Who Am I?

For the Life of the World 31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


My Church History Perspective 5 – Translation and Textual Criticism

Posted: December 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments »

The two threads of the problem of translation and the impact of modern textual criticism strike me as interwoven with the work of history in different ways. Any work of translation, of course, is an intrinsically historical effort. Language is closely correlated with culture. So before an idea can be expressed in a different language, it must be understood in the setting of its original context. However, because different languages operate in different cultural contexts and historical settings, operating sometimes under very different assumptions, there is often not a clear expression of an idea from one language in another. Modern textual criticism, on the other hand, often seems to be used against actual historical evidence, as if working from texts alone one can somehow divine the “truth.” I wanted to touch on both topics, at least briefly, in this series.

The work of translation is, as I already mentioned, a fundamentally historical work. The success and accuracy of any translation effort depends on the correct understanding of the text that is being translated. Since idiom and cultural assumptions permeate any and every text, if you do not properly understand those assumptions and the idioms that flow from them, you will misunderstand the text being translated. Obviously, if you don’t correctly understand that which you are translating, the odds of correctly translating it are significantly worse.

But the task is even harder because it is impossible to approach any text without your own presuppositions. The more important the text is to you, the more your desires will influence your translation efforts. Modern translators of biblical texts into English try to overcome some of those biases by assembling teams of translators. However, that simply trades the individual bias for a group bias. No translation effort is ever free from that sort of bias. That’s why it’s always good to research a translation and understand which Christian tradition or group produced the translation. It’s a particular problem now due to the radical division and pluralism of belief that exists in Christianity today.

Sometimes translators simply ignore history. For example, there are those who decided that the Apostle Junia mentioned in Romans must have been a male named “Junias” despite the complete lack of any historical evidence that such a male name ever existed and over the clear historical tradition of the Church about Junia. Why did they reach that conclusion? Because they did not believe a woman could have been an apostle. The bias of the group drove decisions about the translation of the text in direct opposition to the overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary. However, translation bias is not usually as blatant as that. Typically, it’s more subtle.

Modern textual criticism, on the other hand, is much stranger and much more driven by the biases and goals of those performing it. I think I’m too “postmodern” in my formation to understand a perspective that believes you can “objectively” determine much of anything by studying texts. It’s this discipline, for instance, that has promulgated the widely held belief that the Gospel of Mark was written first and even that there is some mythical “lost” document that Mark and the other synoptics used as a source. There is no historical basis for either claim. Every patristic source we have states that Matthew was written first. Moreover, there would have been no motive for the ancient writers to lie or distort the truth. There is no evidence that the order itself was important to them. They were simply reporting the tradition they had received from the apostles themselves or from those who had known one or more of them.

The question then, is really why the modern textual critics wanted Mark to be the first gospel written? And when you ask that question, you begin to unravel a tapestry that allowed some in that group to place Mark in the second century, and remove all the gospels from an apostolic source. That’s not a widely held belief anymore from what I can tell, but the idea that Mark was written first, developed as a linchpin for that effort, persists nonetheless.

Bias also creeps in through variations in the ancient texts. If you read the notes in the translation of the Holy Scriptures you use, you might see notes to the effect that the “oldest” texts do not contain this or that bit of the text or that they say something different. Our initial reaction is to believe that the “older” texts are the more accurate, but that’s a reaction based on modern assumptions. In the ancient world, the texts were generally produced by hand. It was a long, laborious process and much depended on the skill of the transcriber. Given that texts were always less trusted in an oral culture, a poor text would be quickly identified and set aside while a good text would be used. Thus the oldest surviving texts are more likely to be poor copies that were little used while the better texts were much used and thus did not remain intact. If something exists in a broad array of old texts, there is no reason to reject those texts simply because one or two older ones have something different.

However, even among the best copies there are some variations in the text. But that doesn’t seem to have bothered anybody in the ancient world. They expected it and treated it as completely natural. If you read patristic sermons, you’ll encounter places where they note that the text they are reading says this, but they’ve read it differently elsewhere, and then they’ll tend to explore points in both variations. Later, as the texts were translated into other languages, you’ll see points made from the nuance of the language of the translation that go beyond the meaning in the original. Christianity has always believed that the Spirit speaks authoritatively through the text in any language and, as long as it is consistent with the tradition of interpretation, has had no problem with nuance arising from the translation itself.

