Ancient Texts 3 – Scribes

Posted: December 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 3 – Scribes

There are a lot of modern misconceptions about the nature of the content of ancient texts. For instance, I’ve seen depictions of St. Paul or a Gospel writer hunched over a table writing by candlelight. That’s almost certainly not how the texts were developed. In fact, Luke/Acts are probably the only two New Testament texts that may have been directly penned by their author.

St. Luke was highly educated in philosophy, medicine, and the arts. In addition to working as a practicing physician, it appears that he also may have worked as a scribe. He may even have served as St. Paul’s scribe for some of his letters. (I’m using scribe in its more common ancient context and not in its specific first century Jewish connotation, which is rather different.) So it’s virtually certain that he directly penned his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles.

While it’s very likely that Paul, the other epistle writers, and the writers of the Gospels other than Luke spoke Greek, the lingua franca of the Empire, with varying degrees of proficiency (and as a Roman citizen, Paul at least almost certainly spoke some Latin), their native language was Aramaic. While Paul and possibly some of the others had training in rhetoric, it’s unlikely they had training in the more specific craft of capturing that rhetoric in written form. We know that Paul used a scribe for his letters because he mentions that fact in some of them. It’s safe to assume the other authors did as well.

It’s important to understand that an ancient scribe was not like a more modern secretary taking dictation or shorthand — trying to capture what is said word for word. Rather, the job of a scribe was to find the best way to convey the thought and intent of the speaker in written form. In the case of the epistles and three of the Gospels, the scribe was likely also translating from the author’s native Aramaic to Greek. Even when not translating, the scribe was often responsible for choosing the best written words to communicate the desired thought. The act of composing a text was more of a synergy between the author and the scribe than a mechanical reproduction. (Apart from the fact that I don’t believe we have sufficient text to determine authorship from textual analysis alone for any of the New Testament texts, I also think it’s a futile quest for this reason. The same author working with a different scribe would produce a text with a somewhat different “voice.”)

The author and the scribe would work together to produce a text and then the text would be sent with someone who had been trained to properly deliver it to its recipients. Nobody who carried a letter or other text of any complexity in the ancient world was a mere delivery agent. They weren’t the ancient version of UPS or FedEx. Rather, they were the ones entrusted with the task of correctly presenting it orally. So it’s important to recognize, for instance, the true role of the deacon Phoebe carrying the letter to the Romans. She is the one who would have stood before the Christians in Rome and orally traditioned Paul’s teaching to them. It was a very important and even crucial role.

When discussing the texts of the Holy Scriptures, I find many people tend to make pretty anachronistic assumptions about the way they were composed. Hopefully this clarifies some of that confusion.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 10

Posted: February 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 10

The tenth and final chapter of Thomas Howard’s book, Envoi, stresses that all Christians engaged in this discussion are, or should be allies, and not enemies. While some embrace modern Christian divisions and pluralism (unfortunately including my own SBC denomination as illustrated in a recent issue of the SBTC Texan), most Christians recognize the wrongness of the place in which we find ourselves. We know what the Holy Scriptures say about divisions, about love, and about communion, and we recognize that we’ve fallen so far that it’s hard to even tell how to begin to heal all that we have done. Howard suggests three things that must be accomplished if we are ever to return to something like what we should be as the Church.

First, Howard suggests we must return to the episcopate. “Pastors need pastors.” Having largely been a part of loosely association congregational churches, I sense a great deal of truth in that. As you study the history of the Church, you cannot help but be struck by the way the bishops held us together through their communion with each other. Oh, there were bad bishops. And there were times that the people (the laos) had to stand against and reject heretical bishops — even meeting in the fields rather than in the church. But those form the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time the bishops were the glue. St. Ignatius of Antioch’s vision of the fullness of the Church (it’s catholicity) centered on the bishop surrounded by his presbyters, deacons, and people largely held true for many centuries. Until we all begin to return to that vision, catholicity will certainly remain out of reach.

Second, Howard insists the Eucharist must return as the focal point for Christian worship. Again, I think he’s right. That has always been the center of Christian liturgy. Always, that is until recently when some turned the liturgy of the Word into the focal point. That was an error of enormous proportions and impact. It turned our worship into something like the synagogue worship of rabbinic Judaism or the mosques of Islam while simultaneously making it less than either.

And third, Howard suggests that a return to the Christian year would be beneficial. It would put us back on the same ground, telling and living the same story, redeeming time and making it present. And we would all be doing it together.

Howard’s book has been a good, easily read introduction to the deep history and practice of the Christian church. I have a hard time judging how well he speaks to his target audience of evangelicals. Even though I’ve lived among the evangelical tribe for years, I’m still often surprised by them. I suppose I am one since I can’t really say that I’m anything else, but I’m still often bemused.


For the Life of the World 33

Posted: February 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 33

The series now moves to sections 2-3 of the seventh chapter of For the Life of the World. Here again is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter seven.

