An unworthy Deacon, named for the brother of God: James, striving to "work out his salvation with fear and trembling" within the Tradition (paradosis) of the Eastern Orthodox Faith. It is a strange and marvelous journey, and I am accompanied by the fourfold fruit of my fecundity. My wife, the Matushka or Diaconissa Sophia, is my beloved partner in the pursuit of Theosis, and she ranks me in every way.
Is it the “Institution” that is the problem? Whether it is the standardized “I'm spiritual, not religious” or “I don't like organized religion”, people seem to believe almost instinctively that there is something wrong with “Institution.” The most organized or dare I say “Institutionalized” breed of such thinking is of course expressed amidst the “pomo” or “reimagine church” movement. They've all seeming decided that the Institution is the problem and that if they simply alter the structure of church, that suddenly Christianity will be something other than whatever bad thing I assume they believe it is now. While using hip contemporary words like “organic” and such, I think in the end many are simply looking to “reimage” the church into something more palatable both to their own tastes and to the taste of one or more various breeds of pop-culture.
However, I don't wish to outright deride their motivations because I know a number of people involved in such endeavors and they all have very good points about the sad state of many aspects of “church.” Seeking something different ('new”?) seemingly makes a good deal of sense. Of course, I am a minor order clergyman in what is likely the most traditional and oldest expression of Christianity and as such some may argue I am representing all that is wrong with the church: hierarchy, out of date customs/practices, “traditions of men”, and frozen-in-time liturgics. Most, if not all, of the offered “solutions” to the problems of the church suggests we do away with such stuff. And thus you end up with leaderless house churches perpetually experimenting with “new” means of expressing worship and in general “doing” Christianity. So, how can I, of all people, suggest their complaints are valid? Well put simply: because I think their solutions aren't.
The problem isn't the “Instituion” per se but rather the people themselves. The old adage regarding the baby and the bathwater is very much applicable to the tossing out of the “Institution” in order to solve all the “problems” in modern Christianity. As most of you know we Orthodox believe that the many demonized aspects of our “Institution” are, beside being beautiful and very much a part of the earliest Church, are also guarantors of our “o”rthodoxy. For you see a “generous orthodoxy” that embraces heterodoxy isn't an “o”rthodoxy at all. What we believe isn't important because what's in our head saves us, it's important because it ends up speaking to what we do and who we are a human persons and that's the key to salvation.
People will no doubt argue about what it means to be “authentic” or “organic” or whatever post modern-esque term you wish to apply to the new images of what the church should be, but I would submit that ultimately what people are looking for is a greater sense of community. I can think of nothing that is more natural, more organic, and more authentic than community – which is to say simply: people being together, being honest and open with one another, and caring for one another. This cannot happen by changing externals, it happens by changing internals. I grant that the “new church” folks have some degree of advantage because in essence they are all largely like-minded people seeking these things to begin with and thus a sense of community and honesty is going to be there – however I would suggest some caution in that people are people and I'll leave it at that.
Yes, in more traditional settings you will find people “going through the motions”, but does this condemn the motions or the person? Will there not also be people just “going through the new motions”? Even if the motions are perpetually being changed and reinvented?
If I REALLY take my Orthodox faith seriously...if I let the rich traditions flood over my everyday life and infuse my home with the aroma of its teachings and practice then I would submit that nothing could be more organic, more authentic, more manifesting of community, and more in keeping with the Apostolic Faith, I'm not here to change Christianity, Christianity – or rather Christ and His Church – are here to change me. Nothing outside needs to be reinvented, it's the inside that needs to be reinvented and for that we have a tried and true ancient path. If I may steal from Chesterton: that path has not be tried and found lacking, but has been found difficult and not tried.
In my experience, save a few heretics, Orthodox Christians love meat and given this general truth, there is I suppose a large degree of sense to the fasts. However, this is not the context of the reference in the title. Rather the title is the derogatory label given to Christians by the pagan Celsus in his 2nd century anti-Christian work “The True Word.” Derogatory because at that time, Christian anthropology and the belief in the general resurrection just did not make sense to the presiding Hellenistic mind – more than that, it was downright perceived as yucky (if I may use academic terminology.)
Now, this derision had nothing to do with diet, nor Christians being worldly hedonists and indulging all their fleshly desires. No, the early Church had a pretty good understanding of asceticism I should think. No, this insult arises from the prevailing cultural mind which retained a great deal of hope and aspiration for a future disincarnation; a freeing of the soul from the prison of the body. This being the case, one can understand how gnosticism infected Christianity – it was simply an attempt to make the new faith more palatable to the popular culture of the time.
Some things never change. Yes, some are still trying to flavor their Christianity to make it palatable to all (I liken it to fast food which no one can deny tastes great, but it absolutely of horrific quality), but I'm more interested here in the full circle we've seemingly come around and returned to a popular culture which seems more gnostic than Christian. What I mean, is that the old Greek ideal of disincarnation maintains a great deal of acceptance amongst people these days – even people who would otherwise be quite devout Christians. For to suggest that the soul, through death, is being “freed” from the body is a decidedly unchristian thing to propose.
In my DVP reading I've been treading water happily through Florovsky's “Creation and Redemption” and in it he reminds us that human beings are neither merely a corpse nor a ghost. Death is the unnatural separation of a natural unity of body and soul and only united together is the whole human person truly present. To suggest that the soul possesses an individual's true personhood is just as wrong as saying the corpse obviously doesn't. Yes, the body, having been taken and formed from creation itself, is indeed that part of us that literally tastes of corruption, but we cannot successfully categorize body and soul as separate and expect that when so done we can identify a portion that retains the personhood over and above the other.
Resurrection is the restoration of the natural order. But to the Greek mind at the time of Celsus, it was a ridiculous notion. More and more I think people today would side with Celsus and his generation, even some who would be called Christians. However, I might suggest (without any large degree of perceived certainty) that maybe the subtle (or not so) gnosticism that has crept back into Christianity has perhaps rendered it now impossible for Christians to ever again be called “a flesh-loving crew.” Perhaps over the past few centuries we have so demonized the “flesh” and the “world” that we are popularly perceived more as doceticists: gnostics bent on hating the world and the flesh? In other words, our distaste of sin became a distaste for the world and this in turn became too much even for the spirit-trapped-in-the-body believing world to handle.
And while we might askew the title today for its potential negative connotation (after all “flesh” is too often ONLY seen in terms of sinful passions), I do think we – particularly those of us of the Orthodox persuasion – need to make clear our anthropological beliefs which translate also into our beliefs regarding creation in general, redemption, and of course the Person of our flesh-loving and bearing God.