Saving My Neighbor – Just How Connected Are We?

 

If you are in the “helping professions,” confronting problems in people’s lives, it doesn’t take long to realize that no one is purely and simply an individual. The problems we suffer may occasionally appear to be “of our own making,” but that is the exception rather than the rule. Whether we are thinking of economic or genetic inheritance, or the psychological and social environment, almost all the issues in our lives are a matter of “connection.” The same is true when it comes to virtue and wholeness. Saints are not a phenomenon of individuality.

There is a model of what it means to be human that is simply wrong, regardless of its elements of truth. That model envisions us primarily as free-agents, gathering information and making decisions. It emphasizes the importance of choice and the care with which decisions must be made. It lectures long on responsibility and the need to admit that we are the primary cause of our own failings. It praises hard work and admires those with creative insights. Success comes to those who master these virtues and we encourage everyone to take them as their models.

This model of human agency is written deep in the mythology of American culture, and, with its global influence, has become increasingly popular elsewhere. Many elements of contemporary Christian thought assume this model of agency to be true and have interwoven it into the notion of salvation itself. The scandalous popularity of the novel teachers of prosperity and personal-success-schemes have raised this model of humanity into something like cult status. But even those who are scandalized by such distortions of the gospel often subscribe to many of its ideas. Those ideas are part of the “common sense” of our culture.

They are also part of the nonsense produced by our culture’s mythology. There is virtually nothing about human beings that, strictly speaking, is individual. Beginning from our biology itself, we are utterly and completely connected to others. The same is true of our language and our culture. None of us is an economy to ourselves. Even those things we most cherish as uniquely individual are questionable.

We celebrate choice as the true signature of our individuality. However, if you scrutinize decisions carefully, they are something less than autonomous exercises of the will. Americans have a strange way of choosing like Americans (often to the dismay of the rest of the world). We are “free agents” who play the game of life on a field that is deeply slanted.

As I noted at the beginning, it is easy to describe the many-sourced nature of failure. With a bit more effort, we could see that “success” is equally derived from many sources outside of the self. It should not be surprising then, to see that salvation (and condemnation) are also corporate matters rather than strictly individual. Indeed, the corporate nature of our existence lies at the very heart of the classical doctrine of Christian salvation.

One of the earliest complete accounts of Christian salvation was written in the 4th century by St. Athanasius the Great. It has long been recognized as a touchstone of Christian theology. In that work, On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius explains in detail that the salvation of humanity is brought about through the action of God becoming human. The work of Christ’s death and resurrection are not external to our humanity. Rather, their power to work salvation lies precisely in the fact of our communion with Him through the single common human nature that He assumed. Our cooperation with that action completes and makes effective what has been given to the whole of humanity through the God/Man, Jesus Christ.

Our cooperation (a choice) is only effective, however, because of the communion established in the Incarnation. Salvation is not a reward given to someone who choses correctly. Salvation is a new life that is lived as a communion, a mutual indwelling (koinonia).

That primary saving reality, our common nature and its communion with the God/Man, is something that has largely been lost in our modern understanding, dominated as it is by the myth of individualism. Christ’s incarnation is only effective if our humanity has a corporate reality (it would make little sense otherwise). It was classically summed up in the fathers by saying, “He became what we are that we might become what He is.” This is only possible if there is, in fact, a “what” that we all share. This “what” makes possible not only our communion with Him, but also our communion with each other.

St. Silouan famously said, “My brother is my life.” He was not speaking figuratively. Rather, he was giving assent to the very mechanism of our life and salvation. We were created to live as beings-in-communion. Adam declares of Eve, “This is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” The story of sin is the story of the disruption of communion:

And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, And you shall bruise His heel.” To the woman He said: “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; In pain you shall bring forth children; Your desire shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.” Then to Adam He said, “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying,`You shall not eat of it’: “Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, For out of it you were taken; For dust you are, And to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:15-19)

The communion between persons is disrupted, as well as the communion with animals and creation, all ending in the dust of death. But even that death is a communal death: none of them die alone.

