In his new book entitled, “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy,” Fr. Andrew Damick (Orthodox priest) describes with biting honesty the state of many American churches that have turned Christianity into a large self-help program. He writes:
“Being consumer-oriented and consumer-driven, Christianity as self-help appeals to the selfishness of believers and caters to the cafeteria mentality of most American Christians. Instead of Church transforming them, they are defining and transforming their churches, such that many of them appear not as houses of worship but as theatres, coffeehouses, and shopping malls. In this consumerist Christianity, Christ is there to ‘help’ me with what I want. He is not there so that I may enter into His crucifixion and die and rise with Him, being transfigured into His likeness and becoming a partaker of the divine nature” (p.119).
The principles of western individualism adopted by the effortless-Christianity movement are never more clearly seen than when the believer’s relationship with the “church” is brought to light. Essentially for the effortless-Christian there is no church, at least not in the historical Christian sense. Though one would never hear a proponent of the movement explicitly state such, implicitly the effortless-Christian lives as though the church did not exist; said another way, they make no essential link between the historic Church and their own private life with the faith.
Effortless-Christianity’s Vision of Salvation
But why should they? If Christian faith is simply a matter of effortless, mental agreement to a list of agreeable doctrines (i.e. doctrines which the individual has already pre-screened and found acceptable for their paradigm of passive, effortless “faith”) then what use is the historic Church? One does not require an “institution” in order to think right thoughts about Christ. All that faith requires can be accomplished by himself in the woods, in the car, in the shower: simply think the right thoughts. Anything more than this, any effort to live in unison with those thoughts, is a sure sign the person has “fallen from grace.”
Ultimately this strange rendition of the faith stems from a confused understanding of salvation in general. Effortless-Christianity adopts into its religious rubric the fundamentals of western theology regarding the fall of man and its resulting anthropology (or “doctrine of human nature”), particularly as it appears in the Reformed tradition. In essence, mankind is separated from God via the guilt of Adam’s original sin. Due to this sin mankind is “totally depraved” and utterly incapable of even desiring union with their Maker. Salvation is seen as a sovereign work of God in the sense that God performs all the necessary elements to make a person “legally” worthy of salvation; He even controls the believer’s act of believing. Once a person is “saved,” typically through a short initiation prayer (i.e. “sinner’s prayer”), he or she is eternally “secure” in their salvation. The legal triumph of Christ’s work on the Cross cannot be reversed by whatever sin the believer happens to commit from that point forward. Hence, one’s effort is null and void of any consequence.
With this view it is not difficult to understand why the effortless-Christianity movement rejects wholesale any belief in the Church as a sacramental necessity for salvation. If one’s fallen condition is primarily the guilt of failing to obey God’s objective code of conduct, if God simply demands the payment for a debt, if attaining proper legal status with God is what constitutes salvation then perhaps the effortless-Christianity movement has it right. Since no one can do anything to satisfy this God, He satisfies Himself by torturing and killing His own Son on our behalf. In an awkward sense, salvation is understood as God satisfying His own wrath by paying Himself in the currency of His own blood. Mankind is more or less the passive observer of this ambivalent God working out His own issues with Himself throughout the course of history.
The Orthodox Vision of Salvation (nutshell version)
By contrast, Holy Tradition as embodied in the Orthodox Church maintains that Adam’s sin resulted in death. Thus death, not guilt, spread to his descendants (Rom 5:12). Mankind’s fallen state is a “death,” a loss of the “likeness of God” which originally constituted human nature. This death is understood as literal physical death but also as an existential sickness and corruption of the soul which orients mankind towards sin. This existential loss of life “in God” manifests in human nature as the impulse towards what is evil; in large part this impulse is expressed as the need to maintain one’s individual, physical survival at all costs. This temptation can be seen in full through the attacks fired at Christ during His time of trial in the wilderness. The devil attempted to orient Jesus’ attention to His need for physical survival – temptation with food and divine protection from physical harm – and with the “glories of all the kingdoms of earth.” It is with these same temptations that we, unlike Christ, are guilty of giving ultimate allegiance to, rather than to God. These things consume our every waking moment and reveal our deep seated sickness of soul.
Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son of God took a body of flesh and blood and through His death and resurrection reconstituted our human nature with the true life of God. Through Christ’s sacrifice Mankind now has perfect access to the life once forfeited in the Garden of Eden. Christ’s blood is that which cleanses our sickness and brings us back to “life in God.” The Orthodox Church captures this reality in a single word: theosis, or deification. The weight of sin and death was indeed taken by our Lord on the cross so that we could be free. But this freedom is not freedom “from” God, in the sense of escaping His desire to punish and destroy us, but rather freedom from our chosen life of death and sickness, which we could never overcome in our own efforts. The Law was weak in that it could not give us the power to attain true life; it could only give us a vision of the true depth of our disease and corruption.
This discussion is finally coming full circle to why Christianity is anything but effortless in the way that the effortless-Christianity movement has envisioned it. When salvation is understood as a life empowered to live in true communion with God rather than a life with merely a new legal identity, then the effort that one extends in his or her new life in God is not an effort to appease God but an effort towards true healing – a work of love. Life becomes a journey away from sickness of soul towards true life in God. Anyone who desires effortlessness in this journey effectively desires to continue a life of sickness. This is why from Christ to the Apostles, to the Church Fathers and down to the present day Orthodox Church there has always been an emphasis on “fighting the good fight of faith,” of doing combat with the passions of the soul and of striving for true psychic (emotional, physiological) healing.
As St. Isaac the Syrian said, “Whatever virtue does not bring with it bodily toil, consider it soulless abortion.”
As the reader can see, we did not come anywhere near tying all this in with the ministry of the Church. Hopefully we will accomplish this in the next article.
Thanks for reading!