Why I Am Not An Atheist 2 – Experience

Posted: May 25th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ll start with the central reason I’m not an atheist — my personal experience and perception of reality. That also happens to be the most difficult aspect to capture meaningfully in words. The most likely reaction to this post in the series will be that those who have experienced reality in a similar manner will understand what I am trying to express and those who haven’t will be less likely to understand. Nevertheless, I have to start here. I don’t uncritically accept my own experience. I’m not sure I ever really have — even as a young teen or preteen participating in something like the past life regression seminar my parents once hosted. Subsequent posts will explore some of the other aspects I have considered about an atheistic perspective. But it does seem to start here.

Those who have read my blog for a while know that I was well into my adult life before I would say my journey reached a point where the label “Christian” became one I associated with my core identity. I recognize that’s a much more complicated statement than the ones many people employ. In large part that’s because I refuse to simplify my story to make it fit some template of conversion. In a sense, one could say I became a Christian as an adult, but that statement would not carry the same meaning for me that it would hold for many. For instance, I have only been baptized once. I was baptized as a child and I hold that baptism valid, even if there were years in which I rejected it. In truth, my life held many intersections with Christianity, some positive and others negative. (The negative side includes being told to leave a worship service as a teen parent because my sleeping infant daughter was “disturbing” the service.) But my first three decades of life, as intimated in my opening paragraph, also included intersections with a number of other religions and expressions of spirituality as well. My journey doesn’t fit any simple paradigm.

I cannot remember any time in my life when I did not have some sense of the transcendent. I’m not sure if there’s any other way I can express that idea. By and large, most atheistic perspectives (and contrary to the way some Christians speak, there is hardly a single atheist perspective) are materialist in nature. Now, that’s not universally true. Some people describe Buddhism as atheistic and it’s certainly not a materialistic perspective. (Personally, though not named, the underlying ground of Buddhism in general — recognizing there is a lot of variation — looks a lot like the Hindu Brahman to me. But that may just be a reflection of my own past practice of a sort of Hinduism along with the fact that I’ve never actually practiced any form of Buddhism.) I can’t really say how personal experience plays out in the lives of anyone else, but that sense of transcendence meant that materialistic metaphysical perspectives never jived with my perception of reality even when I explored some of them. As a result, while I sometimes describe myself as a reluctant Christian and accidental Baptist, I never “struggled” with atheism the way I’ve heard some people describe their journey. A specifically Christian perspective did not and does not come easily to me, but atheism plays  no significant role in that difficulty.

Along with that underlying sense of general transcendence in reality, I have also had a number of specific experiences over the course of my life. Before I was Christian, I clearly remember the times in meditation when I would perceive the web of threads interconnecting reality with my own being. I’ve encountered spiritual powers and even when I was anything but Christian I had a sense (and I believe some more direct encounters) of the personal being I would now describe as a guardian angel. Even before I came to identify as Christian, looking back, I encountered and experienced Jesus. And though none of my experiences have been nearly as dramatic as Frederica Mathewes-Green’s conversion experience, I have heard the voice of Jesus. I’ve struggled finding any place in modern Christianity and if I had not personally heard Jesus, I’m not sure I would still be anything like a Christian. Those who have not had such encounters and yet believe are stronger by far than me. I have a deep and intuitive appreciation for the Celtic perception of thin places.

Of course, some atheists will classify such things as a part of our genetic makeup, something that was selected for survival. While The God Gene appears to have been based on some pretty shoddy science, I have no problem with the basic idea that there are genes that facilitate certain types of body and brain function. The fact that our bodies and brains mediate and shape our experience and perception of reality has always seemed self-evident to me. After all, I am an embodied being. I have no “self” apart from my body.

I suppose I could say that I don’t have a body as some sort of externalized attribute; I am my body in every meaningful sense. I would also say that I am more than the sum of the parts — that in some sense what I call “I” transcends my body — but interconnected with and flowing from those parts. The experiences that shape me are mediated through my body. My perception of reality depends on my body. And even my personality and internal being rely on my physical brain. Alter my brain and you change everything I would call “me.” Specifically, I do not believe I am a sort of “ghost in the machine” the way that Plato and others have hypothesized.

