Are We Saved Through Our Consciousness?

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Let’s talk about consciousness and infant Baptism, shall we?

My entire life, as a child of Anabaptism, I was taught a doctrine called “Believer’s baptism” (or credobaptism) which a) tied Baptism to church membership and b) teachings that Baptism requires a conscious or adult decision.  The irony of that is that many Mennonites are Baptized as children, as a result of indoctrination, and not after an exhaustive search for truth that ends with Christ.

It makes sense, at one level, that a believer in Christ must be able to “count the cost” (Luke 14) of discipleship, right?

And yet, if we look at the Apostles themselves, were any of them actually ready when they were picked by Jesus?

No, if Peter had counted the cost, if he truly understood what it meant to enter the kingdom, he would never have denied Christ.  The doubts of Thomas, and the betrayal of Judas, all point to a group of men who did not fully comprehend the words of Jesus prior to their Baptism.

#1) We don’t choose, we’re chosen and drawn to Christ:

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.  It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’  Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. […] The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them. 

(John 6:44-45,63-65 NIV)

#2) We did not decide the hour of our first birth nor do we decide the second birth:

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. you should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” 

(John 3:2-8 NIV)

#3) We were dead, dead people aren’t conscious to make adult decisions:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.  But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.  For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. 

(Ephesians 2:1-10 NIV)

By adding the requirement of adult comprehension, the teachers of credobaptism turn Baptism into a work and base salvation on our consciousness of the need.  That’s rational, yet humanistic and not the process we see outlined in Scripture.  Lazarus, dead for four days, did not have the mental capacity to listen to the command of Jesus, “Lazarus, come out!”  No, we understand that this would be impossible.  And, likewise, when the Rich Young Ruler (asks “what must I do to be saved,” the final answer is not “sell all and give to the poor,” as some Anabaptists believeit is “with man this is impossible, with God all things are possible.”

The real problem with this idea that Baptism requires a certain level of consciousness (and the invented concept of an “age of accountability”) is that it is totally arbitrary and would exclude those not fully capable of making an adult choice.  I mean, truly, will we refuse to Baptize the mentally disabled because they can’t count the cost of discipleship?  Should we have an IQ test?  Maybe make applicants provide proof of their faith?  At the very least, if this notion of Believer’s baptism is correct, and adult consciousness necessary to appreciate Christ, then should we cut this silliness of a baby leaping in the womb (Luke 1:41) out of the Gospel narrative?

There is evidence, in Scripture, of whole households being Baptized.  But there is little to support this idea that one must reach a certain level of consciousness to be Baptized.  It is really like some people think they’ve saved themselves and this misunderstanding of the significance of Baptism, starting five centuries ago, got turned into theological hubris.  If Baptism is about being born again or spiritual rebirthand our first physical birth was not a willful choicewhy would we ever conclude that Baptism must be a choice, a matter of age or adult comprehension?

What is Baptism truly about?

Baptism is the start of a journey of faith, like birth, and something to accompany repentance.

But wait, there’s more…

Baptism and the Nuptial Bath

Up until very recently, being unfamiliar with Jewish wedding traditions, I would never have made the connection between Baptism and a Jewish bride’s nuptial bath.  A friend of mine shared a podcast that dove into that topic (listen here) and the parallels seem to be very real.  Upon further research, this ‘other” meaning is also something understood historically by the church and quite clearly implied in this passage:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 

(Ephesians 5:25-27 NIV)

Baptism, in effect, is a symbolic representation of the start of this ritual cleansing that doesn’t end with the act.  The Christian life is a life of repentance, of continually turning towards Christ.  Our spiritual cleansing doesn’t end with the water of our physical Baptism either.

After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized.  Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were coming and being baptized. (This was before John was put in prison.) An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing.  They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”

To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice.  That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.” 

(John 3:22-30 NIV)

It was directly prior to this that we have the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus where we get the phrase “born again” and where Jesus tells the perplexed Jewish religious leader about this rebirth “of water and the Spirit” like the wind that goes wherever it pleases.  That is an indication of the mysterious origin of Baptism, that it is not something that comes about through our own rational thought processes.  

