Thirsting for God 8 – Love Beyond Reason

Posted: December 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 8 – Love Beyond Reason

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

There is nothing reasonable about God’s love. Matthew begins by describing the closeness of his love and bond with his wife in order to make the point that God’s love transcends even that.

But in the great Mystery of Love, my bond with Alice is a pale and impoverished shadow when compared to the oneness that I can share with Christ. He illumines my soul and drives me to my unworthy knees in repentant gratitude and joy.

Of course, over the years of his life, he had experienced moments of that joy and love. If he hadn’t, he probably wouldn’t have remained Christian.

The truth is, most sincere Protestants I know have had similar experiences. They recall them with unique fondness and joy. Unfortunately, what makes those times so special is the fact that they are so rare. They are not part of the everyday routine of evangelical life.

We know that the earliest Christians lived lives of such love, joy, and devotion that even as they were tortured and killed — joyfully while forgiving those who were killing them — they converted an empire. The experience of the love of Christ and union with him was not an occasional thing. It was their constant reality. In Orthodoxy, Matthew found the simple, humble, and quiet path toward an ever-deepening experience of Christ — one available to any and all.

So what does Orthodoxy have that Protestantism doesn’t? Why can’t Protestant faith consistently Christ in the way it so devoutly desires? In becoming Orthodox, I discovered the problem with my Protestant faith lay in the fact that the way it taught me to relate to God just didn’t work.

You see, the Protestant way of living in Christ is thoroughly rooted in a system of thinking known as rationalism.

Now rationalism does not mean simply thinking in a lucid, intelligent, or sensible way. Rather, rationalism is a particular system of interpreting reality.

Its essential tenet is that truth is discovered through reasoning, not through experience (that is, through observations, feelings, or actions).

While a bit over-simplified, that’s actually a pretty good summary of the heart of rationalism. It’s actually hard to convey a complex idea in simple language, so I can really appreciate the elegant simplicity of that definition. Matthew illustrates the point with a pretty good example, though rationalism infects different streams in different ways.

For instance, in one of the first sermons I can remember, the preacher held his Bible high over his head, waved it for emphasis, and cried, “When it comes to your faith in God, you can’t trust in your eyes. You can’t trust in your ears. You can’t trust in your feelings. All you can trust in is what you know from the Word of God!”

He relates other examples. For instance, at one point some of his pastor friends were considering taking courses in logic and critical reasoning. The felt that when most people struggled spiritually, the problem lay in their thinking, so they thought such courses would help them in their pastoral duties. The list of the ways such attitudes permeate Protestantism is endless. Faith is approached primarily as a matter for study.

Matthew came to realize what was glaringly obvious to me from the beginning and which I’ve heard others, such as Conversion Diary, mention in their journey toward faith. The standard mode of Protestant practice and experience through bible study has no connection to the early life of the Church. Those believers initially had limited access to the books that eventually became the New Testament. They also had limited access to what we now call the Old Testament. Moreover, the Old Testament scriptures had been radically reinterpreted by the apostles in the light of Christ. Scrolls (and later the earliest books) were extremely expensive. And many people were functionally illiterate anyway. The Protestant approach to Christian faith is highly anachronistic. It doesn’t fit in the context of the ancient world and you can’t make it fit.

But instead, the Church held to a sacramental view of Christian life. Sacramentalism is the belief that truth is discovered by experiencing the living Presence of Christ, by participating with Him in specific acts of worship that He Himself ordains.

It’s important to note that feelings and actions are still considered to be important within Protestantism. Some strands emphasize them more and some less. But most of Protestantism would agree that right actions and right feels have to start with right understanding. The problem is that, even in the context of Scripture, that’s simply not how God works. It also leads to the problem of how you get from theological knowledge of God in your head to love for God.

Well, a Protestant takes it for granted that knowledge somehow becomes love. What’s in the heart must first be in the head. That’s rationalism, pure and simple.

….

You see, anyone who will stop for a moment and simply consider what love is will realize that turning knowledge into love is an impossible endeavor. Head knowledge cannot become heart knowledge! Knowledge cannot produce love. It may direct us toward love. But it is not the same as love, nor can it serve as a substitute.

St. Paul is so clear about this fact that I don’t know why I didn’t see it long ago. I’ve discovered, though, that my modern mindset often kept me from seeing the obvious. St. Paul tells his spiritual children that the love we experience with Christ “passes knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19). The word “passes” is the Greek word that means “to transcend, surpass, or excel.”

Matthew illustrates that point with a thought exercise. He imagines that his wife and he have been separated by a door their entire lives. At some point, someone tells him about the lovely creature on the other side of the door and he becomes enamored with the idea of that person. He acquires knowledge about her and constructs a mental image of her. Even if he develops a completely accurate picture of her over time, he can’t be said to have a love relationship with her.

The simple fact is that I can’t have a real loving relationship with a mental image of someone I have not actually experienced — no matter how accurate that image may be. True love requires a live encounter with another person. It demands an interaction with that person that encompasses heart, soul, mind, and body.

I must open the door and embrace Christ as a Person, not as an object of my theological imagination.

Matthew Gallatin points out that it’s that desire that leaves many Protestants constantly seeking revival, seeking the next experience, seeking to be “fed” (a strange term I’ve heard that took me a while to understand), and essentially subsisting from one experience of Christ to another with long dry spells in between. Of course, God is not trying to hide. He is seeking to be known. Jesus has joined his nature wholly and completely to ours so that we might know him and have union with him. We construct the door that keeps him out, but he is always trying to get through it to us. As a result, anyone honestly seeking God will have some experience of him.

It’s at this point that Protestantism typically stalls. Those experiences remain occasional. And people get stuck trying to relate through a door to their own mental image of Jesus. It didn’t surprise me at all when Willow Creek discovered that the most dissatisfied among their membership were the most “mature” Christians (by typical Protestant measures). Reason can only get you so far.


