Friday, July 3, 2009

For the Life of the World 1

Here are my notes for chapter 1 from the group study I led on For the Life of the World. The key issue throughout the whole study was secularism and its incompatibility with historic Christianity as embodied in Eastern Orthodoxy. The conclusion is that secularism is sin because it attempts to carry forth life in the world as if God does not exist. It essentially tries to steal the world away from God. The Orthodox tradition, as expressed in this book, asserts that there is no part of life or the world that does not have God as its central referent. There is no separation between sacred and secular or spiritual and material. All is for the glory of God and is a means of communion with God.

In this study, we also dealt with the question of purpose. What is the purpose of humanity and what is the purpose of the world? Historically, Western Christianity has denied any ongoing significance for the world and has treated with indifference the world's original significance. As put forth by Alexander Schmemann, however, Eastern Orthodoxy strongly affirms that the initial and the ongoing purpose of the created order is for it to serve for us as a means of communion with God.

An important book in my spiritual development has been The God of Israel and Christian Theology by R. Kendall Soulen. This book is important to me for a number of reasons, but, as it relates to the issues dealt with in For the Life of the World, The God of Israel and Christian Theology also deals with the question of the world's purpose. In his effort to ascribe ongoing theological significance to Judaism in the biblical narrative and in the attendant purpose of overcoming the Gnostic temptation to empty the world of significance that has historically been present in Christian eschatology, Soulen affirms that God still has plans for the consummation of the earth and that the economy of earthly consummation is caught up with Israel. For the Life of the World affirms God's intent to consummate the creation as well, but, consistent with Orthodoxy, and, in my opinion, Scripture and the Reformed tradition (post-millennialists like NT Wright and the Federal Visionists, among others), this little volume exuberantly proclaims that this economy of earthly consummation is caught up in Christ and the Church. Christ has indeed died and risen for the life of the world, to bring it to its ultimate fulfillment in Him.

Heaven and Earth Are Filled with Thy Glory: Eastern Orthodoxy For the Life of the World

What we are undertaking here is as ambitious as it is exotic. For some of us, the perspective we are unrolling here is a totally different understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. It is going to challenge some of our most basic thoughts and assumptions about what Christianity is all about, and ultimately, what life is all about. The most important questions we need to consider before we start this project is, What is the chief end of humanity and of the world? What is the life of the world that Jesus has died to reclaim for us? What exactly are we in the Church doing when we gather together to worship on the Lord's Day? What is it that the Church is doing in all of its work and in all of its teaching and what is the purpose and goal of this action and teaching? Also, what is the significance of our lives beyond church doors? Let's chew on this a little bit while I attempt to answer a question that I am sure all of you might be asking.

What is Eastern Orthodoxy and how is it valuable to us as 21st-century American Presbyterians? Why do I think this book written by an Orthodox priest about the faith of his church is so vitally important that we need to hear it? Well, let's work on exploring Eastern Orthodoxy for a minute. Where does this tradition come from?

The Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church separated 500 years before the Protestants broke from Rome. There are more similarities between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism than there are between Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism. Nevertheless, Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism have some profound differences. For instance, unlike the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodoxy has no pope and rejects the doctrine of purgatory and its artistic expression comes to focus on the icons of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the saints rather than on the statuary that is more representative of Roman Catholicism.

On the other hand, like Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox have priests (but unlike in Catholicism these priests can marry); they have seven sacraments instead of two, as we will find out; they recognize the Apocrypha as Scripture; they view Tradition as being equal with Scripture in authority; they have strong devotion to the Virgin Mary; and they ask the saints in heaven to pray for them. Unlike Roman Catholicism and also Protestantism, for that matter, Eastern Orthodoxy does not view mystery and questions we can't answer as the problems we tend to think they are; instead of always trying to figure out the mysteries and provide answers the way we seem to want to, the Eastern Orthodox simply bow before God in worship, thanking Him for His majesty and incomprehensibility.

This points us to the language issue. Greek, the traditional language of the Eastern Church, is more fluid and poetic than Latin, the traditional language of the Western Church. Latin, on the other hand, is characterized as a more legalistic and technical language than Greek. Our Western practice of using a great many words and technical terms to describe and understand divine mysteries is undoubtedly part of the heritage left to the Western Church from the Latin tongue. Nevertheless, from whatever sources it arises, our Western wordiness means that the piety of Western Christianity, particularly Protestant piety, is more focused on the Word and words. As a result, Protestant piety, particularly Reformed piety, gets manifested in things like Bible study, listening to or delivering a good sermon, or congregational singing, for instance, while Orthodox piety gets manifested in ritual action, in chanted music, and in painting or venerating beautiful icons of Christ, Mary, the saints, and other heavenly mysteries.