The obsession with determining exactly what text is “right” is a purely modern one. And it most often seems to be a way of disputing or rejecting traditional interpretations and asserting novel interpretations instead. There is actually no such thing as a truly “conservative” (in the traditional sense of the word, not in the way it seems to be bandied about today) Protestant. But then, most people today (at least in the US) don’t use “conservative” or “liberal” in anything like their original sense. I’m not sure there is any consensus on what the new meanings of the words are because they don’t seem to be used in any consistent fashion at all. Most often, they seem to be used either as pejoratives or to describe the group with which you associate. If that group uses one of the words, then in that context, the word means the things that the group says and the other word describes everyone else.

Or at least, so it seems to me.


My Church History Perspective 4 – What does it really mean that ancient cultures were oral cultures?

Posted: December 14th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on My Church History Perspective 4 – What does it really mean that ancient cultures were oral cultures?

There are many aspects in the study of ancient cultures and life that make it difficult for us to grasp the way people thought and interacted and the way various events are tied together. Not least of these problems is the essentially ephemeral nature of most human artifacts. A lot of people I encounter seem to think we know (as in some certain knowledge) a lot more about the ancient world than we actually do. The reality is that ancient history is a process more akin to putting together a jigsaw puzzle with many pieces missing and no certain idea what the assembled mosaic should portray. Discerning the overarching threads of the picture is made even more difficult because we do not think about or approach the world around us in the same way they did. Our culture, that is our basic assumptions about the nature of reality, other people, power structures, and the threads that tie it all together, is very different from any ancient culture. When we simply look at collections of artifacts or bits of information through the lens of our modern culture and assumptions, we will invariably construct a false picture of the past.

That’s one of the things that has always made ancient history so fascinating to me. I love the challenge of trying to see the world through those very different lenses. I can never fully do it, of course. I’m as much the product of the forces and assumptions that shaped me as we all are. But I can catch glimpses here and there. I can have flashes of insight. In truth, it’s the same sort of problem that has also drawn my interest to different modern cultures, trying to understand how they shape and form the lenses through which people view reality. But with ancient cultures, you’re operating with fragments. The glass is shattered. Nobody presently alive was a part of that ancient culture and so you’re looking through small pieces at a time and trying to discern the whole.

One of the core differences between most of our modern cultures and the ancient cultures is that modern cultures are predominantly literate cultures rather than oral cultures. Now, that statement means a whole lot more than simply whether or not people can read and write. In the ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish worlds it was not unusual for people of all classes (even slaves and women) to be able to read and write to some extent. But the cultures were fundamentally oral cultures. And that has some profound implications.

(I haven’t read biblical scholars to any great extent because many of the modern ones don’t seem to be historians and are thus less interesting to me. However, I have noticed that Ben Witherington III and N.T. Wright are two biblical scholars who are also historians and incorporate a lot of this into their work. I’m sure they aren’t the only ones. But, as I said, I haven’t read or listened to any broad spectrum of biblical scholars. I just happened to stumble across the two above over the course of years.)

One of the hurdles we face seems at first to be a relatively minor difference at first. We trust things in writing more than things that are spoken. They trusted things that were spoken more than things that were written. In other words, if somebody tells us something and we aren’t sure if they are telling us the truth or not, we will try to look it up in a trusted written work. We will look for a signed contract outlining the agreement. We elevate the text over the merely verbal.

In the ancient world the opposite was true. If someone spoke, you knew who was speaking and you knew for certain what they said. You could then decide (often through complex chains of trust) if the person speaking was someone you would believe or not. Agreements and contracts relied on verbal oaths with witnesses. Even when they were written down, the written text was considered poor evidence. Texts, on the other hand, were inherently untrustworthy. You had no idea if the person to whom they were attributed actually wrote them. You didn’t know if they had been changed or altered. And they were subject to misinterpretation.

Those problems were further exacerbated by the nature of writing in that part of the ancient world. Material on which to write was not inexpensive and so none of it was wasted. Ancient Greek, Latin, and Hebrew texts did not have upper or lower case letters. They did not use punctuation. And they did not put spaces between the words. Ancient written Hebrew didn’t even use vowels. They were inferred from the consonants and context.

