Perhaps the most striking thing about human beings is that we don’t actually come into existence by ourselves. There are parents (two of them when the laws of biology are allowed to work). The parents themselves are points of contact to a much larger world of the family and the culture itself. Human beings do not come without cultures. In a relatively short time, we acquire language and a host of other things from this culture around us. Concepts, beliefs, understandings will all be engaged only in a cultural context. There is something individual about us, but mostly in the abstract. It is not just other humans that we need: we cannot exist without bacteria. We have more of them in our gut than the number of cells in our bodies. We do not exist alone. In the story of our creation, we were told, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” And so we are “male and female.” How is it that our lives exist only in such a shared manner and yet many want to image that our salvation is entirely individual?
No one is saved as an individual.
There is no historical account of a Christianity that is not also the Church. Christianity must be the Church because that alone truly reflects the truth of our humanity. Jesus never taught a salvation that was individualized. Instead, He prays:
“That they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us…”(Joh 17:21)
The “one” that we are to become is not a property that can belong to an individual. Alone, we are not one. Alone, we are not yet anything.
The language we use with regard to God bears a similar understanding. Christ reveals the Father by a name that can have no meaning by itself. “Father” is always “Father of…” The same is true of the name “Son.” “Spirit” is always “Spirit of” (particularly in the original languages). God makes Himself known to us in the mystery of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Nothing is more bothersome in our existence than the existence of others. Jean-Paul Sartre famously said, “Hell is other people,” (indicating that you would not want to invite him to a party). Both love and hate require other people. We do nothing alone. We might imagine ourselves to be doing something alone, but within us are the presence of many others. The voice in our head speaks a language, learned only from others. When we speak, they speak as well. Our existence is never truly individual.
And so, our salvation is never truly individual. The modern world caters to an imaginary individual, something invented by its own mythology. It speaks of liberty without responsibility and freedom without communion. Various contemporary Christianities have unintentionally become purveyors of this concept, and have created an account of salvation that isolates the believer, who is told that they can have Christ without sacrament and without the Church. They offer something that Christ Himself never offered.
God has united Himself to our humanity and become a partaker of our history and our culture. There is no Jesus of Nazareth who is not a Jew, who does not speak Aramaic, who was not born of Mary. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity enters time at the word of an angel to the Virgin. Not until God enters her womb (taking flesh of the Virgin) can we say His name is “Jesus.” That name is now exalted because it is now the name of the Son of God. But the Son of God now remains and abides fully human as well as fully God. To be fully human is to have a context.
Christ is not some sort of “transcendent man,” incarnate in all places, times and cultures. To know Him is also to know a Jew, a male, a Galilean. All those things (as do all things human) have a shared characteristic within them and have no meaning except in reference to other humans.
The human life is always a corporate life. Though each person has some measure of freedom, we remain dependent upon others. That someone should become a hermit and have no more contact with others does not erase the fact that their existence remains dependent. We are not self-creating nor self-sustaining.
The interdependent reality of our lives has traditionally been expressed in the communion of saints within the historic Christian Church. We cannot speak of Christ’s humanity apart from the Virgin Mary, and so (as a representative of us all) she is always honored in the life of the Church (just as she is honored within the gospels).
The unchurched, non-sacramental evolution of contemporary Christianity follows the track of modern culture’s portrayal of human beings as atomistic individuals. Catholics and Orthodox frequently hear others assert, “I don’t need a priest. I can go straight to God.” Of course, neither Catholics nor Orthodox say that you cannot “go straight” to God. However, they both know that no one goes alone. We are assisted by the heavenly hosts, our guardian angels, the saints, our brothers and sisters in Christ, and, yes, the sacramental priesthood of the Church who exist in the line of the Apostles. That is the universe and the faith as God gave them to us. Modernity imagines that everything can be improved, including God.
This, however, is anti-human, a re-imagining of our nature and a re-configuration of salvation. Letters written to Churches are taken as personal mail from God. In ignorance, contemporary readers remove the Scriptures from the Church, from history and from the tradition that produced them and turn them into texts that justify modernity and every bizarre turn of the culture.
