A Firm Foothold

Posted on Updated on

I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again. —Frodo Baggins

I happened upon this quotation again yesterday evening, while I was reading my daughter The Lord of the Rings. It seems a dauntingly long tome to read to a five-year-old, but of course we have years, if need be. She’s also already listened to the whole of The Hobbit and liked what she heard and wanted to hear more about hobbits. So of course I could not resist. Naturally she will not remember everything or understand all the details this time around, but that doesn’t particularly matter. So it goes with all of the good tales for any of us, including, I think, the Book itself.

As someone who is in some sense homeless (though not houseless), having lived now in twenty-two separate dwellings across fifteen towns, six states and one unincorporated territory, these words from Frodo in anticipation of his great Quest always make me a bit sad. Much of Tolkien’s work is about a sense of loss, of remembering things that never will return, and when Frodo speaks these words to Gandalf, he has no idea yet how much he will lose, that he will indeed lose the Shire for himself, even while he saves it for others.

The sadness that I feel is not quite Frodo’s sadness, though, because there is no geographic place that I have left behind and can return to or at least hope for while I am in my wanderings. And while I do intend to spend the rest of my days here in Emmaus, I think that it is too late for me to have a home. Though I am not old, I am too old for that. I’ve done it backwards from Frodo—I have tried to find a home after my wandering rather than embarked upon my wandering from a home already found and already loved.

My point here is not really about me, though. My life is what God has permitted it to be, even if I’ve muddled it up here and there, and I am grateful for what I have received. No, the point is about that “firm foothold” that Frodo mentions. For him, it is the Shire, and he carries memories of the Shire throughout the Quest to destroy evil. I do not have a Shire of my own, not in the sense that there is some specific place I can place my mind’s feet to gain that firm foothold.

But even though some of us are homeless in this life, I think that we nonetheless have the possibility for such a firm foothold, for a memory of beauty and homeliness (to use homely in its British sense, roughly homey in American English, though not so rustic). I hope I can say this without sounding like a romantic, but for me that firm foothold has become the worship of the Church, most especially in its Byzantine iteration, with which I was first imprinted in Orthodoxy. It is not quite the same as having a home in the earthier sense—a sense I encourage all to develop as best they can, even in such a homeless state as I find myself—but there is certainly a firm foothold to be had there, a power and glory and sense of belonging that can be carried along in any place of wandering, any struggle, any peril, as we pursue our own great Quest.

There are many instances throughout the history of the Church in which the saints, those people who were most infused with God’s presence here on earth, did something peculiar as they faced imprisonment, torture and even death—they sang hymns. I cannot help but think that their experiences in worshiping the one True God in His Body the Church became for them the firm foothold that made their wandering bearable. And when faced with the gravest of circumstances, they called to mind that power and energy, and they brought it forth again in an act of anamnesis (a term usually referred to the invocational memory that brings Christ’s passion and death into the here and now as the Eucharist). While Frodo could only engage in mneia (recall), we Christians have the possibility for anamnesis, bringing the Savior Whose salvation we remember into the very present by means of collective invocational memory.

As we do that, the orcs and Uruk-hai and evil wizards and the Ringwraiths and even the Enemy himself can be borne rightly, with patience and even with love and with joy. And in so doing, like Frodo, we can also destroy evil and loosen its hold on our hearts.

“Too catholic to be Catholic”: Communion with Idolaters?

Posted on Updated on

The Parakatathiki (“Charge”), when the Eucharist is placed in the hands of a newly-ordained priest by the bishop, and he is charged by him to guard it until the Second Coming of Christ. This picture is from my own ordination.

A post of mine from March, Evangelicals at the Eucharist, has inexplicably been getting a bit of traffic again over the past few days. I was assured in the comments that, in my criticisms of Dr. Peter Leithart’s call to Evangelicals to return to putting the Eucharist at the center of worship, I was pinning the wrong guy. But a close reading reveals that I was not so much attempting to critique the full body of Leithart’s work, but rather speaking in the same “room” that he was speaking in, i.e., modern Evangelicalism, which is as Zwinglian as the day is long. Leithart might have a relatively “high” view of the Eucharist, but the people he’s speaking to, on the whole, have almost no view of it at all. Why? Because they have no priesthood.

That said, in the midst of the comments was posted a new piece from Leithart, Too catholic to be Catholic, published on Monday, in which he professes himself “too catholic to be Catholic.” The closed communion discipline of Roman Catholics and Orthodox makes them “sects,” and he is “too catholic” ever to do such a thing. It is essentially a “Why I’m not Roman Catholic or Orthodox” mini-manifesto.

I read Dr. Leithart’s post with interest, and its internal contradictions are really quite astounding. He is so “catholic” that he would welcome the Orthodox and Roman Catholics into communion, while in nearly the same breath actually proclaims us to be idolaters! While it’s not made evident in this post, it is also the case that he borrows heavily from theologians in those communions, which may be part of why he has been brought up on heresy charges (acquitted, mind you) by his own denomination. By his own definitions, he’s actually using idolaters as a source of theology. If this is catholicity, it has to be the weirdest type I’ve ever seen.

Catholic here seems to mean being so inclusive as to accepting to communion not only heretics but even idolaters. (Remember that an idolater is someone who unrepentantly worships an idol as a god.) I wonder whether communion should have any limits at all then—resumably not, as he decries the “closed communion” of his fellow sons of the Reformation. Should it even be extended to the unbaptized? It makes little sense to me that Leithart would remain apart from the Orthodox and Roman Catholics on the basis of his doctrines—doctrines which proclaim us and most Christians throughout the ages to be idolaters—and yet somehow chafe at the exclusivity of the tradition of closed communion?

Leithart writes, “To become Catholic I would had [sic] to contract my ecclesial world. I would have to become less catholic – less catholic than Jesus is. Which is why I will continue to say: I’m too catholic to become Catholic.” But his “catholicity” would include communing unrepentant idolaters. Is that really the kind of catholic Jesus is? The Scriptures proclaim that the temple of God has no agreement with idols, which makes me wonder how he arrived upon his notion of Jesus’ “ecclesial world.”

It also occurs to me that, in speaking of communion, when you have to refer to an ecclesial world rather than the Church, you have a big theological problem. For the Orthodox, the Church is communion.

In arguing for his “catholicity,” Leithart at least appears to have accepted the Roman Catholic definition of catholic, which is “universal.” Mind you, Rome applies this universality in terms of its governance, but Leithart appears to be applying it in such a sense that it obliterates the very point of sound doctrine, which is to guide the believer in his communion with Christ in His Church. Either Leithart would gladly admit idolaters (the Orthodox and Roman Catholics) to communion, or else he is simply unhappy that the lines that he would draw for communion are different than the ones that others do. Either way, it makes little sense. I suspect he means something different by catholic, however.

In any event, the traditional definition for catholic is not the ultramontanist one Rome uses nor the confusedly pietistic one of Dr. Leithart, but rather simply what the word actually means—katholikos, from kata and holos, “according to the whole.” That is, the catholic faith is the whole Christian faith, and the one Church is catholic because she maintains the wholeness of the Christian faith, not merely a few minimal parts. One cannot, for instance, debate whether Scripture must be somehow read apart from the tradition that produced it or whether succession from the Apostles avails anything at all, considering such things non-essentials, and yet somehow be catholic.