Thirsting for God 4 – Christian Relativism

Posted: December 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 4 – Christian Relativism

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

The fragmentation of truth and confusion about God within Protestantism has led it to a curious place. The following captures it well.

You don’t have to be concerned that other people have a different understanding of the truth. You just have to be true to your own convictions. One’s relationship with God is an entirely personal thing. Just live up to “the light that you have,” to what you believe the truth to be. That’s what God expects.

Initially, that laissez-faire approach to God suited me pretty well. My thoroughly pluralistic formation combined with the inclusive nature of Hinduism had shaped me into something like a hard relativist. However, I remember one day hearing someone talk about “their” Holy Spirit speaking to them and guiding them and I remember thinking, “Wait. Isn’t there one Holy Spirit? Who is so united in essence with the Father and the Son that they can be spoken of as one God?” I was recognizing the problem with Christian relativism that Matthew Gallatin outlines.

First of all, such thinking makes sincerity of conviction the key to salvation. … We can be at once sincere, and sincerely wrong!

That’s not an idle point and I like the way Matthew Gallatin draws it together.

After all, how can I think that an Arminian and a Calvinist can both have a valid relationship with the true God, unless Jesus Christ can be a different Person to different individuals? St. James is quite clear, however: in God there can be no such “variation or shadow of turning” (James 1:17). The Apostles Paul assures us there is only one God, one Lord, one faith, one hope (Ephesians 4:4-6). How can there be room in the Christian faith for spiritual relativism?

Now, I feel again that it’s important to say that God is a God of love who wants to be known as he knows us. He is seeking to save, not to condemn. The Incarnation makes that as clear as it could possibly be made. It would not surprise me at all if Plato and Lao Tzu were among the first to believe when Christ preached to the spirits in Hades as he destroyed death. Within every faith, I believe there are those like Emeth in The Last Battle, who have served Aslan even as they thought they followed Tash. How much more must there be many like that in the modern fragmentation of Christianity?

But God is who he is and not who we imagine him to be. To the extent that we are trying to relate to the God we imagine rather than the God who is, we might as well be relating to an imaginary friend. Most Protestants today are Christian relativists. The core ideas of Protestantism demand precisely that result, even if it’s not immediately evident. And while that was initially comfortable for me, it became less so fairly quickly.


Thirsting for God 1 – Matthew Gallatin

Posted: November 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 1 – Matthew Gallatin

I plan to spend several posts reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells. Before I began working through the book itself, I wanted to write a bit about the author and the reasons I decided to read his book. I encountered Matthew Gallatin through his Ancient Faith Radio podcast, Pilgrims for Paradise. I’ve listened to his podcast from the start and I’ve listened to many of them more than once. I did not, however, immediately buy his book. I recognized that it was primarily aimed at a different sort of audience than me.

Thirsting for God captures Matthew Gallatin’s personal journey through different Christian traditions and eventually into Orthodoxy, however it is framed as something of an apologetic for Orthodoxy aimed at Protestants, and the particular objections that most modern Protestants would raise. While I ended up Protestant, that’s mostly accidental rather than deliberate and I’ve never really embraced everything it means to be Protestant. I’ve sometimes jokingly referred to myself as the Accidental Christian and Reluctant Baptist (or vice versa).

The fundamental story of Protestantism (and this is true across all the tens of thousands of strands) is that at some point in its history the Church wandered from its true course as established by the apostles and lost its way. Each of the tens of thousands of Protestant denominations and non-denominations thus believe they are living and acting as the Church ought. Now, that particular description is most often used for those strands that are labeled Restorationist. However, the Restorationists simply push the time of apostasy all the way back to at or near the first century. They are the most extreme. However, every Protestant strand has begun because somebody at some point said the Church is off-track. Here’s how it “ought” to be done.

I never found that story compelling. Yes, the Church is composed of broken and sinful people, but it is not merely those people or we have nothing to say to the world around us. Moreover, if you really look at the historical settings and claims most of them aren’t very credible. Even the ones that arose in response to some real problems, like Luther, didn’t actually reconnect to anything historical in the Church. In a number of fundamental ways, he essentially reinvented a Christianity that did not exist before him. In fact, the origin of just about every distinctly Protestant belief can be traced to a particular person at a particular time over the last five hundred years or so. And I have too much of a historical bent not to notice that fact.

Matthew Gallatin became aware of Christ’s presence from a young age as a dirt-poor Appalachian farm boy. As he grew older, he began a love affair with theology and at the age of thirteen he and his parents became convinced that Seventh-Day Adventism held the truth of Christian doctrine and practice. He eventually went to an Adventist college where in depth study began to deconstruct his belief in Adventism. His turning point, in some ways like that of Frederica Mathewes-Green, came from a voice welling up inside him. Frederica Mathewes-Green was told that Jesus was her life and that those other things — they were not her life. (I can strongly empathize with her story.) Matthew Gallatin’s question was different. Do you know what you believe? Is what you believe the truth? I can empathize with that as well.

His first move over the course of five years was from Seventh-Day Adventism to Protestant “fundamentalism” and their commitment to the Bible “as it reads.” But, as we know, those strands of Protestantism are filled with their own divisions and thousands of different “simple” readings of the Bible. And in the midst of that he wondered where to find love, a question which led him to the charismatics — among whom he eventually became a pastor. Matthew has an interesting line at this point I want to share. “Sometimes I think I might still be a charismatic, were it not for the fact that I was also a pastor.”

It was at that point that the journey that would eventually end up in Orthodoxy began.


The Jesus Creed 9 – Mary: The Story of Vocation

Posted: August 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 9 – Mary: The Story of Vocation

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The reading for this chapter is: Luke 1:46-55 (the Magnificat) (also Psalm 149).

