Archive for May 17th, 2007

How Much Is Too Little? How Much Is Enough?

May 17, 2007

christsascension.jpg

One of the most pervasive rules in Christian believing is the Latin phrase, “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi,” usually rendered, “The Law of Praying is the Law of Believing.” It is a simple way of saying both that we believe what we pray (praying will inevitably bring about a conformity in believing), and that if something is to be preserved it must become part of the liturgical life. Time and history have largely born this out.

It has been a rule that concerns people who write or translate liturgies – and it has been a rule for those who helplessly watch as others write and translate liturgies. For it is simply the case, if the people do not pray it, in time they will cease to believe it.

This principle is linked in my mind to the question of what is needed in theology. What do we need to believe to actually confess the Christian faith? Are there elements, which if neglected, would bring about a change in the faith – possibly even a fatal change?

I believe the answer to this last question is quite clear: it is possible to leave certain elements aside with the result that what is left is no longer Christianity, however it may be disguised.

When I was studying systematic theology (I know, Orthodox Theology is rarely accused of being systematic), it was well understood that if something was not an integral part of the faith, it would soon enough become not a part of the faith. Doctrinal belief is like muscles in our body – if left unused, it atrophies.

I am convinced that for an increasing number of Christians, an increasing number of essential elements are no longer essential to what they believe – the result being the creation of increasingly new belief systems. These may still be described as Christianity, because they are religions centered around the figure of Jesus Christ, but are, in fact,  new belief systems.

I began to be convinced of this as I read the systematic theologies of others. The same conclusions can be reached by anecdotal evidence – speaking with various believers about what they think is important.

This morning, for instance, I celebrated the Divine Liturgy for the Feast of the Ascension of Christ (40 days after Easter). I was also aware that probably two, possibly three other Churches in my town were doing something similar. There is a Catholic Church and I’m sure there was at least one mass, if not more. There is an Episcopal Church, and it is possible, though not not necessarily the case, that there was a liturgy today or tonight. I would also think it possible that the feast was kept by one or two of our Lutheran congregations. What I have mentioned is indeed a minority in our Southern town. For most Christians, the Ascension of Christ will never be mentioned to them in a way that would make them think that the event was significant.

We had a number of conversations within my congregation (which is largely convert) back at the end of Holy Week and during the early parts of Pascha. Most of them admitted that it was not until they became Orthodox that they even realized that Christ descended to the dead when he died on the Cross. Some even told stories of having been in Bible studies when young, and, when reading the verses regarding Christ’s descent to the dead, were told, “We don’t know what these verses mean.” Needless to say in the churches these people had first acquired the Christian faith, it made no difference that Christ had descended into Hades.

I believe that there is a truncated version of Christianity that is moving towards a dominant position with our religion. It is simply the atonement – largely taught in the language of penal substitution, as the only important dogma of the faith. Thus to believe that “Christ died for our sins,” means anywhere and everywhere that he paid a price that we could not pray and that by trusting in Him we will be spared the punishments of Hell.

Everything else, if mentioned at all, is simply a corollary to that single thought. Thus (and I know this is extreme) some years back I had an argument with an Episcopal priest friend who said, “I would be much more comfortable with the doctrine of the resurrection if we could find the bones of Jesus.” He certainly believed that Christ had paid the price of his sins, and that through faith in Christ he would be saved. But the bodily resurrection of Jesus was not important to that theology and he found its primitive, literal quality to be a bit of a bother.

I warned you – it was an extreme case. Many if not most Christians believe that Christ was raised from the dead – but they increasingly do not know why, other than as a reassurance to us that we will be raised as well (Lazarus’ resurrection could have done as much). Indeed the doctrine of the resurrection of the body is troublesome for many Christians who would rather prefer to believe in “Life after death, or eternal life.”

This same principle can also be applied to the sacraments of the Church. Many are the young couples who would say, “I don’t need a piece of paper declaring me to be married.” Joni Mitchell sang in her sweet warble, “We don’t need no piece of paper from the City Hall/ keeping us tied and true/my old man/ keeping away my blues …” The rate of illegitimacy for children in the black community exceeds 50% and draws closer to that mark in the white community. And this, of course, is only thinking about the sacrament of marriage.

The sacraments of the Holy Eucharist and Holy Baptism may soon be on the way out for many. Many Churches long ago reduced them to something done at a service other than Sunday morning, and then only four times a year. It is not a sacrament that seems integral to the story of salvation as that Church teaches. Never mind the fact that Christ said, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you.”

I spoke this week to someone who was joining one of the new “Anglican” Churches, I believe the one that is under an African Primate. I asked him about their communion teaching. “Do they practice open communion?” The answer was yes, with the addition that there was some sort of statement of what the Church believed and asked that only those who ascribed to that statement should receive communion. This, of course, is far more than is required in most Christian Churches today, despite the fact that closed communion was the normative practice of virtually every denomination of Christians until the late 1960’s.

Private Confession, long ago jettisoned by most Protestants, has become fairly rare for many within the Catholic Church. Lent as a season of fasting has atrophied beyond recognition.

Actually writing or summarizing the teaching of the Church in which all of the major events in the story of our salvation are given their proper weight is a minimal requirement if one is actually to be or become an Orthodox Christian. What is it about the Descent into Hades that is necessary to our salvation? What is it about the Resurrection that is essential to our salvation? What does the Ascension have to do with being saved (and it does)? What does the second and glorious coming of Christ have to do with our salvation? What does being born of a Virgin have to do with Christ’s saving of mankind?

In Orthodox understanding, all of these things are integral parts of Christ becoming what we are in order to make us what He is. The metaphor of the substitutionary atonement, though not unknown, is simply too thin and weak to bear the full weight of the story of our salvation. Christ became fully human, that we might have a share in His divinity. It was into the depths of our humanity that He descended when He entered the Virgin’s womb, having done no damage to the freedom that belongs to mankind. It was into the depths of our damnation that He descended, when, dying on the Cross, He entered Hades and loosed the bonds of the captives. Now there is no where we may go that He has not filled with Himself. It was still in glorified union with our humanity that He rose from the grave, having trampled down death by death. It is our humanity that he bore (“like a yoke” we sang last night) into the very heavens themselves and in that union sat our humanity down at the right hand of the Father.

These actions, all primary statements in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, not only provide a summary of the events in the life of Christ – they are the utterly essential elements of our salvation. As the Creed states: “…who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven…”

All that Christ did is and should be an integral part of any proper account of Christian salvation. They should thus be integral parts of the worship and prayer life of the Church. Where they have been relegated to some lesser status – there you may be sure that some essential part of our faith has been laid aside and remains in danger of ceasing to be part of the Christian faith – except for the fact that it will remain a part of Scripture.

Two years ago this was demonstrated in an embarrassing manner when a large number of Christian Churches in America closed their doors for Sunday worship in order to steer clear of conflict with the “family holiday” of Christmas.

There is no lowest common denominator of Christianity. There is no modest form of the faith around which we may gather. There is only the “faith, once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Anything less is either no longer Christian, or building a foundation for something that in time will not be Christian.

How much is too little? How much is enough? I consider that if Christ thought it necessary to do certain things and to give us certain things, it was because they were needed for the fullness of our salvation.

How much is too little – anything less than everything.

How much is enough – only everything.