Saturday, 12 June 2010

Zizioulas' Eastern Critique of the West

I've been reading a good deal of Zizioulas of late (you may recall I've posted about him before). I'm particularly interested in his ideas about ecclesiology and how he regards the way we think and do things in the West. Quite enlightening.

For instance, he sees not just Protestants but the whole Western Church preoccupied with mission, so that mission governs everything about the Church and our Christian lives, including (detrimentally) our worship. For the Orthodox, it seems worship does not include preaching or proclamation of the Word. The liturgy, of course, is drenched in the Word, but Zizioulas bemoans the fact that some priests are beginning to read it rather than chant it in the liturgy. He sees this as changing the orientation of the Church.

As a Westerner, and a fortiori as an Evangelical, I value very highly preaching and proclamation of the Word and would be greatly bothered if it were banished from the liturgy. And I find the difference between chanting and speaking in the liturgy to be purely aesthetic rather than imbued with any particular theological significance. Having said that, though, I can grasp at least to some extent where Zizioulas is coming from here. The Church is constituted by what it offers, not the fact that it offers, and the act of offering is necessarily incidental to the nature of the thing being offered. That thing is Christ's eternal once-and-for-all sacrifice of Himself, to which and to Whom we are joined as His Body, and His Resurrection by which the world is redeemed. There must be a place in the life of the Church which is totally characterised by this core. We Christians are in trouble if everything we do is simply geared towards evangelism, either evangelising or preparing and training to evangelise. If we limit ourselves to that, it will necessarily cause us to lose sight of Christ Himself. We will begin to see Christ as a means, rather than as the end to which we are heading, and the desire for Whom it is our duty to cultivate in ourselves. After all, there will be no evangelism in heaven, after the resurrection. The liturgy is a foretaste of when God will be all in all, that place where eternity touches time and we worship in union with the angels and all the heavenly hosts.

What intrigues and surprises me is that Zizioulas sees this as a potential (if not actual) problem for all Western Christians, both Catholics and Protestants. If I wanted to be simplistic, I might accuse the East of the opposite error- of neglecting mission and evangelism. One could argue it historically if one wanted to- after all, after the Great Schism almost no great missionary efforts came out of the East and virtually every people group which has converted to Christianity during the second millenium was evangelised by Catholic missionaries or (after the seventeenth century) by Protestant missionaries. But then that critique is too easy. You see, I've met Copts. And I have at least a dozen tracts and booklets on my shelf which they've given me. One could travel very far before one met a more evangelical people. Moreover, I hear the Russians are going from strength to strength (and after last century, they've got their work cut out for them!). I suppose Zizioulas would probably say about these folks that they differ from the West not so much in their zeal to win souls as in the fact that they keep that to its proper sphere and reserve the liturgy for worship of God and that alone.

Another thing is that Zizioulas believes the West emphasises the cross, sin, evil and suffering too much, to the detriment of the resurrection and eschatology. This I concur with to this extent: that I don't believe we overemphasise the cross but I do think we underemphasise the resurrection. In fact, maybe it's an inherent part of the Western Christian soul. Personally, I know that Lent and the Triduum are more consonant with my spirit. I understand them even if they're not easy to live. Mind you, I do love the Easter Vigil (I think it would be fair to say that it is the highlight of my year, not just liturgically but generally) but the Easter Octave is always difficult for me. It demands much more faith.

It has been well said by someone that Original Sin is the only empirically verifiable Christian doctrine (this is perhaps slightly inaccurate- the idea that sin is inherited is not immediately apparent but certainly universal human sinfulness is). Lent and Good Friday don't really require any faith at all- just clear eyes. Easter, on the other hand, cannot be lived without faith. To look forward to the day when all will be put to rights, and to believe that in Christ that process has begun and that God will surely bring it to fulfillment- and to be joyful and delighted at the prospect for at least eight days- this is no mean feat. Feasting is sometimes more difficult than fasting. Certainly it takes more energy, both emotional and spiritual. But this is not as it should be. I'll let Zizioulas speak for himself:

[In the West,] the sacraments and in particular the Eucharist are seen as the perpetual presence of Christ's death...[However,] the truth of the Eucharist is that it does not take us to Calvary in order to leave us there, but brings us through it and beyond into the communion of saints and the glory of God.

The Church is constituted by the resurrection and so has travelled past the cross and broken through into that new creation which is filled with the uncreated light of God.

The Church that focuses on history and on Calvary will come to a halt before it reaches the end of that path. The overcoming of evil and the defeat of the devil is not our final destination. A healthy ecclesiology will lead us on beyond the struggle with evil and into the light, to gain in the divine Eucharist our first experience of the kingdom of God.

