What is the source of our oneness?

Once again, I would appreciate any thoughts, comments, or reactions my words spur in anyone who happens to read this. Incorporating and responding to the thoughts of others is one of the ways I process thoughts, and the thoughts in this post are certainly less than complete. I’ll start with the paragraph from 1 Corinthians 10 that lies at the center of my thoughts.

Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to wise men; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread. (1 Cor 10:14-17)

The above is from the NKJV, which is generally the English translation I prefer. Before I continue with the threads of my thoughts on the above, though, I think I need to discuss the Greek word, koinonia, especially as Christians have traditionally used it (including the tradition of its usage in the Holy Scriptures). The NKJV usually translates koinonia as communion, the best English word for the sort of intimate fellowship or rapport that the text seems to be trying to convey.

Other English translations most often translate koinonia using other words like fellowship (without qualifying it with intimate or another similar adjective), participation, or sharing. I can only speculate on the reason. In some cases, it could be as simple as a belief on the part of the translator that our level of literacy as a people has declined so much that those reading won’t have any understanding of the text unless a simpler word is used. If that’s the case, I would say it is better for a text not to be understood at all than to have its depth and richness stripped from it.

While it might be possible to translate Shakespeare into “simpler” language, you could not do it and preserve the integrity of his writing. Nuance, richness, depth, and poetry — the very things that make Shakespeare’s works great — would all be lost. If I would not treat a great literary work in that manner, why would I do that to a text that, as a Christian, I consider holy and sacred?

It’s also possible that the modern, Western emphasis on individualism has increasingly led translators to shy away from the scriptural language of oneness and union — both with God and with our fellow human beings. If we use weaker language, we get to control the boundaries of that union. We can wade in the shallows and call it swimming.

I also note that much of the modern, English speaking Christian world consists of sects most heavily influenced by Zwingli. They have almost completely conceded to the modern secular perspective. With them the matter of this world is ordinary and while it might represent something sacred or spiritual the idea that the physical might actually participate in the divine is almost verboten. It’s possible that translators approaching the text from that perspective might, consciously or otherwise, wish to weaken the scriptural language of communion. (And to be honest, Calvin was also more on the side of Zwingli than he was on the Cranmer and Luther side of the Protestant Reformation divide. He refused to take things quite as far as Zwingli did, but he’s certainly closer to Zwingli than anyone else.)

It could be any of those reasons, a combination of them, or something else that has not occurred to me at all. I don’t know. But I do know that most of the translations use words that lack the particular oomph of the English word communion. I’ll provide an illustration of that point by providing the NIV translation of the same passage I quoted above.

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. (1 Cor 10:14-17)

It’s not that the translation is wrong, per se. It’s just weaker than the NKJV. It does not convey the same sense of intimate union.

How then are we to understand this intimate union, this communion, this koinonia? I think one image is that of John 15. We are all branches of one vine — the vine of Jesus. It’s a union that allows no independent or separate life — either from Jesus or from each other. We are all part of a single plant in that image. Does a branch participate in the life of the vine? I suppose it does, but is that really the language we would use to describe that relationship? I don’t think so.

Of course, the ultimate image, I think, comes from John 17 when Jesus prays that we be one with each other as the Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in the Father. And he prays we have that degree of communion so that we might then be one with God. In other words, the image of koinonia given to us is the koinonia of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That image is beyond my ability to grasp, but the edges of it tantalize and fascinate me. It’s been pulling me ever deeper into Christian faith for more than fifteen years now. And I have a feeling it goes well beyond the sort of thing we use the word fellowship to describe. I have fellowship to some degree with my guildmates in World of Warcraft. Fellowship describes the relationship in fraternal orders and bowling leagues. It’s the language of voluntary association.

The scriptural image of koinonia runs much deeper and is enormously more intimate. It’s the language of one plant, one body, and the oneness of marriage. It transcends our images of unity, yet is very different from other transcendent paths of oneness. In some forms of Hinduism, for example, the ultimate goal is to lose our personal identity in union with Brahman. In Buddhism, the goal of Nirvana also involves relinquishing personal identity. But the Christian God exists as complete union without any loss of personal identity. God is revealed in three persons — Father, Son, and Spirit. Everything that can be said about the Father other than the ways he is uniquely Father can be said about the Son and the Spirit as well. And yet in that complete unity, they never lose their own unique personhood. Similarly, as we seek communion with each other and with God, it’s a union that preserves our own unique identity. Christianity is an intimately personal faith, but it is not at all an individual faith. I think many today have confused the two.

When I think of this passage from 1 Corinthians 10 in light of John 6, I find I simply don’t understand why so many Christians today accept the framework of Zwingli’s secular division of reality. Yes the bread and wine is and remains bread and wine. But when it is the cup of blessing and the bread we break, it is also the body and blood of our Lord. How else can we understand the language of communion without distancing God from our world and from ourselves?

And it is ultimately the communion of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ that is the only source of our own oneness with each other. There is a seriousness surrounding it. As Paul also mentions in 1 Corinthians, some are sick or have even died because they were participating at the table in an unworthy manner.

Thus, those who seek to find ecumenical common ground by reducing the faith to its lowest common denominator and glossing over the differences in the ways we use what are sometimes even the same words will ultimately fail. Any oneness we have lies in the bread and wine, in the body and blood. But when we approach the table, we need to be approaching the same God. I find that’s what most modern Christians don’t want to admit — that they actually describe different Gods. Some are more similar than others, but they are all different. And some are so radically different from each other that there’s no way to reconcile them.

Maybe it takes a true pluralist to look at modern Christian pluralism and call it what it is. To the extent I have any role or function, maybe that’s my role. I don’t understand why other Christians don’t seem to see that truth when it’s so blindingly obvious to me. I honestly don’t get it.

