Sunday, March 28, 2010

Humanity in God's Image

I've been having the feeling, over the last few entries, that I'm indulging my propensity towards broad strokes and sketches, so not really getting into the nitty-gritty of how to proceed in learning from the Fathers. Part of the reason for that was that I was taking a break from cracking my head directly on the fathers- a break that I, from time to time, do need. While the Church Fathers are my teachers, they are not always easy to understand and I do need breaks to read 'easier' historical or secondary books. However, after a nice break and a trip to Palm Springs, I felt better able to crack a Church Father this week- this time it's the Saint Vladimir Seminary's St. Basil the Great, On the Human Condition.

This particular collection includes several of St. Basil's homilies or treatises on humanity including a very interesting one that I just finished today on man's creation according to the image of God. I should note from the outset that, as the introduction discusses, St. Basil and most other Fathers were rather shy about describing humanity as the image of God- this is reserved for Christ alone, but rather describes them as being made 'according to the image of God'. The distinction is subtle, but it puts humanity at one small remove from God, which, I think, makes sense. However much we are promised that we can be divinized, we aren't yet and it makes sense- transcendental sense, to emphasis that we aren't there yet and we certainly weren't there when we were first created. There is a distinction between creator and created, after all.

I think what particularly interests me is St. Basil's explanation about what it means for humanity to be 'according to God's image'. He states that it is not the body that is in God's image- that is, it isn't that God created humanity in his physical image which brings with it the corollary of a corporeal body for God (Discourse on Humanity 1,5). Instead, he suggests that it is humanity's rational mind- defined as the real, inner person (Discourse on Humanity, 1,7). I'm particularly interested with this section because my impulse is to pull away because this smacks rather heavily of a Platonic rejection of the body with all that entails. I recognize this as a modern prejudice, but I wonder how much it is a legitimate caution or a serious mis-reading. I honestly don't know, although I wonder if it some nuance is being lost in translation or if I'm being unusually dense.

What I will say is that I would be mentioning these passages out of context, if I didn't hasten to add that Basil, earlier in this homily, referred to the human body as a wondrous act of God (Discourse on Humanity, 1,2). Based on the medical knowledge of the day, Basil wonders at the brilliance of the structures and workings of the human body and sees in it a testimony to God's care in creating us. Yet, this is the body which he seems to reject later on as not being in God's image. So, you can see why I'm a little puzzled.

Mind you, the next homily in the series helps clarify this point a little by offering the paradox that humanity is both nothing (made of dust) and great (God molded the human being) (Discourse on Humanity, 2,2). Well, clarified might be a slight exaggeration, but, at least, it poses the paradox which allows St. Basil to see the body as wondrous and without worth. It also points out that this paradox is biblical (Genesis 2,7) as well. And who says a little paradox can hurt anyone?

Yet, what I worry about is the disconnection of body from soul/mind implicit in this discussion. I worry that it hurts the Incarnation in that it suggests the body isn't worth resurrection. That could lead somebody to question the bodily resurrection. I worry about how it affects our relationship with the material world around us- also, created by God and pronounced God- because, if the body, the material isn't worthwhile, why should we care about this Earth and how we should be stewards of it? Yet, is St. Basil saying this or is it generations of bad theology that I'm reacting to? I wonder.

So, what do you think? One of the important things about the Fathers is that speak differently to us and, while that is bracing when we need to be called back to sound teaching, the two thousand year gap between us can produce real confusion and misunderstanding. One way to look at is that, with that extra couple thousand years of experience, we can see where their mistakes lead. Another way is that we've had that long to make even worse mistakes. The difficulty of my conversation with the Fathers is that we are coming from different places and times, so it is difficult to discern who is right and who is wrong.


Monday, March 22, 2010

Living in the Fragments

Last week was March Break, which, in itself, is really neither here nor there. However, March Break has meant a couple of things the last nine years: a wonderful trip to Palm Springs, CA (thanks to my mother-in-law) and a chance to raid a fairly well stocked church library courtesy of Palm Desert Presbyterian. The attraction of the trip, I think, is clear to anyone who has been to Palm Springs, especially anyone who spends time in even the moderately frozen north (Toronto is, really, in the banana belt of Ontario, but we do get snow). The attraction of the other proves conclusively (in case there was a doubt) that I'm an unreconstructed geek. I look forward to this particular raid because this particular church library stocks books that I don't generally get to see. The lean is evangelical which can mean an awful lot, I know, from fluff to some well-considered theology and history. I lean to the second, if you had any doubts.

One of the finds this year was a surprise. It was the first of two volumes on World Christian History- Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement. Of course, I swooped in on the first volume dealing with Christianity up to 1453 (where I start to lose interest). What was intriguing about this book is that it didn't just outline the standard Mediterranean perspective, predictably divided into West and East, but, rather, it sought to tell the story of other Christian movements in the Near and even Far East. The book takes seriously these Christian movements and gave a good introduction to them. I was moderately familiar with the Near Eastern examples, but the story of a nascent Christian movement in China during the Han and T'ang dynasties was new ground for me. So, good book and something that I want to dig up again for my own library (and, possibly, the parish one as well).

Now, I mention this book not so much because I wanted to do a mini-book review, but because it fit in with some thing I've been pondering. To give background, I should explain that I was also reading some Ephraim Radner before the break, who has quite a lot to say about ecclesiology. (For those of you who don't know him, Radner is a moderately conservative Anglican theologian who is very smart, but reading his prose, as my wife would say, is a little like stirring concrete with your eyelashes.) Key to Radner's idea is that, since at least the Reformation, Christianity no longer represents a unified tradition but rather fragments of one. That is to say that we aren't so much speaking about a unified Christian tradition today; rather, the various Christian churches are splinters off of a Christian consensus which was largely held in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, but which burst apart. This means that no individual denomination represents the tradition in toto, even if some have a better handhold than others (I'm think especially of Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions here).

