Project Canterbury

Liberal Catholicism and the Modern World

Edited by Frank Gavin

Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1933.


Literary Editor, The Living Church

THE MOST GLORIOUS of all Christian churches is the Church of St. Sophia in Constantinople. Its magnificence is apparent even to the physical eye of man--simply from the materialistic point of view it is without a rival among the cathedrals of the world. It cost the sum of three hundred million drachmas or seventy-five million dollars, which, however, represents in present-day values twenty times that amount. But the external splendor and the artistic glories of this queen of churches are as nothing compared to her inner beauty, her spiritual significance. St. Sophia remains the most sublime expression of Christian faith and worship that the mind of man has conceived. It remains, too, the most marvelous interpretation of the destiny of man, indeed of all creation, and the achievement of that destiny in Christ.

St. Sophia means, of course, the divine Wisdom, that Wisdom whose delight is to be with the sons of men. It takes its name from the personal, incarnate Wisdom of God, Jesus Christ. It depicts the eternal purpose of God to gather all creation into union with Himself in Christ. The very structure of the building corresponds with this truth. It was something quite new, yet the material was drawn from all countries. Stones of every kind, from quartz and feldspar to marbles and precious jewels, have their place in it. And not only the mineral but the plant and animal kingdoms are richly and variously portrayed. All the races of men, too, are pictured there. On its columns are to be seen all the divinities known and worshipped before Christ. Yet there is a unity of theme and development. That unity lies in the conception of the humanity of the divine Wisdom, the incarnate Lord, drawing all mankind, all creation, into one living whole, one mighty organism that lives by the very life of God. Creation purged, united, transfigured, deified in Christ, the God-man--such is the meaning of St. Sophia. No wonder it has been the inspiration of countless millions of Christians from that day to this!

Let us examine this conception more closely. The divine Wisdom embraces and unites all truth from the lowest to the highest levels. Hence all known creatures are portrayed in the temple which is its visible symbol. In particular, all religious truths, however dimly glimpsed, all the spiritual aspirations of mankind, personified in its "lords many and gods many," are represented. But though they, like the columns on which they are painted, reach toward the heavens, yet they cannot attain their goal until the heavenly Truth, symbolized by the dome, abases Himself and descends that He may at once crown and unite in Himself all partial truths.

In reality, as the saintly Bishop of Ochrida has pointed out in striking language, nothing but Christ was ever worshipped upon earth. [The great spiritual figure of Orthodox Serbia, Nicholai Velimirovic.] But men worshipped Him only in part. They adored Him in one quarter of the world as Light, in another as Power, in another as Wisdom, in still another as Law or Beauty or Beneficence--here they knew Him as Lawgiver, there as King, here as the great Philosopher, there as the great Ascetic--they grasped some of the letters, but not the divine Word; separate voices, but not the divine Harmony; abstract truths, but not the living, divine Wisdom. That Wisdom is the Son and Word of God; it is incarnate in Him who said: "No one knoweth the Son save the Father, neither knoweth anyone the Father save the Son and he to whom the Son willeth to reveal Him." The Christian knows Christ in His integral truth, in His living fulness, for God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness hath shined in his heart to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Nature in its degree is a manifestation of God; human nature in its moral and spiritual aspirations, however clouded, is a still clearer manifestation. The message of sages and prophets excels even these, but all these lesser messages can be truly and clearly interpreted only by the Rosetta stone of the Incarnation. Christ not only has but is the Word of God, in Him the Christian possesses not the dim reflection of the rays of divine glory but the Sun of Righteousness Himself, arising with healing in His beams. At last, after all partial and fading visions, the Day-spring from on high has visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. The Wisdom of God, the divine Word, has become flesh and dwelt among us, and we have beheld His glory, glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

It is important to explore this truth in all its breadth and depth. Many, with a well-intentioned desire to "simplify" the Gospel, have really castrated it. They wish to believe in the dogmas of the love and fatherhood of God, and the resulting brotherhood of man, apart from the historic facts set forth in the Christian creed. But such dogmas as these are increasingly difficult to hold apart from the historic events which exemplify and reveal them. To proclaim that God is love because a Galilean Carpenter of the first century preached this, and lived by it, and died on a Cross--seemingly forsaken by the very God whom He had served--is singularly unconvincing. But if Christ is nothing less than the divine Wisdom incarnate, if He is God in the flesh, if the Supreme Reality of the universe has taken upon Himself human nature, if He has thought through a human brain, looked out on life through human eyes, loved with a human heart, suffered in a human body, if He has carried our nature, material and spiritual, triumphant through life and through death and through what lies beyond death, and enthroned it in the very heart of God for ever--then we catch a vision, we glimpse a reality, which can transform and regenerate our lives, our bodies and souls, the entire universe. "This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God."

