example of the latter.

Later on, many Christian theologians came to consider all pre-Christian pagan deities to be evil spirits masquerading as gods or benevolent beings.  Thus, daimōn came to connote not just a spirit or divinity, but an evil spirit or divinity–hence the modern meaning of “demon”.  As we will see later, Christian theology eventually equated demons with fallen angels.  We will get to that in a bit, though.

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I’ve written about angels before, in different contexts.  Here I want to address the most basic question about angels, to wit:  Do they exist?  My answer, not to leave you in suspense, is “yes”, but it will require a bit of unpacking to get there.

Part of the reason I write this is that a periodic interlocutor on another blog I frequent habitually argues that “angels” are to be understood not as separate beings, but rather as manifestations or perhaps appendages of God.  An “angel of the LORD”* is no more an individual entity than my hand or foot is.  I disagree with this, but there is some ground for this assertion.

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Scandal and Universalism

The title of this post may seem to be an odd juxtaposition, but there is method in my madness.  Bear with me as I explain.  Over the last month I have been following the news of the removal from ministry of retired Archbishop of Washington, D. C. Theodore Cardinal McCarrick in the light of allegations of sexual misconduct.  During this time, I have also been engaged in discussion of this issue on some blogs that I frequent.  One theme that I hear coming up more than once is the loss of faith of many Catholics.  The abuse scandal that broke in 2002 was bad enough, and its repercussions have perhaps not completely played out yet.  Still, many had hoped that the worst was over.  With the revelations about McCarrick, and the repeated mantra that everyone knew about his behavior for decades, and that nevertheless no one came forth publicly even after the revelations of 2002, many have considered this to be the last straw.  “That’s it–I’m out,” is something I’ve heard more than once.

So what does that have to do with universalism?  Well, in order to make the connection, I’ll need to take a look at ecclesiology.  This is the branch of theology that deals with the nature of the Church.  Most simply, in the Catholic tradition, the Church is defined as the Body of Christ.  That is, all baptized persons–practicing or inactive, good or bad, living or dead–are joined together through that sacrament into the Mystical Body of Christ.  For any of my readers who are Catholics, if you’ve ever wondered why the deacon incenses the congregation, this is why.  Incense is a sign of worship, and liturgically indicates the presence of Christ.  Christ is present at the Mass in four ways–in the Scriptures, in the priest (who acts in persona Christi–“in the person of Christ”), most fully in the Eucharist (which is Christ’s Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity), but also in the congregants, who are the Mystical Body of Christ.  Thus, the Gospel, the priest, the gifts to be consecrated, and the people are incensed.

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I Ain’t Got No Body, Revisited: Rethinking Angels

Way back here we looked at the question of why humans are created as embodied beings.  In most Abrahamic religions, and in some other Western religious systems, as well (e.g. Platonism and Gnosticism), God is said to have created the bodiless intelligences–what we call “angels”, some of whom later become “demons”–before He made embodied intelligences–that is to say, us.  Since the angels are typically seen as far superior to us, the question arises as to why God bothered in making embodied creatures to begin with.  I came to no definite conclusion on this question, though I have some ideas banging about in my head.  What I want to do here is to put a different spin on the whole question by looking at the angels and speculating as to what, exactly, they are.  This will tie in with some other themes we’ve looked at.

In the Christian tradition*, beginning with Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and continuing through various Church Fathers and theologians throughout the centuries (not least of whom as St. Thomas Aquinas in the West), angels have always been understood to be bodiless spirits.  In our discussion of the soul a little while back, we described the human soul as the seat of personality and intelligence, which is immaterial and which can survive the death of the body.  An angel has a personality and intelligence, just like a human; but it has no body.  Thus, an angel could be viewed as a pure mind.  Angels, of course, are often described as being humanoid in appearance–and sometimes, spectacularly, non-humanoid (see Ezekiel 1:4-21, Isaiah 6:2, and Revelation 4:6-8, for example).  Despite this, though, they lack physical bodies–such appearances are for the benefit of humans.  The angels either take on a temporary body (to put it in modern terms, they manipulate matter into a body which they use like a puppet) or manipulate the viewer’s mind so that they see an apparition that isn’t physically there (something like this is implied in the Book of Tobit, when Raphael reveals himself to be an angel; see Tobit 12:15-19). Theologians have debated which of these scenarios is likelier; but they have agreed that angels have no bodies of their own.

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There Are Three Kinds of People….

There are two kinds of people–those who divide people into groups and those who don’t.

There are three kinds of people–those who can count and those who can’t.