The second tendency consists in the acceptance of secularism. According to the ideologists of a “nonreligious” Christianity, secularism is not the enemy, not the fruit of man’s tragic loss of religion, not a sin and a tragedy, but the world’s “coming of age” which Christianity must acknowledge and accept as perfectly normal: “Honesty demands that we recognize that we must live in the world as if there were no God.”

I’m not sure how prevalent the above is today within Christianity. It’s hard for me to judge. However, I have a sense that the above sort of reaction, unlike the rise of pluralism, has declined. That’s not to say that any of the many purely secular perspectives are on the decline. Rather, as the statistics indicate, people are increasingly comfortable selecting “none” as their religion rather than trying to blend the two as Fr. Schmemann writes in the above.

It is true that many who do still believe in God in some sense have absorbed and accepted without question the secular perspective on the nature of reality, the mistaken categories I mentioned yesterday. I think that’s true in all sorts of Christian churches, denominations, non-denominations, and parachurch groups though perhaps the tendency is stronger in some than in others. But it’s not the sort of “nonreligious” Christianity described above. And I think that may be the natural outgrowth of Fr. Schmemann’s next point.

And first of all, secularism must indeed be acknowledged as a “Christian” phenomenon, as a results of the Christian revolution. It can be explained only within the context of the history whose starting point is the encounter between Athens and Jerusalem. It is indeed one of the grave errors of religious anti-secularism that it does not see that secularism is made up of verites chretiennes devenues folles, of Christian truths that “went mad,” and that in simply rejecting secularism, it in fact rejects with it certain fundamentally Christian aspirations and hopes.

In an essay in the appendix, Fr. Schmemann traces the above in more depth. I’ll probably continues this series into the appendix. I had recognized the above to some extent, of course, but he traces it farther back than I’ve ever managed to do. When we fail to recognize the origin of the secular perspective, though, we end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater, as Fr. Schmemann basically says above. He then has a beautiful long paragraph where he follows the implications of failing to recognize the connection between Christianity and a secular perception of reality. It’s too long to quote and excerpting would mangle it. If you ever get the book itself, make a point of reading this chapter slowly.

The only purpose of this book has been to show, or rather to “signify” that the choice between these two reductions of Christianity — to “religion” and to “secularism” — is not the only choice, that in fact it is a false dilemma. … What am I going to do? what are the Church and each Christian to do in this world? What is our mission? To these questions there exist no answers in the form of practical “recipes.” … “it all depends” primarily on our being real witnesses to the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit, to that new life of which we are made partakers in the Church.

In other words, the only thing to do is to strive together to become Christian. Or so it seems to me. Fr. Schmemann’s closing thoughts for this chapter and book are beautiful. I don’t think I can add any meaningful comment to them.

The Church is the sacrament of the Kingdom — not because she possesses divinely instituted acts called “sacraments,” but because first of all she is the possibility given to man to see in and through this world the “world to come,” to see and to “live” it in Christ. It is only when in the darkness of this world we discern that Christ has already “filled all things with Himself” that these things, whatever they may be, are revealed and given to us full of meaning and beauty. A Christian is the one who, wherever he looks, finds Christ and rejoices in Him. And this joy transforms all his human plans and programs, decisions and actions, making all his mission the sacrament of the world’s return to Him who is the life of the world.


For the Life of the World 32

Posted: February 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 32

The series now moves to section 1 of the seventh chapter of For the Life of the World. Here again is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter seven.

Whatever the achievements of the Christian mission in the past, today we must honestly face a double failure: the failure to achieve any substantial “victory” over other great world religions, and the failure to overcome in any significant way the prevailing and the growing secularization of our culture.

In a strange way, both of those threads are tightly interwoven throughout my childhood formation. As Fr. Schmemann has noted elsewhere, “secular” is not a synonym for “atheist”. They are not expressing or addressing the same concept, though there is a fair degree of overlap between the two. One thing I find fascinating is that Fr. Schmemann saw these forces at work and correctly understood them before I was born. A lot of people have looked back and interpreted what happened during the part of the cultural turn that marks my life, but I’m not sure I’ve encountered many who saw it and understood it as it was happening. Fr. Schmemann did.

In regard to other religions Christianity stands simply as one of them, and the time is certainly gone when Christians could consider them as “primitive” and bound to disappear when exposed to the self-evident “superiority” of Christianity. Not only have they not disappeared, but they show today a remarkable vitality and they “proselytize” even within our so-called “Christian” society.

Of course, I’m not sure that many people would even call our society “Christian” today, but his point above describes my life. I grew up studying, learning, and practicing everything from Transcendental Meditation to palmistry to numerology to past life regression to astrology to tarot to Hinduism to Taoism. (Buddhism didn’t attract me as a child.) Yes, Christianity was in the mix, but I’m not sure I would even describe it as a prime contender. Nor am I talking about some sort of teenage exploration. I had experienced, practiced, or explored to some degree all of the above and more by the time I turned thirteen.