As with Joseph, this chapter on Mary adds context to our reading of the story in the Holy Scriptures. McKnight finds in that story another theme. “Our vocation is to be what God made us to be.” Dwell on that for a minute. It’s not to be like Mother Theresa, or Daniel, or anyone else. “You are to be who God meant you to be.” If that’s not a tall order, I don’t know what is, especially for those of us who have almost buried what that might be.

Mary must instantaneously grasp that she will be labeled a na’ap (adulteress). But she also recognizes that God has something special in store. She is to be the mother of Messiah! And she responds immediately with a song of joy. However, in her song, McKnight sees evidence of more about Mary.

Joseph is a tsadiq, a man totally observant of the Torah. But Mary pokes her head out of a different nest, the Anawim (the pious poor). Historians agree on three characteristics of Mary’s people, the Anawim. These people suffer because they are poor, but they express their hope by gathering at the temple in Jerusalem. There they express to God their yearning for justice, for the end of oppression, and for the coming of the Messiah. Each of these characteristics of the Anawim finds expression in the life of Mary and especially in the Magnificat.

Mary is poor. At Jesus’ temple dedication his parents present two birds rather than a lamb. That is the offering prescribed in Torah for those too poor to afford a lamb. (Actually, if you dig into the history of first century Judaism, you’ll find that that’s not the only possible explanation. History, especially ancient history — where the data tends to be sparse, is often like that.) Mary is not hopeless though. Read the Magnificat and see the lines expressing a yearning for liberation from injustice.

Mary’s Song is actually announcing a social revolution. The King at the time is Herod the Great, and he is a power-tossing and death-dealing tyrant. Mary is announcing that he will be dealt his own due and have his power tossed to the winds. In his place, Mary declares, God will establish her very own son. Unlike Herod, he will rule with mercy and justice.

And then these very powerful words.

If spiritual formation is about learning to love God with our ‘all,’ then one dimension of loving God is surrendering the ‘all’ of our past to God. We dare not make light of our past — whether it was wondrous or abusive, reckless or righteous. All we can do, like Mary, is offer to the Lord who we are and what we’ve been. He accepts us — past and all.

Perhaps those words are less powerful for those who have a past that appears easy for God to accept. I don’t know. At the end of the day, I have only my own experience against which to judge. And I know more people with … difficult pasts than I do with wondrous ones.

Mary’s vocation, whether the ‘siblings‘ of Jesus were cousins, children of Joseph from an earlier marriage, children to whom Mary actually later gave birth (the latest developing and least likely idea — it’s an idea that’s actually only about two hundred years old), or some combination,  is clear. Mary assumes responsibility for these children, at least two girls and four boys besides Jesus. And since many scholars think Joseph died when Jesus was fairly young, that responsibility becomes even more significant.

McKnight points out that the names of the boys tell a story as well. Their names are the names of the patriarch Israel’s sons. Yakov, Yosef, Yehudah, and Shimeon. With Yeshua, they become five Jewish boys whose names tell the story of Israel’s liberation from slavery.

Mary’s vocation was also to teach the children. It should have been obvious, but I didn’t see the connection between the Magnificat and Jesus’ teachings until this book pointed it out. Duh. We often miss what’s right in front of our face. First, Mary blesses the holy name of God and asks him to fill the hungry. (Sound familiar?) Then, Mary is poor and from the Anawim. Jesus blesses and opens the banquet doors to the poor. Mary is a widow. Jesus frequently shows mercy to widows. (And his brother James speaks about taking care of widows and orphans in no uncertain terms at all.) Mary’s prayer emphasizes God’s mercy and compassion. What is Jesus known for? Mary’s own concern for Israel’s redemption is seen in Jesus’ wrenching prayer for Jerusalem. “These similarities are not accidents.

We modern Protestants tend to ignore Mary too much, I think.


Praying with the Church 8 – How the Roman Catholics Pray with the Church

Posted: July 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 8 – How the Roman Catholics Pray with the Church

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

Before I start writing my thoughts on this chapter, I’ll note there is an online site with the English text of at least some of the Liturgy of the Hours, including readings. Since I’ve never seen the printed version, I have no idea how complete it is. But there’s certainly quite a bit here:  http://www.ebreviary.com/

The Roman Catholic tradition of praying with the church has been deeply shaped by the Rule of St. Benedict from the fifth and sixth century, shaping the monastic order of that tradition. At the heart of his rule lies the hours of prayer also called “offices”. The full rhythm of the hours of prayer stand in “protest against the busyness of a world enthralled by work and money and the relentless pursuit of the time clock. Here, in contrast, we find a day punctuated by prayer and worship.” That image reminds me of the C.S. Lewis observation that only lazy people are busy. We are naturally “lazy” and unwilling to order our lives by the rhythms of God. Set prayers and readings help us in this regard.

He then explores the details of Benedict’s rule. The Liturgy of the Hours has more explicit offices than any other. The day begins at midnight with Vigil or Matins, which is the Office of Readings. This office focuses on readings from the great writings of the church. Next is the morning prayer or Lauds, which can be done anytime between 6AM- 11AM. Next, though it’s generally not used anymore, was Prime somewhere between 6AM-7AM. Next comes Terce, the midmorning prayer, at 9AM. This is followed by Sext, the midday prayer, at noon. None (Italian — rhymes with tone), the midafternoon prayer, is at 3PM. Vespers, the evening prayer, can take place anytime between 3PM and 6PM. And finally there is Compline, the Night Prayer, before retiring for the evening.

Of course, the full set of offices are designed for monastics and it is generally not possible for a non-monastic to routinely follow all the hours, though certainly recommended at special times or during a retreat. As with all traditions, the base of the Liturgy are the morning and evening prayers (Lauds and Vespers). Sometimes lay persons can incorporate other of the hours into their daily rhythms, but those two lie at the heart.