Likewise, his preferred self-moniker, reformed catholic, also makes little sense from the proper definition of catholic. If his faith is truly whole, then why should it need reform? Even if catholic just means “inclusive” or “universal,” then why the need to be “reformed”? It seems to me that no reformation is warranted for someone who wants to commune with idolaters. Why reform them or anyone else when they’re not cut off from your altar? What is actually gained by reform, if not communion?

I must admit that I honestly do not understand the Leithart version of catholicity (though I suspect what he really means by it). He seems to be a man very much concerned with sound doctrine, and yet soundness of doctrine apparently should have no effect at the chalice. But St. Paul warns us otherwise.

As for how becoming Orthodox or Catholic reflects on converts’ former religious experience, Leithart seems not to be aware of something that is amply available in nearly any convert story out there. Most converts do not, in fact, see their previous religious experiences as wholly devoid of grace, as being defined by unmitigated darkness, but rather as having been in some sense a propaideia—a preparation for receiving the fullness of the Christian faith, a preparation for which they are usually quite grateful. I know very few who look on their former communions as Leithart fears they should. Of course they will look on where they’ve converted to as being better, else they wouldn’t convert. But Leithart would have someone whose convictions run that way stay where he is!

There is quite the irony that, while he quails at the idea of an ex-Protestant convert to Orthodoxy or Rome looking on his previous Protestantism as lacking something, he himself looks upon the Orthodox and Roman Catholics as outright idolaters. Thus, the only solution to this convert syndrome seems to be for everyone to stay where he is. The only possible solution to the extreme contradictions of doctrine between the various communions is pietism, the denial that doctrine even matters.

He seems to apply this pietistic dogma-muzzle selectively, though. After all, he still has big criticisms for many of us. But if we were to convert to his way of thinking, would we not then have to look at our time in our previous communions as, in his words, “living a sub-Christian existence”? In the end, it seems that this argument against conversion is really just a cryptic argument that his Christianity is indeed the one true kind. I have no problem with that, but he should just say it: Don’t become Orthodox or Roman Catholic, because they’re wrong and they’re idolaters. Become (his variety of) Reformed, because it’s the one true way. But I think saying it outright wouldn’t be “catholic” for him.

It seems to me that catholic, at least in this piece by Leithart, is really just a synonym for pietism, dressed up in a grand old word with powerful theological import, yet evacuated of its proper meaning.

Update: Here’s a related critique by a Lutheran. (Thanks to Chris Jones in the comments on this post for pointing this out.)

And here’s another Orthodox response (part 1) to Leithart, written by a member of my parish, pointing out how Leithart’s “Reformed catholic” view is at odds with most of the Reformers and has its provenance in Zwinglianism. See also part 2 and part 3.

Also worth reading is this thorough response by a Roman Catholic, especially pointing out the deep connection in the ancient Church between doctrinal orthodoxy and communion.

Update: Leithart has issued a clarification on what he means by “idolatry” and so forth. Here’s my response:

It seems to me that he again wants to define a word (idolatry) in a new way and then claim that his definition is the right one. We “brethren” of his are, it seems, too idolatrous to be Idolatrous.

His analogizing doesn’t work here, though I suppose one could pick up his analogy and turn it around a bit—it is Protestants in their myriad factions who are manifestly those who have departed from any sense of an undivided Church, set up their own “high places,” and then are demanding that the Temple in Jerusalem be torn down so as to legitimize their schism and heresy. (I would of course also include Rome as having departed from the Church, though the pattern doesn’t quite fit the analogy.)

Rome left the Church through heresy and schism, and Protestants left Rome through the same process. It is now nearly the height of anachronism to demand that the Orthodox join the (at least) twice-separated Protestants in their innovative doctrines and man-made worship.

In any event, the analogy doesn’t really hold. Ancient Israel is not the Church but only a foreshadowing of it. One could still be part of ancient Israel on the basis of birth and circumcision, but entering and remaining in the Church require the apostolic faith. One could not really divide from ancient Israel, but division from the Church is clearly shown as possible in not only the New Testament but in all subsequent history.

Again, Leithart presumes his own relativistic ecclesiology and simply expects the rest of us to follow. He claims that believing in one true Church is “easy” (as though something being “easy” is an argument against it), but in our relativistic age, that claim actually ruffles quite a lot of feathers—despite that point of ecclesiology having been almost universally adopted prior to the 20th century, even in Protestant circles. His “divided Church” ecclesiology is really the much “easier” approach, aligning as it does with the spirit of the age and its mindless call to “inclusiveness.”

It’s easy (there’s that word again) to call someone a “sectarian” when you don’t want to measure up to what it takes to be in communion. But the one who has cut him off from communion from Orthodoxy is not the Orthodox, but himself, and he remains so deliberately, thus revealing himself as being the sectarian.

He is at least consistent when he says that, according to his ecclesiology, Christ is divided(!). What that reveals about his Christology is left as an exercise to the reader. (Or, you know, St. Paul.)

A commenter on Facebook also adds this: His “clarification” is just as confusing as his previous post. The divided kingdoms were divided as God’s judgment against them, and to top it off the Northern kingdom was completely eradicated. Does this mean then that God will send in a group to eradicate the sectarian “northern kingdoms” of Protestantism, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism?

Another commenter has this to say: There’s no difference between ‘high place’ and ‘golden calf’ worship re: the Northern Kingdom. Both were part of an attempt to accommodate YHWH worship to the then current culture by Jeroboam son of Nebat (in fact, Scripture generally lumps them together as ‘the sin of Jeroboam son of Nebat’). I see nothing in Orthodox or Catholic worship that compares. Quite the opposite. The comparable current trend is evangelical worship that attempts to accommodate the worship of Christ to the current American culture. A lot of the comments on your blog tell me that there are some folks out there who need to go back and reread these passages closely.

Before he brought up I Kings for no good reason, I thought he was connecting the ‘idolatry’ charge directly to the Eucharist…if so, that’s an old (and to my mind valid) charge made by the Reformation against Rome (at least since the Libri Caroligni), but doesn’t apply to Orthodox practice at all.

Evangelicals at the Eucharist

Posted on Updated on

The Parakatathiki ("Charge"), when the Eucharist is placed in the hands of a newly-ordained priest by the bishop, and he is charged by him to guard it until the Second Coming of Christ. This picture is from my own ordination.
I was fascinated today to run across this call to the Eucharist, written from a Reformed perspective, by Peter J. Leithart, pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and an eminent Evangelical theologian. (Seeing this, along with my recent posts on Evangelicals observing Lent, I’ve decided to create a new category for posts on this weblog: Evangelical Appropriation of Tradition.)

This is a fascinating self-criticism from within Evangelicalism, but I have to admit that after I got to the end, I had hoped there would be more to it. There is something very much missing from this, and as I attempted to remember how I would have read this as I would have as an Evangelical sixteen or so years ago, it came to me. There must be Evangelicals who read this piece and are thinking: Why?

The argument that Leithart makes here for Evangelicals to put the Eucharist at the center of their worship is really pretty weak: It helps Christians to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. Yes, well, we can remember such things in other ways, can’t we? If it’s really just about remembering, why should we have to break out the wafers and grape juice all the time? (And, you know, we have to vacuum the carpet afterward.) What does all that ritual actually do, anyway?

