Christianity is sometimes referred to as a “historical” religion – its beliefs are specifically tied to events which have taken place in space and time. The crucifixion and resurrection of Christ are events which have taken place in space and time or Christianity is not true. No matter how noble or inspirational its teachings – the space-time reality of Christ’s death and resurrection are fundamental to the faith. Those who deny that reality have departed from the traditional confession of the Christian faith.
I offer this short confession of faith in order to allow myself to write with some care about time and history and the Christian faith – without – I trust – causing others to stumble.
There was a Russian proverb during the Soviet period: “History is hard to predict.” The re-writing of history was a common political action – enough to provoke the proverb. Students of history are doubtless well-aware that re-writing is the constant task of the modern academic world. The account of American and World History which I learned (beginning school in the 1950’s) differs greatly from the histories my children have learned. Some of the re-writing was long overdue – while other projects have been more dubious.
Of course re-writing is not a recent phenomenon. Virgil’s Aeneid was an effort to re-write history, giving Rome a story to rival Greece’s Iliad and Odyssey. The Reformation became a debate not only about doctrine but also about the interpretation of history and the Church.
The rise of historical studies in the modern period, which questioned long-held beliefs about the historical veracity of the Scriptures, gave rise to an anxiety within modern Christianity. Many of the debates that permeate Christianity at the present time turn on questions of history and historical interpretation. As the debates rage, history becomes increasingly harder to predict.
I would suggest that it is a mistake to describe Christianity as a “historical” religion, despite the space-time reality of its central events. It is more correct to describe Christianity as an “eschatological” religion – a belief that the end of all things – the fulfillment of time and history – has entered space and time and inaugurated a different mode of existence. To put it in the simple terms of the Gospel: the Kingdom of God is at hand.
There has been a tendency in some forms of Christian doctrine to draw abstractions from the concrete events of the Gospel. Thus atonement theory often speaks in forensic terms that primarily describe God’s own acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, whether as payment or punishment fulfilled, etc. In a manner, the event verges on being reduced to modern symbol (something which stands for something else) the abstractions and theories carrying most of the weight of significance.
For this same reason (I suspect) most modern Christians overlook the Scriptural doctrine of Christ’s descent into Hades: it does not fit within the atonement theories put forward in many circles. Even the Resurrection is diminished by many atonement theories – serving as a mere proof of Christ’s divinity for some – or a dramatic reassurance of forgiveness for others.
Thus, though these historical events are considered to be important in their historical reality – few articulate precisely how this is so.
I would agree that history alone is insufficient for an understanding and interpretation of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Christ is crucified on a particular day and hour in a particular place. But the Scriptures also teach us that the “Lamb was slain from the foundation of the earth,” making Christ’s sacrifice something that also exists outside of space and time. His Crucifixion is an intersection of time and eternity, of heaven and earth. It is a manifestation of the coming of the Kingdom of God. In like manner His Resurrection has elements both of history and of something that utterly transcends history. The Kingdom of God is made manifest.
This is the very heart of the Christian faith – not simply that events happened about which we now theologize. Rather, the events are the in-breaking of reality itself – earth fulfilled by heaven. We glorify Christ’s Resurrection – but we also know it, because though it is a historical event, it is also an event of the Kingdom. We are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection because these events, though historical, are accessible to us in the mysteries of the Church.
The Orthodox faith is not what it is because it is simply the oldest, etc. Such concepts become entangled in the typical give and take of historical argument. The faith is what it is because it lives within the Kingdom of God throughout history. If it is not a way of life that incorporates us into the Kingdom – then it would be of mere historical interest. As it is, the Church constantly invites us into a way of life that is life in the Kingdom, despite the historical nature of our existence.
When the Orthodox faith is described as “mystical,” it is this very real proclamation that is being referenced. In Christ, the Kingdom of God is come and nothing will ever be same. What came into the world in Christ, abides in the world with us, and in that reality we are changed – earth united to heaven – creation to the Uncreated – man to God.
Very good and edifying post! Thank you Fr. Stephen. I’m curious of the photo at the introductory confession: what is it?
This anxiety about historicity is something I grew up with and constantly fought. It is a veritable battle the West has inherited and engendered. Now as an Orthodox Christian, it is a complete non-issue for me. For this I am very thankful. I second your confession. Amen!