Think about that for a minute. Imagine trying to read and understand this post if it were written in all capital letters, with no punctuation, and no spaces.

Now take out the vowels.

Most “letters” in the ancient world were very brief and factual. You could give a servant or messenger a letter that said (after greetings), “Here are the three donkeys I promised to send to you,” with little chance of being misunderstood. The “letters” in the New Testament are really not much like letters at all. They are generally sermons or treatises sometimes inserted inside the structure of a formal letter. (Not all the “letters” have any of that structure. 1 John, for example, is simply a sermon.) As a result, the written text alone would never have been trusted or even correctly understood by its recipients as a mere text. Rather, the text would have been entrusted to a messenger, someone those receiving the text would either know or know about, and would trust that the person came from the one said to have sent the text. That person would then deliver the text verbally in the stead of the one who sent it. It was the person carrying the message who was trusted first, not the message itself. And it was that person who knew how to accurately read the text and who could hand over the correct reading (or tradition it) to those receiving it. Once you recognize that fact, you realize how important those delivering any text like those in our New Testament canon actually were and you realize that a text had no independent authority. Paul does us the favor of identifying many of those who carried the sermons he could not deliver in person to various places. And it is therefore much more significant than many modern people seem to realize that the sermon/treatise to the Roman Church by Paul was given to Deacon Phoebe to deliver.

And that brings us to the way knowledge is held and transmitted in oral cultures. We use the written word as our repository of knowledge and our means of transmitting that knowledge to others. That is not essentially true in an oral culture. People instead commit the important things to memory. I’ve noticed that a lot of modern people are amazed at that or think it’s impossible. But it’s really not. We have trained our minds to work within the context of a literate culture so we use our memories differently than those in an oral culture do. But in an oral culture, people routinely commit segments of their tradition to memory essentially word for word. That is the process of “traditioning” knowledge in an oral culture.

When we do not understand that facet, we miss the many places where our texts speak of “handing over to you what I received” or urging people to hold fast to what was “traditioned” to them either in person or in a text delivered by a trusted messenger. We also misplace our trust. Their trust in the ancient Church was never in a text. They didn’t even have texts in all instances. (Texts were hand written and very expensive.) Their trust was in those who gave them the tradition of our faith within the context of our shared communion. The trust was in the network of people who proclaimed our Lord and who, originally, had seen our risen Lord and been instructed by him. That is actually the basis behind the acceptance of certain texts as canonical. They were texts believed to have originated from those taught by Jesus after his death, those who traditioned the apostolic witness to the Church, and they were texts that were widely read in the Church. (The gnostic gospels and other texts, by comparison, were very narrowly read. Others, like the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas, lacked a definitive connection to a specific apostolic witness.)

When we miss this facet of an oral culture, we also miss the import of statements like that in the Didache, where before Baptism those being baptized “say all these things”. They were reciting the tradition to show they had properly received it and were prepared to join the community. If you read ancient texts from an oral culture through the lens of a literate culture, you will misunderstand the framework that supports the texts and thus often misunderstand the texts themselves.

It’s hard for me to say whether any text in our Holy Scriptures has a “plain meaning” or not. I certainly find both John’s Gospel and Paul’s sermon to the Romans deep theological treatises that are not at all easy to understand and have layer upon layer of meaning. But I do know that even those texts that might have had a “plain meaning” to those originally receiving it no longer have one for us. We are simply too far removed from the cultural context, language, and understanding to interpret them on our own. We need the interpretation of the communion of the life of the Church to understand our faith. We need to receive it first from the Church. Now, that does not mean we cannot critically examine what we have received. That does not mean the Spirit will not lead us into new insight (though I tend to distrust ideas I have that seem truly new). It doesn’t even mean that everything we receive has necessarily been preserved accurately. But it does mean that if I read the text, or I meditate on God, and I come up with an idea that is not only new, but which contradicts the overall tradition of our faith, I am deeply suspicious of it. And that’s the standard I tend to apply to any teaching or idea promulgated by another.

