Christian Existence and Modern Existence 5 – the Modern Subversion of our Life

Modern Existence and Christian Existence
5. How Modernity shaped and radically subverted the Church and Christian faith

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. 1 John 1:1-4

‘He [Adam] moved contrary to his nature, madly (ανοητ0ς) and of his own initiative, making a bad use of the natural faculty which had been entrusted to him in his constitution with an eye to the unification of what was separated, so as rather to separate things united’ Maximos the Confessor. Quoted in ‘Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses’ Jean-Claud Larchet Volume I, p65

Last time we considered technology – and the way in which we and our sense of who we are is altered by the tools that we use. The old saying, that ‘to a man with a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail’ illustrates this, or to use a particularly contemporary example regarding a hot debate in American culture, it is not true to say that it is not guns that kill people, but people who kill people, for a person with a gun is Not the same as a person without a gun and having handled on and indeed used one, I have a sense of that which I speak. So those who carry guns have an alarming but not entirely unexpected propensity to shoot other people.

So too the smart phone has changed people – with suggestions that research is revealing a dramatic loss of empathic capability amongst the generation of those who use them. Whilst it is presented to us as a means of connection, ur current understanding is that at the non conscious or deep level of our experiencing the world, the level at which our True apprehension of things is formed, they do no such thing. Hence youngsters tied to their phones are at the forefront of the modern epidemic of loneliness and loss of empathy. For none of us is our words. Purely reading a text never makes a person present. You may read these words and have no sense that I wrote them and this seems to be the way which we respond at a deep level to all text, it is at the level of Experience, radically depersonalised, explaining of course why we might say something by text we would never say to someone’s Face, or Person.

And as the Psalmist puts it, we become like that which we create Ps 115:8 – and above all we have created a culture, which is perhaps unique in human history for its tendency to unreflective self reinforcing, faced continually as we are with a World we have created in our increasingly distorted image. This huge change is in large part down to the burning of fossil fuels which has given us Promethean power over the created order. The more technical power we have acquired the more we have come to trust in it and mimic it in our day to day existence. The more technical the culture becomes the more it suggests itself to us as ‘life’ So we talk about systems of care for example – people we say need to be trained in empathy – and hardly notice that that which which seemed once to be natural to us, has become a matter of Technical prowess. As I spoke last week about the terrible Alienation of ‘paying for Spiritual direction’ – people acquiring the ‘skills’ – this surrender to technique now inhabits the realm of the Spirit. No longer does the Spirit blow where it will, for we have harnessed even the Spirit to our own ends. In this sense at least the Jesuit philosopher Tehard de Chardin was right. Even God now comes under our direction . . .
by way of example I refer to the Alpha course, wherein the Holy Spirit is asked to wait in the wings until called upon on the weekend away . . .

out technical mastery has shaped a culture so that it fits ‘us’ – yet it has also made us technical – for we cannot make that which we cannot see . . . the technical culture fits us perfectly because ‘all who make them shall become like them’ – it poses no challenge to us, and in a sense therefore we have fallen asleep. The shower is the perfect temperature, everything is so adjusted to our taste that we disappear, or fall asleep – yet Jesus is the One who wakes us up. Note our reading from John’s gospel this last Sunday.
Jesus told [his disciples], ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.

What is Jesus doing here? He is pointing out the deep truth of our existence apart from him – in separation from him – a both Martha and Mary say, ‘If you have been here my brother would not have died’ Jesus IS Life. Thus his presence awakens us from the sleep of death. He must speak to the surface of things that the disciples might begin to understand – he told them ‘plainly’ (the surface meaning) ‘Lazarus is dead’

The Anglican solitary Maggie Ross speaks of our condition thus ‘the human race is sleepwalking into extinction’ She goes on regarding our sleep ‘The list of stupidities we know about is endless; it is terrifying to ponder how many we have not recognised. Yet we continue blithely to ignore those issues we DO know about . . .and goes on to list all those things which we know are happening but to which we do not respond – as if we are asleep.’ This failure to See, to Behold, is of course also a parallel of Spiritual death, which is at the heart of the passage regarding Lazarus

And this sleep walking by those with access to the power, comes at a huge cost, caused by a radical disconnection from all that is, it amplifies that disconnection. Technical means only amplify the problem. The problem at heart is that we have become overwhelmingly technical – exerting power over that which is not us – And thus we flee anything that is discomforting, Reality – life – be it people who do not think as I do  but with whom I have no choice but to share my life, or icy wind and burning sun which I cannot flee from, or indeed God, who is radically Not Me, and for the purposes of our thinking today calls each one of us to be Changed, Calling us into that Life fully realised in the image and likeness of his Son.