Parts of me want to counter that with Luther's theology of the cross (and the suspicion that Zizioulas is presenting a kind of theology of glory), but Zizioulas is not presenting a glory that comes without the cross but one that comes because of it. Without the resurrection, the cross is a defeat. The Church is characterised not by defeat but by victory.

All of this reminds me of John Paul II's phrase that the Church needs to learn again to breathe with both lungs. The East needs the West's emphasis on the cross. We in the West need the East's emphasis on the resurrection and Christ's ultimate victory in the new heavens and new earth. And the world needs our united lived witness to both.

The Existence of Hell as a Sign of God's Mercy

Hell is a strange kind of mercy. Metaphysically, the turn to self, the choice to seek the wherewithal to sustain life within the self (which we call sin) rather than from the One Who in fact sustains our existence, ought naturally to lead to the dissolution of existence because it is impossible for that which is contingent to support its own existence. Hence sin and death are naturally linked.

By rights, therefore, the human race should have ceased to exist in the very moment of the Fall. But God in His mercy links the dissolution to time. So, whereas the turn to self ought to have caused us to instantly cease to exist, God has ordained that it should take time, leading from the corruption of the soul and body to their increased conflict and finally their separation in death.

But God never lets the process reach its natural conclusion- the end of existence. He allows the turn to self to extend itself so far, respecting our freedom thus far and no farther, never allowing its ultimate consequence.

This leads to a further question. What is achieved by the resurrection of the damned as well as the saved at the General Resurrection?

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Jumping Castle War Memorial and the Inherent Significance of Bodily Acts

Yesterday, I took my students on an excursion to Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour. A former prison and shipyard, the island is at present one of several sites hosting the Sydney Biennale, a festival of contemporary art.

Most of my students were underwhelmed ("It was....strange," said one, with a thoughtful expression on her face after I asked what she had thought of it) but I, by contrast, enjoyed the outing immensely. The slipperiness of meaning and interpretation in post-modern stuff is rubbish as a philosophy but terrific fun as a parlour game, if one approaches it as one. Which I did ("It represents the human condition." is a great conversation-starter in these places, and possibly an effective way to pick up one of the art-loving ladies, though I wouldn't know anything about that).

One of the more interesting pieces, which I think is significant, not least for the implications of its set-up, was Jumping Castle War Memorial (pictured above). It was set up on a large green next to the old Turbine Hall and initially a number of my students wondered aloud what it was. I explained the concept of a jumping castle (it seems such things are unknown throughout much of Asia) and they inquired whether they could jump on it. It being art, I said I wasn't sure but probably not. During much of the excursion, the jumping castle was somewhere in the background, always on the green as we went from building to building.

During lunch, I broke out the guidebook for the exhibition and discovered a bit more about this castle. It is an artwork by Brook Andrew, an Aboriginal artist from Melbourne. One can, it turned out, jump on the castle but only if one is over 16. There is a further catch. The guidebook informs us that "[o]n closer examination, we see that its plastic-enclosed turrets contain skulls that represent those often forgotten peoples who were the victims of genocide worldwide."

Vast swathes of modern culture tell us that what we do with our bodies is meaningless. Whether it be the trivialisation of sex and spread of promiscuity or, within Christian circles, the tendency to casualise (if that's a word) worship by, for example, substituting different kinds of music or different ritual actions, the temptation is great to look only at the heart (yes, the Samuel reference is deliberate- some truths need to be balanced by equal and complementary truths). But during the whole time we were at Cockatoo Island, I never once saw a single person jump on that castle.

Why not? The reasons nobody jumped on it may well have been diverse and certainly there is more than one possible reason. I told my students they had to be over 16 to jump on it (without initially mentioning the other elements to the artwork) and every one of them balked. For adults to jump on it would have seemed to them undignified. No doubt many Australian adults might feel the same. Alternatively, it might be that, given the significance (and title) of the work-a memorial- it would have seemed irreverent for a person to jump on it. By doing so, one would have been disrespecting the victims the work commemorated. On yet another hand, some may have sensed (what indeed my initial reaction was) that to jump on the castle would have been to symbolically identify with the perpetrators of those crimes. Perhaps people felt a combination of these considerations.

It should be noticed that each of these reasons is subjective, but more than subjective. No doubt none of the people who might under different circumstances have enjoyed jumping on a jumping castle felt any sympathy for people who have committed (or sought to commit) genocide. None of them would have anything but sympathy for the victims. Why did none jump, then? Clearly, the action, in this context, held significance quite apart from the person's subjective feelings. The action itself conveyed some kind of meaning (though precisely what that meaning would be is debatable). If we extrapolate this to other bodily actions or take it as representative of the nature of bodily actions in general, this is a fact that has huge implications for both morality and worship (in both cases studied by people far more intelligent than I, eg. Mary Douglas). Fascinating to find it demonstrated at a contemporary art exhibition.