A Christian Nation?

Posted: January 14th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments » http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XddLDufkaig

 

 

 

Especially on the “conservative” side, it’s common to hear people claim our country was founded as a Christian nation. It wasn’t, of course. Nor was it founded as an atheistic nation, like the Communist regimes of the 20th century. Our founders were trying to establish the world’s first secular nation and I think, for good or ill, they largely succeeded. Certainly our culture is deeply and thoroughly secular. But that’s a different discussion from the one I want to focus on here.

The video above shows the building and opening of a Rebirth of Orthodoxy exhibit in Moscow. It’s pretty impressive. But there’s a section where an icon is brought in for veneration. The long lines and devotion impressed me, as it has in other videos of Russian devotion I’ve seen. Russia suffered under an atheistic regime that actively tried to stamp out Orthodoxy for most of the 20th century. Virtually nobody still alive in that country can remember a time before Communism. And yet they held onto their faith. Culturally, they remained a truly Christian nation, and when the boot of the oppressor was removed, that deep faith almost immediately began blossoming again.

It’s hard for us to imagine a country, like Russia, which has been a Christian nation for a thousand years, or one like Greece, which has been a Christian nation for even longer. As a nation, we’re still in the early portion of our third century. And our cultural memory tends to be short, anyway. Certainly as far as our privileged majority goes, we tend to dismiss slavery, our genocide of Native Americans, and even the more recent Jim Crow era as “ancient history.” Very often, even if not explicitly expressed, the attitude is that those peoples who have suffered should just “get over it.”

Some form of Christian faith has, collectively, always been the majority religion in our country. But I don’t think that alone is enough to make us a Christian nation. I watch the Russians and I can’t help but think of our own country. While the majority of us can collectively be described as individually Christian, it’s a fractured and divisive Christianity. We have no culturally cohesive and unified Christian identity. If we had suffered under a repressive and often brutal atheistic regime for a century, would we have retained any meaningful Christian identity? Maybe in pockets here and there, but across our country?

I’m skeptical. I don’t see here the same sort of deeply rooted faith we are seeing in Russia. And our cultural memories are short. We are pretty much repeating today the same mistakes we made in the late 19th and early 20th century and most people seem completely oblivious to that fact. Even our cultural memory of the era of segregation, which a lot of people still alive can remember, is fading.

Compared to Russia and other truly Christian nations, in what sense, then, can we call ourselves a Christian nation?


Reflections on Resurrection 9 – Burial

Posted: November 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Reflections on Resurrection 9 – Burial

I have gradually come to understand that our funeral practices reveal a great deal about our actual beliefs. I grew up deeply aware of death and experienced a variety of approaches to death. Personally, I believed that cremation was best and, looking back, I can see the influences that led to that belief.

From a scientific, secular perspective cremation makes a great deal of sense. It’s economical. Modern cremation is sterile. It avoids the problem of crowded cemeteries. And whatever you think does or doesn’t happen after death, the remnant of a lifeless body has no value and nothing to offer.

Cremation is also the funeral practice of the Hinduism of my youth. (I understand that burial is a common practice in some strands of Hinduism.) The soul quickly proceeds on its karmic journey after death and the remains should be purified by fire to break any remaining ties and then scattered on a sacred river. (All rivers are sacred in Hinduism, I believe.) The real you, however that may be conceived, has moved on and the rites aid that journey.

I was Christian for many years before I even began to understand that burial is the normative Christian funeral practice. In large part that’s because the strands of Christianity within which I move have lost their connection to the historic faith and burial or cremation are largely seen as a matter of personal preference with no intrinsic significance or meaning. I eventually came to understand, though, that burial was the normative practice specifically because of our Christian belief in resurrection. The body is treated reverentially and not deliberately destroyed because it is not a discarded shell. Rather, that body is our beloved and it is that body which will be resurrected.

Of course, resurrection is not a zombie-like resuscitation of a corpse. It is intrinsically an act of new creation. However, this act of recreation uses up the matter of our bodies and is continuous with them. Two of the key features of Jesus’ resurrected body are that the tomb was empty and that, though strangely different, he was still recognizably the same person. We are our bodies, though we are not merely our bodies. It is ultimately this body which will be resurrected and it should be treated accordingly.

That does not mean that God’s power of resurrection is limited in any way by the treatment of our bodies. It was not uncommon for pagans in the ancient world to threaten saints with the complete destruction of their bodies because they thought that would shake their confidence in resurrection. God can and will raise us regardless. Nevertheless, the way we treat the bodies of those who have fallen asleep in the Lord speaks volumes about what we actually believe about resurrection.

