Sunday, April 02, 2006

What is Christianity?

An excerpt from the book "Orthodox Psychotherapy"

Many people interpreting the character of Christianity see it as one of the numerous philosophies and religions known from antiquity. Certainly Christianity is not a philosophy in the sense that prevails today. Philosophy sets up a system of thought which in most cases bears no relationship to life. The main difference between Christianity and philosophy is that the latter is human thinking, while Christianity is a revelation of God. It is not a discovery by man but a revelation by God Himself to man. It was impossible for human logic to find the truths of Christianity. Where the human word was powerless, there came the divine-human Word, or Christ the Godman, the Word of God. This divine revelation was formulated in the philosophical terms of the time, but again it must be emphasised that it is not a philosophy. The garments of the divine-human Word are taken from the philosophy of that time.

St. John Chrysostom, interpreting Isaiah 3,1: "Behold the Lord, the Lord of Hosts, takes away from Jerusalem and from Judah...the mighty man and the soldier, the judge and the prophet, the diviner...", observes: "He seems here to be calling a diviner a person who is capable of conjecturing the future through profound intelligence and experience of things. Divining and prophesying are indeed two different things: the prophet, setting self aside, speaks under divine inspiration; the diviner for his part starts from what has already happened, puts his own intelligence to work and foresees many future events, as an intelligent person normally does. But the difference between them is great: it is the distance that separates human intelligence from divine grace" (1).

So speculation (or philosophy) is one thing, and prophecy, or the word of the prophet who theologises, is another. The former is a human activity while the latter is a revelation of the Holy Spirit.

In the patristic writings, and especially in the teaching of St. Maximus, philosophy is referred to as the beginning of the spiritual life. However, he used the term `practical philosophy' to mean cleansing the heart from passions, which really is the first stage of the soul's journey towards God.

Yet Christianity cannot be regarded as a religion, at least not as religion presents itself today. God is usually visualised as dwelling in heaven and directing human history from there: He is extremely exacting, seeking satisfaction from man, who has fallen to earth in his sickness and weakness. There is a wall of separation between God and man. This has to be surmounted by man, and religion is a very effective help. Various religious rites are employed for this purpose.

According to another view, man feels powerless in the universe and needs a mighty God to help him in his weakness. In this view God does not create man, but man creates God. Again, religion is conceived as man's relationship to the Absolute God, that is to say, the "relationship of the `I' to the Absolute Thou". Yet again, many regard religion as a means whereby the people are deluded into transferring their hopes to the future life. In this way strong powers put pressure on the people by means of religion.

But Christianity is something higher than these interpretations and theories; it cannot be contained within the usual conception and definition of religion given in the "natural" religions. God is not the Absolute Thou, but a living Person Who is in organic communion with man. Moreover Christianity does not simply transfer the problem to the future or await the delight of the kingdom of heaven after history and after the end of time. In Christianity the future is lived in the present and the kingdom of God begins in this life. According to the patristic interpretation, the kingdom of God is the grace of the Triune God, it is vision of the uncreated Light.

We Orthodox are not waiting for the end of history and the end of time, but through living in Christ we are running to meet the end of history and thus already living the life expected after the Second Coming. St. Symeon the New Theologian says that he who has seen the uncreated light and united with God is not awaiting the Second Coming of the Lord but living it. So the eternal embraces us at every moment of time. Therefore past, present and future are essentially lived in one unbroken unity. This is so-called condensed time.

Thus Orthodoxy cannot be characterised as the `opium of the people', precisely because it does not postpone the problem. It offers life, transforms biological life, sanctifies and transforms societies. Where Orthodoxy is lived in the right way and in the Holy Spirit, it is a communion of God and men, of heavenly and earthly, of the living and the dead. In this communion all the problems which present themselves in our life are truly resolved.

Yet since the membership of the Church includes sick people and beginners in the spiritual life, it is to be expected that some of them understand Christianity as religion in the sense referred to above. Moreover, the spiritual life is a dynamic journey. It begins with baptism, which is purification of the `image', and continues through ascetic living aimed at attaining `likeness', which is to say communion with God. Anyway it must be made clear that even when we still speak of Christianity as a religion we must do it with certain necessary presuppositions.

The first is that Christianity is mainly a Church. `Church' means `Body of Christ'. There are many places in the New Testament where Christianity is called the Church. We shall only mention Christ's words: "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church" (Matt.16:18) and the words of the Apostle Paul to the Colossians: "And he is the head of the body, the church" (1:18) and to his disciple Timothy: " that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (1Tim,.3,15). This means that Christ does not simply dwell in heaven and direct history and the lives of men from there, but He is united with us. He assumed human nature and deified it; thus in Christ deified human nature is at the right hand of the Father. So Christ is our life and we are `members of Christ'.

The second presupposition is that the aim of the Christian is to attain the blessed state of deification. Deification is identical with `likeness', that is, to be like God. However, in order to reach the likeness, to attain the vision of God, and for this vision not to be a consuming fire but a life-giving light, purification must previously have taken place. This purification and healing is the Church's work. When the Christian participates in worship without undergoing life-giving purification - and moreover these acts of worship also aim towards man's purification - then he is not really living within the Church. Christianity without purification is utopia. So when we are being purified, especially when we are seeing to our healing, we can speak of religion. And this accords with the words of the Lord's brother James: "If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one's religion is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world" (Jas.1:26-27).