The gospel is not the story of individual salvation. It is, above all, the “gathering together into one all things in Christ Jesus.” The drive towards independence and the diminishment of our common life is a drive that is moving in a direction opposite from the “mystery of [God’s] will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself” (Eph 1:9).
Modernity is on a collision course with the universe. My money is on the universe.
Thanks Father Stephen for your words of wisdom. The Father begets the Son and lives together in unity with the Holy Spirit. The virtue of love requires the Other. As I grow in my relationship to God and others it becomes more obvious that in the Orthodox tradition all are called to live the monastic life as much as possible with a Spiritual Father who directs and challenges us to love more like God. Peace and Blessings to all who read your posts.
“Modernity imagines that everything can be improved, including God.”
So true, it is an attempt to attain transcendence by the sweat of our own brow, believing if we just worked hard enough, we can become that idealized person we all deeply and desperately desire to be. It is indeed anti-human, because it denies the weakness of our nature, and if we just ignored it for long enough, we can get there. But we can never get there. We need help. We must stare our weakness in the face and say, I know you are a part of me, and i will always be bound by you, but I got something-Someone- in my corner who despite all of my weakness, still desires me. Still loves me. This is the essence of humility: that we are not any more nor any less than what we are.
Thank you Father. Life has made be forget this recently and I needed a reminder today.
It seems to me that this recasting of humanity into the isolated individual is the source of many of the problems we see today. It also reminds of the Japanese Samurai. He could only exist in service to his lord. If his lord perished his place in life was lost and he became “ronin.” He was disgraced and outcast and yet today we have so many who are ronin believers who live without order and place in the Church.
“Both love and hate require other people. ”
So very, very true, Father. It’s easy to love other people from a distance. But having to live with them , or be in any kind of relationship with them, really puts us to the test. It’s easy for me to deceive myself that I am a loving person as long as I don’t have to interact with my neighbors, LOL. Fortunately, God has not allowed me to live alone, thus forcing me to recognize my own short-comings and to repent of them. Without other people, i would not even be aware of my weaknesses, nor be able to ask God to heal me.
“To say that there are “many human beings” is a common abuse of language. Granted there is a plurality of those who share the human nature…but in all of them, humanity is one”-St. Gregory of Nyssa, “That there are not three Gods”
Excellent quote! Thanks!
I have become fascinated with the recent science of gut bacteria. Scientific research is only at the beginning of trying to understand the complexities of interaction between gut bacteria and its impact on thoughts, decisions, and emotions as well as disease and obesity. I have seen articles talking about how the Irish potato famine has effected gut bacteria for the great-grandchildren of those who endured the famine.
Two people get married, and their gut bacteria start interacting. A child is born, and the child’s gut bacteria interacts with her mother’s. A child goes to school, and the gut bacteria of other children start interacting with the gut bacteria of her family. What is really remarkable is that this shared gut bacteria interact with the neurons in our brains in ways science may never completely understand.
This has all led me to the same thoughts as the Fathers and the subject of today’s blog. As you said, the universe will win over modernity.
At the end of a very beautiful Holy Unction service last night, the Bishop held up the Gospel Book, and everyone fell down, in prostration, gathered together. One person touched the Gospel Book, and everyone was asked to be touching one another, prostrated, as the Bishop prayed over us.
It seems to me that the Lord’s promise to make all things new is a part of the oneness
Many years ago I remember reading for the first time: ‘The Meaning of Icons’ by Lossky and Ouspensky which went on to describe the Life of the Trinity in regard to Saint Andrew Rublev’s icon of the Trinity. Undivided in essence, perfect humility and love to each other. Perfect harmony and unity.
In the same way we are called to emulate together this oneness and relationship of The Trinity in our humanity, of which Christ became a part of so that we can all be united with Him and each other in one body (The Church).
Our salvation as a human race begins with Anunciation of the Virgin Mary, as we celebrate it today. No “personal relationship with God” could save us unless God entered the Theotokos’s womb and was incarnate, born, perfect Man and perfect God.
The reminder that we cannot improve God or anything else without His Grace is a reminder that cannot be written frequently enough!
Thank you, Father. How beautiful a meditation.
