Last time we were talking about the spirit of individualism that is rampant in our culture, a spirit that has been growing in power for several hundred years, and now holds sway. And we were talking about how that is really an unnatural sense of human life, that human life seems to many of us to be much more fundamentally communal than individual.
At the end of the last podcast, I suggested that this recoil against this spirit of individualism is what has contributed to the growing popularity of Eastern religions in the Western Christian world. And I pointed out that it seems to me that it is also the reason why Christianity, at least as it is practiced in the West, is becoming an increasingly less vital force in our Western culture.
In fact, as I said at the very end of the last podcast, it seems to me that Western Christianity has, perhaps more than any other institution, contributed to this spirit of individualism, especially to the notion of the individual as being the final judge and ultimate decider of truth. Let us pick up there.
Why do I say this? I say this because the history of Western Christianity is clearly a history of individuals and their personal choices.
During the first millennium of the Christian era, questions about doctrine and practice were addressed by councils of bishops assembled from the far-flung reaches of Christendom. These bishops were guided in their decisions by a mutual commitment to upholding the faith as it had been practiced in all places and by all peoples since the days of the Apostles. Individual opinions about theological matters were laid at the feet of the universal church and its collective judgment.
But in 1054, the Bishop, or Pope, of Rome broke with this self-effacing, unifying tradition. In a monumental act of individuality, he unilaterally declared himself to be the singular ruler of the Christian Church. The Latin West endorsed the Pope’s claim. The predominately Greek East rejected it. Thus was born the Roman Catholic Church in the West and the Orthodox Church in the East.
500 years later, a more divisive individualism dawned upon the Christian West. In the Protestant Reformation, teachers like Luther and Calvin founded competing churches on their very differing personal views about Christian faith.
In the five centuries since, thousands more denominations, and countless thousands of non-denominational churches, have been built upon the theological opinions of particular individuals.
Then there is the purely individualized Christianity that has arisen in recent decades, and by that I refer to those who call themselves Christians but do not align themselves with any church or denomination. They come to their own conclusions about who Jesus Christ is, what He expects of them, and how they ought to live. Often, their beliefs are at odds with all conventional theologies. But they are absolutely convinced that they are true, or at least true enough to get them to heaven.
Of course, this is just the logical end of the path Western Christianity has been following for the past millennium.
But the clearest sign that the spirit of individuality has conquered Western Christianity is the acceptance by most believers that this is the way the Christian faith is supposed to be. They have the notion that it has always been so.
But that is flatly not true. In fact, the spirit of individualism within modern Christianity runs contrary to both the teachings of its founder, and the experience of its original practitioners.
In some beautiful verses in the Gospel of John, Jesus Christ makes it plain that self-dependent, self-focused individualism is not the order of the day in the Kingdom of God. Christ prays to His Father, just before He goes to His Passion:
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent Me, and the glory which You gave me, I have given them. That they may be one, just as We are one. I in them and You in Me, that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and that you have loved them as you have loved Me. John 17:20-23
That our lives be joined together in the same way that the Father and the Son are united—this is the desire of God.
Now, the nature of the relationship between the members of the Godhead is something that we shall spend much time investigating. But just a few words from Jesus about His relationship with His Father should be enough to show us that self-focused individuality is not a trait of the divine life.
In John 10:30, Jesus says, “I and my Father are one.” In John 5:30, He says, “I do not seek my own will, but the will of the Father who sent Me.” In John 14:10, Jesus says, “The words that I speak to you, I do not speak on My own authority. But the Father who dwells in Me does the work.”
Now, even if we do not fully grasp the implications of Divine unity, this is enough to help us see that the life in which Jesus Christ calls us to share, right here and now, with Him and with each other, is not the self-directed, self-governing one to which we, in Western culture, including most Christians, are devoted.
