By Fr. Stephen Freeman, July 18, 2016
My desk sits looking out of a wall of windows. My small backyard is shaded by a lush green this time of year. At any time of day or night, nature sounds mark the movement of the sun as much as the shifting shadows: birds in the early morning give way to katydids as the sun moves up the sky, succeeded by the drone of frogs as night sets in. Everyone living in any age would enjoy the experience. But the experience would have very different meanings at different times. My ancient English ancestors would have drawn particular note of the great White Oak nearby, and would think its presence was a good, even a great thing. The various birds at different times of day, visiting the yard, would carry clear omens, portents of events to come. At present, the neighborhood and city is largely inhabited by scientists and technicians. They enjoy the beauty, but only take comfort in their own thoughts. For them, every growing thing is an object. Its content is nothing more than the arrangement of carbon molecules. They may have a sense of wonder, but they are far more likely to wonder at how alone they feel and how empty the world is.
The modern mind dwells in the midst of objects, but it only ever encounters its own thoughts. In a series of historical developments, popular thought in the modern world has come to take the shape of a form of nominalism. The only connections between objects, between people themselves, indeed, with God, are thoughts. We might say, “I feel your pain,” but we only mean a psychological experience. Your pain is your own, not mine.
Classical Christianity predates this nominalistic worldview. In many ways, it is more akin to the experience of my ancient tree-worshipping ancestors. True knowledge is not seen as a psychological event. Rather, it is an experience of communion, a true participation in the life and being of the other – whether tree, rock or human being. When the modern mind encounters blatant examples of this, it is generally repulsed, assuming that the claims and practices that surround such people are nothing more than superstitions. The modern man might believe in God, but relates to God far more objectively, that is, as an object. If he says that he has a relationship with God, he means that it is largely similar to his relationship with a friend or spouse. It is a psychological event. Relationships consist of memory, reason and sentiment.
A very interesting example of the Classical experience can be found in the Orthodox sacrament of Holy Unction (healing). Holding the Gospel Book open, with its pages face down over the heads of those who have come for healing, the priest prays:
O Holy King, deeply compassionate and greatly-merciful Lord Jesus Christ, Son and Word of the Living God, You do not desire the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn from his wickedness and live: I do not lay my sinful hand upon the head of these Your servants who are come to You in their iniquities, and ask of You, through us, the pardon of their sins, but rather Your strong and mighty hand, which is in this, Your Holy Gospel, that is held upon the head of these Your servants… etc.
This same action (laying the open Gospel on the head) is done for the ordination of a bishop. The other bishops gather round and lay their hands on the Gospel, but it is the Gospel itself (the hand of God) that actually lies on the head of the one being ordained.
A modern or contemporary Christian would generally see this as a quaint ceremony, perhaps going so far as to think that the Gospel book is being used to “symbolize” the hand of God (meaning nothing more than a psychological notion). But in no way would a contemporary believer think that God’s hand is actually in the Gospel Book.
However, that is precisely what the prayer says, and precisely what it means. The book of the Gospels that rests on the altar table, is always marked by careful treatment. It is not carried by the laity; only the ordained read from it; it is reverenced like an icon (with bows and kisses). It is probably more correct to say that the hand of God is iconically present in the gospel, but only if this is understood in the strong sense of the Orthodox, that such a presence is real and true.
An important question for the modern mind to consider (if it is open) is, “How is this possible?” How can Christians have ever said that the hand of God is in the Gospel? For the Church has not only said such a thing, but has added that Christ is present in His icon; the saints are present in their icons; the relics of the saints (their flesh and bones) are bearers of the very presence of the saints themselves. It is a consistent witness that objects may truly be holy in a manner that transcends our psychology. They are not just considered holy, but are. A modern person might be respectful towards an object, but is never doing more than showing respect for someone’s feelings. Value, worth, holiness and the like, all reside as ideas alone. This objective emptiness represents a “secularization” of objects. It is similar to the secularization of the calendar (“all days are the same”), the secularization of the clergy (it’s just a job), the secularization of the whole world.
