Prayer, Evil, and the Nature of Things

Posted: February 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

A post about prayer on the blog, Permission to Live, kicked the wheels of my mind into gear and started it whirling. As my mind peeled back layer upon layer, I quickly realized I couldn’t really say anything meaningful in a comment. But in this case I also realized I did want to write something on the topic. The post in question actually touched on a number of areas, but I’ll primarily focus my thoughts on the purpose of prayer and the deeper question of why God does not prevent evil things from happening to people who do not deserve it and allows good things to happen to the wicked. Obviously, those are topics that can’t possibly be addressed in a blog post. The Library of Congress would not suffice.

When I try to express thoughts in areas like these I particularly feel the need to state up front that the things I say will of necessity be incomplete. I have to discuss God, but God is greater than me in such a way that no analogy, no description, no words could ever truly describe him. My mind and imagination are insufficient to the task, but they are the tools I have. So the reality is always far greater than anything I can understand or say. Please keep that in mind and try to work with my imagery rather than against it — at least for the short time that you are reading this post.

Before we can move to a discussion of prayer on a topic this deep, we have to begin with the nature of things from a Christian perspective. The fundamental division of reality lies between the uncreated and the created. Only the Father, the Son, and the Spirit can be placed in the category of uncreated. Everything else that exists is a creation of God. Moreover, God created all things good. Nothing was created evil. (Elizabeth Esther actually just posted on the innate goodness of human beings.) It’s important to grasp this fundamental Christian tenet since it runs directly counter to the narrative of some religions — both ancient religions and present day ones.

When we acknowledge that truth, something should immediately stand out. There is no place in those divisions for evil. This is one of the thoughts behind my recent post on evil as mystery. Evil is not uncreated; the only uncreated is God. Moreover, all created things are created by God and are created good. Part of the mystery of evil is that it cannot be said to have the same sort of existence as created things. In fact, it almost has to said to have no existence in the sense that creation exists. Yet evil is palpably real. So what then is evil? That’s the question to which we have to turn.

One of the aspects of creation is its freedom. There is a randomness woven into the fabric of created things that seems to provide the framework within which, for example, human freedom can exist. While that provides the basis from which we can exercise our free will and creative abilities and thus have the potential of truly being in the likeness of God, it’s not limited to humanity. That element of freedom is woven into the fabric of created things by a God of overflowing love. And that freedom is, as part of creation, also an innately good thing.

Such freedom does introduce a certain wildness into creation — even absent the influence of man. I think people often particularly misread the second creation narrative in Genesis. The garden cannot represent some idyllic, perfect unfallen reality. There was already a wilderness outside the garden into which the man and the woman could be banished. I tend to think of the image of the garden in terms of a nursery. It was a place of few challenges in which the man and the woman could learn to fulfill their created function.

And what was that function? At least part of it was to order the wildness and randomness of creation. Some of that can be seen in the act of naming (though that bit also has other meanings) since names are powerful. It’s also seen in God’s command to them. A part of our natural function is also to act as priests in creation, offering it back to God in Thanksgiving. In this sense, Jesus commanding the storm, healing the sick, and feeding the many displays his true humanity at least as much as his divinity. Yet, the story of the garden illustrates that even in the safest possible nursery environment with only a single ascetic challenge, we still do nothing but turn away and hide from God. Read the story. Man accomplishes nothing in the garden but sin. From the time we were able to lift our heads above the animals, we have turned away from God.

And that provides our first clue into the nature of evil. Evil is an aberration, a distortion, of that which was created good. It flows from the freedom instilled in creation when that freedom is turned against God. (It wouldn’t be freedom if that capacity did not exist. And if it exists, it happens.) We could ask why God then created such freedom, but that strikes me as a futile question. Any such reality we could imagine would be incredibly diminished. Beauty flows from that freedom. Love flows from it. I don’t see how a God of overflowing love could have created anything less.

Yes, I’m sure God knew from the beginning that evil would flow from the fabric of such a creation. That’s why we have the apocalyptic image of the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. God knew and was planning to rescue and complete his creation from the start. In that respect, creation is not simply something that happened in the past. Creation continues to happen every time the darkness is pushed back even a little, every time evil is transformed into good, every time love conquers. Creation is the ongoing process of renewing all things.

So what then is prayer? It seems to me that many Christians today reduce prayer to little more than intercessions. While that’s an aspect, I don’t believe it’s the central purpose of prayer at all. What is our truly human created role and responsibility in creation? Humanity was created to be the ruling, royal priesthood of our world. We were to order creation and offer it back in thanksgiving to God. (There is much that could be pursued from the Eucharist beginning as bread and wine rather than wheat and grapes, but I’ll set that aside for now.) First and foremost, prayer is our direct connection to God. And it’s in and through our communion with God that we order time and the rest of creation.We are created for communion with God and prayer is an expression of that communion.