Now, if you apply this understanding to what I was reading last week, it makes sense of the church divisions, but extends them backwards to include the splitting off of the non-Chalcedonians and, ultimately, to the Great Schism through the Reformation and into the age of Protestantism (whose characteristic theological disease, honestly, is splitting at the drop of a hat). The Irvin and Sunquist book is relentlessly ecumenical (it was, after all, reviewed by a panel of 43 scholars from all different denominations), of course, so this reading makes sense, but, while I fundamentally agree with Radner and with the spirit of this book, I wonder a little about this view of the church history.

I think what worries me is that this gives a wonderful justification for denominationalism because, if we're just living in the fragments, I'm not sure how we decide on the faithfulness of this or that fragment. That is, have we given up on reconstituting a greater Christian tradition? Has that effort gone the way of the now 'modernist' evangelical search for essentials, maligned by the 'Emerging Church' movement's post-modern scorn for meta-narratives? I wonder what the Fathers would have to say about this?

Well, actually, I don't wonder much. Read some Cyprian. Read some Augustine or Irenaeus or anyone really and you'd get a pretty pungent answer. Yes, we do know that there were splinter Christian groups throughout the Church's history, some of which were tolerated more than others, but none of which were ever really considered to be as good as the Church's own answers. While that raises the issues of 'victors writing history' and triumphalism, I think we hae to consider whether we are called to live in fragments or whether we should, impossible as it seems, look for ways to link those fragments, to return us to something resemble a common consensus on what is important for our faith. Is the day of a Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church really over?

What I find valuable in Radner and/or Irvin and Sunquist is the diagnosis of where we are, but I wonder if this is where we need to stay. How can we rebuild that greater Christian tradition? Or is the effort merely hopeless or, for that matter, a foregone conclusion? What do you think?


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Tradition and Prayer

Since the last entry, I've been thinking a bit about the different ways that tradition permeates Christian life. That, in itself, sounds a little odd because I know that most talk about tradition focuses on theological content and very little on practices. That has made a lot of 'traditionalism' seem arid, theoretical and, well, let's be honest, pointless to its critics. Nor is this criticism an unfair one. There are a lot of people of whatever tradition whose adherence to their tradition is a purely intellectual one which has little to do with what they practice each day. That is and should be a scandal for any Christian (or anyone really) who respects Christian tradition over the ages.

Yet, I would suggest that this is a distinctly impoverished view of tradition. Tradition as only an intellectual edifice is really just another way of describing an ivory tower and we all know how useful that is. Besides, Christianity is not, strictly speaking, a philosophy in the sense of merely believing certain propositions. No, Jesus offers us a way of living, not just a way of thinking. Yes, of course, our thinking helps to determine our way of living, but we still have to do something. This is where practices come in.

To demonstrate my point, I could pick any number of Christian practices- prayer, service, fasting, meditation and on and on- to see how what has been handed down (Latin- tradere)to us over the centuries has helped make us better pray-ers, servers, fasters, meditators. Prayer is an excellent example of this because Christians have been praying for more than two thousand years and Jews another couple of thousand years before that. One would think that tradition, as the collected experience of Jews and Christians over the millenia, would have something to say about how prayer works. And it does.

As an example, let's take the Lord's Prayer- a prayer which was very consciously handed down (tradere- again. Can you sense a theme?) and which is the quintessential Christian prayer in most people's mind. Say Christian prayer to anyone and you're liable to get back "Our Father who art in Heaven...." This prayer is so important that there are several patristic commentaries on it (the most notable ones by Origen, Tertullian and St. Cyprian) and I don't know how many books, sermon series and what not explaining it right up to today. And that makes sense because Jesus clearly intended it to be the template for prayers by his followers. From its intimate address to the immediacy of its requests (give us today our daily bread) to its recognition of our need for forgiveness and for forgiving, it is a microcosm of how Christians should live their lives each day. And, if we remember this little prayer, our own practice of our faith is likely to be deeper and more profound. That is, of course, why St. Benedict insisted on praying this prayer three times a day in his Rule and why almost no Christian weekly service goes by (even by the most non-traditional, formal prayer despising Protestants) without it. And that is all to the good.

This is, then, tradition in its very best sense- a practice which deepens our faith. Nor is the Lord's Prayer the only example of prayer informed by tradition. We are blessed by generations of mighty pray-ers (and prayers) and, if we are inclined to look, we can probably find ways of approaching prayer which will make sense to someone somewhere. Personally, I'm grateful for Brother Lawrence, whose practice of God's presence in the day to day activities of his life makes it possible for me to prayer in the busyness of my life these days. I'm grateful for the whole practice of lectio divina which, although I'm hardly an amateur, shows a way to read Scriptures as something other than a history book or an instruction manual. I'm also grateful to the whole tradition of catholic liturgy (in my experience, as expressed in the Anglican catholic tradition) which, somehow, links our story as a Christian people with worship, praise and a call to action in the world. All this is merely scratching the surface of what is out there, but I think you get the idea. The riches of the tradition of Christian prayer are almost endless.

Ultimately, this is the point of having a tradition. Old things aren't valuable just because their old. Anyone who has read any history realizes that there was every bit as much dreck in previous periods as there is manifest today. What has happened has been a sifting of the good from the bad which has allowed us to see the best from all ages. At its best, tradition outlines what works because those things have stood the test of time. That is the riches of any tradition and the peculiar inheritance which we are privileged to enjoy today.