The full liturgy of the hours is a four volume work. This is often called the Breviary. A shorter, one volume version is called Christian Prayer. The basis of the Roman Catholic prayer book, as with all prayer books, are the Psalms. And the other prayers are some of the best prayers penned by centuries of Christ followers. Mary figures prominently, of course. But we (as Protestants) need to deal with the scriptural fact that Mary herself prophesied that future generations would call her blessed. And we don’t do enough to give thanks to the most important woman in church history, the mother of Jesus.

The Liturgy of the Hours is the most complete prayer book in the history of the Church. However, that very fact also makes it the most complex. Scot relates his own personal story with the Breviary. He struggled with it for some time, but never could quite unravel how to use it. Then one day, on a flight, he sat next to a young woman who pulled out a “green book filled with ribbons and small bookmarks, stuff hanging out and other things falling out.” Scot recognized the book as a volume of the Liturgy of the Hours for Ordinary Time. Having struggled with its complexity, Scot asked her to explain it to him. She did the best she could in their short time together and at least got him oriented. And so he recommends, if you really want to learn how to use a prayer book of any tradition, find someone who already uses it and ask them to teach you.

Scot then provides an example of one session of morning prayer (lauds). The prayer begins with the Invitatory (“Lord, open my lips. And my mouth will proclaim your praise”) and Psalm 95 (which is prayed every morning) and then moved to Week I, Monday morning prayer, and said (or sang) a hymn, most of Psalm 5, and a short prayer about that psalm. Then he was invited to pray 1 Chronicles 29:10-13, Psalm 29, and another short prayer. Next he was directed to recite 2 Thessalonians 3:10-13, say a short responsory prayer, then (as for each morning) the Canticle of Zechariah from Luke 1. The morning session ends, as it does each day, with some intercessions, the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father”), and then two concluding prayers. This takes about 15 minutes and everything is said or sung out loud. If you followed the full hours, the entire Psalter is recited every month.

Throughout the chapter, Scot has a lot of excerpts from the Liturgy of the Hours, discussion of some of the simpler prayer books drawn from it, and quotes and writings about famous Christians shaped by the Hours. It’s neat to read.


Praying with the Church 7 – How the Eastern Orthodox Pray with the Church

Posted: July 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 7 – How the Eastern Orthodox Pray with the Church

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

In this chapter, we move into specifics of some of the various prayer traditions. Scot McKnight begins with Eastern Orthodox because it is arguably the oldest tradition. Orthodox prayers are also online here:

http://www.oca.org/ocselect.asp?SID=8

Scot notes in the introduction to the chapter something that simply needs quoting rather than summarizing.

“Eastern Orthodoxy has a singular theme in all its teaching about prayer: Union with God is the final goal of human existence. All of the prayer traditions, not the least of which is the Jesus Prayer, focus on this goal. By turning our hearts to God, whether alone in our own Portiuncola or with others in the church, we are joining ourselves together to strive for union with God.

“The Orthodox remind us of a central truth about prayer: The purpose of prayer is not to get good at it, but for the Church to become good through it. And the Church becomes good by utilizing set prayers at set times. The Orthodox use both the Jesus Prayer and, as we will show later in this chapter, a special prayer book.”

The Jesus Prayer was one of my most exciting discoveries in this chapter this past summer. You see, in my own effort to incorporate breath prayers and to begin to work toward prayer that does not cease (something I’m still a long way from), I had found that the simple phrase “Lord Jesus have mercy” did something profound for me. Though I might have no other words, I would feel that the words I might have used were heard. I found my racing mind and body would grow quieter. And as I said it in the midst of a busy day, I found it would by itself alter my perception of what was around me. I would shift from working with no awareness of God to seeing that reality color everything.

And yet all through this long period of discovery, I was completely unaware that this simple prayer is one of the oldest continuing prayer traditions of the church. Very early in the history of the church, in an effort to make Paul’s exhortations about prayer a reality, many in the church had arrived at two ideas. One group learned they could say the name Jesus over and over again throughout the day, perhaps in rhythm with their heart and thus remain prayerfully focused on our Lord. Others took their cue from the story in Luke 18 and would repeat throughout the day, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” Or some variation. The Jesus Prayer took those two traditions and combined them. In one common modern form, it goes, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

In essence, I had independently rediscovered one of the oldest prayers of the church. Truly the preacher was correct, “There is nothing new under the sun.” But it was also a validation for me that I wasn’t simply wandering somewhere off in left field discovering things that merely “worked for me.” I live aware of that strong tendency in everything I do. This discovery gave me greater confidence in the guidance of the Spirit and in the awareness that something can “work for me” and I can trust in that experience. It is not automatically syncretic or a perception-based distortion.

There are a lot of ways to vary this simple prayer. The one I used is a common one and among the oldest forms of the prayer. And it can be said with your heartbeat to incorporate your body into the prayer. You can also say it in a pattern. Add a word each time until the entire prayer has been recited. And then start over. Moreover, it’s a prayer for which you can never claim you had no time. It can fill the interstices of your day as well as it can fill a time of silence and solitude in the wee hours of the morning. The Jesus Prayer is probably the single best introduction into the prayer tradition of the church.

The second best, which Scot also mentions in the opening of this chapter, is the variation of the Shema that Jesus taught. Although I can’t claim to have reached the point where I automatically think of it each time I lie down or rise, it does come to mind fairly often. And using it with my eighth grade class at least has them now at the point where they have it memorized, even if they claim they don’t. (I listen to them carefully.) And again, this is a part of the ancient prayer tradition of the church that is not at all a difficult discipline to acquire. It simply requires the desire.

As with all prayer traditions, the Orthodox prayer book is grounded in the Psalms. However, in addition to those and the Jesus Prayer, “the Orthodox have produced out of their nearly two millenia of thinking and practice some of the church’s best known prayers.” And flowing from the practice of the Shema, the Orthodox focus on set prayers at morning and evening. In addition to prayers, the Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers is designed to be used with a lectionary to guide in the reading of the Bible.

