Posts Tagged ‘Orthodox Christianity’

The Presence in the Absence

April 19, 2012

Since I’ve started the topic of mystical knowledge of God, I thought to repost this from 2010. I was reminded of it by a wonderful reflection by Jan Bear on OCN  – an enjoyable read.

There is a strange aspect to the presence of God in the world around us. That aspect is His apparent absence. I read with fascination (because I am no philosopher, much less a scientist) the discussions surrounding “intelligent design” and the like. I gather that everybody agrees that the universe is just marvelous and wonderfully put together (I can’t think of a better universe). But then begins the parting of ways as one sees God everywhere and another sees Him nowhere. Reason surely need not deny Him, though reason does not seem forced to acknowledge Him. I have spent most of my life around these arguments – one place or another. I can stand in either place and see both presence and absence.

But as the years have gone by, I have come to see something I never saw before – the Presence within the Absence. I don’t mean to sound too mystical here – only that I see in the hiddenness of God a revelation of His love. The Creator of us all draws us towards Himself and knowledge of Him, with hints and intimations, with seen and yet unseen signs.

The strange deniability that He leaves us is the space in which love is born. Love cannot be forced, cannot be demanded. It must come as gift, born of a willingness to give. To give God trust that what I see is indeed evidence of the wisdom in which He made all things is also a space – one which God fills with Himself and the echo, the Yes, that the universe shouts back to us.

It is where I grow weary of the arguments – not because they need not be made – but because it becomes hard to hear the silence in the noise of our own voices – a silence that invites us to hear the sound of the voice of God that rumbles all around us.

There’s more to say – but not now.

To Know What You Cannot Know

April 18, 2012

You cannot know God – but you have to know Him to know that.
– Fr. Thomas Hopko

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This small quote from Fr. Thomas has stayed with me since I first heard it. It says so much by saying so little.

I find two groups of people increasingly common in my conversations – those who profess to not know God (agnostics) – and those who struggle greatly with what they have been told about the Christian God. The largest group within my conversations are those who feel very secure in their knowledge of God but who believe a lot of strange things that they cannot possibly know. I feel a calling to help people know a lot less so they can know anything at all.

Orthodox theology is often described as “mystical.” The term does not mean “weird” or “esoteric.” Instead it refers to a union of thought and experience and a grounding in an approach to knowledge rooted in not-knowing. This form of theology is also described as “apophatic,” that “which cannot be spoken.”

True theology is inherently mystical (in this sense) because it is concerned with the God-Who-Cannot-Be-Known. God is above, beyond, outside the realm of human knowing. He is not an object among objects so that He may be studied. Some of the Church Fathers referred to God as having hyperousia – an existence beyond existence. St. Gregory the Theologian famously said, “Inasmuch as God exists, we do not exist. Inasmuch as we exist, God does not exist.”

If such statements sound confusing or even like nonsense – they are supposed to. For we are speaking about God, who cannot be known. What can language do?

But theology does exist, even if it is mystical and apophatic. There is such a thing as knowledge of God, though He is beyond knowing. Such knowledge is not gained by thinking (or not primarily by thinking). Understanding how such knowledge is gained is key to an authentic spiritual life.

The classical formula of purification, illumination and deification is something of a shorthand for this authentic life, but too easily degenerates into mere formula. Purification refers both to the realization that we do not know (thus purifying us from delusions) and to the ascetical disciplines of fasting, prayer, repentance, almsgiving, vigils, etc. (battling with the disordered passions – thoughts and emotions). Illumination comes both as pure gift and as the fruit of the spiritual life and its disciplines.

In the realm of formal theology, we are often deluded by our ability to learn, discuss, dissect and compare intellectual systems. The academic world describes this as “theology,” but it qualifies as such only because of its topic. True theology is the life in pursuit of true knowledge of God.

And this brings us back to where we started – true knowledge of what we cannot know. This is the great witness of the Christian faith – that the God who cannot be known – makes Himself known in and through the God/Man, Jesus Christ. But even here, it is possible to substitute knowledge of a purely intellectual nature for true knowledge.

I recently thought of an example. Those who have learned a foreign language describe the process of learning. It involves memorization, practice, failure, embarrassment, etc. At some point, if someone becomes truly proficient, the process of thinking about the foreign language ceases, and simply speaking begins. So long as we are translating in our heads, we do not yet know the new language. But then if we ask someone who has become fluent in a foreign language how they know the new language, it would escape definition. But they certainly know it. The same question could be asked of our native languages: how do we know them?

I am not suggesting that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of a language are the same thing – but one is more like the other than either is like thinking. Indeed, thinking is the evidence of not knowing.

The language of belief, rooted to a large degree in the debates of the last five or six centuries in the West, becomes extremely misleading in all of this. When someone tells me they do not believe in God, I understand what they mean, but they have no idea what I mean when I say that I do believe in God. And they are certainly taken aback if I say that I know God. The same is true (to a degree) of many Christians who say they believe in God. Often they are referring to the sort of belief that St. James mocks in his epistle: “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!” (2:19). And if the discussion moves to questions of debating various theological points – it is quite likely that true belief and knowledge will never be found.

Orthodoxy has both dogma and canons. These are not set forth as debating points but as markers within the life of faith, set by those who know the path. They guide us towards true knowledge – though they are not the knowledge themselves. Christ Himself is the content of faith and the true content of dogma and canon. The life of prayer and worship is communion with the true and living God, though we may often feel like strangers overhearing a conversation between others. Like the acquisition of a new language, worship slowly becomes something about which we need not think, but something in which we’ve become fluent. So it is with the knowledge of God.

But you have to know Him to know that.

Christos Voskrese! Christ is Risen!

April 14, 2012

Pascha has begun (though about 12 hours away here in the Eastern United States). But if you listen carefully, you can begin to hear the bells sounding from the East. Christ is risen!

This delightful youtube video is a favorite of mine. One of our readers and occasional commenter,  Dejan, (without a doubt my favorite Serb) provided the English translation.  The words are from a poem by St. Nikolai Velimirovich who served for a time as the Rector of St. Tikhon’s Seminary – truly one of the great Serbian saints of the modern era.

