The creation of the “two-storey universe” was an unintended consequence of the Protestant Reformation. I have recently been enjoying Brad Gregory‘s The Unintended Reformation, in which he traces the various historical currents and ideas that gave rise to the modern secular notion of the world. It is a magisterial treatment, and I recommend it to serious students of history, as well as anyone wanting to better understand our modern culture. I have written many times about the notion of a two-storey universe, one in which the so-called “real world” is neutral territory, inherently devoid of religious content. It has as well a “second-storey” in which spiritual things are relegated to “upstairs” and somehow cordoned off from daily existence.
Gregory traces this through philosophy, theology, politics, a whole host of concerns, and gives a spot-on account of the multiple narratives, world-views and explanations that run through the modern mind. Very similar to Alasdair MacIntyre’s analysis of modernity, he notes that our culture is a mass of contradictions, the aftermath of the assault on the much more homogenous world-view of the late Middle Ages. One particular victim of this unintended revolution has been the sacramental world-view that was the dominant mind of Catholicism at the time (and still is officially), just as it is today within Orthodox theology.
What is lost with the sacramental world-view isn’t simply the belief that in the Eucharist, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, but the belief that such a thing is either possible or desirable. For many contemporary Christians, the absence of Christ’s body and blood in their lives in any manner they consider “real,” is simply unnoticed. There is, however, a deep absence that is worth pondering.
The sacramental world is utterly permeated with meaning and spiritual communion. It is not isolated to the Eucharist. Indeed, the Eucharist is something of a pattern for all of life. Everything within daily life carries the possibility of the Divine. Time moves through a calendar in which the days of the week and the whole of the year are a collection of occasions in which people encounter the reality of Christ’s saving work. None of this disappeared entirely with the advent of modernity. Orthodox and Catholic Christians still attend a Church in which all of this is true, but they increasingly do so in a culture where it is not. One result of this is the consumerizing of the sacramental life. We get the sacramental stuff we like, attend some of the feasts, but mostly leave the calendar on the wall. We worship in a sacramental world but often live elsewhere.
With the disappearing of the sacramental world, the presence of God has not been utterly rejected. Such a rejection, I suspect, would have been an absence too difficult for believers to bear. But, as sacramental reality receded, substitutes were found. The non-sacramental world of the post-Reformation is largely peopled with a distinct collection of individuals, largely conceived as centers of consciousness. Sacramental reality gives way to a psychologized notion of reality. We share ideas, thoughts and feelings, but do not consider ourselves to have sacramental communion with other people or other things. God becomes a Personality among personalities. In a world whose governing philosophy is Nominalism, little else is possible.
This is the basis for the modern notion of a “personal relationship with God.” The phrase is utterly dominant in large parts of modern Christianity. For many, it is considered the absolute minimum requirement for anyone claiming to be a Christian. And yet, the phrase does not appear until sometime in the 20th century. It is not simply a new phrase; it describes a new idea.
One dominant strain of modernity pictures the world as a network of “relationships,” that is, a web of affiliations, formal and informal, that comprise the collection of people whom we value and who value us. God has simply been added to this network.
In classical terms, however, the “personhood” of God bears little resemblance to the psychological construct referenced in modern usage. This fact brings into question the modern experience of “personal relationship,” and suggests that it is fraught with psychological projection and wish-fulfillment. The late 18th century, as well as the whole of the 19th century, were times in which extreme forms of religious experience became quite common. The various “Great Awakening” movements were marked by crowds swooning and falling down as well as other emotional manifestations. The Holiness and Pentecostal movements had their beginnings in these emotion-laden revivals, often multiplying experiences into new extremes. Today, various irruptions of Pentecostal fervor are greeted as yet one more “new move of the Holy Spirit.”
Doubtless, extreme emotional expressions have been present in Christianity throughout its history. However, only in the modern period have these expressions (and their milder form referenced as a “personal relationship”) replaced sacramental reality as the theological test of God’s truth. Baptism is thus despised by many, unless it follows an emotional experience now dubbed “being born again,” something that classically always named Baptism itself.
In contemporary practice, however, a newly-imagined world of psychological experiences has pushed aside everything else as it constitutes a new reality. It is not surprising that the “experience” of one’s gender is now seen as more important than the actual biology of one’s gender. Marriage is seen as a contractual affirmation of a psychological relationship, and not the actual union of a man and a woman.
Psychology has, in a sense, become a new form of sacramentality, much more preferable to modern tastes in that it is infinitely malleable. Psychological experience can be anything I want it to be – a consumer’s utopia!
By the same token, the sacramental world-view seems less “real” to modern sensibilities. The bread and wine continue to look like bread and wine, and we are not even asked to “experience” them as something else. We ask, “Did you get anything out of that service?” The sacramental answer would be quite clear. The psychologized answer invites various efforts to create feelings and experiences. It is an invitation to delusion as seen from the classical sacramental world.
A transition from the popular world of psychologized relationships to the sacramental world of classical Christianity is difficult. Our culture is dominated by a psychologized notion of reality. What it declares to be “real” is easily seen as real by those who have not begun to question their world. However, it is a very weak basis for spiritual stability (even as it is for a marriage).
Teaching a sacramental understanding to those in contemporary culture is difficult. While classical Christianity acknowledges the variety of psychological experience, it does not give it much attention, or spiritual significance. The sacramental worldview is rooted primarily in doctrine and teaching, and confirmed by experience, though an experience that is rightly understood as noetic rather than psychological. The great strength of a sacramental understanding is its grounding in reality – not as I think it – but as it is. The psychological approach to God seeks to be moved; the sacramental seeks to be still.
In Christ, God became what we are, but without sin. Much of what we imagine in our psychologized world is little more than the dizzying swirl of the passions caught in a cloud of imagination. Who Christ is, as the incarnate God/Man, is not known by assuming Him as a Personality among personalities. What it means to be Person is something we ourselves have yet to become. The way of life described in the older, classical form of Christianity, is the steady path towards that self-emptying personhood.
The Cross of Christ utterly altered reality, regardless of how we might feel about it. The world is sacrament and symbol, sign and signification. The presence of God is as palpable and real (and yet more real) than the ground on which we walk. The one-storey universe abides among us.