This really points to another distinction as well between Reformed Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy and even Catholicism are more sense-oriented traditions than most Protestant traditions. This leads to Protestant charges of idolatry against these traditions, some of which are quite frankly valid, but, what we fail to realize is that we put a great deal of emphasis on the senses in our traditions as well. We certainly put a great deal of emphasis on our sense of hearing when it comes to hearing and understanding the Word, and, of course, understandings of the sacraments that limit them to teaching ceremonies certainly put a great deal of weight on the sense of sight. In my understanding of the sacraments, though, I think the use of our senses of touch and taste are also significant. Pay attention to this kind of thing throughout our study. We will be returning to the issue of how our humanity and materiality come into play in our spirituality.

That's enough about the specifics of Eastern Orthodoxy for the moment. The question is, "Why?" What does it have to do with us? Well, there's a couple of things. Eastern Orthodox are our brothers and sisters in Christ, but we don't know much about them. Just as I think we need to do with all Christian traditions, we need to get to know them because they are part of the family and they have something valuable to teach us.

Before we dig deeper into what exactly it is Eastern Orthodoxy can teach us, though, we need to talk about modern Western society and the challenges it poses for Christian mission. This is the central issue that our text is going to be addressing and why we have chosen to study this book. We are seeking a vision to help us more successfully make disciples of Jesus Christ in a very challenging and very quickly changing world. According to our author, the chief problem that our society poses for Christian mission is that it opens a great chasm between the Church and the rest of the world. Dualism is the problem. What the heck do I mean by dualism? On one side of life is material existence; on the other side is spiritual existence.

Fundamental distinction made between:
  • religious versus secular
  • sacred versus profane
  • spiritual versus material
  • church versus state

In the preface, Schmemann talks about the two responses that Christians have made to this situation. How has the Church responded?

  • Page 7-8, 12-13
  • What is the "spiritualist" response? What do you make of it? How is it evident in American Christianity?
  • What is the "activist" response? What do you make of it? How is it evident in American Christianity?
Do you agree with Schmemann's statement on the bottom of page 13? Why or why not?
Whether we "spiritualize" our life or "secularize" our religion, whether we invite men to a spiritual banquet or simply join them at a secular one, the real life of the world, for which we are told God gave His only begotten Son, remains hopelessly beyond our religious grasp.
What seems to be our "traditional" understanding of Christianity? What is the purpose of the world, and what is humanity's purpose? Why did Jesus come and what is the goal of our life in him?

I would characterize the "traditional" American understanding of the Christian faith by three terms: world-denying, pessimistic, and otherworldly. It is world denying in that it really doesn't have an answer for God's purpose in creating the world. Its view of humanity and the direction of our future is pessimistic. Our original purpose, of course, is to "glorify God and enjoy him forever," but humanity is so destroyed and the world is so beyond redemption that it is impossible for God to salvage anything from the planet but the few souls that he has decided to rescue. In order to fulfill our purpose, then, we shouldn't focus too much on what's happening here because our hope is completely in heaven. It is spiritual realities that we truly need to apply ourselves to. I would call this understanding an evacuation theology—the "I'll Fly Away" approach to Christian faith. Christ has simply come to rescue us from this rotten, stinking, sin and death-infested world and take us to heaven. The world is only going to get worse, so the best we can hope for is to be raptured the heck out of here before the world literally goes to hell.

In this perspective, everyday life, the eating, drinking, monotonous, daily grind kind of life, doesn't really have a lot of significance. Don't get me wrong, we have a lot of work to do in getting people saved so we can get them to go to heaven with us, but we really shouldn't be wasting our time on trying to change the world for the better. Nothing but winning souls matters; everything else is just waiting around to die and go to heaven. Does that really inspire you and give you a vision by which to live your everyday life? Don't get me wrong; the freedom from pain and struggle that Jesus promises us in heaven is a valid part of our Christian tradition that at some point in our lives as we grow older each of us is going to draw strength from. The hope of being absent from the body and present with the Lord is precious for those whose lives in the world are nothing but pain and hardship, like those imminently facing death or those who are living in the midst of severe poverty, illness, or oppression, but what about for the rest of us? What do we do until then? It's exactly this kind of view of Christian faith that caused me to leave my own fundamentalist background. It was all about what happens after death. There wasn't much meaning attached to our earthly, everyday lives. It's that ugly dualism again! The spiritual life cares not for the things of this world.

Of course, many Christians in America and around the world have realized the deficiency of this completely otherworldly kind of Christian understanding. I would characterize the alternative view by the terms: world-affirming, optimistic, and secular. It is world-affirming because it is insistent that the world is God's good creation. It has an optimistic view of human nature and of the progress of history. People are inherently good and if we just try a little harder, life can become heaven on earth. If this is the case, in this view, if life in this world holds out such good possibilities, we really don't have to focus too much attention on heaven or on truth claims about God. We really can't know too much about that stuff anyway. The most important thing about Jesus is how he has taught us to live in this world and love one another.

I say this is secular because, if the sum total of our Christian life is activism and we don't pay much attention to worship and the revelation of Scripture, there really isn't any need for the Church when we can accomplish the goal of making a better society through politics or justice movements outside the Church. Many historians and sociologists of religion think this is why Protestantism declined in the Northeast after the Civil War and into the early and middle 20th-century. That confounded dualism strikes again, divorcing our practical life in the world from worship.

