Archive for May 15th, 2007

Ships and Saints and All the Company of Heaven

May 15, 2007


I offered a quote from Charles Taylor in a previous posting – as a small reminder I offer it again.

One of the central points common to all Reformers was their rejection of mediation. The mediaeval church as they understood it, a corporate body in which some, more dedicated, members could win merit and salvation for others who were less so, was anathema to them. There could be no such thing as more devoted or less devoted Christians: the personal commitment must be total or it was worthless…. for Protestantism there can be no passengers. This is because there is no ship in the Catholic sense, no common movement carrying humans to salvation. Each believer rows his or her own boat.       From Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity

My thoughts in my earlier post were focused on the corporate character of our existence – we are persons who partake of a common substance – we are consubstantial with one another. “If one member suffers, then all the members suffer,” as St. Paul says.

I add a further thought in this post – that of the role of the saints – for it was particularly the saints that the Reformers had in their crosshairs – with the battlecry, “There is but one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus!”

It is certainly the case that in Holy Baptism we are not asked, “Do you unite yourself with the Theotokos and all the Saints?” but rather, “Do you unite yourself to Christ.” For union with Christ is the very definition of salvation. Everything else flows from that union.

But being united to Christ also means that we are united to the Theotokos and all the Saints – because they are in Christ. You cannot have a Christ apart from them because there is no such Christ. St. Paul (whom I am sure knew the implications of his statements) said: 

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” (1 Corinthians 12:21)

I recall reading this very carefully as long as 35 years ago, long before my conversion to Orthodoxy, and being struck that St. Paul, in using the analogy of the body as an image of the Church, had just said that the “head” cannot say “I have no need of you,” knowing full well that it is Christ who is the head of the body. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (12:12).

This is the Church revealed in its true character. As the Church has defended the title Theotokos for the Mother of God, we must always be mindful that there is no incarnate Christ apart from her. We are not merely traveling together in a common ship – we are living together in a common life – which life is Christ.

I began to be aware of the saints as a young Anglican. The stained glass windows bore witness to their presence, much in the same way that icons do in an Orthodox Church. But in Orthodoxy the role is clearer and the presence always there. Taylor noted that the Reformers wanted no one other than Christ to gain salvation for us by their merits. Of course, this kind of language is foreign to Orthodoxy in the first place. But the corporate character of our salvation is not in the least foreign to Orthodoxy. We are saved together. Not first a hand, then a toe, later an arm or leg – the whole body works together as we grow into the head – into the fullness of the stature of Christ.

I frequently think that we contemplate our salvation in the commercial terms of our modern culture. It’s not that we think that we are “buying” our salvation – but we do see ourselves as great “choosers.” We choose to sin or not to sin and with our choices we are choosing Christ. But, of course, he first chose me. And the choices of so many around me mean that when I have to make a choice I am not standing alone. Were I to show up week after week at Church and no one else were there (what an odd thought!), doubtless something in me would begin to waver, as it would in all of us.

I have served in start-up missions, where fingers and toes are sufficient to count the congregation. You know when someone is not there and their absence is felt like an ache. The same ache is present with me as I pray over the names of each member of our congregation in preparing the bread and the wine on Sundays, particularly if it is the name of someone “missing”. In some manner I am diminished in their absence – we are all diminished.

I give God thanks for the untiring faithfulness of so many – who like icons take up their place within the worshipping Church. They stand as witnesses to Christ, but also as those who pray for me, as I pray for them, as all of us are uplifted in the risen Christ. And this is salvation. I know nothing of merits or the like – but I know prayer and that through your prayers and that of all our holy fathers and mothers we will find the grace necessary to live as a Church – a Ship bearing Saints and All the Company of Heaven.

Falwell’s Death – the Passing of an Era?

May 15, 2007


When I was fresh out of seminary, the year was 1980, an election year. I was a newly ordained Episcopal Deacon, serving in a parish with a priest who told me on the first day, “I do not pray.” That same summer I began to get mailings from something called the “Moral Majority.” Those of you who are younger than I will not remember a time when American politics were less polarized – but 1980 is the pivotal year, when, primarily driven by the politics of the abortion debate, politics took on the character of a culture war.

I kept getting inundated with mail. The newly minted “Rev.” on the front of my name put me on mailing lists for groups I’d never heard of. I have to confess that at the time abortion was not a large issue in my voting conscience, nor if you listen to the debates of politicians, was it very large for them either.

In the years since then, much water has gone under the bridge. The polarizations on abortion have grown wider, though, frequently voting one way or another has made little difference other than the makeup of the supreme court (and not much there – Reagan nominated some of the more liberal members of today’s court).

But politics came rushing into religion (or was it the other way around) with a bang. Frequently this has served to sharpen issues (as did the debates surrounding abolition in the 19th century) but has also served to politicize Christianity.

In the years since 1980, I have served in parishes that included one Democrat Governor of South Carolina (later Secretary of Education under Clinton), one Republican Governor of South Carolina (earlier a member of the House of Representatives and now a victim of Alzheimers), their surrounding families and a host of local politicians.

I do not preach politics – I try to preach the gospel. And though the gospel will sometimes have political ramifications, often those ramifications are for the short run, mostly seeking any base of support that will put them over the top.

I believe that the existence of the Church is profoundly political (I did study under Stanley Hauerwas, afterall), but not political in a way that any party should want to endorse. I believe that the Kingdom of God is real and should have such real consequences in our lives that Caesars (under whatever form of government) should tremble before the King of Kings and the Kingdom that is not of this world.

Shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union, on one of the days in which the Politburo stood atop Lenin’s Tomb to watch the parade of Soviet military might pass by, a priest came bursting through the crowd with a handcross in his hand. He shouted, “Michail Sergeivich! Christos Voskrese!” And he was not shot or hampered in any way. It was the signal of a change in that regeme.

There are still plenty of politics in America’s religion, and plenty of religion in America’s politics. There is far too little proclamation to George W. and anyone else in power, “Christ is risen!” Or a recognition by our culture of the significance of the statement.

But Christ is risen, the significance does not depend on anyone’s recognition. Christ is risen and everything else has passed into shadow beneath the power of the Cross. There is a Quaker song that I enjoy that may have more to say to the politics of being a Christian than many things I have heard:

My life goes on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear it’s music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

While though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
And though the darkness ’round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble in their fear
And hear their death knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near
How can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile
Our thoughts to them are winging,
When friends by shame are undefiled
How can I keep from singing?

The Ship of Salvation

May 15, 2007


One of the central points common to all Reformers was their rejection of mediation. The mediaeval church as they understood it, a corporate body in which some, more dedicated, members could win merit and salvation for others who were less so, was anathema to them. There could be no such thing as more devoted or less devoted Christians: the personal commitment must be total or it was worthless…. for Protestantism there can be no passengers. This is because there is no ship in the Catholic sense, no common movement carrying humans to salvation. Each believer rows his or her own boat.

Charles Taylor Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Harvard, 1989)

I first read Taylor’s magisterial book on the Making of the Modern Identity when I was working on my thesis at Duke. I am not generally a reader of philosophy – but I have long been interested in the history of ideas. Ideas come and go. Some rise to the top and become cultural metaphors – ideas that everyone takes for granted even though no one can remember when they first thought the idea. Taylor’s examination of the history of the concept of the self – particularly in Western Civilization is a study in an area important for Christians. For central to the Christian faith is the existence of the Church.

I can say this now, as an Orthodox Christian, though such an idea would not have been shared by the Protestants among whom I grew up. Church was a fellowship – hopefully a beneficial fellowship – but salvation was strictly a private matter – between the individual and God.

There was great suspicion of sacramental acts, such as communion or Baptism. Any idea that an action that involved anyone other than God and the self could be important to one’s salvation was to be rejected. The most that could be said was that “someone led me to Christ.” But even that statement could come under criticism.

Taylor’s tracking of the history of this idea is useful at least in revealing that Christians have not always thought this way. Reading the New Testament alone should have told us. There, what we encounter is the Church, “the Bride of Christ,” “the many-membered body.” There we learn that “if one suffers all suffer” (1 Corinthians 12:12).

Such imagery abounds throughout the New Testament epistles. It is clear that the Church does not exist simply for the well-being of its members, but is instead how the members exist in the first place. This is perhaps the steepest “learning curve” in all of Christianity. Our existence is one that is created in the image of God and Baptism into the Body of Christ is meant to restore that image. In particular it restores our image as no longer living life as though it were ours alone, but rather that the life of the Church is mine, and though I am a person who participates in that life, I cannot be considered utterly apart from that life.

There is a German proverb: Ein Mensch is kein Mensch – “One man is no man.” The existence we are given in the Church is not just as passengers on the same ship – we become the ship itself.  And it is as simple as love itself. “God is love,” perhaps the single most revelatory statement in all of Scripture. But it also is revelatory of those who are created in His image. This “ship” upon which we sail the journey of salvation exists only because its members have love for one another.

If love fails (to put things simply) the ship begins to sink. Thus the life of forgiveness and prayer become utterly, and existentially necessary and not merely part of a list of nice things to do.

The Liturgy itself makes this quite clear to us: “Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit: the Trinity, one in essence, and undivided.” This is the only manner in which the faith that saves us can be confessed. We may say the Creed in other states of being, but we do not properly confess it until we confess it with one mind.

Even that simple question at Baptism (“Do you unite yourself to Christ?”) is clearly not a question about “have you got your doctrine straight?” but a question of the manner or mode of our existence. Are you now willing to live in such a way that your life is not your own?

Interestingly, in Orthodox weddings, we do not ask many questions. There is no taking of vows. This absence of vows can be traced back through a study of the development of the marriage rite. You can see that the West tended to view marriage more and more as a contract between man and woman, blessed by the Church. In an Orthodox wedding, we ascertain that the man and the woman are there of their own free will and that they are not “promised to another.” But then the Church simply blesses them to be what they were always created to be. They are already one in Christ (we cannot marry a non-Christian) and the prayers of marriage cannot make them to be more one than they already are. But there is a new mode of this oneness – they will now live a life of faithfulness and mutual submission for the procreation of children. It is this oneness of life that requires a Bishop’s economia if the marriage is to be with a non-Orthodox Christian. For there is already, at its beginning, a note of disunity that can endanger the ship in which they sail. Thus they should take greater caution.

But we should not trouble one another, but pray for one another. Many, especially those who have converted to the faith, have not been able to arrive under the most ideal of conditions. The previous articles about conversion amid strife in the family elicited a very heart-felt response from many. Such situations should elicit the prayers of others and the kindness of the whole Church. The last thing any marriage needs to be is a couple alone in a rowboat.

Instead the cry comes to us: “Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in essence and undivided!”