For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.” Is it oxen God is concerned about? Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope. (1 Cor. 9:9-10)
In this odd little passage in St. Paul’s writings, we see him as rabbi handling the Torah in a very traditional manner. The Law gives a rule for managing livestock. When I completed my Hebrew language studies in seminary, I came to the conclusion that Hebrew was great for telling stories, especially if the stories are about cows. For St. Paul (and much of the rabbinic tradition of his time), Moses did not ascend the mountain in order to write rules for cattle. In another place he says, “All things are for your sake.” (2 Cor. 4:15) The Law speaks of oxen, but wisdom reads beneath the letter and discerns the deeper speech of God. In this small rule, St. Paul sees eternal justice: if you work, you should be paid. No doubt, wisdom would pierce even deeper.
There are any number of times that we see St. Paul (and Christ Himself) handle the Scripture in this manner. Christ excoriates the Pharisees for their fascination with the surface of the Law:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.” (Matt. 23:23)
To find the “weightier” matters of the Scriptures requires a good heart, and a willingness to patiently look beyond the surface. If this is true of the Scriptures, it is equally true of the world itself and everything within it. Christ said:
“A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45)
I believe that it is equally true that a good heart is able to see the good (in its depths), while the evil heart is blind. Even literalism is corrupted by an evil heart.
St. Paul had the advantage of believing that there was something beneath or beyond the letter.
“…we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:18)
Pure materialism is, in fact, a denial of the Christian faith. The material world does not exist in itself and for itself. It is sacrament and icon, which in no way denigrates its dignity or importance. Nevertheless, its importance is found beneath and beyond it. It is the eternal that resides within it, or is reflected by it, that gives it meaning.
This is important as we consider the world and the demands placed upon us by those who claim to speak for the world. With the birth of secularism, political, economic, and social forces seek to re-tell the story of the world in their own terms. Much of this story is the core of modernity’s mythic explanation of its project. In large part, it is a story of material and moral progress. At its worst, it re-casts Christianity as its enemy, part of the “traditions of the past” that are being overcome by its progressive efforts. Christianity loses its true center when it seeks to convince the world of its commitment to the modern project. At present, there is a growing collection of Christian Churches, hollowed out by their embrace of the modern, secular account of reality. In a drive for relevance, they became redundant.
Oddly, they serve as icons of modern humanity. C.S. Lewis described them as “men without chests.” T.S. Eliot used the phrase, “the hollow men.” These were efforts to describe a humanity that was losing its spiritual mooring. Without the transcendent, eternal reality as foundation, humanity crashes inward on itself, a free-fall in which only power determines the passing meaning of anything. Meaning itself becomes a synonym for “power.” A hallmark of 20th and 21st century life, wherever the modern collapse has become dominant, is a constant drive to re-define language. If words only mean what we say they mean – then the “Say-ers” are the new masters.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. (John 1:1, 3)
Our Orthodox faith teaches us that every created thing has a “logicity” – it is made by and through the Logos (Christ, the Word of God). The truth of any existing thing is not the truth if it is divorced from its logicity. Our effort to “speak” the truth is, properly, an effort to give voice both to the thing itself as well as its logos.
One clear example for this can be seen in the Orthodox Christian understanding of what it is to be human. Everything said of the humanity of Christ is also something that reveals what it is for anyone to be human. A result is the revelation of human dignity and of the fullness of what it means to be created in the “image of God.” The “dignity” of human beings is found in our logicity – the “unseen,” eternal aspect of our existence. Where this unseen aspect is denigrated or ignored, brutality and genocide inevitably follow. It is not the case that Christianity has not seen its own use of brutality and genocide – but this has only been when its theology was overridden and ignored for sinful purposes.
When we speak of creation as icon and sacrament, we acknowledge the demand that we pay attention to that which is unseen. It is, foremost, a discipline of the heart, but it is also a deep listening to the voices within the Tradition who have attended and seen and borne witness to what they have seen and heard. The rush of modernity, particularly as it has come unmoored from humanity’s past, is a noise that seeks to drown out the past. It rushes towards what it describes as a “better world,” though it has no image of what such a world would look like.
The spiritual tradition of Orthodoxy is described by the word, “Hesychasm.” It means the discipline of silence. That silence is not an absence of words, but an attention to the Word (Logos) within words. I think that we are, at present, set to lose many of the arguments within our culture. I am confident, however, that the Word continues to speak within everything that He has created. St. Paul described creation as “groaning in travail.” It is the sound of deep calling unto Deep.
Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live. (John 5:25)
Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these bones, that they may live.