Mind you, I think Leithart is actually right about all the criticisms he levels at the results of a de-liturgized worship life. There can be no Church without the Eucharist. Christians are politically vulnerable without the Eucharist. Christian life is reduced to fads and programmes without the Eucharist; or, in the words of Fr. John S. Romanides, “When theology is false, then Christianity is reduced to activities.”

But, why? Why is a de-liturgized worship so vulnerable to all these distortions? Why do Evangelicals largely not see the point in the Eucharist?

It is because the Evangelical Eucharist is, to use Leithart’s term, merely a Sign. If it’s really just a reminder—a sign—then once I feel like I’ve gotten my memory in order, I don’t need the reminder any more. (And let’s not forget that doing communion all the time looks suspiciously Catholic.)

But now, if the Eucharist is actually real, if it’s actually what Jesus said it is, “food indeed” and “drink indeed,” if eating and drinking it actually put life into you, if it’s really so serious that you could get sick or die if you partake unworthily—well, that’s something else. When you’re given the opportunity to eat and drink God, then of course you will put that at the center of your worship.

And when that Eucharist is truly the flesh and blood of God Himself, then there is no way you could ever stand to surround the act of communion with anything remotely faddish (if you do, it will clearly be a blasphemy). Eating and drinking God requires a dignity and power and reverence that are entirely beyond whiting out the lyrics of the latest Lady Gaga song to be replaced by what a friend of mine calls “Jesus is my girlfriend” music. There’s a reason why, when most of us picture Heaven (including the Biblical writers), we do not think of a pop concert.

And if you are eating and drinking God, and that’s putting life into you, then you are going to be granted, quite frankly, an otherworldly power that will not only make the unity of the Church utterly critical (not to mention, obvious), but you will also not be beholden to the temporal, transient temptations of this world, whether political or in other cultural ways.

In traditional Christian theology, the Eucharist creates an extension of the very incarnation of Christ. But in the Evangelical theological world, where associating physical matter with holiness is just idolatry, then you are creating an incarnational no-man’s land where holiness cannot touch. But you still have to live there, so you fill it up with programmes and politics, not to mention emotion and intellect.

A Christian life whose weekly high point is essentially a concert followed by a lecture (even a very good lecture) is not going to have the kind of otherworldly power as one where you get to eat and drink God. It just can’t hold a candle.

Leithart also speaks of the priesthood of all believers (and, indeed, the Orthodox believe in that, too), but what is the point of a priesthood who really aren’t offering up any real sacrifice? A priesthood of “signs” is really just a priesthood of pretense, of pretending. No one puts on costly vestments and takes up golden vessels if he believes that what he places into them is just a symbol of something that’s not really there. (Well, some do, but eventually, their theological descendents always eventually start to put those things off, because they just don’t see the point any more.)

The problem with Leithart’s call to Evangelicals to come back to the Eucharist is that he doesn’t give them any overriding, compelling, positive reason to do so. His negative reasons are good, but theology has to have its own inner purpose beyond preventing or addressing dysfunction. The Eucharist’s purpose is not to hold back these distorting tendencies he identifies so concisely. Rather, its purpose is for those who receive it to become partakers of the divine nature.

And when you’re doing that, well, that changes everything.

Update: A friend points out this piece which examines all these issues in terms of their Augustinian theological background from an Evangelical (but apparently non-Zwinglian) perspective. He also rightly points out that Leithart himself probably would not embrace the fully Zwinglian “pure sign” sacramental theology I make reference to above. But of course Zwingli’s ideas about the sacraments are the context for almost all Evangelicals, and Calvin’s Eucharistic theology (from which Leithart is drawing) has its weaknesses precisely for the reasons outlined in the post on Augustine’s sacramentology.

Another point well-made by my friend is that the real reason why there is not likely to be any sort of Eucharistic revival among Evangelicals is that they really have no actual priesthood. It’s not something that can simply be started up by people who read some books. If you have no connection to the ancient traditions of Christian priesthood, what would actually make you think that the prayers of your newly-created priesthood actually would be the means by which God transforms bread and wine into body and blood? Ultimately, the various elements of tradition that are being appropriated here by some Evangelicals will necessarily be distorted, because they have been removed from the context of the tradition that gives them their power and meaning.

On the Altar of the Cross

Posted on Updated on

The Hill of Crosses, Šiauliai, Lithuania
Sunday of the Adoration of the Holy Cross, 2012

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

In today’s reading from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews, we read his further elaboration of the dominant theme of the work, namely, the priesthood of Christ. The book, being written to the Hebrew people, that is, to the Jews, is at pains to express to them that the ancient priesthood of the Jewish faith, which offered up sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem, was now being fulfilled in Christ.

Jesus, in His coming to Earth, had instituted a new order of priests, not one descended from Moses’ brother Aaron and the Jewish Tribe of Levi, as the old priesthood had been, but rather a priesthood that is not defined by fleshly descent, but by spiritual participation in Christ. And this meditation on the priesthood is what is brought before us in Orthodox tradition as appropriate to hear on this, the Sunday of the Adoration of the Cross.

It is no secret that the central dynamic of true Christian life is one that is bizarre and unattractive to this world—crucifixion. Not only is the Christian Church the only religion in the world whose defining moment is the martyrdom of God, but we also make the unpopular appeal to those who would follow after Christ to come and be crucified with Him. If we are going to be identified with Christ, then we must be martyred with Christ, whether literally through physical death on account of our faith or in a more metaphorical sense through life-long death to the passions and foolishness of this world.

The Lord Himself says this in today’s Gospel: “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” That’s the Christian life: Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Christ. Follow His life. Follow His actions. Do what He did. Deny yourself. Be crucified. Do that, and you are a Christian.

Well, to be honest, that doesn’t sound so nice. We’re not interested in denying ourselves and taking up our crosses. We’d prefer to indulge ourselves and take up, well, just about anything but a cross. Take up golfing. Take up fancy restaurants. Take up collecting stamps. Take up expensive cars and houses. Take up video games. No cross, please, thanks.

So that leaves us the question as to why anyone would actually choose to be a Christian. A life of self-denial? Of crucifixion? Really?

In the face of these very clear words from Christ, to understand why anyone would actually want to live as a true Christian, and not merely as a Christian in name only, we have to understand what motivates people. There are many things in human life for which people will practice self-denial and even choose a very difficult way of living. Someone may strive arduously to be an excellent athlete, with all the training, sacrifice, change in diet, and rearrangement of schedule that requires. Someone may consistently and carefully woo someone for marriage, caring and serving, embarrassing themselves with romantic gestures, changing jobs, friends or place of residence. Someone may also go through the rigors of boot camp or basic training and enter into the separation from family, danger and risk that are required in order to be in the military. Or they may do whatever it takes to have and to raise children.

There are many difficult things that we as human beings will do in order to gain something more important, in order to serve an ideal or to achieve a goal that we regard as being higher and better than what we could have gained from the things we give up, from the self-denial and even pain we endure. In all of these things, we have to have a clear sense of what the goal actually is, that it is actually worth the struggle and pain. In the context of meditating today on the Cross of Christ, in the words we hear from Paul he explains to us what this is.

