Symbolic Unity

This here is a practical approach to ecumenicity and the sacraments. I think sadly, the only way forward in church unity is by abandoning our liberal modern dispositions to nullify the faith through ordinance empty memorial services as if Jesus died and went away and return to meaningful rituals and symbols that enrich our lives and our faith by emphasizing his presence among us, with us, and for us, not only in Spirit, but in Truth, in He himself making himself known among us.

1. People have abandoned rituals in search of truth, but in this rejection have become blind to the rituals they themselves participate in.

As Moltmann says, experience without expression is dead. If we cannot meaningfully talk about our unifying rituals, we cannot at all have a meaningful united faith. Rituals are a backbone for expression of religion, even prayer, no matter how “spontaneous” is a ritual. We have merely cut off the language areas that allow us to talk about rituals positively. Whereas the answer is not a rejection of ritual, but a stronger emphasis on authenticity in participation.

We all already have rituals, and we need to do is make this ritualistic life existentially aware. It doesn’t need rejection, it needs authenticity. I know lots of evangelicals who are so worried about not having religious rituals that they can’t even acknowledge that prayer is a ritual. They worry about the “chains of dogma” that they run to and fro like headless chickens, blown about by every passing wind. This certainly is not what God envisions for His children.

The poverty of the modern Christian is the He thinks Himself rich for having no rituals, and having a “pure relationship” based in spontaneous forms rather than any form of coherence with others. Yet, what isn’t being recognized is that all of this is a form, it’s a form that leads to atheism.

When we make the faith free of forms of religion, we’re not actually maintaining the gospel, but inventing a new one. Yes religious people who are religious for the sake of a hobby or being able to push others down are a problem, but so are irreligious people who have no regard for the faith of their fathers and mothers.

We don’t need to reinvent the faith every thirty years, we can have meaningful authentic expressions that are not tied to the spirit of this age, but are free to flow and reinterpret themselves from age to age because of their source in orthodoxy, and its importance to the Christian life.

Just as Chesterton said: “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes – our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who happen to be walking around.“- Orthodoxy

2. The sacraments in particular are our way forward because they are the bread and butter of the Christian faith.

They embody what belief in the Christian end is all about, and they challenge us to remember the future rightly. The future of God is a glorified and transformed one, sourced in The inner life of the Trinity, sourced in God’s own faithfulness to Himself and his redemptive project.

Jesus said He was the bread of life, He emphasized that this was His body, not a symbol. I’m merely taking the scriptures for what they say. Look, Jesus told us that we had food from heaven, in the past, but that he was the true bread, and unless we eat of Him we have no life. We can do all sorts of hoop jumping and irreligious apologetics for another interpretation, but at the end of the day, the glaring truth still stands. Christ is Risen, He is filling all things with Himself, and the first place this radically breaks forth is the communion table, where He Himself is present until He comes again.

3. When we gather around common symbols of faith, we will share more deeply in what it means to have and be in communion.

We need rituals to remember that Christianity is not about me. Being means, being-in-relation-to, and this is most important when we think of the dead. Most of us in my generation and in the modern age have little regard for the dead, whereas Chrsitians have always valued the dead highly and regarded them with respect.

If yous top to think about what Christianity has retained in the way it remembers its dead, it shows them the utmost respect, and acknowledges their place before the throne of God, because to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, until He comes again.

Symbols are like an unspoken language that help us create the words to express our faith. For example, last night, we created a ritual at a social gathering, we playfully were saying “Next!” when someone’s story started to bore one of us, it was a joke, but it has created common meaning for all of us. The group that shares this ritual is drawn closer, and the same goes with church rituals. They have meaning and they create meaning further; they enjoin us to remember we are part of a particular community of faith.

Symbols create unity, and teh symbols given to us by Jesus and the church are invitations to be that community which is not the world. Relevance is the most seductive doctrine of today, but it’s not new, or emerging. In fact I’m convinced that by and large there is nothing new or emerging about the emerging church. It’s the same project liberal Protestantism has engaged in time and again. We acquiesce to culture, trying to be the church of today, and get stuck in today, for the next 100 years until the last of us dies off.

The only innovation in the emerging churches might be that 20 years from now, they’re just a  little bit less fundamentally culture laden with the culture of today. But, that remains to be seen. The majority have shed even worship in exchange for rock concerts and flashing lights. It is not that those things are bad, it’s just that they tend to divide rather than unite us. Can you play rockband on stage while leading worship to a hoobastank song? Sure. Is it appropriate or even remotely Christian? that remains to be seen. For me, the answer is no. There’s no difference between that church and a hangout at a chill coffee shop on the posh side of town. When that happens, we have to ask ourselves if we’re even doing Christianity at all.

