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Who is Lord? Vigil, personhood, renunciation and baptismal identity, part 2

Renouncing Satan?

We are gathering momentum as we travel to the vigil. Looking forward to the great fire, the readings, the proclamation of Christ risen. But many of us stumble when it comes to “renouncing Satan and spiritual forces and powers” that are in the baptismal rite (BAS 154), and remembered in the renewal of baptismal vows (330). Why do we, the church of 2017, use this archaic language from a pre-scientific era?

Coming to the church from Eastern traditions, my personal difficulty was not just in personifying evil, but personifying God. If I am a person, how is God a person? Is Satan a person? I found it much easier to think of God in the platonic sense as impersonal, or as an energy or oneness of being: consciousness. The question that I realized must first be asked is this: “what is a person?”

It was not until the 4th century that we even had the use of the word person, and it arose through the church’s exploration of what it means to have a Triune God. The church wrestled with questions: how is God one and three? How is Jesus both God and man? These questions drove the church to forge the idea of personhood. One God: one divine nature, with three persons. Just as there is a human nature: one humanity, with unlimited persons. The Cappadocians—Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa, are often associated with these questions, but truly they are at the centre of patristic thought through the Sixth Ecumenical Council and to our contemporary theologians like John Zizioulas, Dimitru Staniloae and others.

Personhood is what is meant to by being made in the image and likeness of God. God is truly a person, or rather three persons: three persons in relationship. Personhood is about being in relation: freely in relationship with the other, and ultimately in relationship with this relational tri-person God, the source of being. Personhood is about true freedom, the freedom to love, even to love one’s enemies, to transcend our biological desires for pure self-preservation. Jesus demonstrates what true personhood and freedom are on the cross: loving an enemy is possible only with a profound freedom.

Kierkegaard suggests that the demonic is defined by the very rejection of relationship and communion. “The demonic is un-freedom that wants to close itself off, a solipsistic enclosedness that ‘closes itself up within itself.’” John P. Manouussakis explains: “In contradistinction to the ecstatic movement of the person in relation, the demonic remains withdrawn in this lonely prison made up by the fragments of a mirror that reflect back the self-same images of itself.”

True Personhood is always outward and relationship oriented. Consider the doxology we say at the end of the Lord’s Prayer: “for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory.” Not mine. My master is not my asserting claim on the kingdom by control, nor am I asserting my own power over others, but submitting to God’s power. Finally, I claim no glory, for all glory belongs to God. It is our broken human condition, our surrender to the wrong master, that our lifelong conversion in baptism is about. We plunge into the waters and emerge reclothed in our right mind, in relationship to our true master.

Before dismissing the personhood of God or the personification of evil, ask yourself,“what is a person?” What is the mystery of your own personhood—that great interior landscape that makes you who you are? The renunciations profess with whom you are in relationship, who your master is, who occupies your life, and to whom are you oriented. What do you need to empty to make room for the fullness of life, the Word of God, Christ, to live in you?

Gregor Sneddon

About Gregor Sneddon

Gregor Sneddon is a Presbyter in the Diocese of Ottawa and the Rector of St Matthew’s, Ottawa. He received an MA from the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies and is the founding Coordinator for Contemplative Outreach of Eastern Ontario. Gregor is a council member of the Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission and serves on the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation. He is a husband, a dad, and enjoys being in the woods, a good dinner party and swinging the blues.

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7 Responses to Who is Lord? Vigil, personhood, renunciation and baptismal identity, part 2

  1. If concepts of ‘person’ and ‘personhood’ date from 4th century CE theological debates – and I agree with Gregor that they probably do – then ‘personhood’ cannot be, as he claims here, the meaning of “made in the image and likeness of God,” a biblical text written a millennium earlier.

    No, the authors of Genesis 1 actually described humans as imaging Elohim in physical form, specifically in their gender differentiation, not abstract ‘personhood’ (cf. Michael Coogan, God and Sex). In fact the Hebrew Bible is ambiguous about God’s corporeality, and rabbinic literature never categorically denies that God has a body (Shai Cherry, Torah through Time, p.45). It’d be interesting to trace that idea in Christian theology, but Karen Armstrong and others suggest conceptions of God in our tradition have been abstracting over time, from anthropomorphic physicality to incorporeal personhood to conceptual ‘ground of being’ (or other metaphor) for many believers today.

    So it’s an excellent question: Why does the church in 2017 use ‘archaic’, personifying language for God and Satan? It seems Gregor is trying to show the old vocabulary is still true in an abstract way (which works better for God than for Satan). I’m sympathetic, but given the inevitable confusion, why not just use vocabulary that clearly expresses what we actually believe today?

    • there is only confustion when you don’t like where it is going.

    • I like your observation Steve. Of course, the Hebrew Scriptures also did not have a concept of “person”, but more importantly, they did not conceptualize a Triune God. The discussion of how is Jesus both God and human, and how are there three Gods in one belongs to the Church, not Judaism. My argument here is to suggest that before we dismiss the ideas of God as “person,” or Satan as “anti-person” it is worth clarifying what we mean by the word “person” to begin with.
      “Prosopon” and “Hypostasis” are certainly roots of the patristic understanding, but even then, the meaning of words like “nous”, changed through the patristic period. I think it is St Maximus who ties it all together which is reflected (though he is not mentioned) in the 6th Council and where the fullness of Chalcedon is revealed in the dual wills corresponding to the dual natures of Christ.
      I think it is always important to underline that we are born of tradition – that Christians have a specific hermeneutic grounded in the creeds (rules of faith) that forged the canon of the New Testament and from where our theology springs, including the incarnation, our soteriology, Christology, and the doctrine of the Trinity, ontology and beyond.
      All to say, I don’t think we can draw on what the Hebrew text, or for that matter the Septuagint text says without the Church. We always gaze through the eyes of the Eucharist.
      Indeed, the Enlightenment and Cartesian science prefer to dismiss the undefinable, but the danger of doing away with concepts or words that keep us at that threshold of mystery and instead find convenient and definable boxes that fit our post enlightenment sensibilities, is that it keeps us in the realm of intellect and robs us all of the great adventure of surrendering the mind in crucified love – faith.
      Personhood, like God, remains “mystery.” As the Catechism draws on Augustine: “Whatever you think God is, God is most certainly not that.”

