"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Pray for Christian Unity

Father, we pray for your holy Catholic Church;
That we all may be one. 
               ~Prayers of the People, Form III, BCP

This week, beginning with the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter and continuing through to the Conversion of St. Paul, marks the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an idea popularized early in the twentieth century by the French ecumenist and Roman Catholic priest, Paul Couturier.  Richard Meux Benson was a priest of the Church of England, and the founder of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist.  Fr. Benson writes:
We, as members of the human race, are not so many individuals existing alongside of one another in the world, but by nature we are one; and we cannot be restored to the love of God merely as individuals.  We must be restored in the consciousness of that unity to which we belong.  We are not taken out of the one body to be individuals in heaven.  The law of sympathy is a law which lives on with us, and without it we cannot be saved.  We cannot truly have a personal interest in Christ, unless we have a collective interest in Christ.  We cannot have our sins blotted out by Christ's blood, unless we have fellowship with one another.  This law of unity is the law under which we are created, and we must accept it as the foundation of our moral state.  We must then have a real sense of our own participation in the sins of the whole race.  And we must humble ourselves before God.
Lack of unity among Christians is hardly a new problem.  Despite our Lord's prayer "that they may be one" as He and the Father are one, we've done a pretty fine job of splitting ourselves into sects and divisions right from the start.  From St. Paul's concern expressed to the Corinthians that they were splitting into factions of Paul, Apollos, and Cephas, through the early Church's struggle to define its orthodoxy, through the Great Schism between East and West in the eleventh century to the Protestant Reformations of the sixteenth, and the subsequent continued splintering of Protestantism that continues down to our own day, it would be easy to look around and think that Christian unity is more distant than ever.  The idea of Christian unity is famously tricky, in part because there is not even agreement about what we mean when we speak of it.  Do we seek a single, unified institution?  Varied institutions in full communion with one another?  Universal conformity in doctrine?  A simple charity of spirit on matters of adiaphora (though that would entail agreement on what is adiaphora and what is essential)?  In short, one could become frustrated quite easily.  All the more reason to pray fervently for that unity which, apparently, is meant to be a defining mark of the People of God.

The Church in America is not unique for its disunity; disunity afflicts the Church the world over.  But I think we in America, perhaps more than most, need to be reminded of the scandal of a divided Church.  From the beginning, America has seen a multiplicity of churches, and that diversity has only grown over time.  We also cherish the ideals of individuality and personal liberty, so much so that we are most apt to speak of these things as blessings, unique and characteristic strengths of religion in America.  But individuality and personal liberty are largely incompatible with the gospel and the idea of the Church as presented in the New Testament and in Christian tradition (or, more accurately, it is the pervasive individualism that passes for these ideals which is incompatible with Christianity).  In becoming members of Christ's body, we become bound to Jesus, our Lord and Master, and also bound to the rest of the Body. We are instructed to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (what red-blooded, liberty-loving, self-reliant American patriot would willingly be bound in submission to anyone or anything?).  The freedom of Christ is not a license to do whatever we want, as both Paul and Peter point out in their letters.  And, popular evangelical phraseology not withstanding, Jesus is not my personal Savior; he is the Savior of the world.  One may counter that this is simply semantics, that Jesus is both Savior of the world and the Savior of me, personally, as a beloved individual creature in this world.  True enough, but I think many in the Church in America today have been fed so much of the language of personal salvation that they may understandably intuit that it really just boils down to "Jesus and me."  After all, "it's about relationship, not religion", right?  I suspect that many American Christians would balk at Benson's assertion that "we cannot be restored to the love of God merely as individuals", that without fellowship and real sympathy with our fellow humans "we cannot be saved."  But I believe it is so.  Christ founded a Church, not a loose association of individuals.  This idea of the Christian faith as communal by definition needs to be regained with vigor.  The Christian faith simply cannot be separated from the Church and passed off as an endlessly individualized series of options for the lone spiritual seeker who won't be tied down.  The author of the letter to the Hebrews gives us insight into the profound nature of the unity of the whole Church and the reality that our individual salvation is inextricably bound up with the welfare of the whole when he writes, "only together with us would they be made perfect" (Hebrews 11:40).

