Like everyone else, the Christian is subject to the onslaught of bad news flooding our radiowaves, television screens and computers. Corruption, abuse by those in authority, violence on those who are weak, exploitation of the defenceless have become a staple of what we keep up to date with under the aegis of “current affairs”.
As a defence mechanism against this constant barrage from the exterior, it will be very tempting to retreat into one’s own interiority, refusing to materially take on the practices which bring these tales of woe into our view. We may justify this retreat on the grounds that they are someone else’s responsibility, thereby leaving what would be weighty moral decisions to them on our behalf. Christians, however, may resort to the added rationalisation that resolving the issues that plague our world is ultimately God’s responsibility, and so all that is left for Christians is to retreat to the refuge of the “spiritual”, where God resides, indulging in “spiritual pursuits”, mysticism or obscure visions.
As Alexander Schmemann asserted, however, in a chapter in his For the Life of the World entitled “The Time of the Mission”, it is precisely in the “spiritualisation” of Christianity, not its supposed worldliness, which has made it seem irrelevant to the lost, both within and without the Church. To “live as Christians out of time and thereby escape its frustrations”, is to feed in turn the world’s frustration with Christians.
Furthermore, such a spiritualising of the Christian faith can only come with an abandoning of its sacramental and incarnational logic – ironically, it is Christians with a long sacramental tradition that display this tendency. We forget that the Christian faith is a corporeal faith, that engages us first and last at the level of our bodies. The Christian faith is not fulfilled by abandoning the body, but in the words of Paul’s letter to the Romans (8:23), it is fulfilled in the redemption of the body. To use the words of the French phenomenologist, Maurice Meleau-Ponty, the body is “intervolved” with its world, and commits the person to the world in which the body inhabits. The body, as suggested in an article on prayer and political theory, thereby commits the Christian to the welfare of this world even as he or she relies upon a God that transcends this world. In Henri Nouwen’s words, “the spiritual life does not remove us from the world, but leads us deeper into it”.
Furthermore, as Schmemann keeps arguing in For the Life of the World, the spiritual pursuits are meant to be a gift to the world, in that they are supposed to show to the world what life in the world is. The sacraments are not departure lounges where the body is parked and the soul ascends to the spiritual planes. They are meant to show the real meaning of embodiment by grafting themselves onto the Body of Christ. In so doing, the faith is an arrival terminal from which the world’s true meaning is unfolded. This is why the Eucharistic Liturgy does not end with a departure from this earth, but a sending back into it with an “it is sent” and a “let us go forth in peace”. The body, having received the Body of Christ, is meant to redeem other bodies by committing itself to those other bodies. It is this committment that brings Christ to co-abide with those other bodies, whether it is through binding its wounds, feeding its hunger, quenching its thirst, fulfilling its need for shelter, by pointing to its source of happiness in the field hospital of the Church and in making preparing the Church for this task.