So what is this “ceremonial washing” about? 

And how does Baptism relate to brides and bridegrooms?

A few months back I worked on a truss layout for a religious building project, a Mikvah bath, and learned more about the Jewish ritual cleaning process and something observant women of that religion must do on a regular basis.

Mikvah bath

However, most significantly, it is something they do prior to marriage, which seems to be the connection between the quarrel about everyone getting this ceremonial washing and the response of John the Baptist. 

The point and purpose of John’s ministry, like the pre-marital ritual washing of a bride when her groom arrived, Baptism was to make people ready for the marriage to Christ. It was not symbolic of the commitment itselfrather it was only a part of the process leading up to the commitment.  So, sure, Baptism is the start of an important transitionary moment and yet our salvation comes through a life-long Theosis, through our being washed, sanctified, and justified by the Spirit of God until the time we depart this world.

One last point, and related to this nuptial bath tradition and the parallels to Baptism.  Jewish brides did choose their partners nor the time of their wedding like we do.  No, they practiced arranged marriage and the arrival of the groom was at the appointed time of his father once the preparations were complete.  So again, where does this idea come from that the bride must choose the time or place of this meeting and bath?  Wouldn’t responsible Christian parents want to prepare even infant children for their groom? 

The expanded consciousness that comes through our prearranged nuptials with Christ can come after the ritual washing of Baptismas it did for the disciples who didn’t know what they were being signed up for when they began their journey of faith.

And, yes, apparently Jewish infants are immersed as a part of their religious conversion process.

Oh, and also, the groom (Jesus) gets washed too prior to the wedding ceremony…

Turmoil and Theosis

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There are those unsung heroes—those people to whom we owe a debt of gratitude and yet never could repay for their contribution to our lives. For me, there are many on that list. However, there is one woman in particular whose witness of few words was a seed. I wanted the peace that she embodied. But, at the time, I could not escape the turmoil in my heart. Only with the transition out of the church of my youth to a better place has the fruit of her influence has become clear.

A Bull In the China Shop

Years ago now I received an invitation to a new web forum. The site “MennoDiscuss” was created by a guy named Hans Mast and was dubbed “a place where Mennonites (and others) can discuss anything” in the tagline. I loved the idea. I was soon one of the first members of the board and was determined to make the endeavor a success.

I can’t recall exactly what I had expected going in. But early on it became very evident that MennoDiscuss would be a place where ex-Mennonites (and the otherwise) disaffected would come to argue with those of us still content with the denomination we were born into. And, being that I wasn’t afraid of debate (although, oddly enough, I dislike conflict) I jumped right in—playing the role of chief Mennonite apologist for some and being a real annoyance to others.

My zeal, both my desire to drive traffic to the site and need to defend my religious peers, led to me being one of the most prolific posters on the site and also often put me in the center of many controversies. My initial carefree (or careless) attitude soon led to a reputation and it is only a small transition from being engaged in conversation to feeling embattled. I took on the critics, yet I was not the “good Mennonite” who plays nice either, I believed turnabout was fair play and would often try to fight fire with fire.

Initially, despite being intense and a little too argumentative, my participation had mostly been fun and games for me. However that all changed when a personal tragedy knocked my spiritual feet out from under me and left me feeling betrayed by those whom I had assumed would be there for me and bitter at God. It was at that point things went very badly online as well. I was hurting and wanted answers for my pain. I needed help. But all I seemed to get was contempt and criticism.

The Calm In My Storm

There was one person different from the others. She offered me no advice. I can’t recall her saying much at all. But there was something about her spirit. She did not judge me. She let me speak without reminding me of all my past failures. I could open up and be honest with her in ways that I could not be with others for fear they might stab me in the back. She had been hurt by Mennonites yet didn’t seem to come in with an agenda.

Her name was “theosis” (or at least that was her screen name) and offline went by Martha. I do not know the details of her life, but she had been a convert to the Mennonite tradition before eventually finding a home with Orthodox Christians.