Of course, even most of us who are Christian do not live in constant, unceasing prayer. I don’t think most of us regularly or ever recognize the extent of our culpability in the evil of the world. We are not isolated individuals. We were created not only for communion with God, but for communion with each other. As such, we share a common nature and bond with each other and with the created world we are intended to rule. It’s through that shared nature that the work of Jesus is efficacious. He became one of us in every way, sharing the fullness of our common nature, and by doing so he redeemed us and defeated death on our behalf. And by healing the human nature Jesus also completed all that was necessary to heal and redeem the whole created order.

But therein lies the rub. The evil we do spreads to others and to the world in ways we do not always directly perceive. As we particularly see in Romans 8, creation itself groans beneath that weight. When we turn away from God, we turn energies shared in the human nature to evil. By our own acts, we have contributed to the evil others experience and to the evil others do. I rarely hear of a crime or evil act and think to pray for the way my sin contributed to it. We deny our interconnectedness or we embrace only the positive and personally beneficial aspects of it. But to the extent we have each done evil, we have contributed to the evil of humanity and the world.

Finally, we are also instructed to pray for intercession, especially for others. And God sometimes intercedes. God miraculously heals a person. God protects an innocent in desperate need in a manner that offers no easy explanation. And yet many other people die despite many intercessions. Children suffer. Not everyone is healed. Not everyone is protected. All of this is true. And sometimes Christian attempts to explain this truth away do more harm than good, I think, especially when they try to call evil something sent by God or something that was really somehow “good.” Evil is evil and it is not of God. Our hearts look on evil and cry out, “Why?”

This is where I try to remember that God is not willing that any perish, that God is actively working for the salvation of all. I remember that God is constantly turning evil into good. I think of Joseph, who is certainly a type of Christ. Great evil was done to him again and again and God did not stop it. But Joseph did not despair. Joseph did not curse God.  And ultimately he could tell his brothers that God had taken their unquestionably evil act and turned it into a tremendous good. That’s the gospel of Christ prefigured. Jesus suffered in every way we suffer. He endured torture and execution under supremely unjust and evil conditions. Jesus absorbed the worst that evil could do and defeated evil and death on behalf of us all.

I believe God perceives all possible outcomes of every decision and every interaction. Reality is not static, so there is no single path. I tend to think of a bubbling stew, though that’s a weak analogy. It has states of being that are fluid and change. And the freedom of creation, especially our freedom, has immense value. Even in those times when God has blocked a human action, he has not blocked the intent or the effort to perform the act. God does not make human beings less than they were created to be. (Though it must be said we tend to do that ourselves.) And from all the stories I’ve read throughout Christian history, it’s rare even for God to so physically restrain someone from acting.

God is always working for our salvation — the salvation of every human being. And God is always working to transform evil into good. But he does not reach into our being and restrain our hearts from working evil. I believe God intercedes or doesn’t according to those goals and more. Other influences are the prayers of the communion of the saints. As the evil we do works its tendrils into the fabric of reality in ways we can’t perceive, so our prayers permeate creation. Either the things we do accomplish something or there is no point doing them.

It’s not an answer that explains. As one who has suffered evil and seen those I love suffer evil, I don’t think it’s something that can be explained. But I trust reality is at least somewhat like what I’ve described. We can’t avoid choosing a narrative framework and a perspective on reality. Of all the ones I’ve explored or held over my life, the Christian narrative offers the best lens through which to understand the nature of things. I’ve encountered this strange God, but even if I hadn’t I would want to believe this framework over the alternatives.

We cry, “Lord have mercy!” And he does.


Thirsting for God 14 – The Eucharist

Posted: January 17th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

I have 29 posts in my Eucharist category, so this is not an unfamiliar topic for me. I have too much of an interest in history and a penchant for tracing beliefs, so it didn’t take me long to turn up the inconsistencies in many Protestant views on the Eucharist, particularly the essentially Zwinglian teaching with which Matthew was most familiar.

The Orthodox understanding of the Eucharist can be expressed in relatively few words. Matthew uses good ones.

By an unfathomable act of God, the Eucharist is bread and wine, and at the same time it is truly the Body and Blood of Christ.

The Eucharist is one of the great and central Mysteries of the Church. And it is truly mysterion and beyond rational explanation. From the earliest days of Christianity, it has been the central rite of our worship. In fact, from the earliest times we see those who denied the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of our Lord not among the Churches, but among the heretics. The docetists and the gnostics are first and second century examples, but the thread continues. In fact, it’s not until Zwingli in the 16th century that we see groups even vaguely within the context of mainstream, creedal Christianity who claim that the bread and wine merely represent Christ or are a memorial to him. The central puzzle to me is not why Zwingli invented his particular teachings. With the turning of modernism, Zwingli and his teachings fit like a glove. It’s just odd to me that so few check their history today when it is widely available and easy to access.

Matthew covers the basics well in this chapter, even though most of what he covers was old hat to me long before I even noticed modern Orthodoxy. There is, however, one line that really stood out to me in this chapter.

Jesus understands that we all need Him — not just a memory of Him.