I never applied that same standard to other spiritualities I pursued. There have been other buddhas and other sutras in Buddhism since Gautama Buddha. Every guru in the myriad paths we today label Hinduism takes a different turn of interpretation or application of the vedic literature. But Christianity is rooted in a specific person who lived, taught, and made known to us a very specific God with a particular perspective on the nature of reality. Christianity is tied to history in a way no other faith I’ve explored has been. Either Jesus of Nazareth was all that God is and the events of his life happened essentially as we believe, or there is no reason to be Christian. So there is no room for a plurality of visions about God within our faith. There is one faith and this is the faith in Jesus as delivered by and through the apostolic witness. If something demonstrably contradicts that witness, I don’t understand why someone would choose to believe it. If I believed their witness were wrong in a substantive way, or that the Church had lost the tradition that had been handed over to it, I wouldn’t see any point in being Christian at all. Once lost, I see no way a tradition as specifically focused as Christianity and rooted in historical events and teachings could ever be recovered.


My Church History Perspective 3 – So what’s up with all the fighting over a book?

Posted: December 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I must confess that I’ve had a hard time determining which thread of my interactions with the Church and its history to tackle first. However, given the sort of Christianity within which I found myself, the first thread of strangeness I encountered had to do with the Bible, so I suppose it makes the most sense to start there. It has always been an area of strangeness for me, and it still holds surprises for me.

I landed in a part of the Christian spectrum that speaks often about the “inerrancy” or “infallibility” of the Holy Scriptures. Now, I’ll be honest and confess that even after fifteen years, I’m unsure exactly what people mean when they use those terms. Further, it strikes me that different groups and even different individuals often mean different things by those words. Sometimes the differences are minor, but other times they seem quite large to me.

I’ve never been able to grasp how the concept of “infallibility” can even apply to a text. Structures and powers can fail you. People can fail you. Faith and spirituality and religion can fail you. You can even fail yourself. But a text is just a text. It remains what it is. I suppose it’s true to say that it won’t “fail” or cease to be what it is. But I’ve never seen any great merit or virtue in that attribute. It is, after all, true of all texts.

In the same way, I’ve never grasped the point of trying to use the category of “error” with a spiritual writing of any sort. Error is the sort of category that best fits the sensible realm within which the scientific method operates. It’s the realm in which you can devise empirical (or as close to empirical as we can ever get) tests to show that an idea either corresponds to the nature of the physical realm or it does not. But I don’t see any way to apply that category to any spiritual writing. After all, they all purport to describe those aspects of reality that transcend the sensible and material portion we can directly test. So I have always tended to assume that any spiritual writing, allowing for the differences introduced by changing cultures and the supreme difficulty of translation, accurately portrays the perspective of reality as it intended to portray it and is thus “without error.

Yes, I would say that’s true of Christian scripture. But I would also say that is true about the Qur’an. I would say it’s true of the many different sutras within Buddhism. I would say it’s true of the Vedas. The question does not ever seem to me to be whether or not any of these texts contain “errors.” The question is which of the many very different perspectives accurately describes the nature of reality and what it means to be a human being? And that question far transcends the category of error.

Some would say these are really an expression of the Protestant idea of sola scriptura. I suppose in some sense they are a natural extension of that idea within the context of growing individualism that marked much of the modern history of Western Europe and the United States. It is not, however, what the Reformers themselves meant by the term. I actually had relatively little difficulty discerning and understanding what they meant. They were basically using the phrase or idea as a way to assert their own right to interpret Scripture over and against the interpretation of the Roman Catholic magisterium of their day. It’s obvious from their subsequent actions as they joined with the political powers of their respective states that they never intended that anyone and everyone was free to interpret Scripture as they saw fit. No, variant interpretations were as brutally repressed and opposed within the Reformation as within the Catholic states. The fury of war that swept Europe as a result left a solution born more of fatigue than any resolution of the question. It was decided that the people of any given state would be a part of the particular sect that held sway in that state and on that basis the constant wars would cease. And many of the states further resolved the problems with their internal religious dissidents by shipping them off to the “New World.” It’s little wonder we’re such a divisive and fractious lot here in the United States when it comes to faith.

No text, of course, has any “objective” meaning apart from interpretation. And the more that interpretation is divorced from the culture and language within which a text was written, the more subjective any independent or individual interpretation of the text will be. That is, for example, why the Qur’an cannot be translated. It is only the Qur’an in its original language. Any translation is instead a commentary on the Qur’an.