Okay, enough with the rimshot-level bad jokes….  I do want to look at a particular way of dividing people into groups, though–three groups, to be precise.  I will explain why a little later.  The model I’m going to discuss is of Gnostic origin.  As regular readers know, I have a certain amount of sympathy for many Gnostic concepts, while remaining (mostly) orthodox myself.  I have, in fact, written a series about Gnosticism, to which this post belongs.  Many aspects of the Gnostic mythos have passed into contemporary pop culture, with some themes practically becoming tropes; e.g. the dichotomy between the illusory world of appearances and the true world as it is, the control of the world by sinister demiurgic or archontic powers, and the necessity of special knowledge (gnosis) to see the world as it is.  The theme I want to look at here is much less frequently discussed in the culture at large, although well-known, if perhaps not widely spoken of, in Gnostic circles.

To set the stage, let us rehearse, in supremely condensed style, the overall thrust of the Gnostic worldview.  Generally the Gnostic worldview sees the cosmos in strongly dualistic terms, divided between spirit, which is held to be holy and pure, and matter, which is held to be evil and tainted.  The True God–sometimes called the “Alien God”–is purely spiritual, and neither made the material world nor had anything to do with it.  His realm consists of the lower beings, pure minds, which the True God emanated from His own essence.  The combination of all these beings–usually referred to in Gnostic contexts as “Aeons”, but equivalent to what we’d call “angels”–along with God is the Pleroma–the Fullness.

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Was It…SATAN??!!

The title, of course, refers to the catchphrase of Dana Carvey’s iconic 90’s Saturday Night Live character the Church Lady.  This post, however, is a little more serious than that.

I went to the vigil Mass yesterday, and the first reading, from Wisdom 1:13-15, 2:23-24, struck me (my emphasis, of course):

God did not make death,
nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.
For he fashioned all things that they might have being;
and the creatures of the world are wholesome,
and there is not a destructive drug among them
nor any domain of the netherworld on earth,
for justice is undying.
For God formed man to be imperishable;
the image of his own nature he made him.
But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world,
and they who belong to his company experience it.

That got me to thinking about some of the themes I’ve discussed in this series, and indicated to me an actual Scriptural warrant, slim though it may be, for them.

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(Body) and Soul

“Body” is a concept with which few of us have a problem.  We all have bodies after all.  No one doubts this, except perhaps for solipsists and those who’d argue that we are actually brains in vats (or for Wachowski fans, that we’re connected to the Matrix, which is essentially the same thing)*.  For the purposes here, at least, we’ll consider such viewpoints in light of the commonsense perspective–that is, that they’re cracked!  Thus, what I want to look at is the idea of the soul.  I’m doing so in order to develop the groundwork for some ideas I want to explore in my series on polygenism, specifically, and more generally in regard to my series on the Fall.  Since this post itself is a sort of stand-alone, though, I’ll put it in “Religious Miscellany“.

I should preface this discussion by stipulating that I do believe that the soul, as an entity distinct from the body actually does exist.  Obviously, not everyone believes this.  Many of the philosophically materialist persuasion would argue that what is commonly called a “soul” is merely the complex interaction of electrochemical processes in the human brain.  The more radical would argue that the mind itself is no different from the brain, except perhaps in an analytical sense.  Some, such as Daniel Dennett (if I understand him correctly) would even go so far as to deny the existence of sense of self and personal experience.  In this post, I’m not interested in arguing against a materialist view of the comos. For those interested in such a defense, I’d refer you to C. S. Lewis’s book Miracles.  For now, suffice it to say that I’m taking the existence of a discrete, immaterial soul that is distinct from the body for granted.

We use the word “soul” all the time, and we all have a vague agreement on what it means.  In general, “soul” means the center of identity that makes a person who he or she is, and which is distinct from the body.  That is, our memories, thoughts, emotions–that which we consider to be our “self”, our “identity”, including but not limited to the mind, is the soul.  The soul is in some sense “in” the body (though the spatial term “in” is really a metaphor) and interacts with and is affected by the body–for example, if the body becomes tired enough, we become unconscious, and things such as drugs can affect our minds.  Despite this, the soul is distinct from the body, and is usually held to be separable from it, and to survive the body’s death.

Further, as is popularly conceived, though not always clearly articulated, the soul is not only the locus of the true self, it is the self.  We speak of having a soul, like we have a car or a television.  However, as the term is usually understood, it’s more accurate to say that we are souls.  This follows the ideas of Plato, notably in his dialogue Phaedo.  In effect, the true person is the soul, which merely “wears” the body as one would wear clothing.  Thus, while we may identify with our body, there is still a sense in which we do not consider it equivalent to ourselves.  We speak of “my” hand or kidney or hair, as if these things are not actually part of us, any more than “my” book or computer is.  We say of a departed one that “he” went to Heaven (or perhaps Hell), or that “he” was reincarnated.  Since his body remains, it is evident that the “he” to which we refer is the soul.

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