The fact that I am a fully embodied being in every sense does not then prove the metaphysical assertion that I am nothing more than the sum of my physical parts. Nor can my reality as what I would call an embodied spiritual being be extrapolated to assert the non-existence of unbodily spiritual beings. (I’m not really sure what word to use for that category.) And it certainly doesn’t say anything about the existence or non-existent of any sort of “god,” much less a panentheistic, transcendent source of reality such as that described in Christianity and Hinduism. (Christianity and Hinduism are very different from each other and in the “god” they ultimately describe, but they do both describe a panentheistic ground of reality.)

I do not find an assertion that since we can associate spiritual or mystical experience with activity in certain parts of brain which is facilitated by particular genes (assuming, of course, we are eventually able to demonstrate those relationships) that therefore those experiences aren’t “real” (which begs the metaphysical question about what is “real”) a convincing argument. It’s simply not a logically valid assertion. While I could probably construct a response from a variety of perspectives, there’s a simple and straightforward Christian response.

We are created as embodied spiritual beings in the image of our creator God with the potential for communion with God — a potential realized for all humanity in and through the Incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth and the union of the whole of human nature with the whole of the divine nature. As embodied beings, that potential is expressed in and through our bodies. So naturally, as we come to better understand our bodies, our genetic makeup, and the function of our brain we discover things consistent with our nature.

Of course, I can’t prove my overly simplified statement above either. Once we start making metaphysical statements — even metaphysical statements asserting materialism — we have left the realm of things that can be called science in the modern sense. That’s one of the things that bothers me about at least some of the so-called new atheists. Again, I have not read them extensively, but in at least some of things I have read, I’ve seen them describe certain facts I would also consider scientifically established. And that’s fine. But then they proceed to make atheistic metaphysical assertions as if those assertions were also scientifically established facts.  At best, they are not clear when they are describing science and when they are extrapolating from the actual science and explaining why and how that science informs their metaphysical perspective.

I will note that some of the materialist perspectives I’ve seen seem to express a sort of scientific determinism. I must note that I’m not a determinist in any way. That’s not to say that anything whatsoever could happen at any given instant or that I or anyone ever has experienced complete and utter freedom. There is an interrelatedness to all things in reality and that shapes the scope of possibilities at any given moment in any given place. But that does not lead to a deterministic reality where everything is nothing more than the sum of the parts and if we could fully understand all the parts, we would grasp the fullness of all that is. Whether Laplace or Calvin, science or theology, I reject determinism. I could be wrong, of course, but if I am at least I’m in good company.

So my experience of reality informs and has always informed my perception of that reality. And while I do not accept my experience uncritically, that experience has left little ground for atheism. As I warned in the intro, if you were expecting an apology against atheism, you’re likely disappointed. This won’t be that sort of series.


The Jesus Creed 7 – John the Baptist: The Story of New Beginnings

Posted: August 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Creed 7 – John the Baptist: The Story of New Beginnings

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 ones for this chapter are: Luke 3:1-20; John 1:6-9, 15, 19-34.

In the middle section of the book, McKnight explores the implications of the Jesus Creed through the stories of different people in the gospels. He starts with John the Baptist. There are several themes in play. The Jordan River marked the time the children of Israel crossed over into the promised land for a new beginning. Likewise, John was calling for a new beginning. We also need to compare priests and prophets. John’s father was a priest. John was a prophet.

A priest speaks for humans to God in the privacy of the temple. A prophet speaks for God to humans in the publicity of the town square. Priests wiped sins from the people; prophets wiped sins in their faces. Most importantly, priests summoned people to tell the truth so they could make restitution, but prophets summoned people to tell the truth so they could start all over again.

And prophets didn’t always use words. There are many examples of prophets being told to act out the drama they were prophesying. So it is with John. Not just with words, but location. He stages his drama on the far side of the Jordan River, the side from which they entered Israel.

John is saying that if Israel wants to enjoy the blessings of God, they need to go back to the Jordan and begin again. … This is the only way to make sense of John is his world: He wants his audience to see that life can begin all over again. At the Jordan, John gives us the opportunity to start over. How? John has a word for it.

Repent! It’s the first word out of his mouth. Repentance “with an edge“. Repentance means we “must confess our sins“, in other words, “we must tell God the truth.” And that’s hard. We have layers.

Our public persona.

Our family image.

And our inner self.

And telling the truth to God means we expose all of them. “The Jesus Creed begins with loving God. Love, for it to work at all, requires truthtelling.” Don’t we see some of that in the Psalms? If we are not first honest, good and bad, we can hardly claim to love at all.