This abstinence gives us the right to claim that Christianity is neither philosophy nor `natural' religion, but mainly healing. It is the healing of a person's passions so that he may attain communion and union with God.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan the Lord showed us several truths. As soon as the Samaritan saw the man who had fallen among thieves who had wounded him and left him half dead, he "had compassion on him and went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn and took care of him" (Luk.10:33f). Christ treated the wounded man and brought him to the inn, to the Hospital which is the Church. Here Christ is presented as a physician who heals man's illnesses, and the Church as a Hospital.

It is very characteristic that in analysing this parable St. John Chrysostom presents the truths which we have just emphasised. Man went down "from the heavenly state to the state of the devil's deception, and he fell among thieves, that is, the devil and the hostile powers". The wounds which he sustained are the various sins. As David says, "My wounds are foul and festering because of my foolishness" (Ps.38:5). For "every sin brings bruises and wounds". The Samaritan is Christ Himself, who came down from heaven to earth to heal wounded man. He used wine and oil for the wounds. That is to say, "by mixing the Holy Spirit with his blood, he brought life to man". According to another interpretation, "oil brings the comforting word, wine provides the astringent lotion, the instruction which brings concentration to the scattered mind". He set him upon his own animal: "Taking flesh upon his own divine shoulders, he lifted it towards the Father in Heaven". Thereupon the good Samaritan, Christ, led the man "into the wonderful and spacious inn, this universal Church". He gave him to the innkeeper, who is the Apostle Paul and "through Paul to the high priests and teachers and ministers of each church", saying: "Take care of the people of the Gentiles whom I have given to you in the Church. Since men are sick, wounded by sin, heal them, putting on them a stone plaster, that is, the prophetic sayings and the gospel teachings, making them whole through the admonitions and exhortations of the Old and New Testaments." So according to St. John Chrysostom, Paul is the one who upholds the churches of God "and heals all men through spiritual admonitions, distributing the bread of offering to each one..." (2).

In St. John Chrysostom's interpretation of this parable it is clearly evident that the Church is a Hospital which heals those sick with sin, while the bishops and priests, like the Apostle Paul, are the healers of the people of God.

These truths also appear in many other places in the New Testament. The Lord said: "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick" (Matt.9:12). Likewise Christ, as a physician of souls and bodies, was "...healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people...and they brought to him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics; and he healed them" (Matt.4:23f). The Apostle Paul is well aware that the conscience of men, especially of simple ones, is weak: "When you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ" (ICor.8:12). The Book of Revelation says that John the Evangelist saw a river of the water of life proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. "On either side of the river was the tree of life...and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations" (Rev.22:1f).

So the work of the Church is therapeutic. It seeks to heal men's sicknesses, mainly those of the soul, which torment them. This is the basic teaching of the New Testament and of the Fathers of the Church. In what follows in this chapter as well as in other chapters many passages from the Fathers will bring out this truth.

Here again I want to emphasise the indispensability of the Church. I am very grateful to the priest and professor John Romanides for laying stress on this in his writings. I am convinced that he is very well read in the neptic Fathers -especially in the writings contained in the Philokalia - and has therefore grasped the real meaning of Christianity. I believe that this is his great contribution. For in this era when Christianity is being presented as a philosophy or intellectual theology or a culture and popular tradition - customs and manners - he presents this teaching about a therapeutic discipline and treatment.

Concretely, he says: "Having faith in Christ without undergoing healing in Christ is not faith at all. Here is the same contradiction that we find when a sick person who has great confidence in his doctor never carries out the treatment which he recommends. If Judaism and its successor, Christianity, had appeared in the twentieth century for the first time, they would most likely have been characterised not as religions but as medical sciences related to psychiatry. They would have a wide influence on society owing to their considerable successes in healing the ills of the partially functioning personality. In no way can prophetic Judaism and Christianity be construed as religions that use various magical methods and beliefs to promise escape from a supposed world of matter and evil or hypocrisy into a supposed spiritual world of security and success" (3).

In another work the same professor says: "The patristic tradition is neither a social philosophy nor an ethical system, nor is it religious dogmatism: it is a therapeutic treatment. In this respect it closely resembles medicine, especially psychiatry. The spiritual energy of the soul that prays unceasingly in the heart is a physiological instrument which everyone has and which requires healing. Neither philosophy nor any of the known positive or social sciences is capable of healing this instrument. That can only be done through the Fathers' neptic and ascetic teaching. Therefore those who are not healed usually do not even know of the existence of this instrument" (4).

So in the Church we are divided into the sick, those undergoing therapeutic treatment, and those - saints - who have already been healed. "The Fathers do not categorise people as moral and immoral or good and bad on the basis of moral laws. This division is superficial. At depth humanity is differentiated into the sick in soul, those being healed and those healed. All who are not in a state of illumination are sick in soul...It is not only good will, good resolve, moral practice and devotion to the Orthodox Tradition which make an Orthodox, but also purification, illumination and deification. These stages of healing are the purpose of the mystical life of the Church, as the liturgical texts bear witness" (5).