Christians also confess that the bodies of those among us who have reposed have been the temple of the Holy Spirit. They have been the abode of God. As such, they are no less holy ground than the ground before the burning bush or the Holy of Holies of the ancient Temple. If we believe that is true, then we must treat the body as a holy object.

Funeral practices matter and I think much of the confusion in practice in modern Christianity flows from our confusion about God and about what it means to be a human being. As Christians, we have forgotten who we are.

I believe this post concludes my reflections on resurrection for now. I didn’t delve into the reasons a belief in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth (which is the foundation for our own belief) is historically reasonable. For those interested in such things, N.T. Wright gave a lecture at Roanoke College summarizing his big book on the topic, Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? I recommend it. It’s very well done.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 3 – Unraveling the Caricature

Posted: June 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 3 – Unraveling the Caricature

There are many threads one can use to begin unraveling the somewhat common modern caricature of the Christian perspective on reality I described in the last post. I want to start with the affirmation of the very basic Christian belief that God is not somewhere else. The Christian God is everywhere present and filling all things. As Paul said to the Areopagus of Athens, “in him we live and move and have our being.” Again, as the Seraphim sing in Isaiah 6, “The whole earth is full of his glory.” And as Paul writes about Jesus in Colossians, “He is before all things, and in him all things consist.”

God is not off in some “place” called heaven that is separate or distinct from the earth. I often hear people assert that heaven is an actual place and heaven is thus “real”. It may be that they are trying to push back against the various forms of materialism with that statement. It’s actually unclear to me what their purpose or goal is, but the assertion does seem to be a response “against” something. However, by making heaven into a place that is separate from earth, they actually enable and express a secular perspective of reality.

Heaven and earth are instead overlapping and interlocking dimensions of our one, unified reality. They are not separate “places” in any sense that we understand “place”. Heaven and God are not any distance at all from us. Heaven is never more than a step away. God is the air we breathe. There is presently a veil between heaven and earth, a veil that appears to be part of the grace of God for our healing and salvation. But even before I was Christian, I recall having a sense of what I’ve since learned the Celtic Christians called “thin places.” In certain places and at certain times, that veil can be thin indeed.

The proper Christian division of reality, then, is not between the earthly and the heavenly, the material and the spiritual, the natural and the supernatural, but between the created and the uncreated. That’s not to say that other categories do not ever have value. They may certainly have situational or contingent value. But the fundamental divide is between the uncreated, which in the Christian view is God in three persons alone, and the created, which is everything else that exists.

When we begin to grasp that perspective, we can properly see heaven and earth as united aspects of God’s one creation. It’s from this perspective we draw the traditional eschatological vision of a time when the present veil between the two will be no more. Heaven and earth together and everything in them (except God, of course) are creation.

What then of hell? While much of this series will actually be spent exploring that question, as it seems to be the focal point of much confusion within modern Christianity, there is one point I believe needs to be made clearly from the outset. Hell is not “real” in the same sense that heaven and earth are real. Whatever reality it has flows from a distortion of God’s good creation. Hell has substantially less innate and substantial reality than heaven and earth. I think C.S. Lewis illustrated that point well in the imagery he uses in The Great Divorce. Those visiting heaven from hell find that heaven has so much more tangible reality that even the blades of grass are like knives to them.

Christianity is not dualistic in the sense that good and evil are equal and opposing forces. Evil is the shadow of darkness that is dispelled simply by the presence of light. Evil is real, certainly. Those of us who have experienced it would never confess otherwise. The Christian perception is quite different from, for example, the Hindu concept of maya. But as “hell” does not and cannot have the same sort of reality that God’s creation — heaven and earth — has, so evil does not and cannot have the same sort of reality as good. We do not live in the universe of the yin and the yang. In Christian parlance, God and Satan are in no sense equal. In the end, the tempter and accuser is simply another creature, even if he is a powerful creature by our standards. He is still nothing next to God.

The meaning behind the way I structured the title of this series should be clear now.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 2 – The Caricature

Posted: June 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 2 – The Caricature

I believe it’s important to describe the perspective on reality I intend to deconstruct in this series. While this perspective is expressed and nuanced in many different ways, all modern expressions of this perspective share certain certain features. Fr. Stephen, in his excellent series, uses the metaphor of a two-story house with a basement to describe the universe portrayed by this particular framework. I think it’s one of the better metaphors I’ve encountered. In his metaphor, the first floor is the earth where we live and the second floor is a separate place called “heaven” where God lives. We watch and listen for signs that the second floor really exists and that God inhabits it, but none of that has much to do with our first floor of ordinary life. We live our lives hoping to make it to the second floor and trying to stay out of the basement.