Scot McKnight finds their tradition somewhat difficult over the long- haul because it is repetitive and, like a good American, he desires more variation in his set prayers. Yet it strikes me that the Jewish tradition was pretty repetitive and it was initially established by God. Moreover Jesus doesn’t seem to have offered a huge array of novel prayers. He modified the Shema and provided only one new recorded set prayer that I can recall. And even that one prayer he only provided in response to a direct request by his followers. So I know it cuts against our grain. (I like variation myself.) Nevertheless, that may be something within us that should be reshaped. I’m at least willing to consider the possibility that the primary purpose of prayer is not to satisfy our craving for novelty.

Scot also notes that on days when he doesn’t feel like praying or his spontaneous prayers are shallow and empty, the prayer books and praying with the Church tends to bring life to his own private prayers and to fill his mind with prayers he should offer. The set prayers energize the private prayers. And I’ve experienced something similar, even though I don’t yet regularly use a prayer book. On days when I better remember to recite the few set prayers I use, I find I spend more time in prayer in general than on days when I don’t.

Eastern prayer is marked by three things: “an acute realization of man’s enslavement to sin, a deep sense of the Divine majesty and glory, and the frequent references to the Mother of God.” The contrast between our enslavement to sin and God’s great glory leads to an emphasis on God’s goodness and grace. References to the “theotokos” (Mother of God or literally God-Bearer) will probably make good Protestants uncomfortable. Scot also notes that Eastern prayers are deeply Trinitarian in nature. Lines are said three times. The Trinity is explicitly mentioned. The morning prayer tradition, for example, begins as follows:

“When you awake, before you begin the day, stand with reverence before the All-Seeing God. Make the Sign of the Cross and say: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

Once again, it’s a prayer practice that can easily be incorporated into anyone’s daily life. Can there be a better way to start the day than standing in prayerful contemplation before our Lord?

Scot then provides a number of examples from the Eastern manual. And they are all well worth reading and considering. But in his closing, he has a statement I just have to quote. I love it.

“I sometimes jokingly tell my Protestant students that when we get to heaven the first thing we will have to do is learn the prayer books of the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics. ‘Why?’ they often ask. ‘Because,’ I reply, ‘those are the prayers they know, and we’ll be asked to join in with them during prayer meetings.’ Such quips, of course, don’t tell the whole truth — but neither are they falsehoods.”

I want to add a present-day footnote to this post. Recently, Fr. Stephen published a post to the Memory Eternal of Donald Sheehan. In it, he included a link to this essay by him. The essay itself is interesting, but toward the bottom is an autobiographical section. There are many things that struck me in his life story, but the one most pertinent in this context and the one which brought tears to my eyes was his story of the way the Jesus Prayer came to him when he did not know what it was, did not about Orthodoxy, and was mystified. My own experience was not nearly as dramatic, but his story was the first time I had heard about someone else to whom the Jesus Prayer came unbidden and previously unknown. I still pray it. I have used a variety of prayerbooks since I wrote the above and my prayer rule overall remains inconsistent. But the Jesus Prayer is never far from me. Since I read that chapter in Scot McKnight’s book I’ve learned a lot about Orthodoxy and much of the impetus behind learning about them has been the fact that “my” prayer is a deep tradition of their church. I don’t feel I’ve discovered much new in Orthodoxy. As with the Jesus Prayer, most of what they believe was already what I believed. I found better words, sometimes, in the ways that they say it. But nothing in Orthodoxy feels “new” to me. Beyond that, I’m largely at a loss about what I should do. For some reason, it was important to me to know that I’m hardly the only one to whom the Jesus Prayer comes without a context or traditional setting. If you pray at all, pray the Jesus Prayer in one form or another. Let it seep into your heart and shape who you are.


An Orthodox Mind?

Posted: July 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I was reading (or actually re-reading, since I’ve written a past series based on it) an article this morning that prompted a variety of thoughts. As a result, I believe this post will be a more meandering one than I usually write as I wander down different corridors in my mind. The article is Beyond Justification: An Orthodox Perspective by Valerie A. Karras. The article has something of an academic flavor to it, but I found it both interesting and easy to read. If you find anything I’ve excerpted from it today interesting, you may want to go read the entire article. The statement that caught my eye this morning and has been bouncing around my head lies in the following from the introduction of the article.

The absence in Eastern Christianity of a soteriology in terms of forensic justification is serious because Orthodoxy believes not only in ecumenism across geographical space, but especially “ecumenism in time”, i.e., the need to be consistent with the theological tradition of the Church from the earliest centuries. Thus, the traditional Orthodox mind is immediately suspicious of biblical interpretations that have little or no root in the early life and theology of the Church; this is true in spades of particularly the forensic notion of justification, and of its consequent bifurcation of faith and works.  Sola scriptura means little to the Orthodox, who as opposed to placing Scripture over the Church, have a full sense of Scripture’s crucial but interrelated place within the Church’s continuing life:  the apostolic church communities which produced many of the books of the New Testament, the communities of the catholic Church which over a period of centuries determined which books circulating through various communities truly encapsulated the elements of the apostolic faith; the dogmas and Creed declared by the whole Church in response to the frequent controversies over the nature of the Trinity and of the theanthropos Jesus Christ, controversies which frequently arose precisely from dueling perspectives of which biblical texts were normative and of how those texts should be interpreted.

This of course does not mean that the Orthodox do not believe that each generation of Christians may receive new insights into Scripture, especially insights relevant in a given cultural context.  However, it does mean that the new insights must remain consistent with earlier ones, and that one or two Pauline passages (and one specific interpretation of those passages) are not considered theologically normative – particularly as a foundation for a soteriological dogma – unless the early and continuing tradition of the Church show them consistently to have been viewed as such.