Translation:

People rejoice, nations hear:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Stars dance, mountains sing:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Forests murmur, winds hum:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Seas bow*, animals roar:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Bees swarm, and the birds sing:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!

Angels stand, triple the song:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Sky humble yourself, and elevate the earth:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Bells chime, and tell to all:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Glory to You God, everything is possible to You,
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!

Preaching to the Dead

April 13, 2012
The Orthodox mark Holy Saturday (the day before Christ’s Resurrection) as the day in which He descends to the dead and preaches to the departed spirits (1 Peter 3:18-19). There is a long history of wonderful sermons on this topic.
St. Cyril of Alexandria (early 5th century) says: “For having destroyed hell and opened the impassable gates for the departed spirits, Christ left the devil there abandoned and lonely” (7th Paschal Homily 2, PG 77, 552 A).
St. Ephipanius of Cyprus offers these thoughts on the day:
Something strange is happening … there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying, “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”
I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendents I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.For your sake I, your God, become your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I recieved in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.

All of which is better than standing there abandoned and lonely.

The Intuition of Narnia

April 2, 2012

A child, in a game of hide-and-seek, enters a large wardrobe. However, the wardrobe is more than furniture – it is a doorway into another world. That entrance is the introduction of the world of Narnia.

C.S. Lewis’ children stories, beloved by one generation, are block-buster movies in today’s empire of Disney. In that wonderland of cinema, the books are overwhelmed in images of battling dwarves and unicorns. Echoes of Tolkien (and the grand cinematography of LOTR movies haunt Narnia). But Narnia is something very different from Middle Earth, though Lewis and Tolkien were extremely close friends. Unlike Middle Earth, Narnia has a direct connection with the world we inhabit. Its mythology echoes our own (necessarily, Lewis would have said). Middle Earth has echoes of our world, but it stands on it own – complete with the deep mythos of the Simarillion.

Every volume of Lewis’ Narnia has, at its heart, an allegory of the Christian life. Whether it be Creation in the Magicians Nephew or Golgotha and the Resurrection in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, every volume has something to say about the Christian life. Tolkien actually criticized Lewis for this very thing. Both were devout Christians, but Tolkien saw himself as a writer of myth, a very deep vocation that cannot be understood apart from reading a great deal about the Inklings and the work of Owen Barfield (another friend) in particular. It is an area of Tolkien neglected by all but a few (I wrote my senior thesis in seminary on Barfield).

Lewis ignored Tolkien’s critique and proceeded to do what he did best – defend and explain the gospel of Christ. Narnia is a very deep, imaginative apologetic for the gospel of Jesus Christ and nothing less. If someone is not converted to the faith by reading it, then they are certainly not made into an enemy of the gospel. If you like Narnia, then you should at least wish the gospel of Christ were true.

In The Last Battle, Professor Digory Kirke exclaims, “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!” I have seen a number of fairly silly speculations about the Professor’s meaning, though it is quite clear in the greater body of Lewis’ work – and is a key to the Narnian tales. It is the relationship between worlds – an allegory which is yet real. The stories of Narnia could have stood on their own as pure modern allegory (as stories within themselves that only bear resemblance to the gospel). However, Lewis’ genius and Christian belief, are made far more clear in the literary device of connected worlds. This world has a relationship to another world – and there are doors and windows between them.

Digory, as a young lad, visits Narnia at the time of its creation. The world’s creator, Aslan, sends Digory on a journey to find an apple. The apple was planted and grew into a magical tree, The Tree of Protection, that kept the evil Witch from attacking Narnia for some centuries.

Digory took a piece of fruit from the tree back to Earth and gave it to his ill and bedridden mother to eat, healing her of her illness. When the fruit was eaten to its core, Digory took the core and planted it in his yard. The tree grew just as well as its sister tree in Narnia, and seemed to have a link to the other tree – it sometimes moved when there was no wind…at least not in London. The tree was eventually blown down and its wood was used to build a wonderful Wardrobe. (From WikiNarnia).

As an old man, it is Professor Digory who first helps the Pevensie children in their questions regarding a magical world and their sister Lucy’s tales of a magical Wardrobe.

“You mean there really could be other worlds all over the place?” Peter asks.

The Professor responds, “But nothing is more probable! Oh! I wonder what they do teach them at these schools!”

In the same conversation the Professor uses Lewis’ classic defense of the gospel – only this time with regard to the child Lucy’s story of a magical world. Professor Digory is the voice of C.S. Lewis.

And here the intuition of Narnia connects with the experience of the Christian convert, Lewis. He was a great student of the classics and a master of the medieval period. In his early years at Oxford (during which he was an atheist), Lewis became friends with J.R.R. Tolkien, a devout Catholic, and engaged in long conversations about the Christian faith. Much of that conversation turned on the topic of myth. Lewis had a love of myth, of the ancient stories. They stirred a place within him that had an element of longing. Tolkien’s point was that all these myths – the repeated tales of the dying and rising god – were actually fulfilled in the historical reality of Christ. Lewis’ conversion to the faith was expressed precisely in terms of those myths:

“Rum thing. It all seems to have happened once.”

As Lewis himself found Christianity to be the fulfillment of humanity’s deepest, even mythic longings, so, too he offered the gospel in the same manner. His logical books, Mere Christianity, the Problem of Pain, Miracles, are all interesting reads – but it is his fiction where his voice finds its fullness. In that fiction there is always a mythic or allegorical connection between worlds. In the Perelandra Trilogy, the myth bursts onto the scene complete with science fiction and Merlin himself, in a mix of Authurian Christianity that could only be written by an Englishman. The Great Divorce takes a trip to heaven (and hell) in a book whose imagery Lewis warns his readers not to take literally – though its richness cannot help but empower the theological imagination of everyone who reads it.