That’s really the crux of the matter. A mere memorial is both pointless and useless. It’s little wonder so many Zwinglian Protestants celebrate the “Lord’s Supper” no more than quarterly. Really, what’s the point in having their version of it more often?


Thirsting for God 6 – History

Posted: December 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 6 – History

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

It seems to me that in his journey, it took Matthew Gallatin a lot longer than it took me to turn to history. That’s really something that continues to surprise me in all facets of life — how little most people seem to look to history. I’ve had a love of history of all sorts — especially ancient history — for virtually my whole life. When I explored a religion or practice within a religion, it had always been normal for me to dive into its history. So my encounter with modern Christianity was always two-pronged. On the one hand, as I learned what modern groups taught and practiced, anachronisms — things that could not have fit in the context of the ancient world — tended to leap out at me. At the same time, I was reading and discovering what the actual ancient beliefs and practices were.

As Matthew Gallatin began to study the ancient Church, rulership (in the form of Bishops) was obvious. But the rulership of one man (the Pope of Rome) can’t readily be found. That was a problem for him when he considered Catholicism. (The actual basis for it flows from the fact that the West was largely frontier and was all part of one ancient See — that of Rome. As politics and other circumstances began to divide the See of Rome from the rest of the ancient patriarchates and as increasing chaos developed in the West, the Pope became a rock of stability in that patriarchate. Even though Rome was not the oldest patriarchate or even the oldest associated with Peter and Paul, it had always been accorded a special honor because of the importance of the city in geopolitical terms. From the hindsight offered by a historical perspective, it’s fairly easy to see the interplay develop over centuries.)

However, his main problem with all Western churches, Catholicism included, was the same one I always had. Love had drawn me inexorably into Christianity. And I felt powerfully drawn to the Jesus I read in the New Testament. But I was always repelled by the various Western doctrines of the atonement. As a rule, they all hold that Jesus was offering some sort of payment to the Father on the Cross — that for one reason or another, God had to be paid off. God had a problem with the very forgiveness he demanded from his followers. But at the same time that I was hearing these modern ideas, I was reading St. Irenaeus and St. Athanasius — who offer a very different picture of what Christ was doing. I read St. Gregory the Theologian who flatly rejected the idea that Jesus was offering payment to either the Devil or to the Father. I believed in their God, not the one I was hearing from both the Protestant and Roman Catholic sides of the debate. For me, it would be years before I discovered that Orthodoxy actually still believed what the ancient Church had believed, so I largely set that to one side. I refused to accept the picture of a God who had to paid or satisfied, but I didn’t really know what to do with that rejection.

Beyond that, by studying history Matthew quickly discovered several things about the ancient Church.

  1. From Pentecost on, the worship of the Church was liturgical, not spontaneous of free-form.
  2. Early Church worship centered on the Eucharist or Communion. … In fact, one of the earliest heresies in the Church was the teaching that the bread and wine were not the real Body and Blood of the Lord.
  3. The early Church honored departed saints as members of the Church who are alive and worshiping in heaven.
  4. Infant baptism was the standard practice in the Church and was recognized as a doctrine received from the Apostles.

There is much more you can discover, of course. But the above are clearly true. We can even trace much of the first part of the liturgy leading up to the Eucharist to the liturgical synagogue worship from which they were adapted.

In the New Testament, Paul exhorts “the believers in Thessalonica to stand fast and hold to the traditions that they had been taught — those that came through epistles, and the many that came directly from the mouths of the Apostles.” In Ephesians, he says the Apostles (not Scripture) form the “foundation” of the Church. Paul writes to Timothy that the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth. Either the proper worship, practice, and truth about Jesus of Nazareth has been preserved in the historical Church, or it’s lost and like a mosaic shattered into a pile of tiles, I see no way to somehow reconstruct it.

To know what is the truth, therefore, does not first require theological interpretation of the Book. Rather, it simply takes looking at the actual beliefs, practices, and experiences of the Church of which Christ is the Head, which the Apostles served, lived out on the pages of history.


Reality

Posted: November 24th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reality

Sometimes it seems to me that a great many Christians in our present culture and age have surrendered the reality of our faith. That manifests in a host of different ways and crosses both the modern “liberal” and “conservative” Christian divides. I’ll try to explore some of those ways in this post, but I’m not trying to be comprehensive. Rather, I’m trying to peel back the layers and at least make an effort to reveal what lies underneath.

Some ways this happens are obvious. For instance, there are many who deny the historical reality of our faith. They reject the virgin birth, the resurrection, and other facets of our faith yet often want to maintain some connection or identification with it. While our faith is not merely historical, it collapses if God did not in fact become one of us — fully and in every way — confronting the powers and ultimately defeating them. An euvangelion is a particular sort of “good news.” It’s the good news of a victorious king who has defeated the enemies that assail his people, and who has thereby made his people safe. Either that’s what Jesus accomplished or as far as I can tell, there’s no reason to be Christian.