Here is the specific phrase I want to highlight: the traditional Orthodox mind is immediately suspicious of biblical interpretations that have little or no root in the early life and theology of the Church. I don’t think there’s any sense in which I can be said to have been formed with any sort of traditional Orthodox mind. Nevertheless, this expresses precisely something close to the core of the difficulty I have experienced over the past fifteen years or so as something like an American Protestant (or Evangelical) Christian. I’ve never tried to participate in any sort of religion without digging deeply into it. And I’ve always been very interested in history. In Christianity, those two coincide in ways that go beyond what you find in most religions. At the core of our faith lies a man who lived, taught, died, and was resurrected in a particular place, at a particular time, within the context of a particular clash of cultures. From that flows a community unlike any other ancient community — one that draws from all peoples and acts in love toward all, crossing cultural, ethnic, and class barriers — who says they live and act the way they do because this one man is their source and is actively leading them to act as true human beings. They essentially claim in some sense to be forming the true, renewed humanity from all the nations and that this true humanity is found in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s a startling claim and it had a radical impact across the ancient world.

This connection makes Christianity more deeply and intimately connected to its entire body of historical practice leading back to Jesus of Nazareth and the apostolic witness, to the historical church which carried that witness, than is true of many religions. Since I became Christian, it has always been a problem to me when I could trace the origin of a belief or practice which contradicted previous belief or practice to a specific person or group. For instance, the practice of using unfermented grape juice in communion can easily be traced to the late nineteenth century and completely contradicts the universal prior Christian practice. The belief that communion is merely a memorial and is symbolic (using symbol in a modern sense to mean something that is not real and merely represents that which is real) can be traced to Zwingli in the sixteenth century and contradicts all earlier Christian belief and practice. The practice of “four bare walls and a pulpit” not only contradicts the universal practice of ancient Christianity, it directly contradicts the seventh ecumenical council.

Those are just three simple illustrations, but when I’ve pointed these and others out to my fellow Christians, the dissonance has not usually bothered them at all. And I’ve always had a very difficult time understanding that perspective. A phrase I’ve often heard goes something like this, “Well, I believe the bible says…” That’s always seemed like a very odd thing to say to me. The Holy Scriptures of Christianity are a rich, deep, and complex collection of texts. I could believe they say almost anything I wanted them to say. And I’m more than intelligent enough to find a basis in “the bible” for almost any interpretation I desired to make. So what? If my interpretation has no basis in the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth, the apostolic witness, and the belief and practice of the church, then it’s merely another way to construct my own little god, my own religion, and ultimately it can never be any larger than my own limitations. I’ve traveled that road (though in non-Christian contexts) and I’m very familiar with where it ultimately leads. I have no desire to return to that place and if I did, I certainly wouldn’t need to coat it with a Christian veneer.

It is not possible to read or study any single human being and find an expression of the Christian faith that is without any error. We are all human. We are all limited. We all make mistakes at times. (Oddly, it tends to be Protestants — who tend to claim some sort of “soul competency” for believers to separately and individually interpret scripture — who tend to root beliefs and entire belief systems in the interpretations of individual Christians. Think about it. You’ll quickly see what I mean.) However, if the ecumenical witness of the ancient church failed to preserve the apostolic witness — a deeply historical witness, then it’s gone and there’s no way to recover it. If that’s true then we have no idea who God is or how to be Christian. I find no credibility in the restorationist narrative which postulates that the church apostasized in the first century and we have only recently recovered the true Christian faith.

So it seems that while I’ve never been Orthodox, I entered Christianity with a mindset remarkably similar to that of Orthodox Christians. That likely explains why I believed so many things that the Orthodox believed long before I was consciously aware of modern Orthodoxy. I drew from the same sources. (It doesn’t explain why the Jesus Prayer came to me. I had never read any of the works or discussions of the Jesus Prayer beforehand.) Within that context, new insights and understandings are fine. We should build on the work of those who came before us in the faith. And as Christianity interacts with new cultures, new and beautiful facets will be revealed. God cannot be compassed, so there is always something new to say about him. But God is also not inconsistent. So anything new that is revealed must be consistent with Christianity not just across place, but across time or it should be almost automatically suspect.

That’s the main point that was bouncing around my head, but as I re-read the article, it seemed worthwhile to me to highlight some additional thoughts in it.

Thus, Orthodoxy understands human sin primarily not as deliberate and willful opposition to God, but rather as an inability to know ourselves and God clearly.  It is as though God were calling out to us and coming after us in a storm, but we thought we heard his voice in another direction and kept moving away from him, either directly or obliquely.  It is illuminating that the Greek word for sin, hamartia, means “to miss the mark”.  Despite our orientation toward God, we “miss the mark” because, not only does the clouded spiritual vision of our fallen condition make it difficult for us to see God clearly, but we fail to understand even ourselves truly; thus, we constantly do things which make us feel only incompletely and unsatisfactorily good or happy because we don’t recognize that God is himself the fulfillment of our innate desire and natural movement.  Explaining Maximos’ theology, Andrew Louth offers, “… with fallen creatures, their own nature has become opaque to them, they no longer know what they want, and experience coercion in trying to love what cannot give fulfilment.” Ultimately, it is not our natural human will that is deficient, but rather how we perceive it and the way, or mode, by which we express it; as Louth sourly opines, “it is a frustrating and confusing business.”

The image of hearing God in a storm, but not being able to tell the direction is a compelling one to me. We all not only interpret texts and experiences in order to understand them, we are constantly reinterpreting our past experience in the light of our present understanding and position in life. From where I now stand, I can see so much of my first thirty years of life as attempts to follow a voice with almost no sense of the direction from which it came. I was never one who simply didn’t care about the deeper questions of life. I was always pursuing something, following some path, seeking something. Even as a Christian, it’s often been a journey of steps in the wrong direction and down the wrong path. Every human being is created in the image of God and thus has within themselves the capacity to turn their will toward God. But that image is tarnished and cloudy. We see through a glass darkly, as though lost in fog, or from the midst of a sandstorm. It is truly “a frustrating and confusing business.”

