25 February 2008

Is the Church an institution?

Groucho Marx once quipped, "Marriage is a wonderful institution. So if you want to spend the rest of your life in an institution, get married." Of course, we can look at marriage as an institution; but such a perspective distorts at least as much as it illumines.

The same is true of the Church. In his introduction to the first published edition of Khomiakov's works, Yury Samarin wrote:

"According to our customary conception, the Church is an institution--to be sure, an institution of a special kind, even unique, a divine institution, but still an institution. This conception sins in the same way as almost all our usual definitions and representations of objects of faith: this conception does not directly contradict the truth, but it is insufficient. It brings the idea down into a region that is too lowly and habitual, a too-familiar region, as a result of which the idea, willy-nilly, becomes banal through a close comparison with a group of phenomena apparently homogeneous with it but essentially not having anything in common with it. We know what an institution means, and it is very easy, even too easy, to conceive the Church as an institution by analogy with other institutions. There is a book called the Criminal Code and there is a book called the Holy Scripture. There is a judicial doctrine and there are judicial forms; there is also a Church tradition and there is a Church ritual. There is a criminal-law chamber that has its own code and is empowered to execute this code, to apply it, to judge in accordance with it, and so on--and in parallel, there is a Church that, guided by Scripture, proclaims doctrine, applies it, sifts through doubts, judges, and decides. In one case we have conditional truth, the law, and, attached to the law, the magistracy, wielding the law, officers of the law. In the other case we have the unconditional truth (that's the difference), but a truth that is also contained in book or word; and attached to it, once again, are officers and savants--the clergy.

The Church does in fact have its doctrine, which constitutes one of its inalienable manifestations. The Church does in fact, in its historical manifestation, come into contact, as a kind of institution, with all institutions. Nevertheless, the Church is not a doctrine, not a system, and not an institution. The Church is a living organism, an organism of truth and love, or more precisely: truth and love as an organism."

By speaking of the Church as an organism, not an institution, Samarin speaks in a profoundly biblical way. For St. Paul calls the Church "the body of Christ." He also points the way to untangle much unprofitable logomachy. Consider:

1. History is not peripheral, but central, to the description of an organism. I can describe the institutions of government by surveying constitutions, as did Aristotle. But anatomy and physiology are inadequate to a discussion of, say, my father. One does not know him best in his personal particularity by understanding general principles of medicine or of psychology. One knows him best by means of his story: born in Homestead, PA in 1924, growing up among his family (with all its stories), serving in World War II, marrying my mother, working in the US Steel Homestead Works as an accountant and raising four children, becoming a widower and then remarrying, etc.

Martin Guerre was a 16th century Frenchman who disappeared after having been accused of stealing grain. A few years later, a man appeared in the town, claiming to be Guerre. He deceived many, including Guerre's wife. But during one trial the real Martin Guerre reappeared, and the impostor was eventually executed.

While the false Guerre could relate many stories from the true Guerre's life--in some cases, remembering details that the real Guerre had forgotten--his rhetorical brilliance could not cover the ultimately-discovered reality that he was not, in fact, Martin Guerre. Words about his "past" could not, in the end, substitute for fact.

The organic history of the Church begins on the day of Pentecost. It continued, in a severely-tested but never-broken bond of love and faith, until that bond was broken by Rome's changing the fundamental statement of faith without bothering about mutual love. That break was officially certified by the bull of excommunication placed on the altar of Hagia Sophia by a papal legate in 1054.

Shortly after that break began a series of changes in the west, all of which betoken the corruption of a once-living body: the change to unleavened bread; private masses; purgatory; the Anselmian doctrine of the atonement; the scholastic method and on and on. The criticisms of Rome in the Lutheran confessional writings bear testimony to this fact.

Rome continued to have much of the same matter as did the Church before her: bishops, relics, the invocation of the saints and so on. But she invested them all with a profoundly different form. Bishops became authorities, headed by the Pope; relics and the invocation of saints were separated from love and became linked with the notion of merit. It would not be too far a stretch to say that the real "reformation" of the Church was that undertaken by the late mediaeval papacy.

It was that "formed matter" that Lutherans and other Protestants rebelled against. But in rejecting the matter, they retained the new form. The Reformation was not so much a re-form, as it was a re-materialization. The Scriptures were separated from the Church, in order to judge the Church. Iure divino bishops were rejected, in favor of pastors who came ever more under the control of various lay bodies, from princes to the logical reductio ad absurdum, the Voters' Assembly. (Compare and contrast AC 28, which teaches that excommunication belongs iure divino to pastors, with the so-called "Blue Catechism" of Missouri, which teaches that the pastor's role in excommunication is to announce the verdict of the congregation.) Relics and the invocation of saints were tossed out because they were doubtful or useless--both of these criticisms showing that rationalism and rejection of love, the new "form" of the papacy of the late middle ages, had been retained by the 'reformers.' The Church does not invoke the saints, for example, or pray for the dead because of some merit or utilitarian benefit we might gain; we invoke the saints and pray for the dead because in Christ we love them, and they love us.

