Word Magazine January 1990 Page 16
AND SHARING THE FAITH
by Rick Michaels
The genesis of living faith is found in one’s personal experience of encountering God and the nourishing memories left in the wake of that encounter. That living faith is what the Apostles passed on to us. Therefore, when we rest in the Apostolic succession as a secure place of Christian truth, we actually stand on the authenticity of the Apostles’ experience of God and their expression of His life with them through Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit.
The health of our religious beliefs and practices today depends on personal experiences and nourishing memories too. It is very fascinating that early believers identified their faith as the Way — These people understood that the Apostles’ unique and personal intimacy with God could not be appropriated through intellectual choices or emotional yearnings. The Apostles’ relationship with God could not be a surrogate for their own. No set of definitions, no detailed program of education, no list of doctrinal statements established as qualifications for faithfulness would substitute for standing with shoes off at the foot of a burning mountain before a God who is a consuming fire. Each man and woman must face God and survive on his or her own, with much fear and trembling, as Paul said long ago. But because of the cost of courage, because the Way includes a stop at the Cross, many people chafe at the demands of the challenge, and lust for the simple answers that tight doctrinal formulations about God outline. These formulations seem to protect the more tentative person from the trauma of the unpredictable and elusive nature of God, which is the source of fear, anxiety, and repentance, and, therefore, the prelude to communion with God.
“All we can really understand about God,” John of Damascus said, “is His infinity and incomprehensibility.” And so as a Church we agree. For this reason many believers and observers call Orthodoxy mystical. Despite the limited meaning the word mystical has acquired in recent years, it is, perhaps, a good general description of Orthodoxy, for Orthodoxy is not amenable to particular explanations or definitions about God. Its life is a complex mix of faith and folkways, culture, community and creativity. Orthodox worship, being the expression of its life, informs a person that there is no separation between a regular life and a religious one. And the liturgy illustrates this by taking the very elements of daily, temporal living: bread, water, and wine, and changing them into the staples of immortality. So Orthodoxy is the progress of true life, of growing into eternity, of becoming everything by grace what God is by nature.
Because Orthodoxy is mystical it will never be shared by using methods and means that other religious bodies have found so effective. No plan of action, no will researched position paper drafted by specialists, no expensive presentation, and no smart slogan will sell this product. It will never forcefully and honestly promote a living faith, just as no picture of a loved one shown to a friend can begin to convey who that loved one really is. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann (+ 1983) said in his book Great Lent: “And ultimately men are converted to God not because someone was able to give brilliant explanations, but because they saw in him that light, joy, depth, seriousness, and love which alone reveal the presence and power of God in the world.”
It is exactly this flavor of faith, this brand of believing in God that gives us great opportunities to reach the world; not by denying it or damning it, but by giving it a goal to chase after. As each of us becomes fashioned into the body of Christ, each in a unique way, we will, by displaying those real human qualities of mercy, compassion, wisdom, peacefulness, and love, draw seeking men and women to us, and to the Lord. And in Him they will find the means to realizing their potential for being completely human.
Real faith is forever open to the disillusioned and desperate. Our communities should provide them with a place to grow and to question honestly. Our approach cannot be a fundamentalist one with its hard polemical edge, and it cannot draw thick lines of demarcation between them and us. By finding common ground, by sharing common limitations, and by admitting our own confusion, insecurity, and frustration in the face of these times, and by striving together with all peoples for the attainment of cherished ideals that identify us as human beings: justice, equality, freedom, dignity, we can open the gates of mistrust and unbelief and allow God to save. In keeping with the great theological teachers of our faith, that men are dynamic beings called to grow into the likeness of God, Christianity is about striving to become fully human, to realize the full meaning of being in the image and likeness of God, to achieve humanness. If the Incarnation means anything, it means that Jesus formed the most intimate relationship possible with us so that we might become all we were meant to become. As the great Athanasius said: “God became man so man would become God.”
Orthodoxy as traditionally understood, in full sacramental and patristic vestment, is a real alternative for reflective persons trapped in the tyranny of an empirical mind set that has effectively extinguished intuitive and mystical attributes in men and women, leaving them spiritually diminished and hungry for what some define as fulfillment, wholeness and centeredness, the buzz words of the self-awareness and human potential movement.
Rick Michaels is a graduate of St. Vladimir’s Seminary and one of three members of the singing group, Kerygma.