The point I want to make in these observations is to show two radically different understandings of the world. For the contemporary person, the world is the kind of place that is made up of empty objects. We may have feelings and beliefs about them in our heads, but things are simply things and nothing more. If they are treated in a special way, it is only because we have decided to do so.
This secularized thought lies at the heart of most Christianity in the modern world. If I point to the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament, an object that was surrounded with careful directions on how it was to be treated and carried, and by whom, as well as being surrounded with the caveat that failure to do so would result in death, those Christians would assert that the consequences of mishandling the Ark were not in the Ark itself, but in the actions of God. It is the belief that if we touch the Ark incorrectly, God will kill us. Thus “holy” only means what God thinks about something, and what He is willing to do in order to make us agree.
This makes the secularized, nominalistic world an inherently violent place. Meaning, value, purpose, holiness, etc., exist only as thoughts, feelings and decisions. We believe we can make them “real” (effective), only by being willing to do violence to make someone else agree. This applies to God as well. The moral universe of Divine reward and punishment places God into the position of merely another player on the field, though the largest. God’s “will” is nothing more than His ability to enforce His choices on another. No matter how we might justify such actions (God is just, therefore even His violence is just), we have still reduced Him to one among many violent actors in the world.
And so we find ourselves living in a china shop, with lots and lots of rules about how to treat the dishes and the priceless objects and the consequences for doing it wrong. But the china itself is nothing. It’s only a collection of objects whose presence gives you the possibility of doing things wrong. “You broke my favorite dish!”
This is the weakness of modern juridical thinking. Justice in the hands of a nominalist is, like all things, a requirement for violence. It is the pyschologization of the universe (and God) and the disenchantment of the world, reducing everything to a collection of empty objects governed by rules. There is no communion with an object (nor could there be, because an object is just a “thing”).
What kind of world do we live in, if God’s hand truly is in the book?
I will offer another image:
Contemporary Christian treatments of the Scriptures see them as a map. The map is studied with great care, its various markings carefully noted and debated. Scholars discuss the scale of miles and write books about the history of mileage measurements. The map itself becomes an object. It is flat, two-dimensional, filled with detail. However, the map itself is not the territory to which it points. To read a map and to walk on the road indicated by the map are two very different things.
Classical Orthodox theology is ultimately, experiential. It is the living witness of those who have actually walked the roads marked on the map. They reverence the map, but they do so only because they themselves know that the map is true, not as a point of theological ideology, but because they have actually been in the far country described on the map itself. The battle cry of the map-readers is, “Sola Scriptura! Only the map!”
There is a peculiar doctrine found among some Protestants called “Cessationism.” It holds that all of the miracles and wonders recorded in the New Testament ceased when the book itself was completed. The purpose of the Apostles for them was to produce a book). Christ’s proclamation, “Repent! For the Kingdom of God is at hand!” is lost on them (or becomes a threat of coming violence). They do not want the Kingdom (except when they die). All that matters now is the map.
It is, of course, a peculiar and minority doctrine within Protestantism. But that it arose at all is a tell-tale sign of an incipient idea within Protestant thought itself. The world of objects does not harbor the Kingdom itself. At most, the Kingdom is seen as a moral pathway, map-reading at its finest.
St. Anthony the Great, living in his cave, owned no books. A visiting philosopher was scandalized at the lack of Scripture. St. Anthony’s reply was, “My book, O philosopher, is the world!” St. Anthony’s greatness within the Kingdom allowed him to “read” the truth in every rock and grain of sand.
You cannot read the book if you cannot see the Hand.
I should add, as a caveat, that many reduce the Fathers to text, as well. They become nothing more than map-extenders. But the Fathers cannot be truly “read” except by those who discern the Hand. You must walk where they walked.
The leaders of Israel said that Christ was casting out demons through the power of the devil (for such was their map-reading). He responded by saying, “If I, by the finger of God, cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come near you!”
~Fr. Stephen Freeman, Glory to God for All Things, https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2016/07/18/the-hand-in-the-gospel/.