Lewis is a Christian for whom Christianity has not lost its mythic power. The weakness of literalism is its acute limitation to itself. Lewis would be the first to say, “Yes. Christ’s death and resurrection are historical events.” But he would have hurried to add that their historical character does not rob them of their mythic character – indeed the very fact that they are real inherently means that they are mythic – for the true character of reality lies in its mythic power.

Lewis and Tolkien agreed that God is the great maker of myths. God tells the story of the world and the story is the world itself. We are created with an ear for story and we long to hear it. Tolkien once said, “If God is mythopoetic, then we must become mythopathic.” If God is a teller of stories, then we must become able to hear those stories. Both Tolkien and Lewis, specifically as Christians, become the greatest story-tellers of the 20th century.

And this brings me back to the heart of my own thoughts. The mythic character of reality is another way to speak of a one-storey universe. In Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s terms, the world is sacrament – pointing to and participating in something beyond itself. It is possible to simply speak on the most literal level – to speak of events (such as Christ’s crucifixion) – and relate them to ideas (such as atonement) which inhabit the world of the mind. But such literalism renders the greatest event in the universe into the merest incident of which our later doctrine is the greater reality. The intuition of Lewis is the same as the intuition and teaching of the fathers. The Cross is both event in history and also the truest event of the Great Myth. Its power is such that it draws other things to itself. It is the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, Isaac on Mt. Moriah, the staff of Moses with the snake, the outstretched arms of Moses at the battle with the Amalekites, the Tree that Moses cast into the bitter water, the Footstool of God. At the Feast of the Holy Cross the Church declares: “Let all the trees of the wood, planted from the beginning of time, rejoice; for their nature hath been sanctified by the stretching of Christ on the Tree” (Magnification of the Feast).

The intuition of Narnia (it’s all there in Plato) is that the world is sacrament and icon, doorway and ladder. The angels of God are constantly ascending and descending. The saints surround us as a great cloud of witnesses. Heaven and earth are full of the glory of God and secular materialism is a bankrupt, empty philosophy that robs the world of wonder. Enter the Church and the icons are windows to heaven – not “like” windows to heaven – just windows to heaven. The Baptismal font flows with the streams of the Jordan and the dragons who lurk there are crushed. Christ is in our midst and offers His true body and blood, “In the fear of God, with faith and love draw near!”

A Path Beyond Secularism

March 27, 2012

…It is truly ironic, in my opinion, that so many Christians are seeking some accommodation with secularism precisely at the
moment when it is revealing itself to be an untenable spiritual position. More and more signs point toward one fact of paramount importance: the famous “modern man” is already looking for a path beyond secularism, is again thirsty and hungry for “something else.” Much too often this thirst and hunger are satisfied not only by food of doubtful quality, but by artificial substitutes of all kinds. The spiritual confusion is at its peak. But is it not because the Church, because Christians themselves, have given up so easily that unique gift which they alone – and no one else! – could have given to the spiritually thirsty and hungry world of ours? Is it not because Christians, more than any others today, defend secularism and adjust to it their very faith? Is it not because, having access to the true
mysterion of Christ, we prefer to offer to the world vague and second-rate “social” and “political” advice? The world is desperate in its need for Sacrament and Epiphany, while Christians embrace empty and foolish worldly utopias.

My conclusions are simple. No, we do not need any new worship that would somehow be more adequate to our new secular world. What we need is a rediscovery of the true meaning and power of worship, and this means of its cosmic, ecclesiological, and eschatological dimensions and content. This, to be sure, implies much work, much “cleaning up.” It implies study, education and effort. It implies giving up much of that dead wood which we carry with us, seeing in it much too often the very essence of our “traditions” and “customs.” But once we discover the true lex orandi, the genuine meaning and power of our leitourgia, once it becomes again the source of an all-embracing world view and the power of living up to it – then and only then the unique antidote to “secularism” shall be found.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World

This posting is a reflection on the two essays at the end of For the Life of the World, perhaps Fr. Alexander’s most influential volume. It will be tough reading for some. However, I hope to be developing parts of it for easier reading and deeper reflection in coming weeks.

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I have quoted at length from Fr. Alexander’s essay (a paper read at the Eighth General Assembly of SYNDESMOS in 1971) for it captures well the spirit and sense of that landmark paper. Sadly, some of its most hopeful tones (“modern man is looking for a path beyond secularism”) have perhaps not proven quite true. But the crisis he describes remains. For myself, his analysis and critique of secularism have been the most important aspects of his writings – his liturgical theology being all the more poignant because of its situation within a secularizing culture.

In the same essay, Fr. Schmemann describes secularism as the “great heresy of our time.” Secularism does not refer to the separation of Church and state, or a non-Christian or atheist world-view.

[Secularism] emphatically negates …the sacramentality of man and world. The secularist views the world as containing within itself its meaning and the principles of knowledge and action.

It is this radical division between the world in which we live and a so-called “spiritual” world that I have dubbed a “two-storey universe.” There can be no proper sacrament nor proper Christian life within such a world. In Schmemann’s words: it is a heresy.

The crisis of modern man which Schmemann described (in 1971) has passed.  The hunger for worship remains, but is now encompassed by a host of other hungers. The world is perhaps more “post-Christian” than at any time in history. Worship has been swallowed up in a sea of secular meaning, a result of the reforms that were only beginning when Schmemann wrote.

There can be no celebration of ideas and concepts, be they “peace,” justice,” or even “God.” The Eucharist is not a symbol of friendship, togetherness, or any other state of activity however desirable.

The world of feminist liturgies, eco-liturgies, liturgical dance, much less the abominations of “clown masses,” are simply fulfillments of Schmemann’s prophetic vision. Their banal secularism has, however, not diminished, but increased.

The heart of the secular heresy, according to Schmemann, is locating the meaning and cause of the world within the world itself. This makes sense for an atheist – for whom there is nothing other than the world itself. For a believer, however, the relationship between the world and God is crucial. In secular culture, God has been exiled to the realm of ideas. The world operates as it does, with God hopefully intervening from time to time (His failure to do this creates consternation among secular Christians). But if the meaning of the world is found in the world itself (apart from God) then it is we who are exiled from God, cast adrift in a universe where God’s absence is our most poignant spiritual reality. Of course, for those who are living the unconscious secular life, God’s absence is quite convenient. He remains aloof until we decide to think about Him.