But Christ is not only the Light of Christians. He is also their Life. The divine Wisdom took flesh not only to reveal God to man, but to unite man--and in him all creation--to God. He came not only to manifest, but to achieve, the eternal purpose of the Most High. He is the Saviour, that is to say, the Life-bringer of the world. This conception appears everywhere, not only in the Fourth Gospel, but in the Synoptics as well. It is not, therefore, "eine akute Hellenisierung des Christentums," a borrowing from the pagan mystery religions, but the very core of Christianity. Great Semitic scholars, like Professors Burkitt and Canney, have pointed out that the words translated into Greek and English as "salvation," "save," "Saviour," are more truly rendered by the Syriac versions as "life," "give life," "Life-bringer." [E.g., in Theology, xv:69 Art. "The Meaning of Salvation."] And the life which Christ came to bestow is nothing less than the life of God Himself, the life which He had shared with the Father from all eternity. The goal of creation, realized in man (that is to say, in Christ and in the Christian man), is nothing less than participation in the divine life.

Let us return to our figure. All the kingdoms of creation--mineral, vegetable, animal, and human--are represented in that cathedral which is the visible symbol of the divine Wisdom, and which is consecrated to the Incarnate Word. We today are in a position to find a richer symbolism here than the designers of the building themselves. For modern science, illuminated by Revelation, teaches us how one kingdom of life was built upon another, how each lower kingdom ministers to the higher and conditions it, but does not create it--how always God reaches down to creation, before creation can mount up toward God. To say with the Hindu sage, "God is in the stone, God breathes in the flower, God dreams in the animal, God awakens in man," is misleading, pantheistic, if taken literally; but if the activity of the divine Wisdom is seen in the upward march of life, from blind protons and electrons up to Jesus Christ, who is its Source and Goal, it suggests a great truth. And the gradual ascent of creation--always in response to the loving descent and creative activity of God--has no less a terminus than union with God Himself in Jesus Christ. "Creation comes to itself in man, and man comes to himself in Christ." Nothing is lost in the ascent--life is built upon existence, consciousness upon life (without destroying it), rationality upon consciousness, spirituality upon rationality--nothing is lost, the lower is not destroyed but fulfilled in the higher. The spiritual does not abolish or despise the material, but molds it to its own ends and elevates it (man does not cease to be animal, but to be manly animal), and finally the divine nature of Christ does not overbear or abolish but consecrates and perfects His humanity. Christ is the heir of all things; the whole universe is summed up in Him and finds in Him its Head.

"God became human that man might become divine!" [Athanasius.] "To as many as received Him, to them gave He the right to become the sons of God."

Christ is the God-man, the Bridge between God and man, Creator and creation. Salvation means participation in His divine life, union with God. But this union is achieved in His person. He is true God and perfect man, one with the Father in His eternal nature, one with us in the created nature which He took of the blessed Mother. God and man are one in Christ, and our salvation consists in this vital union. For this reason the Church, with a true instinct, has always fought to the death every effort to deny or explain away the Incarnation. For if Christ were the Son of God only in a figurative or adoptive sense, if He were anything less than the absolute and Supreme Reality of the universe, He could not unite us to God or raise us up to the level of divine life. No creature can raise another creature to a level of life above its own--no one less than God could bestow divine life.

God is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, of this movement. The Christian's faith rests not on "the man who dared to be God," but on the God who dared to be man, who in His amazing love stooped to share our sorrows and sufferings, ignorances, temptations, agonies, death itself; who has taken upon Him what was ours that He might share with us what was His; who still offers to men in His Body, the Church, the fulness of divine life. And this Temple of living stones finds its crown and culmination not in the superman, the self-sufficient man-god, but in the God-man. Our religion centers, not in man making himself God, but in God making Himself man.

It will be clear that this conception of Salvation demand? the true humanity of Christ no less than His deity. If Christ were not God, He could not be the fount of divine life to us. But if He were not perfect man, humanity would equally remain outside that divine life. The opposite heresies of Arius and Apollinaris reached the same conclusion--the impossibility of truly uniting God and man. Both struck a fatal blow at man's salvation. The same would have to be said of Nestorianism, which made of Christ a partnership of two persons, one human and one divine, rather than a truly personal union of Godhood and manhood in Christ. Moderns who would create a gulf between the "Jesus of history" and the "glorified Christ" are in the same unhappy tradition. Or again, if the human nature of Christ were swallowed up in the divine, as Eutyches taught, there would be no true union of the two, but an absorption and hence a destruction of the human. The four great heresies, condemned by the first four councils of the Universal Church, all struck equally at that union of God and man in Christ on which our salvation depends. Christ is God, Christ is man, Christ is one, Christ is the God-man; on these truths the Christian's faith, worship, and life are built.