2. Organisms are not theoretical, but existential. I once spoke, over a period of months, with an amateur Lutheran theologian on the topic of the Church. He told me that he found Quenstedt's description of the Church to be the most biblical and proper description ever. The blueprint laid out by Quenstedt was, apparently, exquisite. Our discussion went back and forth over a long time. Finally I asked him, "Can you point out to me the current Lutheran body which Quenstedt has here described?" After a long silence, he answered, "Um...there isn't one." To that I replied, "Then what are we talking about?"

Sadly, that lay theologian has since gone to Rome--for reasons that had nothing to do with theology, and everything to do with family.

3. Organisms are 'top-down,' formed by parents. Each human being, for example, begins in an act of love (recognizing, of course, that in a broken world such love is inadequate at best and distorted at worst). The members of an organism share one and the same life, and have one and the same mind.

Institutions are bottom-up, formed by like-minded individuals gathering together to complete some task too big or too inconvenient for each individual to do on his own--though there is nothing inherently wrong with an individual doing just that, if he is able. (Here, too, I must qualify. Marriage as an organism is top-down: "Whom God has joined together, let no man separate." Marriage considered as an institution is bottom-up: two people meet and decide to join their lives.)

"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." By saying this, the framers of the Constitution do not reject the idea that someone else, somewhere else, who is able to do those things for himself, may do so.

Both organisms and institutions have members. But the members of an organism share one and the same life and are ordered to one and the same end. The members of an organization share a similar life and or ordered to similar ends.

This top-down vs. bottom-up distinction explains something I found frustrating in my years as a Lutheran clergyman. Often I would visit so-called 'delinquent' parishioners, or hear from people on the street, "I don't need to go to church to be a Christian." And they were right--if the Church is an organization. ("But what about Communion?" someone might ask. One delinquent I spoke with told me, "Pastor, I just say the words of institution over my lunch, and have communion." He was odd, to be sure, but not fundamentally wrong, if the Church is defined bottom-up.) But if the Church is an organism, such words are foolish. The Church rightly teaches: "We are damned by ourselves; we are saved in community," and rightly sings in her liturgy, "Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided."

Let this suffice for now. I need to check on my father...

22 February 2008

The theology of death, in the Orthodox funeral

These hymns were composed by St. John of Damascus, and contain a marvelous expression of the Christian faith as it relates to our death:

Then the Anthem, by John, the Monk of Damascus, is begun:

Tone 1. What earthly sweetness remaineth unmixed with grief? What glory standeth immutable on earth? All things are but shadows most feeble, but most deluding dreams: yet one moment only, and Death shall supplant them all. But in the light of thy countenance, O Christ, and in the sweetness of thy beauty, give rest unto him (her) whom thou hast chosen: forasmuch as thou lovest mankind.

Tone 2 Woe is me! What manner of ordeal doth the soul endure when from the body it is parted! Woe is me! how many then are its tears; and there is none to show compassion! It turneth its eyes to the Angels; all unavailing is its prayer. It stretcheth out its hands to men; and findeth none to succour. Wherefore, my brethren beloved, meditating on the brevity of our life, let us beseech of Christ rest for him (her) who hath departed hence: and for our souls great mercy.

Tone 3. All mortal things are vanity and exist not after death. Riches endure not, neither doth glory accompany on the way: for when death cometh, all these things vanish utterly. For which cause let us cry unto Christ the immortal: Give rest, in the abode of those who are glad, to the dead translated from among us.

Tone 4 Where is earthly predilection? Where is the pomp of the ephemeral creatures of a day? Where are the gold and the silver? Where is the multitude of household servants and their clamour? All dust, all ashes, all shadows. But come, let us cry aloud unto the deathless King: O Lord, of thine eternal good things vouchsafe thou unto him (her) who hath been translated from among us, giving unto him (her) rest in thy blessedness which waxeth not old.

Tone 5 I called to mind the Prophet, how he cried: I am earth and ashes; and I looked again into the graves, and beheld the bones laid bare; and I said: Who then is the king or the warrior, the rich man or the needy, the upright or the sinner? Yet give rest with thy Saints unto thy servant, O Lord.

Tone 6 Thy creating command was my origin and my foundation: for thy pleasure it was out of nature visible and invisible to fashion me, a living creature. From the earth thou didst shape my body, and didst give me a soul by thy divine and quickening breath. Wherefore, O Christ, give rest to thy servant in the land of the living, in the habitations of the just.