But Christianity has never been a religion based on a sacred text. We are not “People of the Book.” No, we claim to be the people of Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, the Living Lord. We are the people, the ecclesia, the Church of those who are in living communion with him and with each other. We are the ones who know, acknowledge and proclaim him Lord. This is why Christians from the earliest days of our faith have held that the truth about Jesus could be proclaimed in any and every language and remain Truth. This is a part of the message of Pentecost. Christian texts could therefore be translated into other languages and still, within the context of the interpretation and proclamation of the Church, remain Holy Scripture. The translation was seen to be as holy as the original, not merely a commentary on the original sacred text.

Now that is not to say that the Holy Scriptures are somehow unimportant. No, they are vitally important and are easily the greatest part of our Christian tradition. But they are only useful to the extent that they are read in light of Christ. They have no independent or separate usefulness or validity. They have no life of their own and they can give no life. Our life is hid with Christ in God as the Holy Scriptures themselves attest.

The Holy Scriptures are not somehow magically self-interpreting in a way that no other text can be. They were produced within the context of the tradition of the Church. They were canonized within that same tradition. And they have no valid interpretation apart from the history of the interpretation of the Church. Since Christianity is firmly centered around the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as a historical reality, indeed the very center of all historical time, and the community he formed, our Holy Scriptures have no independent or separate meaning or holiness.

Indeed, history works against such views of the Christian Scriptures. All of Christianity eventually settled on one canon for the New Testament and all traditions continue to use that canon. However, the Church selected those texts rather than others because they felt they were directly connected to an apostolic author and because these were the texts that were “read in Church” widely, and not in a specific geographic area alone. However, the various traditions today do not use the same Old Testament canon. And the Old Testament canon used by Protestants has the least historical credibility.

The Reformers selected the Jewish Masoretic canon for their Old Testament. However, the process that eventually produced that canon within rabbinical Judaism did not even begin until the latter part of the second century. When you see Justin Martyr, for example, accusing the Jews of altering the text of prophecies to reduce their connection to and fulfillment in Jesus, he is talking about those who were beginning the work that produced the Masoretic canon. Now, I have no idea how much merit those accusations had, but it does illustrate part of the problem with the Reformers’ decision.

What text did the early Church use? What text did the Gospels, Paul, and the other NT authors call “the scriptures”? Easy. The same text that was read in most of the first century synagogues, and virtually every synagogue outside the environs of Jerusalem in Judea — the Greek Septuagint. (Oddly, although the Reformers adopted the Masoretic text for their Old Testament canon, they used the Septuagint titles for those books.) That’s especially true once the Church began including gentiles. The only text the gentile converts could have read or heard and understood was the Septuagint. From what I can tell, the Reformers in part wanted to choose a different canon because they did not like what some of those books said. And, in part, it was simply a mistake. They correctly chose to look back to the Greek New Testament text to correct some errors in late medieval interpretations of the Latin Vulgate. They seem to have thought the Hebrew Masoretic text was the “original” of the Latin Vulgate Old Testament. It mostly wasn’t.

In the light of that history, the modern ideas about Scripture make even less sense. The Old Testament canon Protestants are using is not the same canon the Gospel authors, Paul, and others were calling “the Scriptures” when the texts of the New Testament canon were written. It’s not hugely different, of course, but there are still some significant differences.

In Christianity, unlike some religions, the text is a product of the faith. The faith is not a product of the text. The faith is a product of the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  I think some Christians today have that backwards.


For the Life of the World 18

Posted: November 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 18

Next I reflect on section 3 of the fourth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  first podcast on chapter four.

Baptism proper begins with the blessing of the water. To understand, however, the meaning of water here, one must stop thinking of it as an isolated “matter” of the sacrament. Or rather, one must realize that water is the “matter” of sacrament, because it stands for the whole of matter, which is, in baptism, the sign and presence of the world itself. In the biblical “mythological” worldview — which incidentally is more meaningful and philosophically consistent than the one offered by some “demythologizers” — water is the “prima materia,” the basic element of the world. It is the natural symbol of life, for there is no life without water, but it is also the symbol of destruction and death, and finally, it is the symbol of purification, for there is no cleanliness without it. In the Book of Genesis creation of life is presented as the liberation of the dry land from the water — as a victory of the Spirit of God over the waters — the chaos of nonexistence. In a way, then, creation is a transformation of water into life.

