Sunday, November 11, 2012

#122. What Can Christianity Possibly Mean in the Modern World?

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Blog entries beginning with #101 are not essays but minimally-edited notes and reviews from the files I've collected over the last few decades. I no longer have the time and energy needed to sort out and put together into decent essay-form the many varied ideas in these files, but I would like to share them with all who are interested.

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Post #122 is some reflections on the ideas in a interesting and very honest book coming out of the Eastern Orthodox tradition in Australia. 


Reviewed, March 1996

THE DESERT IS ALIVE, Dimensions of Australian Spirituality. Edited by Graeme Ferguson and John Chryssavgis (Melbourne, 1990).

At first I thought the writing was poor because the authors lacked basic skills and were writing for one another rather than for readers. But eventually I realized that most of these texts seem to be intended to be delivered orally, as lectures. Or, even more likely, as sermons. This is keryma, not didache. (I’m willing to work with it in that form, but still, the book deserved the benefit of a competent editor.)

It may be the first 21st century theological work I’ve read. Certainly it is the first I know of to be actually doing what people like Thomas Berry and Ewert Cousins say needs to be done. It takes matter, the earth, and specifically the land of the Australian continent seriously. And does so within the fullness of the Christian tradition, especially as that tradition is informed by Eastern Orthodoxy, monasticism and desert spirituality.

It’s not really about Aboriginal spirituality, although it begins by honoring the Aborigines. It is about what Christianity can possibly mean in the modern world which has been so screwed up, to a great extent, precisely by Christianity.

It begins in the desert, both literally and metaphorically, on a continent which can itself rightfully be described as marginal, and wrestles with meaninglessness while affirming the sacramentality of matter. That, I think, is the essence of the book.

It is trying to say things that can’t be said yet, to describe experiences that have hardly come to consciousness. Most of what’s really valuable here is the feelings evoked, and that, by what isn’t said. Or by what is said, but in total awareness of, even anguish at, its utter inadequacy.

It is at its least helpful when mouthing platitudes of spirituality; at its best when it stops saying we need to shut up, and shuts up.

Its respect for land, in the literal sense of geography, rocks, plants, etc., is remarkable. “Land is the embodied object of faith,” says the Archbishop, in the most explicit statement yet of what we have sometimes called “geographic spirituality.”

But it still struggles to shake off the worst effects of the transcendent-only divinity which is such a strong part of the Christian heritage. And that divinity remains a “he” throughout the book.

But it is a thoroughly honest book.

Its evocation of the meaninglessness of contemporary life, and its willingness to start with it, rather than to judge it, is its strongest point.

Chapter 10, on the Desert Fathers, is in many ways the best. (I even found my own situation described fairly well, although in terms other than what I’d use.) But every chapter has some good things to offer, and I think the book would be well worth attention and discussion.


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