Tone 7 When, in the beginning, thou hadst created man after thine own image and likeness, thou didst set him in Paradise to reign over thy creatures. But when, beguiled by the malice of the Devil, be tasted of the food, he became a transgressor of thy commandments. For which cause, O Lord, thou didst condemn him to return again unto the earth whence lie was taken, and to entreat repose.

Tone 8 I weep and I wail when I think upon death, and behold our beauty, fashioned after the image of God, lying in the tomb disfigured, dishonoured, bereft of form. O marvel! What is this mystery which doth befall us? Why have we been given over unto corruption, and why have we been wedded unto death? Of a truth, as it is written, by the command of God, who giveth the departed rest.

And these words, which conclude the service at the gravesite:

With the souls of the righteous dead, give rest, O Saviour, to the soul of thy servant, preserving it unto the life of blessedness which is with thee, O thou who lovest mankind.

In the place of thy rest, O Lord, where all thy Saints repose, give rest, also, to the soul of thy servant: For thou only lovest mankind.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

Thou art the God who descended into hell, and loosed the bonds of the captives: Do thou give rest, also, to the soul of thy servant.

Now, and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

O Virgin alone Pure and Undefiled, who without seed didst bring forth God, pray thou unto him that his (her) soul may be saved.

21 February 2008

My father's illness

I received word from my stepmother this evening that my father is very near death. He has survived many things, from serving in the Battle of the Bulge under General Patton to a bout with Legionaire's Disease some ten years ago. For the past month or two he has been hospitalized, first with a collapsed lung and then with MERSA and pneumonia. Now, it appears, his kidneys are shutting down and attempts at dialysis are not succeeding.

The photo above is from Thanksgiving at my sister's house in 2005. Pictured on the bench are my daughters Vera and Laura, my stepmother, my father, my daughter-in-law Amy, and sons Chip and John. In front of the bench are my daughter Marina, my wife and your humble scribe.

"That we may complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance; a Christian ending to our life, painless, blameless and peaceful, and a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ, let us ask of the Lord."
Grant this, O Lord.
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Khomiakov on the papacy and the rise of protestantism

"I have said that, from the early times of Christianity until the great Western schism, knowledge of the divine truths had been considered to belong to the totality of the Church united by the spirit of charity and love. This doctrine, preserved to the present, has recently (1848) been publicly proclaimed by a unanimous agreement of the patriarchs and all the Christians of the East.

In the ninth century the West, unfaithful to the tradition of the Church, appropriated the right to alter the ecumenical creed without consulting with its Eastern brothers and sisters, and this at the very moment when the latter showed a fraternal deference to the West by submitting to it for its approval the decisions of the Council of Nicaea. What was the inevitable logical consequence of this usurpation? When the logical principle of knowledge expressed in the exposition of the creed was separated from the moral principle of love expressed by the unanimity of the Church, a protestant anarchy was established in practice. Every diocese could appropriate vis-a-vis the Western patriarchate the right that the latter appropriated vis-a-vis the totality of the Church; every parish could appropriate this right vis-a-vis the diocese; every individual could appropriate it vis-a-vis all other individuals.

No sophistry can allow one to avoid this consequence. Either the truth of faith is given to the union of all and to their mutual love in Jesus Christ, or it can be given to every individual without regard to all other individuals."

Aleksei Khomiakov, Some remarks by an Orthodox Christian concerning the Western Communions, on the occasion of a letter published by the Archbishop of Paris, in On spiritual unity, p. 68.

A logical error: "Because the members of the Church can err, therefore the Church can err."

Consider a whole, x, made up of many parts a, b, c etc.
Suppose that each of those parts have a feature y.
It does not necessarily follow that the whole has that same feature.

The Church, the body of Christ, is made up of many members.
Each of those members is sinful and may fall into error from time to time--for example, I Cor 5.
Even groups of them may be sinful and may fall into error--for example, the Galatians.

From this it does not follow that the Church is sinful, or that the Church may fall into error.

Christ promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church.
St. Paul called the Church "the pillar and foundation of the Truth."
He called her the Bride of Christ, "without spot or blemish or any such thing."

In all these ways, the New Testament demonstrates that the Church cannot fall into any error. To deny them is to deny the witness of the holy apostle, and the voice of enfleshed God.

These promises and descriptions were not given concerning any individual or subgroup, but concerning the Church. Thus, Peter might err, the Galatians might err, but the Church cannot err.

These promises and descriptions were not given to an invisible entity, but a visible one. (The matter of the "invisible church" requires a longer post, which I will address at another time.)

One can show the same conclusion in another way. Any act of communication requires three elements: (1)the speaker, (2)the word, and (3)the audience. Break any link in this chain, and you no longer have a communication. Let the television station broadcast ever so clearly; let the program content be ever so good--if no receiver receives the message, it does not communicate anything.

