THE V. Reverend Protopresbyter Dr. Stelyios S. Muksuris, Ph.D. [BA, MDiv, MLitt, PhD, ThD (post-doc.)], serves the Kimisis Tis Theotokou Greek Orthodox Church in Aliquippa, PA, and is Professor of Liturgy and Languages at SS. Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. A native of Boston and a graduate of Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA, he received his postgraduate degrees and his doctorate in liturgical theology from the University of Durham in the United Kingdom. He is an active member of several academic societies (AAR, SL, SOL, BSC, OTSA), a frequent conference speaker both nationally and internationally, the author of a monograph, Economia and Eschatology: Liturgical Mystagogy in the Byzantine Prothesis Rite (Boston, 2013), and the author of an introductory chapter for a textbook on Christianity, as well as numerous papers and studies in theological journals. He is a frequent consultant on liturgical matters for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Pittsburgh.
Recently, as I was reading a scholarly article in a particular volume of a theological journal, the St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, I came across a revealing quote from the infamous pen of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, the nineteenth century German atheist philosopher who decided to “kill” God (or, rather, outwardly deny His existence). While most of Nietzsche’s claims have sparked heated controversies for the past two centuries, what he wrote this time made a lot of sense, if understood within context. Speaking about history as a whole, he stated: “There are no facts — only interpretation”, by which he did not deny the reality of the past, but only sought to emphasize that events exist for us only as we perceive them.
Certainly history is not just event but also perception and interpretation. Therefore, history is not simply a collection of facts but an attempt to explain them. In fact, even within such scientific disciplines as biology or archaeology, scientists collect and arrange facts in such a manner so as to tell a story that aligns as closely to the truth as possible. The same is true in the study of religions and theology as a whole. Both Sacred Scripture and Tradition together record, affirm, and explain divine revelation and salvation history as the Church understands these truths.
Where our friend Nietzsche erred is that he unsuccessfully attempted to build a case against absolute truth, claiming rather that the truth is relative to the knowledge and experiences and perceptions of a group of people. People within a particular religion often have radically different perceptions of God, not to mention differences between religions. A Muslim’s view of God differs considerably from a Christian’s, and between Orthodox and Protestants, the notions of grace and salvation vary considerably. Consequently, atheists and agnostics would argue, all these differing views regarding God are human concoctions and thus relative to their own experiences. There is thus no God; just man’s creation of God in his own limited, feeble mind. Put another way, God did not create man in His image and likeness (Genesis 1:26); on the contrary, man created God in his. However, this argumentation cannot logically preclude the factual existence of God because people see Him differently. One will find countless reports and interpretations of what happened between the two teams that play in the Super Bowl. None of these views can deny that the Super Bowl in fact did take place.
In the Holy Gospel, our Lord Jesus Christ presents a series of analogies to help the people understand the central importance of prioritizing faith in God. For certain individuals, truth is relativized and thus interpreted differently — this was clearly the case with Nietzsche. As a person of faith with an implied relationship to God, the Christian’s prime concern is essentially one, namely, to place God’s will first in his life and to seek above all else the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33). As a psychosomatic being, man has as much need, if not more, to sustain his spiritual life as he does his material existence, for the latter is fulfilled when the former is in order. A sound spiritual faith in God, an unrelenting trust in the Holy Spirit, heals spiritual and physical ailments; it nourishes both our spiritual and physical hunger. And this is so because God is the Source of both our spiritual and physical welfare. When we preoccupy ourselves only with our physical needs, we think like displaced earthly beings detached from our true calling as children of God. We deny the presence of God and set up idols for ourselves, such as mammon (money and glory), and depend solely on these things to make us happy and fulfilled. And when these idols “fail”, then we return to God to blame Him for our misery, for not allowing us to believe in something greater than Him!
Our perception of human existence is one that travels mainly along physical lines. Human, bodily existence and the needs associated with it are given top priority in our world. Food and drink, clothing, and shelter are absolute necessities to sustain the material component of our being. The spiritual component is typically eclipsed, and that for several reasons, not least of which is that the spirit is a kind of “abstract” and intangible concept that cannot be contained or understood according to human logic. I cannot see the soul, so it must not exist. I cannot see God, so He must not exist. Reality is rewritten according to man’s sense of truth, so man becomes his own point of reference even if he is, in his own mind, admittedly imperfect.
Yet, man possesses a keen sense of right and wrong, and he is constantly aspiring to securing the inherent goodness inside of him. There is a universal morality and sensitivity that pervades all of humanity. These may be expressed differently by world philosophies or religious beliefs, but this divine law is shared by every member of the human race. Man’s heart may incline toward evil, but it is pained every time it digresses away from the way it naturally recognizes as proper or right, the way of God. How can this same inherent sense of goodness and righteousness be relative to each person’s experience when they are shared by all persons everywhere and at all times?
For this reason, Christ reminds us to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Why? What does this really mean? God warns us to not become estranged from our real selves, to not behave in ways foreign to the inherent goodness inside of us. He calls us to see Him in ourselves and in one another, to realize that our common humanity, His own gift to us, is what binds us to each other, despite our self-imposed or society-imposed differences. Man, sadly, lives in a perpetual illusion of self-importance and superiority over others because of the perceived differences he sees between himself and others — money, social status, power. The evil one convinces us that we are too different from one another and thus need to maintain a “qualitative” distance from others. Such a stratification among social classes or genders or ethnicities gives certain individuals the green light to assume a policy of segregation and ostracism toward them. The greatest crimes in the history of humanity have come about not because man could no longer see God in the heavens, but because he failed to see God in His fellow man. Put another away, according to a particular theologian, the world fell when man, in his ingratitude, decided to return God the favor by re-creating Him in his own image and likeness.
My dear people, the absolute truth about the existence of God can never be relativized, but neither can our response to His call to seek His kingdom and righteousness above all things. To deny God and His invitation to live the Gospel of truth and love is a blatant denial of ourselves, of our authentic humanity created in the divine image. He who rejects God, as revealed by Christ, rejects everything he was called to become — a full human being bearing the divine imprint upon his soul. The acceptance of God’s will to show love and compassion, not only within Christianity but in all religions, is an uncovering of man’s ultimate purpose in life, an alignment of His will with God’s, an awakening and a return home to his real self.
May we all draw closer to our true selves daily by prioritizing God in our lives, for with God nothing is relative — and that, my friends, is an absolute! Amen. (+)
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