CHRISTIAN WISDOM: So Who Cares? by Frederica Mathewes-Green

The Ancient Christian Path of Transformation

So Who Cares? by Frederica Mathewes-Green

From: The Illuminated Heart

Illumine our hearts, O Master who lovest mankind
with the pure light of thy divine knowledge,
and open the eyes of our minds to the understanding
of thy Gospel teachings, for thou art
the illumination of our souls and bodies,
O Christ our God.
(Prayer before the reading of the Gospel
Liturgy of St. James, Fourth Century)

Sounds nice, but why should we be interested in Anna’s approach?  Christians today experience and express their faith in many ways.  Isn’t this just one more?  Why should we care how Anna and Theodore lived, prayed, and understood the scriptures?  They lived a long time ago, after all; don’t times change?

It’s because times change that we should especially take notice of that which stands the test of time.  The voice of Christians of the early centuries deserves our special attention, indeed special respect, because they had an advantage we don’t.  Those believers lived closer to the time of Christ, in the same cultural milieu and using the same pool of languages.  They were descendants of the first believers, the first martyrs and missionaries; the history of the church was the history of their own family and neighborhood.  They wrote the scriptures, in fact, and so they were able to understand them better than we can.  Imagine giving today’s Paris newspaper to a native of the city, and giving it to an Alaskan 1500 or 2000 years from now.  Whose interpretation will be more accurate?

There’s a further reason to listen to these early Christians: What they believed was held consistently, over a very long time and over very long distances.  That’s a supernatural feat on the order of a miracle.  We modern Christians have come to expect that theology, morality, and worship will shift dramatically over the course of a decade or two, and between one neighboring congregation and another.  We’re not even ashamed of this any more, or concerned about how truth could be so splintered.

Yet, despite daunting problems of language, distance, and persecution, the early Christians had a unity in faith that endured across many continents and lasted for many centuries.  Better than “multicultural,” it was “trans-cultural,” arising with resilience in all times and places that the gospel spread.  In fact, that was the simple test by which the fifth-century monk Saint Vincent of Lérins said we could tell the true faith from falsehood: “That which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.”

No single local example of the early church was perfect, of course; people were as much sinner then as now.  Yet this radiant and consistent faith, a gift of God, kept emerging, kept persisting everywhere throughout the Christian world.

We modern Western Christians are often unaware of this part of our faith story.  Many of us know the Bible, then skip a thousand years to the medieval era, or fifteen hundred years to the Reformation, leaving the initial period a blank.  We do the same thing geographically, picturing Christianity as a faith restricted to western Europe.

But Christianity began in the Middle East and spread in both directions at once, and our history takes place in eastern Europe as well, and in Asia, India, and Africa.  Its richness stretches all the way back to the first century, and is filled with vibrant heroes, preachers, events, and miracles whose stories we have never known.  We modern Christians are victims of amnesia; we have forgotten the powerful tale of where we came from, and this wisdom that our older sisters and brothers knew.

How did this happen?  Answering that question requires a detour through history, and a further question: Why did this happen here, but not everywhere?  In much of the eastern hemisphere the faith practiced still resembles that of Anna’s day.  Why would things change so much in western Europe, yet stay the same elsewhere?

Let’s begin by thinking about how change happens – what enables it to occur, and what limits it.  Change is possible when the source of authority approves change.  In the early church, the leadership model was one that diffused authority among everyone, everywhere, in all times, as Saint Vincent proposed above.  This made it very difficult to change – there wasn’t a central office building where you could send letters of protest, or hold a demonstration; it wasn’t even much use to boot out a church leader and elect a new one.  The faith was expected to be something that arose among all believers everywhere, under the living guidance of the Holy Spirit.  Church leaders didn’t develop or edit the faith, but were the museum guards, responsible only to protect the treasure and pass it on intact.  What happened in one city had to harmonize in all essential things with what happened in the next city; it must also harmonize with great-grandmother’s memory.  When it requires everybody’s key to open the cabinet and rearrange the shelves, rearranging happens very rarely.

Naturally, there were disputes, some very intense.  But the model for resolution was the one seen in the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Acts: leaders of equal rank meeting to argue and pray through to consensus.  What’s more, council decisions didn’t become final until they were carried back home and the common people agreed to receive them.  If the hierarchy went astray, the laity would defy them; in the fourth century Saint Basil described the old and sick standing in snowy fields to worship rather than entering churches led by heretical priests.

This communal faith, rising from the grass roots and accumulating over time, was itself the final authority.  Not a person, not a list of rules, but a living, abiding faith – the evidence of Jesus’s promise, “I will send the Holy Spirit and he will guide you into all truth.”