Truthtelling awakens forgiveness. By telling the truth, we are able to receive forgiveness from our Abba. If we do not learn to tell the truth, we are closed off from that forgiveness. We hide. God thrills at each reconciliation. That is clear. Truthtelling gets real, though.

Spirituality. Many of those listening had their spirituality anchored in their Jewish heritage. So does John and he’s probably proud of his heritage. Nevertheless, our spirituality must be anchored in our Abba.

Our possessions. Oh, that’s a tough one for us today. But honestly it’s always been tough. “The Bible speaks often of money because it is with money that we exercise the freedoms of choice.” That’s a heady thought. John says, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none.” How important are our possessions to us? We need to tell the truth.

Our power. To one extent or another, we all have it. Many of those John faced abused it. “If we love God and love others, we will use our power for the good of others. We need to tell the truth about power: how do we use it?”  This is why the discipline of confession strikes me as so very important today. We are all lousy at telling the truth about ourselves. It’s often not pretty. But unless we do it, we will never grow in faith.


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.


Evangelical Is Not Enough 1

Posted: January 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 1

I purchased Evangelical Is Not Enough by Thomas Howard because Elizabeth Esther decided to host a weekly book club conversation on her blog and her description of the book sounded interesting. I’m sure it will be more interesting to follow the conversation on her blog (this week’s installment kicks off with a video), so I encourage anyone interested to read the conversation there. However, since I’m reading through the book, I thought I would capture some of my reaction to each chapter here as well.

Chapter One highlights some common distinctive features of the evangelicalism that shaped Thomas Howard in his childhood formation. He is not negative about that experience. Indeed, he adopts an attitude of thankfulness and points out the positive aspects of each distinctive without even really raising the less positive side of each. I think that’s a good way to begin a book like this.

Even though I can’t claim that this sort of perspective was a dominant feature of my childhood formation, I have been in a single evangelical church since the conclusion of my journey of conversion in my very early thirties. I could recognize most of the traits he outlines in my church. A couple of comments really stood out to me, though.

Evangelical spirituality centers, finally, on personal daily devotions, also called “quiet time.”

That nails it. If you ask anyone what discipline to practice, that’s what you’ll hear, and that’s pretty much all you’ll hear. I tried it, of course, for an extended period of time. It’s what I’ve always done within any sort of spiritual context. Practice it as recommended and see what happens. Personally, I’m stumped how this single discipline suffices for spiritual formation for anyone. I found it particularly ill-suited for me and began searching for anything with more depth fairly quickly. I suppose that’s one reason I simply haven’t read a great deal by “evangelical” authors. I still don’t grasp how this singular practice came to be the center and almost the fullness of evangelical spirituality. It’s one of those things that remains a mystery to me.

The acid test of vocal prayer came at the end of the prayer, however. If someone finished his petition or thanksgiving with a bald “Amen,” he gave everything away. He was not one of us. A true evangelical used the scriptural formula, asking it all in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, or, in the shorter phrase, “… in Jesus’ name, Amen.”

I had to laugh at that one. It’s one of those little things you pick up pretty quickly. I’ll also add that, even though we affirm the Trinitarian nature of the faith, heaven forbid if you close a prayer “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.” You also won’t hear prayers opened addressing the Holy Spirit. There are lots of unspoken rules regarding “spontaneous” prayer within evangelicalism.

I also found it somewhat interesting that the book was published in 1984. At that point in my life I was not very open to Christianity at all. In fact, I had a great deal of antipathy toward Christianity and Christians. If you had told me then that one day I would consider myself someone who was at least attempting to become Christian, I would have laughed at you. I probably also would have taken it as a major insult. And I held a particular antipathy toward the sort of Christian Thomas Howard describes as “evangelical” in this chapter. Go figure.

The opening chapter really just lays the groundwork to describe the outlines of what Thomas Howard is referencing as “evangelical” in the book, but he does so in a generous and irenic fashion. He is not angry about his upbringing as some who are raised within evangelical confines can be. He just eventually found that it was insufficient. It was not enough. The rest of the book explores the reasons why that’s true.


On the Incarnation of the Word 55 – Idolatry Diminishing?

Posted: December 7th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 55 – Idolatry Diminishing?