Christ’s offering on the cross is not as a victim. He was not involuntarily crucified. He was not overcome by His creatures and put to death, as though He never had any say in the matter. The whole thing was voluntary. No, it was not His own hand that killed Him—He did not commit suicide. But He could have stopped it at any point. So it was by His will that the crucifixion happened. Therefore, this act is an act of deliberate sacrifice. And if it is a sacrifice, then there must be a sacrificer. And what is a sacrificer? That is a priest.

Remember, the Epistle to the Hebrews is about the priesthood of Christ. And today’s reading is precisely about Christ as our great High Priest, the One Who offers up sacrifices on behalf of the people. Paul says here that He is “taken from among the people, is appointed on behalf of the people in things pertaining to God, that He may offer up both gifts and sacrifices for sins; Who can have compassion on the ignorant and on those who are erring, since He Himself also is encompassed with infirmity.”

Jesus Christ is one of us, “taken from among the people.” But we could say that He is also “taken” from God, since He is God. He is the only being in existence Who can identify with both God and man, because He is both God and man. It is this God-man, this High Priest, Who offers up the ultimate and final sacrifice on the cross. That is the altar on which His sacrifice is given, and it is there that we join with Him, if we also take up our crosses and live in self-denial. It is there that we, too, become priests, participating in the one priesthood of Christ.

So why would we want to do that? What’s the point in also becoming sacrificers and, indeed, becoming the sacrificed? Why would we want to deny ourselves and take up our crosses? Jesus explains this to us in the Gospel: “For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”

On its face, the words of the God-man, the High Priest, clearly indicate that our eternal salvation depends on being crucified ourselves. If we are ashamed of Christ and will not truly follow Him, then He will be ashamed of us when He comes in His glory at the end of time. In stark terms, we risk eternity in Hell if we do not take up the cross.

But there is also something else going on here: We lose our lives in order to save them. What does this mean? It is part of the nature of sacrifice. When something is truly sacrificed to God, it is not traded to Him. It is not merely “given up.” That is not what sacrifice is. Sacrifice is rather to offer something to God, upon which He takes it and transforms it by His touch, and then He offers it back, now changed, made holy and transformed.

So that means that being sacrificed, living a life of self-denial and crucifixion, is not merely the door to eternity in Heaven, though it certainly is that. That’s what Christ said. It’s also the key to becoming something more than we are, to becoming truly holy, truly human—that is, becoming what God created us to be. He made us to be saints. The pursuit of being a saint is the only thing that will last into eternity, but even more than that, it is the only thing truly worth man’s time and struggle. It is the only thing truly worth giving your heart to unreservedly.

Don’t you yearn to be something higher, something nobler? Don’t you long for glory? Doesn’t your heart burn within you not just to know about what is good, what is holy, what is filled with light and perfection, but actually to participate in it? Don’t you want, in the midst of this broken, fallen, darkened world, to see wholeness, beauty and light?

Come, then, deny yourself and be crucified with Christ. Take up this glorious struggle, this holy fight, this noblest and best of all human callings. He has called us all to be a holy people, a nation of priests. If we follow the way of the Cross, we will know true glory and power and joy for all eternity.

To the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, with His eternal Father and His all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Religion, Rules and Reality

Posted on Updated on

The Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost
One of the unfortunate aspects of Internet converse that I’ve noticed during my nearly twenty years online is that often interlocutors write as though they assume that what they see in front of them is in fact the only thing that a poster has ever written on a subject. I think this comes of living in a sound-byte world, in which it is proposed to us that one’s entire message must now be encapsulated into a single datum that is the only chance a writer will have to reach his audience. Such a proposition is of course a marketing proposition, and it relies on and indeed perpetuates the formation of an entirely ahistorical and limited attention.

The evidence for this phenomenon is plentiful and pluriform online, so I will not bore you with examples. But perhaps you will remember this problem the next time someone posts something along these lines: “But you NEVER SAID ______ !” Yes, it is possible you never did say ______, but it is also just as likely that ______ was the subject of your doctoral dissertation, best-selling book, appearance on the evening news, official testimony before Congress, etc. But of course that wasn’t checked. ______ was not mentioned in this specific publication and therefore represents an egregious oversight on your part and is evidence that you in fact believe the opposite of ______.

Everything must now be a Summa, but it also must be a Summa of Sensitivity and Spectacle (not to mention, Speed), lest you lose your audience through soporific specificity. As someone with a daily experience of being steeped in iconography, I can of course appreciate the inner human longing at play here, but of course the true icon is not one that presents the viewer with the sum total of its subject, but rather with an introduction to it and an encounter with it.

I wrote those three paragraphs to give you those that follow.

In my oddly controversial post from last Thursday, I was excoriated by a number of commenters—both those whose comments were published and those whose moderation did not permit to see the light of day—who asserted to me again and again (and again, really, ad nauseam) that the Christian is saved by Jesus, not by rules and religion, that Jesus came to save us from rules and religion. And every time anyone countered that assertion, it was simply made again, as though it were some sort of battle cry that is self-evidently true and doctrinally menacing to all who hear it.

Yet, somehow, the vast swathe of Christian history and even the great sweep of currently living Christians manage along with spiritual lives that would suspiciously appear to be about “rules” and “religion.” Apparently, only the very small minority of Christians who hold to pop-Evangelicalism actually have a “personal relationship with Christ,” and even if some of them will allow that there are “personal relationship” Christians within all those rule-ridden religions, it is in spite of (not because of) all that pomp and circumstantial stuff.

But to those of us who live somewhere within or even near what history shows us is traditional Christianity (with all those bishops, sacraments, incense, and so on) hear such claims as utter nonsense. I have never yet met anyone who believes and practices such things who actually believes that he really has no access to God, that he must go “through” some clergyman, that his faith isn’t at all personal, that merely following rules and going through magical ritual motions will guarantee that heaven everlasting is his eternal reward.

Yes, they may say, perhaps rule-ridden religion is not the official teaching of such churches, perhaps they may teach that it is grace that saves the believer, but we know better. We know that they really just skip over certain obviously damning Bible verses that instantly refute their whole way of life. We know that they’re not really serious when they say they believe in grace, salvation through faith, and so on.

And to that, I say: Well, so long as you’re going to tell me what I believe, you may as well come up with something rather more colorful and interesting. (After all, my objections won’t count.) We’re probably also sacrificing chickens late on Wednesday nights and bow down before fish-headed gods and make dark deals with the Illuminati. It’s all quite obvious, you know.

But, if perhaps, you may be willing to listen for a moment, rather than instantly assume that every refutation of pop-Evangelicalism necessarily constitutes an endorsement of Pharisaism, then perhaps you will find something other than what you assumed and expected. You may well be confused, I grant you, because us “religious” types turn out not actually to be what your lot has been railing against for some centuries.

That said, at least as far as Orthodox Christians are concerned (I cannot speak for “religion”), we are saved by grace through faith. There is no act, not even the act of faith, not even praying the “Sinner’s Prayer” with utmost sincerity, that can save us. Only God saves. Only God transforms. Only God heals. And He also does not owe us that healing, no matter what we do. We cannot obligate Him in any way nor do anything that will compel Him to grant salvation. Salvation is indeed a free gift. It cannot be earned or bought, not even by saying the right words in a formulaic prayer or having a conversion experience.