For as much as some Christians like to think of themselves as ‘apart’ from the World – this I suggest is a manifest illusion, that all of us are more radically shaped by the fragmentation of Modernity than we might possibly imagine. As I have repeatedly stated I only talk of that which I know that I participate in, and I suggest that I am not alone in this. And thus the change that has all but overwhelmed the World in Modernity has also so all but overwhelmed the Western Church as well, such that Christian Existence now mirrors Modern existence in many ways

As ‘Modern’ technology, which I suggest is itself the fruit of changes in the Western philosophical systems of the Church right back in the C13, has radically shaped our perception of ourselves as human beings, so too it has radically shaped our expression of the faith, and this week we shall consider some of the broad themes of this change, but it would help first to recognise once more the true nature of Christian Existence as expressed in the Great Commandment, bearing in mind the simple description of Modernity as  a ‘culture of things in separation’.

We remind ourself of the Crucified Human – Held in place between ‘Heaven and Earth’, betwixt God and the mud of Creation – and between the neighbours.

It is worth I think especially now as we come to the Great Feast of our Faith Easter, considering how Contrary to the ‘gospel of sleep’ such existence is – such that we actually try and distance ourselves from such Christian Existence, and The Cross.  Christ we might say ‘suffered on our behalf’ BUT, if as we have explored it is in the Crucified human that we see the True Human – or the Glory of God (‘A human being fully alive’) then perhaps there is something Essential in Suffering as part of the truly human condition? Yet we employ technical means to get away from any discomfort . . . say the discomfort of our car being a couple of degrees to warm or cold.

For one who is fully healed, it is that suffering self emptying towards neighbour, and neighbour, to the care of the Earth and thus to the glory of God – for those who are being healed it is the way to this Reconciliation, this ‘participation in the wounds of Christ’ which we call Koinonia. The Suffering of Shared Life is the vehicle of Life.

To quote Father Stephen Freeman – [Koinonia] is not an argument for solving problems (it is the solution); it is not the dream of a better world (it is the willingness to live in the present one). It is family, children, sickness, weakness, kindness, sharing, prayer. It is transformative but not as political solution. {That is you cannot make this into a system . . .]
put another way the givenness of life is the Way to Life. Awkward people, and situations, these present themselves to us as a way of Growth
To refer briefly to my annual address, this is the Ordinary nature of our existence as Church – it is the fabric from which life springs. How can ‘Suffering’ thus understood be thought of as Evil?  It is only because those who wield huge power over their own existence have radically disconnected themselves from Koinonia, that suffering is thought of in this way – most especially the suffering of Christ. It is a radical flight from Participation in the Life of the World – a denial of Christ himself.

Now as this week I am reflecting on how the Modern project – initiated let us not forget by the Church – has distorted our faith – Christ and him Crucified is as good a place to pause and reflect

We seem to have two accounts of Christ and the Cross prevalent in our day.
One is to understand the Crucifixion of Jesus as some kind of private legal arrangement  between God and his son – one might call this a form of cosmic technology – God’s way of fixing things. This takes many hues, but all one way or another leave us outside of the story. God in Jesus does something in separation from us – the effect of which he then somehow ‘imputes to us’, ‘by faith’ (and let us not forget how that term has become purely a set of ideas). This is I suggest in contrast with the Deep Tradition of the Church Wherein Christ passes to us His Life, His Existence.
The other common way of understanding the Cross is to suggest, following Moltmann, that God is not alien from OUR sufferings, and chooses in this way to share in them . . . again this is problematic – for it does not posit any shared life between God and ourselves, or Koinonia. God might be understood for example as an objective observer, the unmoved mover, to whom Suffering is Alien – who steps in to help. It does not suggest that Suffering is in anyway part of the Essence of God – as if the Cross is some form of aberration. This I think is theologically Highly problematic, not least in the praxis of Care for the weak, in which we the unmoved Centres of our own lives, as a moral duty help those ‘less fortunate than ourselves’.
I will return to this next week when we consider seeds of hope – but for now, let us just say that we have a problem in the church with the Cross of Christ, which is more than troublesome, for as we know all four evangelists give most of their space up to this week in the life of Jesus.

