Alastair Sterne, classical Christian, communion, death, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Zizioulas, liberal, mass, N. T. Wright, orthodox, resurrection, Roger Revell, saints, Stanley Hauerwas, veneration
Roger Revell has hit the nail right on the head. There is nothing like full-bodied orthodox Christianity that elicits a rousing ‘Amen!’ from across the spectrum of those who are part of the diverse chorus of what St. Peter’s Fireside calls ‘classical Christianity.’
Revell’s brilliant response takes the wind right out of the sails of Douglas Todd’s suggestion that ‘conservative’ Christians are too heavenly minded for earthly good. Here’s Todd:
This might shock those who assume the main reason Christians become Christian, and embrace the Easter account of the resurrection of Jesus, is to be guaranteed a spot in heaven. But belief in heaven, or otherwise, is not a deal-breaker for entry into this camp. Some liberal Christians don’t think it is possible to have individual consciousness after death. That said, most liberal Christians appreciate how the story of Jesus’ resurrection exemplifies how “death is not the final word.” Even if they don’t believe Jesus physically rose from the grave, they buy into the metaphor. They accept Jesus’ followers had mystical visions of him after his death and that the love people show on earth lives on eternally after their body dies.
One might have expected that Revell’s ‘classically Christian’ answer would take us back to St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians where he castigates the Corinthian church for entertaining the idea that the bodily resurrection may not have happened. Certainly, within evangelical circles, a certain reading of this passage has yielded a cottage industry of apologetics (one thinks, for example, of Frank Morrison’s Who Moved the Stone?, Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict, and Lee Strobel’s Case for Christ) seeking to demonstrate from putatively incontrovertible evidence that Jesus in fact was raised bodily from the dead and that classically orthodox Christianity must be believed. For these people, ‘belief in heaven’ and the physical resurrection are indeed ‘deal-breakers,’ and a response from this camp would have dragged Todd through the coals for a seeming denial of the necessity of Jesus’ resurrection.
Not so Revell. Quite obviously influenced not only by N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope (which he cites), as well as Wright’s tome The Resurrection of the Son of God (which he is too modest to cite), Revell’s first argument is that Christians who are too heavenly minded for earthly good are in fact shirking their Christian obligation to be present and alive as, in the words of St. Irenaeus, ‘human beings fully alive’ and that ‘liberal Christians’ (say, Rob Bell) as well as their secular counterparts (say, Jean-Jacques Rousseau) are right to be disgusted at these freeloaders mooching off the rest of us who are working for the common good. As Revell explains, the only problem with applying this logic to all classically-oriented Christians is that that’s not how the logic classically works. Emphasizing that classically-oriented Christians are not completely agreed on what it means to share in the risen life (say, whether or not to venerate the saints who have fallen asleep but are still alive, or whether the Bible talks about only about life after death or a life after life after death), Revell suggests that one point of convergence is that, according to Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, the prize of eternal life is precisely what makes life in the present possible, exciting, and creative, making even prophetic statements in physical martyrdom (say, St. Perpetua or Dietrich Bonhoeffer) completely possible. Revell ends with a bang: life after life is not a ‘pleasant and fanciful idea’ but the path of full-bodied Christian discipleship.
Here, Revell is certainly influenced by orthodox theologian John Zizioulas’s Being as Communion. At the risk of oversimplification (I’m not going to deal with the whole hypostasis and ousios thing, for example, because it gave me a splitting headache), Zizioulas argues that human planes of existence can be divided between the ‘biological’ and the ‘ecclesial.’ At a basic ‘biological’ level of living, people tend to be concerned about their own survival, literally stayin’ alive (ah, ha, ha, ha, ha…sorry…). But what happens when one gets baptized is that one gets immersed into the risen life of Jesus Christ — one quite literally, and not just metaphorically, participates in the resurrection. Because the ‘death factor’ gets taken out of the equation, one’s existence is not merely biological and oriented toward survival; it is now ecclesial and eucharistic. In other words, one continues to participate in the risen life of Christ by sacramentally eating his flesh and drinking his blood. This doesn’t just happen at an individual level. It happens together with the whole church — the ekklesia — which makes one’s existence ecclesial, which means that one’s existence is not merely oriented toward biological survival, but toward communion with the other.
