Christianity as the “end of religion”

Current read: Life of the World, Alexander Schmemann
for the life of the world cover
Russian Orthodox author Alexander Schmemann illuminates in this short (86 pages) book some of the marvelous and mysterious truths of Christianity. Though he comes from the Orthodox perspective, his book explores elements of the christian liturgy that cross all denominations, catholic, protestant, and orthodox alike.

From the back cover:

“For the Life of the World is not about Russian Orthodoxy nor about questions of unity.  It is about the world.  It is written by a man who stands within the Orthodox tradition and who profoundly loves this world of the 1960s A.D. in all its misery and splendor, its brokenness and joy and death.”

An excerpt of Shmemann’s book was given to me by a friend prior to my baptism, which I thoroughly enjoyed and used in my sermon on Baptism last semester.  The book was again recommended by my worship professor at Boston University and I finally decided to read it.

There’s some really great stuff in here.  From the orthodox perspective, Schmemann acknowledges his biases, but presents essays on the Christian life as a whole, not orthodox theology.  It reminded me of CS lewis’ introduction to mere christianity; where he mentions his background in the anglican church, but doesn’t ascribe any special significance to it over any other denomination.

In the first chapter, “life of the world,” he discusses the dichotomy between sacred and profane, natural and supernatural.  What struck me by surprise is his resistance or reticence to “religion.”  For him, Christ and the christian life is in fact, the “end of all religion.”. See John 4:19-23, the story of the woman at the well who asks Jesus about the true way to worship.

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.

Jesus’ response subverts her expectations and re-defines what it means to worship God.  He says we don’t need a church or other holy place to worship the Father.  Striking for an author from the Orthodox church, with its highly reverent iconography and formalized liturgy.  Schmemann responds by saying:

Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man.  But Christ who is both God and man has broken down the wall between man and God.  He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion

Beautiful churches with “all night vigil” services, icons and processions, a liturgy, which to be properly performed requires not less than twenty seven heavy liturgical books – all this seems to contradict what has been said above about christianity as the “end of religion.”

Here he critiques the church for its formality and ritualized practices, and seeks to correct mis-conceptions of the Eastern church by western readers.  Conventional wisdom is that the Orthodox church gives weight and emphasis to “mysticism ” and “spirituality,” which is certainly my experience in attending orthodox services.  Though he understands that the orthodox church may have failed to see the implications of the “sacramentalism,” Schmemann argues either for a rethinking of routinized liturgy, or a rethinking of our opinions about routinized liturgy.  His last question of the first chapter really got me hooked to read the rest:

But does it in fact?  And if not, what is the meaning of all this in the real world in which we live, and for the life of which God has given his son?

And from there I dive in.

My first sermon(ette)!

For my course on christian worship I get to prepare a short worship service for class including a homily (umm…that’s high-church for sermon).  Here it is!  Also, for the record, I keep my word

Sermon: “Immersed,  Refreshed, and Engulfed”

Through the rudimentary elements of water and oil, baptism is firstly a physical act.  We get wet, it’s cold, it’s refreshing.  I think God designed the sacraments this way, using our physical senses to reveal a part of his infinite nature to us.  Though we will not, in this body, fully comprehend the significance of communion, when we bite I into the bread it is dense and filling, and we remember the trials of Jesus on the way to the cross.  When we take a gulp of wine – and notice I say gulp and not sip – the aroma is pungent and the flavor stays with us for a while after.  We remember Christ on the cross, the pierced side.  We don’t need doctoral degrees to understand that. It’s visceral, and yet at the same time, so mysterious.  In the same way baptism gives us a physical manifestation of a divine reality.

I was baptized just over 5 months ago, on a sunny summer evening at Santa Barbara Community Church.  Ever present ocean air filled the sanctuary.  Unfortunately for the maintenance crew, the sanctuary was also being filled with water from the baptismal font.  During the opening worship time, the pastor had left the water on, and it began spilling out over the rim and down to the carpet below!  While one pastor tried to stall for time, the other had to run behind and shut it off, grab a bunch of towels and a shop-vac, and attempt to clean it up before the stage area was damaged.  Fortunately there were no outlets or cables running awry and things were straightened up without too much fuss, but I’ll never forget hearing the slow trickle of water as I realized what was happening on the day of my baptism.

Despite that, the baptism itself went along without a hitch, and it was wonderful (though slightly scary) for me to share my testimony and profess my faith in front of the congregation I had been a part of for over 4 years.  During my baptism, I distinctly remember three physical sensations that have left profound meaning to me.

1) I was immersed.  The water came up to my waist, and I was dunked completely under water.  At that moment I felt the water come over my entire body and caught a glimpse of second-birth.  Alexander Schmemann, a Russian Orthodox author says this of baptism:

“Water is the ‘prima material,the basic element of the world.  It is the natural symbol of life, for there is no life without water, but it is also the symbol of destruction and death, and finally, it is the symbol of purification, for there is no cleanness without it.”

In that same way, as we pass through the water of baptism, we emerge as a new creation, united in the death and resurrection of Christ.

2) I was simply refreshed.  Though summers aren’t humid like Boston in Santa Barbara, the cool waters of the baptismal font were still nice against the mid-afternoon heat.  This is yet another purely somatic sensation.  The spirit, in the same way, should refresh us.

3) Finally, I was engulfed.  You might be thinking, “isn’t that the same as immersed?” Yes and no; It’s that and more.  I specifically remember after the baptism, drying off, changing clothes, and sitting in the pews, only to be thinking,  “gosh there’s water in my ear…”

In the same way the Spirit engulfs us.  It reaches the deepest places in our life.  The places we don’t want anyone to see, the places we sometimes forget exist ourselves.  C.S. Lewis likens this holistic treatment to the dentist visit.   We have a toothache but would prefer not to see the drill.  He says, “Our Lord is like the dentists. Dozens of people go to him to be cured of some particular sin. Well, he will cure it all right, but he will not stop there. That may be all you asked; but if you once call him in, he will give you the full treatment.”

Returning to Schmemann’s orthodox liturgy, the priest anoints the newly baptized with oil in a similar holistic gesture.  The anointing is “on the brow, and on the eyes, and on the nostrils, and the lips, and on both ears, and the breast, and on the hands, and on the feet…the whole man is now made a temple of God, and his whole life is from now on a liturgy.  It is here at this moment, that the pseudo-Christian opposition between the ‘spiritual’ and ‘material,’ the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane,’ the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’ is denounced, abolished, revealed as a monstrous lie about God and man and the world”

The water in my ear reminds us of this character of God’s Spirit, engulfing our very being and pouring into places we’ve perhaps neglected or left to dry.  We all have these parts of our life.  Come to the water and be made new.

To close I would like to turn to a time of reflection using a poem by Anglican priest and poet George Herbert that is printed in your bulletin.  The words speak for themselves.  After I read, take a few moments to reflect on how the Holy Spirit has and is continuing to make you new.

As he that sees a dark and shady grove,
Stays not, but looks beyond it on the sky
So when I view my sins, mine eyes remove
More backward still, and to that water fly,
Which is above the heav’ns, whose spring[1] and rent[2]
Is in my dear Redeemer’s pierced side.
O blessed streams! either ye do prevent
And stop our sins from growing thick and wide,
Or else give tears to drown them, as they grow.
In you Redemption measures all my time,
And spreads the plaster equal to the crime:
You taught the book of life my name, that so,
Whatever future sins should me miscall,
Your first acquaintance might discredit all.
“Holy Baptism” (1633) – George Herbert

[1] Spring: to spend, to pay for
[2] Rent: cause great emotional pain to, wrench violently