We have largely forgotten the significance of water in our culture today. We turn on a tap and it’s there. We buy bottles of it. We filter it and flavor it. But we rarely think about it. Yet it remains deeply important. When I was a young teen husband and father, there were times we had to choose what utility we would or wouldn’t have turned on. After a period of a couple of weeks once without water, I realized that it’s the most important and always had it turned on first. Even in our modern society, you can survive indefinitely, if not comfortably, without electricity or gas (at least in the south where it never gets so cold that you can’t just pile on clothes and blankets — or get heat from a woodstove or fireplace). Phone is a luxury, not a necessity at all. But water? With no running water, things quickly become a nightmare just trying to manage the most basic needs. If you’re ever in a position where you have to choose, choose water first. Always.

And we miss the significance of water in the Holy Scriptures as well. Creation is brought forth from the waters. Water is primal. But it is also mysterious and dangerous. It’s life-giving and destructive. In Daniel, the monsters come out of the sea. When you understand that and the danger and mystery of the sea, you understand how one description of the eschaton in Revelation says “there is no more sea.” Yet water is also the source of purity and ritual cleanliness. It figures prominently in Torah, foreshadowing of course (from a Christian perspective) the Spirit we receive in and through Christ. And who can forget the great Water stories in John’s Gospel?

Water is significant on so many levels and not least that it’s through water and the Spirit that we are born into the life of the new Man. So, of course the water is blessed. “To bless, as we already know, is to give thanks.” We give thanks for the matter through which we enter eucharistic life.

It is in this water that we now baptize — i.e., immerse — man, and this baptism is for him baptism “into Christ” (Rom. 6:3). For the faith in Christ that led this man to baptism is precisely the certitude that Christ is the only true “content” — meaning being and end — of all that exists, the fullness of Him who fills all things. In faith the whole world becomes the sacrament of His presence, the means of life in Him. And water, the image and presence of the world, is truly the image and presence of Christ.

We have lost the sense today in many ways that Christ fills all things, that in him we live and move and have our being. We have divided reality into the “natural” world and the “spiritual.” And that is almost a blasphemous dichotomy.

But “know you not that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ, were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3). Baptism — the gift of the “newness of life” — is announced as “the likeness of death.” Why? Because the new life which Christ gives to those who believe in Him shone forth from the grave. This world rejected Christ, refused to see in Him its own life and fulfillment. And since it has no other life but Christ, by rejecting and killing Christ the world condemned itself to death. … It is only when we give up freely, totally, unconditionally, the self-sufficiency of our life, when we put all its meaning in Christ, that the “newness of life” — which means a new possession of the world — is given to us. The world then truly becomes the sacrament of Christ’s presence, the growth of the Kingdom and of life eternal. For Christ, “being raised from the dead, dies no more; death has no dominion over him.” Baptism is thus the death of our selfishness and self-sufficiency, and it is the “likeness of Christ’s death” because Christ’s death is this unconditional self-surrender. And as Christ’s death “trampled down death” because in it the ultimate meaning and strength of life were revealed, so also does our dying with him unite us with the new “life in God.”

Read that several times. It is only by uniting with Christ’s death, his surrender to God, that we can be united to new life. The point is not primarily about forgiveness. Baptism runs much deeper than that. It’s about death and life. The newly baptized Christian is then clothed in a white garment, the garment of a king.

Man is again king of creation. The world is again his life, and not his death, for he knows what to do with it. He is restored to the joy and power of true human nature.

Christianity is, in part, a story of what it means to be truly human. If we do not grasp and live within that reality, we lose much of the power of the story.


For the Life of the World 17

Posted: November 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 17

We now move on to sections 1-2 of the fourth chapter, Of Water and the Spirit, of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  first podcast on chapter four.

As the title suggests, this chapter explores Holy Baptism. Fr. Schmemann’s opening sentence is again provocative.

All that we have said about time and its transformation and renewal has simply no meaning if there is no new man to perform the sacrament of time.