But, the same holds true of the overtly traditional churches of the mainline Protestant camps who are stuck in the 1940’s because this is how god demands they worship. Instead of opening themselves up to a rich deep profound and wide wellspring from which to draw, they limit themselves to a stagnant puddle of water that has been sitting in the sun for way too long. God did not ask to be bound to the 1940’s as much as he asked to be bound to the 21st century. The heart of the problem is the tyranny of the living over the faith and their rejection of the apostolic witness.

It’s no longer the clean and wonderful fresh breath of the Spirit that blows in these churches, it is the sticky wind of yesterday’s cutting edge that drives these  congregations. And when we’re stuck in yesterday’s cutting edge forever, instead of letting yesterday be the cutting edge that continues to find fresh expression of ancient common truth, we’re all impoverished.

Ancient faith can be done meaningfully, it can be beautiful, and true. It can be truly Christian. I’d say that the churches stuck in the 1920’s are as irreligious as the churches stuck in the 21st century, and that we’re all missing the point. We’re all missing that the Church has a common language, a common tongue of faith, and a common goal and purpose. Sacraments are the embodiment of this language and without them, we’ll be lost quite quickly. Show me a church without sacraments and I will ask you to show me a church.

4. We are actually impoverished by our rejection of rituals and common faith.

We have no “groans too deep for utterance,” we typically substitute those for words too shallow to feel or mean anything.

We all have something to say, but our rejection of churchly language that goes back to early Christian worship in an attempt to be “relevant” only means cutting off from ourselves the treasures Christian history has to offer us. I’m not going to labor the point. there it is.

5. Despite the arrogant question of who has true sacraments, the answer still stands.

I think when we ask this question we are doing what the opponents of Jesus did, we are taking sides or forced to take sides on an issue that passes judgment on us either way. As when Jesus asked them whether John’s baptism was from God or from men.

If we say that only the high churches have true sacraments, then the question is why then are not all Christians in high churches? If we say that only low churches are faithful to the gospel, why then is there real Christianity happening in the churches of ancient faith? The answer is simply more complicated than, Protestants are right, or Catholics are right. If Christians among the liturgical churches claim that they have the sacraments which are legitimate and no one else does, why then is Christianity growing explosively and returning to the sacrament of communion among the pentecostals and Charismatics?

If Protestants say that only they have real sacraments because they don’t “worship idols” or “pray to false gods,” why then has the Catholic Church proved to be a faithful witness to Christianity in times when Protestants have been scattered all over the board. Why was the Catholic Church a  visible opposition to Hitler when everyone else it seems was busy persecuting Jews? Of course there was the confessing Church, but unfortunately, they were the minority.

There is a hope for Christian faith and unity, and it’s in the Spirit who unifies the Church, across time and space into the one people of God. As Hans Kung expresses it, “It is one and the same God who gathers the scattered from all places and all ages and makes them into one people of God.” The way we can trust God as churches is to return to the symbols that unites us, even if there are points of contentions God unifies in the Spirit by these gifts, and in this, we can rejoice.

Our participation in the Triune God depends on our ability to let God unite the churches through the Spirit in and with the gifts of the Spirit, be they sacraments or charismatic expressions, and the gift that is the Spirit Himself, our precious advocate, and counselor. May we be guided into Truth Himself that we might rightly worship the Father by this unifying Creator, Renewer Spirit.

Amen.

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4 thoughts on “Symbolic Unity

  1. Hey Eli! What with my computer out and all sorts of other stuff to deal with, I haven’t had a moment, or opportunity to comment on any of your wonderful posts, and most important of all, LOL, argue with you! 🙂

    There’s a lot to like in this post, but lots you might guess I would disagree with. To Chesteron, I would just say just as often it’s the *tyranny* of the dead, as the democracy of the dead, and in fact, the voice of tradition has long, long outweighed the voice of the free spirit of Christ in church. Indeed, the problem of the church that we now see is mainly to be laid at the feet of the tradition, and the hierarchy, and yes, the misogyny of the church for thousands of years now.

    I agree with you that some traditions might be revivified, but only the Christian whose heart is on fire can bring that to the traditions; the dead letter of tradition has no revivifying power at all.

    I think you are dead-on that it’s not a matter of this pole or that pole of in this particularly debate, but what, in fact, is skillful, or not, in bringing alive the spirit of Christ. The reaction of the Protestants against the high church was a healthy and good thing, in my mind, and still is, but whatever is just a reaction against something eventually runs out of steam. The Protestants need to reinvent themselves, minus what they no longer see as essential, as much as high churchers need to see how to revive dead rituals.