That said, why is it that we Orthodox seem to have so many “rules,” so much “religion”? Well, here’s the thing: For us, salvation is not merely about getting to go to the Good Place rather than the Bad Place when we die, preceded by trying to be moral and making sure to recruit more people for the Moral Recruiters Going to Heaven Club.

And let’s be honest here: That’s what pop-Evangelicalism boils down to—going to heaven and getting more people on board. You of course ought to be moral along the way, and if you are obviously and constantly immoral, perhaps you never really were on board, but since even morality is a “good work,” we know it doesn’t actually have anything to do with getting that free ticket to the Good Place.

So, why do the Orthodox have so much stuff to do? Why are we surrounded by structure, customs, complex worship, strange vestments, otherworldly music, and even crazy people who dress all in black and go off in the forests and deserts and seem to just pray and work all the time? What’s with all the stuff?

At its heart is this basic affirmation: God became man. That means that God became matter, that He became part of His creation. In becoming part of His creation, He made it possible for us to touch the previously untouchable, to see the previously invisible, to access the previously inaccessible. God became matter, and boy-howdy, does that matter. But how does that add up to so much physicality (and that’s what all the “stuff” really is and why it bothers you) in Christian life?

You may never really have noticed this, but there is a lot of stuff-related stuff going on in the Bible: A dead man comes back to life when he falls on the bones of the Prophet Elisha. The people of Israel are healed of snake-bite when they look to a bronze image of a serpent. God directly commands an incredibly complex, expensive and image-filled context for worship. Jesus uses mud to heal a blind man’s eyes. And why is it that pretty much every time the Bible gives us a peek into heaven, we keep seeing an altar, incense, and all that “religious” stuff? We could go on. But of course the biggest piece of matter of all is the matter that was (and is!) Jesus.

But Jesus came to save us from all that, you might say. All of that “stuff” was not His original plan, you might say—and someone did actually say that to me, as though God was somehow taken by surprise when mankind fell and needed to come up with an improvised Plan B. Or, in the word of Jefferson Bethke the New Theologian, Jesus came to “abolish religion.” Yet, what Jesus actually said was that He came to fulfill what had come before, not to destroy it. Yet somehow you want me to believe that fulfill actually means destroy.

What if instead of dealing with mankind in one way for thousands of years and then abruptly changing His mind and doing something entirely different, God was actually gradually opening up His revelation like a flower until it came to full blossom in Christ? What if the Law, the prophets, and even all of the “stuff” were not just a temporary band-aid to be ripped off when the real deal came along, but actually constitute hints and foreshadowings that are fully revealed in Christ? What if a grossly bifurcated history of God’s dealing with mankind actually makes no sense in the light of Christian history?

What if God is actually totally consistent through the whole Bible and even in the nineteen centuries after it?

No, you don’t see it that way, you say. And why can’t you see it that way? It’s probably because you have latched onto the obsessions of an ex-Augustinian monk with the abuses of late-medieval Roman Catholicism and given them legs and turned them into a whole theology that is anti-stuff and therefore horrified at “rules” and “religion.” It is probably also due to your ignorance (and here, I really do not blame you, but now that you’ve been informed, you really should look it up) of Christian history, that details a faith community that lived the Christian life in intense fulness, including an exceptionally detailed interaction with physical matter and all that that entails, with all the bishops and sacraments and incense and so on.

For you, all of that material “stuff” gets between me and God, but that makes no sense to me, because God chose to use matter—He became matter!—in order to connect to man! These things aren’t gateways that shut the door to God. This materiality is actually the very pathway to experience of the divine.

But what if the Apostles actually did succeed in their mission? What if they really formed communities that really worshiped Christ the right way? Isn’t it reasonable to expect that believers getting together for worship in a decent, orderly fashion will look an awful lot like they have “rules” and “religion”? And isn’t it reasonable to expect that people who take Jesus seriously when He said that we have to eat His flesh and drink His blood to have life in us will behave in an exceptionally reverent manner when they do so? Don’t you think a few “rules” might be in order when approaching the King of Kings in such a way that we don’t get sick or die by doing so unworthily?

The reality is that when people live in communities together, they develop rituals and customs that connect them together and define their identities, even in things as simple as a handshake (which accomplishes nothing yet somehow says quite a lot). And the Church is not just any human community. It is the very Body of Christ, constituted and blessed by Christ Himself to be the very pillar and ground of the truth, which is why not just any self-chosen group of believers can lay claim to that identity. There can be only one Church, because there is only one Christ, Who has only one Bride. The Lord is not a polygamist, and He is not betrothed to a woman with multiple personality disorder, either.

Why is it so bizarre to think that the basic elements of culture could actually be Christianized? Why is it that you want so much of life to remain secular, with all of the “stuff” in my life utterly untouched by holiness, by the actual presence of God within physical matter?

You see, that’s what the problem is here. Human life is very much shaped by materiality, by ritual, by custom, by traditional wisdom and ways of doing things. When you say that Jesus wants us not to have “rules” and “religion,” what I hear you saying is that you want most of my life to remain outside of my spiritual life. But I want it to be inside, not outside. And all of this “stuff” is how we do that.

I don’t harbor the delusion that those things save me. They don’t. But they are part of my cooperation with Christ to “press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me,” to “work out [my] salvation with fear and trembling.”

Salvation is not something that God does to me. It is something that He offers me, but that I must receive truly willingly. And the last time I checked, because I am still a sinner, my will was not yet fully aligned with His. That’s why we have received the tradition of the Apostles. And I will continue to obey the words of the Apostle, when he says that we are to hold fast to the traditions that he and the other Apostles taught, whether it was by word of mouth or by written letters.

Does this mean that we Orthodox are enslaved somehow, that we are weighted down with rules? That is no more the case than that an athlete is restrained by the training and diet and exercise he must undertake in order to run his race. We are of course free not to run the race, and we are free not to train. But if we are going to train, it’s going to take some doing.

Does that mean we live in terror from day to day, without an absolute epistemological certainty that we will be going to the Good Place after death? Not at all. You see (and note well here the irony), faith in Christ is a relationship, not an absolute, immovable status. As with any relationship of love, either lover can walk out and end it. Christ won’t, of course, but we humans can and do. But the more we are faithful, when we endure to the end, then we are healed (which is also the literal meaning of the Greek sozo usually translated as “save”).

God calls us to become partakers of the divine nature, to become perfect people, to the fulness of the stature of Christ, not to “get saved” and then just try to be moral and be sure to recruit more people for the Moral Recruiters Going to Heaven Club while we wait to die.

The Orthodox Christian faith offers the possibility for the healing of the human soul, the transfiguration of the human person, mystical communion with the divine right now, and it’s all accomplished by actual, physical contact with the awesome God of the universe, Who is alone worthy of worship. We just won’t settle for less. What Christ offers is far too magnificent.

The God in the Bread: A Sermon for Lammas

Posted on

The Breaking of Bread at Emmaus

The following is a repost from last year of the sermon I gave on Sunday, August 1, 2010. Happy Lammas!

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Today, let’s spend some time thinking about bread.

I don’t think we have any British wheat or grain farmers here, but if you were such a person, you would probably be working right around this time of year to bring in the first harvest of grain. As such, there is an ancient English Christian custom, probably not really followed much any more, of baking a first loaf of bread from the flour of that harvest and then bringing it to church to have it blessed.