I read Athanasius’ summation of much that he has already written and my first reaction on this reading, probably shaped by my earlier reflections on my pluralist formation, is almost one of confusion.

This, then, after what we have so far said, it is right for you to realize, and to take as the sum of what we have already stated, and to marvel at exceedingly; namely, that since the Saviour has come among us, idolatry not only has no longer increased, but what there was is diminishing and gradually coming to an end: and not only does the wisdom of the Greeks no longer advance, but what there is is now fading away: and demons, so far from cheating any more by illusions and prophecies and magic arts, if they so much as dare to make the attempt, are put to shame by the sign of the Cross. And to sum the matter up: behold how the Saviour’s doctrine is everywhere increasing, while all idolatry and everything opposed to the faith of Christ is daily dwindling, and losing power, and falling.

It is true, when you study history, that Christianity spread like wildfire through ancient pagan lands, overturning long-standing and oppressive gods and religious practices. By the time Athanasius writes the above, even the Empire is beginning its turn from its pagan gods.

But my life experience has been almost the opposite of the above. I absorbed the experience of one spirituality after another. And while Christianity was a part of the mix, there was often little in it to distinguish it from or elevate it above the rest. Indeed, some of my experiences with Christians were pretty negative and made it less attractive. Even now, Christianity is fading in lands where it was once the default, where the pagan religions had seemed to almost end.

Why?

That’s the question that comes to my mind. For Jesus of Nazareth is no less compelling now than he was when Athanasius wrote those words — at least, not if you really encounter him. And nothing else I’ve lived or experienced really compares with the vision of reality we see in Christ. Not the unending cycle of death and rebirth found at the core of nature worship. Not the karmic cycle on the wheel of samsara trapped in maya. Not the strict path of discipline of the Buddha seeking enlightenment. Not the vision of a reality devoid of deeper or lasting meaning that lies near the heart of many materialistic perspectives. I’ve explored and lived many of those along the course of my journey and I find that when I compare them to the God made known to us in Jesus of Nazareth, I agree with Athanasius’ sentiment. And I understand why the ancient pagan world turned so dramatically.

So then why are so many turning back to pagan paths? Why did it take so long for me (and others) to really begin to see this strange Jesus and be drawn to him? What is different in our world today?

That’s a complex question and there are undoubtedly more threads weaving the present tapestry than I can ever fully grasp. Nevertheless, I think part of the problem is that the Church has ceased to even try to be one. And in the morass of Christian pluralism, many of the pictures painted of Jesus and God, many of the ideas, many of the theologies are actually repellent.

It’s harder today to actually see Christ than it was when Athanasius wrote his treatise.


On the Incarnation of the Word 41 – The Logos Refutes the Pagan Greeks

Posted: October 14th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 41 – The Logos Refutes the Pagan Greeks

In this section, Athanasius turns from refuting the arguments against the Incarnation by the Jews to those offered by the pagan Greeks. He is specifically attacking the schools of Plato, whether influenced by Philo or not. Platonism had issues with embodied spirituality. Within that perspective, the material was something to be escaped. Plato envisioned the spiritual, disembodied Happy Philosophers. Obviously, the Incarnation is a problem within that perspective. I find Athanasius’ approach intriguing.

But if they confess that there is a Word of God, and He ruler of the universe, and that in Him the Father has produced the creation, and that by His Providence the whole receives light and life and being, and that He reigns over all, so that from the works of His providence He is known, and through Him the Father,—consider, I pray you, whether they be not unwittingly raising the jest against themselves. The philosophers of the Greeks say that the universe is a great body; and rightly so. For we see it and its parts as objects of our senses. If, then, the Word of God is in the Universe, which is a body, and has united Himself with the whole and with all its parts, what is there surprising or absurd if we say that He has united Himself with man also. For if it were absurd for Him to have been in a body at all, it would be absurd for Him to be united with the whole either, and to be giving light and movement to all things by His providence. For the whole also is a body. But if it beseems Him to unite Himself with the universe, and to be made known in the whole, it must beseem Him also to appear in a human body, and that by Him it should be illumined and work. For mankind is part of the whole as well as the rest. And if it be unseemly for a part to have been adopted as His instrument to teach men of His Godhead, it must be most absurd that He should be made known even by the whole universe.

In other words, if the Logos is united with and sustains the whole universe, it can hardly be called unreasonable for the Logos to be united to a specific human body.