For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living. (Rom. 14:7-9)

This is the very heart of our existence, and of our salvation as well. In some manner, we carry within us the whole of humanity. St. Silouan called this the “whole Adam.” We could extend that and say that each of us carries within us the whole of the created order. St. Maximus the Confessor called us a “microcosm” (“the whole cosmos in miniature”). The life we live is a life for the whole Adam, the whole cosmos. In some manner, our salvation is the salvation of the whole cosmos. We hear this in Romans 8:

For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God…. because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. (Rom. 8:19, 21)

Our salvation can be described as the restoration and fullness of communion with God. But that same salvation includes the restoration and fullness of communion with one another and with all of creation. Just as Christ’s communion with us is the means of our salvation, so our communion with everything and everyone works towards that same salvation.

[God has] made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth– in Him. (Eph. 1:9)

The modern myth of human beings as individual, self-contained moral agents is not just incorrect. It is also a tool of deception. The myth is often used to absolve us from the mutual responsibility that constitutes a just society, as well as to falsely blame individuals for things over which they have little or no control. That contemporary Christianity is often complicit in this deception is perhaps among its greatest errors.

It has long been observed that the greatest weakness of the Reformation was ecclesiology (the doctrine of the “Church”). Reformers found it difficult to articulate the reality of “the Church” without undermining their own reforming project. From its inception, the Reformation was not a single work, but an immediate work of divisions and competing reformations. There has never been a “Protestant Church,” only “Churches” that were mutually exclusive in their origins. That modern ecumenical theories have invented the notion of the “invisible Church” to mask this essential failure does nothing to address the real problem. Indeed, it has provided the fertile ground for the individualism of the Modern Project with all of its concomitant destruction.

It is deeply scandalous today to quote St. Cyprian’s contention that “there is no salvation outside the Church.” It might be better understood if it were acknowledged that “Church,” in its true form of ecclesial existence as communion, is what salvation actually looks like. We cannot, as individuals, possess that which is only given to us in communion.

 

32 comments:

  1. Quite brave to speak of that which is beyond apparent separative individualism in this world which, however much it appears to be polarized, seems almost universally united in celebrating the “freedom”of the apparent individual, a freedom which is the essence of slavery (slavery to desire, fear, impulse, etc)

    Salvation may almost be said to be “here” in the recognition of that “in which we live and move and have our Being.” – a recognition that is the utter surrender of all sense of separation.

  2. Father,
    What are your thoughts on this: When I am absent from the Liturgy (especially if “for a reason “), I ask the Lord to grant me grace from the partaking of the Eucharist by my brothers or sisters who ARE present there and presumably partaking. Sometimes I name a specific person- say a deacon, deaconess or our Presbytera. If we are one body in Christ, and each different members with different functions, my hope is that that day, they can be my mouth and stomach. And if I am least in the Kingdom, even a human’s left pinky toenail needs nourishment from the higher members above.
    Likewise when I am blessed to partake, I have on occasion asked God to share grace with someone absent, say my mother who was in hospice.
    I very much am in awe by Charles Williams’ concept of substitution and vicarious-ness. Both in suffering and in blessing.
    Is my own practice acceptable? My priest and Presbytera heard of it, and did not direct me to stop.

  3. Father, quite a shock this morning as your words echo and continue in many ways the transformation of my heart of my own journey into myself and the Church.

    It began with my father who was a community health physician and director of the health department where I grew up. Notice the word ‘cimmunity’. He insisted on the official title of his department being The Department of Community Health. Almost every one else, especially the pols who were his bosses called it ‘public’ health department. Even most of his colleagues around the country did not get the difference.
    I did not really get the difference until I started becoming Christian. It has been unfolding in my heart ever since. Your words today take it even even deeper.

    Strangely my father never made the connection to a personal God and Jesus Christ. Perhaps because the theology he grew up with was individual in emphasis.
    For him the health of the community was intertwined with each persons health and each persons health with the community. Help one person to be healthier and the entire community and each person in it got healthier and vice versa.

    Unfortunately, he was never able to give up control of that project to God Himself so he suffered greatly. He never understood my brother and I becoming followers of Jesus and later Orthodox.
    Yet Communion and repentance and forgiveness by each of us interconnected by the Cross and the Holy Spirit in His Body is a natural outcome of his teaching. At least my brother and I see that.

    My Dad saw it as his personal vision (oddly). It made his life and ours quite unpleasant at times.
    So I rejoice in your words today and it will be a work for me to unpack even so.

