Reading the lives of the saints often raises our expectations. We read of someone transfigured with light, or of someone who is present in two places at once. We read beautiful descriptions of the inner life, of an awareness of our union with God or clarity with regard to the nature of all things. In comparison, our own religious experience will be sterile, a voice crying out in the wilderness met with stony silence. For some, such comparisons can lead to despair. For others, these comparisons make them doubt the authenticity of saints’ lives. In many cases we simply discover the disappointment of religion.
The modern religious search often begins in disappointment. The rhetoric of religious believing and the reality can be miles apart. There can be very legitimate reasons for this disjunction. The truth claims of many religious groups border on the absurd. Complex dogmatic constructs quickly reveal themselves to be the intellectual fabrications of cultural and psychological forces. Disappointment leads to disbelief.
A hallmark of the modern world is the emphasis on the individual. Religious systems that cater to this emphasis (whether knowingly or unknowingly) often find rapid success. The same rapid success can be followed with rapid disappointment. The criteria of individual values, rooted in emotion and psychological states, are notoriously changeable. Those who live by experience, die by experience.
Experience is the great watershed of individualism. The greater the emphasis on the individual, the greater the emphasis on psychology and emotion – for these are the primary aspects of individual experience. If the focus shifts from my place within a network of relationships to my place within myself, then the focus necessarily leaves me with nothing but “me.” Love ceases to be a set of practices and becomes a feeling.
Feelings and psychological states are inherently a part of the human experience – but they are a very poor basis for human community and culture. The rise and dominance of consumer culture is the result of experience being exalted to the pivotal point of our existence. We shop, we buy, we consume in order to “feel” good. And the feelings which we deem “good,” are themselves those that are sold to us in the deeply psychologized world of advertising. That God makes me feel good can be little more than saying, “I like salt, sugar and fat.”
People are always hungry (for salt, sugar and fat) and people always have an array of feelings and psychological states. But these are secondary elements of human existence – meant to be balanced, made whole and subservient to our greater life. Consumer societies will never be happy, stable, or healthy. Their happiness and stability can be managed by those who have the power of propaganda. By themselves, they will never create a healthy civilization.
The purpose of the Church is not to create healthy civilizations, nor does the Church exist to be yet one more outlet of good feelings and neuroses. The Church is that place where God is being reconciled to man, and man to God. It is that place where all things are being gathered together in one in Christ Jesus. It is the ecclesia, the Divine Community of the Body of Christ, in which we may be made whole and in which the truth of our existence can be made manifest.
How does that make you feel?
Depending on the state of our lives, feelings in the ecclesia can be terrifying, satisfying, depressing, or meaningless – everything human beings are capable of feeling. It is also inevitable that we bring with us into the Divine Community the brokenness of our psyches. Thus, we are prone to use others in distorted ways. We attach ourselves to leaders and use their confidence or eloquence (or far darker things) to patch together the shattered pieces of our own psyches. We use our peer groups in destructive ways to create islands of belonging, fleeing the alienation and abandonment of our inner history.
These (and many similar things) are the distortions of individualized consumers. We do not know how to live without meeting the irrational demands of our feelings. Our psyches have no training in how to heal – only in how to use things and people around us for comfort, defense and need.
This cultural reality makes it very difficult to speak of authentic Christian experience – for we speak to one another as addicts. We largely know experience as an alcoholic knows alcohol. That an alcoholic might prefer vodka to wine tells me nothing about vodka or wine. Religious experience tells me almost nothing about God, the Church, truth, etc. It is God, the Church, truth, etc., viewed through the fog of distorted modern perception.
Facebook offers us the icon of our modern selves: I like it.
Not surprisingly, Orthodoxy is not well adapted to modern existence. You may or may not like it. Orthodoxy does not care whether you like it (or it should not). There are many drawn to certain aspects of Orthodoxy – conversions are commonplace today. Conversions that are similar to the consumer-variety – those that populate the world of denominationalism (and non-denominationalism) are not unknown – but they are productive of but three things: unhappy Orthodox, former Orthodox, or former consumerist Christians. It is this latter that is the proper goal of the transformation of the mind (Romans 12:2).
That transformation, from consumerist governed by the passions, to disciple governed by Christ, is the very heart of the Christian life. In its earliest stages it is deeply disappointing and necessarily so. Our passions need to be disappointed and reordered.
I have written elsewhere that ninety percent of Orthodoxy is “just showing up.” I meant then and repeat now that the slow work of transformation requires our presence within and to the ecclesia, the Church gathered. My forgiveness of others is often a rebuke of my own passions: I find you irritating, because I am governed by my passions. Christianity, from the time of its gifting to us by Christ, has consisted of daily taking up our cross and following Him. It is a road of dispassionate living.
Learning to live within the ecclesia, is learning to renounce the distortions of individualism and the dominance of our desires. We do not renounce our individuality, but rather take up our individuality as persons – as those who live for and with others. My individual life is not strictly my own. My life is a common life – the Life of Christ that dwells within His ecclesia.
This new life is far from a disappointment: it is fulfillment. But those who would be fulfilled must first be disappointed. A beloved friend once advised me: the truth will make you free – but first it makes you miserable.