I’ll also note that this is a good example of Athanasius finding something true within their beliefs that he could build upon. At their best, Christians have always done exactly that, rather than dismissing all that a people believe or have experienced of reality. There are few places we go where people have not received at least glimpses and shadows of the truth. If we do not believe that, we do not believe that God is who we proclaim him to be. And we do not believe that the cosmos changed when Jesus came out of that tomb.

Or so it seems to me.


For the Life of the World 1

Posted: October 4th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 1

I’ve heard about For the Life of the World by Father Alexander Schmemann off and on for several years now. However, the convergence of several events have now led me to buy it and begin reading it myself. First, Deacon Michael Hyatt is teaching through it with his class each Sunday this fall, which is then distributed through his podcast, At the Intersection of East and West, a podcast I’ve followed since he started it. Second, I received a $10 Amazon gift certificate for participating in some survey. Third, I had to place an order for Catching Fire (the sequel to Hunger Games) for my daughter and, well, who can buy just one book at a time? 😉

So, this series will be interspersed within whatever other series I am doing more or less weekly as I intend to read through the book at the same pace as Deacon Hyatt’s class. I’ll write my posts on each chapter after reading the chapter and listening to the podcast. Today’s post is on the first chapter of the book, which describes its philosophical goals. The podcasts for this chapter spanned two weeks and I do recommend listening to them both. You’ll probably get more from Deacon Hyatt than you will from me anyway.

Fr. Schmemann opens his book by quoting the German materialist, Feuerbach, “Man is what he eats.” And he affirms that as a true statement, though not at all in the way that Feuerbach intended. Man is what he eats, but that does not reduce reality to the merely material. Rather, it points to the seamless unity of the physical and the spiritual.

In the biblical story of creation man is presented, first of all, as a hungry being, and the whole world as his food.

Today many, especially in Western Christianity, have attempted to separate reality in the world of the religious life and the world of the profane, the ordinary, or the secular life. The problem is that such a dualism is neither Christian nor even particularly human. I must confess that I don’t understand this tendency among my fellow Protestants. I have always sought a path toward a unified reality. Now, that does not necessarily mean the fully embodied spirituality of Christianity. I was not uncomfortable with the fundamental Hindu perspective of the material reality as maya or illusion. The Christian fights or should fight to unify the totality of life, to have the fullness of life, but Fr. Schmemann asks an intriguing question:

What is the life of life itself?

Unless we answer that question properly, we will never move beyond the dichotomy that seems to haunt American Christianity. Whether trying to spiritualize our life or secularize our religion we are still approaching them as two different and separate things. They are not.

God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” Man is a hungry being. But he is hungry for God.

Fr. Schmemann coins a descriptive for man. Whatever else we may be called ( e.g. homo sapiens, homo faber), we are first and foremost homo adorans.

The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God — and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him.

It is only as we understand that reality that story of the Fall can even begin to make sense. The story, of course, revolves around food. That is no accident. But more than that, it is not about choosing to obey or disobey some arbitrary rule. It cuts right to the heart of who and what we were created to be.

Not given, not blessed by God, it (the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil) was food whose eating was condemned to be communion with itself alone, and not with God. It is the image of the world loved for itself, and eating it is the image of life understood as an end in itself. To love is not easy, and mankind has chosen not to return God’s love.

It is the ultimate expression of materialistic love, the love of the material in and for itself and for what it can provide me. We have done it so long and so consistently that it has come to seem normal. We don’t give thanks. We don’t bless the material creation for God. “It seems natural not to be eucharistic.” Indeed.

When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value, because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is the “sacrament” of God’s presence. … For one who thinks food in itself is the source of life, eating is communion with the dying world, it is communion with death. … For “the wages of sin is death.” The life man chose was only the appearance of life. … He ceased to be the priest of the world and became its slave.

That is, of course, the great irony. Our life is hid in Christ with God. Our life was to bless God and lift up his creation to him in thanksgiving. We have no life apart from God, so when we embrace that which is not God, we ultimately embrace death. In trying to control our world (and even ourselves) we become slaves to the world in and through our passions. I actually have a greater appreciation for Buddhism since I became Christian than I did before I was Christian. There is much truth to their teaching that our passions enslave us. There are worse things than to strive to become dispassionate, though the Christian approach is, ultimately, much different than the Buddhist path.