If nothing else, maybe someone reading this post can explain that to me.

This entry was posted in Eucharist, Faith and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

6 Comments

  1. Dana Ames
    Posted June 4, 2010 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    So Scott,

    in my daily blog wanderings, I read yours and then I go to Fr Stephen Freeman. I finished reading yours. I had no deep thoughts I wanted to offer, but I did think of how Fr Alexander Schmemann viewed the Eucharist; I suppose you’ve read “For the Life of the World”. I moved on to Glory to God. Today’s post is called “A Secular Eucharist” and features a photo of Fr AS. Hmmm. Fr Stephen sprinkles lots of nuggets to chew on. I think they’re related to your post, and your questions. I need to chew some more.

    Dana

  2. Posted June 5, 2010 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

    Fr. Stephen’s blog has a prominent place in my feedreader. Those who follow me on twitter know how often I retweet thoughts from his blog. Yes, I read “For the Life of the World” as I wrote my series on it. I read Fr. Stephen’s post late. (It’s been hectic with daughter going to camp, my wife’s ‘second mom’ having health issues, and younger son graduating.) I tweeted quite a few quotes from his post when I read it late last night. I agree they share some relationship to my thoughts in this post, but I haven’t had the time yet to really process it.

  3. Posted July 3, 2010 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Hello, Scott,

    I am a Catholic who reads what you have to say when you comment on E. Esther’s blog. I found this post on the Saturday Evening page of her blog.

    Whatever you write I usually find compelling. I also read Fr. Stephen’s blog regularly and always find his thoughts profound.

    To answer your question, what is the source of our oneness? I would definitely answer God. As a Catholic I would add God present in the Eucharist.

    Concerning the differences among Christians, I would say that what differs is not God, but there are differences in the many denominations perception of God.

  4. Posted July 3, 2010 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Hi Ruth Ann. God present in the Eucharist as the source of our oneness was my answer to that question drawing on the text in 1 Corinthians. I reread my ramblings and realized that may not have been clear. That particular text just grabbed my attention one day and bounced around my head until I let it out in written words.

    And thanks for your kind words about my writing. I mostly write in order to work through my thoughts and figure out what I think.

    Well, obviously I don’t believe God changes, so it is at some level a perception issue. However, I think many people start from the assumption that varying “Christian” denominations are all describing and worshiping the same God and just have “doctrinal” differences. (I’m not sure what that is intended to mean exactly, but it’s a phrase I’ve encountered a lot.) However, when you approach things they way I tend to do, simply take what people say about God, and then try to perceive the God they say they worship, it’s striking how little similarity there actually is in some of these different versions of God. If the different groups didn’t all use the “Christian” label, I’m not sure we would otherwise even consider them the same religion. The differences are that striking. I expect that sort of thing in, for instance, Hinduism. I have a more difficult time understanding how it fits within Christianity.

    None of which is to say that God is at work in and through all such groups and in all the people who will in any way listen to his voice and follow him. But then, I believe God is at work in and through all people, whatever their beliefs, as much as they will choose to listen and follow him.

    But after my journey into Christianity and looking at their different beliefs, there are some things I can say. For instance, if Calvin accurately described the God we find revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, then I’m not a Christian, will never be a Christian, have no interest in being a Christian, and will never worship that God. Period. That’s just one example, but it’s the clearest one for me which is why I often use it. That’s how different the God Calvin described is from the God I encountered and now worship.

    At what point are people’s “perceptions” about God so different that it’s reasonable to say they effectively worship a different God and have a different faith? After all, most of us believe Arius proclaimed a different faith. Most of us believe the heretic Marcion proclaimed a different faith. Why should I believe that Calvin somehow proclaimed the “same” faith that I hold when I find the God he proclaims so utterly repellent?

    I have a lot of non-Christian family and friends. I seem to spend a lot of time (in spurts) listening to them describe the “Christian” God whom they reject. Almost all the time I don’t believe in that God either. I say that, of course, when the opportunity arises, but it’s a barrier that’s hard to overcome. My friends still like me, but some of them can’t understand why I’m Christian. And I get that. I had rejected the version(s) of Christianity they perceive and reject myself fairly early in life. It was only when I began to perceive that the God who made himself known to us in Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t actually much like the version(s) I had rejected that I became open again to any sort of Christian faith.

    More rambling to add to my rambling post above. Not sure how much of it really makes sense, but thanks for you comment and your kind words.

  5. Posted February 27, 2011 at 12:36 am | Permalink

    I agree with you about koinonia. There is a deeper sweeter more intimate fellowship..a spiritual communion that takes place between God and His people as we all fellowship together. The bread and win is a symbol of that which is in Spirit. Jesus is the Bread, His Blood is our Life source. We take our identity in Christ, we remain individuals, and yet we are all one with Him. Jesus said “The Father and I are One.” He also said “You and I are One” which puts us One with the Father through Christ. This journey is a revival and you’re not the only one asking these questions and coming to these conclusions. I have found thousands of others who seem to be going down this same path that you describe..they’re on Facebook.

    I have had the pleasure of meeting several of them in person and the fellowship is amazing. We study together on Facebook daily. If you’re there look me up. I’d be glad to introduce you to them.

  6. Posted February 27, 2011 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    I deliberately stay away from facebook. Lots of reasons, but one is that I find the way they try to bring you to the attention of people you might have known, even decades ago, a little creepy.

One Trackback

  • By Saturday Evening Blog Post on July 3, 2010 at 10:17 am

    […] the June edition of the Saturday Evening Blog Post, hosted by Elizabeth Esther, I chose my post, What is the source of our oneness?. I also considered some of the other posts from June, including the early posts in my series on […]

%d bloggers like this: