Suppose you had a great treasure and placed it in a box – locked tight – and kept the key to yourself.
Others could desire the great treasure. The treasure could be given to them – though still in the locked box.
Suppose, as well, that the content of the treasure is described in writings of those who have seen the treasure. But the box is locked.
And now lets add about 2000 years since the treasure was placed in the box and the description written.
How do we deal with the treasure in the box?
It would be possible, of course, for some to be extremely loyal to the description left in the writings of those who were witnesses to the treasure. Those who questioned their conclusions would assail the veracity and reliability of those who gave the description of the treasure in the box. Very quickly the arguments would become about the witnesses to the treasure (and the reliability of a 2000 year-old testimony) and the box itself would become secondary.
It would be possible for some to be loyal to the idea of the treasure in the box, but sceptical of the exact details given in the description of the witnesses. This would give rise to a community of discourse in which the discourse about the contents of the box would quickly replace the contents of the box.
Of course there would be others who would contend that there is nothing in the box – the testimony of those who say there is something in the box completely discounted and even a growing industry of debunking the ideas of those who believe in treasure in the first place.
My short parable is about the problem of history and the Christian witness.
For many Christians, the essential elements of the Christian faith are completely historical in nature. As such, the Christian faith is made problematic. For history, like the box in the parable, is something that is locked and largely inaccessible to us under normal circumstances. For some, the witness of those who bear the original witness to the treasure, is the key to the Christian faith. Their writings, the New Testament, is considered sufficient witness to the contents of history.
Of course, such a faith quickly becomes faith in the witness of the book, and not the contents of the box – Scripture comes to replace Christ as the central figure of faith. Others, such as modern liberals, question the contents of the box, and the reliability of the witness. Again, the argument remains outside the contents of the box.
History, as a collection of past events, remains are largely closed box. The further removed from us in time, the more mysterious the contents. Within this metaphor we cannot say that we bear witness to the contents of the box – only that we have faith in a written description of its contents. Little wonder that those who do not share that faith have less and less comfort in the authority of that witness or its reliability as a guide for modern life.
In such a scenario, Christianity becomes an argument about a book within an argument about books. We move ourselves onto the same ground as Islam and its claims of an inspired text, Mormonism and its claims of an inspired text, etc. The faith of Christians in such a context is just one more text.
Reducing the Christian faith to a belief about certain historical events is a mistake that has the unintended effect of placing the very essence of our faith out of reach and at the mercy of our enemies. It can be devastating to those who are young in the faith and an unnecessary stumbling block for all. The Christian faith is more than a belief about certain historical events – it is a living participation in those events and a life lived in union with them. We do not bear witness to a witness, but also a witness to what we know.
The death and resurrection of Christ are not locked in a box.
There is a historical captivity to which much of modern Christianity has acquiesced. The events of Christ’s death and resurrection are treated in a historical fashion and thus made subject to all of the limits imposed by historical study. All of His teaching is made subject to the same historical restrictions. Thus it has not been unusual that the 20th century saw such books as The Search for the Historical Jesus (Schweizer) and the gradual disintegration of agreement concerning the person of Jesus. Today, the most liberal of Christian Biblical scholars have no certainly about Christ whatsoever.
The most conservative (particularly Protestant) Christians continue to simply assert the inerrancy of the Bible and avoid the obvious problems raised by historical limitations, and thus become more and more marginalized within the context of modern discourse. They also have the added problem of relating only to the text – and thus reduce Christianity to a historical text, a book among books.
The Orthodox understanding of these matters is deeply important. The death and resurrection of Christ are not locked in a box, for, though they historical, they are not merely so. That which occurred within history is also that which is Alpha and Omega and thus transcends history. As transcendent of history it remains available to the present and can be known now – even as the witnesses who first saw it.
The content of the Christian faith affirms certain things about certain historical events, but it also affirms that those events have shattered space and time and that the God who entered into space and time is also the God who is outside of space and time and can be known everywhere and always.
Such a witness that transcends space and time is also the basis of a Christianity that is sacramental and bears witness to the continuing reality of a living encounter with the resurrected Christ.
The classical Christian witness is to events that are evidence of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. God has entered our world, utterly disrupting the limitations of space and time. Those who bear authentic witness to Christ offer more than a rational acceptance of the authority of Scripture – they bear witness to the continuing presence of the Risen Christ and His lordship over all things.
Scripture itself teaches such a transcendent view of the events of Christ.
Get out of the box. Christ is in our midst.
Bravo Fr. Stephen. Well said. Is this the outline of a book on eschatology?
Thank you Fr. Stephen!!!
Yeah….when are you going to write a book?
I spent the evening being plied with these very questions by a teenage boy. Now I have something to give him that expresses very eloquently what I was haltingly trying to say — that he can know Christ here and now, and that this is what a sacramental faith means. Thank you.
Thank you, Fr. Stephen.
Great stuff! I think I’ll share this with my Facebook friends…
The concept of real participation in and synergy with God is a very difficult one to accept, particularly to the modern, western mind. How can it be possible for a perfect God who is beyond time and space to share of Himself and work together with finite creatures? Is this participation limited to our intellect? Does He share of Himself or merely by way of some impersonal force? Without the Eastern Orthodox understanding of the Divine Energies we enter a Two Storey universe of a distant God and secular man. But the good news is that God directly shares of Himself, we participate in God’s nature deifing our whole being, while we actively work together with HIm. Christ is in our midst!
Thank you for all of your wonderful articles.
You’ve given me a wonderful introduction for this year’s 9th and 10th grade orthodox education class on Church History, taught through the lives of the saints. Thank you.
Also shared with my facebook friends, after Jim posted it on his profile. This will help the message get out even further.
I have also shared it with two Church ministers I know, as the wider congregation who may not have use of the Internet would find it of interest.
Thank you 🙂
I just read this from Fr Meletios Webber’s article “The Mind, the Heart, and the Way of Salvation” (in Divine Ascent. Volume 9: 2004) which seem quite appropriate to the topic at hand:
The mind is much happier working in the past or future, since they are both actually constructs of the mind’s own workings, and so the mind feels it can control them. The present moment, however, is completely outside its control, and therefore ignored.
Unfortunately for the mind, the present momoent is the only moment which is, in any sense, real. Moreover, in spiritual terms, the present moment is the only possible occaision in which we can meet God (or anyone else).
Within the Kingdom there is no time, simply eternity…or more plainly, only now.
I think that it is only natural that whoever is looking at the issue of faith with empirical means – either for proving it or for discrediting it, will be making assertions or negations that will be inevitably and by default missing the point.
If viewed as another story – another piece of litterature – the new testament presents a very formidable and unimitable character that seems to hold all the metaphysical keys to the koan – enigma – of human existence. This is a character of the profoundest depth and spirituality and compassion and love, that knows at any time what end is up – not another Moses ie a person that needs to keep in touch with God – but a person who is in fact in no separation whatosoever with God hence calls himself his son. Christ is a character that cannot simply be discarded by focusing on whether the miracles that are attributed to him happened or not, in the same way that any story, true or not, that functions as a myth (ie a revealing of inner truths, truths of the heart) too cannot, because even if the miracles can be doubted as events the character and the Truth he bears remain, and its very existence is far more miraculous and enigmatic than them.
I think that of all people, writters understand this truth in an intuitive way – even ones that are not religious in the conventional sense, like say C. Bukowski. They understand well that its completely unimportant to try and find out if a person like this existed historically as its described or not – for them even if it is all a made up, the person still exists because, obviously, the author who “made him” was the knower of the profound inner truths the character holds. Someone knew all this, and if so its all true.
In my opinion, the closer one is to the Truth, the more this is felt by others; Christ – as a scriptural character – was exactly spot on, and the rest is history. Anyone honest enough with himself that feels the ugly and complex knot of life and death, of suffering, of the poetry that is inherent in life itself, of the paramount importance and need for ontological meaning in the life of humans, will aknowledge that the scriptural Christ is a miracle in and by himself.