Schmemann’s passion was the insistence on the proper meaning of symbol (and related words). In modern, secular understanding, symbol has come to have the meaning of something which stands in the place of something which is not there. As such, symbols are representations of absence, or, at best, of ideas. They have no inherent meaning – only the meaning which we ourselves assign to them. I have described this as the literalism of the modern world: things are what they are, and nothing more.

To this, Schmemann contrasts the Orthodox Christian understanding of the world as symbol. The meaning of this term in the early fathers is not a sign of absence – but a means of presence. Because the world is God’s creation, it is inherently symbolic – it points to and participates in its Creator. Schmemann notes that symbol is part of the very ontology of creation – part of its very being.

This is a radical assertion in the face of the modern world. Things do not find their meaning within themselves but within their relationship to God and the nature of that relationship. The whole of creation exists as a means of communion with God. The sacraments are not unique in what they do – all of creation is sacramental. What is new in the sacraments is what they make present.

[The Christian sacrament]’s absolute newness is not in its ontology as sacrament but in the specific “res” [thing] which it “symbolizes,” i.e., reveals, manifests, and communicates – which is Christ and His Kingdom. But even this absolute newness is to be understood in terms not of total discontinuity but in those of fulfillment. The “mysterion” of Christ reveals and fulfills the ultimate meaning and destiny of the world itself.

The world is sacrament and icon. God is everywhere present and filling all things. All things have been given to us for communion with Him. The advent of secularism is a change of vision and perception. The world becomes opaque – God is removed. The Western world’s attempts at sacraments, in which the supernatural has somehow invaded the natural, inadvertently destroys the natural. The sacred enters the profane – but in such an understanding the merely natural is also the merely profane. In Orthodox understanding, nothing is profane. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

Schmemann’s vision was prophetic in its accurate depiction of our world and its spiritual trajectory. I pray that he was equally prophetic in his vision of the cure:

My conclusions are simple. No, we do not need any new worship that would somehow be more adequate to our new secular world. What we need is a rediscovery of the true meaning and power of worship, and this means of its cosmic, ecclesiological, and eschatological dimensions and content. This, to be sure, implies much work, much “cleaning up.” It implies study, education and effort. It implies giving up much of that dead wood which we carry with us, seeing in it much too often the very essence of our “traditions” and “customs.” But once we discover the true lex orandi, the genuine meaning and power of leitourgia, once it becomes again the source of an all-embracing world view and the power of living up to it – then and only then the unique antidote to “secularism” shall be found. And there is nothing more urgent today than this rediscovery, and this – return – not to the past – but to the light and life, to the truth and grace that are eternally fulfilled by the Church when she becomes – in her leitourgia – that which she is.

There is nothing more urgent today…

Quotes are from For the Life of the World (1973, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press).

The Church and the Cross

March 18, 2012

The following article is a series I wrote during the early months of the blog. I think it worth reprinting (surely people aren’t going back to read everything I’ve written). It is also available in the “Pages” section of the blog. If you’ve read it before I hope you enjoy rereading it – if not, I hope you find it useful or worth some thought.

Part I

Writing to the young Timothy (first letter) St. Paul gives this homey admonition:

These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.

Paul does not then go on to give us several chapters’ explanation of ecclesiology, expounding and unpacking the phrase, “pillar and ground of the truth.” The phrase simply hovers as a statement of fact beckoning the brave to “come up higher.”

Some have done so over the years: most famously in modern times Paul Florensky’s book by that very title – a massive tome of writing by the mathematician/mystic/theologian who is himself often as enigmatic as he is interesting.

Being Orthodox means living with words like “pillar and ground of truth.” Or singing gleefully in a liturgy, “We have seen the True Light, we have found the true faith.” In the wrong hands such words can be dangerous indeed. They are true enough, but such truth can be uttered well only as praise to the Living God, rarely as apologetics or as “war words” in our confused scene of Christianity. Uttered in “battle” (if the little dust-ups that occur hither and yon can be called such) these words take on the fearful character of “that by which we will be judged” (Matthew 12:36).

The insanity of modern American Christianity is the product of sola scripturapoor or no ecclesiology, and the entrepreneurship of the American spirit. Thus almost every Christian group that exists has something excellent to say about itself (like so many car dealerships). The perfect ratiocination of Reform theology, an Infallible Pope with a Magisterium, or the perfections of an invisible Church (really, how can you discuss an invisible Church?) Even Anglicans, born of divorce and compromise (I know they don’t like to say it like that in Anglican seminaries, but it’s history), can brag about Via Media, or today, “Inclusivity.”

Into this playing field of discussion come the Orthodox. We are familiar with Pillar and Ground of Truth, True Light, True Faith, Fullness, etc., words of excellence and perfection. Of course, as soon as they are uttered, gainsayers will point to everything about us that appears less – and there is so much at which to point (our messy jurisdictionalism, internal arguments, etc.) People who have mastered cut-and-paste functions on their computer can quote concatenations of the fathers proving that our Pillar and Ground of Truth was always sitting in Rome. What’s an Orthodox boy (or girl) to do?

I do not think we give up conversation, but we have to be aware of the nature of our conversation. We utter “Pillar and Ground of Truth,” etc. “in a sacred mystery.” Pulled out of its context (that is the living Church) and placed in argument, the phrase becomes words weakened by every other word we have ever spoken, and particularly the actions we have performed or failed to perform. Such phrases are no less true, but they were never meant as offensive weapons (except perhaps in spiritual warfare).

I would start, as an Orthodox boy, with the fact that everyone who is Orthodox has agreed to “deny himself, take up his cross and follow Christ.” The ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, is found precisely in its weakness and is found there because God wants it that way.  If salvation means loving my enemies like God loves His enemies, then I am far better served by my weakness than my excellence. If humility draws the Holy Spirit, then my weakness is far more useful than any excellence I may possess.