Perhaps I see the demarcation more clearly than some who have been raised and formed within some sort of Christian context. I have been other things and I have worshiped other gods. Whatever similarities you can find between them, they say fundamentally different things about the nature of reality and what it means to be a human being. That’s why in some contexts (ancient and modern) Christianity is said to be the end of religion. God has intruded into history and in Jesus, the eternal Son and Word became one of us in every way. Jesus makes God known to us. Jesus reveals God to us. And Jesus provides the path through which we can know God and be one with God. If Christianity is true, we aren’t guessing about reality any more. But that’s only the case if Jesus of Nazareth truly forms the center of human history.

Sometimes this disconnect from reality happens in other ways. For instance, I’ve never been able to grasp what Christians who assert that the cosmos are only a few thousand years old are trying to achieve. That’s so clearly and demonstrably false across virtually every discipline of knowledge that it comes across more as a denial of reality than anything else.

It is true that as Christians we do not share the same understanding of reality as materialists who hold there is nothing beyond the sensible realm (though things like quantum mechanics stretch what we mean by sensible realm). But we should not deny the clear evidence of our senses. Where a materialist, for example, would perceive nothing but the physical mechanics of, for instance, the processes of evolution, a Christian would (or at least should) see a process infused by the particular sort of God who became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. But the evidence for that view is in the Incarnation, not in anything we can learn through our study of nature.

How do you perceive a God who is sustaining and filling everything from moment to moment? How do you see the God who is maintaining the existence of both the observer and the observed? If we had the capacity to know God on our own, the Incarnation would not have been necessary. Everything we learn or know has the capacity to draw us to God or away from God. The result is really up to us. But we aren’t going to be able to somehow distill and separate God from his creation. Yes, God certainly transcends creation. That’s why he had to become human — to empty himself — in order for us to know him. But he’s not a separate aspect or element in creation. The smallest particle, the least bit of energy, the smallest fragment of a wave are all sustained moment by moment in and through Christ. There is nothing that has any independent existence. Only God is self-existent and eternal. Everything else is created and depends on God. Fortunately our God does not begrudge existence to any of his creation. It would be a frightening thing for existence to depend on the whim of the capricious God so many imagine.

Reality itself is thus fundamentally sacramental or a mystery of God. And our role within it is to act as priests — to minister God to creation and offer creation back as thanksgiving to God. If you can perceive reality through that lens, it makes a mockery of Zwingli’s musings. His idea that anything could merely represent God or, as is often said today, could be purely symbolic could only be true if there were, in fact, some sort of division between God and creation. His ideas require two thing that are altogether missing in the Christian perspective of reality — distance and self-existence. If water is never merely water then how can it become merely water when it is used sacramentally? It can, perhaps, become even more truly water, but it cannot become less. The same is true of oil and incense and bread and wine. They become even more real, not less.

I’m also confused about how modern Christians perceive reality when I see how many of them treat variation in Christian belief and practice almost as matters of personal taste and preference. Even after fifteen years, it makes no sense to me and it seems to be a pretty modern occurrence. As recently as two hundred years ago, though there were many differences among Christians, they all believed those differences really and truly mattered. Now? Not so much. But our perception of God defines our understanding of reality. If, for instance, Calvin accurately described God, then reality is very different than it would be if, for contrast, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s description is more correct. One of them could be right. They could both be wrong. But they cannot both be right. They offer divergent and often completely contradictory images of God. Athanasius and Anselm both wrote on the Incarnation and they do not say the same thing. God is the fundamental ground of reality and how we understand him is vitally important, not a secondary concern. To the extent we misapprehend God, we misapprehend reality.

While we do have some limited capacity to shape reality within the sphere of our personal power and will, to a large degree reality is simply what it is and lies beyond our ability to mold. And we certainly can’t change God just by imagining him to be a certain way. There is a name for that space between reality and our perception of it. It’s called delusion. Personally, I would prefer to be as free from delusion as I can be. I know I can’t do that on my own. Christianity proclaims that I don’t have to. The Word became flesh and gives us the grace, which is to say himself, to know God. Christianity tells us that, if we are willing, we can see reality as it is.


What is the source of our oneness?

Posted: June 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Eucharist, Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

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.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 7

Posted: February 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 7

Thomas Howard’s seventh chapter, Table and Altar: Supper and Sacrament, focuses on the Eucharist (the Thanksgiving) of bread and wine, body and blood. He opens the chapter with a strange statement that the word sacrament does not appear in the Bible. As I read the chapter, I thought perhaps he meant that the Thanksgiving, the “breaking of bread”, or the various other ways Scripture refers to what many Protestants call the “Lord’s Supper” is never specifically called “sacrament”. If that is the case, he’s probably correct (though John 6 strongly implies it at least). If that’s not what he meant, then I don’t understand his statement at all.

For those who don’t know, “sacrament” is the anglicized version of the Latin word “sacramentum”. Sacramentum was the Latin word chosen to translate the Greek word “mysterion”. And mysterion certainly appears quite a bit in the Bible. So I was left rather confused by Howard’s unqualified statement.