Thank you Fr. Stephen.
Great insights indeed that are “Absolute”, True and proven by Science, (we are not alone, a Paramecium, (if you will).
Blessings and Happy Fast and Pascha.
I know this is not the central point of the essay, but, reading it and a couple of the comments, I started wondering about fasting as a physical and spiritual discipline: how the discipline of fasting (in both what and how much we eat) affects the bacteria in our guts and that, in turn, affects our battle against the logoismoi.
I may be pushing the thought a bit too far – and I apologize if I am – but I also started wondering if there may be something to glean from the healing where Christ says “this kind does not come out except by prayer and fasting.”
Fr. Peter Andronache,
That’s an intriguing viewpoint from which to examine fasting.
Reminds me of the notion (heard it a few times from Elder Aimilianos), that the extreme fasting of the saints is an emphatic expression of the person’s perpetual desire, (like a bodily expression of an innermost cry towards God), for the ‘old man’ to decrease in order that the ‘new one’ – Christ – might increase (John 3:30); and gives it a new angle.
I have 4 sisters. Only one attends church regularly. We were all raised Protestant. If I were to ask my unchurched sisters if they were Christian, they would respond positively. It is amazing to me how this “Lone Ranger” mentality, this rugged individuslism has entered into even evangelicalism. I think I read recently that the Evangelical Free Church no longer requires baptism for converts. No sacramenrs, in this case no ordinance, moving right along with the tide of no church needed.
My best friend in high school was the son of a Foursquare pastor. This man was completely dedicated to the Lord Jesus. I know of two times that he did a complete fast with only water for 40 days. The second bout almost killed him. Yet he went on to live years more. He followed Christ the best he could with the knowledge he possessed.
……”Sacraments” not “sacramenrs.”
Allen, Fr. Peter, Dino…interesting comments.
Regarding Allen’s initial comment, I had misunderstood the point. At first I thought the point was that bacteria was the sole cause of the types of thoughts we have. But after reading some articles, the scientists have not determined the exact mechanism of bacteria’s impact on our thoughts, only that it does have one.
May I add….
It is interesting because Christ knows exactly the interconnectedness of our soul and body, down to the microscopic, and even atomic level. Yet He simply tells us, for our own good, to fast. Many, including the monastics, know very well how fasting is the pathway to spiritual enlightenment. It is no surprise that fasting is one of the primary means in overcoming the passions of the flesh. So now in the consumer age we live in, food is not just food anymore, but is manufactured, processed, scientifically manipulated to taste better, so we can be manipulated to consume more. How can these impurities not have even more of an impact on gut bacteria?! Such studies confirm why the Church tells us to fast. I think many out there who have food allergies or who have children and family members who do, are very aware just how much food interacts with our soul. It is helpful to know the advancements of science in these matters. But the best lesson is to trust that when Christ tells us to “follow Me”, which includes prayer and fasting, that its ultimate purpose is a closer communion with all things in Christ. We have our elders to counsel us in these matters, but in the end, as always, it is all about Christ and our union with Him.
As we know, none of this comes easy. Neither was it meant to.
Dean, thanks for your comments. I tend to look at things differently than most. Most Orthodox I know lament the fact that our Protestant friends have only two “sacraments” left. I put sacraments in quotes for, I think, obvious reasons. For me though, I’m surprised that they still even bother with those two. If, as they believe, they’re purely symbols, why even bother? To that point, I credit the EV Free Church for that move, as they are simply following their stated beliefs, to their logical conclusions.
There’s a novel by Charles Williams (one of the Inklings, albeit less well known than Lewis or Tolkien, and considered to be a bit of an eccentric, too), titled Descent Into Hell, which dwells upon this point. (For those who are interested, it can be read online at the following places:
Project Gutenberg Australia
University of Adelaide )
In the book, Williams posits a way of fulfilling the injunction to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2) which he terms The Doctrine of Substituted Love and in illustration of this, one of the characters even goes so far as to literally take the emotional burden of the anxiety and fear of another character upon himself so that the other character can bear her suffering without being broken under its weight and work out her salvation and help others in turn to work out theirs too.