The Orthodox Church has perhaps the weakest ecclesiology of all, because it depends, moment by moment, on the love and forgiveness of each by all and of all by each. Either the Bishops of the Church love and forgive each other or the whole thing falls apart. “Brethren, let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” These are the words that introduce the Creed each Sunday, and they are the words that are the bedrock of our ecclesiology.

We live in a wondrous age of the Church. Having suffered terrible blows at the hands of the Bolsheviks, we were smashed into jurisdictions (they don’t really start until the 1920’s), and often turned on one another in our rage. Today, the Bolshevik has been consigned “to the dustbin of history.” Moscow and the Russian Church Outside of Russia are actually going to gather at the Lord’s table together. We still have the spectre of a powerful Patriarch of Constantinople bumping into a powerful Patriarch of Moscow here and there, first in Estonia, then in London, who knows where next.

But in each and every case the only ecclesiology that will work, that will reveal the Church to be the Pillar and Ground of the Truth will be an ecclesiology of the Cross: mutual forgiveness and abiding love. This will be the Church’s boast: that it became like Christ in all ways; or it will have no boast at all.

I rejoice that I am alive in such a time as this. We stand at the edge of an abyss. We can embrace each other in joy and forgiveness or fall into the abyss itself (I trust Christ’s promise to keep us from such a misstep – though He has pulled us out of such places more than once). I rejoice because I don’t want anything other than to be conformed to the image of the crucified Christ. Let everybody else be excellent if they need to be. I need to die.

 Part II

I suggested in my previous post on this topic that the Cross be a central part of our understanding of the Church. There is a natural tendency to compartmentalize in theology – it’s hard to think of everything all the time and everywhere. And yet, it is important that we always remember that our salvation is not a series of discreet, compartmentalized events and undertakings – our salvation is one thing. Thus it is never entirely appropriate to speak of the Eucharist as one thing, Confession as another, Christology as another, iconography as another, etc. – everything, all of our faith, is one. All is encompassed in the saving work of Christ. It is hard for us to think like this but it is important to make the effort.

I would like to suggest several points for reflection on the Cross and the Church:

1. The self-emptying of God on the Cross, including his descent into Hades, is not accidental but utterly integral to understanding the saving work of Christ.

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.

3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Today, the first point:

1. When St. Paul writes of Christ’s “emptying” Himself (Phil 2:5-11), he is not describing something that is somehow alien to God, regardless of its profound irony. In Rev. 13:8 Christ is described as the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Thus we cannot look at the Cross as an event that is somehow alien to God. Rather, it is a revelation of Who God Is, perhaps the fullest revelation that we receive.

Christ speaks of his crucifixion, saying, “for this cause came I unto this hour”  (John 12:27).   Other aspects of Christ’s ministry, even His revelation of the Father to the world, should not be separated from the event of the Cross. In His self-emptying, Christ reveals the true character God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Writing about this self-emptying (kenosis), Fr. Nicholas Sakharov describes its place in the teachings of the Elder Sophrony:

The eternal aspect of Christ’s kenosis is perceived in the framework of the kenotic intratrinitarian love. Fr. Sophrony remarks that before Christ accomplished his earthly kenosis, “it had already been accomplished in heaven according to his divinity in relation to the Father.” The earthly kenosis is thus a manifestation of the heavenly: “Through him [Christ] we are given revelation about the nature of God-Love. The perfection consists in that this love humbly, without reservations, gives itself over. The Father in the generation of the Son pours himself out entirely. But the Son returns all things to the Father” (I Love Therefore I Am, 95).

Indeed, in this understanding we would say that this self-emptying is not only integral to Christ’s saving work, but to the revelation of the Triune God. Thus when we say, “God is love,” we understand that God pours Himself out: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is into this life of self-emptying that we are grafted in our salvation. We lose our life in order to save it. This is no reference to a single act, but to the character of the whole of our life as it is found in Christ. “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live” (Galatians 2:20).

Tomorrow: the second point, “Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying.”

Part III

Following earlier posts on this subject, I take up the second of four points:

2. Any imitation of God, any conformity of our life to His, will involve this same self-emptying [as the self-emptying of God on the Cross].

There is a tendency when we think of the Church to think in institutional terms – to speak of hierarchies, the role of Bishops, etc. Scripture uses a variety of images for the Church: the body of Christ, the messianic banquet, the pillar and ground of the truth, etc.

But of course, one simple reality of the Church abides and colors all of our experience: we are human beings in relationship with God and with other human beings who are part of the Church. That relationship, whether characterized in Eucharistic terms, or the language of the body of Christ, is still always quite relational (excuse the tautology). This inescapable fact makes it necessary for us to keep this aspect of the ecclesial life before us at all times.

What then does it mean for us to be in relationship? St. Paul, in his famous discourse on the Church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12-13), focused on its most central aspect in the very core of that discourse. Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is the great chapter of love (agape). St. Paul subjugates all other concerns to that measure of reality. “If I have not love, then I am nothing” (13:2).

All too easily this passage is relegated to the category of ethics. (Recall that I noted in the last post it is all too easy to compartmentalize our thoughts about the Christian life). There is not an “ethics” department and an “ecclesiology” department. The ethics of 1 Corinthians is as much ecclesiology as Paul’s speech about the “body of Christ.” One is simply what the other looks like when it is actually lived.

The love of 1 Corinthians 13, is nothing less than the agapaic love of God – the love the Father has for the Son; the love the Son has for the Father; the love the Spirit has for the Father and the Son (and all the ways we may permutate those statements). Love is nothing other than the self-emptying of one person towards the other – it is the kenotic (emptying) relationship of one for the other that is the hallmark both of the intra-Trinitarian life as well as the life of the Church (how could the life of the Church be any different from the life of God?).