May I use excerpts of your post on a Christian forum? I would be sure to give the credit to you and your blog.
@ Josh : It is the Tomb of Christ, in the Church of Ressurection (Holy Sepulchre) in Jerusalem
The emphasis on the historicity of religion is a landmark of modern liberal academia. Like for all other things, it uses empiricism and thus it confuses the finger for the moon: the conceptual devices that attempt to describe the Real and the Real itself.
Such an approach is of no value whatsoever imo from a spiritual perspective; for it ties one firmly to the chain of cause and effect while in the spiritual path one oughts to precisely break from it.
This break appears much simpler than it truly is for a person caught in this struggle (as much of modernity is, I believe), as the spiritual perspective would be perceived as a mere flight from reason. The Orthodox Christian faith most definitely is not a flight from reason – (I would say it is the fulfillment of reason). The underlying assumptions of modernity (such as a two storey universe, the enmity between science and faith, God as pure act, and other such concepts) need to be answered. These are real questions to those searching for truth and meaning. Only the faith of the Fathers as expressed in its fullness within the life of the Orthodox Church (as a way of life not mere philosophy) can do so adequately. This is my confession. 🙂
Yes, that would be fine.
One problem with historicity as the primary criterion of truth is the simple fact that it is often unretrievable in a manner that is satisfactory (by itself). This then engenders the debate that masks the problem. For the debate that rages in modernity is not what is historical fact, but who gets to determine what is historical fact. It is a simple struggle for power. Many within the religious world have been deluded by this power struggle and believe that by entering into the argument they are defending the truth. But one result is that the religious world finds itself co-opted by the political struggle – drawn away from the Kingdom of God – and simply becoming one more player in modern power games.
The Church, while affirming the historical character of revelation, would be wise to do so on the basis of the Kingdom of God. At the same time that it bears witness to the reality of the Kingdom, it can also prophetically unmask the power struggles that are often the real agenda behind public argument.
In Christ’s ministry, this prophetic confrontation is often revealed in His conversations with the Pharisees and in His conversation with Pontius Pilate. Generally, He offers no argument, just the naked Truth of the Kingdom of God, which is standing before everyone He encounters.
i agree with you. Post-modernism has no way of answering questions relative to meaning – ie the type of question that is answered by becoming and being and not in an intellectual manner.
Its priesthood, scientists and psychologists, are ill equipped for this; however that is not to say that post-modernism lacks metaphysics. Only that at the centre of its metaphysics rests radiantly the ego.
This is easy to perceive if one looks at how the world operates: everything is organised around achieving ego wishes and avoiding discomfort, aging and death as a way of life: the approaches of the post modern world to immortality (anti-aging hysteria that has middle aged ladies behave like young girls, kryonicks), the desire to pinpoint the ever fleeting essence of things into the material (consumerist hysteria, genetics) and finally its perception of superficiality and relativism as the ways to happiness (follow your heart, everything is ok, it all depends on the point of view etc) are all good examples.
Basically its all fleeting in the virtual world of the ego.
I would add to that – that the fleeting virtual world of the ego is indeed inherently within the “power struggle” that surrounds many modern arguments.
Father, this is a wonderful post. It may not have been your intent, but it helped to explain to me my own discomfort with some “Orthodox” mission and evangelism efforts which look rather indistinguishable to me from protestant efforts. It seems to me that inevitably there is a reductionism that takes place in mass communications or rallies that leads right into western theological formulas based on historicity. I know people are drawn into Orthodoxy in so many different ways which is part of its beauty. So I shouldn’t discount that mass appeals based on simple Gospel messages have a role. But I think the real power of Orthodoxy, which is hard to mass market in sound bites, is when people catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven through one of the many means the Church provides — its beautiful buildings, icons, music, services, saints, prayers, etc, — and most importantly, hopefully through the way of life and the hearts they see in Orthodox Christians. This is why personal relationships and “come and see” are so powerful and yet so elusive to establish by the kind of organized mass evangelism programs that many converts in particular think we need to have.
your “One problem with historicity…” comment deserves a posting in its own right, imo.
