Posts Tagged ‘secular culture’

The God Who Is No God

February 23, 2012

A God who remains generalized and reduced to ideology is no God at all. Only the daily encounter with the living God, with all the messiness it entails, can rise to the name Christian.

Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe 


Belief in a true and living God is a very difficult thing, fraught with consequence. Belief in the idea of God can be tokenism at its very worst. This distinction between the true and living God and the idea of God goes to the very heart of the secular crisis of the modern world. There is no room in the secular world for a true and living God – while the idea of God is perfectly suited to the emptiness of the secular mind.

For the individual Christian this distinction is the great crisis of the believing life. There is a divide in our culture between the ideas we think and the lives we live – and the division is often accepted as normal. This is more than mere hypocrisy – our problem is not that we fail to live up to our ideas – our ideas frequently fail to have anything to do with the life we live.

In secularized culture, religion is not eliminated – it is placed at a remove. The remove in which religion is placed is anywhere that does not matter, anywhere that does not touch our daily lives. The secular genius of the modern world (including America) was its contention that religion and belief are the same thing. The acquiescence of believers to this arrangement was, in effect, an agreement to render their faith impotent.

The fatal flaw in this agreement can be summed up simply: true religion is not a set of beliefs – it is a set of practices.

We believe in prayer – but we do not pray. We believe in forgiveness – but we do not forgive. We believe in generosity – but we do not give. We believe in truth – but we lie.

Again, the manner of our failures goes beyond mere hypocrisy. The divorce between belief and practice is a cultural habit reaching far beyond religion. There is a radical division between thought and action throughout most of our culture. The frequently indistinguishable character of the contemporary Christian from the contemporary unbeliever bears witness to a deeper problem.

The practice of Christianity has been increasingly banned from the public square. We have agreed to privatize our faith. What we believe has become a matter of “conscience,” rather than the offensive matter of practice. The Reformation largely erased the outward forms of the Christian life: feast days; pilgrimages; vestments, etc. The Reformers were correct that the inward life of the Spirit was far more important than the ephemeral forms in which it was exhibited. However, they failed to notice that with the disappearance of the outward forms, the disappearance of the inward life would pass without notice. Today, the outward debauchery of Mardi Gras is the legacy of an abandoned Ash Wednesday. Christian practice is reduced to drunkenness (no American city seeks to ban Mardi Gras for its religious content – the practice of drunkenness is not as offensive as a Christmas Creche).

Early Christianity was surely marked by practices: without them, there would have been no need of martyrdoms in the arenas of the Roman Empire. Early Christianity was not a set of beliefs – philosophies were cheap and plentiful in ancient Rome. It was the Christian refusal to offer worship to the Emperor and the gods of the Empire that brought them to the arena. They refused to engage in the practices of the pagan state. The radical generosity of Christians came under the abuse of the Platonist philosopher Celsus. He excoriated Christian acceptance of thieves, rogues, prostitutes, drunkards and the like while the Christian refusal to declare upstanding pagans (such as himself) as “just,” was a rejection of Roman society itself. Christians were dangerous.

The closest thing to danger presented by Christians in the modern world is the insistence by some that the unborn actually have a right to life and should be protected against the actions of those who would destroy them. However, many Christians (including some who claim to be “pro-life”), accept the secular fiction of the separation of Church and state, and offer that their private beliefs should not determine the actions of others. Their private beliefs are useless – before God and man.

The American theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, commonly states that “there is no such thing as private morality.” It is inherently the case that morality is a matter of behavior between people. A “private morality” is no morality at all. To believe that the unborn have a right to life but to refuse to insist that such a right be observed by all, is, in fact, to declare that there is no such right. If there is a “right,” then it is immoral not to demand that everyone accept such a right.

Whatever we profess as Christians can be acted upon and practiced – or it is a useless profession. Christ’s parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 confronts Christians with their practices: feeding the hungry; visiting the prisoners; clothing the naked; giving drink to the thirsty. No mention is made of Creed. It is not that belief is unimportant – but the dogma of the faith undergirds and informs our practice of the faith. “Faith without works is dead,” because it is no faith at all.

The heart of the Orthodox faith (both dogma and practice) is found in its proclamation of union with Christ. “God became man so that man could become god,” in the words of St. Athanasius. Human life was intended to be lived in union with God. In the Genesis story of the fall we learn the essential character of our brokenness: we severed our communion with God and turned towards the path of death and destruction. The nature of sin lies precisely in its movement away from union with God. The path of salvation is precisely the path of union with God. This is made possible by Christ’s union with humanity. He took our broken condition upon Himself – trampling down death by death in His crucifixion and descent into Hades – He raises us up in His resurrection to the path for which we were created. From glory to glory we are changed into His image as we live in union with Him.