The question is whether Luther’s soteriology – and, for that matter, other forms of Western atonement soteriology – are truly based on the christology of the early Fathers, especially those behind the dogmatic formulations of the ecumenical councils.  Both the dogmatic definitions and the supplementary patristic writings surrounding the christological controversies seem to indicate a negative answer to the question.  Far from emphasizing atonement as satisfaction or a forensic notion of justification, these writings express an understanding of human salvation rooted not simply in a particular activity of Jesus Christ, but in the very person of Jesus Christ.  Gregory of Nyssa, writing more than a millennium before the development of the Lutheran doctrine of “imputed righteousness,” in the context of the controversy over the extreme form of Arianism known as Eunomianism, rejects the notion that one could be “totally righteous” in a legal but not existential sense.  Human beings are not restored to communion with God through an act of spiritual prestidigitation where God looks and thinks he sees humanity, but in fact is really seeing his Son. Justification must be as organic and existential as sin is:

I always found the idea that somehow you could be “righteous” in a legal or forensic sense without ever actually being righteous (whatever you might take that to be) a very strange idea indeed. My first concern as I stepped deeper toward Christian faith was to try to understand this Jesus of Nazareth. As I began to understand and then began to know Jesus (though sometimes it felt like I was rediscovering an old and intimate acquaintance), I began to wonder more how to be Christian, how to follow him, how to participate in his life, how to become more truly human. The idea that when God looks at me he somehow sees Jesus instead always struck me not only as a bizarre, but as a deeply undesirable and even repellent idea. I was moving down this Christian path in order to hide or be hidden from God. I wanted to know him and that always meant he had to truly know me. We all want to be known. And it’s a tragedy of our existence that we often are not known, even by those who are closest to us, because we are trapped in fear. Most of that fear lies in the idea that if we are truly know we will be rejected. It seems to me that in this perspective of God, people have simply transferred that fear to God. But the truth of Christianity is that God already knows us. We can’t find him in the storm, but he sees us clearly and fully. And he loves us. He loves us so much that he joined his nature to our fallen nature, the Word became flesh, became sarx, became all that we are, so that we could have true communion with God.

Lucian Turcescu has rightly criticized Orthodoxy for focusing so strongly on theosis that it has tended to ignore the “justification” side of the coin.  However, I disagree with him that, simply because Jewish notions of justification had forensic significance, therefore Paul, or the early church, understood the term in the same legalistic way (in fact, Paul’s point in Romans is precisely to rid Jewish Christians of their forensic understanding of justification rooted in the Levitical law).  Orthodoxy may emphasize theosis (correlated to “sanctification” in the Lutheran model) and see one continuous relational process between the human person and God, but it does not ignore the distinction between justification and sanctification.  Rather, the Eastern Church recognizes two purposes to the incarnation, which may be identified with justification and sanctification:  restoring human nature to its prelapsarian state of “justification” and providing the possibility for true union with God through participation, respectively.  The former purpose was necessitated by the Fall and has been the focus of Western soteriology.  For the East the restoration of human nature to its prelapsarian potential (justification) explains why the Son of God took on humanity’s fallen human nature, i.e., why it was necessary for Christ to die and be resurrected.  Hence, Orthodoxy agrees in affirming the free nature of that restoration through grace (in fact, Orthodoxy proclaims the gratuitous nature of our justification even more strongly than most of Western Christianity since it is given to all humanity, not just the “elect” or those receiving prevenient grace). However, the Fall is not the primary reason for the incarnation itself since, as Maximos and others point out, the incarnation was always part of God’s plan since it was the means by which humanity could truly achieve salvation, understood as theosis or union with God, an approach which will be discussed in more detail in the following section.

Thus, as many theologians have noted, the Orthodox understanding of Christ’s crucifixion, derived from soteriological christology, is diametrically opposed to the Anselmian theory of satisfaction which underpins both Catholic and Lutheran notions of justification.  God is not a judge in a courtroom, and Christ did not pay the legal penalty or “fine” for our sins.  His redemptive work was not completed on the Cross, with the Resurrection as a nice afterword.  The eternal Son of God took on our fallen human nature, including our mortality, in order to restore it to the possibility of immortality.  Jesus Christ died so that he might be resurrected.  Just as Christ is homoousios with the Father in his divinity, we are homoousios with him in his humanity; it is through our sharing of his crucified and resurrected human nature that our own human nature is transformed from mortality to immortality.

Jesus did not become human in order to rescue us from our fallen state. He took on our fallen nature — become mortal — and died and was resurrected in order to rescue and restore us. But with or without the fall, he had to become human in order for us to ever have true communion with God. As creatures, that’s something we could never accomplish. God had to come to us — become one with us — before we could be one with him.

And yet, salvation is an ongoing process of existential faith:  as St. Paul says, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12), which the Joint Declaration cites in paragraph 12.  And so, we do indeed “work out our own salvation”.  Orthodoxy soteriology is synergistic, but not in the perceived Pelagian sense which has resulted in such a pejorative connotation to the word synergy in Protestant thought. We do cooperate, or participate, in our salvation precisely because salvation is relational – it is union with God – and relationships are not a one-way street.  As human beings created in the image of God, we respond freely to God’s love and to his restoration of our fallen human nature.  As Kallistos Ware asserts, “As a Trinity of love, God desired to share his life with created persons made in his image, who would be capable of responding to him freely and willingly in a relationship of love.  Where there is no freedom, there can be no love.”