This disconnection (‘Modern’) leads many to ignore the Cross altogether – and indeed it may well be seen to be absent in many contemporary accounts of Christian faith. Somehow we might assert it is about God’s Love, but so in love are we with being asleep –  that how Love is revealed in the blood and sweat and broken sinews and bones of the crucifixion of a first century Palestinian Jew is quite beyond us – that the Cross might Truly be the revelation of the true nature of our lives seems the most ludicrous assertion. That the Way of the Cross might actually be the Way of Love

This leads us on then to the centre of the distortion. As we have considered, ‘Modernity’ which is now several hundred years old, effectively takes the Human down from the cross. No longer for our existence do we need consider our neighbour, or the Creation, or God. To say that this is an illusion and a most powerful one at that may go without saying, but I think we must recognise that these are the non-conscious assumptions underlying most of our lives. We can and do talk of the importance of ‘Economic Independence’ without realising that this is an oxymoron. That the Oiko-nomos, ‘Way of the Household’ is one of shared existence.

The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the Consumer goods by which we are consumed, the land which was exploited to produce them, the people who made them . . . these are now hidden from us, and we may well believe that we are ‘independent individuals’ – Not held in place by Deep and Essential mutual Obligation – which we dare to call Love (which has come to mean little more than a vague sensation, like a pleasant form of heartburn . . .).

This disconnection from God, neighbour and Creation, this Alienation, has led to a collapse of the Soul into the Self. No longer held in place we collapse into ourselves and look out at the world as ‘objective’ observers’ of life. Understanding ourselves as at the Centre of things, looking out. A few weeks ago in conversation with some Christian young people I asked – ‘what is the point of being a Christian. Their universal answer mimicked that of much contemporary Christian faith and indeed increasingly its apologetics, ‘I know that there is someone their for me . . .’ In other words, their self perception is of being at the centre of their existence, or, put another way utterly comfortable and imagining God as the one who confirms them in that comfort. ‘There for me’

– and this has had radical implications not only for our world but indeed for our faith which has become a matter of ‘changing the world’ rather than the hard work of as we are able, changing ourselves. For one looking out on a world of things, the temptation to rearrange, to fix, is all but impossible to resist. Of course the lack of Power over things prior to the widespread availability of energy from fossil fuels held us in place, but the philosophical, abstract wheels had begun to turn and we were leaning that our life was not with the other.

The idea that We look out on the world and are empowered to change it is a modern conceit, largely brought about by the huge yet temporary energy supplied by burning fossil fuels – which for those who have access to them, suggests the idea that we can indeed do anything! (Yet ignoring the vast cost to all those un named unknown human beings who are enslaved to the Promethean projects of the Modern world)

And so we hear almost all the time ‘We are building the Kingdom of God!’ or ‘we need new strategies for church growth’, or ‘this is how we will fix the Diocese’ . . . Or we tinker with liturgy or songs – fixing things ‘out there’ so that they conform to what is ‘in here’, because of course, God likes things the way I like them as well 🙂

I remember someone once telling me what sort of music we should have in church today, because ‘that is what young people like’ – the person of course was expressing their own preference 🙂

This theme of ‘Power over’ has its roots of course in The Great Schism. Which was a matter of assertion of Power. For Pope Leo IX to assert not only that he was ‘primus inter pares’, but instead pontifex maximus – Supreme Over the church – led to the human radically asserting Power over, which requires a separation from in abstraction. It requires us to judge the other, though we cannot know them, It requires us to imagine that things are ours, rather than God’s. The idea that we might hold all things in trust for the good of the Earth and for others is to say the least far from our minds on a day to day basis, yet it is the truth of our being in the World

And this move to Power Over tore the fabric of the Creation. We were as it were back in the garden making the oldest mistake – making a bad use of the natural faculty which had been entrusted to [us] in our constitution with an eye to the unification of what was separated, so as rather to separate things united.
One can only assert power over when one loses sight of Life Together – that our Life is with our Brother – and that we have no life apart from the breath of God manifested in the winds and the waves – and the mud of the Earth . . . That is the Sacramental nature of our existence.