This custom came to be fixed for celebration on August 1st, and so today is called “Lammas,” which is a compound word formed from the phrase “loaf mass.” There are actually a number of English words formed in this way, such as Michaelmas for the feast of the Archangel Michael in November or Candlemas for the feast of Christ’s presentation in February, when candles are traditionally blessed. But probably the only one most of us are familiar with is Christmas, the feast of Christ’s nativity. Today is Lammas, a day to focus on bread.

Blessing a loaf of bread in church may sound a bit odd to some. What’s so special about bread? But to those who find that odd, it may also be interesting to note that the standard Orthodox prayer books for priests also have prayers to bless not just things like grapes for Transfiguration, flowers for the Dormition, or palms for Palm Sunday, but also for digging wells, for salt, for sowing seed, for barns, for herds and enclosures for cattle, bees, beehives, honey, planting vineyards, stocking fishponds, building boats, ambulances, fire engines, trains, cars and bridges. And that’s just in the abridged volume.

What’s interesting to note about all these blessings is not so much their specialness, but rather their very ordinariness. Many of them have to do with an agrarian farm life that most of us never touch directly, but certainly at least one of them touches us in some way, even if it’s just the blessing for cars or salt.

One of the illnesses of our age is that Christians have removed God out of the ordinary. The essence of secularism is not so much a denial of God or even a rejection of coming to church, but rather the relegation of spiritual things to one compartment of our lives. We can understand easily why God would bless someone’s heart and soul, but it’s perhaps less obvious today why He would bless salt or a loaf of bread.

Yet, if we think about when God touches us in the Church most clearly, it is precisely through objects like this, in the most primal, elemental, basic and foundational stuff of everyday life: Water, wine, oil, bread, cloth, hands, hair, dirt, stone, language, fire, wax, wood. All of these are to be found in the sacramental, mysterious life of the Church, and it is through them that the divine presence is communicated to us. Through these things, we connect to God.

The ancient Celtic Christians, the neighbors of the English, also had prayers for rather ordinary things. Babies were washed by dipping them three times in the water, while saying the Names of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—an echo of baptism. There were also prayers for rowing boats, walking, giving birth, and lighting fires. It is so, so very sad that so many of us have lost this sense of God’s presence in the mundane, ordinary moments of life.

One of the things priests sometimes hear in confession is that God feels distant. Being told “blessed are they who believe without seeing” is sometimes not very comforting, because our hearts, whether we know it or not, very much long to see God, to experience Him in a way that we know for certain that He’s there, that He loves us, that He is touching us and connecting with us.

If God feels distant to us, it may be because we have not invited Him to be with us. Our Lord and Savior, in His great love and kindness and compassion, will never force Himself into our lives. He is there just as much as we want Him to be. But how much do we want Him? We have all known people who want something so badly that they will do whatever it takes to get it. Perhaps we have been that person. Perhaps we were training as athletes or academically ambitious or in love. Do we have that same fire for the eternal love of God?

The star athlete will tell you that he did not go from being a flabby weakling to an all-star overnight. He worked at it, doing what he could, taking it slow, then gradually building up to an intense, driving training in his sport. Spiritual life is the same. If we want God to be present for us in the extraordinary moments, we need to invite Him into the ordinary ones.

So we begin again with bread. Of all the physical things that the Church makes use of in her life, there are two which are at the very center of what it means to be Christians in communion with our God—wine and bread. Since today is Lammas, let’s talk about bread.

With the exception of God’s gift of manna to the Hebrew people in the wilderness and moments such as the miraculous feeding of the Prophet Elias, bread is always the result of the work of human persons. It is baked in an oven, tended by a baker, who has formed the bread out of flour, salt, water and yeast. And the flour is from wheat, which is harvested by people. The salt is distilled from the sea or dug out of the ground, the water is drawn from its source, and the yeast is collected and propagated. At every stage, human activity is required for there to be bread.

Yet there would be no wheat without God, nor would there be water, salt or yeast. Even the strength and knowledge of the baker find their ultimate source in God, to say nothing of his very existence. And God created the physical laws according to which the matter of the universe normally operates. So it is clear that at every stage of its development, divine activity is required for there to be bread.

These two observations, that there would be no bread without man and that there would be no bread without God, are an indication of what in Orthodox theology is called synergy, the working of God and man together. Far from solely being our Creator and our Lord, God also joins us as our co-worker, standing next to us in the most basic and ordinary moments and tasks of life. If we consider bread in particular even more deeply, it is not only something that we make together with God. It is our nourishment. Nearly every diet in every culture in the world includes bread in some form. Even the most meager of diets—bread and water—includes bread. Bread goes to the very heart of human life.

It is therefore no coincidence that when the Lord chose the means to make His Body available to us as food, as the divine Eucharist, He chose to do it through bread. Let us consider for the moment therefore the holy and divine Eucharist we are about to receive. It was made with the hands and the knowledge of a baker, and at the same time, it is the fruit of the divine Energy of God in His creation. And it is this ordinary product, which comes from the ground, from the water, from the air, and from seed, which is transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, but in synergy with the prayers of the holy people of God, the royal nation of priests which is the Church—this is what now holds the awesome mystery of the wholeness of the Godhead within itself.

Christian life truly is so very intimate. Its power is that it spiritually intertwines the uncreated God with the created world. The ordinary becomes extraordinary, and the most basic, fundamental, everyday things become for us the vehicles for the communication of what is truly beyond our ability to describe it. So consider therefore, when the blessed Chalice comes forth from the altar this morning, that contained within it, in a great mystery, is God Himself. And that is what you will be eating.

How can we not stand in awe at the God Who touches the ordinary to make it holy, Who lifts up broken, messed-up people to become saints? Let us therefore remember at all times to invite Him not just into the high point of our week—Sunday morning—but into every little moment.

To our Lord Jesus Christ therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Post Script for the 2011 repost: The following is a comment I made on the post last year which further explores why it is the Church blesses physical objects:

In a world in which the Son of God did not become incarnate, there is of course no point at all in mingling up spiritual things with the material world.

But because the Son of God did become incarnate, then that means that physical matter has the possibility for bearing within itself the divine energies of God. The event of the Incarnation has ramifications throughout history, both before and after the Annunciation.

There are numerous cases in Scripture of God working through physical matter—indeed, almost every time we see Him doing anything, it is with created matter as a major element, whether it is healing the blind or snake-bitten, resurrecting the dead (e.g., as upon the relics of Elisha in 2 King 13:21), the cloud and the pillar of fire for the Hebrews, ordination, baptism, the Eucharist, etc.

The point in asking God’s blessing upon physical objects is precisely the same. We are asking God to make Himself present in them, so that in and through them we may come into contact with His divine power, His energies. We do not believe blessed objects are “magical,” possessing any independent power of themselves. They are simply vessels for God’s grace, His actual presence in and with us.

In short, we are banishing secularism from our world. There is no place and no thing where God does not wish to manifest His presence. He has chosen to work through our prayers to make this a reality.

The Road to Emmaus, Pennsylvania (The Transfiguration of Place, Part VI)

Posted on Updated on

Emmaus, Autumn 2010

The following is Part VI (the conclusion) of a talk I gave on April 2nd at the St. Emmelia Orthodox Homeschooling Conference at the Antiochian Village. The full talk is entitled “The Transfiguration of Place: An Orthodox Christian Vision of Localism.” Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV and Part V. There are six parts in all.

