There is a conception of what it means to be human, rooted in Medieval thought and refined in the furnace of modernity. This conception views each person as a “free moral agent.” Each of us is a unique individual. Our choices are our own and set our path for good or ill. Moral decisions may be submitted to varying forms of ethical tests. The choices each individual makes may effect others around him, but does not impinge on the free moral agency of others. Salvation, in this conception, is an individual matter – between each of us and God. The Church, in this conception, is a free association of free moral agents, who gather together for worship and praise and other matters of mutual benefit.
This conception of humanity runs counter to the Tradition of the Church, substituting much later definitions and understandings for the thought of those who wrote Scripture, and those who, following them faithfully, propounded the Christian faith over the subsequent centuries. (A suggestion for reading – Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity.)
When this matrix of a human as an individual moral agent is used as a lens through which Scripture is read – the result is often a distortion of Scripture (which was never meant to be a book for individuals). Such a lens all too easily ignores verses that clearly teach a different conception of what it means to be human and thus distorts the role of choice and free will as well as the account of salvation.
Were this distortion confined to an abstract debate then it would simply remain a matter of debate. But since it is actually based on flawed assumptions about the very nature of our existence – it goes far beyond mistaken thought and becomes positively harmful as a basis for human living, especially human life as a Christian.
We are created in God’s image – the image of the Triune God. This is not the same thing as saying each individual is created in the image of the Triune God (pace St. Augustine). All that God creates is pronounced “good.” The first thing described as “not good” is man alone. “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). We are created in the image of God – persons of one essence – our existence is inherently a common existence. It is this reality that ultimately provides the ground for understanding our life in Christ and the path of salvation.
St. Paul offers these admonitions:
None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s (Romans 14:7-8).
So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another (Romans 12:5)
If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together (1 Cor. 12:26).
Within St. Paul’s statements is an understanding of what it means to be human – and particularly what it means to be persons who are members of the one body of Christ – in which individuality (as it stands alone) is the antithesis of the Christian understanding. Why should it be true that if one member of the body of Christ suffers, I should suffer as well? Does this not impinge on my freedom and reality as an individual moral agent? Of course it does – because I am not merely an individual moral agent. What each of us does effects all of us. Were it not so, Christ could not have taken upon Himself the sins of the world.
The forensic (legal) account of salvation, popular within many modern Christian circles, is easily misused, making our salvation extrinsic, a transaction offered on our behalf, but a transaction that only touches us as individual moral agents. We are forgiven as a man could be forgiven for a crime he has committed. He remains a criminal. This account of salvation is extremely well-suited to a world view in which man is seen primarily as an individual moral agent. He has been offered a forensic forgiveness. All that remains is for him to make a choice, accepting this boon with gratitude.
But such an account ignores the bulk of Christian Tradition (including large amounts of Scripture itself). Christ took the sins of the world upon Himself when He took upon Himself our human nature (at the Incarnation). He carried that burden to the Cross, into Hades, and raised it forgiven and healed in His Pascha. He remains united to us, having carried our humanity with Him in His glorious Ascension. Such an understanding of the Incarnation is consonant with the commonality of our existence.
“If one member suffers, all suffer together,” including the Head of the Body, Christ Jesus.
The truth of our existence is revealed in our life within the Church. The Church is the restoration of humanity to the truth of its existence. In the garden of Eden, human beings chose to act as individuals. Eve makes a choice – apart from Adam as Adam does apart from Eve. That rupture is perhaps more significant than the eating of the forbidden fruit itself.
The eating and drinking which are given in the life of the Church are a participation in a common life – the common life of God, given to us in Christ. “Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (John 6:56). We are also told, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). All of the sacraments of the Church (indeed the whole of everything of the Church) have this same character.
The disruption of our common humanity is the result of sin. Such a disruption can be seen in the first murder (Cain kills Abel) and is writ large in the story of the tower of Babel. Our common life has been shattered by sin – and it is not healed by becoming more fully what sin made of it. We do not find our salvation as individuals, but as members of the Body of Christ. “Christ is our life” (Col. 3:4). The Church reveals the truth of human existence, indeed, the Church is what salvation looks like (as troubling as that thought may be). The life of the Church is a true union, a common life in Christ.
Prayer (as well as the whole of our Christian praxis) is properly understood in the context of our common life – and not within the confines of existence imagined as single and individual. Thus Christ teaches us to pray, “Our Father….” That prayer which is understood to be the most perfect – is a common prayer – the cry of our common heart in Christ.
Nor do we pray apart from Christ. “…God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’” (Gal. 4:6). Our prayer is the cry of Christ through the Spirit to the Father. In is in this way that we can pray, “Our Father.”
Prayer is the offering of our common life before God. Whether or not we ourselves enter into this common prayer, the prayer remains. In the Tradition we begin our prayers: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” What follows is thus not our own individual existence but the voice of our common life given in Christ Jesus through the Spirit to the glory of God the Father.
In the matrix of humanity conceived as individual – prayer – at best – is conversation. It obviously does not inform God of what He does not know – nor does it convince Him to do what He does not will to do. As such, prayer is reduced to the sound of our own ego.
There are times when such a sound is all that we can manage – indeed there are times when we cannot manage even a sound. Such times are all the more reason to become increasingly familiar with the ceaseless prayer of the Son to the Father through the Spirit. It is also reason to become familiar with the voice of the whole Church (in heaven and on earth) as it prays in union with Christ.
The anxieties of those who refuse to understand the communion of saints, and the prayer which ascends ceaselessly from the Church, is, I think, largely born of an individualism – the hallmark of most forms of modern Christianity. Christ alone saves us (apart from Him we can do nothing), and yet it pleases Him to share His life with us (it is our true existence). There is not a life of Christ that is not also a saving life. Salvation is part of our common life, even though it be solely the work of Christ.
Many are scandalized when they first visit and Orthodox Church and hear the prayer, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” What they think they are hearing is Mary put in the place of Christ. In the Tradition there is no such thought. The prayer is a recognition of the one salvation in Christ of which the Mother of God is intimately a part.
The shift from individualistic thought to the understanding of life as communion is perhaps among the most difficult undertakings in the modern world. It runs counter to modern culture and asks us to enter a world that can seem quite foreign. But this strange world is nothing other than the Kingdom of God – life in Christ – communion in the life of Christ and the life of one another. May God hurry the day of our transformation!