The title of the chapter obviously refers to John 3, one of the water stories in John, where he tells Nicodemus that a man must be born again, that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit” they cannot enter the kingdom of God. Just as John 6 is the theological chapter on the Eucharist, so John 3 is the theological chapter of Baptism. As Paul writes in Romans, in Baptism we participate in the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we are baptized into Christ.

For a long time the theological and spiritual interest in baptism was virtually disconnected from its cosmic significance, from the totality of man’s relation to the world. It was explained as man’s liberation from “original sin.” But both original sin and the liberation from it were given an extremely narrow and individual meaning. Baptism was understood as the means to assure the individual salvation of man’s soul. … Validity was the preoccupation — and not fullness, meaning, and joy. Because of the obsession of baptismal theology with juridical and not ontological terms, the real question — what is made valid? — often remained unanswered.

It’s odd in many ways. I’ve spent my time as a Christian within a group who place a great deal of emphasis on the correct form and timing of baptism, even rebaptizing those found to be remiss in either category. And yet, at the same time they hold baptism to be a mere symbol, effecting no ontological change, accomplishing nothing. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around that conundrum, for I never realized that it was a focus on validity almost to the exclusion of meaning.

But ecclesiology, unless it is given its true cosmic perspective (“for the life of the world”), unless it is understood as the Christian form of “cosmology,” is always ecclesiolatry, the Church considered as a “being in itself” and not the new relation of God, man and the world. And it is not “ecclesiology” that gives baptism its true meaning; it is rather in and through baptism that we find the first and fundamental meaning of the Church.

The Church is the renewed human being fulfilling his place in the world in and through the one faithful man or its nothing.

Fr. Schmemann goes on to describe how, through the water and oil (of chrismation), baptism is inextricably tied to the matter of creation. It is a part of the “new time” of the Church. We have moved away from that to the point that:

Baptism in particular has suffered an almost disastrous loss of meaning.

Preparation for baptism for adults (as opposed to infants) once took as long as three years. Even now it still begins in the Orthodox Church with an enrollment in the catechumenate, those who formally expressed a desire to follow Christ, to become Christian, so that they may begin the process of learning what that means, what reality looks like through the lens of Jesus. As one who was raised with a highly pluralistic spiritual formation, I can appreciate the need for that. It is not easy to shift the way you view reality, though I’ve probably done it more often than many.

The Orthodox baptismal liturgy itself begins with exorcisms and a renunciation of Satan. Given all that our Holy Scriptures say, that actually seems reasonable to me. I wonder why other Christian traditions have abandoned the practice? (It is, after all, found in the Didache as long-time readers might recall.)

According to some modern interpreters of Christianity, “demonology” belongs to an antiquated world view and cannot be taken seriously by the man who “uses electricity.”

I wonder if that’s a significant part of the explanation?

What we must affirm, what the Church has always affirmed, is that the use of electricity may be “demonic,” as in fact may be the use of anything and of life itself. That is, in other words, the experience of evil which we call demonic is not that of a mere absence of good, or, for that matter, of all sorts of existential alienations and anxieties. It is indeed the presence of dark and irrational power. Hatred is not merely absence of love. It is certainly more than that, and we recognize its presence as an almost physical burden that we feel in ourselves when we hate. In our world in which normal and civilized men “used electricity” to exterminate six million human beings, in this world in which right now some ten million people are in concentration camps because they failed to understand the “only way to universal happiness,” in this world the “demonic” reality is not a myth.

Ah, part of the heart of the postmodern critique expressed from within an ancient Christian perspective.

And whatever the value or the consistency of its presentation in theologies and doctrines, it is this reality that the Church has in mind, that it indeed faces when at the moment of baptism, through the hands of the priest, it lays hold upon a new human being who has just entered life, and who, according to statistics, has a great likelihood some day of entering a mental institution, a penitentiary, or at best, the maddening boredom of a universal suburbia.

Wow. The priest breathes “thrice” in the face of the catechumen, signs his brow and breast three times with the sign of the Cross, and says the following, which I think is worth reproducing here in full.