    Thank you

  4. This reminds me of some musings I’ve had recently about how insulated our individual homes are, and what this means for our experience of community and salvation. It strikes me that up until very recent centuries, before six-bedrooms homes with modern doors and windows which completely isolate the “inside” from the “outside,” people must have been subject not only to the harsh conditions of weather, but to the conditions of their neighbors as well. You must have been able to hear your neighbor’s newborn crying all through the night, or hear the couple next door argue, or see a birthday celebration across the street. I‘m guessing that without alarm systems or secure windows or front porch lights, parents would never just lay babies or young children down for sleep in another room otherwise unattended. It would just be too easy for an intruder to kidnap them! Even families had to stay within reach of one another, unable to sequester themselves in distant rooms like we are now. I can only imagine the sense of communal intimacy, wanted or unwanted, that we miss now in our isolated homes. So often I find myself thinking “I don’t even know what my neighbors’ needs are, let alone how to love my neighbor!” Surely the needs of my neighbor must have been apparent not that long ago.

    I’m not sure what would change here, because I don’t want to advocate a return to world where the elderly die of heat stroke in their own homes or where children can’t go to bed in a separate room without fear of abduction, but something tells me we miss something of our communal salvation and opportunity to love our neighbor by not being forced to see and hear and smell our neighbors like we must have up until recent history.

  5. I don’t see any difference in the work done by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of other Christians from other churches than the Orthodox Church. They love as we love, it seems. How can such a broken communion, between our Church and other churches, not rift the hearts of others outside the Church? Why are our Orthodox hearts not better off? Why are there hearts the same as ours?

    Forgive me, Father

  6. Michelle,
    It is both hard to judge these things or to know them. Our salvation, to my mind, is frequently a “hidden” thing. I believe that “all things work together for good” (Ro. 8:28) and that this is a process that remains hidden (until it is revealed). I do not find my faith particularly strengthened by looking at the world…it’s an overload of information and I don’t know where to begin. So, I look at Christ, His kindness, His goodness, His triumph over death. He is the assurance of His words. As I look to Him, I occasionally get glimpses of that mystery unfolding in the world around me.

  7. Michael:
    Re: your father’s quest, you might emphasize with the author of “The Gospel of Trees”, whose father’s mission was to MAKE the world a better place (in Haiti), family notwithstanding.

  8. [not for publication:
    Father, yours was a very diplomatic answer to my first comment/query!
    As long as you saw the “did NOT direct me to stop”…. 🙂
    Thanks
    I frequently share your posts with my children and others. Not today’s though. So i felt freer to comment. ]

  9. Finally. Well said and true. Thank you for helping me sort out what was taught to me and now the real truth is filled with courage.

  10. Shannon,
    I didn’t so much as mean to be diplomatic – as to defer to your local priest. It’s a practice that, if done right, is very salutary. Your priest (who knows you) is in a better position to judge such a thing. That he did “not” tell you to stop, also tells me something about you – and it’s good.

  11. Michelle and Fr. Stephen, thank you for your questions and answer. I have the same questions, Michelle. Many of you know I follow my husband in the Baptist faith (a longer story there that I will not go through again). Orthodoxy, as I’ve read this blog and others, has helped fill out my understanding of Scripture, I believe, and helped me better understand what I felt I was already learning from the Holy Spirit. I struggle because I long for more fullness or outward expression in worship that I see in the Orthodox church, and when I worship in my church, I hope that God sees my heart’s desire to be in full communion with all true believers, whatever church they happen to be in (as I have been taught by and ministered through many of them). I hope he will see my desire, and like Shannon says, allow my Orthodox brothers and sisters to partake for me when I can’t, and when I take communion with my church (which we do infrequently), that God will see my desire to partake of Christ Himself and not just remember Him. And though my beliefs are somewhat different than some in my church, I do feel a sense of communion and responsibility towards them. My heart regularly yearns and prays for full communion and unity between the churches. In fact, thinking about this has me on the verge of tears. I cannot say mentally I am either Orthodox or Baptist in beliefs, but I feel that is where the Lord has left me, but I know the Holy Spirit within me knows all and carries Christ’s truth within me. I keep reminding myself God’s grace is greater than all of these questions and issues.