There were other Orthodox converts on the site. However, they were of the variety of converts who may have accepted Orthodox theology and practices, but have yet to grasp the attitude—or, in other words, “Ortho-fascists” as they are affectionately (or not so affectionately) known as by other Orthodox. Theosis, by contrast, was not aggressive or argumentative, she had a peaceable spirit and something quite a bit deeper than the judgmental ‘non-resistance’ or militant ‘pacifism’ of many Mennonites.

Mennonites tend to take the role of “peacemaker” and turn it into something forcible and even meanspirited. They might never pick up arms in defense of a nation or theoretically refuse to defend their families from a hypothetical attacker, but some will passive-aggressively resist and gossip about their real enemies while pretending that they have none. Mennonites are good at niceness, sometimes putting a smile on their face while harboring ill-feelings, because that is what the culture requires.

But theosis was different. She seemingly saw something in my antics others could not or at least she was peaceable. If I had to guess her perception was due to her own pain. But, unlike me, where I raged against fate, she accepted her lot in life and had faith. While fundamentalist Mennonites tend to see peace as something to shove down your throat, she embodied peace and embodied it in a way that would temporarily calm my storm.

I desperately wanted what she had and yet didn’t know how to get there.

What Theosis Means and My Journey Since

My first guess, as far as the meaning of theosis, would’ve been something like “theology” and “sister” going by the fact that the only theosis I knew was a female Christian. But silliness aside, given my respect for Martha, I finally did Google the word “theosis” and found an intriguing theological concept. Theosis, as it turns out, is the Orthodox description for the ultimate goal of Christianity and that being perfect oneness with God.

At the time the term intrigued me. But I had bigger fish to fry rather than try to sift through Orthodox theological descriptions and kept it filed under delightful (but otherwise useless) oddities. Becoming like God is a moot point when one is struggling to even believe in God. Besides that, theosis (otherwise known as “divinization” or “deification”) seemed way too tall an order for my Mennonite mind and was probably heretical. Still, it stuck in the back of my mind as a concept and that’s where it stayed percolating for years.

My turmoil began to subside as I came to terms with the unexpected loss of Saniyah and the hopes tied to her. During this time I made a brief return to MennoDiscuss (after a hiatus) and left after feeling that I had done my part to restore relationships there and could move on. And, more significantly, I had a spiritual experience, an epiphany about faith, that helped push me to this point where I could move on.

In short, I discovered faith is something God does, a gift of salvation, a mysterious “quickening” and spiritual transformation, rather than something proved through science, apologetics, and reason—it was not earned through my works of righteousness or religious efforts. I could finally rest in grace, be empowered by the Spirit and be changed from the inside out. That newfound confidence is what led me to pursue “impossibly” in faith and, after another period of turmoil when my “hope against hope” was not reciprocated, eventually took me beyond my Mennonite roots.

As I read through Paul’s writings, as one now spiritually alive and with eyes opened a bit more than before, a picture of theosis began to emerge out of the text. It was a marvelous thing, and a beautiful paradox of faith, that Jesus became man so that we could join Him in perfect oneness with God. That is what it means to be adopted as a son or daughter of God—putting on the divinity of Jesus Christ and being made into an incarnation of Him. This is not to be equal to or replace God, but rather to be in perfect Communion with Him and a true embodiment of His life-creating Spirit.

Theosis, the True Promise of Salvation

Theosis is a theological concept both simple and profound. God became man so that we could follow in the example of Jesus and go beyond what is possible through mere religious devotion:

“We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be set aside—what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father. (John 10:33‭-‬38 NIV)

To claim to be God’s son is essentially to claim divinity or equality with God and, unless you truly are God’s child, is blasphemous.

What Jesus promised the disciples:

“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. (John 14:18‭-‬20 NIV)

And the day he delivered:

I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are oneI in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:22‭-‬23 NIV)

How Paul explains this:

The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “ Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirsheirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Romans 8:15‭-‬17 NIV)

That is an extraordinary claim. It is to essentially claim the same thing Jesus did and led to his being killed. And, in fact, before Jesus died to make the impossible possible, our calling God “Father” would indeed be blasphemous. This theosis, this divine adoption, is not cheap grace nor earned by our works of righteousness, it is a mysterious transformation that comes from faith and a work of the Spirit—It is partaking in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Where is Martha Today?

