How Do We Ultimately Gain Access to & Knowledge of God?
After reading the thought-provoking and engaging post about “what does it mean to follow Jesus” from the Orthodox tradition, I left with two competing thoughts. On the one hand, I have a greater appreciation for how the “Saints” are venerated, with particular emphasis on the consistency of that veneration. Such a commitment to the ancestors of the faith signals that belief in Jesus is something that is most richly and authentically developed in community. On the other hand, I question to what extent this community is challenged by the Orthodox practice of confessing one’s sins to God under the guidance of a spiritual director. How does such a ritual potentially shift the focus away on reconciliation with God to ensuring good standing with the priest? From restoration with Jesus to acquiescence to human authority?
The Orthodox attention to the Saints reminds me that we have a rich history of people before us who have attempted to model following Jesus. As someone rooted in the Black Church tradition, we have always held our foremothers and forefathers in high esteem. It goes without saying there are some well-known, self-professed African American followers of Jesus on this list – Fannie Lou Hamer, Mahalia Jackson, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. However, for most of us, it was (and is) the way our grandmothers taught us how to pray and talk to Jesus that has sustained us. It was the testimonies of our grandfathers, about how Jesus Christ “made a way out of no way” and “picked us up, turned us around, and placed our feet on solid ground,” that convinced us Jesus could do the same for us. Because of their witness, we yearn to be in community with other Jesus believers who can go to Jesus when we are unable to do so ourselves and remind us of what Jesus has done when we struggle to trust Him.
But what I believe can enrich the Black Church experience is the structured way Orthodox adherents worship the Saints (by Saints, I mean those persons, many of biblical lore, who gave witness to the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ). It is one thing to appreciate the people in our families who have raised us up in the faith, a reality that many in the Black Church tradition know quite well. It is another to name the biblical figures that are essential to the dissemination and proliferation of the Jesus narrative; Black preachers often name these individuals throughout the sermonic moment. However, it is an altogether different tradition to, as Dr. Ford puts it, commemorate numerous saints every day of the year – “the day we particularly honor them, asking for their prayers and being inspired by the holiness and fruitfulness of their lives.”
I believe this specific tradition could be a tremendous import to many Black churches. Yes, Black ecclesial spaces discuss the challenges that some of these revered persons endured, as an indication that submitting ourselves to the way of Christ does not come without obstacles. Furthermore, there are some African-American congregations that already closely adhere to the consistent celebration of the Saints. But what greater depth of insight could more Black congregations gain if we dedicated a day to investigating and processing the life of John the Baptist amid persecution? How might we grow in our ability to radically trust Jesus if we construct an entire liturgy during a service around the life of Mary, Jesus’ mother?
In pursuing such an extensive practice of honoring the Saints, it would help Black congregants further realize that faith in Christ is something that is strengthened in community. Mary was the mother of Jesus, but Joseph, the magi, and the shepherds all had integral roles in His birth. John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus, but he does so by referencing the words and traditions of those before him. Mary and John the Baptist, in other words, did not become Saints “ex nihilo.” Rather, they were formed and shaped by their experiences with Jesus and their contemporaries. Likewise, no follower of Jesus comes to faith in Him by herself, much less a greater understanding of His will for her life. It is, as mentioned earlier, the testimony of one’s ancestors or the witness of one’s colleagues that helps us to make conclusions about our faith journeys that we may not otherwise observe.
By giving more structured attention to the Saints and how their path to sainthood began, people in the Black Church tradition might be more able to see that following Jesus takes a village. No one can claim to be a disciple of Christ and not be in fellowship with people who can support, strengthen, challenge, and encourage her along the way. I am not claiming that such a communal emphasis will lead one into “sainthood,” at least not in the traditional sense. However, the prominence given to the Saints in the Orthodox Church could be an invaluable resource to assist those in the Black Church tradition who have declared an abiding trust in Jesus.
Despite the benefits of such a worship of the Saints, I wonder how a singular focus on an individual might be detrimental – a focus on a spiritual father during the confession of sin. In the Black Church tradition, there is a strong belief that because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, believers of Jesus have direct access to God for all things. We believe in the “priesthood of all believers” – that is, each person who has faith in Jesus can go to God for herself, without the need of a human intercessor. This conviction is rooted in biblical scripture from texts such as 1 Timothy 2:5 (For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus). For those in the Black Church, Jesus democratizes the process to get in contact with God. Her belief in Christ is the key which unlocks the door to a space where God invites her in for intimate communication and relationship.
But how might this ease of access and one’s relationship to Jesus be compromised with the (re)introduction of an earthly mediator? Dr. Ford mentioned that for those in the Orthodox tradition, to follow Jesus also means the need for a priest “before whom one confesses one’s sins to God regularly in the Sacrament of Confession,” but how do we reconcile this need with Jesus’ model of direct engagement with God? To follow Jesus means to imitate Him, including his straightforward and unfiltered method for talking with God. It is then difficult for me to figure out how to process a conciliator’s role if we are to follow the example Jesus provided.
I also question how such a hierarchical framework might interfere with a person’s vulnerability before Jesus Himself. We all have things we do not want others to know; there are “skeletons in the closet” that we would only trust Jesus with (and even then, we are not always honest with Him!). It is very conceivable that in such a human intercessor model, someone may not be truly transparent with Jesus out of fear of judgment from the priest. In doing so, she might risk not asking Christ for what she really needs, simply because she believes the human authority might condemn her. Furthermore, she might consider that the priest himself is a gatekeeper to Jesus, and therefore responsible for whether her request is both received and answered by God. Such a thought is not out of the realm of possibility, as history offers countless examples of those who tried appeasing a religious figure to gain favor with the divine. To me, confessing one’s sins before a priest weakens the expansive work Jesus came to Earth to do and replaces it with a patriarchal system that restricts communion with God.
