04 July 2019

Anthony Bloom: "And so, we stand accused in this world"

Anthony Bloom, On Meeting
This morning I'm starting my annual four-day experience of unapologetic self-indulgence, namely the Waterfront Blues Festival. Compared to that exercise in prolonged ecstasy and nostalgia for my teenage years (the years I discovered this incomparable music), the deep spiritual and political maturity that you no doubt associate with me temporarily fade into the background.

However, just the other day I was reviewing some earlier posts with the idea I could sub one of them for the blog post due today. (When you're as obsessive as I am about a publishing schedule, the idea of skipping a week is almost out of the question.) I was stopped dead in my tracks by one of my posts that quoted the famous Russian Orthodox priest, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. I decided to use that quotation this week -- with no commentary from me. Bloom speaks for himself. (I do take credit, or blame, for the translation into English.) See if you agree with me that his observations have not lost their relevance.

I ended up drawing upon two passages from him -- both are drawn from interviews, both from the same book. The first quotation was used in my post Can evangelicals reproduce?, and the second in Exceptional pride: USA and Russia.

A week from today I plan to be in Wilmington, North Carolina, USA, attending the annual sessions of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). Depending on the schedule and jetlag, I may be finding more worthy quotations from other writers for that edition of my blog.

Over to Metropolitan Anthony Bloom:

An interviewer asked Anthony Bloom, "...How do you assess the position of Christianity in the contemporary world with all that is going on in it?" His answer:
It's a difficult question because what I want to say will be hurtful to many. It seems to me that today the whole Christian world, including the Eastern Orthodox world, has distanced itself terribly from the simplicity, integrity, and joyful beauty of the Gospel. Christ and his group of disciples created a Church that was so deep and wide and complete that it could contain the universe. Over the centuries we've made the church into one human social group among many. We're now something less than the world we live in, and when we talk about that world coming to Christ, we are talking about everyone, as many as possible, becoming members of that limited social group.

That's our sin, it seems to me. We need to understand that in the Christian church, believers should become believers not only in terms of their worldview, but in terms of all of life, of their inner experience, and our role is to bring light to this world, even in places where it's dark and at times terrifying. In one place the prophet Isaiah says, "Comfort, comfort My people" -- that was God's word to him, and, of course, to us. "Comfort My people" means get an understanding of the kind of sorrow gripping the whole world, both materially, in its confusion, and spiritually, in its lack of knowledge of God. It means bring the comforting touch of God, the love of God, the attentive concern of God, which must take hold of the whole person. It's meaningless to talk to someone about spirituality when they're hungry; feed them. It's pointless to talk about a person's mistaken perceptions when we don't bring to that person a living experience of God.

And so, we stand accused in this world. In its rejection of God and the Church, the world says, "You Christians cannot give us anything we need. You don't offer us God, you offer us a worldview. And it's a moot point if God is not at its core. You give us instructions on how to live, but they're just as arbitrary as the ones other people give us." We ourselves must become Christian -- Christians according to the example of Christ himself, and his disciples. Only then will the Church obtain, not power, that is the capacity to coerce, but authority, the capacity to say words that make the soul tremble and that open up the eternal depths within any soul. It seems to me that this is our current situation and condition.

Maybe I'm coming at this situation pessimistically, but, really, we're not Christians. We confess faith in Christ, but we've reduced everything to symbols. So, for example, I'm always struck by our Good Friday service: instead of the cross on which a living young Man dies, we have a wonderful service that can move us but that actually stands between us and that rude and ghastly tragedy. In place of the cross we've substituted an icon of the cross. In place of the crucifixion, we've substituted an image. In place of a retelling of the actual horror of what happened, we substitute a poetic/musical reworking of the story.

Of course that reworking does reach us, but we so easily begin to get a taste for that horror, even deeply experiencing it, being shaken and then regaining our calm, whereas the vision of a living person who is murdered is something quite different. That remains as a wound in the soul, you don't forget it; having seen it, you'll never again be the same as you were. And that is what dismays me. In some sense, the beauty and depth of our worship must break it open, and must lead every believer through that opening to the terrible and majestic secret of what is actually happening.
The interviewer: "Yes, that's a very deep thought. Of course the contemporary world is oriented in such a way that, in principle, it could exist apparently without God, without spirituality. It rolls along obliviously, and you could comfortably slumber your life away and die." Anthony responds:
But what seems even more terrifying to me is that you can call yourself a Christian and live your whole life studying theology and never meet God. You can participate in the beauty of the worship, being a member of the choir or a participant in the service, and never break through to the reality of things. That's what is terrible. The nonbeliever still has a chance to gain faith, but this possibility becomes distant and indistinct for pseudo-believers because they have everything: they can explain every detail of the service, of the symbols of faith, and of dogmatics, but suddenly it turns out that they haven't actually met God.