(1) God the Holy Spirit speaks by (2) the Scriptures (3) to the Church. If the entire Church as Church has misheard the voice of the Holy Spirit, then God the Holy Spirit has not communicated the fullness of the Truth. An infallible communication requires an infallible speaker, speaking an infallible word to an infallible audience. Break any of those links, and the communication of God is nullified.

For now, let this suffice:

From the fact that the Church's members can and do fall into sin and error, it is false to conclude that the Church herself falls into error.

20 February 2008

"How can faith be proved?"

"One cannot prove anything here, but it is possible to be convinced."

"How? By what?"

"By the experience of active love. Try to love your neighbors actively and tirelessly. The more you succeed in loving, the more you'll be convinced of the existence of God and the immortality of your soul. And if you reach complete selflessness in the love of your neighbor, then undoubtedly you will believe, and no doubt will even be able to enter your soul. This has been tested. It is certain...
Active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. Indeed, it will go as far as the giving even of one's life, provided it does not take long but is soon over, as on stage, and everyone is looking on and praising. Whereas active love is labor and perseverance, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science...in that very moment when you see with horror that despite all your efforts, you not only have not come nearer your goal but seem to have gotten farther from it, at that very moment...you will suddenly reach your goal and will clearly behold over you the wonder-working power of the Lord, who all the while has been loving you, and all the while has been mysteriously guiding you."
--The Brothers Karamazov, Book 2, ch. 4.

16 February 2008

On using the fathers

From time to time, protestant apologists make appeal to the holy fathers of the Church and seek to claim them as their own. They will cite a snippet here, a paragraph there, and conclude, "See! The fathers speak the same way as we do!"
Such a practice is not new, of course. Monophysite apologists loved to cite St. Cyril of Alexandria's formula "one nature of God the Word incarnate" as evidence for their point of view. Defenders of Rome produce many writings of the fathers to support papal primacy and the filioque.
How should Orthodox believers respond to this?

In the first place, we can give thanks to God. Each time a protestant cites one of the holy fathers, each time an icon appears on the cover of a book or the page of a blog, they bear witness (willingly or unwillingly) to the fullness of the faith as it is found in the Church. They do not cite the tax code or the Book of Mormon. They cite the fathers, and so testify that the views of the holy fathers carry weight. They show icons, and so testify against the white-walled desolation found in so many communities of their own confessions.

In the second place, we need not answer or try to defend the faith from such distortions. Words are their "turf," and centuries of conflict with Rome and each other has enabled them to become skilled at logomachy. Like all ancient Greeks, the Corinthians loved displays of rhetorical skill. But St. Paul reminded them, "The kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power."

The difference between the Church and the western confessions of faith is not verbal. Words piled up and plied, however skillfully, will only take attention away from the real difference and the real crisis confronting the West.

The problem the West faces is existential and ecclesial. Aleksei Khomiakov wrote this to an Anglican, an early supporter of the Tractarian movement, in 1846:

"You would show that all our doctrine is yours, and indeed at first sight you seem quite right. Many Bishops and divines of your communion are and have been quite orthodox. But what of that? Their opinion is only an individual opinion; it is not the Faith of the Community. The Calvinist Usher is an Anglican no less than the bishops (whom you quote) who hold quite orthodox language. We may and do sympathize with the individuals; we cannot and dare not sympathize with a Church which interpolates the Symbol and doubts her right to that interpolation...Suppose an impossibility--suppose all the Anglicans to be quite Orthodox; suppose their Creed and Faith quite concordant with ours; the mode and process by which that creed is or has been attained is a Protestant one; a simple logical act of the understanding, by which the tradition and writings of the Fathers have been distilled to something very near Truth. If we admit this, all is lost, and Rationalism is the supreme judge of every question." (On spiritual unity, p. 151)

Substitute "Lutheran" for "Anglican," and, say, "Rev. Steven Hower" for "The Calvinist Usher," and it is clear that Khomiakov could have written these words in 2008.

So cite on, dear protestants, but as Khomiakov says, "Do not, I pray, nourish the hope of finding Christian truth without stepping out of the former Protestant circle. It is an illogical hope; it is a remnant of that pride which thought itself able and withal to judge and decide by itself without the Spiritual Communion of heavenly grace and Christian love."

15 February 2008

What's in a name?

The title of this blog is taken from Fr. Pavel Florensky's great work on Orthodoxy, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, which in turn comes from St. Paul's words about the Church. I claim neither brilliance nor originality for anything I write here, and humbly submit it all, as a foolish and unworthy priest, to the judgment of the Church.

Some of what I have to say will be reflections on Orthodox texts and experiences. Some of what I have to say will discuss the Church in her relationship to the world and to various confessions.

I welcome comments from Orthodox and non-Orthodox; I ask only that posters use their own name, and that they refrain from ad hominem attacks.