18 August 2010
Finding The Church
Finding The Church
-from a letter by Fr. Andrew Rossi written circa 1988 when he was guiding his flock out of the "new age" philosophy and into the Orthodox Church, adapted and edited for this blog.
The greatest obstacle to finding the Church lies in the unconscious presuppositions of our time. Our time and our world is very far from Christian. But it is not just non-Christian, it is "post-Christian" which is polite way of saying anti-Christian. The modern world came into being and continues to exist precisely through a rebellion against Christian tradition. The spirit of the modern world is thus anti-traditional and anti-Christian. The presuppositions are a part of the "spirit of the age" [zeitgeist]:
pluralism - the sense of many different paths or truths competing for our attention, all equal in value
relativism - a consequence of pluralism, the sense that there is no absolute value or truth to any religion or path or truth-claims
evolutionism - the sense that everything is more advanced and thus, more true or valid today than in the past
individualism - the sense that the most important value or opinion or truth is our own; in effect, the individualistic values become an absolute criterion of truth: my path, my way, my lifestyle, my convictions, my religion
rationalism - the belief that truth is only certain in that which can be rationally demonstrated from observation, the sense that human thought is self-sufficient
humanism - the sense that human concerns, as understood from the perspective of individualism rooted in materialism, are the source and center of all value
All these "isms" put together form secularism, [from the Latin word saeculum: an age] from the Presence of God and the influence of revelation. This, in sum, is the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age we live in.
Non-Christian or Christian, we all think and feel in terms of the spirit of the age [the zeitgeist] unless we have experienced a profound and radical change of heart, what the Church Fathers call metanoia. [Not to be confused with the so-called "born again Christians" of today.] "Be ye transformed by the renewing of your minds." Anyone who becomes a "Christian" without such a change of heart merely assumes all the outer trappings of aspects of Christianity, of more likely, picks and chooses whatever aspects of "Christianity" he agrees with or is comfortable with and tries to integrate them with his current life, without really participating in the fullness or the reality of the Christian life.
What I just described is undoubtedly a far more common experience than metanoia. It is very difficult to overcome the influence of the spirit of the age. Even if someone experiences a call to become a Christian, receives instruction, gets baptized in a church, and practices his religion faithfully, this does not guarantee the change of heart that is necessary to participate in the "kingdom of heaven" here and now -- which is, after all, the hope, promise, and destiny of true Christians. Without metanoia, we are still children of this world, and despite our best efforts, we will fall short; and the spirit of this age will imbue all our actions, however good. This is clearly why Jesus could say: "Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven."
So how do we discern what true Christianity is today? Everywhere we turn we see pluralism and a bewildering diversity. Christian denominations and sects abound and continue to appear. We come in contact with divergent theologies, competing truth-coleaims, different "churches," all with their particular claims to authenticity. This is only compounded by the even greater diversity and confusion of truth-claims, systems of thought and practices of all the world's, converging as they are upon us and descending upon us willy-nilly in our media-rich* world, a contemporary Tower of Babel if there ever was one.
In the face of such bewildering variety, what does the modern uncommitted seeker do? In the interest of fairness and "objectivity," he adopts an attitude of "tolerance" toward all religions and competing truth claims and, trying this and that, looks for a "path" that is "just right" for him, one that he feels compatible with, a religion that best expresses his own outlook on life. In short, he doesn't experience metanoia. Falling back on himself and relying on his own individualistic opinions which he feels are the product of hard-won personal experience, he is only confirmed and more deeply embedded in a worldly, self-centered, individualistic outlook. But, as the Fathers say, and as experience bears out, the self-centered, individualistic outlook, untransformed by tradition and revelation, is the source or cause of all delusion. Plato called individual opinion the lowest form of knowledge. The Fathers of the Philokalia called personal opinion plani, wandering astray, accepting a mirage for truth -- this word is the root for our word "planet," which means wanderer, so one gets the image of a self-centered individualist as a planet without a Sun to orbit around, and thus deprived of light [gnosis] and warmth [agape] and a center of gravity [pistis], it soon becomes a barren rock incapable of supporting life or explodes into a thousand "asteroids" or burns up as a "meteor' in an alien atmosphere. The Russian spiritual Fathers and Saints called such delusion "prelest." Prelest means precisely the state of delusion that follow upon an excessive reliance upon ones own personal views.