In fact, that perspective on reality was so much a part of me that I have never been able to grasp the common evangelical assertion that Christianity is not a religion. Of course, part of that is the shallowness behind the evangelical version of the assertion. The various reasons given usually lack depth. It’s one example where evangelicals have exactly the right idea, but don’t seem to grasp why it’s true. I began to really understand the reason for that assertion (both in terms of today and in the context of the ancient world) from some things I heard from Fr. Thomas Hopko. And then, of course, this book has really helped clarify the idea for me — probably better than anything else I’ve read or heard. But my “default” formative perspective still sees Christianity as simply one among many religions. It takes real effort for me to overcome that lens.

I believe it was GK Chesterton who wrote: When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything. The experience of my life has certainly been evidence of that truth.

As for secularism, nothing shows better our inability to cope with it than the confusion and division it provokes among Christians themselves: the total and violent rejection of secularism in all varieties of Christian “fundamentalism” clashes with its almost enthusiastic acceptance by the numerous Christian interpreters of the “modern world” and “modern man.”

At it’s heart, secularism involves wrongly dividing the world into categories like “nature” and “supernature” (and possibly dismissing the latter entirely), “profane” and “sacred”, “material” and “spiritual” rather than the proper categories of created and uncreated. Whether they embrace or reject the “supernatural”, most Christian groups today have accepted that manner of perceiving reality. And that drives the confused response.

The object of mission is thought of as the propagation of  religion, considered to be an essential need of man. … But what are these “basic religious values”? If one analyzes them honestly, one does not find a single one that would be “basically” different from what secularism at its best also proclaims and offers to men.

You see this in the common approach to “evangelization” today. The goal is to “convert” others into what you are. Further, our secular society professes much the same “values” in many (though not all) areas as Christianity. (That’s not entirely surprising, since I think Fr. Schmemann is correct in his insight elsewhere that the “secular” perspective of reality has its roots as a Christian heresy.)

It sounds like a paradox, but the basic religion that is being preached and accepted as the only means of overcoming secularism is in reality a surrender to secularism. … And it is really amazing how little difference exists in the religious self-consciousness of members of confessions whose dogmas seem to stand in radical opposition to one another. For even if a man changes religion, it is usually because he finds the one he accepts as offering him “more help” — not more truth.

Oddly the SBTC magazine recently had an editorial decrying exactly that tendency, that people today don’t really care all that much what a particular church or denomination teaches or believes. I have to admit, living in the wilds of Christian pluralism, I tend to share that attitude. I’ll check to see if a place is too obnoxious in their statements about the proper “role” or “place” for women and steer clear of them. If they are stridently anti-evolution or even anti-science, I’ll tend to give them a wide berth. And if they are nutty in their interpretation of and focus on “end times” I’ll keep my distance. Beyond that, Christianity has become so fragmented that I don’t really expect any coherence or place any particular stock in “denominational distinctives”.

And in this general religious decline, the non-Christian “great religions” have an even greater chance of survival. … Have not Oriental wisdom and Oriental mysticism always exercised an almost irresistible attraction for religious people everywhere? It is to be feared that certain “mystical” aspects of Orthodoxy owe their growing popularity in the West precisely to their easy — although wrong — identification with Oriental mysticism.

Why? Because if you are looking for a religion that “helps” then Buddhism or other Eastern religions can certainly offer that to you. They may “help” better than Christianity, and certainly better than much of what Christianity has become in the modern pluralist West. People are flocking today both to other religions and to no particular religion at all.

It is a very serious question, indeed, whether under its seemingly traditional cover certain forms of contemporary Christian mission do not in reality pave the way for a “world religion” that will have very little in common with the faith that once overcame the world.

If anything, we’re simply farther along that path today.


For the Life of the World 31

Posted: February 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 31

The series continues with the seventh chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter seven.

This final chapter of the book, And Ye Are Witnesses of These Things, focuses on the Church as mission and how being mission is its very essence and life. Yet, as we’ll see, when Fr. Schmemann writes of “mission” he is not exactly talking about the same sort of thing often labeled as “witnessing” by evangelicals. In his podcast, Dn. Hyatt opens with an amusing story about a summer in college spent with the Baptist Student Union “evangelizing” on the beach in Galveston, TX. I don’t really have any similar stories, though during one of my encounters with Christianity as a teen, I did engage in a bit of that sort of “witnessing”.

Part of the problem, of course, is our common use of the word “witness” as a verb rather than a noun. Used properly, it’s a description of what we are, not an activity in which we do or don’t engage. Perhaps it would have more impact if, instead of translating the scriptural word, we transliterated it instead. How many people are anxious to be martyrs of Christ? As the bard would say, “Must give us pause…”

I’ve been a member of an SBC church now for more than a decade and a half. I’ve also attended various non-denominational or inter-denominational bible studies and other evangelical groups over that period. I’ve been exposed to many different evangelical techniques for “witnessing”. Most of them have reminded me more of used car salesmen or telemarketers than anything I could or would relate to communicating any sort of spirituality or meaningful faith to another human being. Christianity offers a perspective of reality worthy of the dignity of the human soul. But you would never know that from its common modern reductions.