Not that people always remained faithful to this treasure, of course.  Just as in ancient Israel, when people began to wander God would appoint leaders to call them back to the historic, communal faith.  No one would announce instead that new situations require fresh responses, and I’m just the guy to tell you about them.  Anna’s congregation would recognize such words as an invitation to madness, if not spiritual suicide.  The current age will always blow with confusing winds, and they are never authoritative.  No innovator can be smart enough to reinterpret scripture or to cook up new theology all by himself.  The person who thinks he is has fallen into tragic delusion.  No, it was in returning to the common faith that they would once again hear the Holy Spirit’s voice.

Think again about those leaders, those early bishops and teachers, and how they were like museum guards.  In western Europe there was a subtle shift: Leaders became more like museum curators.  They gradually moved into a larger teaching and interpreting role, and the common people assumed a role that was correspondingly more receptive, and less that of equal participants in a broadly rooted, self-authenticating faith.  The practical effects of this shift provoked strong resistance from Christians in the East, culminating in the Great Schism of A.D. 1054, after which Christians in western Europe and elsewhere went their separate ways.

The path of the eastern Church from that point forward is mostly unknown to Western Christians, but despite conquest and persecution at the hands of Crusaders, Muslims, and most recently Communists, the lack of a mechanism for change has kept those churches remarkably unchanged.  Not that these sister churches were entirely populated by saints; human failure and power struggles abounded there as elsewhere.  But the treasure was preserved, even during eras when its resources were neglected.  Since no one had authority to rewrite the prayers, morals, doctrines, or spiritual disciplines, visiting a healthy worshiping community in this tradition today can be like stepping back through time.

Our story in western Europe is more familiar.  When the Reformation arose five hundred years after the Great Schism, it was prompted partly by renewed controversy over the top-down leadership model.  But at this point the once-universal idea that there existed a common deposit of faith had been lost.  The hope of returning to a simple, Bible-based faith was now complicated by the need for someone to explain what that faith was.  Soon many gifted leaders were offering differing interpretations, and followers aligned with one or another as they found them most convincing.  Instead of one leader there were multiple leaders, and there was no longer a common, grass-roots faith.

The next step was that, if each person can decide for himself whom to follow, each person can decide for himself what the faith is.  The splintering was complete.  And since the current generation is always the one making these decisions, it seemed that the most innovative, up-to-date ideas were the most correct ones.  It was assumed that the newest ideas are the truest ideas, a notion that would astonish Anna’s husband, Deacon Theodore, who leads worship with prayers that are already centuries old.

Thus the early church’s understanding – that the faith was an organic thing that sprang up from all people in common – was gradually forgotten.  The expectation that an individual believer would submit to this mutual faith, and submit to the accumulated witness of previous generations, was lost.

However, the loss is not irreversible.  These early Christians wrote constantly.  They wrote sermons and evangelistic tracts, theological treatises and debates, guidelines about how to pray, eyewitness reports of martyrdom.  Though modern believers are often unfamiliar with these works, Christians through the centuries have treasured and preserved them, and they fill dozens of volumes.  We can begin to recover the early church’s wisdom by reading these works and seeing which elements persist across the years and across varying cultures.

The person who cracks open one of these volumes at random, however, is apt to feel at sea.  The resources are endless, and one may well land in the middle of a vehement argument about some detail of Christology that we now find confusing.  The thing to keep in mind is our goal: transformation in Christ, union with Christ, as Anna seeks it.  All true theology helps us toward that end.  Anything that doesn’t is better avoided, no matter how clever.

A good key in approaching these writings is the prayers of the early church since it is in prayers that humble, practical application most shines forth.  There were several “families” of liturgy during this time in different geographical and linguistic regions, but they shared common emphases, and a certain mindset united them all.  Any Christian of that era – including the writers mentioned above –would have been immersed in this worship, would have been taught and shaped by it, and would have acquired formative concepts that governed all else.  These would include assumptions about what the Christian’s goal is and how he gets there: the ways we relate to God, to our bodies, to our thought habits, to one another.  We’ll examine each of these more closely in coming chapters.

So it is the overall mindset that Theodore and Anna are acquiring through worship that is our guide, and that helps us understand other early church writings.  Not every word written by every early church figure is golden; we’re looking for overlap, for consensus.  Where we find the same ancient elements persisting over the centuries and in all different cultures, we have recovered the common faith.

The Western Christian who begins to explore these things faces a difficult entry phase.  Our worldview is very different from this one, and sometimes we use the same words but mean different things.  We can also encounter entirely unfamiliar words.  In general, we will have the disorienting sensation that things we always presumed were distinct and separate are being put back together.  This whole process will take some patience, as we try to understand what Anna and Theodore know.

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