This is the situation in which the modern seeker finds himself. Modern man's tolerance in not based on a more "enlightened" perspective than in the narrow-minded past; it is based on a lack of inner recognition of what is truth and what is falsity, or on replacing knowledge with sentimentality, or on a refusal to make a choice in the face of all these religious possibilities by declaring they are all more or less true paths to God. This, then, shows us how pluralism [the multitude of spiritual options] coupled with individualism [my views are unquestionably valid for me] leads to relativism as regards truth, goodness, beauty, religion, unity, Divinity, [all paths are more or less true, more or less equal, no religion has a corner on truth]. But if all ways are true, no way is actually true in itself but only true for you or me as we see it. The next step in this progression of thought is to deduce that the whole truth can only be found in a combination of all religions.
This idea, that the whole truth can only be found in a combining of all religions, is called
Ecumenism is the most prevalent heresy of our time.
And it is the most devastating heresy of all times.
So, willy nilly, modern man is thrust back upon himself.
So how does the modern seeker extricate himself from from the dead-end of individualism? By placing his faith in some kind of "universalism"? Many have sought to do just that. Unfortunately "universalism" in today's atmosphere is simply individualism writ-large, meaningless in itself but very dangerous for the seeker, because it lulls him into believing he is in possession of the fullness of truth. The only answer to individualism and spurious universalism lies in tradition.
Tradition provides an escape from the box-canyon of individualism by transmitting the truth of Divine revelation to the individual in a way that transcends all the individuals who transmit that Truth. Tradition satisfies the thirst in the soul for the universal by transmitting the truly universal Truth -- Divine faith, love, and knowledge -- in the only way such truth can be transmitted on this limited earthly realm, mainly be means of a definite, particular, historically grounded form that is at the same time an authentic receptacle for the transcendent and universal saving truths of God. Only a living tradition provides the safeguards necessary in this pluralistic and spiritually degraded age to ensure authenticity and to provide reliable means of discernment between truth and falsehood in doctrine, worship, and practice.
When one studies Christianity in depth, one is faced with an undeniable fact: the irreducible distinctness of Christianity at its core. There is something in Christianity that separates it from all the others: and this something is existentially real, something ontological, not just philosophical.
When an Orthodox person speaks of the Church, he is speaking of a transcendent, living Organism as distinct from the concept of Christianity as the living person of Christ is distince from His picture hanging on your wall. The fullness of truth resides in participation in this Body, this Organism, not in merely agreeing with the collection of concepts, practices, and activities that come under the concept of Christianity.
This is why we are so strongly emphasizing the patristic writers, the great Fathers of the Church. It is because in them we can sense and even experience, beyond the inevitable changes of history and circumstances, the transhistorical Tradition, the Mind of the Spirit that St. Paul speaks about, which is the Mind of the Church, which is the Body of Christ.
This is why we are emphasizing so strongly the lives of the Saints. In the Saints and the story of their lives we have a living record of Christians who have "succeeded" in their Christianity, of men and women in whom Christ has come fully alive and though whom we can see the results in concrete and human terms of what happens when a soul becomes fully Christian. This is a two-thousand year heritage of tremendous value, a heritage that is almost completely going to waste among the vast majority of so-called Christians of today.
∞ ∞ ∞
*Concerning "our media-rich world...":
We make spiritual progress partly by watching what we "feed" our soul. We feed our soul through our senses. Music has a very powerful action on the soul, evidenced by the fact that songs and tunes can stay etched in our minds for a lifetime, like permanent scars. To make progress, we have to burn the candle at both ends. We want to nourish our souls with Lives of Saints and at the same time not poison our souls with TV or rock music, or too much music of any kind. Some TV programs are worse than others, some music is more harmful, but it is still TV and music - silence is the most beneficial.
For centuries men lived without electronic entertainment. The sounds they heard were natural, including their occasional musical entertainments. Today there is a continual assault, and with the headphones, it is like mainlining a drug. If you always have some tune going on in your head, you can not know silence, and you will never hear the angels.
A serious attempt to experience silence soon reveals how difficult it is to achieve and to maintain. When first starting it may take days or weeks just to experience a moment of silence. Then, after years of having silence you can find a tune in your head that was triggered, maybe, by a single word.
Getting news everyday is also something that started in our times. For centuries news was very infrequent, brought into the villages by the travelers, and rarely did that news comes from very far away. People spent a lifetime never concerning themselves with disasters on the other side of the planet. They worked out their salvation within their own family and community. The evil of the day is sufficient...
An exercise that is useful is to practice denying curiosity. There are many things we do not need to know. Whatever it is, God knows, and He will take care of it. There are some things that we should not seek to know for other reasons, such as gossip. Many things are just a waste of time, time better spent reading about the Church or pondering the Faith.