Far too many people today, Christians and non-Christians alike, believe that some variation of the above framework accurately describes what Christianity says about the nature of reality. As a result, sadly, we find that many who call themselves Christian now believe in some form of reincarnation. Others outright reject this gross caricature of Christian faith. I don’t blame them at all. It’s an awful way to understand reality. I’ve believed many things about reality in the past, and I would consider any of them far superior to that view. Even more sadly, many remain and struggle within expressions of this framework, trying to believe that the second floor exists and is inhabited and in fear of torture chambers hidden in the basement. In my own tradition, you find it expressed both in exhortations to “be certain” that you have “really” accepted Christ and by those who commit themselves again and again because it’s virtually impossible to ever “be certain” of anything regarding the second floor.

In truth, it is this perspective that actually enables a secular perspective of reality. Contrary to what some seem to believe, a secular view does not require or imply a rejection of God in at least some form. It is not, strictly speaking, atheistic at all. It simply requires that the religious and “ordinary” spheres be separated. A God who lives on the second floor and who, in practice if not in confession, doesn’t really have a great deal to do with the day to day life of the first floor works just fine from a secular point of view.

Most of us are more secular in our understanding of reality than we recognize. That’s one of the things I hope I manage to address in this series.


What is the source of our oneness?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


God Is Holy

Posted: April 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on God Is Holy

I was reading something this past week when I had a sudden epiphany. For the first time, I had a sense that I grasped something of what people tend to mean when they use that tricksy word, holy. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the word itself means something set apart particularly for religious purposes, something or someone who is other. And in that sense, God is wholly other from us.

The proper dividing line from a Christian perspective is not between the natural and the supernatural or between the religious and secular. No, the proper division is between the uncreated and the created. On the one side we have God and on the other, we have everything else. Thus God is the thrice Holy, the one who is completely other in essence from all creation. We use the word holy in this context as the linguistic marker for that which beyond our ken. It’s a tautology. We could as readily say that God is God.

That’s part of the beauty and wonder of the Incarnation. The uncreated, the holy (and wholly) other, entered into creation and joined his nature, being, and essence forever with the created. We had no way to truly know God if God had not only come to us, but become one of us. God with us is a name of beautiful mystery.

I realized this week that people were using holy as though they knew what it meant, as though it had a specific set of definable attributes. Thus when they said that God is holy, they had in mind a specific list of attributes and behaviors. God is like this and God acts this way because he is holy. Through the use of the word holy, a word intended to elucidate God’s transcendence, they were actually constraining God. That strikes me as a risky proposition.

Of course, holy in this context is not generally used by itself. And I think the way it is typically paired is illuminating. That was the central aspect of my little epiphany. God is holy and just. Have you perhaps heard that particular phrase before? It implies several things. First, God’s holiness, his apartness, correlates in some sense to some idea of justice. Moreover, I have the sense that people who use that phrase believe they know what it means to be just. I have the feeling that they equate justness with the application of reward and punishment according to some sort of set standard. Those who have wronged others will get their just desserts. (I also have a feeling that few people wish to have that same standard applied to them.)

Within the systems and structures of our world, that’s not even a bad formulation of what it means to be just. After all, we see the injustice that results from tyrants and within the setting of failed states. And we see how structures of order can reduce suffering — particularly among those whom they are designed to favor. However, in fairness, those structures tend to improve life for all.  Even those who tend to get the short end of the justice stick from the systems in the US generally suffer less than those at the mercy of the warlords in a failed state. But even in an unjust, but strong dictatorship, like the former one of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, most people tend to live relatively safe and undisturbed lives.

Certainly our God is a just God. I would not argue with that statement. I do, however, take issue with the idea that God’s justness conforms to our ideas about justness. I love Jonah. And this is one of the reasons why I do. Jonah ran from God and was angry at God not because he didn’t know God, but because he did. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire and it was a long-standing and brutal empire. The Assyrians understood how empires had to work in order to endure. They were feared and hated and with reason. And Jonah wanted God to make them pay. Jonah wanted justice and his definition of it was pretty much like ours.

