At some point in our history, we began to attribute a merely mental reality to anything that was not an object and reduced the importance of objects to what they could contribute to our mental reality. We live in a sea of psychology. Things, we believe, are only what we think they are. My “relationship” with you means nothing more than the set of inner experiences and dispositions I have towards you. In many ways, a very good version of “virtual reality” is just as good as “reality” itself.
The assumptions behind this are absurd. First, we posit something called “psychological” that is somehow distinct from our bodies. But, more importantly, we ignore the most obvious forms of relationship that are biological at their very core. How I “feel” about something or someone is considered the actual definition of what takes place between us.
I have written recently about the culture of sentiment. I want to turn our attention in this article to how our sentimental psychology distorts our concept of God and what it means to be in relationship with Him. When many Christians speak about “having a relationship with Jesus,” they have in mind something psychological. It means that they think about Jesus and talk to Jesus and trust that He thinks about them and will do what He has promised. But such relationships are simply a caricature of what God intends for us and distorts the nature of the Christian life.
For example, in the single most important moment of His ministry with His disciples, Christ takes bread, blesses and breaks it saying, “Take, eat. This is my body…” This event has been the occasion for endless thought and discussion ever since. But all of the thought and discussion mean nothing unless we take and eat. For it is important to know that the “relationship” we have with Jesus is rooted in something quite concrete: We eat His flesh and drink His blood. And though being quite concrete about this essential Christian act may seem somehow too literal for some, and not “spiritual” enough, the opposite is the case. The error lies with the “imaginary” communion that has come to be the feature of modern Christianity. We do well to remember that the language of eating and drinking belongs to Christ. It is how He described the action.
I will push the envelope a bit further. The Eucharist in many Christian communities is properly equated with the “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.”
Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name. (Heb 13:15)
Of course, in the various anti-sacramental theologies of some Protestant groups, this concept is used to trump the idea of the Eucharist as sacrifice. What we offer to God are words, ideas, thoughts and commitments. It is these psychological aspects that have come to have value while physical notions have been relegated to the category of “superstition.”
The Scriptures do not view praise and thanksgiving as psychological events:
But You are holy, You who inhabit the praises of Israel. (Psa 22:3)
God inhabits the praises of Israel. This is not the language of psychology nor a description of mere verbal and mental communication. It is the language of ontology, the language of being. It describes what is real.
The praise that we offer to God is not simply an idea. It is a sound. And sound is a physical event. Just as bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, so, too, does God inhabit our praise. We do not communicate telepathically, no matter how many might think it superior and possible. The Second Person of the Trinity is called the “Word of the Father.” The Logos [Word] is not a mental concept within the mind of the Father. He is Word. In Hebrew, He is Davar. And interestingly, the word “Davar” can mean both “word” and “action.” This notion of word is common and important in the Scriptures:
“For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven, And do not return there, but water the earth, making it bring forth and bud, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but shall accomplish what I please, and prosper in the purpose for which I sent it. (Isa 55:10-11)
For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. (Heb 4:12)
Our modern habits of mind immediately read such passages and translate them into the terms of mental imagination and psychological function. This is deeply contrary to the understanding of Scripture and the traditional Christian treatment. In Ancient Israel (and generally in modern Jewish practice as well), the Divine Name (YHVH) is never spoken. It may be written (clearly the concept can be thought), but the physical expression of the Name with the voice is forbidden. Instead, the word for Lord (Adonai), is voiced. This is not superstition, but a recognition of the substantial, sacramental character of the Word.
In a similar manner, our voiced praise is itself a sacrament. It is united with God – “He inhabits the praises of Israel.”
The psychologizing of relational realities is a relatively modern phenomenon. At its worst, it has created the current notion that “my reality” is “whatever I feel.” But such notions are only the most recent development in a long process of substituting psychological abstractions for true ontological realities. Recovering the true nature of reality is essential to a healthy Christian spiritual life.
It is interesting that the Scriptures put as much emphasis on truth-telling as they do. The issue is not a moral abstraction (“don’t tell lies because it’s wrong”). Rather, speaking a lie is an attempt to create a false reality, to put forward a creation that competes with the true creation of the good God. The damage of a lie is greater than its mere psychological effects. It is an “anti-sacrament,” an attempt to instantiate hell in our midst.
The Divine Liturgy is easily the most profound example of the substance of praise. The service must be understood as offering and sacrifice (for so it is self-described throughout).
We also offer to You this reasonable worship: for the whole world, for the holy, catholic and apostolic Church;
For the precious gifts offered and sanctified…that our God, Who loves mankind, receiving them upon His holy, heavenly, and ideal altar as a sweet spiritual fragrance, will send down upon us in turn His divine grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit…
[You] alone are holy, You accept the sacrifice of praise from those who call upon You with their whole heart. Accept also the prayer of us sinners, and lead us to Your Holy Altar. Enable us to offer You gifts and spiritual sacrifices for our sins and for the errors of the people. Account us worthy to find grace in Your sight, that our sacrifice may be acceptable to You, and that the good Spirit of Your grace may dwell upon us and upon these gifts here offered, and upon all Your people,
Not only are the holy gifts of bread and wine offered as a “bloodless sacrifice,” but so, too, the prayers and praises are described as offerings. The incense is described as an offering as well. And with all of these we pray that God will accept them “upon His heavenly altar and send down upon us in turn the grace of His all-holy Spirit.”
It is more than proper to understand all of this in a manner far more substantive than the merely mental and imaginary notions of modernity. Our praise is not mere words. Our words are themselves a true substance, inhabited by God. And so is the whole of our spiritual sacrifice. The sacrifice is not spiritual by virtue of being mental or somehow non-material. There is pretty much nothing about a human life that is immaterial. We are material beings, embodied souls. We offer to God the spiritual sacrifice of substantive praise, the spiritual sacrifice of burning incense, the spiritual sacrifice of bread and wine, the spiritual sacrifice of our souls and bodies. And in this primary exchange, we receive again from God the reality of His grace, the Divine Energies, the Life of His all-good and life-creating Spirit.
We live in a world of true wonder, not in a world of the imagination. We give to God what He has given to us: Thine Own of thine Own.