Mysterion is used in an eschatological sense in the New Testament, the future reality of creation’s experience of God has broken into the present in Jesus. And, as Howard points out, “remembrance” as used at Jesus’ establishment of the Eucharist carries the additional meaning of making the past present again in the moment. So in the Eucharist, we always have the reality of Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection rushing forward into the present moment as the future of the eschaton rushes back (from our perspective) into the same moment.  In the Eucharist, we do not live somewhere between two moments in time, past and present. Time instead collapses into the mystery of Christ’s body and blood, which makes all things new.

Howard points first to John 6 for the theology of the Eucharist, and that is always where we need to begin. It is, after all, the eucharistic chapter in the theological gospel just as John 3 is a starting point for the theology of Baptism. I’m familiar with the way John 6 tends to be “spiritualized” in evangelicalism. But Howard is correct. That explanation falls apart in the narrative of the text. If the “spiritual” meaning were what Jesus had in mind, his followers would not have all been so offended. As it is, he is left with only the Twelve by the end of the text, and they hardly offer a ringing endorsement.

Howard then traces a bit of the history of Christian writing on the Eucharist, which continues almost without interruption on the heels of the text of the New Testament. In my series on Baptists, Eucharist, and History, I covered the first couple of hundred years or so of Christian writing on the topic in a fair degree of detail, more than Howard has room to do in a section of a chapter.

However, Howard does later try to discuss the Eucharist using the categories of “natural” and “supernatural”. Those have never seemed to fit the sort of relationship between creation and God as glimpsed through Jesus to me, and I’m even less comfortable with that way of dividing reality after reading Fr. Schmemann. I would say a better description of the mystery is that it involves the union of the matter of the created world (bread and wine) with the divine reality of the Body and Blood of Christ without diminishing or destroying either. It is the union toward which we are striving and for which we consume our Lord.

However, I do agree with the overall arc of the chapter, even if I was inclined to quibble in a few places.


For the Life of the World 34

Posted: February 7th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 34

This post focuses on sections 1-3 of Worship in a Secular Age, the first appendix of For the Life of the World.

Dn. Michael Hyatt’s podcast series does not continue into the appendices, but I’m going to continue to blog through the two essays in it. I’ve found them as compelling and fascinating as I have the rest of this book.

Fr. Schmemann begins by pointing out his belief that we don’t have a clear understanding in this day and age what either worship or secular age mean, and without addressing that confusion, the subject can’t really be discussed. It seems to me that we are at least as confused today as we were in 1971 when the paper was presented. Most likely, we are more confused now than ever. That’s why I found this paper, even though it is almost forty years old relevant today. Fr. Schmemann begins by considering secularism.

Secularism, I submit, is above all a negation of worship. I stress: — not of God’s existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore of some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshiping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both “posits” his humanity and fulfills it.

Secularism is not the same thing as atheism, and it strikes me that a lot of Christians make that mistake today.  Secularism, however, is the negation of the sort of worship we particularly find in Christianity, the offering of creation back to God — a God who is everywhere present and filling all things — in thanksgiving. It’s also intriguing the way he defines secularism as a Christian heresy about man rather God. I had never thought of it that way, but it really does have a lot to do with how mankind fits in the schema of all that is.

To prove that my definition of secularism (“negation of worship”) is correct, I must prove two points. One concerning worship: it must be proven that the very notion of worship implies a certain idea of man’s relationship not only to God, but also to the world. And one concerning secularism: it must be proven that it is precisely this idea of worship that secularism explicitly or implicitly rejects.

When Fr. Schmemann considers the point above about worship, he primarily finds his evidence not from modern theologians, but from the scientific study of the history and phenomenology of religions that theologians have ignored as those theologians have focused on reducing sacraments to intellectual categories.

There can be no doubt however, that if, in the light this by now methodologically mature phenomenology of religion, we consider worship in general and the Christian leitourgia in particular, we are bound to admit that the very principle on which they are built, and which determined and shaped their development, is that of the sacramental character of the world and of man’s place in the world.

Christian worship depends on perceiving and interacting with the world as an “epiphany” of God and thus the world itself is “sacrament.”

And indeed, do I have to remind you of those realities, so humble, so “taken for granted” that they are hardly even mentioned in our highly sophisticated theological epistemologies and totally ignore in discussions about “hermeneutics,” and on which nevertheless simply depends our very existence as Church, as new creation, as people of God and temple of the Holy Spirit? We need water and oil, bread and wine in order to be in communion with God and to know Him. … There is no worship without the participation of the body, without words and silence, light and darkness, movement and stillness — yet it is in and through worship that all these essential expressions of man in his relation to the world are given their ultimate “term” of reference, revealed in their highest and deepest meaning.

We need the matter of creation and we need our bodies to worship. Worship is not an inner matter. Worship is not something sacred and purely spiritual divorced from the secular, profane or ordinary matter of creation.