So why did he run? Why, when he could not escape, did he put minimal effort in his prophecy? “Forty days and Nineveh will be overturned.” That was it. And why, when the city — every man, woman, child, and even animal — repented, was Jonah pissed off at God? Was it because Jonah didn’t understand God? No. Jonah knew God. He knew God to be compassionate and merciful, long-suffering and abundant in mercy, and willing to change your heart concerning evils. God did exactly what Jonah expected him to do and Jonah just wanted to die.

God is a just God, certainly. But when we say that, we have to recognize that we don’t truly know what it means to be just. If we want to understand true justness, we have to look to Jesus. And if the gospels don’t stand everything you thought you knew about reality on its head, then I would suggest you might not have truly read them.

I will also note, for what it’s worth, that the phrase “holy and just” does not appear at all in many English translations of the Holy Scriptures. In the KJV and NKJV translations it does appear once in Romans 7 as a partial description of Torah. Nowhere that I know does that particular combination of words describe God.

As Christians, our Scriptures do tell us what forms the essence of the otherness of God. 1 John 4:8 says, “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Of course, we don’t understand the reality of love any more than we grasp true justice. But we have the fullness of the revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth. And as we grow in our knowledge of Jesus, we perhaps begin to know love.

I’m not sure exactly how it is that so many people envision God. But it is clear to me that they have constructed a framework and placed God within it. I think their holy and just God might be more similar to the Stoic God of perfect order than anything we find in Christ.

I’m also not sure what form God’s justice will take as he ultimately sets all things ‘to rights’ as the English would say. I’m prepared to simultaneously be shocked and surprised even as I say, “Of course. that’s how it had to be.” If I understand anything of Jesus, though, I am certain that justice will flow from the love which is his essence and I know it will be full of compassion and mercy. Until then, I will use the thrice Holy to describe God, but only in the sense that God is the only Uncreated, not as though I have actually described anything of the nature and attributes of God.


For the Life of the World 36

Posted: February 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 36

This post focuses on sections 7-8 of Worship in a Secular Age, the first appendix of For the Life of the World.

Fr. Schmemann begins to draw his essay toward conclusion by noting that we actually desire the divisions of reality that make space for a secular perspective. That’s why they’ve taken root in both East and West.

For it is clear that this deeply “Westernized” theology has had a very serious impact on worship, or rather, on the experience and comprehension of worship, on that which elsewhere I have defined as liturgical piety. And it has had this impact because it satisfied a deep desire of man for a legalistic religion that would fulfill his need for both the “sacred” — a divine sanction and guarantee — and the “profane,” i.e., a natural and secular life protected, as it were, from the constant challenge and absolute demands of God. It was a relapse into that religion which assures, by means of orderly transactions with the “sacred,” security and clean conscience in this life, as well as reasonable rights to the “other world,” a religion which Christ denounced by every word of His teaching, and which ultimately crucified Him. It is indeed much easier to live and to breathe within neat distinctions between the sacred and the profane, the natural and the supernatural, the pure and the impure, to understand religion in terms of sacred “taboos,” legal prescriptions and obligation, of ritual rectitude and canonical “validity.” It is much more difficult to realize that such religion not only does not constitute any threat to “secularism,” but on the contrary, is its paradoxical ally.

And it’s the truth. I create such categories and divisions of reality because I do not really want union with God, at least not all the way and certainly not yet. In this regard, I doubt most of us are dramatically different. However much I want to love this (to me) strange God made known in Jesus, there are also plenty of times I feel overwhelmed and want to keep him back at arm’s length. There are many pieces of my life where I want to simply say, “This is mine!” We are all more “secular” than we think.

Fr. Schmemann doesn’t take the time in the essay to fully explore the dichotomies, but here’s one illustration that I think is a good one. It’s an example of a way those false descriptions of reality even invade our Christian worship.

Thus, for example, to bless water, making it “holy water,” may have two entirely different meanings. It may mean, on the one hand, the transformation of something profane, and thus religiously void or neutral, into something sacred, in which case the main religious meaning of “holy water” is precisely that it is no longer “mere” water, and is in fact opposed to it — as the sacred is to the profane. Here the act of blessing reveals nothing about water, and thus about matter or world, but on the contrary makes them irrelevant to the new function of water as “holy water.” The sacred posits the profane as precisely profane, i.e., religiously meaningless.

On the other hand, the same act of blessing may mean the revelation of the true “nature” and “destiny” of water, and thus of the world — it may be an epiphany and the fulfillment of their “sacramentality.” By being restored through the blessing to its proper function, the “holy water” is revealed as the true, full, adequate water, and matter becomes again means of communion with and knowledge of God.

