This question ties together some of my earlier musings. What actually matters to me in all the complex history of the Church? For there are things that do matter deeply to me and go well beyond my long-standing interest in trying to perceive the world through the lenses of different cultures and times. The history of the Church is a deep and rich history that is fascinating simply as a topic of exploration. That’s why there have been and I’m sure are historians who study it today even though they do not hold to the faith themselves. It has threaded its way into more (and extremely different) cultures than any ancient religion, adapting and speaking differently to those within that culture, yet retaining (at least until the modern era) the same perspective on the true nature of reality. There are ups and downs, good things and bad. It’s a deeply human history.
And yet it is also something more.
And it’s that “more” that I truly seek. Christianity is not a story about man seeking God as much as it’s a story about this God who searches for us. We see that immediately in the beautiful story of the garden, as God comes looking for the mankind who is hiding from him and clothes them. If that does not prefigure the Incarnation of our Lord, then I don’t know what does. The Incarnation is, of course, the ultimate act of the God who seeks to rescue his creation by becoming a part of it, by joining his nature to ours. Jesus is not just a man, he is the true man who stands in the place of all mankind, faithful where we were faithless, but by joining our nature to his, making it possible for us to be true and faithful human beings.
And this Jesus of Nazareth was and is an actual person which means that as with any other person, we relate to him effectively only to the extent that we relate to him as he truly is rather than as we imagine him to be. And here the Christian story takes yet another odd turn when compared to other religions. We are told that the Church, those in communion with Jesus and with each other, form his body. There is a mystical connection and union such that in the Church we can see and know Christ.
No, it doesn’t always work that way. I’ve been driven away from Christianity and Christ by those who say they follow him. But I’ve also been attracted to Christ through and by Christians. I’ve experienced both dynamics first-hand and I see them both interwoven throughout the history of the Church. And in this day and age, we see more, and often contradictory, versions of “Christ” presented than in any other era, making it more rather than less difficult to see Christ in the Church. Nevertheless, it is Christ I seek to find in the Church.
I think one of many factors in the modern fragmentation and almost dissolution of the Protestant strand of the Church is that so much of it effectively turned its back on and walked away from its saints. Without that grounding in and among those who have been faithful, who have known Christ, it is easy to be swayed by the next charismatic leader or sexy new idea. We are the ones who claim that death has been defeated and that we are no longer subject to it. And yet so many modern Protestants seem to reject communion with those whose bodies may now sleep, but who nonetheless are safe and alive in Christ. I’m not interested in a faith or a God that is different from that known by St. Athanasius or St. Maximos the Confessor or St. Columba or St. Patrick or St. Gregory the Theologian or St. Basil the Great or any of the others who have come before me, remembered by name or not.
Now, that does not mean that I’m looking for the right outward form or practice. Those things are not unimportant, I suppose. In fact, I think they can be deeply important. But none of that matters until you answer that penetrating question Jesus asks us all, “Who do you say that I am?”
My interest and knowledge in history does mean I’m shielded in some ways from various trends. For instance, I’m not particularly interested in the house church movement in its modern incarnation because I don’t confuse an ancient Roman (or Greek or Jewish) household with the modern dwelling of a nuclear family. Further, the ancient church was not really rooted originally in households, anyway. Read Acts and read some of the things Paul mentions in his letters. The church initially met in the Temple and then as Christianity spread, in synagogues until the Christians were kicked out. The households (or before persecution became common the public meeting houses) where Christians met for worship carried over elements of that synagogue worship.
I suppose my knowledge of history also means I don’t believe there’s any one right way to do worship. I see how Christianity has threaded its way into different cultures, redeemed elements of the culture, added to its practice, and yet remained distinct from that native culture. However, the fact that worship practice adapted and changed in different cultures and times also does not mean that there are not some things which are, in fact, essential to Christian worship. We worship a particular God, a particular Christ. And that dictates some of what we must do if we are to say that we are Christian.
That’s why I have threads of thought like the one in my series of posts on Baptists and the Eucharist. At the heart of that discussion lies my recognition that by divorcing themselves from any and all historic practice and interpretation, the Baptist tradition (and the large swath of Protestantism that shares similar beliefs) is saying something very different about who Jesus is and how we relate to him. And, frankly, that thread of thought and practice seems inextricably tied to dualism. It’s a denial that we are our bodies. We do not “have” a body. We are our body. We are also more than just our body, certainly. But our identity, existence, and reality cannot be separated from our body.
And when we deny that, we also deny the deepest reality of the Incarnation. Jesus did not wear a body in some sort of spiritual play. That was actually the subject of a number of ancient heresies in different shapes and forms. Jesus became flesh. He remains flesh. And he invites us to make our flesh part of his flesh by and through consuming him and doing so rightly, which does not mean in the correct ritual manner, but with our innermost being and will directed toward Christ. We are what we eat in the deepest sense of the phrase.
I had thought I might explore some of my understanding of and interaction with various periods of Church history. But it didn’t really come out that way and I have the feeling that this is a good and right place to end this particular series.