Many of the views or perspectives of God that permeate Christianity today do not actually perceive God as a Trinity of love, even if they use the words. “Where there is no freedom, there can be no love.” That really says it all. The amazing thing in creation is that God somehow made space for that freedom. He is its sovereign Lord and sustains all of it from moment to moment. But he is love and thus begrudges none of creation its existence. (That’s why annihilationism is ultimately wrong.) And yet, even as God permeates and sustains everything, even our own bodies, he has made space for an element of uncertainty in the very fabric of creation. We have the ability to love or not to love. And the ripples of the impact of that choice echo through creation far beyond our immediate sphere of experience. When we love, we participate in the healing and renewal of creation. When we do not, we participate in the disordering and destruction of creation.


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 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.


My Church History Perspective 7 – So what do I find in history?

Posted: December 17th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on My Church History Perspective 7 – So what do I find in history?

This question ties together some of my earlier musings. What actually matters to me in all the complex history of the Church? For there are things that do matter deeply to me and go well beyond my long-standing interest in trying to perceive the world through the lenses of different cultures and times. The history of the Church is a deep and rich history that is fascinating simply as a topic of exploration. That’s why there have been and I’m sure are historians who study it today even though they do not hold to the faith themselves. It has threaded its way into more (and extremely different) cultures than any ancient religion, adapting and speaking differently to those within that culture, yet retaining (at least until the modern era) the same perspective on the true nature of reality. There are ups and downs, good things and bad. It’s a deeply human history.

And yet it is also something more.

And it’s that “more” that I truly seek. Christianity is not a story about man seeking God as much as it’s a story about this God who searches for us. We see that immediately in the beautiful story of the garden, as God comes looking for the mankind who is hiding from him and clothes them. If that does not  prefigure the Incarnation of our Lord, then I don’t know what does. The Incarnation is, of course, the ultimate act of the God who seeks to rescue his creation by becoming a part of it, by joining his nature to ours. Jesus is not just a man, he is the true man who stands in the place of all mankind, faithful where we were faithless, but by joining our nature to his, making it possible for us to be true and faithful human beings.

And this Jesus of Nazareth was and is an actual person which means that as with any other person, we relate to him effectively only to the extent that we relate to him as he truly is rather than as we imagine him to be. And here the Christian story takes yet another odd turn when compared to other religions. We are told that the Church, those in communion with Jesus and with each other, form his body. There is a mystical connection and union such that in the Church we can see and know Christ.

No, it doesn’t always work that way. I’ve been driven away from Christianity and Christ by those who say they follow him. But I’ve also been attracted to Christ through and by Christians. I’ve experienced both dynamics first-hand and I see them both interwoven throughout the history of the Church. And in this day and age, we see more, and often contradictory, versions of “Christ” presented than in any other era, making it more rather than less difficult to see Christ in the Church. Nevertheless, it is Christ I seek to find in the Church.

I think one of many factors in the modern fragmentation and almost dissolution of the Protestant strand of the Church is that so much of it effectively turned its back on and walked away from its saints. Without that grounding in and among those who have been faithful, who have known Christ, it is easy to be swayed by the next charismatic leader or sexy new idea. We are the ones who claim that death has been defeated and that we are no longer subject to it. And yet so many modern Protestants seem to reject communion with those whose bodies may now sleep, but who nonetheless are safe and alive in Christ. I’m not interested in a faith or a God that is different from that known by St. Athanasius or St. Maximos the Confessor or St. Columba or St. Patrick or St. Gregory the Theologian or St. Basil the Great or any of the others who have come before me, remembered by name or not.

Now, that does not mean that I’m looking for the right outward form or practice. Those things are not unimportant, I suppose. In fact, I think they can be deeply important. But none of that matters until you answer that penetrating question Jesus asks us all, “Who do you say that I am?”

My interest and knowledge in history does mean I’m shielded in some ways from various trends. For instance, I’m not particularly interested in the house church movement in its modern incarnation because I don’t confuse an ancient Roman (or Greek or Jewish) household with the modern dwelling of a nuclear family. Further, the ancient church was not really rooted originally in households, anyway. Read Acts and read some of the things Paul mentions in his letters. The church initially met in the Temple and then as Christianity spread, in synagogues until the Christians were kicked out. The households (or before persecution became common the public meeting houses) where Christians met for worship carried over elements of that synagogue worship.

I suppose my knowledge of history also means I don’t believe there’s any one right way to do worship. I see how Christianity has threaded its way into different cultures, redeemed elements of the culture, added to its practice, and yet remained distinct from that native culture. However, the fact that worship practice adapted and changed in different cultures and times also does not mean that there are not some things which are, in fact, essential to Christian worship. We worship a particular God, a particular Christ. And that dictates some of what we must do if we are to say that we are Christian.

That’s why I have threads of thought like the one in my series of posts on Baptists and the Eucharist. At the heart of that discussion lies my recognition that by divorcing themselves from any and all historic practice and interpretation, the Baptist tradition (and the large swath of Protestantism that shares similar beliefs) is saying something very different about who Jesus is and how we relate to him. And, frankly, that thread of thought and practice seems inextricably tied to dualism. It’s a denial that we are our bodies. We do not “have” a body. We are our body. We are also more than just our body, certainly. But our identity, existence, and reality cannot be separated from our body.

And when we deny that, we also deny the deepest reality of the Incarnation. Jesus did not wear a body in some sort of spiritual play. That was actually the subject of a number of ancient heresies in different shapes and forms. Jesus became flesh. He remains flesh. And he invites us to make our flesh part of his flesh by and through consuming him and doing so rightly, which does not mean in the correct ritual manner, but with our innermost being and will directed toward Christ. We are what we eat in the deepest sense of the phrase.

I had thought I might explore some of my understanding of and interaction with various periods of Church history. But it didn’t really come out that way and I have the feeling that this is a good and right place to end this particular series.