As you may recall in Week one we explored briefly how the Great Schism had led almost immediately to the doctrine of transubstantiation – and here we may note how language plays an important role within faith and how we See. To step back from the Eucharist – if this is possible – for a moment. As I have mentioned once or twice – the move to separation on things also leads to changes in languages. So to take but one example which is very significant to us, the Hebrew word  ר֫וּחַ ‘ruach’ We might translate this ‘Wind’, or ‘Spirit’ or ‘breath’. It is language which assists us in Sacramental imagination – yet we might ask – ‘which do you mean? Wind or Spirit or Breath?’ To have but one word is to assert the provisionality of language in speaking the Truth – a provisionality which in humility assents to the hidden Truth.
So we see how the issue regarding the Sacrament is about demanding that something hidden reveal itself. Is it Bread and Wine, or is it the body and blood of Christ is the question of an imagination which believes in the Power of language over Creation. [noting briefly that Adam’s naming of the animals needs to be understood as the functioning of his prelapsarian Sight – he can See – he Beholds the Truth of things and so can name]
And so we began a move away from a Sacramental perception of Creation – which led in time to our loss of reverence for it – that when our power over Creation increased, so we destroyed that which had been given to give us Life.

This shift is of First Order significance that our faith – our faith is a matter of materiality. our embodied existence. Disconnection from the soil and the labour of Work also disembodied us and our faith which increasingly became a thing of only the conscious mind. In a sense this is the root of what we call the secular world, with Religious faith’ relegated to the world of ‘private opinion’, but of course this was only exacerbated by the increased move to urbanisation away from the Land. But also the role of the body in Christian existence became less and less apparent. Last week as we studied Father Stephen’s book and read about Ikons we were reminded of how prostration before an Icon was quite unexceptional in Orthodoxy, which we found at best odd, yet perhaps it was sobering to reflect how little our bodies were any longer necessary to our worship – or indeed we might think the bodies of others as here and there ‘virtual church’ sprang up where only were

So embodied was early Christian existence that it was the Christians who turned the Romans from their universal practise of cremation with its inherently violent posture towards the body. I remember myself sharing with a former teaching colleague how my visit as a seminary student to a Crematorium and my observation of the process had led me to reconsider my own insouciant disregard in this respect. To my saying ‘I can no longer wholly accept such a practise as Christian’ he replied as I would have done only a few months previously – ‘but its only a shell for your soul . . .’ Becoming alert to how modernity had shaped our understanding so radically, I turned to his wife who had grown up in rural Zambia. ‘Akfuna,’ I asked, ‘your people don’t think of things in this way do they?’ ‘They most certainly do not!’ she replied, and thus a gulf in world view opened up, but I suggest a very critical one. our bodies are as it were the realm of our faith, that place indwelled by the Holy Spirit of God and of course that which is the seed of the resurrection body. the destruction of bodies in flame was universally condemned as a practise of the Gentiles, the nations amongst whom Israel found herself, but never her practise.

it is interesting in this respect the comment of the british playwright Dr Jonathan Miller regarding life after death, ‘ I cannot believe in it, for how would we know one another apart from our bodies?’ Thereby revealing the modern Western approach, and yet acknowledging the importance of our bodies, that we ARE our bodies. or rather that the Soul is a composite of Body Mind and Spirit, or if you like our very being is Sacramental, woven together.

One brief further point I think it is worth pondering in this regard – although in a moment we shall consider the shift to words ahead of silence – one form of ‘wording’ has largely gone by the board which is that of Confession. As on the one hand we have become more wordy, more god like in our creating a world out of words within the church, we have become perhaps less able to truly grow into our Gifted participation in god’ life because of our failure to comprehend what it is to confess our sins one to another that we might be healed. Spoken confession to another Christian was from the first seen as a primary form of healing, The collapse of the Cruciform self into The Self has led to a sense that there is nothing to be confessed, that we do not in any sense need to be healed.
My own experience in this area has brought me to consider this again as a very embodied thing. If we consider the ‘physical form’ of demons, anyone who has attentively confessed their sins will not a certain driving out that which is ‘named’

Anyway, all of this I suggest leaves us with a very significant question, What if our faith is in reality, no more and no less than an embodied argument about the very nature of Reality and Existence in the World. As Pilate says ‘Behold! The Man!’ humanity Revealed in Jesus in his essential [sic] embodied humanity, so too the Church, the Body of Christ is called to be such a Revealing . . .

