By Douglas Cramer
The siren song of our culture is that we should devote our best energies to serve ourselves and see to our own needs before thinking of others. We should avoid entangling ourselves in commitments, relationships and groups that might make demands of us. The great invitation of the Church, which calls us to join with the visible Body of Christ in this world, is a radical invitation. It is a revolutionary alternative to the extreme individualism of our culture.
Sadly, this cult of individualism is not restricted only to unbelievers. Many people who consider themselves Christian have signed on as well. There is a book out by a well-known religious writer named George Barna, titled Revolution. Barna identifies a growing trend among Christians, a movement that centers on a rejection of community and an embrace of individualism. Many of our neighbors have come to believe that the best way to live a Christian life is in isolation from any parish or church, figuring out for themselves how they should pray, act, and understand their faith.
“There is a new breed of Christ-follower in America today,” Barna says, “These are people who are more interested in being the Church than in going to church.” His research has “discovered and described a growing national population of more than twenty million adults who are committed to living their faith and making God the top priority in their life. Some are doing so through the ministries of a local church, but many are not. The emphasis is upon allowing God to transform them in every aspect of their life.”
Now, what is wrong with this? Don’t we all believe that we should allow God to transform us in every aspect of our lives? Of course we do. The problem is that these Christ-followers, perhaps with the best of intentions, have asked a false question, set up a false choice. As Orthodox Christians, we understand that we cannot choose between “being the Church” and “going to church.” The Church is not only an invisible, mystical union. It is a physical body of believers, who are bound together as a holy community in communion with God and His saints.
While this trend saddens me, it does not surprise me. The temptation of individualism has a long history, and as we know it is supported in countless ways by our culture. But the true calling of Christ and His Church offers us a very different path.
There is a Greek word that contains the essence of this truth. That word is koinonia. Koinonia means community, in its most profound and mysterious sense, and it is in community that we find the truth of who we are and how we should live. It is in God’s community, in koinonia, that we find our life as persons.
Orthodox Christianity offers us an alternative to the isolation of individualism – it offers us true personhood. What does this mean? What is the difference between individualism and personhood? The great Orthodox teacher Bishop Kallistos Ware gives us an eloquent answer: “The human person is created for relationship.” True personhood is not found in individuals – it is found in community.
At the heart of this teaching is our affirmation that we are created in the image of God. And as Christians, we proclaim that when we say “God,” we mean the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We understand that God Himself is not in isolation. “God is love,” we read in 1 John 4:8. God is love because God Himself is community. Bishop Kallistos goes on to say, “God is not a unit, but a union. God is love in the sense of shared love, the mutual love of three Persons in one. God is shared love, not self-love. God is openness, exchange, solidarity, self-giving.”
Brothers and sisters, we can only truly understand ourselves, we can only lay claim to the image of God within us, when we recognize that like God the truth of our identities are centered in community. The truth of our very nature demands that we fully embrace our relationships with others. This is the key to personhood according to the Trinitarian image. Not isolated self-awareness, but relationship in mutual love.
Remember the words of Christ in His prayer to the Father at the Last Supper: “That they all may be one, as you, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us.” The mutual love of the Holy Trinity is the model for our human personhood. We are here on earth to reproduce within time the love that passes in eternity between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
How different this understanding of life is from the thin gruel offered by the cult of individualism. But still, we all feel the call of selfishness, of putting ourselves first. This shouldn’t surprise us. Like I said, the temptation of individualism has a long history—in fact, it goes all the way back to our beginnings. The essence of the fall of Adam and Eve in Paradise was the rejection of relationship. When God asked Adam if he had eaten the fruit of the tree, what did he say? “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate.” And what did Eve say? “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” Adam and Eve each chose to think only of themselves, of their own needs. They each chose selfishly, and sought to place the blame for their act on someone else.
But we have received a different invitation. God is asking us to join with others, and with himself, in holy fellowship—to come alongside our fellow believers and dedicate ourselves to training in the life of Christ.
Of course, there is one great challenge in living as part of a community. Can you guess what it is? That’s right—other people! Why is it so tempting for us to isolate ourselves, to avoid church, to want to flee from any relationship that might make demands on us? Because when we become involved with others, we will be hurt. There’s no getting away from it. Relationship means pain. It means people will hurt us, and we will hurt them.
C. S. Lewis put it well:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers of love is Hell.
If you believe you can protect yourself from pain by holding back, by not engaging with others, you are lying to yourself. We must engage, we must commit, we must come together. We must love. And we will all suffer for it, and cause suffering to others. If you want to live, there is no other way.
We can begin by getting anything that might hinder this bonding out in the open. Forgiveness isn’t just about saying the words, or going through the motions. And it isn’t about excusing or justifying someone’s actions, pretending that they didn’t really cause you pain. True forgiveness means recognizing that someone has sinned against you, and choosing to love that person anyway.
This is our goal – bringing about the breakthrough of the Kingdom of Heaven in to our world. This is what God is calling you to be part of. This is why He wants you to choose to be part of His Church, of this holy community. Remember the saying: “The only thing we can do alone is go to hell.” But together, we can transform our lives by transforming our relationships. We can become more than individuals – we can become true persons in the image of God. We can become saints. Fr. Alexander Schmemann once said, “The saint is the only true revolutionary in this world.”
This reflection is adapted from a speech originally written for Fr. Christopher Metropulos of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Ft. Lauderdale, FL, and SCOBA's Orthodox Christian Network. Learn more about the powerful ministries of OCN on their website, www.myocn.net .