One of the central points common to all Reformers was their rejection of mediation. The mediaeval church as they understood it, a corporate body in which some, more dedicated, members could win merit and salvation for others who were less so, was anathema to them. There could be no such thing as more devoted or less devoted Christians: the personal commitment must be total or it was worthless…. for Protestantism there can be no passengers. This is because there is no ship in the Catholic sense, no common movement carrying humans to salvation. Each believer rows his or her own boat.
Charles Taylor Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Harvard, 1989)
I first read Taylor’s magisterial book on the Making of the Modern Identity when I was working on my thesis at Duke. I am not generally a reader of philosophy – but I have long been interested in the history of ideas. Ideas come and go. Some rise to the top and become cultural metaphors – ideas that everyone takes for granted even though no one can remember when they first thought the idea. Taylor’s examination of the history of the concept of the self – particularly in Western Civilization is a study in an area important for Christians. For central to the Christian faith is the existence of the Church.
I can say this now, as an Orthodox Christian, though such an idea would not have been shared by the Protestants among whom I grew up. Church was a fellowship – hopefully a beneficial fellowship – but salvation was strictly a private matter – between the individual and God.
There was great suspicion of sacramental acts, such as communion or Baptism. Any idea that an action that involved anyone other than God and the self could be important to one’s salvation was to be rejected. The most that could be said was that “someone led me to Christ.” But even that statement could come under criticism.
Taylor’s tracking of the history of this idea is useful at least in revealing that Christians have not always thought this way. Reading the New Testament alone should have told us. There, what we encounter is the Church, “the Bride of Christ,” “the many-membered body.” There we learn that “if one suffers all suffer” (1 Corinthians 12:12).
Such imagery abounds throughout the New Testament epistles. It is clear that the Church does not exist simply for the well-being of its members, but is instead how the members exist in the first place. This is perhaps the steepest “learning curve” in all of Christianity. Our existence is one that is created in the image of God and Baptism into the Body of Christ is meant to restore that image. In particular it restores our image as no longer living life as though it were ours alone, but rather that the life of the Church is mine, and though I am a person who participates in that life, I cannot be considered utterly apart from that life.
There is a German proverb: Ein Mensch is kein Mensch – “One man is no man.” The existence we are given in the Church is not just as passengers on the same ship – we become the ship itself. And it is as simple as love itself. “God is love,” perhaps the single most revelatory statement in all of Scripture. But it also is revelatory of those who are created in His image. This “ship” upon which we sail the journey of salvation exists only because its members have love for one another.
If love fails (to put things simply) the ship begins to sink. Thus the life of forgiveness and prayer become utterly, and existentially necessary and not merely part of a list of nice things to do.
The Liturgy itself makes this quite clear to us: “Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit: the Trinity, one in essence, and undivided.” This is the only manner in which the faith that saves us can be confessed. We may say the Creed in other states of being, but we do not properly confess it until we confess it with one mind.
Even that simple question at Baptism (“Do you unite yourself to Christ?”) is clearly not a question about “have you got your doctrine straight?” but a question of the manner or mode of our existence. Are you now willing to live in such a way that your life is not your own?
Interestingly, in Orthodox weddings, we do not ask many questions. There is no taking of vows. This absence of vows can be traced back through a study of the development of the marriage rite. You can see that the West tended to view marriage more and more as a contract between man and woman, blessed by the Church. In an Orthodox wedding, we ascertain that the man and the woman are there of their own free will and that they are not “promised to another.” But then the Church simply blesses them to be what they were always created to be. They are already one in Christ (we cannot marry a non-Christian) and the prayers of marriage cannot make them to be more one than they already are. But there is a new mode of this oneness – they will now live a life of faithfulness and mutual submission for the procreation of children. It is this oneness of life that requires a Bishop’s economia if the marriage is to be with a non-Orthodox Christian. For there is already, at its beginning, a note of disunity that can endanger the ship in which they sail. Thus they should take greater caution.
But we should not trouble one another, but pray for one another. Many, especially those who have converted to the faith, have not been able to arrive under the most ideal of conditions. The previous articles about conversion amid strife in the family elicited a very heart-felt response from many. Such situations should elicit the prayers of others and the kindness of the whole Church. The last thing any marriage needs to be is a couple alone in a rowboat.
Instead the cry comes to us: “Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in essence and undivided!”