Being the epiphany of God, worship is thus the epiphany of the world; being communion with God, it is the only true communion with the world; being knowledge of God, it is the ultimate fulfillment of all human knowledge.


The Elements or Gifts of the Eucharist

Posted: November 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Elements or Gifts of the Eucharist

In other posts, I’ve looked at the Eucharist in history, at the mystery of the Eucharist, at its place in liturgy, and many other questions. A conversation with my youngest daughter this past week left me reflecting on the elements or gifts themselves or, to put it more prosaically, the bread and wine. There have been a number of practices regarding both over the course of the centuries. I would wager many modern Protestants are unfamiliar with all but the most recent.

One of the variations of practice that sometimes rose to the level of dispute was the use of leavened vs. unleavened bread in the Eucharist. Over time, the West settled into a practice of using unleavened bread and the East leavened bread, but that did not happen all at once. For centuries, there was a mixed practice in both East and West. All too often today, the concept of leaven is conflated with yeast. While scientifically accurate, it fails to capture the ancient mindset well. It would be more accurate to think of leaven as what we might call starter, if you’ve ever made bread in some of the more traditional ways.

Unlike much of what you might hear people in some corners say today, neither in the Holy Scriptures nor in the Fathers is leaven ever simply synonymous with sin or evil. Rather, leaven more describes a process of one substance permeating and changing the nature of another. Sin often acts that way. But, if you remember Jesus’ parable, so does the Kingdom.

The theology developed by proponents of either perspective is varied and rich. It’s worth spending time to explore if such things interest you. But, to summarize and over-simplify, there did tend to be some noteworthy trends.

Among those who favored unleavened bread, the primary point was the connection of the Eucharist to Passover because Christ is our Passover. And on Passover Jews ate unleavened bread. Why? Because on the night of the tenth plague, the Israelites prepared in haste to leave. You have to wait for leavened bread to rise, usually more than once whereas unleavened bread is prepared quickly. It is the bread of haste and the bitterness of departure.

Those who made this connection often also saw the meal at which Christ instituted the mystery of the Eucharist as a Passover meal at which they would have been eating unleavened bread. From very early on, you can see that this is a disputed point. And, indeed, if you read the gospels some things are clear. The connection to Passover is evident as is the fact that Passover is near. The room was one in which Jesus said he intended to eat Passover with his disciples. That is also certain. It is unclear whether or not the actual meal was a Passover meal and, if it was, whether or not Jesus was celebrating it on the “right” day. If you try to figure out exactly what day each event occurs you’ll give yourself a headache. Trust me, I know.

However, those who favored the use of leavened bread were not primarily concerned about whether or not the institution in the upper room happened in the context of a Passover meal or not. They drew from the parable of the leaven of the Kingdom and saw the leaven of Christ working itself into and through the people of God as the Kingdom spread into the nations. Although that last supper in the upper room was a night of departures, we do not eat in haste, ready to leave. Rather, we live in the Kingdom now and the Eucharist is as much about the Resurrection as it is the Cross.

I don’t have a strong opinion either way, though I tend to lean in the direction of the arguments for leavened bread. They seem to hold more weight to me. Of course, as a diagnosed celiac, it’s largely a moot point for me in practical terms. Leavened or unleavened, I can’t consume the bread. But it is still a very interesting aspect of the practice of our faith to explore.

The other ancient dispute over practice which continues to this day revolves around the wine of the Eucharist. No, it’s not the dispute that would probably immediately spring to mind for most of my fellow modern American Protestants. We’ll get to that one later. No, this one is the practice of using pure wine in the Eucharist vs. wine mixed with hot water. Nobody that I’ve read on this dispute argues that Christ used anything but pure wine during the last supper. And on that basis, it became the standard practice in the West.

In the East, however, it has long been the practice to mix hot water with the wine. There are many different reasons given. One (from St. Cyril of Alexandria, I think) was that the water was the Church and in the Eucharist we take Christ into our body and become part of his body. Another makes reference to the blood and water that flowed from Christ’s side on the Cross, arguing that it is thus appropriate for our Eucharist to be wine and water. Another perspective, especially in the Armenian and Ethiopian Churches holds that the water represents the Holy Spirit, since water is normally connected to the Spirit.

This debate became so heated that at one point in time anathemas flew. Personally, I can see both perspectives and find them both not without merit. I am also certain that, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, we receive either as the blood of our Lord, which is really all that matters.

The last dispute about the nature of the gifts themselves is the modern Protestant practice, connected to the 19th century temperance movement, of using grape juice instead of wine. I’ve heard and read myriad scriptural interpretations and theological circumlocutions to justify this particular innovation. If you think you have one that I’ve not heard, feel free to share it. This is a modern issue because it could only have arisen in our technologically advanced modern era. This is also where a dose of practical reality is needed more than theology.

