The Danger of Academic Christianity

Priest Sergei Sveshnikov | 10 January 2021

It is not uncommon to hear the comment from those outside the Church that Christians seem to be no different from most secular people or from non-believers. Christians recognize this problem as well and often retort that while the Church is indeed “spotless and without blemish” (Eph 5:27), the people who make up the Church “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). It is often said that the Church is like a hospital that is naturally full of sick people. Indeed, even such holy men as Saint Macarius the Great prayed: “O God, cleanse me a sinner, for I have never done anything good in Thy sight.” (Yet this should hardly be an occasion to propose that since such great saints never did anything good in the sight of God [and they would not fib or lie about that, would they?], then we are also justified in not doing anything good.)

To be sure, Christianity is not about ‘doing’ per se, and certainly not about ‘doing enough.’ One cannot earn salvation by fulfilling a list of obligations or demand that God pay up for services rendered. God is never indebted to us. But this also does not mean that our action or a lack of one carries no consequences.

Have you ever met a doctor who is a fan of junk food or a nurse who smokes? They possess proper medical knowledge as attested to by their degrees and licenses. They also regularly attend a place of healing – in fact, they work there. They may even undergo regular tests and procedures and take medications for hypertension or diabetes. By the way, these medical professionals are perfectly capable of offering sensible medical advice and prescribing proper medications. And yet, clearly, something is amiss. No one is ever cured by blood pressure pills or insulin. These medicines merely manage symptoms and postpone the inevitable. Diplomas or places of work seem to have even less relevance to one’s health than do pills and injections. Something else is necessary to actually address the illness, something which cannot be picked up at a pharmacy or displayed on a wall.

As Christians, we sometimes become complacent and think that it is enough to possess knowledge about our faith, or to go to church regularly, or to undergo the necessary procedures, such as getting sprinkled with holy water or receiving Communion. We think that we just have to read more homilies by John Chrysostom, or attend more vigils, or kiss more traveling icons or relics. All of these are laudable and holy things, but our Lord did not say: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you study the Paterikon and attend church every Sunday.” It is very good to read the Paterikon and to attend church, but the Lord said something different: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

The world strives to confuse us about the meaning of many things, including love. With truth long declared relative, love has been used and misused in every imaginable context – from the drug-fueled summer of 1967, to the Supreme Court case establishing same-sex marriage in the U.S. (Obergefell v. Hodges), to a bizarre claim that it is love that “makes a Subaru a Subaru,” to public service announcements about wearing masks, and many others. One cannot help but paraphrase Pontius Pilate: “What is love?”

Pilate may have had a good reason to question what was true (“τι εστιν αληθεια?” – John 18:38), even if the Truth was looking Pilate in the eyes; but we, who have received Divine revelation, know with certainty that Christ is the Truth (“εγω ειμι η αληθεια” – John 14:6) and that God is love (“ο θεος αγαπη εστιν” – 1 John 4:8). No, God is not what makes a Subaru a Subaru. He is the One who died that we may live. If we want to know what love truly is, we must look to Christ, not to the opinions of the Supreme Court.

Love is not a thought or a feeling savored in the comfort of one’s study; it is not a re-tweet of a meme in support of polar bears or children in Africa. Love is sacrifice. It is supposed to hurt. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) His life – not some “spare change” or “a few minutes of your time.” At least according to Christ, love is not an intellectual affirmation or a casual emotional response. Love is never hypothetical or abstract, because God is never hypothetical or abstract. Dostoevsky once satirized in his profoundly-genius way: “I love the whole world; it is just my neighbor that I cannot stand.” True love, then, is the willingness to give your life for that neighbor, even if you cannot stand him; it is the voluntary carrying of your cross when you do not have to; it is the voluntary acceptance of suffering when it would be so much easier not to.

Love is not convenient; it is not inconsequential. If you lay down your life, you will get hurt. Anything less is not love.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return…

Luke 6:32-35

When those outside the faith recognize us as Christians not by our love but exclusively by our outward accoutrements or by places we frequent, is it really because “all fall short” or is it because we are couch Christians who treat our faith as an academic exercise? Do we sincerely seek healing when we enter the Church, or are we like the nurse who goes to the hospital five days a week while working on her chance at lung cancer a lot more diligently than most of us work on saving our eternal souls?

Imagine a young man who thinks he is a runner. He has a great pair of running shoes, expensive running shorts, and a fancy water bottle. He subscribes to Runner’s World Magazine and regularly spends time with his school’s cross country team. He is very good at carb-loading. But he does not actually run. Maybe he undertakes an occasional short jog just to confirm for himself that he does not like running – so he does not really run. Is he then a runner? He seems to have checked all the boxes except the “one thing needful,” the one thing that actually makes one a runner even in the absence of all other things, and without which one is not a runner even if he usually wears running shoes. Our society no longer seems to demand that people practice what they preach; and in general, often judges people’s qualifications not by their conduct or skill but by a framed piece of paper, a kit, and a name tag. It is very much possible now – and, perhaps has been for a long time – to identify as a Christian without actually being one, without living the life in Christ, without setting an example for others “in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12) – just as it is very much possible to dress up like a cowboy without ever having worked on a ranch. We seem to enjoy dressing up and self-identifying, and often confuse the mask we wear with reality.

In order to be able to say together with the Apostle Paul, “I have finished the race” (1Tim 4:7), it is not enough to dress like a runner and to spend time with runners; we have to actually go running and even enter the race – you cannot finish that which you do not start. So, the next time we lament our lack of spiritual growth, our lack of connection with God despite rattling off the correct number of prayers, our struggle with passions despite faithfully replacing steak with shrimp or lobster during fasts, or our short temper despite bravely jumping into a hole cut in ice on Theophany, let us recognize that, despite all of these accomplishments, we too may have to admit that we have never done anything good in God’s sight, that all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags (Isa 64:6), and that Christ’s admonition to “do as they say, not as they do” may in fact be about us, for we preach well, but do we practice? (Matt 23:3)

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