Theology and Eucharist. Part I


1. The actual state of Orthodox theology must be characterized by two words: confusion and awakening. By confusion, I mean an obvious lack of unity among Orthodox theologians: unity of theological language, unity of method, consensus as to the nature of questions and the mode of their solution. Our theology develops in a plurality of theological "keys" and within several mutually exclusive intellectual frameworks. This confusion, however, is also the sign of an awakening, of a new search for a genuinely Orthodox theological perspective.

This situation is by no means accidental, for the fate of Orthodox theology has been a tragic one. On the one hand, since the collapse of Byzantium and the interruption of the creative patristic tradition, our theology endured a long "Western captivity" which deeply obscured and even deformed the Orthodox theological mind, while, on the other hand, the same post-patristic period was that of a radical transformation of the status and function of theology in the life of the Church. From being the concern — and the function — of the whole Church, it became that of the "school" alone and was thus deprived of the living interest and attention without which no creative effort is possible. Today the situation is changing. Conflicts and divisions within the Church, the new "ecumenical" encounter with the Christian West, and, above all, the pressing challenge of the modern world, have placed theology in a new focus, restored to it an importance it has not had for many centuries. Hence both the confusion and the awakening, the unavoidable clash between ideas, the pluralism of approaches, the acuteness of the methodological problem, the new questioning of sources and authorities. Freed from official "conformity" which was imposed on it by extra-theological factors, Orthodox theology has not yet found a real unity. But it must find it. However understandable and even useful, the actual theological pluralism cannot last forever. It is a synthesis, i.e., an integration of all the more or less "private" theologies into one consistent whole that we must seek. For Orthodox theology is by its very nature a Catholic expression of the Church’s faith and the Church neither knows nor needs any other theology.

2. But synthesis here means something different from a purely formal agreement on the sources to be cited or the formulas to be used as safely Orthodox. As long as there exist theologians (and not only compilers and commentators of ancient texts) theology will remain a symphony, not a unison. What is meant here is an inner transformation of the theological mind itself, a transformation based on a new — or maybe on a very old — relationship between theology and the Church. It is indeed our first duty to acknowledge that for centuries theology was alienated from the Church and that this alienation had tragic consequences for both theology and the Church. It made theology a mere intellectual activity, split into scores of "disciplines" with no correlation among themselves and no application to the real needs of the Church. Theology ceased to be the answer the Church gives to her questions and having ceased to be such an answer, it also ceased to be the question addressed to the Church. It today constitutes within the Church a self-centered world, virtually isolated from the Church’s life. It lives in itself and by itself in tranquil academic quarters, well defended against profane intrusions and curiosities by a highly technical language. Theologians avoid discussing the trivial reality of the Church’s life, and do not even dream about influencing it in any way. In turn the Church, i.e., the bishops, priests and laity, are supremely indifferent to the writings of the theologians, even when they do not regard them with open suspicion. No wonder, therefore, that deprived of interest on the part of the Church, squeezed into the narrow limits of a professional clerical school, theology is guided in its inner life not by the experience, needs or problems of the Church but by individual interests of individual theologians. Liberal or conservative, neo-patristic or neo-mystical, historical or anti-historical, "ecumenical" or anti-Western (and we have at present all these brands), theology simply fails to reach anybody but professionals, to provoke anything but esoteric controversies in academic periodicals.

And yet this isolation and alienation of theology is a tragedy for the Church as well. For although the ecclesiastical leaders and the people may not realize it, and think (as they too often do) that all problems and difficulties can be solved by better administration and simple references to the past, the Church needs theology. Its vital and essential function is to constantly refer the empirical life of the Church to the very sources of her faith and life, to the living and life-giving Truth, and to evaluate and judge the "empirical" in the light of that Truth. Ideally theology is the conscience of the Church, her purifying self-criticism, her permanent reference to the ultimate goals of her existence. Deprived of theology, of its testimony and judgement, the Church is always in danger of forgetting and misinterpreting her own Tradition, confusing the essential with the secondary, absolutising the contingent, losing the perspective of her life. She becomes a prisoner of her "empirical" needs and the pragmatic spirit of "this world" which poisons and obscures the absolute demands of the Truth.