Examine the various techniques (if any) for “witnessing” that you have been taught over the course of your life. If they require that you manipulate the other person in an attempt to produce an intellectual or emotional “crisis” so that you can then offer your “solution” to the crisis you induced, then you’re doing the same thing a good salesman or con man does. Sure, you can “convert” people that way. But you cannot do that to another person and simultaneously love them. And if our actions do not conform to love as Jesus loves and as our Holy Scriptures define love, then however good or bad our actions and intentions might be, they are not Christian.

The ends do not justify the means. In fact, the means we used always produce corresponding ends. The only way you can “convert” someone to a life of thanksgiving and communion of love is to live such a life yourself. You can only “convert” someone to love by loving them. I read 1 Corinthians 13 a lot. The same thought processes that justify manipulating someone into a crisis in order to achieve the greater good of “making” them a Christian flow along the same lines that have “justified” every “Christian” atrocity in history. It may look harmless, but it’s not.

A good example of the difference can be found right here in the US. Compare the difference in the missionary outreach of the Russian Orthodox to the natives in Alaska to the Protestant treatment of the natives on the continental US. The mission in Alaska was sent to help protect the natives from abuses by the Russian companies. They learned the native languages. They created a written form of it. They translated the liturgy and scripture into the native languages and they built on that which was true and good in the native culture. Oh, they were still men and the mission was hardly perfect (and the business interests were always more powerful than the missionaries), but it flowed along the lines of love more often than not.

By contrast, though there were definitely exceptions, most “mission” efforts by Protestants in the continental US colluded with business interests and the idea of “manifest destiny”. They sought to strip the natives of their culture and turn them into imitations of good European descent protestants. In fact, when the US bought Alaska, our “missionaries” used exactly those same tactics in efforts to “convert” what were by then native Orthodox Christians. The history is fascinating. I knew the American part, of course. Though much diluted, Cherokee blood does still run in my veins. And I heard stories growing up.

You cannot be a true Christian witness unless you love and honor the other. If you do not see them as an icon of God, if you do not respect their dignity and freedom as God does, if you manipulate or coerce or treat them as an “object” in any way, then it hardly matters what you can get them to “confess”.

I didn’t realize when I began writing that I had an introductory post on this subject rather than an introductory paragraph. I suppose I’ll actually dive into Fr. Schmemann’s book tomorrow.


For the Life of the World 30

Posted: January 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 30

The series continues in section 3 of the sixth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here again is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter six.

The beginning of this victory is Christ’s death.

Those opening words to this section capture the paradoxical nature of Christian faith. Though not strictly related to this chapter, I will note that far too much of Christianity has placed all the focus on Christ’s death. I like the way the above is phrase. Christ’s death is the beginning of this victory, but not its fullness.

Fr. Schmemann goes on to note that the “liturgy of Christian death” is not something that comes into play when someone dies and we are ushering them on in some dignified manner. It begins every Sunday, every feast day, and most especially in every Easter. Our whole life in the Church is “in a way the sacrament of our death.” We proclaim our Lord’s death and resurrection. But we are not death-centered, because our Lord is a living Lord.

To be Christian, to believe in Christ, means and has always meant this: to know in a transrational and yet absolutely certain way called faith, that Christ is the Life of all life, that He is Life itself and, therefore, my life. “In him was life; and the life was the light of men.” All Christian doctrines — those of the incarnation, redemption, atonement — are explanations, consequences, but not the “cause” of that faith. Only when we believe in Christ do all these affirmations become “valid” and “consistent.” But faith itself is the acceptance not of this or that “proposition” about Christ, but of Christ Himself as the Life and the light of life. “For the life was manifested and we have seen it, and bear witness, and show unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us” (1 Jn 1:2). In this sense Christian faith is radically different from “religious belief.” Its starting point is not “belief” but love. In itself and by itself all belief is partial, fragmentary, fragile. “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part … whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” Only love never faileth (1 Cor. 13). And if to love someone means that I have my life in him, or rather that he has become the “content” of my life, to love Christ is to know and to possess Him as the Life of my life.

If we depend on what we think or believe, we are standing on shaky ground. Such things can change easily. I know. I’ve probably shifted beliefs more than most people do. The one who kept the swirl of Christianity engaged, even if just barely so at times, with my life was Jesus of Nazareth. And it was people in a strange way almost manifesting this Jesus who kept drawing me back. I’m still not sure what I think or believe or how much more it will change, though I’m rather more certain now what I don’t believe. But I’ve come to know Jesus enough to be certain that I want to love him more. I am confident that in him we see a good God who loves mankind — and who loves me.

The Church is the entrance into the risen life of Christ; it is communion in life eternal, “joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.” And it is the expectation of the “day without evening” of the Kingdom; not of any “other world,” but of the fulfillment of all things and all life in Christ. In Him death itself has become an act of life, for He has filled it with Himself, with His love and light. … And if I make this new life mine, mine this hunger and thirst for the Kingdom, mine this expectation of Christ, mine the certitude that Christ is Life, then my very death will be an act of communion with Life. … Christ is risen and Life reigneth.