For all of these truths are reflected in the life of the Christian himself. If Christ is true God, and at the same time perfect man, so is the Christian called upon to lead a life which is at once truly divine and truly human. He is not simply a follower but a member of Christ. "We have been made not only Christians but Christ," says St. Augustine, developing the inspired teaching of St. Paul, and adds, "Whole Christ consisteth of both Head and members." There is, of course, a great difference. Christ is the Son of God in His own nature from all eternity; we are made sons of God by adoption and grace, through participation in His sonship. Yet our son-ship, though derived and relative, is not merely figurative. It is a glorious and vital reality. "I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me"; "to me to live is Christ." Not only St. Paul, but in a degree every earnest Christian can use this language. Through faith and baptism he is a child of God, and an heir, a joint heir with Christ. All things are his, and he is Christ's, and Christ is God's. He is called upon not to imitate the life of Christ from without--this would be even more hopeless than to imitate Shakespeare, or Beethoven, or Raphael--but to reproduce the Christ-life from within. Through faith and sacramental union with God in His Church he may evermore dwell in Christ and Christ in him--the power and life that fills him is the life of God incarnate.

Yet this union with God, this sonship to God, is to make him not less but more truly human. As there were men of old who held that Christ lacked a human soul or mind--that the divine Logos took the place of the latter in Him--so there are those today who seem to think that the activity of the intellect should be abolished, or relegated to an insignificant role in the service of religion, that intellectual bondage is the price of being a Christian. Not so the Gospel. "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. If the Son shall make you free then are ye free indeed." To obscurantists and worldlings alike, the service of God is utter bondage; to the intelligent Christian it is perfect freedom, the freedom which the secure possession of Catholic truth and the living of the Catholic life makes possible. God comes into man not to mutilate, but to perfect and complete his nature. Philosophy, science, all domains of human thought and experience, are to be, not abolished or repressed, but liberated, quickened, and irradiated by the light and life of Christ. Every stone is to have its place in the temple of St. Sophia, contributing to the beauteous whole, and deriving from it all its meaning and value.

Again, as there is no separation between the divine and the human in Christ, no vague association, but a personal union, so the Christian must refuse to divide life into the sacred and the secular. The things of Caesar may be distinguished but not separated from the things of God. The present divorce between religion on the one hand and the cultural, social, political, and economic life of man on the other is intolerable, once one has grasped the Incarnation. If God has come into human life, it is in order that He may make all human life His own, personal and social life alike. Christ must be Lord of all. The divorce which is the reigning characteristic of modern life must go--the divorce of the sexes, the divorce of class from class, nation from nation, race from race, the divorce of science from religion, of art from ethics, of action from thought, of matter from spirit, the divorce of the various phases and activities of life from the life-giving, all-unifying Spirit of Jesus. Sancta Sophia cannot manifest herself amid the reign of chaos, disruption, division, death. The captivity and enslavement of the visible Church of Sophia is symbolic. The soulless corpse of modern civilization must give place to the Spirit-filled organism--the Body of Christ--as the center and fount of all human relations and activities. It is the high vocation of the Christian to help bring it to its appointed destiny.

But the opposite error--which would absorb the human into the divine--stands equally self-condemned. Its affinities lie with Far Eastern thought, where man has no goal but annihilation or absorption into the Infinite--"the dewdrop slips into the shining sea." No part of our nature is to be repressed or destroyed--our instinctive life, not least in the sphere of sex, and our rational life are to be fulfilled, sublimated, perfected by the life of the spirit. And if we cannot, in Nestorian fashion, permit naturalistic science and unassisted human reason to dictate to us our faith, no more can we, as unconscious Monophysites, suppress natural knowledge or reason, or seek to alter or manipulate the facts of history or of science in the supposed cause of Christian truth. Christ did not take to Himself a mutilated Manhood--He does not will to mutilate or suppress ours. Human activity, human culture, must be neither secularized nor abolished, but transformed and given a soul by Christ in His Church. Christ, the true Prometheus, would kindle the flame of Christian culture with fire snatched from heaven. We must beware of secularism and obscurantism alike, "Ici encore, en vrais orthodoxes, vous avez à suivre la voie royale entre les deux hérésies opposées: le faux liberalisme nestorien et le faux piétisme monophysite"--Solovyoff's advice is as a beacon light to us today, guiding us in the ways of the divine Wisdom. [La Russie et l'Eglise Universelle.] The Christian must neither separate the profane from the sacred nor permit a one-sided mysticism to absorb him in the contemplation of the divine in such wise as to let the world go its own way to ruin and perdition. Christ must become the inspiration, the soul, the reigning Spirit of the whole of life, material as well as spiritual, rational as well as ethical, social as well as individual. And human liberty, when consecrated to God, empowered by God, is the creative force by which all this is to be achieved.