Certainly a very odd story, but also deeply moving.
Fr. Freeman and others, if any of you have already read this novel, I’d be very interested in reading your comments on it.
I have a number of friends who go to a nearby Evangelical Free Church congregation, a megachurch. As I understand it, they offer baptism to believers who want it, but being baptized there does not make one a _member_ of that congregation. To become a _member_ one must meet with the group of elders of the congregation and satisfy them of the soundness of one’s faith and doctrine (this may involve going through a class for prospective members). The point, as I recall, is that members vote on certain decisions of the congregation; and this procedure is designed to guard the congregation from undue influence from those whose faith is insincere or misguided. I first heard of this practice shortly after being received into the Orthodox Church, and I recall how jarring it was to think of separating baptism and membership in this way.
This past week, a sweet Baptist friend said she hasn’t been a member of her church (having moved) because they require members to attend a class or two. Her Baptist preacher father-in-law had told them it was not biblical to require anything for membership! But, of course, she noted “once saved, always saved.” I don’t pursue anything much deeper than weather. Her kids don’t feel it’s necessary to go-to church, although they,too, would say they’re Christians. On another note, we have about 23 Catechumens this year…mostly young adults. Glory to God!!
I think it’s important, however, that we understand that not to be a “respecter of persons” is a good thing. There are times we’re called to break free of a collective, a group, and follow God in a difficult and isolated-seeming way (of course the communion of saints and the Holy Trinity and all the servants of God are with us). But I think it’s important that we not lose this aspect of faith. Christ went to the Cross alone but was not alone — that is a difficult road to follow but one I think we are all called to at one time or another, to true dependency on Christ. This is how we “overcome the world” and follow Him (John 16:32-33)
My first lingering thought after reading this post was to remember reading early in my journey to Orthodoxy Zizioulas’, Being As Communion (after seeing it on offer from a homeschool catalog for its high school curriculum!). I could barely get my mind around its language, if at all, on that first reading, but it was enough for it to dawn on me there was a profound revelation awaiting me within Orthodoxy. If I recall, the book’s basic premise was the revelation of the nature of the Divine as a loving (Triune) *communion* of Persons is in reality the only way we can affirm God IS love in any meaningful sense at all.
The recent entries on this comments thread as regards the non-sacramentality of the free church traditions within Protestantism was very relevant, given my husband’s (and my former) Evangelical congregation within the last few years made the same move as Dean’s sister’s as regards baptism. While just a few weeks ago, I decided to accept the invitation to join a small support group of attenders of this church of women who are parents or educators of special needs children and who have decided to read through C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity together. Last Sunday evening, we read together the chapter containing the following:
Lewis then goes on taking this one of his many disarmingly brilliant yet earthy analogies to explain the relationship between the grace and gratuity of the Divine bestowal of this new life and the necessity of our own cooperative efforts to nurture and keep that life, alluding to the fact that as we can commit suicide and lose our natural life, we can also neglect or even throw away this new life we have been offered in Christ. This, as most of us will realize, is very much grounded in the classical Christian and biblical images and language, but was a bit unsettling to those in the group schooled in the teaching, “once saved, always saved.”
Make that “…disarmingly earthy yet brilliant analogies…”.
I did not really grasp “Being as Communion” until I read it a second time after two semesters of Greek, its a tough book. I would not generally recommend it for seekers or catechumens either.
Nicholas, “tough book” — very true! Trust primarily conservative Protestant homeschoolers to put it in their high school church history curriculum….That’s a prescription for incomprehension, even by chronic overachievers with superior language skills, if ever there was one! 😂 Still, to be fair, if I recall there were cautions in the catalog’s description about the difficulty level of the book, and you’ve got to give them lots of credit for not using a polemical Protestant text to introduce their students to Orthodoxy.
True enough they were generous but I cannot see a high school student grasping the book easily. It was a text we read in Seminary for Systematic Theology at the graduate level and most of my fellow students never did grasp it. I can think of better books to put in their library as an introduction to Orthodoxy, Fredrica Matthews Green has several that are quite suitable for High School students. Perhaps a gift of one would be a good addition to their library.