In the modern West, we have become disconnected from the realities of food. We can have anything we want almost any time of the year. I know that personally, on those rare occasions I cannot find produce I desire at that moment, I’m irritated. But that is not how things have worked for much of human history. In the northern hemisphere, grapes are harvested in the fall. Oh, in some climates, like Cyprus, they might be harvested as early as late July and in Germany and some other places, grapes like icewine grapes might be harvested as late as January, but in general grapes are harvested in the fall. Passover is in the spring, all the way on the other side of the annual calendar. Moreover, there was no refrigeration or pasteurization in the ancient world.

What does that mean? It’s very simple really. That night in the upper room with Jesus of Nazareth, nobody had grapes or grape juice. Nobody in the city had grapes or grape juice. Nobody in the northern hemisphere had grapes or grape juice.

They had raisins and wine.

And the same realities carry through most of human history. There was not even the possibility of a question about whether to use grape juice or wine. All that anyone had available to use was wine. That’s why this is an uniquely modern dispute.

In 1869, Thomas Bramwell Welch, dentist, physician, and Methodist Communion steward, successfully applied the process of pasteurization to grape juice producing an “unfermented wine” with a long shelf life when properly sealed. He used the product for communion in his church. His son Charles, the enterprising sort, saw an opportunity and began marketing their “unfermented wine” for use by other Temperance Movement minded churches. It’s on that basis that the Welch company and fortune was built. Good, bad, or indifferent, the possibility of using grape juice in communion dates from 1869. Before then, it was not possible.

My perspective? I’m skeptical of the claim that only Christians in the last 150 years have been able to do Communion the right way. I tend to distrust modern innovations in a two thousand year old faith, especially when I can specifically locate the person and events responsible for the innovation. I just can’t drink that particular koolaid. This particular practice has no connection to anything in Scripture or the historic practice of the Church. It’s a very recent modern novelty. And it seems that it’s primarily churches who hold the Eucharist in relatively low regard, at least to judge by the frequency of their participation in it, that adhere to this modern innovation.

Those are the thoughts that have been bouncing around my head this week about the physical nature of the elements themselves. If anyone knows of any significant variation in the bread and wine which I’ve missed, let me know.


For the Life of the World 9

Posted: November 2nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 9

This post looks at section 14 of the second chapter of For the Life of the World. Also, if you haven’t listened to it yet, here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast over sections 9-16.

It is the Holy Spirit who manifests the bread as the body and the wine as the blood of Christ.

Section 14 begins with the statement above. In some ways it seems obvious, yet the fact that it needs to be said indicates the confusion that often seems to reign. The Eucharist is not some bit of ritual sympathetic magic. It is a much deeper mystery flowing from the heart of the life of God into our life. It is the Spirit, not the words or act of institution that make the Eucharist what it is. In practical terms, after the epiclesis, the Orthodox treat the bread and wine as the body and blood of our Lord, but the theological point is nevertheless an important one to make.

It is to reveal the eschatological character of the sacrament. The Holy Spirit comes on the “last and great day” of Pentecost. He manifests the world to come. He inaugurates the Kingdom. He always takes us beyond. To be in the Spirit means to be in heaven, for the Kingdom of God is “joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.” And thus in the Eucharist it is He who seals and confirms our ascension into heaven, who transforms the Church into the body of Christ and — therefore — manifests the elements of our offering as communion in the Holy Spirit. This is the consecration.

Or maybe we are all just individually reflecting on the sacrifice and suffering of our Lord with no deeper reality or meaning. Maybe it was just a teaching of our Lord using bread and wine to make memorable a theological point.

Maybe.

But if that’s all it is, you only have to do it once or twice at most in your life to get the theological point — unless you’re particularly dense, of course. And while the individual reflection might often be maudlin, I’m not sure I see either what it is intended to accomplish or what it actually accomplishes. At any rate, if that’s all it is, then doing it four times a year might be too often. Hard to get overly sentimental about something you do every few months. Maybe we should just do it once a year when we observe (if we observe) Good Friday.

If those are the alternatives between which I have to choose, it’s really not a hard decision.


For the Life of the World 5

Posted: October 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 5

Today I’ll blog through sections 7-8 of the second chapter of For the Life of the World. But first, the link to Deacon Michale Hyatt’s  podcast if you haven’t already listened to it.

Bread and wine: to understand their initial and eternal meaning in the Eucharist we must forget for a time the endless controversies which little by little transformed them into “elements” of an almost abstract theological speculation.

O f course, in my SBC tradition, they aren’t actually bread and wine, but instead crackers and grape juice. And they have been reduced to an almost empty “symbol” with no intrinsic significance or meaning. Still, even in places that have not so reduced the Eucharist, the bread and the wine have become more abstract. I appreciate the emphasis. Let’s forget all that as we move into this section.