If theology, then, needs the Church as its natural "term of reference," as both the source and the aim of its very existence, and if the Church needs theology as her conscience, how can they be reunited again, overcome their mutual alienation and recover the organic correlation of which the Patristic age remains forever the ideal pattern? This is the question Orthodox theology must answer if it is to overcome its inner chaos and weakness, its parasitic existence in the Church which pays no attention to it.

How and where? My answer is — by and in the Eucharist, understood and lived as the Sacrament of the Church, as the act, which ever makes the Church to be what she is — the People of God, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the Body of Christ, the gift and manifestation of the new life of the new age. It is here and only here, in the unique center of all Christian life and experience that theology can find again its fountain of youth, be regenerated as a living testimony to the living Church, her faith, love and hope. This affirmation, I understand it only too well, can be easily misunderstood. It will appear to some as an unjustified reduction of theology to "liturgics," as an unnecessary narrowing of the proper field of theology, where the Eucharist is listed as just one of the sacraments, as an "object" among many. To others it will sound like a pious invitation to theologians to become more liturgical, more "eucharistic" . . . In the present state of theology, such misinterpretations would be almost natural. What is meant here, however, is not a reduction of theology to piety, be it theological piety or a piety of theologians, and although it will take more than a short article to elaborate the answer given above in all its implications, the following remarks may possibly prepare the ground for a more constructive discussion.

3. In the official, post-patristic and "Westernizing" theology, the Eucharist is treated merely as one of the sacraments. Its place in ecclesiology is that of a "means of grace" — one among many. However central and essential in the life of the Church, the Eucharist is institutionally distinct from the Church. It is the power, the grace given to the Church that makes the Eucharist possible, valid, efficient, but this power of grace "precedes" the Eucharist and is virtually independent from it. Thus the Church is understood and described here as an institution endowed with divine power: power to teach, to guide, to sanctify; as a structure for the communication of grace; a "power," however, which is not derived from the Eucharist. The latter is a fruit, a result of the Church, not her source. And, likewise, being the cause of her sacraments, the Church is not considered in any way as their aim or goal. For official theology it is always the satisfaction of the individual, not the fulfillment or edification of the Church, that constitutes the end and the purpose of a sacrament.

This type of theology, although it subordinates the Eucharist and the sacraments to the Church and makes the latter an institution distinct and independent from the sacraments, easily coexists with, if indeed it is not responsible for, a piety in which the Church is virtually identified with cult or worship. In the popular approach — and "popular" by no means excludes the great majority of the clergy — the Church is, above all, a "cultic" or liturgical institution, and all her activities are, implicitly or explicitly, directed at her liturgical needs: erection of temples, material support of clergy and choirs, acquisition of various liturgical supplies, etc. Even the teaching given to the faithful, if one abstracts from it a very vague and general ethical code, identical with the humanistic ethics of the secular society at large, consists mainly in liturgical prescriptions and obligations of all kinds. The institutional priority of the Church over her sacraments is not questioned here, but the Church is essentially an institution existing for the fulfillment of the "religious needs" of her members, and since worship in all its forms constitutes the most obvious and immediate of such needs, the understanding and experience of the Church as existing primarily for liturgy seems quite natural.

While "institution" for theology and "worship" for piety, the Church is nowhere a "society." And indeed, although the classical catechetical definition of the Church as society has never been openly revised or rejected, the Church-society simply does not manifest herself outside the common attendance of worship. Yet the experience of worship has long ago ceased to be that of a corporate liturgical act. It is an aggregation of individuals coming to church, attending worship in order to satisfy individually their individual religious needs, not in order to constitute and to fulfill the Church. The best proof of this is the complete disintegration of communion as a corporate act. Where the early Church saw her real fulfillment as a communion into one body ("...and unite all of us who partake of the one Bread and the one Cup, one to another..." Liturgy of St. Basil), we today consider Communion as the most individual and private of all religious acts, depending entirely on one’s personal desire, piety and preparation. Likewise the sermon, although addressed to the congregation, is, in fact, a personal teaching, aimed not at the "edification" of the Church, but at individuals at their private needs and duties. Its theme is the individual Christian, not the Church. 

To be continued...


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