Charles Williams was a complicated man, wasn’t he? There are times when he talks about some spiritual ideas in rather fruitful and small-o orthodox language— the way he talks about coinherence, for example, I’ve found to be a beautiful, poetic enrichment for my imagination.
That said, the man was also highly influenced by the occult, and I’ve found in his remarkable novels that he can veer wildly from orthodoxy to heresy and back again even within one sentence.
I think he’s read profitably when read with discernment. 🙂 How’s that for a wishy-washy non-opinion, lol? But I do hope that he is right, and that it is a good thing to offer oneself up to bear the spiritual pain of others. If he’s wrong, then I pray to be forgiven for arrogance, you know?
Also, if you want a bang-up education on Williams, you can look no further than Sorina Higgins’ blog, The Oddest Inkling. Very good stuff.
Never read Being As Communion but the title alone presents an amazing panoply of possibilities and connections that has always excited me. A never ending meditation on the fundamental reality that all life is organically interconnected through the Holy Trinity. Personally I have a good ways to go before I could get beyond the title page.
It can only be realized and deeply experienced through participation in the life of the Church.
My deep thanks to all of you here for your faith and devotion. Each and all make my life easier. Please forgive me my sins.
Complicated is an understatement. Infuriatingly admirable is more like it. 😛
Thanks for the tip about the Oddest Inkling blog. By the way, what do you think of his short story Et in Sempiternum Pereant ?
Also, I notice that similar points (i.e., regarding individualism in religion) are discussed in Against Religion by Yannaras. The book can be read online here (PDF, ~3.2MB)
Nicholas, one wonders if the curriculum publisher had any knowledgeable Orthodox acquaintances to consult about such an Orthodox source. Maybe some homeschool dad who went to seminary contributed that bright idea. Did you have to read any other Orthodox sources? It is rather curious, but this was at least 15 years ago now, so who knows? There’s lots of more accessible material now available in English, to be sure. Glory to God for that….
Michael, Michael, Michael 🙂
“I have a good ways to go before I could get beyond the title page.”
Aw, come on! You’re just saying that!
Read the book Michael. Read the book. There are no warnings on the cover that one must be “deeply experienced”. You would like it and be blessed by it. Besides, those who are deeply experienced most likely already have some knowledge of the book’s contents!
Is the book deep? Yes. Does it need to be read multiple times? That depends on the reader. But don’t avoid reading it on account of the meaty-ness. Do you think Met. Zizioulas would suggest to you to wait to read it?
I think I’ve made my point, brother! Blessings to you!
There were no other books in the reading that were Orthodox, but I had a friend who was Orthodox and he gave several good books to read.
Paula, as my brain ages I have less appetite for complications and simply wish to live long enough to repent deeply. So I tend to shy away from complicated words. I know my being only exists in communion with yours and others through the grace of our Incarnate Lord. There is no such thing as an individual. Each of our lives depends on others in an infinite, inter-woven, multi-dimensional reality down to the single-cell organisms and up to God Himself.
My father learned it as a pioneer on the high plains of eastern New Mexico over a century ago. That knowledge he passed on to me and to my brother through word and deed. That knowledge made it impossible for us to be anything but Orthodox. That reality makes it possible for the great saints to actually pray with others in need anywhere and through their prayers the Providence of God is revealed. When I stand in front of an icon in attentive silence, I can begin to know them.
That is the Sacramental life. The words of the Sacraments are descriptions of the way creation is. The actions of the Sacraments allow us to enter that reality by God’s grace. If I had gained holiness I could reach out and touch you and leave an imprint of love on your heart and receive one from you. Since I am a lazy, lowly sinner I can only ask your forgiveness and allow God to give the increase.
Blessed Pascha. God is with us.
I agree that there is a place that exists far beyond mere words and certainly respect the place where you are at.
Appreciate your words.
And undoubtedly, God forgives, Michael.
Amen. Blessed Pascha.
Michael, your comments have brightened my day and lightened my load many a time over the years. It is indeed a great blessing to have such a connection in Christ and to be able to realize it in some small way here by mutual edification in comments. It is Christ who gives us all such gifts to share with one another and who fulfills what is lacking in each of us.