What more to say than amen? That is where I have placed my hope — with Life.


For the Life of the World 29

Posted: January 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 29

The series continues in section 2 of the sixth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here again is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter six.

Before death, however, there is dying: the growth of death in us by physical decay and illness. … For the modern secular world, health is the only normal state of man; disease therefore is to be fought, and the modern world fights it very well indeed. … Yet health has a limit, and it is death. … As long as a man is alive everything is to be done to keep him alive, and even if his case is hopeless, it must not be revealed to him. Death must never be a part of life.

In some ways, the above  is even more true today, as even aging itself seems to terrify our culture. People do more and more to hide, remove, delay, or change the normal signs of growing older. We do, perhaps, deal with end of life issues slightly better than we did when Fr. Schmemann wrote the above. But if so, it’s not really by all that much. We are obsessed as a culture with an almost pathological passion for denying our own mortality — at least as evidenced in the aging of our bodies.

This year I’ll turn forty-five.  That’s just about as “middle-aged” as you get. And even absent the effects of illness and disease such as celiac, I know my body has changed. I do not recover energy as quickly. Things ache and creak and pop now that never did before — not badly, but just enough that I can tell the difference. And I know that’s a taste of the future. I will continue to age. And that doesn’t bother me. I don’t mind the gray in my beard. I’ve earned it. I don’t mind the crow’s feet in the corners of my eyes. I just hope they reflect smiles rather than frowns. I’m not sure how our cultural obsession with the appearance of youth missed me, but I’m glad it did.

Our doctors are better than ever, but they still all have a 100% patient mortality rate. That’s a truth we would rather deny than face.

The religious outlook considers disease rather than health to be the “normal” state of man. In this world of mortal and changing matter suffering, sickness and sorrow are the normal conditions of life. … Health and healing are always thought of as the mercy of God, from the religious point of view, and real healing is “miraculous.” And this miracle is performed by God, again not because health is good, but because it “proves” the power of God and brings men back to God.

Remember that Fr. Schmemann is using “secular” and “religious” as two opposing poles, neither of which is actually “Christian.” The above is not only a description of the sort of “religion” into which Christianity has often degenerated. It is actually a perspective that manifests in different ways in many different religions. Whether the wheel of Samsara or the cycle of death and rebirth in much of dualistic neo-paganism, death (and often suffering) are natural or “normal.”

In their ultimate implications these two approaches are incompatible, and nothing reveals better the confusion of Christians on this issue than the fact that today Christians accept both as equally valid and true.

I had not really ever consciously recognized the above, but realized its truth as soon as I read it. Think about the sort of language used not only at funerals, but at times of sickness, injury, and disease.

But is this the Christian approach — and if it not, are we simply to return to the old — the “religious” one? The answer is no, it is not; but we are not simply to “return.” We must discover the unchanging, yet always contemporary, sacramental vision of man’s life, and therefore of his suffering and disease — the vision that has been the Church’s, even if we Christians have forgotten or misunderstood it.

And that’s the real trick. There’s a reason Christianity has spoken so deeply to so many millions over the past two millenia. And there’s a reason modern, Western Christianity is diminishing. I would say a large part of the reason for the latter is that we forgotten the former.

The Church considers healing as a sacrament. But such was its misunderstanding during the long centuries of the total identification of the Church with “religion” (a misunderstanding from which all sacraments suffered, and the whole doctrine of sacraments) that the sacrament of oil became in fact the sacrament of death, one of the “last rites” opening to man a more or less safe passage into eternity.

On some level, I knew the sacrament of “last rites” was connected somehow to healing. Unction, of course, is the act of anointing most often associated with healing rituals. We see this sacrament in Scripture, for example, in James 5. And yet, I still associated it with a deathbed rite and somehow missed its true nature. In Orthodoxy, the sacrament of healing never became narrowly focused as a final unction the way it did in the West.

Out of curiosity, I looked up the Roman Catholic version of the sacrament. Apparently Vatican II restored this sacrament to its original, broader meaning. And, in 1972, it was renamed from Extreme (or final) Unction to Anointing of the Sick. Further, it began to shift from a private ceremony back to a communal one. This, like many developments in Roman Catholicism this century, actually marks a restoration of the more ancient understanding. And yet the cultural image of “last rites” is a tough one to shake. I went to a Catholic school from 1976-1979, after both Vatican II and the formal name change, and I didn’t realize until I specifically researched it that the RCC had restored the original sense of the sacrament.

Fr. Schmemann goes on to comment that the sacrament of healing is also not simply a “useful” complement to modern medicine. Thinking of it in merely those terms misses its sacramental nature.

