Belief


Once, in Ulaan Bataar, after interviewing a doctor, I was asked about my meditation practice, or about my religion; the two weren’t clearly distinguished in the question. I happened to be sporting both a shaved head and a Syrian keffiyah at the time, and had earlier commented to my translator that as a result people think I’m either Buddhist or Muslim (or, interestingly enough, some people relate the keffiyah to Judaism, perhaps confusing it with a tallis), even though I identify as an Orthodox Christian. Orthodox Christianity was of course not unknown in UB due to the small Russian community there. In any event, the doctor had thought I was Buddhist like her, and was curious to know what my spiritual practice was. When I said I was actually Orthodox, she asked, somewhat rhetorically and definitely incredulously, “You believe (in) that?”

I have to confess that I hesitated; the context did not seem appropriate to engage in a theological debate. While I said yes, I was somewhat uncomfortable with my response (and my hesitation, to be honest).

Belief seemed then, and seems even now too static a term to describe what I do in life. This, rather, is what I contemplate, what I move in and through, not stopping to “believe” at a certain point so much as to be drawn through and experience by means of these things. It is almost as if whether these things are true or not is beside the point. Rather, it is through these structures that I come to my experience of the world.
As a result, however, I don’t hold dogma to be utterly rigid. I don’t believe doctrine to be unchanging — because if either were unchanging and static it would prevent one from entering more deeply into them, erect a barrier to asking questions which push the boundaries of meaning and understanding — and thus living — the revelation they seek to imbue through a person’s life and lived experience.

Unfortunately, this also has the effect of distancing other Christians from me. Why am I hesitating to affirm the Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament when displayed in a monstrance? Do I not believe in the Real Presence? Or is it rather that I feel more is embodied in that doctrine than the mere presence or reality of the mystery of Incarnation? Certainly both Byzantine and Latin theology would affirm this mystery (which is actually the preferred term for sacrament among the Byzantines, both Melkite (in communion with Constantinople) and Papal (in communion with Old Rome)) is more than simply the body and blood (and soul and divinity) of Jesus the Word. For the Byzantines, the Eucharist exists within the context of the liturgical celebration, which includes a communion of persons living and departed, and a setting which evokes the celestial life. For the Latin, as Pope Benedict points out, the Eucharist is the reception of what one is — the body of Christ — through which one becomes that which one receives. Not in the sense of a circular logic, but in the sense of a mystery to contemplate and through which one may enter more deeply into the divine life.

Which, after all, is what Christians believe about Jesus — that he came not to give us moral teachings (those were already given in the Torah of Moses and continually being drawn forth through Rabbinic debate both before and after the time of Jesus), but the revelation of divine life. Participation in Divinity is what is meant when John writes “grace and truth came through Jesus”. This is not a replacement of the Torah (usually translated as “Law”, because the Greek writers translated the Hebrew word “Torah” into Greek, perhaps realising the negative and restrictive connotations “law” would have in their rhetoric), and certainly not a new moral teaching, per se. Jesus did elaborate upon moral and “legal” (in the sense of interpreting the Torah) questions in the context of other Rabbinic debates at that time and in subsequent centuries, but I would contend the primary appeal was of a revelation and a new way to experience the Divine life. That Divine life is not entered into once and for all by humans. Unlike the angels who are assigned their stations before their Creator and who do not move from them, we are given the gift, or at least the ability, to progress and deepen our experience. Belief, if it is static, refuses that gift.

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