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Of Stars and Gods

“Thy nativity, O Christ our God,
has shown to the world the light of wisdom;
for by it, those who worshipped the stars
were taught by a star to adore Thee
the Sun of Righteousness,
and to know Thee, the Orient from on high.
O Lord, glory to Thee.”

— the Nativity Troparion (hymn) of the Orthodox Church

I love that line about the Magi, men who worshipped the stars, but who were directed by the Star to worship the True God. I was thinking about it yesterday afternoon when I finished Evangelical theologian Hans Boersma’s 2011 book on sacramentalism. If you missed it over the weekend, I invite you to read my blog post “The Nominalist Church At Year Zero,” which quotes from the book. I could not possibly do justice to this book in a blog post, but let me quote this bit from one of the final chapters. By “Great Tradition,” he means Christianity before the Late Middle Ages, which did away with the Platonic-Christian synthesis that was the basis for Christian metaphysics of the first millennium of the church:

Throughout this book we have seen that the sacramental tapestry of the Great Tradition had tremendous regard for mystery. The church fathers and medieval theologians were much less interested in comprehending the truth than in participating in it; and participating in the truth meant to be mastered by it rather than mastering it. The supernatural was not a distinct or seperate realm of being that superimposed itself onto an independent and autonomous realm of nature. Instead, the supernatural was simply the divine means to bring created realities of time and space to their appointed end in Christ. Therefore, created realities participated in the heavenly mystery of Christ as their sacramental reality. Access to truth meant sacramental participation in the unfathomable mystery of Christ.

He goes on to say that in the modern era (= starting in the Renaissance), and particularly since the 17th century, “truth was equated with certainty — not the certainty of faith, but the certainty based on a neutral and universally shared human reason.” Boersma makes a case that Western Christianity, both in its Protestant and Catholic versions, shifted its focus

from a sacramental entry into the mystery of God to a syllogistic mastering of rational truths. … Whereas the earlier sacramental symbolism had regarded truth as participation in divine mystery, the new rationalist dialectics maintained that truth meant complete rational comprehension of propositional statements.

This resulted in a Christianity that is fundamentally different from the faith as it was lived and understood for the first thousand years. Boersma only mentioned the Eastern church once, and that’s to say that it has never suffered from this problem (though certainly the Eastern church has had many other problems); he speaks of Roman Catholics and Protestants, and says, quite rightly, that even though Catholics still have a sacramental ontology (= seeing the world sacramentally), very many modern Catholics are just as afflicted as Protestants are with the flattening-out of their vision. In other words, very many of us, no matter how pious we are, have ceased to see the world through sacramental eyes.

What does this mean practically? Through sacramental eyes, everything in reality points toward the ultimate reality, which is God. The stars disclose something of God’s nature to us, because in traditional Christian metaphysics, God is Being itself (as distinct from the Supreme Being). The stars are not God, but God participates mysteriously in their reality. The same is true of the forests and the rivers. It is true of the breakfast you had, of your co-workers, of the city in which you live. It is true of the hours in which you draw breath, and in the words you write, and I write. This past weekend, I watched the wonderful movie The Book Thief with the family. Max, a Jew hidden from the Nazis by the family of a little German girl, Liesel, tells her:

“Write. In my religion we’re taught that every living thing, every leaf, every bird, is only alive because it contains the secret word for life. That’s the only difference between us and a lump of clay. A word. Words are life, Liesel.”

The divine Logos is in all. The Incarnation has made all of it holy, but none of it holy in quite the same way as the Eucharist. But that’s a topic for another day.

To the ancients like the Magi before their enlightenment, the stars may have been gods. To us moderns, the stars are just physical phenomena that have nothing special to do with God, aside from His having made them. There is no connection; what you see is what you get. This mindset, Boersma argues, makes us sitting ducks for radical skepticism of the present day. He contends that Western Christians must return to the robust sacramentalism of the Great Tradition if they are going to hold on.

