Perhaps the most difficult theological truth to communicate in the modern world is that of personal existence. Modern English has taken the word person from the realm of theology and changed it into the cheapest coin of the realm. Today it means that which is private, merely individual. As such, it becomes synonymous not with salvation but with our very destruction. Life lived as a mere individual is no life at all but a progressive movement towards death and destruction.
Thus there is always something of a hesitancy when someone asks (in newspeak), “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” If only we would, it would be truly significant. But in our modern street-wise theology, Christ as personal savior becomes synonymous with Christ as private savior, and as such is no savior at all. For no one and nothing can save the false existence we have created in the privacy of our modern existence. We were not created for such an existence.
In the story of Genesis – the first appearance of the phrase, “It is not good,” is applied to man – in an existence that is private. “It is not good for man to be alone.” We do not exist in the goodness which God has created for us when we exist alone. The most remote hermit of the Christian desert does not live alone, but lives radically for others and to God. Of all men he is the least alone. No one would take on the radical ascesis of the desert for themselves alone: it is an act of radical love.
And thus the personal God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, determined that salvation for humanity could only take place as we lived fully and truly into the existence for which we were and are created: the Church. In the Church we do not exist as mere individuals but as members of the Body of Christ. My life is the life of Christ. What happens to me is essential to what happens to all the members of the Body and what happens to the members of the Body is essential for what happens to me. Their life is my life.
Thus when we approach the cup of Christ’s Body and Blood, we never approach it for our private good but as members of the Body. We are thus enjoined to be in love and charity with our neighbor and to forgive the sins of all – otherwise the cup is not for our salvation but our destruction.
The salvation into which we are Baptized is a new life – no longer defined by the mere existence of myself as an individual – but rather by the radical freedom of love within the Body of Christ. To accept Christ as our “personal” savior, thus can be translated into its traditional Orthodox form: “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” And this question is more fully expounded when we understand that the Christ to whom we unite ourself is a many-membered body.
After the resurrection, Christ appeared to the Apostle Peter. Their dialog must have been the most profound dialog ever to take place between man and God. “Do you love me?” Christ asked Peter. Peter hedged his answer. But Christ responded, “Feed my sheep.” For to love Christ and to feed His sheep are not two things but one. For Peter to finally know this was indeed his personal salvation. It is ours as well. Glory to God.
Amen! But when happens when you bear a resentment against someone or someones who go up to the same chalice as you do and you can’t get rid of it? Do you excommunicate yourself? What if you can’t forgive them but bear them a grudge deep in your heart? And what about all these people who want privacy and think they can do what they want in private and show up in church in their Sunday best and be all good where everyone can see?
We do not know about the judgment for others. Just for ourselves. When we approach, make a good effort to forgive all, even if it is to say, “My Lord, do not hold this against them in the judgement.” Or, if you wish to be so bold, “My God, forgive them and judge me instead.” Or God have mercy on us all for we are unfit before you. But don’t just leave the grief unattended. You may not have healing yet, but pray for it, and ask for what you cannot yet do. But never cling to the hurt and ask for retribution, or for justice. We must not ask for such a thing. God will help you and me and us all.
If we never approach the cup for our personal salvation, why do the post Communion prayers contain the following language?
Freely Thou hast given me Thy Body for my food,… .
Consume me not, O my Creator, but instead enter into my members, my veins, my heart.
Whether this is a U.S.-Brisish thing, whether it’s my Anglo-Catholic upbringing, whether it’s my Johnsonian Toryism I know not, but I always think of person(al) as quite distinct from individual. They refer to a similar thing, but in radically different ways. Enoch Powell once observed, “A Tory is someone who believes that there is no such thing as an individual who exists without society”, which is an apophatic way of saying that we are all persons in the true, original sense that Fr Stephen explores here.
This post beautiful. It seems that many christians are struggling hard to love those who offend them. But they are struggling alone or are approaching the problem with a modern approach. Your article provides the ground that must be present first. We need to see ourselves as one member of the unified body. For me the world no longer orbits around me and my view of others, rather I am but one planet orbiting around my God, as we all are. From this point of view everything looks differant.
Thanks for providing these posts to ponder.
That tory sentiment seems to be quite different than American conservative (political) thought, which is not surprising. Yours is among the more interesting notes I’ve had, if only for the combination. I do not know Wales firsthand, but greatly enjoyed my visit to England two years ago. Wonderful hospitality and a beauty that moved my heart.
There is an old saying that it is impossible to be a Chrisitan in isolation. Much the same goes for being a person. People who are held in isolation for long periods of time often loose a sense of their own humanity. We are called as distinct persons into community with God. That is what allows us to become more fully as God created us.