    To me, ritual and tradition are similar to what the great psychologist D. W. Winnicott calls “transitional objects.” They perform an absolutely essential and invaluable function in the development of children, and I think societies and churches have their “transitional objects” too. But I can tell you that for me, it was the dropping away of ritual and tradition, not their reincorporation in my life that led me to a deeper spiritual life. We can outgrow out “transitional objects” without losing Christ, as it were! If someone finds great inspiration in seeing men (yes, mostly men) dressed up in gold and satin, with crowns on their head, speaking in Latin, and swinging around incense, as a meaningful celebration of Christ, well, different strokes for different folks, but for me, it always bordered on the ridiculous, and as far as away from the humble fisherman, or St. Francis, for that matter, as one could imagine.

    Anyway, I can see how ritual *can* be meaningful, but I think you will have your work cut out for you, because of the centuries of dead-weight that sheer tradition lays upon the hearts of many intelligent, good-hearted people.

    Steve

  2. I for one share in your concern about the tyranny of the dead. Trust me. But in humility and recognition that all Church History is a commentary on people’s experiences of this God, it helps remove the oligarchy of any particular time or place. I feel that too often what some might call dead weight is merely the outworking of a violent opposition of today to yesterday.

    Meaningful does not necessarily mean only liturgy. I am protestant Christian after all. I’m not saying that only latin and incense capture the heart of worship, by no means. (I just realized my RC audience might be displeased with this, haha).

    However, I am saying we must trust the ones who have gone before and mine their resources as we add to the great commentary on God’s interaction with us called church history.

    I think that true worship is as meaningful in liturgy as outside it, when done Chrsitianly. This means turning to the resources of the faith. By tradition I never mean, the ritual signs of this or that communion, but the common symbols that unite all Christians across time. My concern is a visible unity between churches today, but also a visible chronological unity that is life giving, life affirming, and open.

    Sometimes you can’t have your cake and eat it too, but I will certainly try as best I can.

    • > RE:
      > I for one share in your concern about the tyranny of the dead.
      > Trust me. But in humility and recognition that all Church History
      > is a commentary on people’s experiences of this God, it helps
      > remove the oligarchy of any particular time or place. I feel that
      > too often what some might call dead weight is merely the
      > outworking of a violent opposition of today to yesterday.

      Hmmm, maybe, but historically, I don’t see that it has worked out that way very often. The problem here is how tightly bound tradition is with authority and issues of authority, and the fact that absolute power (in the hands of men) corrupts absolutely. Voices in the past that tried to speak with a new voice were almost always crushed flat or murdered.

      A dialectic between today and yesterday can be healthy; but you and I would have to see such a dialectic in terms of the eternal now, which dissolves seeming dichotomies in the face of what is incarnate, or can be incarnate, here and now. The now is ruthless, in one sense, with yesterday and today, and cares not a fig or either tradition or reaction to tradition, but rather, what is alive and spirit-filled.

      > RE:
      > However, I am saying we must trust the ones who have gone before
      > and mine their resources as we add to the great commentary on
      > God’s interaction with us called church history.

      I can’t trust the ones that have come before as a principle. Too much is wrong, deeply wrong, in church history. One has to separate the tares from the wheat, and put the spirit of God in your heart as the final and absolute authority — not tradition, not church history, not saints, not scholars. But yes, one can, and should, “mine” church history, *if* the spirit so leads. Some of the best Christians I know have little thought or regard to the kind of stuff that intrigues and inspires you and me, Eli!

      > RE:
      > I think that true worship is as meaningful in liturgy as outside
      > it, when done Chrsitianly. This means turning to the resources of
      > the faith. By tradition I never mean, the ritual signs of this or
      > that communion, but the common symbols that unite all Christians
      > across time. My concern is a visible unity between churches today,
      > but also a visible chronological unity that is life giving, life
      > affirming, and open.

      I can get behind this, I think. Common symbols are hugely important in all religious traditions, and can offer great inspiration, even as a Buddhist is inspired by the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, or the Muslim by the story of Mohammed’s hajira. But all of these, finally, are simply signs, way posts, and fingers pointing at the moon, so to speak, because the big story, the big event, in terms of the Spirit, is incarnation of Christ in one’s heart or as the Sufi might say, finding the Beloved.

      > RE:
      > Sometimes you can’t have your cake and eat it too, but I will
      > certainly try as best I can.

      LOL! Go for it! Me too!

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