Notice he does not say “Evangelicals must become Catholic” or even “Evangelicals and Catholics must become Eastern Orthodox.” I think Boersma is right, for reasons I will explain briefly in my talk in Wichita this weekend, in which I will talk about sacramentalism and the Benedict Option. When I get started writing the Ben Op book, I am going to work especially hard to articulate a case for sacramentalism in an Evangelical mode. I would very much appreciate any help you Evangelical readers can give me.

The other night, I dipped into my copy of anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann’s 2012 book, When God Talks Back, in which she reports on the years she spent within the Vineyard Church movement, observing with great specificity how they teach their congregants to practice the presence of God, to talk to him like He is a friend, and to listen for His words back to them. The problem is that many (most?) people struggle to believe that a God who cannot be touched, felt, seen, or heard is truly there. Here’s Luhrmann:

To deal with this problem, the churches like the Vineyard invite congregants to pretend that God is present and to make believe that he is talking back like the very best of buddies. It is a suggestion straight out of C.S. Lewis. In Mere Christianity, Lewis entitles a chapter “Let’s Pretend.” If you have read this far, he writes, you probably pray, and whatever else you pray, you probably say the Lord’s Prayer. Our Father, who art in Heaven … “Do you now see what those words say? They mean, quite frankly, that you are putting yourself in the place of a son of God. To put it bluntly, you are dressing up as Christ.” We are, Lewis points out, human bundles of self-centered fears, wants, and small-mindedness. But in speaking this prayer, one plays at being a child of the divine. Lewis approves of this: he thinks that if you pretend that you are with God, God will become more real for you. “Let us pretend in order to make the pretence into a reality.”

She cites the work of psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott:

Winnicott’s deepest insight was that play occurs in the boundary between the mind and the world, in what he called, with characteristic simplicity, the “intermediate area of experiencing.” This intermediate area exists between an external reality, which wishing will not change, and the child’s inner reality of hope and fear. Winnicott coined the term ‘transitional object’ for the toy that often becomes so special to a child around the toddler years — the bunny that cannot be left behind, the blanket that cannot be washed. He argues that these objects stand for what is good and emotionally real within the relationship with the mother in a concrete form that is neither the child nor the mother.

More:

Play helps people to internalize the concept that God is not just a bunch of rules and propositions, but is alive and present. And they learn to read the Bible sacramentally, seeing the Old Testament as filled with signs pointing to Jesus … and to themselves and their own lives, and their way through life.

Hmm. Is “play” — that is, by engaging the imagination — a way humans open themselves up in a sacramental way to divine realities? “Play” as the imaginative mediator between the Eternal and the Temporal? Luhrmann talks about how Vineyard congregations read the Bible:

This is not about scholarship. You do not, in this method, learn about when the scripture was written or which other scriptures it cites — not that there would be anything wrong with that, but it simply isn’t the goal of the method. The method asks you to put yourself in the story and then to make the story true for your own life.

Luhrmann talks about a particular woman who had been following the Vineyard’s prayer method, and had made spiritual progress:

In other words, she talked as if she had progressed from a childlike discovery of an externally existing God into a stage in which she carried an internal representation of God’s love that sustained her in the absence of specific moments of recognizing God’s presence.

Finally, Luhrmann says:

This is play, but it is a serious play: a play that cultivates the imagination for a serious end, precisely because congregants presume the basic claim of Christianity to be unbelievable, even foolish, in a modern, secular society. And the function of the emphasis on play is to make the player’s commitment to the serious truth claims embedded in the play more profound.

I don’t know what to say about this, exactly, but I think it could be a fruitful avenue. Luhrmann writes from an anthropologist’s perspective, not that of a religious believer, but she still makes it very clear that for the Vineyard folks, orthodoxy is not much of a concern. The authenticity of the experience is all that matters — and that could be hugely problematic. You can’t do this outside the grounded traditions of the church and not expect to go awry.

Anyway, I’m just throwing it out there for feedback. Help me out here.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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