Theosis, her full name Martha Ann Hays, passed from this life to the next on December 20th of 2010. She was terminally ill when I knew her and dealing with the same sense of loss all sane people feel when facing certain death. Yet despite this, and excruciating physical pain, she treated me with extraordinary kindness and a love that I did not deserve. Unlike me, constantly trying to figure everything out and win people through theological brute force, she was simply peaceable.

Her terminal illness, colorectal cancer, was very unpleasant and painful. She was still a young woman, in her thirties, when first diagnosed and was no doubt dealing with the weight of broken dreams and disappointment. That is probably why she understood me and had compassion where others did not. I knew she was not well. But she would never complain to me about the things going on in her life at the time.

Martha had never fit into the Mennonite culture and eventually moved on. She learned Russian while in university and later found Orthodoxy (Russian Orthodox) and a parish community in Toronto that loved her. She had many friends in her parish and that including a boyfriend who would be at her bedside. She died peacefully, as she had lived, surrounded by family and friends.

Her funeral, according to one non-Orthodox in attendance, had beautiful music and a worshipful atmosphere.

It is interesting how two people can see the same event through a completely different lens. Another friend (a conservative Mennonite who knew Martha) commented that her funeral was a “very sad occasion” because allegedly there were more Mennonites than Orthodox in attendance. But an Orthodox Christian knows that is not true. Yes, conservative Mennonites definitely have bodies in the pews at funerals. Yet, even if there are only a handful that can be physically present, an Orthodox funeral is always well-attended. Orthodox believe in the “Communion of saints” or basically the idea of that “great cloud of witnesses” expressed by the apostle Paul in the book of Hebrews.

[07/01: The friend who made the attendance claim has since wrote to make a retraction.]

I believe someone with Martha’s prognosis could greatly appreciate that she was not alone in her suffering and that there was that “great cloud of witnesses” there to cheer her on to the finish line. That is the beauty of Orthodoxy. The Chruch is bigger than the present suffering of those still “militant” and also includes those “triumphant” who have gone on to glory with God. The icons on the wall are there to remind us of that reality beyond us.

Being An Image (or Icon) of God

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. (Matthew 16:24‭-‬25 NIV)

As is well-known now, I have left my Mennonite religious culture and have become an Orthodox Christian. But until now I have not mentioned theosis and her contribution to that decision. Martha’s peaceable witness was a seed, it was later watered by Fr. Anthony with his similar spirit a and genuinely fatherly care and has been nourished by the Church. It is a life that continues to grow in me. There is a great beauty in Orthodox worship that I have not found elsewhere.

I do not go to church as a family reunion or to hang out with friends anymore. I go for healing and spiritual renewal, to experience God through worship, to be one with Jesus in body and Spirit. I go to be in that “great cloud of witnesses” of a Church that spans two millennia and those icons on the wall are there to remind us to remain faithful until the end.

Orthodoxy is not a “seeker-sensitive” church, we do not change with the winds of modern culture, we do not fill our pews with those seeking entertainment or easy answers. We believe that the Christian life is one of trials, tribulations, loneliness, hardships, suffering, and salvation by way of the cross. But we also find there is a great peace in knowing that our turmoil is temporal and eternal life awaits.

We die to self so that we can live in perfect oneness with God. Martha died, like Jesus, so that I might live. And I must die, so you whom I love may also live.

That is God’s economy at work.

That is poetic justice.

That is theosis.

What Are the Practical Implications of Consciousness?

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Have you ever pondered the complete impossibility of your existence as a finite conscious being?

Think about it.

What are the chances of your arriving at this precise moment of time given the infinite possibilities before and after?