In our perspective, however, the “original” sin is not primarily that man has “disobeyed” God; the sin is that he ceased to be hungry for Him and for Him alone, ceased to see his whole life depending on the whole world as a sacrament of communion with God. … The only real fall of man is his non-eucharistic life in a non-eucharistic world. The fall is not that he preferred world to God, distorted the balance between the spiritual and material, but that he made the world material, whereas he was to have transformed it into “life in God,” filled with meaning and spirit.

The above is an extremely dense idea, but if you can begin to see it, you’ll begin to perceive the richness of creation and the depth of our distortion of it. This dualism, this dichotomy between the spiritual and the material, is in and of itself the very substance of our fall. Every time we view the world through this lens, every time we act on these assumption, we participate in the fall and destruction of creation, even if what we actually do appears on the surface to be “good“. When we live and act within this dualism, we are deepening the shadow over our world. It’s into this darkness that God acted decisively: He sent light.

It is within the context of these thoughts that Fr. Schmemann makes a statement about Christianity not being a religion in the traditional sense of the word in a way that actually made sense to me. (I’ve heard similar statements in the past in a Protestant context, but I could never get them to add up.) I’ll draw a number of his phrases together here, but to really grasp what he’s saying, you probably need to read the entirety of the chapter.

Christianity, however, is in a profound sense the end of all religion. … Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man. … He (Christ) has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion. It was this freedom of the early church from “religion” in the usual, traditional sense of this word that led the pagans to accuse Christians of atheism. … And in Him (Christ) was the end of “religion,” because He himself was the Answer to all religion, to all human hunger for God, because in Him the life that was lost by man — and which could only be symbolized, signified, asked for in religion — was restored to man.

Within that context he discusses the story of the Samaritan woman at the well and the discussion about temple that she had with Jesus. Jesus affirmed that the Jews at that time knew the truth and worshiped in the right location. But he told her that time was coming to an end. Christians and Christianity have never been tied to a particular place, to a particular time, to a particular building in our worship. We sacramentalize all of creation.

Now, that is not to say that there is anything wrong with building places, even beautiful places, with ornate liturgy, or with any of the rest of a fully embodied spirituality. There is not and never has been. Contrary to the beliefs of many of my fellow Baptists, Christianity has no history of congregational, non-liturgical worship until they created it from their own imaginations in the wake of what is called the Great Reformation. Their imagined first century church never existed historically in the manner many of them envision.

But as Christians, we are not tied to any one place, any one nation, any one ethnicity, or any one language in our worship. All creation is our temple as we offer it back to God in thanksgiving.


The Didache 1 – The Two Ways

Posted: June 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways.

I’m not the sort to separate the crunchy physicality of the Christian story from its spirituality. Yet, as I’ve read this opening line from the Didache lately, I realize that I have nonetheless kept its earthiness at a certain level of abstraction. Celiac makes that starkly real to me.

I face two ways. I can continue to consume gluten if I choose. If I do, I will pay a price. My health will continue to degenerate. I will get sicker though there is no specific, predictable progression. But it will certainly involve pain and decline leading to an unpleasant death after decades of ill health.

Or I can cease consuming all gluten to the best of my ability. As I succeed in doing so my body will heal, my health will improve, and the ultimate quality of my experience of reality will take on brighter hues.

There is a way of life and a way of death. Which way will I make the rule of my life?

It seems obvious to me, but I understand there are some celiacs who refuse to stay on a gluten free diet though they know the price they will pay. Even when the choice is so stark and obvious, because it is not immediate, some choose the way of death.

I’ve been captivated by this line since my diagnosis. It runs through my mind unbidden and at odd times. The choice for the human being is just as stark. We can choose to consume God and be progressively healed, experiencing ever more of true life, learning to taste, touch, smell, hear, and see reality around us as God pierces our delusions. Or we can consume that which is not God and take death into the core of our being.

Yes indeed, there is a great difference between the two ways.

There is more connected to this one line. It’s deeply Jewish in nature. The Way of Torah was a way of shaping life and experiencing God through the mitzvots, feasts, and rituals of Torah. It’s in that context that Jesus’ statement about being the way stands revealed. As the fulfillment of Torah, he places himself in its stead. Follow Jesus and shape your life through his commands, through his body, through his blood.

Jesus is the way of life. Certainly life in the present, but also a life that endures.

Why would we choose to eat death instead?