I mean, Jesus Christ is God. And yet, He refuses to decide for Himself what He will be, what He will do, how He will act, or what He will teach. His ultimate goal is not to make a distinctive, individual life for Himself based upon His own perceptions of the truth and His own personal desires. Rather, it is to lose Himself in the life of His Father, to be His Father’s mind, heart, vision, and truth. And God expects our relationship with Him and with one another to be of this same quality. It is an incredible idea.
But what if Christians actually lived this way? Rather than an institution that epitomizes division, Christianity would be a religion without divisive theological opinions, or personal brands of faith, or conflicting practices of worship. Instead of unity in diversity, Christians would portray unity in unity. In short, Christianity would be what it was before the hammer of individualism began pulverizing it into factions.
Listen to the words of Saint Irenaeus, second century Bishop of Leon, as he describes Christianity in his day:
True knowledge is that which consists in the doctrine of the apostles and the ancient constitution of the church throughout the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the Body of Christ, according to the succession of the bishops, by which they have handed down that church which exists in every place, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved without any forging of scriptures, by a very complete system of doctrine. And above all, it consists in the pre-eminent gift of love, which is more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and which excels all the other gifts of God.
The Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered through the whole world, yet as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points of doctrine just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart. And she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down with perfect harmony, as if she possesses only one mouth.
For although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Lybia, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world.
Nor will any one of the rulers in the churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these. For no one is greater than the master. Nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith, being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it make any addition to it, nor does one who can say but little, diminish it.
A faith devoted to the sort of unity that exists within the life of God—that is what we see in the early Christian church. The good news is that this Christianity still exists. And it exists not in some little cult tucked away in a secure corner of rural somewhere or another. No, it exists in the second largest body of Christians in the world, the Eastern Orthodox, the church that resisted papal individualism 1000 years ago and which has maintained the unified Christian faith, as Irenaeus describes it, across 20 centuries.
Unlike its divided Western counterpart, Eastern Orthodoxy has no denominations. It is Christianity as it was before denominations. Even though the Orthodox faith expresses itself in many cultural forms—Greek, Russian, Arab, Serbian, Romanian, and many more—it is just one faith. Orthodox Christians across all generations and across all cultures are one in their beliefs and one in their way of worship.
Eastern Christianity’s ongoing experience of oneness represents a healing medicine for anyone who is sickened by the artificiality of individualism, most especially Western Christians. For in truth, Western Christianity has endured more than just divisiveness among its adherents. Not only has it lost the unity of the ancient faith, in many ways, the Western church has lost the ancient faith itself.
In the West, the meaning of Jesus Christ’s coming to the world has evolved over the centuries to reflect the growing cultural infatuation with individuality. Most Western churches today teach that the salvation Christ brings is purely personal in nature. Being saved is a matter of Jesus doing something—just what, exactly, depends on one’s theology—to free me from God’s condemnation for my sins against Him. In essence, my salvation is a personal, legal matter.
But for the original Christians, and the Eastern Orthodox Church that preserves their legacy, salvation is something much different. It is the fulfillment of Christ’s prayer in John 17. In the ancient view, God created us for the express purpose of participating in His life, of being one with Him, and finding oneness with each other in our unity with Him.
When humankind turned from that purpose, God did not condemn us. Instead, with infinite and unconditional love, He set in motion a plan for restoring us to oneness by transforming us. Through Christ, He cures our addiction to self-centered individuality, and changes us into people who can be mutually joined to Him. Salvation is not a personal, legal matter. It is communal, therapeutic healing.
Ancient Eastern Christianity offers us true freedom from the malaise of alienation and separation that infects our culture. But to understand that, we need to take a comprehensive look at the Christian faith through its eyes—from the nature of God, through creation and the fall, to the incarnation, to the ending of the world—everything needs to be seen in the light of God’s ultimate desire for oneness.
Those who are unfamiliar with the Eastern faith may find its vision challenging, or refreshing, or both. But they will certainly find it a river flowing contrary to the tide of brokenness that threatens to drown us all.
Over the next few months, I will be examining this ancient path of oneness in detail. I hope you will continue to join me.