I do not mean to declare there is no need for religious leaders. Dr. Ford makes an excellent point that these priests also provide spiritual counsel during the Sacrament of Confession. It is helpful to have third parties that can identify areas of growth in us that we may be unable to see. However, I am curious to know if there is a reality in which bearing our souls before a human does not complicate the freedom of access to God that Jesus created for us.
 I do want to acknowledge that when I use the term “Black Church,” I am writing about my own experience in the tradition. The Black Church, as many scholars note, is not a monolith – there is no “one” way the Black Church worships, believes, preaches, or observes religious practices.
 I use the word “patriarchal” here because men have dominated this priestly position for centuries.
Ford, on the Communion of Saints, a Theology of Suffering, and the Sacrament of Confession
Thank you very much for your very thoughtful response to my post. I’m very blessed to hear your assertion of how the regular veneration of Saints could be of great value for Black Christians, who often already, as you say, have great respect for their elders in the Faith. As I think you may be suggesting, having regular days of commemoration for the especially noteworthy ancestors in the Faith – going all the way back through the centuries to the Apostles and even further back to the righteous one in the Old Testament (cf. Hebrews 11) – could greatly strengthen the personal faith of Black Christians here and now, through recalling the faithful witness of those Saints who remained faithful to Jesus so often in times of turmoil not so different from our own times.
Indeed, I would add that the theme of personal triumph through faith in Jesus in the midst of suffering, of trial and tribulation of all kinds, is a deep and powerful theme in Orthodox spirituality – which I believe the Black Community in America could especially relate to, with its long history of experiencing economic, social, and political persecution in this land. In perhaps somewhat parallel ways, Orthodox believers through the centuries have experienced many times of persecution – from the martyrs of the first four centuries at the hands of the Roman authorities, to those who suffered in defense of the holy icons during the long, brutal years of Iconoclasm (726-787 and 815-842), to the Eastern Christians who suffered in the midst of the brutal sack of Constantinople in 1204 at the hands of the knights of the Fourth Crusade, to the many “new-martyrs” who suffered at the hands of the Ottoman Turks during the several centuries after their conquest of Constantinople in 1453, to the millions of believers who suffered and died at the hands of the militantly atheistic Soviets in Russia and Eastern Europe in the twentieth century. I believe the Orthodox and Black Christians can share very deeply and profoundly the heartfelt cry that we pray so often, “Lord, have mercy on us!” And as St. Peter cried out when he was sinking under the waves, “Lord, save me!”
The rich Orthodox theology of suffering emphasizes the redemptive value of suffering if we link our sufferings with Christ’s sufferings on the Cross. It was this aspect of Orthodoxy that especially appealed to the Black professor at Princeton University, Dr. Albert Raboteau, eventually drawing him into the Orthodox Church; he eloquently describes his spiritual journey in his book, A Sorrowful Joy.
And I think we can safely say that to be not only uncomplaining, but even thankful and joyful, in the midst of whatever we’re suffering, surely must be extra-pleasing to our Lord. Surely this is an especially vivid affirmation of the truth of 1 Timothy 6:6 – “Godliness with contentment is great gain”: gain not only to oneself, but to all those beholding our gracious steadfast devotion to Christ no matter what our particular circumstances might be.
Commemoration of the Saints, as you also suggest, helps to reaffirm for us the reality that the Christian life is not only one of personal relationship with Jesus, but also one of communal life, being knit together with all those who are similarly following Him. Hebrews 10:25 affirms this, as well as Hebrews 12:22-24.
You ask particularly about the Sacrament of Confession – why it’s part of the Orthodox tradition, and how it might well compromise our direct relationship with Christ. By way of explanation, we would always affirm that we can indeed “go straight to Christ” at any moment, asking forgiveness for whatever we’ve done wrong, and receiving the sense that He has indeed forgiven us. And in our tradition we are encouraged to do this – to not wait even a moment after we sin to repent, confess, and ask forgiveness from the Lord. So in one sense, the Sacrament of Confession is not strictly necessary; rather, it’s something additional and supplemental to our direct access to God.
Also, it does not necessarily imply a need to “ensure good standing with the priest,” as you suggest might be the case – though surely a good shepherd of the flock is deeply gratified when his sheep avail themselves of all the aspects and dimensions of his God-given ministry.
I think we would want to emphasize, above all, that it’s been the experience of millions of believers through the centuries that the Sacrament of Confession is indeed grace-bearing and therefore life-giving, helping to restore our conscience clean as we seek to continue to draw closer and closer to Christ.
Also, it’s important to remember that the origins of this Sacrament lie in the Holy Scriptures: “Confess your transgressions to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16); and even more so, in Christ’s bestowal of the authority of absolving sins to His Apostles – “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23). And this grace-filled authority to forgive and absolve sins has passed down to the priestly successors of the Apostles through the centuries, to the present day. This is one aspect of what’s known as Apostolic Succession.
As in everything in Holy Orthodoxy, we trust the Church, Christ’s own Body, making use of all the means of grace that She provides, even if we don’t completely understand how they all work to bring us closer to our Lord.
And as you say, you can see the value of having someone else’s perspective on our spiritual life – often a good spiritual father can see our “blind spots.” And knowing that we will have to confess our sins before our father-confessor often provides effective assistance to keep us from giving in to temptation!
Thanks again, Farris, for your response to my post. I hope my comments here are helpful.
Yours, in Christ,