Pilgrims from Paradise:
Last time we were continuing our discussion about Abram’s experience of the presence of God in the smoking oven and burning torch that appeared amid the animals he had cut up in sacrifice to God. That story is found in Genesis 15, for those who might just be joining us. We discussed how Abram’s encounter with God finds its parallel in Christian baptism.
However, we recognized that the typical Protestant Evangelical understanding of baptism makes it difficult for believers in that tradition to see the connection. Trying to understand the reason for that led us to the essential weakness of Western Christianity. In general, it no longer knows how to experience Jesus Christ as a living person. It only knows how to experience Him mentally and emotionally, that is, as an object of thought and feelings.
For the most part, what the typical Western Christian interprets as the living presence of God, is really just his or her emotional response to what he or she believes about God. But for Orthodox Christians the experience of the presence of God is something much different. When we left off last time, I said I was going to illustrate the difference between the West’s mental and emotional version of the presence of God, and the Christian East’s experience of God as a present person, by appealing to the analogy of a dance.
Let me start by asking a question: Can I dance with someone just by thinking about them? I am talking about really dancing, here, not just imagining a dance, so obviously, the answer is no. Can I dance with someone just by having warm feelings for them? No. How do I dance with someone, say, for example, with my wife? I come physically face to face with her, then I embrace her, then I begin to step and turn with her in well-defined movements.
Second question: How do those around us know that we are dancing, and not doing something else, like day-dreaming, or philosophizing? Do they say, “Oh, I can tell what they are thinking, they are dancing.” Or do they say, “Oh, I can feel what they are feeling, they are dancing.” Of course not. What makes it clear that we are dancing, is the fact that we are moving. We are two persons joined together in a single, dynamic activity.
Third question: Do I have to know anything about the other person in order to dance with her? No. Must I feel something to join her in this mutual movement? No. I just have to know the dance, and participate with her in it, either as the leader, or the follower. Of course, in becoming someone’s regular dance partner, I may get to know that person quite intimately. Dancing may generate feelings within me for her, but my partner is still something completely separate from my feelings for her, and my knowledge about her. She is not the sum total of my beliefs and emotions. The one with whom I dance has her own unique existence. She simply is.
This is extremely important, so try to follow me carefully, and if you need to listen to this a few times, please do. As a Western Christian, I finally asked myself this: If I ignore what I believe about my God, and set aside everything I feel about my God, what is left of my experience with God? And the answer was: Nothing. If I set aside all my thoughts and feelings about God, God disappeared.
That told me something. It told me that my God was my beliefs and my feelings. The God of my experience was a mental and emotional construct in my mind. That made me realize something profound and disturbing to me. It meant that I had never actually encountered God as a real, live, person. I had never encountered Him as a person who is just simply there, like a new dance partner, or a new student in one of my classes, or like someone I just run into on the street.
Well, maybe I had encountered God that way, once. The truth be told, so have many other Western Christians. It happens in that moment called conversion, the moment when a person first senses that God is real and wants something from us. Many people come to that moment knowing very little about God. They have no idea what they should feel about God, but all at once, God is just there, and it is overwhelming, for God has come to dance.
I wish I had a dollar for every time in my 45 years as an Evangelical Protestant that I heard someone say, “How I wish I could just get back to that first moment when I met Jesus. I want to experience God again like I did right then.” They lament this because they find it impossible to do, and there is a reason for that. There is a reason why Christians in the West lose that experience and are never able to regain it no matter how many revival meetings they attend.
It is because the Christian West, especially the Protestant Evangelical West, does not know how to dance with God anymore. People have this glorious encounter with God at the moment of their conversion. God is simply there, and He wants to dance with them, but instead of being instructed how to dance with God, they are told to start fervently studying their bibles. God is waiting to dance with them, and they start reading a book. A great book, certainly. The most important book in the world. The book which the ancient Eastern Church reveres with ultimate devotion. But God wants to dance.