I live in a place called Emmaus, a small borough of about 11,000 people nestled onto the southwest edge of the Lehigh Valley, next to Allentown. If you spend any time around me at all, you will know that I love Emmaus. It’s a beautiful place to be during all the seasons of the year. The people in our borough love it, and they love it with a curious passion that I’ve never seen anywhere else.

When Emmaus was founded in 1759 by a group of Moravian Christians, it was founded deliberately as a Christian community. And when Bishop Spangenberg named it for the little village in ancient Palestine called Emmaus, it may be that some of what happened at that Palestinian Emmaus made its way permanently into the dirt of the Pennsylvanian Emmaus. In the twenty-fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, the resurrected Christ joins with two of His disciples—not of the Twelve, but Luke and Cleopas. And He walks with them on the road to the village of Emmaus, but they do not recognize Him.

But then they come to the house of Cleopas in that village, and there they go in with Him and eat supper together. And then it was as Christ broke bread and blessed it that they suddenly realized Who He was. It was in that place, in that Eucharistic moment, that divine revelation came to them. And the Church later appointed that same place to be the site for many centuries of the church of Emmaus, which for a time even had its own bishop.

Since the exile of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Paradise, mankind has had a broken relationship with his place. Globalization has accelerated that brokenness and introduced whole new levels of alienation between us and each other, between us and our places, and as a result, between us and our God. Our collective exile is becoming ever further and further from the homeland of our souls.

The Church understands that exile and the need for the healing of not only ourselves as individual human persons or even just as communities of persons, but as communities in places. We therefore hear again and again our liturgical services prayer not just for specific people or even just for groups of people, but also specifically for places. We pray for “this church.” We pray for “this city” and for “every city and countryside.” Monks and nuns pray for “this sacred monastery.” All these references are to places, not only to the people who happen to live in them. We are meant to be in harmony with our place, to pray for our place, to sanctify our place by our prayer.

We might be tempted sometimes to think of the Lord’s words that His kingdom is “not of this world” and to interpret them to mean that He doesn’t care much for our place, that His only real concern is for our souls. We even sometimes think of the Church itself in this way, when people say that the church is not a building but is rather the people. All of this is true in its way, but if we take these things to mean a denigration of place, then instead of privileging the human soul and the very human character of the Church, we are instead engaging in a de-humanization.

When our Lord became material, when He became matter, then He opened up the possibility for the restoration of all matter back to the “very good” character in which He originally created it. This world was meant to be a blessing to us, to serve as the vessel of God’s holiness for us. And our responsibility to it is as its priests. In considering the vocation of a priesthood, it has always been a canonical stipulation of the Church that a priest is ordained for and canonically attached to only one altar. There are no priests “at large,” nor bishops or deacons. All are connected to a specific place.

When you love a place and care for a place, then that place reflects who you are. And if you are an Orthodox Christian who is seriously trying to live the life of Christ, then your place will reflect Christ. We know from the beginnings of Russian Christian history that the emissaries of St. Vladimir were so stunned by what they saw in that place, in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, that they were convinced that God dwelt among people. In that place, they experienced its transfiguration—the material of this world came to be a conduit through which the divine light shone.

Place matters. It is not only essential to our humanity, but it is critical to our salvation. And being critical to our salvation, it is also critical to our evangelism. Consider within yourself where you are paying your attention. Is it primarily to far-off things and people that you will never meet nor touch directly? If so, then you are contributing to your own dis-incarnation. In this televised, computerized age, we are all guilty of it to one extent or another.

The beauty of the Christian faith, however, is that change is really possible. With prayer, with sacrifice, with time, with attention, and above all, with grace, we can return our gaze back to the place we are. In doing that, every day can become a pilgrimage, and every stone, every stoplight and every street we encounter can become a vessel of divine grace.

And thus each road—not just “every” road, but this road—can become the Road to Emmaus, a path to the Eucharist. There, what has been created by God is offered up to Him once again for His transformation and then His return to us as the very means of receiving His presence. May that be true for each of us a little bit more today.

Thin Places (The Transfiguration of Place, Part IV)

Posted on Updated on

St. Columba's Church, Donegal, Ireland
The following is Part IV of a talk I gave on April 2nd at the St. Emmelia Orthodox Homeschooling Conference at the Antiochian Village. The full talk is entitled “The Transfiguration of Place: An Orthodox Christian Vision of Localism.” Read Part I, Part II and Part III. There are six parts in all.

In the British Isles, the ancient Celtic Christians spoke curiously of certain places in their experience as being “thin.” In these places, they believed, this world and the otherworld were nearer to one another, the veil between them being “thinner” than in other places. It is probable that the belief in thin places precedes the introduction of Christianity to the Celts, but even if it is pre-Christian in origin, this idea is one which is also thoroughly Christian in its essence, not because of some doctrinal statement by the Church, but because of a basic human understanding of the interaction of the divine and the created, especially the human.

From the Christian point of view, we have to ask ourselves what is it that makes certain places “thin.” It cannot be that there is some inherent material element in a place that makes it “thin,” for while we might point to many mountain-tops as thin places, we can also find caves and pits in the earth which show forth a special sanctity. Neither open spaces nor closed-in ones are exclusively characteristically thin, nor even are places untouched by human architecture exclusively so. What draws all these places together seems to be summarizable in one word: pilgrimage. What they all have in common is that human beings have thought of them as places to go where we get in touch with the divine. Whether they are forests or caves or deserts or churches or huts or mountains or islands, thin places are destinations for divinity. And in being so, they are therefore places of prayer.

It is prayer that sets man most completely apart from the rest of creation. We have the ability to communicate with the divine. We do not offer up only wordless obedience to God as the rocks, the plants and the animals, though of course we do say such poetic things as that the heavens declare the glory of God. But nothing else in creation goes to a place to pray. While we believe that we can and should pray everywhere, there’s just something about pilgrimage. Whether our pilgrimages are long journeys to far-off lands or only the few steps from our bedroom to our icon corners at home, we have a sense that prayer involves going to a place to make it most effective.

What we as Orthodox Christians are called upon to do is to make our places, wherever they are, into thin places. God made us all to be the priests of creation, to offer up creation to Him in prayer and thanksgiving. And in receiving that offering, He sanctifies it and returns it to us as a vehicle for our sanctification. When a Christian takes that vocation to heart and continually prays for years in the same place, giving it his love and his attention, then that place becomes holy. It becomes a thin place, a place where the divine breaks through from the otherworld and into this world.

When someone finds himself in such a thin place, he finds himself freed from the slavery of this world. He feels that he has possibility. He is almost overwhelmed at the power of the place, because there is God! Those of you who have made pilgrimages to places sanctified especially by centuries of prayer know what I am speaking of. A holy place helps to make us fully human, to heal our humanity, to set us free from the shackles of the fallenness and falseness we carry around with us everywhere. There’s just something about those places, that there we know we can be better, nobler, higher, truer, more beautiful.

And this connection between true humanity and the holiness of a place is reciprocal, as well. A holy place makes us more human, but a human being who is dedicated to the life that God has created for him makes a place holier. The holiness radiates from the holy person into his environment, and the holiness of a place permeates those who visit it.

On to Part V.