A sacrament — as we already know — is always a passage, a transformation. Yet it is not a “passage” into “supernature,” but into the Kingdom of God, the world to come, into the very reality of this world and its life as redeemed and restored by Christ. It is the transformation not of “nature” into “supernature,” but of the old into the new. A sacrament therefore is not a “miracle” by which God breaks, so to speak, the “laws of nature,” but the manifestation of the ultimate Truth about the world and life, man and nature, the Truth which is Christ.

And healing is a sacrament because its purpose or end is not health as such, the restoration of physical health, but the entrance of man into the life of the Kingdom, into the “joy and peace” of the Holy Spirit. In Christ everything in this world, and this means health and disease, joy and suffering, has become an ascension to, and entrance into this new, its expectation and anticipation.

In this world suffering and disease are indeed “normal,” but their very “normalcy” is abnormal. They reveal the ultimate and permanent defeat of man and of life, a defeat which no partial victories of medicine, however wonderful and truly miraculous, can ultimately overcome. But in Christ suffering is not “removed”; it is transformed into victory. The defeat itself becomes victory, a way, an entrance into the Kingdom, and this is the only true healing.

The sacrament of healing manifests our life in the Kingdom. In some ways, I am reminded of Tolkien’s High Elves. We stand simultaneously in two worlds, in two realities, and we draw our deeper strength and power from the one which, though just as real and physical, is less evident to the senses of this world.

The Church does not come to restore health in this man, simply to replace medicine when medicine has exhausted its own possibilities. The Church comes to take this man into the Love, the Light and the Life of Christ. It comes not merely to “comfort” him in his sufferings, not to “help” him, but to make him  a martyr, a witness to Christ in his very sufferings.

We don’t need help or comfort as much as we need Life.


For the Life of the World 28

Posted: January 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 28

The series continues in section 1 of the sixth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here again is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter six.

Christianity, with its message offering fullness of life, has contributed more than anything else to the liberation of man from the fears and pessimism of religion. Secularism, in this sense, is a phenomenon within the Christian world, a phenomenon impossible without Christianity. Secularism rejects Christianity insofar as Christianity has identified itself with the “old religion” and is forcing upon the world those “explanations” and “doctrines” of death and life which Christianity has itself destroyed.

Christianity offers life from and within the ultimate source of all life — God. And yet so much of it has degenerated today into little more than a discussion about what happens to the “real” you after you die. That’s the focus of traditional religion and should never be the central focus of Christianity.

It would be a great mistake, however, to think of secularism as simply an “absence of religion.” It is, in fact, itself a religion, and as such, an explanation of death and a reconciliation with it. It is the religion of those who are tired of having the world explained in terms of an “other world” of which no one knows anything, and life explained in terms of a “survival” about which no one has the slightest idea; tired of having, in other words, life given “value” in terms of death. Secularism is an “explanation” of death in terms of life. The only world we know is this world, the only life given to us is this life — so thinks a secularist — and it is up to us men to make it as meaningful, as rich, as happy as possible. Life ends with death. This is unpleasant, but since it is natural, since death is a universal phenomenon, the best thing man can do about it is simply to accept it as something natural. As long as he lives, however, he need not think about it, but should live as though death did not exist. … The American “funeral home” is indeed the very symbol of secularist religion, for it expresses both the quiet acceptance of death as something natural (a house among other houses with nothing typical about it) and the denial of death’s presence in life.

That actually describes the perspective of many modern Christians. On the one hand there are those who view everything in terms of the “afterlife” (which Fr. Schmemann calls the “old religion”) and on the other hand are at least as many who mostly ignore death, think in terms of the “best life now,” and when they must face death, consider it as something unpleasant, but natural. Neither perspective, though, is actually Christian in any sense that can be connected to our historical faith. And secularism is increasingly common in our culture because it works. It helps more with its life-centered approach than most religious approaches.

But it is here that we reach the heart of the matter. For Christianity help is not the criterion. Truth is the criterion. The purpose of Christianity is not to help people by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death in order that people may be saved by this Truth. Salvation, however, is not only not identical with help, but is, in fact, opposed to it. … If the purpose of Christianity were to take away from man the fear of death, to reconcile him with death, there would be no need for Christianity, for other religions have done this, indeed, better than Christianity. And secularism is about to produce men who will gladly and corporately die — and not just live — for the triumph of the Cause, whatever it may be.

Indeed, we have already seen that last prediction come to fruition in the decades since Fr. Schmemann wrote it. So what then is Christianity?

Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed, and not a “mystery” to be explained. … Only Christianity proclaims it to be abnormal and, therefore, truly horrible. … In the light of Christ, this world, this life are lost and are beyond mere “help,” not because there is fear of death in them, but because they have accepted and normalized death. To accept God’s world as a cosmic cemetery which is to be abolished and replaced by an “other world” which looks like a cemetery (“eternal rest”) and to call this religion, to live in a cosmic cemetery and to “dispose” every day of thousands of corpses and to get excited about a “just society” and to be happy! — this is the fall of man. It is not the immorality or the crimes of man that reveal him as a fallen being; it is his “positive ideal” — religious or secular — and his satisfaction with this ideal. This fall, however, can be truly revealed only by Christ, because only in Christ is the fullness of life revealed to us, and death, therefore, becomes “awful,” the very fall from life, the enemy. It is this world (and not any “other world”), it is this life (and not some “other life”) that were given to man to be a sacrament of the divine presence, given as communion with God, and it is only through this world, this life, by “transforming” them into communion with God that man was to be. The horror of death is, therefore, not in its being the “end” and not in physical destruction. By being separation from the world and life, it is separation from God. The dead cannot glorify God. It is, in other words, when Christ reveals Life to us that we can hear the Christian message about death as the enemy of God. It is when Life weeps at the grave of the friend, when it contemplates the horror of death, that the victory over death begins.

Christ wept at the tomb of Lazarus. Christ agonized over the horror of his own impending death. That’s what Fr. Schmemann is referencing in his closing line above. Another thing I recall hearing at funerals is that a person died when God determined they should die. They are essentially making God responsible for death instead of recognizing death as the enemy. It’s little wonder that so many reject such a religion in favor of almost anything else. If it’s what I believed Christianity was, I would reject it in a heartbeat myself. No faith is better than that. Buddhism is better than that. Shintoism is better than that. Hinduism, in its many and varied forms, is better than that. If I believed in a God like that, I might as well convert to Islam. Insha’Allah.

Thanks, but no thanks.


For the Life of the World 27

Posted: January 26th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 27

The series now moves onto section 1 of the sixth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here again is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter six.

We live today in a death-denying culture. This is clearly seen in the unobtrusive appearance of the ordinary funeral home, in its attempt to look like all other houses. Inside, the “funeral director” tries to take care of things in such a way that one will not notice that one is sad; and a parlor ritual is designed to transform a funeral into a semi-pleasant experience. There is a strange conspiracy of silence concerning the blunt fact of death, and the corpse itself is “beautified” so as to disguise its deadness.

That’s Fr. Schmemann’s opening to this chapter, Trampling Down Death by Death, and I think it remains a pretty accurate description of the American approach to death. We try to sterilize death and push it to arm’s length and beyond.

But there existed in the past and there still exist — even within our life-affirming modern world — “death-centered” cultures, in which death is the one great all-embracing preoccupation, and life itself is conceived as being mainly preparation for death.

Historically, of course, ancient Egypt provides an excellent illustration of such a culture. However, pockets of such a cultural formation permeate even our modern America. It’s one of the reasons we have our Jim Jones, David Koresh, and others. If the cultural soil did not exist their particular vision would have a harder time taking root. Moreover, Fr. Schmemann points out that Christianity became a religion (in the negative sense he explained earlier in the book) that explained death and tried to make it palatable.

Where is Christianity in all this? There can be no doubt, on the one hand, that the “problem of death” is central and essential in its message, which announces Christ’s victory over death, and that Christianity has its source in that victory. Yet, on the other hand, one has the strange feeling that although this message has certainly been heard, it has had no real impact on the basic human attitudes towards death. It is rather Christianity that has “adjusted” itself to these attitudes, accepted them as its own.

Fr. Schmemann points out that on the one hand Christianity dedicates to God all our frenetic, hectic, and life-centered activity, blessing skyscrapers and all the signs of “progress.” On the other hand, at funerals it can present life as suffering and death as a liberation. We jump back and forth between the two poles and neither is true. Christianity is not essentially life-affirming, at least not in the way we usually think and act. For at its center lies the crucified Christ. However, neither can we reconcile people to death, make it something natural. Doing so falsifies reality.

For Christianity proclaims that Christ died for the life of the world, and not for an “eternal rest” from it. This “falsification” makes the very success of Christianity (according to official data church building and per capita contributions to churches have reached an all time high!) into a profound tragedy. The worldly man wants the minister to be an optimistic fellow, sanctioning faith in an optimistic and progressive world. And the religious man sees him as an utterly serious, sadly solemn and dignified denouncer of the world’s vanity and futility. The world does not want religion and religion does not want Christianity. The one rejects death, the other, life. Hence the immense frustration either with the secularistic tendencies of the life-affirming world or with the morbid religiosity of those who oppose it.

While official data shows a Christianity that is no longer peaking today, but in decline, Fr. Schmemann’s point remains valid. And thus we have the Joel Osteens on the one hand and the Pat Robertsons on the other. And while most are probably not at the extremes, there does tend to be a strong tendency toward one direction or the other. Fr. Schmemann goes on to note that this will continue as long as Christians continue to maintain an utilitarian view of their faith, as long as they continue to perceive Christianity as something intended to help them. Most of all, we have to stop viewing death as something natural or even desirable.

For neither the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, based on the opposition between the spiritual and the material, nor that of death as liberation, nor of death as punishment, are, in fact, Christian doctrines. And their integration into the Christian world view vitiated rather than clarified Christian theology and piety.