yannis, your points are well made about post-modernism and its problems. i would add to the list, middle aged men trying to look half their age to attract younger women, and conceiving babies at 80;—D
Very good point. I’m glad that cassocks and beards, etc., help me look even older than my 56 years – too tiring trying to pretend to be younger. 🙂
I think that the converts’ zeal for evangelism (myself being one) comes from a sense that “I lived so many years without this! I did not know that this kind of Christianity existed! Why didn’t anyone tell me!” But of course the kind of Christianity that Orthodoxy is, isn’t easily communicated in our mass media world.
easton, F. Stephen; 🙂
The obsession with historicity (I think it is fair we can call it this) in the western Christian tradition, is rooted in a larger problem. David Bradshaw describes this eloquently:
“The East has no concept of God. It views God not as an essence to be grasped intellectually, but as a personal reality known through His acts, and above all by oneself sharing in those acts…this understanding leads to a distinctive view of the role of asceticism and other spiritual practices. For the East these are viewed, not as a way of disciplining the body, but as contributing to an ongoing deification of the whole person, body as well as soul. A similar difference can be observed in regard to religious morality as a whole. For the East morality is not primarily a matter of conformance to law, nor (in a more Aristotelian vein) of achieving human excellence by acquiring the virtues. It is a matter of coming to know God by sharing in His acts and manifesting His Image.”
For a few additional thoughts on this, see my blog post:
Indeed. I have found Dr. Bradshaw’s work to be “spot on.”
Here is an excerpt from an interview of one of my favorite authors, Vladimir Nabokov, who, although born an Orthodox (as a Russian), did not participate in the Church (or any other tradition for that matter) in any manner (sorry F. Stephen). For litterary fans, the full interview can be found here:
“Q: You have also written that poetry represents “the
mysteries of the irrational perceived through rational words. ”
But many feel that the “irrational” has little place in an age
when the exact knowledge of science has begun to plumb the most
profound mysteries of existence. Do you agree?
VN: This appearance is very deceptive. It is a journalistic
illusion. In point of fact, the greater one’s science, the
deeper the sense of mystery. Moreover, I don’t believe that any
science today has pierced any mystery. We, as newspaper
readers, are inclined to call “science” the cleverness of an
electrician or a psychiatrist’s mumbo jumbo. This, at best, is
applied science, and one of the characteristics of applied
science is that yesterday’s neutron or today’s truth dies
tomorrow. But even in a better sense of “science”– as the
study of visible and palpable nature, or the poetry of pure
mathematics and pure philosophy– the situation remains as
hopeless as ever. We shall never know the origin of life, or
the meaning of life, or the nature of space and time, or the
nature of nature, or the nature of thought.
Q:Man’s understanding of these mysteries is embodied in
his concept of a Divine Being. As a final question, do you
believe in God?
VN:To be quite candid– and what I am going to say now is
something I never said before, and I hope it provokes a
salutary little chill– I know more than I can express in
words, and the little I can express would not have been
expressed, had I not known more.”
Thank you Father for this post. It fits in nicely w/ the book I am currently reading, “The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church” by Vladimir Lossky.
The insight brought about in the book w/ the implications of the incarnation and man as now a new creation, and that implies, have been/are very helpful on my journey.
I think you might have mentioned Lossky before, or even the above book, but was he a Priest or layman?
correction to above…it should read…
“implications of the incarnation and man as now a new creation, and what that completely implies, have been…
Vladimir Lossky was a layman, a Russian who emigrated to France. If I am not mistaken he was a professor of theology or philosophy at a university in Paris. I can also highly recommend another book by him called “Orthodox Theology: an Introduction”.
Yannis, thanks for that quote, that is classic! Q. “the exact knowledge of science has begun to plumb the most profound mysteries of existence” A. “We shall never know the origin of life, or the meaning of life, or the nature of space and time, or the
nature of nature, or the nature of thought.” An honest and wise man.
what religions would you consider “historical?”
Judaism is historical. To some extent Islam is historical, though I think it distorts history.
In contrast, Hinduism is not historical in character. Even Buddhism is not necessarily historical, though Buddha is a real person who really taught – but the point is his teaching, more or less (depending on the Buddhist you ask). Paganism in its various forms is not historical in nature, nor is Animism. Shinto is not historical in nature. That’s the general drift of my thoughts on the topic. Historical is an aspect that largely describes the Judaeo-Christian religions.