The shift in the perception away from the sacramental also led to a move away from the Church as being the visible body of Christ. Now the Sacrament was ‘magicked’ into the Real visible body of Christ, rather than sacramentally present in bread and wine, the visible sign of christ – the community of is disciples, became less significant and by the time of the Reformation – against the abuses of the Institutional church which it was hard to see and consider as The Body of Christ, the Reformers would talk of ‘the invisible’ the true church. As faith had become a thing in the mind and thus all but disembodied, so to the Church was no longer understood in bodily terms.

Two further changes took place in different ways associated with the loss of the Sacramental understanding of the Eucharist. Firstly the role of the priests was elevated above the laity. A gulf which to be frank persists to this day. No one who has been ordained will be unaware from their own side of how this changes the dynamic. Whilst ways have been suggested to ‘empower’ the laity – usually by emphasising their ministry in the world, this has been to the detriment of the understanding of the priesthood of all believers, because we no longer have an understanding of the office and work of a priest, except increasingly as a church manager. IF the church is as the apostle states, a kingdom of priests, then perhaps we need to consider again what this might mean for the Church. Secondly, as the Reformers had reacted against the power of the priests, so too they did against the Eucharist. It became an object of suspicion regarding any form of devotion towards this, the life blood of the church in earlier ages. And so today it is not uncommon for some Christians never to partake of the body and blood of Christ, yet if ours is a material faith then perhaps we might take Jesus’ words on this matter with a degree more seriousness ‘Whoever eats me will live because of me’.

Power over and separation as we have already noted was encouraged by and led to ‘more words’. As our faith in the hidden Life available to us in the Eucharist was diminished, so we looked to things seen, or rather heard. The written words of the Scriptures seemed to offer that assurance which and The Bible as a separate artefact took the place of Tradition in its deepest sense. Father more this led to an ever increasing wordiness vs Silence. Words it was felt made things sure. Those who have had to endure the endless liturgical reform movement have been most aware of this. The drive to ,ake things mentally clear. The idea that words had a necessary provisionality to them lost in the demand for the certainty of literalism, something which we have explored in our book studies. Of course as faith was reduced to mental concepts and words then ‘arguments about words’ which St Paul himself warned Timothy ‘Remind others about these things, and warn them before God not to argue over words. Arguing does not do any good but only destroys those who are listening.’

How many ‘bible believing churches’ have been set up precisely in flagrant disbelief of the words of the apostle . . . And so a multiplicity of churches, the initial schism leading to schism upon schism in the search for certainty.

And I suggest to a complete inversion of the faith – from God being the Centre who is paradoxically everywhere present and filling all things, or as the saints of old had it, the Circle whose centre is everywhere and cisrumference nowhere – we have become the centre of faith – it seems to me to be a total perversion of that which was given for our salvation.

We are SO tuned to Looking out at a world of things – as the Centre – and our great power over creation trains us in seeing that outside of ourselves as that which we might manipulate. So it has become the Christian vocation not to change ourselves but to seek to change what is out there – the world. But The Way has been that as we are changed the world is saved – Seraphim of Sarov – acquire inner peace and a ten thousand around you will be saved.

but I think, more than this has been the loss of the perception of Christian Existence itself. Jesus words about eternal life, having become so disembodied, and dissociated from The Cross, have led us to fail to comprehend the deep significance of Life, Now. Not in the sense of ‘the significance of our lives, but a radical apprehension of the meaning of Christian Life. The ‘message of salvation has taken two turns in the wrong direction, either making OUR lives the centre of a this world existence, or understanding the meaning of faith to lie primarily outside of the span of our mortal years, rather than the growing into the full stature of Christ’s existence in the here and now. It is about the LIFE which Jesus gives to us NOW

A moments thought i think will reveal some of the truth of this – think for a moment how we are given to understand ourselves as choosing this that or the other for ourselves, free from constraints of almost anything – we chose where we will live, our work, with whom we will and will not share our lives, we chose whether or not we will have children, we choose what we eat, what we wear. Soon without doubt we shall have total freedom also to choose when we die. Choice is the benchmark of ‘Good’ in the world we inhabit, so free are we from constraint. So too we choose which church we will attend, indeed we are encouraged to choose that which best fits our personality type – thereby assuring us that we will be surrounded only by circumstances congenial to us, and thus in a Deep and paradoxical Sense rendered utterly passive, either truly acting nor being acted upon.

In what contrast to Christ, who though he was in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but rather emptied himself. Jesus did not look out and grasp, take hold of, as the First Adam had, rather he poured himself out, and ‘being found in human nature as a slave (no freedom there, became obedient to death, even the death of the cross . . .

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