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…

This is as poetic and accurate a description of kenotic love as can be found in Scripture. This is synonomous with Christ’s claim that he does only that which He sees the Father doing (John 5:19). The Son empties Himself towards the Father and only does His will. The Father empties Himself towards the Son, and has given “all things into His hands” (John 13:3). The Spirit “does not speak of the things concerning Himself” (John 16:13), etc. These are not discreet revelations about intimate details of the Trinity, but are revelations of the very Life of God. Kenosis (self-emptying) is descriptive of each Person of the Trinity. It is in this that we speak of “God is love.” For greater love cannot be measured than that we “lay down our life for our friends.”

Thus when we come to speak of our life in the Church, St. Paul characterizes it by this same act of kenotic love. We do not look towards our own good, but for the good of the other. We “weep with those who weep” and “rejoice with those who rejoice.” Our lives in the Church are not marked by centers of activity and importance (individuals) who then negotiate with other centers of activity and importance for their respective positions. Such a model is a description of secular life (at its best) and Hell (at its worst).

That our membership in the Body of Christ begins by our Baptism into Christ’s death (Romans 6:3) and also includes Baptistm “into the Body of Christ” (I Corinithians 12:13) gives an explanation of the meaning of “Baptized into the Body.” To exist in the Body of Christ is to do so by existing in the death of Christ, as well as His resurrection. How this makes us “His body” is amplified when we see that “His death” is more than the event on Calvary, but the fullness of His divine self-emptying that was made manifest to us on the Cross of Calvary. We are Baptized into the self-emptying love of Christ, for this is the only way of life. If we are to be transformed “from one degree of glory to another” then it is towards the “glory” of the crucified, self-emptying Christ that we are being transformed. Deification (theosis) is also kenosis (self-emptying) for there is no other kind of life revealed to us in Christ.

Next: 3. All discussion of the Church and its life, must include this self-emptying, not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

And: 4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

Part IV

We continue from our previous posts with the last two points:

3. All discussion of the Church and its life must include this self-emptying [of Christ], not only of God, but of each of the members of the Church.

4. Every description of the various aspects of the Church would do well to include the self-emptying of God and the self-emptying of Christians in imitation of the God Who Saves.

These last two points probably belong together as a single point – and so will be treated together in this posting.

The self-emptying of God, revealed to us on the Cross of Christ, is enjoined by the Apostle Paul to be the “mind” of the Church:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of god, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled [emptied] himself and and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).

Typical of the Apostle, even his most profound theological statements are integrated into the life of the church – for theology concerning Christ is not an abstraction or a theory to be discussed, but a revelation of the truth – both the truth of God and the truth of ourselves, inasmuch as we are His body. There is no proper division between our contemplation of the truth and our living of the truth.

In another place the Apostle writes:

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).

Here, even the separation or distinctin between Church and Scripture is overcome! The Church, rightly lived, is itself the true interpretation of Scripture. Thus, when we speak of the self-emptying of Christ on our behalf, we must also live in a self-emptying manner towards one another and towards God.

The Church has often been described as a “Eucharistic Community,” and it is said that the Church is most fully manifest in the Divine Liturgy. But this is true only as the Church itself lives in a proper Eucharistic manner. Just as Christ pours Himself out for us to the Father, and the Father gives Himself to His Son, so all the members of the body of Christ must pour themselves out towards one another and towards Christ. We “empty ourselves” so that we might be the “fullness of Him that filleth all in all” (Ephesians 1:23).

This same self-emptying is also proper to the unity of the Church. The context for St. Paul’s writing of Christ’s self-emptying is precisely in a passage where he is concerned to speak of the unity of the Church.

Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself…(Philippians 2:2-7)

The unity of the Church is unimaginable without this mutual self-emptying. Indeed, such a unity (should there be one) would be without the mind of Christ, and thus would be a false unity.

As noted in the first post on this subject, the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church is rooted in its weakness. Our imitation of the self-emptying love of Christ is precisely the weakness in which our ecclesiastical life is grounded. thus, though the Church has a hierarchy (a “holy order”), that order is not properly an earthly hierarchy, a ranking of privilege and power.

As Christ Himself warned His apostles,

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28)

Thus the primacy which exists in the Church is a “primacy of love,” not a primacy of coercion. St. Ignatius, in his letter to the Romans, referred to that Church as the one which “presides in love.” (Nicholas Afanassieff famously wrote an Orthodox essay on the Petrine ministry by this title).

However, just as our salvation is not properly seen as a juridical event, neither can the life of the church be seen as juridical in nature. To say this does not deny the concept of jurisdiction, nor the necessity of the church to make judgments and practice discipline within its life and the lives of its members, but it is to assert that such jurisdiction, judgment and discipline are not properly juridical in nature. Thus, depriving someone of Holy Communion, or deposing them from Holy Orders, is not rightly understood as a juridical action of the Church, but an action whose sole purpose is the healing of that member of the Church. God’s chastisement is for no purpose other than our salvation – how can the chastisement of the Church serve any other purpose?

The great difficulty in all of this is that the true life of the church, and thus all ecclesiology, is never anything less than miraculous. Ecclesiology cannot be a study of those things the Church “has to do” because it “lives in the world.” This would make the Church’s life one long compromise with “practicality” and declare that the life of God is trumped by some version of necessity. This kind of reasoning eventually yields the evil fruit imagined in Dostoevsky’s famous chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor.” The church is driven by no necessity other than the self-emptying love of God manifest in her life and in the life of all of her members.

This self-emptying life of God, understood as the life of the Church, is of particular importance for Orthodoxy. Here, there is very little of a juridical nature. Those who see Orthodoxy from the outside see this ecclesiological lack as a fundamental flaw in the life of the Orthodox Church. Instead, it is a fundamental faithfulness to the mind of Christ. But to live in such faithfulness requires that our lives be ever yielded to God. So soon as the Church turns away from God and the True Life which makes this self-emptying possible, so soon does the Church fall towards anarchy and strife. Church history is full of examples of such failures – just as it is full of examples of Christ’s faithfulness and promise to the Church to preserve it against the gates of hell. But each time the Church has been victorious over such stumbling, it has been because she returned to the path set forth by the self-emptying Christ.