“Spiritual But Not Religious” and the Path to God

Posted on Updated on

St. Irenaeus of Lyons, the Gnostic's least favorite guy

I sometimes encounter folks who tell me that they are “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). I wish I asked more often what exactly that is supposed to mean, though I am usually held back from asking by a strong suspicion that such a statement is not meant to undergo any sort of scrutiny. But what does it mean, anyway?

This post is a reflection on why people choose to be SBNR, along with an examination of its inherent problems as a religious movement and some answers from an Orthodox Christian point of view. I think this is a major question that needs to be addressed these days, as the SBNR are those who are often likely to respond to the Gospel not so much with outright rejection but rather with “Sure, whatever.”

Underneath, “spiritual but not religious” probably means, “I like certain religious things, but I have had a bad experience with religious people and don’t attend any sort of religious gatherings, at least, not ones I wouldn’t feel bad about abandoning next week.” (In other words, they are the victims of people who are religious but not spiritual.) But I think most SBNR sorts don’t mean to put that out as a viable reason for their self-description. After all, that just sounds rather cowardly, lazy, etc. (And in many cases, it is.) But usually, once the SBNR person dwells on their SBNR state for a while, they eventually come up with their own theology—probably their favorite parts of what they used to have, coupled with some reactions to what they didn’t like. SBNR becomes itself a kind of religion, complete with its own (usually assumed but not stated) dogma.

Mind you, there are of course SBNR people who have never been involved in religious communities, and while on the rise, they are still not the majority of such people. Despite what you may see on television or read in newspapers (if anyone does that any more), “organized” religion in America is still quite strong.

At its most basic and in its most understandable form, SBNR is typically a reaction to bad people. Having been burned (or seen others burned) by connection with religious believers, the SBNR person withdraws and makes “spirituality” (what in any other context would still be called “religion”) subject only to his own private preferences. This makes sense in our culture, which (despite our constant tendency to out-source) still sees itself as a do-it-yourself culture. But what is not usually examined in this approach is that it is essentially Gnostic, a privileging of private revelation and opinion over corporate knowledge and tradition. It is also essentially Protestant, in that its basic movement is one away from community and tradition.

There are a lot of issues packed into this essential narrative of escape. Let’s look at three of them:

  1. Abuse: Religion is full of bad people. But so is pretty much every other pursuit in human experience. Bad apples do not, in human associations, spoil the bunch. Some bunches are spoiled from the get-go (e.g., the KKK), but just because the Inquisition killed people does not mean that Christianity is broken. (Indeed, one can easily argue from within the Christian tradition that the Inquisition was a betrayal of Christianity.) Religions should not be judged by their worst adherents, but by their best—those the religion itself holds up as saints. It should also be judged by its doctrine, not by those who fail to do what the doctrine says (e.g., Roman Catholic ephebophile/pedophile priests do not by their behavior render Roman Catholicism illegitimate).

  2. Authority: Once you escape from authority (other people who have legitimacy in telling you how you should live), where do you go? You have a choice between finding a better authority or making yourself the authority. The SBNR chooses the latter. He is the sole arbiter of what is true and good. If he realizes that he is not really an expert, then he will mitigate his theology with a strong dose of relativism: “This is what works for me, but I’m not saying you have to do it.” But if you’re going to embrace relativism, what’s the point in being “spiritual,” anyway? If spirituality is in any sense about becoming a better person, who defines what “better” means? At the bottom, there really is nothing noble about striving to meet a set of standards if you get to make the standards up for yourself. Or, at least, the relativist who believes in self-sacrifice is inherently no nobler or in any way better than the relativist whose goal in life is to eat more twinkies. If you think he is, then you have to dump the relativism, because you just embraced a transcendent truth, one that is not subject to what any of us think about it.
  3. Community: Where there is no authority, there can be no community. Community always requires hierarchy, and hierarchy means that someone will have a coordinating role. But where there is no coordination, there is no community. A group of SBNR people can, of course, function as a kind of spiritual club, but the longer they stay together, they will find they have either formed a religion or irritated each other enough that the whole thing will eventually dissolve. Community is a critical element of human life, which is why SBNR cannot bind it together, being inherently anti-communal. It is also why so many SBNR people eventually end up either completely non-religious (e.g., as atheists, agnostics, or “SBNR” who nevertheless never do anything remotely “spiritual” or religious) or as members of religions. It is an unsustainable way of being. Any philosophy or mode of life which makes claims about higher order issues such as spirits and religion has to resonate with essential humanity. And since humanity is communal, SBNR does not last nor can it truly satisfy.

There is a lot more one could say here (e.g., about SBNR being just another form of consumerist, “have it your way” religion), but down underneath all of this is the question of whether God actually cares about His creation, which is why I believe that these issues touch upon the very heart of the Gospel.

If God does not care about His creation (deism), then of course there is absolutely no problem with being SBNR. But there’s also no more point in being SBNR than in being a golfer. The golfer probably isn’t making any claims to higher order knowledge and experience, though. (No offense, golfers!) But he’s just as much entitled to do so as the SBNR person, because God hasn’t bothered to let us know that He even exists, much less that there are transcendent truths to which we are all responsible. Thus, once again, the proper response is, “Sure, whatever.”

I can certainly agree that deism is a logical conclusion to come to—the world is so complex and interesting that there has to be a Creator. But anything beyond that (e.g., chi, spiritual energies, wisdom, goodness, virtue, nobility, and even love) is really just anyone’s opinion. It still falls down the Nietzschean hole, however—with no revealed truth, it’s finally all about power. If there are no revealed truths, then why should I not just take whatever I want, because I can?

At its heart, I believe that the SBNR person simply does not want to worship. At least, he doesn’t want to worship anything other than himself. (This sounds really bad, and it is. But we all do it, SBNR or not.) Worship is fundamentally about giving oneself over in complete union to the Other, which involves sacrifice and risk. It is love, but it is a much higher order love than the “love” which is spoken of in the idolatrous language of popular eros. Worship requires submission, freely offered, and that is something the SBNR person is simply not going to do. Once there’s a divine Thou to go with my I, then that means there’s religion, for religion is the reconnecting of what was separated (re+ligio). When there’s connection going on, then that means there must also be some sort of arrangement between those being connected, and that is, once again, religion.

Fundamentally, the SBNR person is cheating himself out of the real transcendence he is probably dreaming about. After all, transcendence means ecstasy (ek+stasis), standing outside yourself, and that means that your own ideas about what’s true don’t matter in the face of what really is the truth. There cannot be “your truth” and “my truth” in transcendence. There is only the Truth. After all, if we are transcending to a somewhere, then it’s certainly not a somewhere that we make up for ourselves. Nor is it a place that can be navigated by our opinions. One does not step into outer space without a spacesuit.

The Gospel is simple, though: God speaks to us. That means He’s real, and that He has an objective existence apart from our opinions of Him. Seeing our disconnection from Him, He sent us His Son, Who became one of us. He entered into the whole human experience, even death itself. And when death met the God-man, it began to work backwards. And if we want to have that same conquest over death, we have to follow the God-man and be united to Him.

That’s the path to God. There aren’t any other paths to Him, because He didn’t build any others. And no civil engineer, no matter how spiritual, can build one in place of that one. Why would you want another one, anyway? Conquering death is where it’s at, folks. Let’s do it.