This is my first attempt to reflect on my experience of belief. I want to try, as far as I can, to avoid discussing theological concepts or models of belief. Reflecting simply on what I have experienced as a believer. In this first post I recall growing up believing in God.
For introducing me to belief in God I must thank my parents. And also the Methodist church I attended for much of my childhood. Even though my parents were not very religious, Christianity was cultural and an expected part of growing up. When I say they were not religious I don’t mean to imply that they were atheists either, but simply secular through lack of engagement with their own beliefs.
We attended a Methodist church for no other reason than that my parents viewed it as an English equivalent to my Father’s N.G. (Dutch Reformed) denomination in which we were baptized as babies. As far as Sunday school is concerned, the thing that stands out most vividly in my imagination is worship, especially a song called “Jehovah Jirah” and another called “Love the Lord your God”. I can remember enjoying these and other songs, and sang many of them outside of the Sunday school setting – which is strange given my complete inaptitude for all other forms of music.
At home, my mom sometimes read bible stories to us and at night, I will forever remember the “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer. How, as a young boy, I pictured my soul leave my body as I lay down to sleep – hopeful that it had made its’ way to God. And that should anything happen to me while I lay there in my bed, at least my soul was safe in God’s hands.
I also remember the need, sometimes, to pray that prayer, and later the Lord’s Prayer, over and over again. These repetitions arose from concerns that I had become distracted, and had allowed the prayer to be completed on autopilot. This of course seemed problematic since perhaps auto-pilot prayer didn’t have the same power as self-navigated prayer. If this was true then perhaps God hadn’t heard that He needed to “keep my soul”, or “forgive my trespasses”, or “deliver me from evil”. Thankfully I never let the autopilot continue once I had noticed it, and usually I was satisfied that the prayer following the discovery was done with sufficient devotion and care to reach the ears of God.
To this day this habit continues and will often manifest as repeated grace during the first bite of the meal, as I move the focalized prayer at the table to my heart, and there reiterate my gratitude for God’s provision. Likewise, the Lord’s prayer is still at times susceptible to autopilot transmissions, and still I feel the need to bring my focus back to the prayer and repeat whatever was spoken without intention. These early struggles are also discernible in my need to sometimes overemphasize my intention, or meaning, in prayer – in case God misunderstood me and thinks I’ve communicated something unacceptable.
I remember the first time I was hurt by “the church” or rather by members of it. It was the usual bullying that many of us experience at various times when we are young. My experiences unfortunately connected to those who were part of the body of Christ – but also just little boys like myself. And though I no longer connect the hurt to the church, the bullying itself has left deep scars.
I also remember my first unanswered prayer. Oh, there may have been others before this. But this one was different. This was something very personal and something very painful and I wanted deeply for God to change it. I prayed and prayed and prayed, waking each day to find the prayer unanswered. I have no idea how long it went on for or when I finally realized God wasn’t going to answer the prayer. It was an unspoken prayer and nobody knew that I was praying besides me and God. I also have no idea what I thought of God because of this but I do remember the pain of living daily with a reality that I deeply desired to escape and finding no God to take the pain away.
Until I was 16 my outlook on life was narrow and finite. I believed everything I had been taught and had no reason, nor any desire, to believe differently. That was until I read a newspaper report linking God to a part of the brain. Innocently my eyes had fallen onto one of the headlines of the open newspaper lying on the dining-room table. It read something like, ‘Scientists discover God linked to part of the Brain’. In an instant my world changed. Suddenly my clear and solid vision became blurry and unstable. For the first time that I can remember, I had encountered something I had no tools to engage. My childlike faith was never taught about the supposed conflict between science and religion. I had grown up believing that both were true, along with history, geography and everything else. This brief moment would launch me into adolescence in a way that left the rest of puberty looking quiet tame in comparison. In many ways it was the death of my childlike faith.
I started this blog by acknowledging an interest in both historical Christianity (such as Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism) and postmodern Christianity (such as the Emerging Church Movement, Quakerism and other Post-modern manifestations of Christian Community). It seems to me however that as each week passes and I continue to write and reflect that I see the light of Orthodoxy burning brighter than its’ Post-modern counterparts. I’ve been really happy to discover that many of the things that attracted me to the “Emergents” has proven to have an even deeper expression in Orthodox Christianity, while those elements of emergent Christianity that concerned me are not found in the Historical Church. It appears that many of the positive developments that just “felt right” were in fact gleaned from an existing tradition as old as Christianity itself. Another development is that interacting with the heavy-weights of Orthodoxy has left me questioning some of my previously held positions regarding the Church. After becoming disillusioned with mainstream/evangelical Protestantism I thought I’d found the answer in the anti-institutional model of church. It seemed convincing that the early church was this spontaneous, free-form community of individuals connected to Christ as their individual heads, but the more I study the early church, and the historical record, the more these assumptions are shown to be false. In large part these positions are derived from reading certain New Testament texts without taking into consideration the fullness of the historical data or the Liturgical and Spiritual continuation with the model set out under Judaism.