Even those activities that the Western Churches like to think of as dancing with God, really aren’t anymore. As we said earlier, that activity which Christians from ancient times have known to be God’s first dance with us, baptism, is no longer experienced as a dance with God. Many Christians don’t even have it on their dance card. For most of the rest, baptism is just a kind of lyrical solo that expresses to everyone else the commitment we have made to God in our minds.
Communion is another dance, which so much of the Western Christian world no longer knows how to do. From New Testament times, Eastern Christians have known communion, or the Eucharist, to be the most intimate of dances with God. In receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in the communion cup, a Christian literally and physically embraces Jesus, the divine dance partner. However, for most Western Christians, this holiest and most life-uniting dance with God, is now just another improvised solo. The believer doesn’t actually meet the living God in the bread and wine. He or she doesn’t really embrace the flesh and blood of the living Christ and begin to move with Him. No, he or she just remembers God in his or her mind—remembers that Jesus sacrificed Himself a long time ago, and does a few heartfelt steps to commemorate that.
But Orthodox believers experience a baptism in which they meet the God who is literally, and in every way, there. Our living God comes to us and penetrates our beings with His own. All we must do is move with Him. In the Eucharist, we are embraced by the flesh and blood arms of the person, Jesus Christ. The fact is, as Orthodox Christians, our whole existence with God is a collection of intimate dances that we do with Him, moving back and forth from one to the other. Along with baptism and the Eucharist, are other dances, called the Liturgy, confession, fasting, and many more. That first encounter with Christ that so many Western believers fervently desire to relive? Faithful Orthodox Christians live in it, every moment, of every day. And it is only because they know how to dance with God.
It is time to relate all this back to Abraham, or Abram. Let us review. God makes Abram a promise. Abram believes him. As a result of that faith, God imputes righteousness to Abram. He reckons him a participant in His divine life. Or to put it in terms of our analogy here, God considers Abram a willing dance partner. And the first thing God does is to say, “All right then, Abram, let’s dance.” He invites Abram into an experience of His living presence. But notice. To enter into that experience, Abram must make the first move. God asks him to do something. What is more, it is nothing at all pleasant. God commands him to make a bloody mess of several animals.
Now here is the important question given that we are trying to discern the nature of the relationship between faith, works, and the fulfillment of salvation. What effect would it have had on Abram’s relationship with God, and with the fulfilling of the promise God had made to him, if Abram had responded, “Lord, I don’t think I want dance.” That is, if Abram had said, “I don’t think so God, I don’t want to get all bloody. I don’t see why I should have to. You just imputed righteousness to me. That means the promise you made me is absolutely certain, right? I’m going to be the father of many nations no matter what I do or don’t do. You see, God, I’m convinced that the fulfillment of your promise to me is based on my faith alone. So, instead of cutting up animals and laying them on the ground, I think I’ll have a few neighbors over to celebrate the good fortune You have bestowed on me. Okay? That fits my lifestyle a little better than this gruesome animal-chopping.”
Tell me, what would have happened to Abram and the promise God made him if that had been his response? Especially, if that had been the response Abram made each time God came to him, asking him to participate in His divine life. Under those circumstances, even though God had made the promise to Abram, and had even imputed righteousness to him, the promise would never be fulfilled. And what is true for Abram, is equally true for Christian believers.
You see, we can have faith, and God can give us His righteousness, but for His promises to become reality, we must live His righteousness. Indeed, the promises of God can never come to fruition without our initial response of faith. Everything begins with faith, but there is another essential and absolutely necessary ingredient in the mix—one without which God’s promises to us can never be fulfilled. Over and beyond faith, is required, obedience.
God comes to dance with us. If we are to be His, we must respond, and we must respond in the way He commands. We must follow His lead and do exactly as He directs, performing our steps in precisely the manner that will make our lives blend together with Him into oneness. For that is the fulfilling of the promise of salvation.
There is, perhaps, no other passage in the bible that teaches us the limits of faith and the necessity of obedience, like the 16th chapter of the book of Genesis. We will turn there next time.