As we proceed further in the eucharistic liturgy, the time has come now to offer to God the totality of all our lives, of ourselves, of the world in which we live. This is the first meaning of our bringing to the altar the elements of our food. For we already know that food is life, that it is the very principle of life and that the whole world has been created as food for man. We also know that to offer this food, this world, this life to God is the initial “eucharistic” function of man, his very fulfillment as man. We know that we were created as celebrants of the sacrament of live, of its transformation into life in God, communion with God. We know that real life is “eucharist,” a movement of love and adoration toward God, the movement in which alone the meaning and the value of all that exists can be revealed and fulfilled. We know that we have lost this eucharistic life, and finally we know that in Christ, the new Adam, the perfect man, this eucharistic life was restored to man. For He Himself was the perfect Eucharist; He offered Himself in total obedience, love and thanksgiving to God. God was His very life. And He gave this perfect and eucharistic life to us. In Him God became our life.

This marks the point in the Divine Liturgy often called the great entrance, in which the gifts are brought out and processed through the people. It’s my understanding that in the ancient Church, the gifts were actually gathered from the people during the procession. We have moved into the Liturgy of the Faithful. Deacon Michael also notes an important point, I think. The gifts we bring are bread and wine, not wheat and grapes. That is, we do not simply return to God the raw food he has given us. Rather, through our efforts, we transform it into something more than it was and then offer it back. As I heard him say that, I was reminded of the parable of the talents and how the good and faithful servants multiplied what the master had entrusted to their care. Even here, at the core of our worship, we see some of that same dynamic at work.

Yes, to be sure, it is a sacrifice: but sacrifice is the most natural act of man, the very essence of his life. Man is a sacrificial being, because he finds his life in love, and love is sacrificial: it puts the value, the very meaning of life in the other and gives life to the other, and in this giving, in this sacrifice, finds the meaning and joy of life.

A love that costs you nothing, that requires no sacrifice, can hardly be called love at all. Amen.

He (Christ) has performed once and for all this Eucharist and nothing has been left unoffered. In him was Life — and this Life of all of us, He gave to God. The church is all those who have been accepted into the eucharistic life of Christ. … It is His Eucharist, and He is the Eucharist. As the prayer of offering says — “it is He who offers and it is He who is offered.” The liturgy has led us into the all-embracing Eucharist of Christ, and has revealed to us that the only Eucharist, the only offering of the world is Christ. We come again and again with our lives to offer; we bring and “sacrifice” — that is, give to God — what He has given us; and each time we come to the End of all sacrifices, of all offerings, of all eucharist, because each time it is revealed to us that Christ has offered all that exists, and that He and all that exists has been offered in His offering of Himself. We are included in the Eucharist of Christ and Christ is our Eucharist.

That is powerful. Read it several times and meditate on it. Remember one meaning of “Eucharist” — a giving of thanks — as you do. The procession is bearing the bread and wine to the altar. At this point in the liturgy, the faithful remember.

“May the Lord God remember in his Kingdom …” Remembrance is an act of love. God remembers us and His remembrance, His love is the foundation of the world. In Christ, we remember. We become again beings open to love, and we remember. The Church in its separation from “this world,” on its journey to heaven, remembers the world, remembers all men, remembers the whole of creation, takes it in love to God. The Eucharist is the sacrament of cosmic remembrance: it is indeed a restoration of love as the very life of the world.

The Orthodox certainly remember, but they do not mean by that an empty, symbolic memorial to an event long past. No, this remembrance of love, this participation in Christ, restores life to the cosmos. I think I prefer their way of remembering.

The bread and wine are now on the altar, covered, hidden as our “life is hid with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). There lies, hidden in God, the totality of life, which Christ has brought back to God. And the celebrant says: “Let us love one another that in one accord we may confess …” There follows the kiss of peace, one of the fundamental acts of Christian liturgy.

It occurs to me that those who have never experienced any sort of Christian liturgy at all may not even be aware of the existence of the kiss of peace or its meaning. While often minimized today, it has always been a key part of Christian worship until recent times. The kiss is, of course, referenced in Scripture, but it strikes me as I read this section that I’ve never really heard any “non-liturgical” Protestant relate it to Christian worship in any way. That’s odd, actually, but I suppose it makes sense when you have excluded it from your worship.

The Church, if it is to be the Church, must be the revelation of that divine Love which God “poured out into our hearts.” Without this love nothing is “valid” in the Church because nothing is possible. The content of Christ’s Eucharist is Love, and only through love can we enter into it and be made its partakers. Of this love we are not capable. This love we have lost. This love Christ has given us and this gift is the Church. The Church constitutes itself through love and on love, and in this world it is to “witness” to Love, to re-present it, to make Love present. Love alone creates and transforms: it is, therefore, the very “principle” of the sacrament.

The discussion of the love of Christ that constitutes the Church reminds me of a Molly Sabourin podcast. It was the first time I had ever heard of Forgiveness Vespers, as practiced in the Orthodox Church at the onset of Lent each year. If the kiss of peace is the regular affirmation of love, Forgiveness Vespers provides the annual opportunity to clear away any lingering impediments to love as those in the Church ask for and offer forgiveness of everyone else, even those they do not know very well. I can think of little that I have heard within any path of spirituality in my highly varied journey that has ever struck me as so simply … beautiful. The first time I heard that podcast, it brought tears to my eyes. If we do not have love, we have nothing.