PS Apologies F.Stephen if this is not exactly following the reasoning line of the orthodox theological view which i espouse.
He is and ever shall be!
Thank you Father – brilliant.
Thank you for putting into colours what Scripture does with words Father Stephen!
All Scripture is a thick syrup — the elixir of Heaven — but to some it has the consistency of set concrete.
A most excellent article, Fr. Stephen. Also thanks to Raphael for the lead to Fr. Meletios Webber’s article.
Yes, indeed, both past and present, above and below – according to the Book and more importantly, in us- come together in Christ.
I’ve begun alternately reading some of my favorite chapters among the epistles- Phillipians, Revelations 4 & 5, Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 13, 1 John 3, 1 Peter 1, Hebrews 12, 1 Thes. 5, and Colossians 3, which says we have died and risen with Christ and we are to “seek the things which are above, where Christ is.” The ascension and enthronement of Christ happened and is.
Not that I’ve attained this, but at least when spiritual Fathers like you remind us, we can more earnestly refocus on this reality in Christ.
Jason, et al. According to my editor at Conciliar Press: The book, Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, will be released on March 1, 2011. I expect other books to follow.
Oh that is great news. I want a signed copy! 🙂
Spectacular! I was hoping you would write something!
Excellent news on the book! Thank you, and thank CP for publishing you.
Thank you Fr. Stephen for this truly beautiful lesson.
Father Stephen thank you and thank God for his ability to communicate His message through you and your blog!
Active, moment by moment participation and communion in the life of Christ awakens for me each morning in Matins(when I have ears to hear) with this incredibly powerful prayer which opens the door to this ‘encounter’ you so describe:
Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth…who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of good gifts and Giver of life, come and abide in us, cleanse us of all impurities and save our souls O Good One
The title to your book suggests that an important element of your message will amplify and support these beautiful words. I’m not sure I need to go much further than this prayer…and this may be enough for my simple mind to be enriched with a lifetime of rich, always new contemplation. My experience has been that the daily, weekly, and ongoing cycles of the Orthodox services are divine doors which can through God’s grace make participation and communion with Christ move the 18 inches from my head to my heart….certainly, for my hardened heart the road less travelled.
I eagerly anticipate your book and the way God will use you.
Christ is in our midst and He’s breathed into your words to touch my life and change me.
That is all.
This parable explains the problem of sola scriptura, and modernism in general, much better than the traditional approach. This is not a new topic for me, but it put everything in much clearer perspective. thanks!
Thank you for this great post, Fr. Stephen! It is indeed all too easy to miss the forest for the trees and shift one’s focus from God to something else, even if that something is scripture. This is probably one of the reasons God has always been so insistent on forbidding idolatry. Even the bible can become an idol, as can history, theology, etc.
Enjoyed your thoughtful post very much on how Christianity forms us to be a people of Christ and not “people of the Book”.
Also wondering if you have considered opening a Twitter account if you are not already on that SM platform? Readers of your blog are “tweeting” links to your posts ( that is how I found it), but it would be even easier to follow you if you had your own account.
If you are looking at how to get started I found Elizabeth Kricfalusi at http://www.techforluddites.com very helpful to me as a beginner tweeter. In addition to helpful tips on her blog, she also took time to answer a question I sent her by email.
Best wishes in Christ,
Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe
Well done Fr. Stephen. Excellent title!
“Bravo Fr. Stephen. Well said. Is this the outline of a book on eschatology?”
“Thank you Fr. Stephen!!!”
Ah, yes! Let’s put Fr. Stephen in a box!
Oops! The second comment I intended to copy in the above was, “Yeah….when are you going to write a book?” Not, “Thank you Fr. Stephen!!!”
Sorry for the confusion.
Great posting Fr. Stephen.
In a very real sense, God is in the box (but only because He has chosen to make Himself “small” — else how could we approach Him?).
Christ is born!
— is a call to participate in the Uncreated Life of God…
Nicely written….I can clearly see what you mean