The Christian lives in hope.  Despite the seeming bleakness of our deep, long-ingrained disunion, we continue to pray.  Let us pray, not in desperation, but in expectation.  In the fourth chapter of the letter to the Ephesians, in what is perhaps the most famous passage in the New Testament on Christian unity, Paul prefaces his creedal statement about "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" with this injunction: "Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace."  No matter how we divide ourselves, the Holy Spirit will not be divided.  To the extent that we, dispersed though we are, cling to Jesus Christ, the Head of the Body, and seek only to build upon the foundation that has Christ as cornerstone, we may live in hope that the unity of the Church, a perpetual reality that we have often obscured, will become ever clearer as the Day approaches.

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it.  But each one should be careful how he builds.  For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ ... So then, no more boasting about men!  All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future -- all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.   
~ I Corinthians 3:10-11, 21-23 

Almighty Father, whose blessed Son before his passion prayed for his disciples that they might be one, as you and he are one: Grant that your Church, being bound together in love and obedience to you, may be united in the one body by the one Spirit, that the world may believe in him whom you have sent, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.
~A Prayer for the Unity of the Church, BCP

Monday, January 20, 2014

C.S. Lewis: 'Old Books', a Bulwark Against the Nonsense of the Present

"It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away."
- C.S. Lewis, on St. Athanasius

In my classroom, I always start the hour with an appropriate quote to get students thinking about the day's topic, or to review what we learned the previous class.  One of my favorites is from C.S. Lewis.  I've forgotten the source, but he writes,
"Most of all, perhaps, we need an intimate knowledge of the past.  The man who has traveled widely is less likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times, and so is to some extent immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age." 
If ever an age could be justly accused of spewing forth a "cataract of nonsense", I think it must be our own.  Lewis, of course, has a way of expressing things with irresistible wit, but this is really 'History 101'.  In the introductory chapter of his book, The Church in History, John E. Booty writes,
"If we ignore history, we deteriorate, becoming less than fully human.  If we refuse to study the past, we abdicate from the power and authority, which we rightly possess, over the historical forces that impinge upon us, and we are in grave danger of being led like dumb oxen into the future.  There are strong tendencies within us, as individuals and as groups, to conform to the dominant intellectual, moral, and cultural trends of the present age, without thought, without criticism, and without control."
It is disciplined historical study, a consciously developed "historical sense", as Booty goes on to say, that enables us to escape the controlling forces of the present.  We should not think, however, that true historical study is escapist; on the contrary, we engage in such study so that "traveling away from ourselves into that past we gain necessary perspective on the present."

And there is no better method for gaining that perspective than by reading old books.  C.S. Lewis wrote a preface to an English translation of St. Athanasius's fourth century treatise On the Incarnation, in which he develops this idea further.  It is one of my new year's resolutions to make a more conscious effort to be always reading at least one "old book".  Lewis's preface is not long, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in becoming immune to the pervasive microphone of the press that would treat us as unthinking cattle.  Of course, reading said preface will undoubtedly lead to the reading of St. Athanasius, which is really the whole point.
"Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books.  But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old.  And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet.  A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it.  It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down through the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light... The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity ("mere Christianity" as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.  Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books.  It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.  If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.
"Every age has its own outlook.  It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.  We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.  And that means the old books.  All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook -- even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.  Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should absolutely deny.  They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united -- united with each other and against earlier and later ages -- by a great mass of common assumptions.  We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century -- the blindness about which posterity will ask, "But how could they have thought that?" -- lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H.G. Wells and Karl Barth.  None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books.  Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already.  Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill.  The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.  Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past.  People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as any mistakes as we.  But not the same mistakes.  They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us."  C.S. Lewis, Preface to On the Incarnation, by Saint Athanasius the Great of Alexandria

Happy reading, and Peace of Christ.