  12. Shannon, thank you. I will take a look. I do find it fascinating that for all my Dad’s effort and concentration on healing our community (not “making the world a better place”) it was from the heart of his family that transformation ensued. Especially in my brother becoming a faithful Orthodox priest who led many into the Church with him and still, while Emeritus, pastors many including me, thank God.
    My mother is a whole nother part of the story.
    Both my brother and I were deeply blessed by our parents although we did not tend to think so at the time.

    Please pray for us and our families.

  13. Michelle,
    What a healthy desire! There was a period of 4 years between what I first requested to be received into the Church and the time when Archbishop Dmitri told me how and when he would receive me. It was a difficult time. But, during that period, when I would attend an Orthodox service, though I could not receive communion, I was always careful to fast as though I would – to unite my fasting with the fasting of everyone else who was there.

    There is communion of the most outward and literal sort (and it’s important), but there is also a hidden communion which God indeed sees and values. May He keep you!

  14. Shannon, it is a great and mysterious blessing that my parents quests are still ongoing as the hearts of myself and my brother are continuing to be transformed by the Grace of Jesus Christ in and through the Church. Our children’s too. Although much struggle seems left to us because the work of repentance in Christ continues.

    Following my Dad’s teaching (and that of the Church I believe) as I repent by Grace that same Grace continues to heal them and all those around me.

    God forgive me, a sinner.

  15. Hello Father Stephen Freeman,

    Your words are always comforting to read, like a healing balm to my own struggles when coming from strict Calvinistic theology and emphasis on individual agency and responsibility, both in regards to myself and others. I judge too quickly when it comes to personal matters since I assume the other person was always in complete full control and simply wanted to do wrong for its own sake. This is a product of my Calvinistic thinking I suppose. I’m actually in a field to give care to those with disabilities by no fault of their own and I understand how much they and others can struggle. Even if I was working with drug addicts I could imagine what circumstances they came from, what abuse they endured that had them turn to drugs. In other areas like criminology there’s even evidence people are products of their environment, doing only what they were taught was normal by their authority figures (parents, etc). When someone thus does wrong in our eyes, we can be sympathetic, especially if they’re acting against themselves. We can want more for them than they do for themselves right now. Hatred begets hatred and doesn’t make you any better in the end, but kindness and compassion are strong enough to overcome, and we can pray that those who continue to hate end up seeing the light.

    Thanks,

    Joseph

  16. Beautifully concise: “The story of sin is the story of the disruption of communion.”
    For those interested in how “the modern myth of human beings as individual, self-contained moral agents” came about, there are, of course, lots of books, but I find most compelling, “A Secular Age” by Charles Taylor. It’s long but worth it.

  17. Michael Baum, thank you for sharing your comments, and agreed with Joanna – very profound.
    I have recently seen a documentary on Amazon prime, which is called “Don Quixote in Newark”. I think you might enjoy that.

    May the grace of God continue to heal us all.

  18. Mr. Salmon, I read your comment above again. There are many interesting ideas in it that deserve some unpacking, I think. We are connected but not like an amoeba. My Dad always used to strenuously object everytime someone said we are connected. I can hear and see him now saying, “No! We are not ‘connected’ we are interconnected!”
    As I grew and was introduced to the Church and Her theology, I found such a resonance with that simple truth almost ground into me growing up.
    It remains a light for me as I strive to live a life of repentance in communion through Christ Jesus with everyone else. I know that the saints lives enable mine and every scintilla of genuine repentance I am led to, is not mine alone. It reverberates and will make it easier for someone else somewhere, sometime, somehow.
    “If one person is healed, even a little, everyone is healed to some degree.”

    That is one reason St. Athanasius treatise “On the Incarnation” was such a joy for me to read when I was introduced to it by my late friend Doug Bebout, memory eternal.

    It is in the mystery of our interconnectedness in and with Jesus Christ that all of deeper faculties, perhaps even our memory, lie.

    So, even though my Dad reposed 23 years ago, just short of his 100th birthday, his indelible contribution to my faith and all good things still shouts in my heart and brings me joy.
    And somehow I know that the Grace my brother and I have been given to be in the Orthodox communion has/is redounding to him as well.
    It is part of the deep mystery of the Cross somehow that I cannot begin to explicate but know beyond doubt.
    God is merciful! His mercy is showered on us daily no matter what.
    I am a stubborn man and a slow learner it has only taken 74 years to begin to appreciate that mercy. God forgive me. I have been sustained by the lives of others less stubborn and more aware than me.
    Thank you oh merciful savior.