The Christian's life, then, is to be a reflection and a reproduction of the life of his Lord. Indeed, it is that very life extended to him. Like the God-man he is born "not of bloods; nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of a husband, but of God." And as the supernatural birth of Christ into our nature required the free consent of the Blessed Virgin and her wondrous act of faith in the amazing promise of God, as its condition (for the virgin birth and the free cooperation of Mary safeguards our human freedom and dignity and prevents the Incarnation from being a magical fiat of divine power) [It is for this reason especially that the Virgin Birth is considered by the vast majority of Christians, including the whole Catholic world, as an article of faith of such essential importance.] so faith and free self-surrender are the conditions of the sacramental bestowal of the Christ-life on the Christian. The act of faith and self-surrender is generally made for him in the first place by sponsors (even as it was made first by the Blessed Virgin), but he must soon make it his own, ethically and spiritually. Though he is "born anew of water and the Spirit," he must live the Christ-life or he will be "none of His."

Not only the life of Christ, but also His death, His resurrection, and ascension are to be reproduced and experienced by the Christian. "Buried with Him in baptism, that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life." The Christian is called upon to lead a dying life. He must decrease, Christ must increase. He associates himself with the redemptive act of self-oblation on the Cross. On Calvary he sees the meeting of two mighty cosmic movements, the upward movement of suffering creation toward God, and the compassionate downward movement of God toward creation, both joined in the complete self-oblation, the obedience unto death, of Christ. He sees in that death no forensic or commercial transaction, but a self-surrender so perfect, so complete, so divine, as to outweigh and atone for the sins of the whole world. And he must not only gaze up at the Cross, he must be nailed to it himself. He must find vital union with the one Sacrifice of Calvary. This he does in the Eucharist, which is not only the supreme Christophany--the shining forth of the heavenly Christ in our midst--but the very pleading and presenting of the Body and Blood of the crucified and risen Saviour before the Father. Offering his Saviour, or rather joining in His self-oblation, he dares to offer himself with Him, and finds acceptance "in the Beloved."

But this is far more than a ritual act. It is the Christian's life principle. He is crucified with Christ, in his daily life, that Christ may live in him. He is dead--dead to a godless world, to sensuality, to self--and his life is hid with Christ in God. His sufferings, too, avail for the reconciliation of the world. He delights to fill up in himself whatever is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for His Body's sake, which is the Church. He has to die daily, to crucify the flesh with its affections and lusts, to offer himself, his soul and body, a living sacrifice to God. He too passes through death to life--the paradox of the Cross transforms his own life. Marked with the nails of the Cross, he begins to behold the bright light of the Resurrection, and not only to behold it, but to experience it. The powers of the risen Saviour are within him. He knows the Resurrection not only as an objective, historic fact of the past--though it is also that--but as a living, subjective experience of the present. The objective fact (the empty Tomb) gives a solid foundation, an unshakeable validity, to his own spiritual experience, and the experience itself becomes one of the strongest confirmations of the fact. Being reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, he begins to be saved by His life.

Through his present experience of the risen Christ, he is the better prepared to anticipate the future Resurrection. The spiritual power which enabled the Lord Jesus not only to survive death but to conquer it--not to escape, but to reverse it--not to beat an honorable retreat into a ghostly world, but to manifest the victorious power of the spirit in His risen, glorified body--that same power works in the Christian and in the whole Church for the regeneration of the entire universe. It is to raise up and redeem and glorify the whole creation of God, not only the spiritual but also the material, to make of it all one living Temple, one Church of the divine Wisdom. The risen and ascended Christ is both the firstfruits of this cosmic movement and also the pledge and the dynamic of its ultimate attainment. He is its eternal Source and its final Goal. To see the true meaning of life, to see what is "truly human," we are to look not down to the primeval slime from which we came, but up to the reigning Christ to whom we go. In Him, long-suffering creation is to be delivered out of the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the sons of God. In Him all humanity is potentially, and will one day be actually, united and transfigured and gathered into the very life of God, enthroned in the heart of deity. Christ is the High Priest of the works of God, and the Christian shares His priesthood. "We see not yet all things put under him," we do not yet see the completion of the process, but "we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the sufferings of death, crowned with glory and honor." Already He lives in us and reigns in us. Already the vision of St. Sophia has been vouchsafed us, and to us it is granted, in the might of the life-giving Spirit, to manifest the splendor of Christ, as living stones in that Temple wherein God shall be all in all!

Project Canterbury