As a result of this I’ve decided to write this week about something I’ve noticed in some of the Emergent groups that has struck me as deficient. I’m thinking especially of the emergent groups that are particularly anti-institutional and this perceived deficiency is hence rooted in their Ecclesiology. I started reflecting on this while exploring the Ecclesiology of Historical Christianity, which has always held a much higher view of the Church than its’ contemporary off-shoots. It seems to me that when the Reformers broke with the Catholic church they down-graded their view of the church and this process has simply continued to the present day. Now we have emergent groups that have such a low Ecclesiology that almost nothing of theological weight could be said about it. I don’t think many Protestant Christians even understand how low their view of the Church really is when compared to these older traditions. But it isn’t simply the age of the historical traditions that give them credit, it’s the Deep Theological content of their view of the Church that makes them, at least to me, upholders of a richer, deeper, more meaningful expression of what the Body of Christ really is.
One area (and there are a number of others) where this creates a problem is that I feel it causes some in the newer movements to fall short on the first of the two greatest commandments by replacing the first with the second.
One of the things the Emergents definitely seem to be getting right is the second greatest commandment. They understand community and they fight for it wherever they are. They really do Love others as themselves and are fighting hard to bring the kingdom to earth as it is in heaven – Feeding the poor, widowed and orphaned, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, caring for the environment, rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn. The Emergents, and those who think like them, are certainly following the biblical mandate to be community with each other and care for others as though they were literally an extension of their own body – the body of Christ. But that being said I still think that some of them are missing out on a vital part of what it means to be the Church.
A few years ago a well known Pentecostal minister wrote a book called, Liturgical Theology – the editors provide the following description:
Bad worship produces bad theology, and bad theology produces an unhealthy church.
In Liturgical Theology, Simon Chan issues a call to evangelicals to develop a mature theology of the church–an ecclesiology that is grounded in the church’s identity as a worshiping community. Evangelicals, he argues, are confused about the meaning and purpose of the church in part because they have an inadequate understanding of Christian worship. As a remedy for this ailment, Chan presents a coherent theology of the church that pays particular attention to the liturgical practices that have constituted Christian worship throughout the centuries. With a seasoned eye and steady hand, he guides the reader through these practices and unpacks their significance for theology, spirituality and the renewal of evangelicalism in the postmodern era.
I find it encouraging that a Protestant Evangelical would acknowledge such a significant lack in the Churches identity and practice. That said however I find it strange that many Protestants will try to “reclaim” elements of the past without realizing that a Church exists, and has existed since the beginning, that holds every single one of the ancient Church’s teachings and practices (an example of what happens when church history is taken seriously can be seen in Peter Gillquist and his Campus Crusade colleagues who took the “reclaiming” to its’ logical and spiritual conclusion by joining the Eastern Orthodox Church).
Chan makes an interesting statement in the book that has confused a number of his Protestant readers, he says:
“The church precedes creation in that it is what God has in view from all eternity and creation is the means by which God fulfills his eternal purpose in time. The church does not exist in order to fix a broken creation, rather creation exists to realize the church.”
For most Protestants the Church only exists because Adam and Eve fell. But the Orthodox Church teaches that God’s plan for creation always included the Church and always included the Incarnation. Humanity was always meant to become a divinized people. God always meant to join humanity to his Divinity through the Incarnation resulting in the divinization of all creation through humanity– with Christ Incarnate as the epicenter of that creation. Therefore the Church is much more than a loosely connected body of people who believe and practice various different things about Jesus. When we become members of the One Church we enter into the people of God, the people who find their existence fulfilled through the worship of God.
Historically the church is first and foremost a worshiping community. The Greatest Commandment is to Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. We were restored to fellowship with God so that we could once again join the heavenly host in crying out to God holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God almighty.
Now I’m not trying to say that Emergents don’t worship God, it just seems to me that the first and second commandments have somehow become reversed in some of their thought and practice. The church is simply the term used to denote followers of Jesus who love each other well and live out his mandate to be there for each other through the ups and downs of life. A people who seek to build the expression of this communal life practice wherever they go. Now this is great, but it’s not enough.
The church exists to worship God and through that worship to become recipients and conduits for the grace and energy of God to reach out into every sphere of life and creation. If our primary focus is community before worship we will very soon be building that community on our own steam and find that eventually the source of our energy is insufficient to create what can only be done by keeping first things first.
I think this same lack is true of many evangelical churches as well, in which the preaching of the word, rather than the worshipping of the Word Incarnate, takes center stage.
I really feel that the Orthodox Churches Ecclesiology, both theologically and practically brings the fullness of what it means to be the Church. The Divine Liturgy is centered on the worship of the Trinity. Sacramental theology is vital here and sharing communion is the center of their service. Through communal participation in the service the community is joined physically and spiritually to the Incarnate Christ. It is through this Worship and by Participating in the Body and Blood, the Grace and Energy, the Life and Spirit of God, that the Christian is able to Love their Neighbor as themselves and be Christ to the world. Without this as the center of the Christian Life I think the churches of the Reformation, and beyond, are going to continue to grasp for depth and meaning (sometimes with very good intentions) without finding the River of Life that flows from the Throne of God.