Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Authority and Communion

In Orthodox Christianity, the Holy Spirit is imparted to each Christian in Holy Chrismation, thenceforth to dwell in the very core of each of us. And the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, is our Ultimate Authority. In the faithful living of the Orthodox Christian life, He reveals to us, as promised, the Truth; that is, the very same Truth He also revealed to the Apostles and to the writers of Holy Scripture and to the Church ever since. And He does this directly, personally, as described by St. John (I John 2:27): “But the anointing which you have received of Him [that’s Chrismation] lives in you, and you do not need any man to teach you: but as the same anointing teaches you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and just as it has taught you, you shall live in Him.”

Two further important characteristics of this Authority are (1) that it is internal, not external, therefore carrying the weight of our own, inner convictions, far more weight, I mean, than any external authority could ever hope to bring to bear, for we can hardly disbelieve what springs forth from the within depths of ourselves; and (2) this Authority is not imposed upon us, but leaves us entirely free.

This is the ultimate legacy of the Holy Apostles: not so much a set of doctrines and practices but most of all, a sharing in the Life of Christ, that is, in His own life. “That which we have seen and heard we declare we to you,” says St. John, “that you also may have communion with us: and truly our communion [is] with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (I John 1:3) (The doctrines and practices which are part of the apostolic legacy are also important, for each of them safeguards, in one way or another, that Life.)

Now the goal of this life in Christ, the destiny we are meant to fulfill, is to become “conformed to the image of the Son.” (Romans 8:29) The whole of the Christian life consists a striving to allow God to do this work in us, until we reach full union with Him, more and more fully sharing in the very Life of the Holy Trinity, which life is heaven. (But if we suppose this means unity with God’s Essence, we commit blasphemy; we become pantheists.)

Now Christ is absolutely free, now and forever, so conformity to Him means we must also be free, and become ever more free if we are to become ever more like Him, and more than merely like Him, but incorporated into Him, all of His followers together filling up His Being. (Ephesians 1:23) We are bound together by the bonds of love, and love means free, sacrificial, unconditional giving our ourselves, without asking anything in return. Freedom is essential to the entire enterprise, and this is why a hierarchical authority dictating what we are to believe quickly ruins it all. In fact, in Orthodox circles, we simply scoff at any cleric who tries this. And we keep our distance from him.

I do not mean that we don’t need teachers. We do, and we have and heed them. But when and if we believe them, it is not merely because an authority said so. It is because the Holy Spirit wings the words and quickens our hearts so that they leap at the Truth like St. John the Baptist in his mother’s womb. We spontaneously recognize Truth; He resonates with the Spirit in ourselves, bearing witness. We believe because what we hear explains something we have encountered in our Christian life, because it fits with everything else we know and have lived in the Church, is consistent with what He has revealed in all the ages past, but most of all, because the teacher himself (or herself) is so filled with Christ that Christ’s other lovers long to to follow this teacher, who can mentor us, along the pathway. (Not that we can make ourselves like Christ; only the Holy Spirit can do that; yet mysteriously, although the work is all His, it requires our own effort as well. This, by definition. Christ said, “My Father works and I work.” Therefore, if we would share His Life, we, too, must try to work.)

I hope you can see that all of this is undercut, supplanted, if a pope comes along and says, “Believe it upon my authority, because I tell you it is so” -- with the implicit (sometimes explicit) threat of hell. If we believe on that basis, then the pope displaces (but can never, ever replace) the Holy Spirit. And then, unsurprisingly, we get people like the priest who once said to me, “We Catholics believe in the Holy Spirit, too, but we just don’t know what to DO with Him.”

The above applies equally, by the way, when someone comes along and says, “Believe it because the Bible [as I/we read it] says so.” That’s another external authority seeking to displace the Inner Voice; that’s an imposed authority, binding a person instead of leaving him free.

One cannot have an external authority, making moot the Holy Spirit in us, or an imposed authority, compromising our freedom, and still have the same kind of communion Orthodox Christians share. Just not possible.

None of this means there are no dogmas or no definitions. The Church formulates these reluctantly, and only in the face of heresies that require the Church to draw the dividing line between herself and the errors. But the reason we, the faithful, believe these dogmas is not this, not because hierarchs have decreed them or councils have defined them. We believe as the Holy Spirit teaches us, even when bishops or patriarchs are in error. In fact, even a so-called Ecumenical Council has no authority unless the people also accept it; witness the council that tried to outlaw icons, or the Council of Florence. We rejected them as “robber councils“. (No, this is not a neat or efficient process, coming to consensus; it sometimes takes centuries to settle an issue such as Arianism or Iconclasm.) We know the Shepherd’s voice and we do not follow anyone whose voice has a different sound.

Concerning excommunication and anathemas. These are not done (formally) simply for false belief, but for causing distress to the Church on that account. Arius was not cast out simply for believing the wrong things, but for publicly teaching error, and persistently, after several admonitions. And for failure even to live a Christian life, because a Christian life means we all, still in perfect freedom, submit to one another as a matter of humility, all of us, whether we be children or patriarchs. In other words, Arius should have said to himself that it was unlikely he was right and so many of the holy fathers wrong. He ought to have stopped insisting upon his own teaching and at least to have said, “Perhaps you are right; let me think and pray about this some more and meanwhile I will stop publicly teaching my doctrine.” But instead, his arrogance was such as to provoke even so holy a man as St. Nicholas to smack him across the face. The spirit in him was an alien one. He was already out of communion; the anathema but made it official.

And yes, even anathema is supposed to be an act of love. St. Paul writes, “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” So it is for the person’s own good. Excommunication does not mean go to hell if you don’t toe the line.

Excommunication is also for the good of the Church; St. Paul continues: “Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump…” (I Corinthians 5: 4-7)

Such acts are not meant as threats or as ways of imposing doctrine, but of protecting the integrity of the Church. We believe not on pain of excommunication, but because the Holy Spirit in our hearts illumines us.

And the Holy Spirit, by the way, teaches the same things consistently, day after day, century after century, millennium after millennium.  That's why the Church is fundamentally the same, yesterday, today, and forever - because Christ is.


Anam Cara said...

This is beautiful! You've done a marvelous job of laying it all out.

When I was a catechumen, this is exactly as it was, and yet I did not have these words to describe it.

I KNEW things to be true - I saw them practiced in various Protestant denominations - but I could see that not one of them had ALL the truth.

An example:
I believed in baptism of infants, but also thought that baptism by immersion was the proper method. Lutheran/Anglican meets Southern Baptist. When I learned of the Orthodox practice of immersing infants
"... the Holy Spirit wings the words and quickens our hearts so that they leap at the Truth like St. John the Baptist in his mother’s womb"

Thank you!