Well, the reason I put forward Eastern Orthodoxy, as presented in this book, is that it puts forward a vision of life and of what we are doing here as the Church that, in my view, is unpolluted and uncontaminated by Western forces of modernity and secularity. It has not accepted this confounded dualism that puts religion in a marginal place in this world and takes from it the soul and the spirit of life, truly abundant life, that Jesus promises to give God's people here and now in this world and stretching forward into eternity. During the course of the study, we're going to see how the vision of Christian mission that Eastern Orthodoxy sets forth can give that spirit of life back to us.

Another reason Eastern Orthodoxy might be of help to us is that it's a tough time right now for the Church. If any Christian tradition knows adversity, it has been Eastern Orthodoxy. For the last 500 years, the Orthodox churches in the Middle East have managed to remain in spite of repressive theocratic Muslim governments or societies, and, of course, the Russian Orthodox Church and the other Orthodox churches in the former Soviet Union managed to survive and even thrive throughout nearly a century of Communist rule. There is some kind of power and beauty in this Christian tradition that has enabled it to continue and even flourish through long years of trial. What they've got to say, I think we need to hear and learn from.

There is also the fact that Reformed Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy have a few important areas of convergence. One of the pioneers of Reformed Christianity, John Calvin, looked toward the East in his teaching on the Lord's Supper. In light of this historic convergence, the historic catholic movement within American Presbyterianism has been fed and nourished in sacramental theology by Eastern Orthodox thinkers, especially our author, Alexander Schmemann. We see both of these currents running through the Communion liturgy we use in the Presbyterian Church USA.

So, what is the Eastern Orthodox understanding of the purpose of humanity and of the world?

The world's purpose-
In the Bible the food that man eats, the world of which he must partake in order to live, is given to him by God, and it is given as communion with God. The world as man's food is not something "material" and limited to material functions, thus different from, and opposed to, the specifically "spiritual" functions by which man is related God. All that exists is God's gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man's life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: "O taste and see that the Lord is good." page 14
Humanity's purpose-
Man is a hungry being. But he is hungry for God. All desire is finally desire for Him. To be sure, man is not the only hungry being. All that exists lives by "eating." The whole creation depends on food. But the unique position of man in the universe is to bless God for the food and the life he receives from Him. He alone is to respond to God's blessing with his blessing. . . . The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God—and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he received from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the "matter," the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament. pages 14-15
Is this drastically different from our "traditional" American understanding of the Christian faith? What do you make of humanity being the priest and the world being the eucharist of God's presence? Does this understanding allow for a division of life into sacred and secular? What is most surprising?

What do the Scriptures testify?
Deut. 6:3-12- Hear, O Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the LORD, the God of your fathers, promised you. . . . then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
Romans 8:19-21- The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
How does Schmemann describe the Fall?
The "original" sin is not primarily that man has "disobeyed" God; the sin is that He ceased to be hungry for Him and for Him alone, ceased to see his whole life depending on the whole world as a sacrament of communion with God. The sin was not that man neglected his religious duties. The sin was that he thought of God in terms of religion, i.e., opposing Him to life. The only real fall of man is his noneucharistic life in a noneucharistic world. The fall is not that he preferred world to God, distorted the balance between the spiritual and material, but that he made the world material, whereas he was to have transformed it into "life in God," filled with meaning and spirit. page 18
Does this make sense? What about the characterization of religion itself being a result of the Fall?

In light of this understanding of the Fall, what is Christ's mission? What did his death and resurrection accomplish?

But it is the Christian gospel that God did not leave man in his exile, in the predicament of confused longing. He had created man "after His own heart" and for Himself, and man has struggled in his freedom to find the answer to the mysterious hunger in him. In this scene of radical unfulfillment God acted decisively: into the darkness where man was groping toward Paradise, He sent light. He did so not as a rescue operation, to recover lost man: it was rather for the completing of what He had undertaken from the beginning. God acted so that man might understand who He really was and where his hunger had been driving him.

The light God sent was His Son: the same light that had been shining unextinguished in the world's darkness all along, seen now in full brightness. page 18-19

How is this different from the "traditional" understanding of Christ's mission? How is it similar?

Consummation Theology:
In Him was the end of 'religion,' because He himself was the Answer to all religion, to all human hunger for God, because in Him the life that was lost by man—and which could only be symbolized, signified, asked for in religion—was restored to man. page 20
“In Christ, life—life in all its totality—was returned to man, given again as sacrament and communion, made Eucharist.” page 20

What do the Scriptures testify?
John 6:25-35- When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, "Rabbi, when did you get here?" Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval." Then they asked him, "What must we do to do the works God requires?" Jesus answered, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." So they asked him, "What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." "Sir," they said, "from now on give us this bread." Then Jesus declared, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.
For next time, we will look at how the Church itself is the sacrament of Christ's presence and action in the world by engaging Schmemann's discussion of the Eucharist in Chapter 2. Please take the time to read it; it is well worth it.

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