And Fr. Schmemann describes the above as happening, as infiltrating much of Christianity just as he sees the world around him changing.

And this at a time when secularism begins to “crack” from inside! If my reading of the great confusion of our time is correct, this confusion is, first of all a deep crisis of secularism. … More and more signs point toward one fact of paramount importance: the famous “modern man” is already looking for a path beyond secularism, is again thirsty and hungry for “something else.” Much too often this thirst and hunger are satisfied not only by food of doubtful quality, but by artificial substitutes of all kinds. The spiritual confusion is at its peak.

Actually, the spiritual confusion wasn’t at its peak in 1971. I don’t think it has even yet reached its peak. But Fr. Schmemann describes the forces that shaped by childhood and much of my life.

Fr. Schmemann concludes that we do not need any “new” worship fit for a modern secular age. Rather, we need to rediscover true Christian worship in all its fullness. I would tend to agree, especially the more I learn about Christianity and the more I experience Christ.


For the Life of the World 35

Posted: February 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 35

This post focuses on sections 4-6 of Worship in a Secular Age, the first appendix of For the Life of the World.

As Fr. Schmemann continues developing his assertion that the best definition of secular is the negation of worship by exploring and defining worship and Christian worship in particular, he notes how Christian worship does share some continuity with worship of all religions. It is not so new that it has no common ground, no continuity. (This is especially true when you examine the synagogue and temple worship of the first century and even further back into the particular strand of priestly tradition from which Israel was drawn.) And that leads into his following point. It’s longer than the excerpts I typically quote, but I think it’s absolutely central for understanding not only Fr. Schmemann’s premise, but what it means to be Christian.

If, however, this “continuity” of the Christian leitourgia with the whole of man’s worship includes in itself an equally essential principle of of discontinuity, if Christian worship being the fulfillment and the end of all worship is at the same time a beginning, a radically new worship, it is not because of any ontological impossibility for the world to become the sacrament of Christ. No, it i because the world rejected Christ by killing Him, and by doing so rejected its own destiny and fulfillment. Therefore, if the basis of all Christian worship is the Incarnation, its true content is always the Cross and the Resurrection. Through these events the new life in Christ, the Incarnate Lord, is “hid with Christ in God,” and made into a life “not of this world.” The world which rejected Christ must itself die in man if it is to become again means of communion, means of participation in the life which shone forth from the grave, in the Kingdom which is not “of this world,” and which in terms of this world is still to come.

And thus the bread and wine — the food, the matter, the very symbol of this world and therefore the very content of our prosphora to God, to be changed into the Body and Blood of Christ and become the communion to His Kingdom — must in the anaphora be “lifted up,” taken out of “this world.” And it is only when the Church in the Eucharist leaves this world and ascends to Christ’s table at His Kingdom, that she truly sees and proclaims heaven and earth to be full of His glory and God as having “filled all things with Himself.” Yet, once more this “discontinuity,” this vision of all things as new, is possible only because at first there is continuity and not negation, because the Holy Spirit makes “all things new” and not “new things.”

Part of the problem today, and very likely one of the forces that led to the development of the modern secular perspective, is that a great many Christians do believe that God’s plan is to eventually wipe the slate clean, destroy all of this corrupted reality, and make a new one. It’s a perspective that rather than redeeming his creation (other than perhaps some of mankind) God is going to burn it up and make “new things.” In that perspective there seems to be no impetus for perceiving the reality of God filling and sustaining his creation, even broken as it is. It’s when you disconnect creation (including non-Christian worship) almost entirely from God that you make room for what we call the secular perspective.

Secularism, I said, is above all a negation of worship. And indeed, if what we have said about worship is true, is it not equally true that secularism consists in the rejection, explicit or implicit, of precisely that idea of man and world which is the very purpose of worship to express and communicate? … A modern secularist quite often accepts the idea of God. What, however, he emphatically negates is precisely the sacramentality of man and world.

Many of our “founding fathers” in this country were Deists, or something like a Deist, which is a view of God that is perfectly in line with secularism. We see the influence of this perspective in many places, from Jefferson’s Bible, to Washington always leaving the church before Communion. Later Fr. Schmemann points out that as obsessed as secular man can become with symbols (and he points to Masonry for an illustration), by rejecting the sacramentality of creation and man, symbols are reduced to mere illustrations of ideas and concepts. They are emphatically not that — as most religions (however wrong or misguided the religion might have been) have always known. Indeed, until the advent of the secular perspective, a proper understanding of “symbol” was almost universal across mankind.