Drawing from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran theologian from a completely different theological tradition (and indeed, historical period!) from Zizioulas, this means that a Christian mode of social relations is marked by the sanctorum communio, the communion of saints. Indeed, Bonhoeffer goes as far as to say that the church is Christ literally and actually made manifest in the world: ‘Now the objective spirit of the church really has become the Holy Spirit, the experience of the “religious” community now really is the experience of the church, and the collective person of the church now really is “Christ existing as church-community”‘ (Sanctorum Communio, p. 288). As Revell suggests, a Christian is cut out to be the best kind of citizen, ‘the type who forgoes personal interest and entitlement because in due course, she will exist in a place devoid of want and lack.’ That’s because a Christian’s primary locus of existence is in the church, which is not a private voluntary association, but a public display of a new mode of social relations marked by always being for the other and not for one’s own survival.
Which brings us to that scandalous thing that Revell talks about halfway through his post: the veneration of the saints. Except that it’s not very scandalous…
In fact, that Revell seems almost unfazed by the scandal that his mentioning of this practice might cause indicates how central the veneration of the saints is to putting the resurrection to work. After all, when in the Synoptic Gospels Jesus defends the resurrection over against the Sadducees’ denial of it, he does it by saying that the reference to the God of the burning bush as the ‘God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’ indicates that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are not dead but alive, for God is God of the living, not the dead. What this means is that saints like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their descendants as numerous as the sand on the seashore and the stars in the sky, are not only alive, but can quite literally continue to intervene in the present world. A ‘classical Christian’ view, embraced by Catholic and Orthodox Christians especially, takes this radically catholic view, that the communion of saints not only comprises the living and the dead in Christ, but that all are in fact still alive by virtue of their participation in Christ’s risen life. That Jesus himself shows that this can be a validly Christian practice from the beginnings of the Scriptural tradition suggests that while Protestants may have historically found this practice problematic (idolatry! one hears them cry), every Christian should in fact find this practice relatively uncontroversial.
The beauty of politics called ‘church,’ as theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it, is that not everyone has to agree with precisely how to articulate this sensibility. Indeed, Revell’s ‘classical Christianity’ makes room even for Todd’s liberal articulation of a spiritual resurrection, a rare feat in the currently polarized Christian theological landscape. If there is room in the Body for Protestants who cannot endorse the resurrection practice of venerating the saints, then there is certainly also room for those who may articulate the resurrection differently without actually denying its effects. After all, Todd does not deny the resurrection: even if some of Todd’s ‘liberal Christians’ do not believe in the resurrection, ‘they still buy into the metaphor’ and agree that ‘death is not the final word.’ While full-bodied ‘orthodox’ Christians might chafe at this, Revell is correct not to take Todd to task explicitly for this because he recognizes the reality that theology has never really only been about articulation — it’s about practice.
What Revell finally shows, then, is that ‘classical Christianity’ simply cannot be ideological. If indeed theology is about practice, then the comparisons between ‘classical’ and ‘liberal’ Christianity do not end with how Todd and St. Peter’s Fireside express their theology. What has happened over the course of our conversation, then, is that what started out as a debate between two polarized ends of the theological spectrum have been brought together by convergences in practice — the doing of justice, the doing of the contemplative life, the doing of confession, the doing of silent presence, the doing of the resurrection — have trumped whatever divisions we might have. As Pope Francis once declared, ‘ideological Christianity’ is a ‘disease.’ We must work together.
Now the theological discussion is at an end. We have come together more closely than we ever thought possible. We have discovered our unlikely affinities in the sanctorum communio. The liturgical formula from which we get the word ‘mass’ is Ite, missa est. After having partaken of the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood in a deep sharing in the risen life of the God who became human, the people are dismissed. Go forth in the name of Christ, the deacon sometimes says. Or, go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Or, go forth into the world rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Or, let us bless the Lord.
The people always respond: Thanks be to God.