I still remember how struck I was the first time I read that passage from Mere Christianity, around twelve years ago. It was, for me, the most paradigm-changing passage in the book.
Surely, Lewis has been paradigm-changing for many! I read Mere Christianity in high school or early college, and other than reading quotes from it in other places had never returned to it directly until now some 30+ years later. I’m struck again and again, as I’m reading the book again now, how so many convictions of my faith that have only finally been stabilized and solidified for me within Orthodoxy can be found humbly/gently offered as suggestions from Lewis based on his reading in the Scriptures and Christian Tradition (and experience in traditional Anglicanism). I have mentioned in comments before at this site how Lewis’ presentation of the gospel in his Narnia Series, which I began reading multiple times from the age of about 8, and unbeknownst to me at the time, basically ruined me for anything less than the fullness of Orthodoxy! MC is just confirming that again for me. 🙂
Karen, it makes me happy and pleased that my words have lightened your load. Know that your words have a similar effect on me. God is good.
NSP— Thanks for the tip! 🙂
I hadn’t read that particular short story before, so now you’re going to get my reaction, whether you like it or not. It has such powerful imagery about sin and self-destruction– the emaciated man gnawing on himself might even be more poignant for me than Wentworth in DH. I also think it’s incredibly meaningful that Arglay’s journey into the hell-cottage begins with an inability to simply “be”, how time becomes tortuous because of it– and how the only way out of that state of that acedia was for him to meet God in the now. Was that what you were thinking? Very relevant, though perhaps couched in some nice fluffy occult phrases (lol @ “the benediction of the Omnipotence”). 🙂
I suppose the story is meant to be read in context with “Many Dimensions”? Since Lord Arglay is a repeat character? If so, that probably explains my personal discomfort with it. I had a very visceral reaction against the relationship between Arglay and Chloe in MD, even though I think Williams wanted them both to be spiritually sympathetic characters. So it’s hard for me to be academic about a character I am instinctively repulsed by, lol. I don’t think his desire to save the emaciated man was a good example of coinherence, though— more of an example of reflexive human “compassion” that ultimately turns and runs at the first sign of sharing in suffering. Did you see something different?
Thanks again for the tip! If nothing else, CW makes for such delicious spiritual discussion. 🙂
“There is no historical account of a Christianity that is not also the Church….The modern world…speaks of liberty without responsibility and freedom without communion….Contemporary readers remove the Scriptures from the Church, from history and from the tradition that produced them.”
Fr. Stephen, I have wondered whether a defining intuition of modernity is the desirability of separating what belongs together, of removing good aspects of creation from their proper contexts, as you give examples of in the quotes above. In this regard I think of your past comments about the word “symbolic” referring to putting things together while “diabolic” refers to separating them—and of the root meaning of “heresy” being “choosing.” In contrast to good, old-fashioned covetousness (I want A), this intuition is more like engineering (I want A without its natural concomitant or context B).
For instance physical intimacy, conception, childbirth, and child rearing are good and life giving in their proper context of marriage and of being male and female. The sin of fornication classically separates physical intimacy from marriage. In the modern world, however, we also separate physical intimacy from conception, conception from childbirth, childbirth from child rearing, and even marriage from being male and female.
From my brief time as an Orthodox Christian I have the impression that the services and rituals of the Church provide the context in which facets of God’s creation are revealed to be the life-giving realities that they actually are. The Divine Liturgy, for instance, provides the context in which bread and wine become, or are revealed to be, the life-giving Body and Blood of our Lord. Again, I once heard a priest comment, after observing a Protestant group baptizing someone in a stream, that he could not even finish blessing the water in the time they took for their whole service. I took this comment, though intended as a mild jest, as reflecting a strong intuition that it takes the right context, the context provide by the blessing of the water, to reveal the waters as the waters of baptism in which we are cleansed of sin and united with Christ in His death.
It seems consistent with this modern intuition that modern Christianity would want Scripture without Church, salvation without Church, Church without tradition, Church without sacrament (or mystery), and on and on.
Reid – Brilliant observations and insights!
Esmée, thank you for the kind words and encouragement.