This week, we continue with our Eastertide study of Fr. Stephen Freeman’s book Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe. Please read Chapter 3 “We Live in an Altar” and Chapter 4 ”The God Who is Not There.”
The theme of Chapter 3 “We Live in an Altar” is to recognize the sacredness of the material world and that all of the world is in communion with itself and with God. God is not simply found within the chancel, but through all of creation. The purpose of the Christian live is to grow into that realization.
Within the Christian tradition, there are two broad schools of thought on the present material world – Dualism and Realism. In dualism, the world is seen as being composed of two warring powers – good/evil (Matt. 13), light/dark (John 1:5), flesh/spirit (Gal. 5), profane/sacred (Ex. 20:25). The dualist tradition goes back to Persian Zoroastrianism and comes to us through Jewish thought, and particularly the intertestamental writing such as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The most radical Christian dualists were the early Christian gnostic teachers such as Marcion or Valentinus. The Gnostics taught the material world of bodily passions and decay was evil and imprisoned the spirit. This world was created by the evil god of the Old Testament. Jesus provides us the way out of our bodily imprisonment and back into communion with the true God whom he called “Father.”
In today’s thought, the material world is simply the product of natural processes. There is nothing special or divine about creation. The created world exists for our consumption and exploitation. And even if we confess that God created the material world, God is seen as being absent from the materiality of the world. To be “spiritual” or “religious” is to become disengaged from the material world so that then we better find God.
A rough alternative to Dualism is Realism. The Realist view goes back to the fundamental concept that everything that is created is created by God (Gen. 1/John 1), for God (Col. 1:16), and that God permeates all existence (Acts 17:28). Everything that exists, exists by and through and in God. Therefore, nothing can exist outside of God. To fully exist means to exist within God. This is reality. However, because of the fall, our experience of reality is less than the fullness of reality. In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato writes that the reality that we see is but a shadow of the true reality. This is similar to how Christian Realism understands our existence – we see but a shadow of God’s permeation of all things. We recognize God’s presense at the altar, and when we begin to recognize God’s presence in all the world, then then we begin to live in an altar as Fr. Freeman says.
The difference between dualism and realism can be seen in our understanding of the sacraments. Fr. Freeman quotes Alexander Schmemann’s book “For the Life of the World” (p.29). Our chapter this week is a brief paraphrase of Schmemann. In the book, Schmemann demonstrates the difference between these two world views through the example of the blessing of holy water. (See, attached). Schmemann says that we can see this blessing as magically transforming a profane meaningless substance – water – into something sacred. (This brings up a range of issues as to how this magical transformation occurs and whether only certain people (i.e. priests) can carry out this magic). Alternatively, we can see the blessing as simply revealing the true nature of the water. The blessing does not transform the water into something different but restores the water to its proper function of establishing communion with God. This is the difference between the blessing causing the Holy Spirit to come into and inhabit the water versus the blessing simply revealing God’s presence already there. Schmemann dives deeper into this difference in his chapter on “Sacrament and Symbol.”
A ONE-STOREY UNIVERSE:
As we continue through Fr. Freeman’s book, his presentation of the “one-storey universe,” is a journey into overcoming our perceived understanding that there are two realities – physical and spiritual – and God can only be found in the latter. “For we do not live in a world of mere things, disconnected and without reference to one another and to God. Creation exists with the capacity to reveal God. Rom. 1:20” (p.32)
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything.Acts 17:24-25