The interviewer (speaking with Bloom toward the end of the Gorbachev era): "Father, maybe from your vantage point at some remove from Russia [namely in England], you have a better view of the processes going on in our homeland's Church."
... Political conformism has long been one of the scourges of the Russian Church. Already before the Revolution, the Church and the state formed a sort of harmonious whole, which by the way didn't always work out to the benefit of the church. After the Revolution the church kept quiet. During the time of extreme repression and persecution, political expression was out of the question for everyone. And so now it will take an extended course of study -- actually more like an education by immersion -- before we'll learn how to think politically, speak politically, from inside the Church.

No party at all should be able to claim the Church as its own, but at the same time the Church is not non-party, or above parties. She must be the voice of a conscience illuminated by the Light of God. In the ideal state, the Church must be in a condition to speak to any party, any movement: "This is worthy of humanity and of God, and that is not." Of course, this can be done from either of two positions: either from a position of strength, or from a position of complete helplessness. It seems to me -- and I'm deeply convinced of this -- that the Church must never speak from a position of strength. The Church must not be one of the powers operating in this or that government; she must be, if you like, just as powerless as God, Who does not coerce, Who only calls us and reveals the beauty and truth of things, but doesn't enforce them on us; Who, similarly to the way our consciences work, points out the truth, but leaves us free to listen to truth and beauty -- or to refuse them. It seems to me that this is how the Church should be. If the Church takes its place among those organizations that have power, that are able to force and direct events, then there will always be the risk that she would find power desirable; and as soon as the Church begins to dominate, she loses the most profound thing, the love of God, and an understanding of those who need salvation rather than the works of destruction and rebuilding.
The interviewer: "Now in the West as well as here [in Russia] we're hearing voices asserting that Russian Orthodoxy is once again becoming the state religion. What do you make of this assertion?"
I think that, thank God, we're a long way from that. It's one thing for the state to become convinced that a Christian, or in a wider sense believers generally (here I'm thinking about Muslims and Buddhists as well) can also be a loyal son of the motherland.  But whenever any church represents the vast majority of believers, the relationship of this church and the state become, of course, more enmeshed and more complicated. And once again one of the tasks of the church -- whether we're talking about East or West--consists of not allowing itself to become part of the political or social system, but rather the opposite. While remaining fully loyal (in other words, wanting the best for the nation), warning society as a whole that there is another dimension to life, that there's not just the social-political dimension but that life has depth.
Interviewer: "By whose will, divine or diabolical, was Holy Russia almost destroyed? As we all know, Russia was called Holy Russia, Moscow was the city of forty times forty churches, the land was permeated with grace that shone out from believers...."
Every country chooses some kind of expression to characterize itself, but this expression doesn't necessarily describe what is true now, but instead its ideals and aspirations. So France called itself la France très chrétienne; Germany insisted on deutsche Treue, German faithfulness; Russia constantly talked about Святая Русь, Holy Rus'. But here's the thing: if we ask to what extent Russia was actually holy, and to what extent was it in combat; if we ask whether Russia was entirely dedicated to achieving this holiness -- the answer is right there in Russian history, which provides a rare spectacle of inseparably mixed holiness and horror. Leskov's story "Deliverance" is a short, clear, vivid depiction of how things were: we see a man, a godly believer, but "the Devil only knows" what's in him -- I mean this literally, I'm not using swearwords. This man goes on raging benders, he's off to sow his wild oats, then suddenly returns to God before turning right around in the old direction. For Russian history, this is completely normal; it runs through our past like a red thread.

Source: Митрополит Антоний Сурожский, О встрече. Санкт-Петербург, Сатисъ, 2002.

Brother Yusef plans to be with us at the Waterfront Festival this year.


Patti Crane said...

Thanks for resurfacing this ever-relevant Metropolitan Anthony Bloom commentary, Johan. I love it when you help me see something from shoes so utterly unlike my own.

Hope you enjoy your BluesFest.

A question for you: I truly hope to hear your response to Rev. Dr. Barber's #MoralMovement address starting at minute 47:00 on this link. (Wish the Breach Repairers had packaged video clips of the startling moments in this sermon. An hour is a mighty long listen even for great oratory.) Maybe this offers you some clips to quote for your Wilmington journey? I see new and more-powerful framing in these words for helping our country dig out of this current nightmare, but maybe I was just too ready to find it. Cheers from Los Angeles.



Johan Maurer said...

Hello from the festival! I will definitely listen to the #MoralMovement address.