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.


On the Incarnation of the Word 47 – Christ Persuades All

Posted: October 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 47 – Christ Persuades All

As you read this part of Athanasius’ treatise, it helps if you understand something of the divine madness of the Delphic oracle or something both of Greek philosophy and the worship of the Greek gods. I’ll move straight to his conclusion.

But as to Gentile wisdom, and the sounding pretensions of the philosophers, I think none can need our argument, since the wonder is before the eyes of all, that while the wise among the Greeks had written so much, and were unable to persuade even a few from their own neighbourhood, concerning immortality and a virtuous life, Christ alone, by ordinary language, and by men not clever with the tongue, has throughout all the world persuaded whole churches full of men to despise death, and to mind the things of immortality; to overlook what is temporal and to turn their eyes to what is eternal; to think nothing of earthly glory and to strive only for the heavenly.

Even Plato convinced only a very few. Christ, on the other hand, used men who were not clever to persuade churches full of those who despise death.


On the Incarnation of the Word 44 – Redemption (or Re-Creation) Required More Than Creation

Posted: October 25th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 44 – Redemption (or Re-Creation) Required More Than Creation

This next section of Athanasius’ writing is complicated, but provides a vital component of his defense and explication of the Incarnation. I’ll do what I can to unravel it, but you made need to spend some time meditating on his words more than mine.

Athanasius considers the objection that since the Christian God is held to have created the world from nothing with a word (or Word as the case may be), he should have simply restored it with a command rather than through the messiness of the Incarnation. Athanasius responds that it requires more to cure that which already has existence than to bring it originally from non-existence.

To this objection of theirs a reasonable answer would be: that formerly, nothing being in existence at all, what was needed to make everything was a fiat and the bare will to do so. But when man had once been made, and necessity demanded a cure, not for things that were not, but for things that had come to be, it was naturally consequent that the Physician and Saviour should appear in what had come to be, in order also to cure the things that were. For this cause, then, He has become man, and used His body as a human instrument.

You see immediately that Athanasius primarily links Jesus’ saving work to the healing work of a physician, not in terms of law or judgment. Moreover, it required more to cure than it did to bring man into existence from nothing. I love this summary.

For it was not things without being that needed salvation, so that a bare command should suffice, but man, already in existence, was going to corruption and ruin.

Next comes another turn that bears close consideration.

Now if death were external to the body, it would be proper for life also to have been engendered externally to it. But if death was wound closely to the body and was ruling over it as though united to it, it was required that life also should be wound closely to the body, that so the body, by putting on life in its stead, should cast off corruption.

We’ve seen a lot about death and life in this treatise. Here he is drawing all of that together. Death and corruption had become part of the nature of man. We needed life. God had always been our only source of life and once we had abandoned life, the only way God could bring life to us was to become one of us — to assume our corrupted nature and destroy the death coursing through it.

For this cause the Saviour reasonably put on Him a body, in order that the body, becoming wound closely to the Life, should no longer, as mortal, abide in death, but, as having put on immortality, should thenceforth rise again and remain immortal. For, once it had put on corruption, it could not have risen again unless it had put on life. And death likewise could not, from its very nature, appear, save in the body. Therefore He put on a body, that He might find death in the body, and blot it out. For how could the Lord have been proved at all to be the Life, had He not quickened what was mortal?

Wow. Is that not a God worthy of not just all worship, but all love?

in this very way one may say, with regard to the body and death, that if death had been kept from the body by a mere command on His part, it would none the less have been mortal and corruptible, according to the nature of bodies; but, that this should not be, it put on the incorporeal Word of God, and thus no longer fears either death or corruption, for it has life as a garment, and corruption is done away in it.

All humanity has received life as a garment. It is no longer in the nature of man to die. We were meant to live.


On the Incarnation of the Word 20 – The Word Only Could Bestow Incorruption

Posted: September 12th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 20 – The Word Only Could Bestow Incorruption

In this section of his treatise, Athanasius restates the points he has already explored and summarizes them in a way that exposes a greater fullness.

We have, then, now stated in part, as far as it was possible, and as ourselves had been able to understand, the reason of His bodily appearing; that it was in the power of none other to turn the corruptible to incorruption, except the Saviour Himself, that had at the beginning also made all things out of nought and that none other could create anew the likeness of God’s image for men, save the Image of the Father; and that none other could render the mortal immortal, save our Lord Jesus Christ, Who is the Very Life; and that none other could teach men of the Father, and destroy the worship of idols, save the Word, that orders all things and is alone the true Only-begotten Son of the Father.

This is a summary of the heart of the power and wonder of the Incarnation. From what did we need saving? Mortality, corruption (as in bodily corruption and decay), the worship of other gods, and the stained and distorted image we bore as a result. I’m not sure that’s what you’ll hear in many Christian services in America today. I could be wrong, but I’ve tended to hear something different.

And so it was that two marvels came to pass at once, that the death of all was accomplished in the Lord’s body, and that death and corruption were wholly done away by reason of the Word that was united with it. For there was need of death, and death must needs be suffered on behalf of all, that the debt owing from all might be paid. 6. Whence, as I said before, the Word, since it was not possible for Him to die, as He was immortal, took to Himself a body such as could die, that He might offer it as His own in the stead of all, and as suffering, through His union with it, on behalf of all, “Bring to nought Him that had the power of death, that is the devil; and might deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.”

The death of all was accomplished in the Lord’s body. That statement is so cosmic, so grand, that it’s hard for me to wrap my head around it. My reaction every time I hear or see that declaration? Wow! The full power and presence of death was gathered into one place at one time in the body of our Lord. And at that point and through the union of man and God, death and corruption of the eikon were eliminated everywhere for all time.

And in that, the devil and all other Powers who held men in bondage in and through their ability to wield the power of death had their ultimate weapon stripped from them. The Powers are now disarmed.