Thursday, August 06, 2015

A Dialogue about the Job of Christians

At his website, Ed Cyzewski has very recently posted a provocative little essay on the true essence of the Christian Faith (short form: loving others out of the loving presence of God).  I don't know Mr. Cyzewski, and my thoughts here are unsolicited, so I'll call this a dialogue rather than a response.

As I perused the piece, I often found myself agreeing with Mr. Cyzewski; many of the points are one's I've grappled with and come to myself.  The questions that I'm left with at the end, though, are worth taking some time to elucidate:

1) How do we define 'love'?  In the piece, the whole argument hinges on being centered and settled in God's Love, so that we might love as well.  So far, so good.  However, it is very easy -- and we are seeing this happen in the broad Evangelical movement -- to let 'love' mean whatever it is we think is good, just, and true.  If that is the case, though, we've let ourselves be swayed away from the love of God and into the love of the world; in the process we will have idolized the world in its fallen state, which always leads to its demonization and corruption.  This is one of the main issues facing Evangelicals in the realm of what might be called "sexual ethics": have we made romantic or sexual attraction a good in its own right, rather than seeking (yes, even -- or especially! -- married people) to bring it to the Cross and crucify "the flesh with its passions and desires" (Gal. 5:24).  In many Christian circles (including my own), we've valorized sex to the point where we have given it over to the "flesh with its passions desires," instead of seeing it as an ascetic way to become more like Christ and the Church (1 Cor. 7:2-9 and Eph. 5:22-33).  'Love' continues to be a tricky concept, an even trickier life: we need guides to become lovers in God.

2.  The entrance into the love of God that Mr. Cyzewski describes leaves me wondering about the ultimate place of Christ and His Body in the love of God: "I’m not here to tell you the only ways to experience the loving presence of God. I have found ways that help, but there certainly are many paths. The pursuit is what’s it’s all about."  I'm struggling with what question to ask about this -- it is a deeply unsettling set of statements.  What about the sacraments? might be a good start.  Opening ourselves us to God, doing centering prayer, or whatever avoids, it seems to me, the very character of the one path (narrow and difficult it may be: Matt. 7:14) given by Christ and His Apostles.  The one way to the love of God is the Cross -- how we partake of the Cross is through the sacraments (particularly baptism, per Rom. 6, and Eucharist, per 1 Cor. 10:17, although this passage is cryptic).  The necessity of the sacraments, however, points us to the necessity of the Church as bearer of such.  We cannot be saved alone; rather, it is within the context of mutual confession in the Body that we, through Christ, save one another.  That last phrase should shock us, but not much.  It is found in St James' epistle: "Brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the Truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his ways will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins" (5:19-20).  It isn't for no reason that St Cyprian famously quipped, "he can no longer have God as his father, who has not the Church as his mother" (Treatise 1).  There is a path to experiencing the loving presence of God: it is the Way, the Church of the Son of God.

Now, one of the tools that the Church has at her disposal to direct her children (Gal. 4:26) towards the love of God is the Scriptures, which are "able to make [us] wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:15-17).  Here I think Mr. Cyzewski is onto something important: knowing Scripture without the love of God will not save us.  However, knowing the Scriptures is one aspect of the Way in which we come into God's love.  The attitude that he and I used to carry, that knowing Scripture, theology, church history, whatever is vital because it seems like the "Christian" or "moral" thing to do, is indeed error.  But it isn't the content that is erroneous; it is the method of reception.  If I study the Bible to be "right" about God, or because I confuse knowing Scripture with knowing God, then I have fallen into the trap of pride: I can know God intellectually without faith.  On the other hand, if we come to the Scriptures (and to the Churchly interpreters of the Scriptures -- let's remember that St Paul was talking to St Timothy, not just to Christians at large: he was given him pedagogical and catechetical directions in how to apply the inspired texts) seeking teaching, reproof, correction, instruction, then we will be complete and equipped for that one work, one job, God has called us to: love of God and neighbor.  As a benefit, these Scriptures are replete with concrete direction on what it means to love.

Mr. Cyzewski states: "I have one job and you have one job: find the love of God."  My whole point here is that we need help to find it.  The Church is our guide, just as a good mother should be.  She uses her holy texts for our maturation.  However, if our eyes are clouded by sin and the corruption of the world (1 John 2:16), how can we find the right path to God?  "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Matt. 5:8); "...let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (2 Cor. 7:1).  In other words (and passages such as these could be multiplied fruitfully), to find the love of God takes work, what the Fathers call "ascesis" or "discipline."  This was the whole point of fasting, of almsgiving, of Scripture reading, of prayer: training in the life of holiness that we might see God and be transformed in His Image (2 Cor. 3:18; 1 John 3:1-3).  The final verse in the last cited passage is instructive: "and everyone who has this hope [to see God and be like Him] in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure."  None of these activities is worth anything separated from Christ (John 15:5), but in Him they have great power.

In the end, if I have any critique, it is the same one I've made of myself and many others: we talk about coming into the love of God, but neglect the proper method for doing so.  The whole of the spiritual life, which has at its goal the love of God, is not meriting things for ourselves, or feeling morally superior, or placating some Zeus-like deity; it is taking up the Cross and becoming sacraments for the life of the world.  There is a Way and it has been opened for us (Heb. 10:19-22).