Whatever dialog the Church has within itself (between “Churches” as the Orthodox would say) or with those with whom there is schism, the dialog must be rooted in the mind of Christ, the self-emptying love of God. This in no way calls for an ignoring of dogma, for dogma itself is but a verbal icon of Christ (to use a phrase of Fr. Georges Florovsky). But to “speak the truth in love” is to speak from within the mind of Christ, that is, from within His self-emptying love. There is no sin that such love does not heal, no emptiness that this Emptiness cannot fill. Our hope is in Christ, thus we shall not be ashamed (Romans 5:5).

Worship at His Footstool

March 16, 2012

Sunday, the third in Lent, is set aside to honor the Venerable and Life-Giving Cross. I offer these thoughts:

In a short work, The Beginning of the Day, (I believe it was a special printing and not generally available), Met. Kallistos Ware notes this about the Cross and its connection with the whole of creation:

…[The] created order in its entirety participated in the Savior’s Passion: the earth shook, the rocks were split, the whole cosmos shuddered (Matt. 27:51). In the words of St. Ephrem the Syrian, ‘humans were silent, so the stones cried out’. As the old English poem The Dream of the Rood expresses it, ‘All creation wept.’ This all embracing participation in the death of God incarnate is memorably expressed in the Praises or Enkomia sung in the evening of Good Friday or early in the morning on Holy Saturday:

‘Come, and with the whole creation let us offer a funeral hymn to the Creator.’

‘The whole earth quaked with fear, O lord, and the Daystar hid its rays, when Thy great light was hidden in the earth.’

‘The sun and moon grew dark together, O Savior, like faithful servants clothed in black robes of mourning.’

‘O hills and valleys’, exclaims the Holy Virgin, ‘the multitude of mankind and all creation, weep and lament with me, the Mother of God.’

Most remarkably of all in what is truly an amazing statement, it is affirmed: ‘the whole creation was altered by Thy Passion: for all things suffered with Thee, knowing, O Lord, that Thou holdest all in unity.’

Do we reflect sufficiently, I wonder, upon the environmental impliations of our Lord’s Incarnation, upon the way in which Jesus is ecologically inclusive, embedded in the soil like us, containing within His humanity what has been termed ‘the whole evolving earth story’?

Do we allow properly for the fact that our Savior came to redeem, not only the human race, but the fullness of creation? Do we keep constantly in mind that we are not saved from but with the world?

In such a fashion St. Paul can say that the “world is crucified to me, and I to the world.” Frequently our own thoughts about the things of God are too restricted, too limited. The Cross is diminished to an execution role in a very narrow atonement theory, the Incarnation reduced to a stage entrance. These great mysteries of God, manifest among us, are the gate and ladder, the entrance into the Kingdom of God and Kingdom of God’s entrance into our world. This is true not only of the Cross of Golgotha, but ultimately in every Cross that participates in its reality. A believer’s making of the sign of the cross, with faith, participates in this reality (and so the demons flee).

Christ has promised that we would have life “more abundant.” By this is not meant that we will be rich or have more material things (for these are not the true life). But the Kingdom is an endless abundance that enters our heart and world, shattering the narrowness of opaque minds and opening to us the fullness of life in Christ.

The Reality presented to us in the Cross (as with all things of God) is never comprehended in rational theory. It pushes us beyond the limits of our own poorly defined rationality and towards the greater rationality of the Truth of things. As noted by St. Gregory of Nyssa, “only wonder grasps anything.” To approach the Cross with wonder is to begin the journey that it makes possible. The life that we refer to as salvation belongs to this world of wonder – despite the banalities of much Christian conversation on the topic.

It is not surprising that silence is among the most important tools in our spiritual life. O, sweet wonder!

Knowing the Truth

March 8, 2012

This Sunday in the Orthodox Church commemorates St. Gregory Palamas. His work represents the triumph of reality over theory – of true knowledge of God versus scholasticism. This is an article written in 2008, following my pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

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From the book, The Enlargement of the Heart, by Archimandrite Zacharias:

For Elder Sophrony [Sakharov], theology was the state of being in God….theology was for him the description of the event of his meeting with Christ when he was caught up and saw the divine Light. [as described earlier in the text]. (For him theology was the narration of an event.) According to his writings, authentic theology consists not in the conjectures of man’s reason or the results of critical research, but in the state of the life into which man is brought by the action of the Holy Spirit. Theology is then a grace of the Holy Spirit which rekindles the heart of man. Whoever has acquired this gift becomes as a light in the world, holding forth the word of life.

The Archimandrite’s description of the Elder Sophrony’s understanding of theology is similar to the well-known saying in Orthodoxy that “he who prays is a theologian and a theologian is one who prays.” At its very heart there is a steadfast allegiance to the traditional stream of Hesychast theology (as taught by St. Gregory Palamas) which insists that theology must be grounded in reality – in the experience of the Divine reality – and not simply in the creations and syllogisms of human reason. The point of theology is not to speak about God, but to speak with God.

This is always the difficult (and even frustrating) aspect of Orthodoxy. Unlike the inventions of the human imagination it is, instead, the gift of God, and therefore not under our control. Thus we are counseled to pray, fast, repent, forgive, give alms – all in the context of the remembrance of God. The Liturgy is a mystery in which God is truly among us and truly gives Himself to us – and yet we struggle even there to give ourselves to Him.

St. John in the beginning of his Revelation greets his fellow believers with these words:

I John, your brother, who share with you in Jesus the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.

In a very few words he sums up the common experience of the Christian life: “to share in Jesus the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance.” Our individual circumstances can differ greatly – but none of us escape the “tribulation” [he is here referring to the trials we all suffer and not the dispensationalist notion of a “great tribulation”], none of us are excluded from the Kingdom except by our own choosing, and for all of us there is the daily life of patient endurance.