  19. Thanks Michael. yes, “interconnected” is a much richer word than simply connected. Much appreciated.

  20. Dear Father Stephen,

    i am reading this blog since 2007. It is my rock. I don’t always agree with everything, but when I go crazy with everything else, I come here.
    Many times i wanted to write, but… I don’t have time. I am also a non-English speaker, so until I formulate my thoughts it takes me an eternity and… I don’t have time.
    But I have to write this.

    This article resonated with me deeply. I even cried, but I cry easily so maybe that’s nothing. But it was on my mind.

    This morning , right now, (5 am here) I was waking up and there was this moment when you are half-awake, half-asleep and, out of the blue, your voice was in my mind and it was this dialogue:
    Me: X and Y are getting married. Is this important?
    You: It’s little stuff.
    Me: Why?
    You: It’s the idea (emphatic “idea”) they are getting married that is more important.
    (I would never say “little stuff”, that’s not me.)

    And the meaning of it (also in my head) was: the fact they are getting married is less important than the process through each and one of them went through and came to want to be get married (communion) to each other.
    So the (mental? spiritual?) process is more important than the fact.

    what do you make of it?
    Rubbish?

    I once listened to a monk (Romanian) saying that we should not pay attention to the morning dreams. And it has proven to be right.

    so I’m doubting.

    Thank you.

  21. Zoe, I have always loved Don Quixote even though I was amazed when I read the actual book years ago how different the popular idea and what Cervantes wrote are. I tend to think of myself more as Sancho these days. The Joy of the Lord be with you.

  22. Adriana,
    I would be very hesitant to share most of my dreams – they don’t make much sense to me. Your dream is not rubbish…but I’m not sure what I would make of it. These kinds of things, if chewed on long enough, sometimes give up a meaning to us. Or, we just let them go.

    It seems that the dream (so some part of you?) is thinking about the notion of communion. Dream language is rarely straight-forward. I would take it to be saying, “Think about communion.”

  23. It never ceases to amaze me how much of that myth continues within my own reflexive take on life, salvation and the Church. The roots, like that of any weed, are deep and most persistent. Thank you, Father.

  24. I would like to address the comment that the orthodox are no different from others. That has not been my experience at my own church or the Coptic church I visited recently. The kindness and relative sanity I have seen were persuasive in terms of becoming orthodox.

    Anecdotally I once met a woman I thought was becoming a saint. She was Catholic and took care of both her paralyzed husband and daughter who had been in a car accident. The daughter was abandoned by her husband after her accident. In addition she was also a lovely elementary school teacher who never raised her voice. I never heard her complain or even discuss her trials. Someone else told me about them, Real holiness is hard to find but once you see it you can recognize it.

  25. Thank you for this post, and the comments, which have been very helpful in my own walk. I discovered Orthodoxy earlier this year after a few years of increasing disillusionment with Evangelicalism, and learned of this blog just a week or two ago, so now reading through many posts here. I have begun and continue my study of the Orthodox Faith, and my heart’s desire is to worship with others of the Orthodox faith and to have that fuller worship experience. In my daily private devotions I now pray according to the pattern of Orthodox prayers morning and evening (and the hours, when I can fit them in, in the middle of my work day schedule), a “prayer rule” for these; and as much as possible I practice the weekly Wednesday and Friday vegan fasting.

    Like Michelle, though, I attend a Protestant Baptist church (and a Calvinistic one) with my husband (also a very long story). Like Michelle, I pray that God sees the intent of my heart in worship, and that when I have communion at this Baptist church (which is only monthly), that God sees my desire to partake of Christ Himself, that it is more than just remembering Him. This is something I still struggle with, to be content in the current situation, while having fellowship with and appreciating the true Christians at this church, though their beliefs are different from mine.

    Like Naaman the Syrian who recognized the true God but still went with his master to the pagan worship, and like the character Puddleglum, who declared that he would live like a Narnian “even if there isn’t any Narnia,” I am more and more convinced of the truth of Orthodoxy and determined to live it as much as possible in my situation. Finding out about someone else in a similar situation also gives some comfort to me today. So thank you again for this blog and discussions at it, this is really helping me understand the Christian faith, the Ancient Faith, and my part in it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.