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The Thin Line Between Marriage and Idolatry

by Drew 0 Comments
ImageWeddings and Idols…closer than you might think.

One of my favorite nuggets from Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s brilliant little book For the Life of the World is the following:

“The real sin of marriage today is not adultery or lack of ‘adjustment’ or ‘mental cruelty.’ It is the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God….the family has here ceased to be for the glory of God; it has ceased to to be a sacramental entrance into His presence. It is not the lack of respect for the family, it is the idolization of the family that breaks the modern family so easily, making divorce its almost natural shadow. It is the identification of marriage with happiness and the refusal to accept the cross in it.” (90)

Schmemann’s insight is stunning, and his accusation of idolatry is not too strong. The simple definition of idol is: anything that has more importance in our life than God. In that sense, based on an unduly childish notion of “love” (so-called) that is really more like an immature codependence, there are many married folk in our world who are attempting the impossible: building a lifelong relationship on the fleeting feelings that are no more eternal than a wedding cake. Real love is work, real love is a ministry, which is why marriage is not the final stage of “progression” in a relationship but a calling to be discerned and entered into (as the old liturgies go), “reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God.Ask any ordinand, or doctor, or plumber: following one’s calling is both a blessing and a curse, and all vocations (including marriage and singleness) are shot through with gifts as well as costs.

Marriage is about God. From a Christian perspective, the only good reason to be married is that you can follow God and mature more as a disciple by being united in a covenantal bond to this particular person than if you were not. Faithful marriage is a form of worship to God, but its inverse – marriage (or any relationship in which God is not central) as the summum bonum (“highest good”) imaginable in life – is a hideous idol.

There is a cross in marriage, because marriage is a gift from God and God’s gifts (as opposed to Hollywood mythology or sentimental fantasy) always call us away from our natural inclinations that we might be transformed into a nearer likeness of the Image of God. The good news is always cruciform, including the good news that God has called some to embody covenant fidelity with another human being. Ordered toward God, marriage is a beautiful, wondrous mystery. Oriented towards some smaller god good – making babies, or my own happiness, or a cure for mutual boredom and loneliness – marriage cannot be the gift it is intended to be.

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Secular Worship

What does it mean for Christian worship to descend into mere secularism? According to Fr. Alexander Schmemann, the secularist mindset has an inability to appreciate symbol.  This failure leads to the use of symbols as only teaching tools, a utilitarian move that ultimately leads to the destruction of Christian symbols themselves and Christian worship as a whole.  This is particularly true when one looks at the misuse, abuse, or poor celebration of the sacrament par excellence, the Eucharist:

But the whole point here is that the secularist is constitutionally unable to see in symbols anything but ‘audio-visual aids’ for communicating ideas.  Last winter a group of students and teachers of a well-known seminary spent a semester “working” on a “liturgy” centered the following “themes”: the S.S.T., ecology, and the flood in Pakistan.  No doubt they “meant well.” It is their presuppositions which are wrong: that the traditional worship can have no “relevance” to these themes and has nothing to reveal about them, and that unless a “theme” is somehow clearly spelled out in the liturgy, or made into its “focus,” it is obviously outside the spiritual reach of liturgical experience. The secularist is very fond today of terms such as “symbolism,” “sacrament,” “transformation,” “celebration,” and of the entire panoply of cultic terminology. What he does not realize, however, is that the use he makes of them reveals, in fact, the death of symbols and the decomposition of the sacrament.  And he does not realize this because in his rejection of the world’s and man’s sacramentality he is reduced to viewing symbols as indeed mere illustrations of ideas and concepts, which they emphatically are not.

It seems to me that the  elephant in the room here is the extreme anti-Catholic wing of Reformation, represented by folks like Zwingli for whom that which church throughout time and space has called sacraments are reduced, instead, to mere “symbols.”  As a professor of mine once said, “If they are just symbols, then the hell with them!”  Point being, there is no reason to make the entrance to the church (baptism) and the meal that constitutes the church and continually feeds us of God’s grace (Eucharist) such central acts of Christian worship if they are only “symbolic.” For there are other symbols.  There are simpler symbols, more relevant, more accessible, more modern and easier to market.  Schmemann concludes this section with the following:

To anyone who has had, be it only once, the true experience of worship, all this is revealed immediately as the ersatz that it is.  He knows that the secularist’s worship of relevance is simply incompatible with the true relevance of worship.  And it is here, in this miserable liturgical failure, whose appalling results we are only beginning to see, that secularism reveals its ultimate religious emptiness and, I will not hesitate to say, its utterly un-Christian essence. (For the Life of the World, 125-126, emphasis added.)

 

Note: This post was edited to reflect a corrected understanding of Zwingli within the history of the Reformation.  I had incorrectly associated him with the Radical Reformation, while he was clearly in the reformed camp.  I only meant to associate him with the anti-sacramental edge – he did go further away from Rome on the Eucharist than did Luther, Calvin, and the Anglicans  – but I had listed him in the wrong tribe.  Thanks to Shaun Brown for the correction.

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Recovering the Church Fathers

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e0/All-Saints.jpg?resize=560%2C377&ssl=1

The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs, by Fra Angelico

The Fathers (and Mothers) of the Church have – rather providentially happily – been the subject of a bit of a renaissance among Christians in recent decades.  This recovery has been spurred on by the ecumenical movement (which, in part, moved forward by looking back), and by the awakening, in some corners of Protestantism, of a desire to recover the roots of Christian worship and thought.  But how do we re-appropriate them today? Is it simply a matter of dusting off old books, that we might quote the occasional Augustine or Chrysostom and sound informed? Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in a book I cannot recommend enough, says this misses the point entirely:

A mere reading of the Fathers, useful and essential as it is, will not suffice.  For even patristic texts can be made, and are often made, into “proofs” of theological systems deeply alien to the real “mind” of the Fathers.  The “patristic revival” of our time would miss completely its purpose if it were to result in a rigid “patristic system” which in reality never existed.  It is indeed the eternal merit of the Fathers that they showed the dynamic and not static nature of Christian theology, its power always to be “contemporary” without reduction to any “contemporaneousness,” open to all human aspirations without being determined by any of them. If the return to the Fathers were to mean a purely formal repetition of their terms and formulations, it would be as wrong and as useless as the discarding of the Fathers by “modern” theology because of their presumably “antiquated” world view. (145-146)

I am grateful to professors like Warren Smith and others at Duke who taught me to appreciate the Fathers, not just as part of the “history” of the Church, but as vital conversation partners today.  Fr. Schmemann has provided me with an excellent reminder that we are meant not merely to “use” or “reference” the Fathers to further our own theological and ecclesiological agendas, but to pray and think with them: lex orandi, lex credendi.

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