Our existence seems finite.  We have vague memory of our beginnings as a sentient creature.  We were given a month, date and year of our birth; our first conscious moments arrived at some point in time before that (during the 24th and 28th week of gestation) in our mother’s womb.  All indications point to a beginning to our conscious existence and all things with a beginning will eventually end—or at least that is the pattern we can observe in everything in the universe.  (Well, everything besides death and taxes, both of those things apparently permanent fixtures…)

But, if we are finite, and time stretches infinitely in both directions from the point of our existence in this present moment, how did we end up here?  Why is it not a million, billion or quadrillion quadrillion years before or after this moment of now?  There is infinite possibility of it being any moment but now and yet inexplicably here we are contemplating our existence together.  How?

I believe the answer could be a matter of perception.  While it is true that what we perceive is our reality—there is a vast difference between our individual perception and reality as a whole.  For starters, as finite beings, we can only perceive an infinitesimally small portion of the universe we live in and can’t truly imagine anything beyond it.  And, beyond that, our perception is often skewed and distorted in ways we are unable to see ourselves.

One thing we do not perceive correctly is the reality that we are inexorably linked to the universe.  From our own perspective of consciousness we are something separatean individualand apart from everything else in the universe.  However, we did not just materialize out of thin air, every part of us was part of the universe long before it became part of us and will probably continue to exist long after our physical bodies die and become worm food.  Despite our perception of being something outside of the universe looking in, somehow a unique entity in our mind, we are still one with the universe and can’t be separated from it.

An immaterial soul, a part of us separate from the material universe and undetectable, is not required to explain our consciousness.  There is sufficient evidence to suggest that human consciousness is an emergent property of electrical activity in our brain.  And still, no matter how much science can explain, there’s a great mystery to our existence, as finite beings, at this time and place.

Timelessness and the divinity of Christ

At risk of being labeled heretic (not that anyone has the right to do that, especially not a Protestant armed with only their own opinion of the Bible and a denominational bias) I will postulate an idea about our consciousness and what it means.

Remember how Jesus turned the “you are gods” of Psalm 82:6 into a defense for his own claim of divinity?

Here’s the reference:

“We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.”

Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’?  If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be set aside—what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? (John 10:33‭-‬36 NIV)

The interesting thing about the passage Jesus quotes is how it applies to us.  If Jesus is using this verse as a defense of his own divinity, then what does that make us?  Does receiving the word of God (via the Spirit) give us the right to claim divinity as well?

There seems to be no other logical conclusion besides our being in some way divine.  We are told elsewhere that “those led by the Spirit of God are the children of God” (Romans 8:14-17) and “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ,” which is an astonishing claim.  It means that, through adoption, we are and will be fully divine, like Christ.

And this gets even more bizarre when you consider the further implications.  We exist in time.  However, God exists at the beginning and ending of time simultaneously and thus is outside of time as we perceive it.  Therefore, when we complete this process of divinization (or theosis) described throughout Scripture and become one with God, in timeless eternity will we save ourselves before we even existed?

Maybe predestination is our choice?

Only God knows…

So, what does divinization have to do with consciousness?

To exist in eternity future, a timeless infinite future, then one also pre-exist time.  In fact, words like “past” or “present” or “future” do not exist in a timeless reality.  Something that exists as both infinite and eternal can be (without contradiction) at all points (of space and time) while, at the same time, also at none.

Our linear perception of time comes from a limited perspective of reality and is a perspective that falls apart at the edges of our universe.  At the quantum level things become irrational from a time-based perspective; quantum particles borrow energy from the future, they are somehow entangled together across vast swaths of space, and this all strongly suggests there is something “off” about our intuitions.

Consciousness, on one hand, is an emergent property of our physical brain.  But it also seems to be more than that or how could we be experiencing the present moment given the infinite possibilities?  Time defines our conscious experience and yet our consciousness of time allows us to contemplate timelessness.

To follow after Jesus, take on the divine nature and be “children of God” requires that some part of our being must exist beyond time.  The question is, if this is true, do we even exist as a separate consciousness or are we already part of something bigger and divine?

Could our conscious mind, like the individual neurons in a brain that have no awareness of the whole mind, also be individually unaware of our own part in a larger consciousness?

Are we in some mysterious way already timeless and divine?

Are we gods?