I would add that not only do we need relationship with God and other people to fulfill our personhood – so, too, the animals were created for relationship with us – and us for them – that we might fulfill what God has created all of us for. We are not their enemy nor they ours, but we are created mutually for one another. Thus those who would seek to improve the world by the elimination of man are sadly misguided. Largely by the poor stewardship of humanity, and a deeply flawed anti-human modern philosophy. God’s answer to us and our sin is our healing, not our elimination. Only the enemy wants to see us eliminated. He was a “murderer from the beginning.”
C.S.Lewis’ little space trilogy, Perelandra, wrote very presciently of all this. The third book, That Hideous Strength, is frighteningly fulfilled in much of modern thought. I would never have suspected that we would go as far as we have in our lifetime. May God protect us from the machinations of the enemy.
Your last comments about the animals and mankind being made for another brings me a little closer to understanding the icon of Adam naming the animals. That’s nice, I like it. I want to understand it more so that it is more than just “children’s art” to my ignorant sensibilities.
Regarding other comments here, I think I’ve heard an Orthodox saying, ” We sin alone but are saved together,” or something like that. Is that accurate? It seems I’ve also been learning that everything I do has an affect on the universe in some big or small way (probably the latter), so that any good I do, by the Grace of God, is in cooperation with God’s redemption… But my sin, while harming others does not affect their salvation, just mine…?
You’ve stated it correctly. I cannot “damn” another, though my behavior can certainly make their salvation harder for them. As a priest I pray especially that I not be a cause of another person stumbling…
Everything is so inter-connected that it is almost impossible to unweave the web of life. How can we pray other than to pray for all? How can we hope to be saved except we pray for all? Even the sins I do commit often have a genetic component. My salvation is thus also the salvation of generations before me, in some sense. No man is an island…
Mother Gavrilia said, “This is why the first and the last should be: ‘I believe, Lord. I love You and try, day and night, to put into practice the First Commandment.’ Everything else belongs to Him – not to me. The when, where and how are not mine.”
The cause of love for Christians is the chief cause, our first purpose and the hardest thing to do… Love God, love thy neighbor as thyself and love thine enemies.
Elder Porphyrios said, “Christ is life, the source of life, the source of joy, the source of true light, everything. Whoever loves Christ and other people truly lives life. Life without Christ is death; it is hell, not life. That is what hell is – the absence of love. Life is Christ. Love is the life of Christ. Either you will be in life or death. It is up to you to decide.”
I would only ask, how can one love while alone? I think very difficult to do and not turn inwardly to destruction. The desert hermits, Fr Stephen mentioned, gave up or sacrificed being in community and their trials were great because of it. Many great saints never became hermits, yet all suffer for the cause of Love. God is Love.
“Everything is so inter-connected that it is almost impossible to unweave the web of life. How can we pray other than to pray for all? How can we hope to be saved except we pray for all?”
That is stated so beautifully, Fr. Stephen, may I share it with others on my blog? I’d cite you, of course…
Of course. Thanks.
I think the hermits were not alone because they carried in their hearts all of humanity as well, which is truly difficult. But not to carry all of humanity there and to enter the desert would be truly a great madness.
I don’t think the hermits were alone, only that it is spiritually dangerous to do this and that it is an advanced spiritual practice, not for the novice or faint at heart. Most readings of the hagiographies bear this out, I guess I didn’t word it very well. Those that did become hermits often couldn’t stay alone because they were sought out and they did have contact, even if intermittent with their fellow monks. God provides. My own St Mary of Egypt spent forty years “alone” but for the angels who tended her, how is that alone? God never leaves us!
But we are not meant to isolate ourselves because of the way God created us and you so wonderfully pointed out, its “not good.”
Yes, the coin of individuality has been cheapened by narrowed, Cartesian tails of enlightenment. Scripture, as you touch on, has always been about communal, corporate salvation, which very much includes the unique abilities and actions of the individual — that is quite a Near Eastern and thus biblical thing.
Though I am not sure if our original purpose is, at bottom, organized church, as you posit; yes, that is a crucial facet to the brilliant dimension of humankind-in-relation-to-God, but I wonder if our purpose is deeper and wider than that. We can date this proposed purpose back to the onset of creation itself, where all the world (humans, animals, nature) is integrally considered sacred, producing the emphatic, net conclusion by the Creator-God himself, “very good.” Therefore, the “creational mandate” to work and till the earth as trusty stewards — to perform culture — is our primary task. A poet once said, “God didn’t make no junk, and doesn’t junk what he made.” This is wise, I think.