To anyone who has had, be it only once, the true experience of worship, all this is revealed immediately as the ersatz it is.

When I read that line I considered that moment as a preteen when, kneeling at the rail of an Episcopal Church, I drank from the chalice. Of all my encounters with Christianity of many and varied stripes, that is one that has remained seared in my memory. The same is true of my baptism, even though it was in the context of decidedly non-sacramental denomination. I couldn’t tell you a thing today about that church, about its pastor, or about anyone in that church. But I remember that moment in the water with crystal clarity. I understand what Fr. Schmemann is saying here.

Secularism — we must again and again stress this — is a “stepchild” of Christianity, as are, in the last analysis, all secular ideologies which today dominate the world — not, as it is claimed by the Western apostles of a Christian acceptance of secularism, a legitimate child, but a heresy. Heresy, however, is always the distortion, the exaggeration, and therefore the mutilation of something true, the affirmation of one “choice” (aizesis means choice in Greek), one element at the expense of the others, the breaking up of the catholicity of Truth. … To condemn a heresy is relatively easy. What is much more difficult is to detect the question it implies, and to give this question an adequate answer. Such, however, was always the Church’s dealing with “heresies” — they always provoked an effort of creativity within the Church so that the condemnation became ultimately a widening and deepening of Christian faith itself.

The councils and creeds are not, as many misinterpret them, the establishment of encompassing ideas about God to which you had to give mental assent to be a Christian. When you try to reduce them to that, you are largely missing the point. They were, instead, the creativity of the Church engaged in response to specific ideas about God that were not consistent with the life of the Church. If you truly wish to understand a Christian creed or a council, it is generally important to understand its context. It’s not essential for Christian belief by any means. But they become easy to misunderstand if you do not know something of the context and the problem that led to them.

The uniqueness of secularism, its difference from the great heresies of the patristic age, is that the latter were provoked by the encounter of Christianity with Hellenism, whereas the former is the result of a “breakdown” within Christianity itself, of its own deep metamorphosis.

To illustrate the above, Fr. Schmemann to the twelfth century Lateran Council condemning a Latin theologian, Berengarius of Tours. That was one I hadn’t heard about before and I found it fascinating. It appears to capture the time when, in the West, we began to make “mystical” or “symbolic” the opposite of “real”. Basically, Berengarius held that since the presence of Christ in the eucharistic elements was “mystical” it wasn’t real. (In that, we see perhaps the earliest roots of Zwingli’s heresy, though he took it further than that.) The council condemned Berengarius, but in their condemnation they accepted his basic opposition of mystical and real. That council held that since the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is real, it isn’t mystical. That explains, of course, the way that perceptions of the Eucharist developed in the medieval West. I had never really understood that development before since it so different from most of what you find in the first thousand years of the Church. However, it set up the false dichotomy between “symbol” and “real” that came in time to dominate Western thought. And at its core, it’s that dichotomy, which had not really existed anywhere, Christian or not, before that time, that laid the groundwork necessary for a secular perspective.

Here is the real cause of secularism, which is ultimately nothing else but the affirmation of the world’s autonomy, of its self-sufficiency in terms of reason, knowledge, and action. The downfall of Christian symbolism led to the dichotomy of the “natural” and the “supernatural” as the only framework of Christian thought and experience. And whether the “natural” and the “supernatural” are somehow related to one another by analogia entis, as in Latin theology, or whether this analogy is totally rejected, as in Barthianism, ultimately makes no difference. In both views the world ceases to be the “natural” sacrament of God, and the supernatural sacrament to have any “continuity” with the world.

Let us not be mistaken, however. This Western theological framework was in fact accepted by the Orthodox East also, and since the end of the patristic age our theology has been indeed much more “Western” than “Eastern.” If secularism can be properly termed a Western heresy, the very fruit of the basic Western “deviation,” our own scholastic theology has also been permeated with it for centuries, and this in spite of violent denunciations of Rome and papism.

Fr. Schmemann notes both the origin of secularism and the way it has worked its way throughout much of the Christian world, East and West. It may have started in the West, but it spread everywhere.

Both [enthusiasts of “secular Christianity” and the “Super-Orthodox” who “reject” it], by denying the world its natural “sacramentality” and radically opposing the “natural” to the “supernatural,” make the world grace-proof, and ultimately lead to secularism. And it is here, within this spiritual and psychological context, that the problem of worship in relation to modern secularism acquires its real significance.


For the Life of the World 34

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.