As we maintained such beliefs in our formerly religious or “death-centered” culture, we actually paved the way for the growth of modern secularism. I’ll continue exploring Fr. Schmemann’s perspective on that idea tomorrow.


For the Life of the World 26

Posted: January 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The series now continues with the sixth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter six.

In this chapter, Fr. Schmemann weaves a look at the way our culture approaches life, death, and health in and around his exploration of the Orthodox funeral rite and healing sacrament. Death thrust its way into my life and consciousness at an early age, but as I’ve moved into and through middle age, it seems that funeral attendance has become an ever-increasing part of my life. Since my family and friends are spiritually diverse, that means I’ve been exposed to funerals and attitudes toward death across a broad spectrum of traditions, Christian and otherwise. Curiously, they have not actually been very different from each other when you scratch beneath the surface appearance.

In subsequent posts, I plan to walk slowly through this chapter. I found myself highlighting almost everything Fr. Schmemann wrote in it, so it’s going to take some work to trim down what I actually use. In this first post on the chapter, though, I’m going to capture and explore some of my encounters and reactions to the American attitude toward death. After all, one of the things that continues to draw me into Christianity is its outrage at death. It’s an outrage I’ve shared at least from that day when, as an eight year old, I watched my stepfather’s lifeless body wheeled out to an ambulance. Jesus weeps outside Lazarus’ tomb. And twice, John notes that he is deeply moved, he is outraged, he is angry. In Jesus, we see God’s response to the death of the eikon. We were meant to live. And in his life, death, and resurrection Jesus truly trampled down death by death. It is no longer the nature of man to die.

But you would never know that from attending virtually any Christian funeral or memorial service in the US today. Consistently, those grieving are told they are grieving for their own loss, that their beloved is happy now and “free” from suffering. However comforting they are meant to be, such sentiments are a denial of John 11, and almost a slap in the face of those grieving. Yes, it is true that we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Our hope and trust is in Jesus. We do believe that he has defeated death. Nevertheless, we grieve, and not simply for our own selfish pain of separation from our beloved. Jesus grieves at the death of his friend. God is outraged at the death of his icon. Death is an abomination. Death is the ultimate enemy. We are not selfish when we grieve and it dishonors those grieving when they are not given proper room to own their grief.

What about the picture of our beloved “freed” from suffering and “at home” with the Lord? What about the message that they are “happy” now and we should try to be “happy” for them? Yes, to sleep in the body is to be with Christ, which is far better. (Though I will note that that is one of the very few things Scripture actually says about the period between the time our bodies sleep and the general resurrection of the dead.) I won’t argue with that at all. But to say that I would be perfectly happy and content even as I know that those who love me are suffering painfully from my death denies my own humanity and love! Would I not continue to pray for those I love? Might I not even be able to love them better? Might I not pray for some sign or other form of comfort for them? Would I no longer seek to help them? We need to listen to the messages we actually send with our words.

It’s also common to tell those mourning that the body is not their beloved, that their beloved has “left” it behind, that it’s just a shell. It’s probably this sentiment that has led to the modern acceptance of cremation among Christians. But such an idea is not even vaguely consistent with Christian faith. It’s nothing more than a form of ancient pagan dualism revived and given a veneer of Christian language. First, the idea that you are somehow not your body, that the material body is merely a container for the “real” you (usually coupled with at least a disdain for the “physical” as opposed to the “spiritual”) can be found in a host of non-Christian sources. But the one that probably most influences modern Western thought is likely Plato. Even if you’ve never read a thing he wrote or studied him in any way, some of Plato’s perspective on reality and the nature of things seems to permeate modern Western culture.

No. The Christian perspective is very different. While we are more than merely our physical bodies, our identity and personhood cannot be separated from those bodies. We are embodied icons of God created for a reality that is both physical and spiritual, intertwined and intermingled. Those we love have only known us in and through our bodies and we have only known them the same way. The promise of Christianity is not one of disembodied spiritual existence like Plato’s happy philosophers. No, Christianity rests on the hope of resurrection of which Jesus is the first fruit. We are our bodies and however God sustains us in this interim period while our bodies sleep, we will be resurrected. Like Jesus, our bodies will be more than they are now, but will be continuous in some manner with our present bodies.

Finally, if the beloved has been a Christian, then that body has been the temple of the Holy Spirit. When you look upon the body of a Christian, see it with the same lens as the ground upon which Moses stood before the burning bush, compare it to the presence of God with the ark of the covenant, see in it the shekinah glory of the Lord filling Solomon’s temple, see the clouds of glory filling Isaiah’s vision. If what we believe is true, then that body is as holy as any of the above and should be treated with the same honor and reverence. Even if the person was not a Christian, that body was still created as an icon (image) of the one true God, shaped and formed to reflect the love of God into creation. That reality does not suddenly change in death. Remember the story of Elisha’s bones, how contact with them raised the dead to life.

It seems to me that if we hope to ever exert any sort of Christian influence within our culture, we have to regain a Christian perspective on life and death ourselves. And right now, we seem to have largely lost that perspective.