I thought much about this during my pilgrimage in the holy land. Some places are more interesting than others for someone nurtured in a modern environment. My visit to the monastery of Mar Saba in the Judaean desert, carved and perched on the sides of a sheer cliff, in a sun and heat that clearly belonged in a desert – with a landscape which, though beautiful, is still largely uninterrupted rock and sky – was thrilling for the hour or so we were there. But the American monk with whom I had conversation had been there for 15 years. I found myself thinking back over the previous 15 years of my life – 15 years of serious change – 15 years, busy enough in “God’s service” that you can ignore prayer and forget that you are ignoring it.

In the desert and monastic rule of Mar Saba there is prayer, and the chores of the day – but mostly prayer. It is unavoidably part of the “patient endurance.”

For many of us in our contemporary settings, we find it difficult to stay put long enough to have “patient endurance.” I think the length of Orthodox services is one of the first experiences many people have of Christ saying to us, “Slow down.” Or in Biblical terms, “Be still, and know that I am the Lord.” There is a “patient endurance” that is an inherent part of Orthodox prayer. Some days we endure more patiently than others.

But the faith does not ask patient endurance of us, or tribulation itself, except for the sake of the Kingdom. God is not a taskmaster – we have been freed from the slave masters of Egypt. But just as the people of Israel traveled through the wilderness for two generations in order to become the people of Israel – so we travel in patient endurance, the Kingdom and the tribulation in order to become conformed to the image of Christ.

Standing on a ledge of Mar Saba, it is easy to feel the romance of the caves. But the reality of the caves bears more similarity to whatever it is in our lives that we must endure than it does to any romantic fantasy. Saints are real and are forged in reality by the Spirit of God. There is nothing that separates our lives from that of the saints – for we are one body. Their endurance is part of our inheritance as our endurance must become the inheritance of generations to come.

It is in that day to day remembrance of God that becomes our patient endurance that we ourselves become theologians, or at least catch a glimpse of true theology from time to time.

I was not surprised to hear from the monk who had endured 15 years in the desert, “I have no enemies,” (as I shared in an earlier post). He is a theologian and knows the truth.

The Christian Crisis

March 3, 2012

Any student of Church history should be well aware that there has been no century in which the Christian faith was safe, untroubled and not in crisis. To a certain extent, the Cross will always bring Christians into crisis. However, these are some thoughts on the present and some aspects of the crisis in which we live (at this moment in history).

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One of the larger crises facing modern Christians is the disappearance of the Christian Church. Protestant denominations are not the same thing as “the Church” and have never had a self-understanding that could properly be called “Church.” Historically they have been, more or less, Christian organizations with certain “Churchly” aspects. The first crisis of Protestantism was the existence of other Protestants. In England (where the standard Protestant expression was Anglicanism), the question became, “What do we do about presbyters (clergy) ordained outside of the Anglican Church?” Various answers were presented. Some demanded re-ordination – others not. So long as various groups stayed within their own original boundaries (Lutherans in Germany, Calvinists in Switzerland, Holland and Scotland, Zwinglians in their corner of Switzerland, etc.) everyone could pretend that they were the “Protestant Church.” A crisis was born in the realization that Sola Scriptura (and other Reformation principles) created more problems than it solved. Various solutions arose. The American solution became the primary model: let the Church disappear as an important category in theology. Thus the “invisible Church” was born. The Church exists “invisibly” and is only known to God. All ecclesiastical boundaries are simply man-made notions, with no theological significance. Thus, the Church, instituted by Christ and of primary importance in the New Testament (to whom were the Epistles written?), becomes a non-entity, or a Second-Storey entity at best.

Today this crisis has moved past the temporal manifestation of denominations. Mainline Churches are becoming akin to shopping malls – impressive in their time and all the more sad as they stand empty or irrelevant. Why someone might be Anglican or Presbyterian, etc., is now nothing more than a taste preference. The current manifestation of Protestant “Church” is well-represented by so-called mega churches. Driven by the marketing of Christianity, these organizations are self-defined in a manner that embraces the market as never before. They are today’s upscale malls in comparison to earlier years’ empty shells. Their own emptiness is inevitable.

At the same time that the Church has become glaringly obsolete in Protestant circles, authority itself has disappeared. There is no Protestant theological system that can command sufficient loyalty to support a local mega church. There exists an “evangelical consensus” in American society. Like every consensus, such agreement is simply part of the ephemera of popular culture. Its significance is only as a barometer or wind vane.

The tragedy in this crisis is primarily spiritual – for the Church is not an optional Christian reality. There is no authentic Christianity apart from Church. As difficult as it may be for some to accept – the Church is what the Christian life looks like. It is possible to “extract” a form of Christianity from within the New Testament and make of it a private practice – but this is a misuse of Scripture. The New Testament is the Church’s book from beginning to end.

The churchless Christianity of the modern world creates distortions within the spiritual life. These distortions are so wide-spread that they are frequently found within the lives of those within the Church itself. Authentic Christian life is inherently communal, and cannot be lived apart from the “other.” “My brother is my salvation,” in the words of the fathers.

The Jesus of popular salvation narratives is sometimes a stranger to the Church. “To accept Jesus as Lord and Savior,” as part of a private spirituality can be a very serious distortion of the Jesus revealed to us in Scripture. It is not necessarily a conscious rejection of Christ as He is revealed in Scripture. However, the cultural version of the private Jesus frequently has little relation with Christ as classically taught.

The weakness of a Churchless Christianity can also be seen in its inability to engage the culture. Private spirituality is culturally meaningless. Only a community of practice can transform a culture (though this is not necessarily a primary goal of the Church). But with the absence of a transforming Christian practice, an already secular culture will only pass more deeply into the twilight of a secular order.

In short summary: the Christian Crisis is the growing disappearance of the Church as anything more than a loose affiliation of individual believers. It is the triumph of consumerism over ecclesiology. Those communities where Church remains essential (Orthodox, Roman Catholics) will not (and do not) escape the struggle engendered by the crisis. The willingness of Christians to embrace a community of practices – will be the great test of our time.

In the short term, keep Lent like your life depended on it.