Religion, Rules and Reality

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.


  1. Michael says

    Remarkable follow-up, thank you for taking the time to do this, I’ll share it around.

    Last week was stunningly disturbing. I think many of us who have migrated to traditions older than a few weeks were taken back by how “alive and well” pop-protestantism seems to be. I confess it shook me to core.

    Watching family and friends cheering anti-religion-boy on was so discouraging. It seems to be lingering for some who care about false-teaching, whereas the “cheerleaders” have moved on to the next great thing, a video of a dog eating with “hands” at the table. Most have moved on and forgotten it ever happened.

    Yet I pray that this event was used to stop a few in their tracks and make them think about their fragmented and contradictory tradition – thank you very much for that, Jonathan Edwards. And may they find the abundant fulfillment of coming to terms with the c