I’ve been slowly making my way through the book, An Empire of Things. It’s subtitle, How We Became a World of Consumers from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-first Centuries, describes the fascinating journey outlined in the text. It tracks the gradual evolution of the modern world as seen in our acquisition of stuff. The average citizen in the 1400’s would have been lucky to have a change of clothes and the barest minimum of cutlery and plates. As a form of prosperty slowly spread over Europe, there were laws to control its growth. Certain colors were forbidden to the underclass. There were laws that governed those popular long toes on renaissance shoes (the clothing laws have probably been my favorite part of the story). The laws eventually gave way to what seems to have been an inexorable growth in the accumulation of wealth. Christians have (from time to time) complained about our cultural wealth. It’s as though we were drowning in our prosperity.
The West not only enjoyed increasing prosperity, it also became witness to successive waves of reform. The sense that “something is wrong” saw movements of reform. The Reformation itself was but one of many such efforts. Some of them reformed various monastic orders. Others reformed the structures of the Church. In most reforms, there seems to have been a drive to simplify, to de-clutter the faith. That the Protestant movement continues to shatter and divide speaks to the abiding character of simplifying reform. The occasional statement, “All I need is Jesus and my Bible,” is only the most extreme exposition of a de-cluttered Christianity. Though many may attend Church (for fellowship), this radically individualized, simplistic approach rests unchallenged within the heart.
It is strange that the simplification of Christianity has resulted in a landscape cluttered with the remains of discarded denominations and ecclesiastical experiments. When I travel the backroads of Tennessee, I see hundreds (maybe more) of tiny Churches whose names astound me with their variety of identifications. Many of them seem to be closed.
There is a question that underlies all of this: As Christians, what do we actually need? Is there some sort of minimalist formula that captures the essence of our faith and embodies it for us? The messiness of authentic Christianity (and its inherent clutter) is found in the fact that it is social in its nature. The teachings of Christ are not focused on inner self-transcendence or other individualized religious notions. What he teaches is decidedly social. We are to love our neighbor, not just God. To make matters truly complicated, Christ incarnated the gospel in the locus of a Church.
I have many times encountered the statement that the Church is a “human institution,” drawing a distinction between its messiness and the streamlined God (which is pretty imaginary as well). Salvation, rigntly understood, is communion – with God and with one another. And, in properly taught Christian theology, we find a certain “messiness” in God as we seek to verbalize the reality of the Holy Trinity.
Ecclesiology, the doctrine of the Church, is precisely the rock on which theology most often founders. Many Christians simply avoid thinking about the Church, and an increasing number seem to be abandoning it altogether. We want a de-cluttered God, one that serves to de-clutter our lives in a world that is sinking in madness, regardless of your point-of-view.
I have, from time to time, quipped humorously that Christ gave us the Church in order to keep us honest. St. John flatly tells us that if we say we love God but hate our brother then we are liars. (1Jn. 4:20) It is also the case that Christ has given us the Church in order for us to know God. Christ points to the sick, the prisoners, the naked, and the hungry as points of His presence among us in Matthew 25. His teaching on the love of enemies focuses on understanding that to do so makes us to be “like God.” (Lk. 6:35-36) St. Silouan of Athos said, “we only know God to the extent that we love our enemies.” For those who have spent considerable time in the Church, it should be manifest that it is a very common place to encounter enemies.
Christ is not an idea, nor do His teachings push us towards an abstraction. He draws us inexorably towards the clutter of creation and the many persons within it. One critic of the Church (debates rage around his identity) opined, “I could believe in Christ if he did not drag behind him that leprous bride …” It was a sentiment spoken by someone who obviously did not consider himself to be a leper.
The story of humanity is marked by a failure to love. More than anything else, this is the character of sin. St. John wrote, “God is love.” We cannot know the One who is love apart from love. The tragic failure to embody love within our lives gives rise to massive efforts to disguise that very fact. Even our wars are explained in terms of sacrifice and generosity. The kindness of God draws us towards that failure. Acknowledging it is a beginning of repentance. The Church, a flawed and leprous community, brings us into the very heart of our failure and God’s union with us in that precise moment – that He might cleanse us and present us as a spotless bride. “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2Cor. 5:21) In His death, Christ bore the enmity of the whole world. In doing so, He entered into every hatred and element of bitterness in our lives. St. Sophrony said, “Christ has descended into the lowest hell and is waiting for His friends to meet Him there.”
This is the mystery of the cluttered Church. Only love “de-clutters.” One of the great treasures of Orthodox Christianity is its unbroken history of 2,000 years. It is a very cluttered history (not unlike the shame-marked genealogy of Christ). As such, it reflects the reality found in our own hearts. And it is in that clutter that we find ourselves sorted – sheep and goats – measured in love, by love, and for love.