In Thy Name, O Lord God of Truth, and in the Name of Thine only-begotten Son, and of Thy Holy Spirit, I lay my hand upon Thy servant, who has been found worthy to flee unto Thy Holy Name, and to take refuge under the shelter of Thy wings … Remove far from him his former delusion, and fill him with the faith, hope and love which are in Thee; that he may know that Thou art the only true God. … Enable him to walk in all Thy commandments and to fulfill those things which are well pleasing unto Thee, for if a man do those things, he shall find life in them. Make him to rejoice in the works of his hands, and in all his generation that he may render praise unto Thee, may sing, worship and glorify Thy great and exalted Name.

I hope I am worthy to flee. That’s not how we often think of our embrace of Christ, is it? Maybe it should be. We flee and find refuge in Jesus. Next, the catechumen (or  godparent on behalf of an infant) formally and liturgically renounces Satan, even spitting upon him. (That’s also in the Didache, I believe.)

The first act of the Christian life is a renunciation, a challenge. No one can be Christ’s until he has, first, faced evil, and then become ready to fight it. How far is this spirit from the way in which we often proclaim, or to use a more modern term, “sell” Christianity today? … How could we then speak of “fight” when the very set-up of our churches must, by definition, convey the idea of softness, comfort, peace? … One does not see very well where and how “fight” would fit into the weekly bulletin of a suburban parish, among all kinds of counseling sessions, bake sales, and “young adult” get-togethers.

When I read the above, I immediately thought of a friend of mine who loves the movie, Fight Club. I have a feeling he might understand those words even better than I do.

“Dost thou unite thyself unto Christ?” says the priest, when he has turned — has converted — the catechumen to the east.

In other words, face west, be exorcised, renounce and spit on Satan, and then be turned by the priest from west to east — a literal change of direction to match the repentance or turning you have proclaimed you are making.  I deeply appreciate the depth of meaning. It means more when you do something with your mind, words, and body. Much more than with merely one alone.

Then comes the confession of faith, the confession by the catechumen of the faith of the Church, of his acceptance of this faith and obedience to it. And again it is difficult to convince a modern Christian that to be the life of the world, the Church must not “keep smiling” at the world, putting the “All Welcome” signs on the churches, and adjusting its language to that of the last best seller. The beginning of the Christian life — of the life in the Church — is humility, obedience, and discipline.

Christian life is only appealing if it does, in fact, describe the true nature of reality. If Jesus was not the true and faithful man and only-begotten of the Father, if God is not good and loves mankind, if we cannot be restored to eucharistic humanity, then what’s the point? Why be Christian?

The final act of preparation for baptism again involves the body.

“Bow down also before Him.” And the Catechumen answers, “I bow down before the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

And, of course, you actually bow. How many of us truly bow down before the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?


Sola Scriptura 5 – Yanking On Those Bootstraps

Posted: August 21st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Sola Scriptura | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Yesterday I briefly touched on the complex manner in which the canon of Holy Scripture we often call the Bible developed over time within and as part of the tradition of the church. Scripture is not something which somehow stands apart or separate from the church and its tradition. Rather it is a product of the church and one of the foremost repositories of its tradition. This strange role in which many seem to place Scripture, as somehow in opposition to tradition and as somehow separate from and over the church, is an exceedingly distorted and unhistorical place. In some ways it really is a lot more similar to what Islam would say of Qur’an, which is even described at times as somehow with Allah from the beginning and engaged in the process of creation.

Moreover, as a philosophical idea, it has the proverbial problem of trying to tug itself up by its own bootstraps. A central assertion of sola scriptura in its various forms to the extent that I understand them is that every central or essential belief or practice of the Church must be found in the Bible. However, the concept of sola scriptura itself cannot be found anywhere in Scripture. Further, while there isn’t much related to that particular philosophical idea in the New Testament (since it’s not an idea that the first century church would have encountered in a predominantly oral culture), the things that are most closely related actually contradict the idea of sola scriptura. For instance, in 1 Timothy 3:15, it’s not Scripture that is the pillar and ground of truth, but the church. And in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, Paul exhorts the church to “..stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” The church, the pillar and ground of truth, is urged to stand and hold to the oral and written traditions it has been given. There are a few other places with somewhat related ideas, but they all express that same general theme.

And that, of course, begs the question. If sola scriptura is not itself found in Scripture, and it’s not found in the historical life and practice of the ancient church, and it’s not part of the tradition of the church anywhere until it was invented in the 16th century, why believe it?