Thursday, January 26, 2012

Orthodoxy? What?

One of the problems I think we have in the multiplicity of Christian faiths, the divisions that prevent the unity that Christ prayed for, is that because there are so many it is very difficult to see why (or even that!) one really is closer to the faith and undrstandings of the early Church we know existed in the book of Acts. Oh, each one claims to be, for sure, but that is of no help at all. It is written that "By their fruits ye shall know them", but know who? Genuine Christians, of course, but many are, yet are still divided, so that doesn't help us with the question of "Which Church or Faith will most truly guide us in the faith of the early believers who kept the faith for 300 years of underground churches, persecution, and martyrdom? (I wonder how often we try to wrap our minds around numbers like that to grasp the enormity of it. The US is not even 300 years old as an independent nation and yet has a heckuva lot if history. Ancient Rome was also civilized, with plenty if writing and recording going on.)

As a Navy electrician, I often had to look at a clump of wires in the ceiling (yeah, I know, "overhead") and try to figure out which, out of all of them, led back to the power source. The solution, when there can be a few hundred wires, is not to try to trace backwards from the clump, the mess, but to go back to the power source and trace the main power cables.
So I found history to be of tremendous help. When we trace FORWARD, from the beginning, instead of BACKWARD, from the mess of division we have now, we see "main power cables" gradually branching off.
One thing that has always seemed obvious to me is that the Church must have existed continually. The Holy Spirit that came down at
Pentecost has never abandoned that Church. Another thing is that definite history always trumps imagined history. Faith traditions with no history cannot be the original deal. Christ didn't establish a Church only to abandon it until such-and-such a charismatic and energetic leader came along.

Another thing obvious to me is that that Church must have always maintained a physical presence, that it cannot be only the mystical and eternal Church, but must be able to impact our faith and worship. To think otherwise, to say that only the local church has physical presence, is merely to justify the divisions. Paul and John seemed to think they had the authority to write to churches that they were not the bishops of, that they could say things that ought to be obeyed.

There's a lot more to be said, I haven't said it all by a long shot, but to keep this short, I came to the conclusion that no faith that just appeared late in history, that has no historical record until the 19th or 20th century, or even the 16th, could possibly be that Church. To think so is basically to say that the Holy Spirit abandoned the Church at the end of the book of Acts and took a 1500-year vacation, leaving everyone to fend for themselves.

So when I look at the mess we have today, I can't know which one really traces back to the beginning. I see a multiplicity, even a cacophony of claims.
But as soon as I take on the electrician's approach, and work the history forwards, I begin to get a picture that makes sense.

What we see in the first century, what we all accept, is one united Church, with local churches with bishops, presbyters and deacons.
There is other historical record, generally ignored and never at all referenced in the Baptist experience of my childhood in the first three centuries - writings of the direct successors of the Apostles, at least some of whom must have indisputably maintained that Church. They and their successors became the Christians so infamously persecuted, that jealously preserved both their faith and the Church, and their writings show how they understood the Scriptures that were later collected into a convenient binding for us.

It was the last of those who emerged when Constantine legalized the faith. There was one indisputable organization that emerged into the open that we can only admit WAS the Church, the more so when it was that organization that later decided what was to be included in the
Bibles that we hold in our hands and what was to be excluded. That same Church continued with extensive historical record, and names like
Nicholas of Myra and John Chrysostom, for another 700 years, with a cole of small break-offs - the Coptic Christians in Egypt, for example, but the main trunk of the tree remains clear.

But a growing dispute arose over the idea that one bishop - Rome's - had authority over the others. The dispute intensified when that bishop authorized a change to the Nicean Creed that had been agreed upon throughout the first millennium, the belief of the early Christians, an addition called the Filioque (Latin for "and the Son"), which had effects on theology as huge as a change to e=mc3 would be. In 1054, a formal split was declared - the Great Schism. After that time, the trunk split in two, into the Western (Roman) Church, which called itself Catholic, and the Eastern Church, which included all of Palestine, Syria, the Byzantine Empire (later swamped by the Islamic Ottoman Empire), Russia and what became Eastern Europe.

In our histories, long guided and formed by the Western Church, the Eastern Church simply disappeared out of the history books. That's why we know next to nothing about it. At any rate, the Church was either maintained (however badly) in the Catholic West, or the Orthodox East.
For modern Protestants, that means either saying the Church was nowhere - no historical record, just imagined history (until that charismatic and energetic leader comes along) or that the Catholic Church was indeed it until Martin Luther came along, or that the Catholic Church really had gone wrong and had ceased to be it, leaving the Eastern Church which we knew nothing of, thanks to our essentially Catholic view of history. The first option is really impossible and illogical. The second contains enormous contradictions - complete reversals even - between Catholic and Protestant contradictory understandings. The third is simply amazing, but not impossible.

In it, I found the resolution of all contradictions. I do not find a perfect Church with a perfect people, but I do find a Church that openly admits that it is a hospital for the sick. I find the historical record that makes sense of the modern confusion where the Catholic Church does not. I find its collegiality - having neither the mere individualism and division - and effective anarchy - of Protestantism, nor the fatal error of one human ruling the Church and making all the calls, with theology, worship and practice far deeper than the very best of what I found on my Protestant upbringing. While people are trying to choose which megachurch is better, or which church has a better band, or trying to make themselves relevant to the modern world, the Orthodox faith, which has lasted continually for 2,000 years, whose forms of worship are ancient and don't change much at all, not in a century, not in a millennium, and are all firmly based in Scripture and the Holy Tradition which is not a tradition of men, doesn't waste time on experimenting or relevancy, but focuses on the ancient message, calling all to repentance and salvation. We repeat the call of Philip to Nathanael - "Come and see!"

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