This is more than a doctrinal story – it is also a description of the practice of the Christian faith. We love because we live in union with Christ, “who loved us and gave Himself for us.” We feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner because in doing so we do this to Christ. Every practice of kindness and mercy is an act of union with Christ. The Church’s life of feasts and fasts, sacraments and services are the practice of worship – the life of union with Christ. They are not religious entertainment nor mere educational events: they are the visible manifestation of the inner life of God in man.

Christians in this world are “as the soul is to the body,” in the words of a second-century Christian writer (Epistle to Diognetus). As such, they are the life of this world. The presence of practicing Christians is properly the presence of the Kingdom of God. The in-breaking of the Kingdom in this world is a disruption of the culture of death initiated in the fall. The world’s love affair with death is and should be threatened by the manifestation of the Kingdom. This is only true as Christianity is practiced. That Christians “believe” something is no threat whatsoever unless that belief is made manifest in practice.

The proposed constitution of the European Union (to give an example) offers religious freedom to individuals. Orthodox Christians have complained that such “freedom” was guaranteed under Communism – but that in the name of protecting individuals, parents were forbidden to teach the faith to their children. The Christian faith is practiced as a community. An agreement to define the faith as an individual matter is an agreement to destroy Orthodoxy. The world’s onslaught of Christian practice is subtle and relentless. Christians would do well to practice their faith and refuse devil’s bargain offered by modern states.

We are called to a life in union with the true and living God. That life infuses every action of the day – every breath we take. Anything less is an agreement with the enemy to place our God at arms length and to serve a god who is no God.

The Sacrament of Mercy

February 12, 2012

There are many things that Christians think about that have been spiritualized out of existence. Our secular culture tends to grant two kinds of realities: the first is the reality of solid objects – or things we treat as solid objects. The second is the reality of thought and imagination. Of course, we do not really think that thought and imagination have any reality. This is one of the great weaknesses of modern secular culture. The imaginary world (which I have described as the “Second-Storey“) sometimes includes God Himself.

The imaginary world certainly includes God’s “thoughts.” Abstractions such as God’s justice, His goodness, His mercy, His kindness, are treated as attitudes – God’s feelings, if you will. In such a theological world, what matters are those things we do to adjust God’s feelings and attitudes. It is the ultimate form of co-dependency.

The world-view of classical Christianity (of which Orthodoxy is the primary expression in the modern world) sees the world in a One-Storey form. The world is better understood as sacrament or icon. We do not live in a dual existence – torn between thought and matter. The God Whom we know became flesh and dwelt among us – and we would not know Him had He not done so.

This God Who makes Himself known, is the God Who gives Himself to us in the sacraments. Those events in the life of the Church, such as the Holy Eucharist, Ordination, Holy Unction, Marriage, etc., are moments in which we receive the very life of God, united to us making possible the life of grace. The so-called “seven” sacraments are really not an exhaustive list (by Orthodox understanding). For those with the eyes to see, the whole world is a sacrament – all things are properly a means of receiving the grace of God. The One-Storey universe is the arena in which we encounter and know God – everywhere and at all times. In such a world, the character of the Christian life is measured in how we ourselves accept the reality of God which is given to us at all times and everywhere. We do not and cannot change God’s thoughts or feelings (what do we mean by such language?). We have God made known to us in Christ, “the same yesterday, today and forever.” It is His love and His mercy that we find at every moment and every place. It abides (“His mercy endures forever”).

The goodness of God (and of His creation) surrounds us at all times. Even within the situations where we encounter pain and difficulty – those situations we would label “evil,” are never devoid of goodness (though sometimes obscured). The spiritual life can be understood as a journey towards the goodness of God.

Good and evil are not static terms (though we speak of them that way). Good and evil within creation are dynamic. All of creation is in motion – nothing is at rest. We were created good – directed towards God who alone is good within Himself. Our purpose, meaning, even existence itself is found in our end – Christ God. He is our good. The good we know in this life is our movement towards Him.

By the same token, evil is a movement away from our good, away from Christ. It is the rejection of our proper end and a substitution of a false end. Thus such movement has no meaning that is true, no purpose that is correct, no existence that is real.

In such a world, our actions become deeply important. At any moment we can change direction – turning towards God and away from that which is not God. This is the heart of repentance.

This is the sacrament of mercy – the sacrament of goodness itself. Those actions that are merciful and kind are more than attitudes and thoughts – they are united with the very life of God and fulfill our lives and the universe in which we live. Our culture is psychologized in the extreme, too often divorced from action and effort, mired in abstraction. The good God acts on our behalf – He became flesh and dwelt among us and continues to give Himself, His own life. We are not invited into God’s attitudes – we are invited into His love.

Accepting life in a One-Storey universe is difficult. The habit of our culture runs counter to such an understanding. But we would do well to see just how concrete is the mercy of God, how solid His love. We would do well to see how concrete should be our own mercy and kindness. Taste and see that the Lord is good.

A note for readers: I will be on retreat until February 18 and unable to manage or respond to comments. Keep the peace with one another.