The Church: Sacred vs Secular
There is a growing belief that religious life exists separately from the secular world. Things have become separated into ‘spiritual’ vs ‘material’ and ‘sacred’ vs ‘profane.’ We feel as though we must make our choice to fit into one or the other, and in our minds they exist as dichotomies that can never be reconciled. However, when we separate different aspects of life into these rigid boxes we do a disservice to the communion God has called us to have with the world.
In the beginning of the tale of humanity man is a hungry being; the food that he eats and the world he must partake of in order to live is given to him by God, and it is given as a means of communion with God. All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God. God blesses everything He creates. As Schememan puts it:
The natural dependence of man upon the world was intended to be transformed constantly into communion with God in whom is all life.
There are many that have called for a revival of the church by seeking to live the life of the early church. This is thought to be achieved by separation from this ‘secular’ world. This may sound perfect and beautiful, but there needs to be some light shed here. If we learn one thing from the fathers of the Church it is that Christian theology is dynamic and not static in nature.
The apostles and Church fathers of those days were part of a Greco-Roman society, and they were influenced by their times and surroundings. For example, Cyprian based his model of church order on Roman jurisprudence and stoic theology. The writings of Origen and Justin used the influence of Greek wisdom and philosophy when talking about the Logos. Early Christian art was also influenced by Greco-Roman statues of pagan gods and goddesses and sometimes emperors. Indeed, if we wish to go as far back as the Christian community in Paul’s days we will find his address to slaves and family structures that only belong to Greco-Roman Society. Despite being originally a Jew, his writings display common Greek sentences and terminology that demonstrate a Hellenistic background. To attempt to go back and replicate early Christianity exactly as it was is a disservice to the historical and cultural era we are in today and it would not be serving our fellow Body.
As Christians our struggle with this world need not be in opposition to the world.
I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. (Jesus praying to the Father in John 17:15)
We are present in the world, not just physically, and have been called to partake in a Eucharistic life with our fellow man. God has endowed each of us with the gift of being created in His image, according to His likeness, the Christian and the non-Christian alike. We share the uniqueness of the human life through tales of our experiences and through joy and sadness. And so, we are intricately bound together.
God has not called us to be isolated entities, creating a neat and tidy definition of Christianity that clears our conscience. We are created to give and receive from one another modeling the Holy Trinity. Christ, as our example, sat with the tax collectors and spoke to the sinful woman.
St John Cassian says:
“A man can be harmed by another only through the causes of the passions which lie within himself. It is for this reason that God, the Creator of all and the Doctor of men’s souls, who alone has accurate knowledge of the soul’s wounds, does not tell us to forsake the company of men; He tells us to root out the causes of evil within us and to recognize that the soul’s health is achieved not by a man’s separating himself from his fellows, but by his living the ascetic life in the company of holy men.”
One particular story I love, tells of a man who integrated with a culture that was not of God. The story of Daniel demonstrates a Godly man who did not change his fundamental beliefs but served a polytheistic king.
When the king threatened to kill all the wise men of Babylon if someone didn’t reveal and interpret his dream, Daniel prayed to God. Daniel then receives an answer in the form of a night vision about the dream and reveals and interprets the dream to the king. It should be pointed out that dream interpretation is not a practice typically done by the Israelites. Furthermore, after this Daniel continued to stay in the kings court as an advisor. Daniel saw his role as spiritual and godly despite being in what was clearly a pagan culture.
We do not attain more holiness by avoiding material things from fear of losing our morality.
We should be as
those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them (1 Cor 7:31)
Our mission is to engage culture for God and to direct things towards God in every aspect of our lives. We are part of this culture and it’s up to us to direct a broken humanity to the Heart of the Father. The beauty of Christianity is that whatever historical era or culture you are in, the core and fundamental truths are unchangeable.
Yes this world is not our permanent home, yet we must go through it before we reach the eternal kingdom. I am afraid if we miss the sweetness hidden in this world by isolating ourselves in individualism we miss the sweetness of Christ, the very Christ who walked and engaged with this material world and shook the world by His perfect love for all of humanity.
The Human being, as an existential reality, can be a person only when living in freedom. Only in conditions in which the full range of possibilities is open to our free and conscious choice are we able to transform our temporal reality and ourselves into the image of the Divine Kingdom. Our humanity is realised through the free act of relationship with others. Personhood is a great act of communion that makes heterogeneity and uniqueness fundamental aspects of our humanity.”
Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople
Check out Part III
(Photo courtesy of Alex Kowaltchuk)