    • Thanks, Gregor. I share your aim of using “concepts or words that keep us at that threshold of mystery,” exploring the ‘depth dimension’ of life (Tillich).

      But to my mind, using language that anthropomorphizes and personifies God – concepts crafted to express a pre-medieval, even ‘pre-supernatural’ theology – not only reduces God to human-scale but gives the false impression that we’re being faithful to a tradition, that the old words still carry their old meaning. They do not. We can hardly imagine that worldview, much less claim to continue in it.

      For example, your reflection on God’s ‘personhood’ is valuable. But you side-stepped prosopon’s literal, Patristic meaning, its essential entitiness or ‘individua substantia’ (Boethius), because we no longer think of the ‘persons’ of the Trinity as (perhaps corporeal) beings in the Ptolemaic universe. Today we might not conceive of God ‘being’ at all. Our conceptions of both ‘God’ and ‘person’ are far removed from the Patristic worldview. If ‘prosopon’ still expresses something meaningful about God it’ll be as a metaphor (which is worth thinking about, as you suggest).

      So when we recite the traditional vocabulary of the creeds and liturgies we don’t mean what the tradition meant, which is not for lack of will but an inevitability of 1,600 years of paradigm-shifting change. I think it critical, for the sake of our public integrity, that we admit what we’re doing, this adaptive re-use, and be clear about our use of metaphors.

      And following on Tillich and Bishop Robinson 50+ years ago, I think the personifying metaphors are largely spent, even distracting, as you admit at the top. Those “convenient and definable boxes” were created for another time and are now too confining. If there’s a “threshold of mystery” I think it lies elsewhere. Thanks for the discussion!

    • Hey Steve – you note that personifying God reduces God to a human scale, but I would argue the opposite, by personifying God we are raising Human to a “Godly-scale.” Perhaps I misrepresented the word “prosopon”. Prosopon is not a patristic concept at all – it is a Greek word usually ascribed to the masks worn in the tragic theatre, I referenced the word just to note that prosopon is one of the few distinguishing words available to the Fathers as they explored the meaning of the trinity and the development of the idea of “person.” Certainly, I understand your point of view, from a Tillich perspective, God as the “ground of being” – Tillich denies any personification of God and as many Protestant theologians of the 20th century moves very quickly to ascribing all of the mysteries and sacraments as “metaphor,” certainly that would save our “public integrity” as you put it. I guess this would be where we would agree to disagree – Although I agree science and 1600 years (even 10 years) has expanded our awareness and wisdom to understand and deepen our knowledge and ability to express and make sense of reality – and indeed faith, but I can’t say the tradition, the creeds, the Fathers, and the images and words they used are “spent,” nor do I think attibuting the mysteries to “metaphor” is helpful. In fact, I think it robs us of our sacramentality and the opportunity to put the reasoning brain aside, which is a very limited tool when confronted with love crucified. “Distracting” for the mind, it may be when we hold up the tradition to scientific post modern categories, but praying before an Icon, receiving the body and blood of Christ, Baptism, or God for that matter, and even prayer itself can never be given the status of “metaphor” – that just puts them comfortably in digestible categories of the enlightenment and is a way to satisfy that hermeneutic . I think the Patristic vision is alive today as it ever was, albeit enhanced with modern tools and understanding. A sacramental and apophatic posture towards reality, I think, is far more real and true and allows us to surrender all of our selves, our whole “persons” to the mystery of the “person” of God, whereby we become “participants in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). I too enjoy this discussion, and what a boring world it world be if we always agreed on everything!

      • reading these posts on a Good Friday morning brings home and settles in deeper the awareness that Yes ‘ A sacramental and apophatic posture towards reality,
        IS far more real and true and allows us to surrender all of our selves, our whole “persons” to the mystery of the “person” of God, whereby we become “participants in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).
        great discussion- beautifully marries the theology and the praxis.

    • It seems I misread you, Gregor. Your last comment suggests – not that the traditional metaphors are still helpful tools (however limited I think them) for exploring spirituality but – that the traditions “can never be given the status of ‘metaphor’” at all. I don’t understand that. If not metaphoric, what are they? This view suggests a faith claim similar to transubstantiation, that the icon, sacrament, or liturgy is no longer ‘mere’ metaphor or symbol but has become the “far more real and true” thing it otherwise would only represent. If that’s the Patristic vision, it confuses human, imperfect, subjective, culturally-conditioned approximations for the divine original, signs for the thing signified, idols for the spiritual ideal.

      For those with ears to hear, this is exactly where Enlightenment and post-modern hermeneutics have proved invaluable – in helping us to suspect claims of absolute certainly, to question the authority of tradition, and to check our temptation to hubris.

      It seems to me these dangers are vastly compounded when we don’t even admit we’re using metaphors and imaginative approximations, when we think of the icon as the real thing, and we remove experience from rational scrutiny. This path may aid the process of ‘relating’ and surrendering, but to what, exactly, is one then submitting?

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