Orthodox Christianity: Materialism with a difference

Fr Athenagoras Stylianou

– “Now a woman, having a flow of blood for twelve years, who had spent all her livelihood on physicians and could not be healed by any, came from behind and touched the border of His garment. And immediately her flow of blood stopped. And Jesus said, ‘Who touched Me?’ When all denied it, Peter and those with him said, ‘Master, the multitudes throng and press You, and You say, Who touched Me?’ But Jesus said, ‘Somebody touched Me, for I perceived power going out from me.’ Now when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before Him, she declared to Him in the presence of all the people the reason she had touched Him and how she was healed immediately. And He said to her, ‘Daughter, be of good cheer; your faith has made you well. Go in peace.’” (Luke 8.43-48. Cp. Mark 5.25-34; Matthew 9.20-22)

The deeply moving miracle of the woman with the flow of blood drew the attention of John Henry Cardinal Newman. In the Preface to the first volume of the re-edited Via Media written in 1876, more than thirty years after he joined the Roman Catholic Church, Newman was concerned to show, inter alia, how genuine, orthodox Christian devotion can degenerate to superstition and idolatry. The distinction between theology and popular religion, and indeed the descend from the former to the latter, Newman argued, is traceable to the Gospel itself, and as an example he cited the case of the woman with the flow of blood who hoped to be cured by touching the border of the garment of Jesus. Our Lord “passed over the superstitious act” and healed the woman because of her faith. What is more, He praised her for “what might, not without reason, be called an idolatrous act.” Newman continued along the same lines, with characteristically nuanced utterances and fluctuations of perspective, but his attitude is clear and no mere lapsus linguae. At one point indeed he rather intemperately mused whether “a poor Neapolitan crone, who chatters to the crucifix” is doing anything essentially more superstitious than the woman with the flow of blood. (Via Media I pp. lvii ff.). Newman, therefore, seems to posit a sharp tension in the story of the miracle between, on the one hand, faith, which is right and proper and praised by the Lord and, on the other, superstition or even idolatry (the touching of the border of the Lord’s garment in the expectation of a cure), which the Lord tolerates because of the woman’s faith. Though culpable, her action was excusable, being the result of mere ignorance: the “idolatry of ignorance”.

Considering the stature and erudition of the man, this is little short of staggering! It is such a gross misunderstanding of Christianity that it is hard for an Orthodox Christian, or indeed any right-believing Roman Catholic, to know where to start their criticism; that is how all-embracing the matter is. Truly it amounts to throwing the Christian faith out of the window, lock, stock and barrel. Not a single aspect of it is left standing: doctrine, ecclesiology, the mysteries (sacraments) and worship, are all thereby laid flat.

The first thing to note is that Newman’s reading of the Gospels is badly awry. There is not in the Gospels even a hint that the Lord considered the woman’s action superstitious or idolatrous. Quite the contrary. Immediately on being touched Jesus perceived power going out from Him (Mark 5.30; Luke 8.46) and it was this divine power which, originating in Jesus and passing through the material of His garment, healed the woman. These are plain statements of fact in the evangelists. We may believe or disbelieve, but we cannot extrapolate as Newman did, either here or anywhere else in the Gospels where similar miracles are related. What then of the woman’s faith which the Lord praises? The Gospels are crystal clear. The multitudes thronged and pressed Jesus, but it was the woman’s trusting faith which drew from the Lord His healing power in the manner described. Of the two essential and inseparable ingredients of the miracle Newman emphasized one, the faith, and misconstrued the other. While not denying that the Lord healed the woman, Newman did not stop to wonder, and he certainly does not tell us, how this was accomplished, if it was not as the Gospels narrate. Or did Newman mean to imply that Jesus did after all allow the healing to take place in such a “superstitious” and “idolatrous” way, as the woman had hoped, in recompense for her faith? But what if the woman’s hope was to touch the Lord’s foot or hand directly, without the intervening medium of the cloth: would that make her attitude less superstitious and idolatrous? The conclusion is unavoidable that Newman failed to grasp the full implications of this as indeed of all miracles; otherwise he would not have commented as he did. At best his ideas were confused. This inevitably leads to the suspicion that his theological framework was flawed, especially with regard to the significance of the Incarnation for the image of God and the meaning of salvation. One wonders what, if anything, he made of the Transfiguration? “And He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light”. (Matt. 17.2) Are we to see superstition and idolatry here too because the Lord’s clothes, the clothes the woman touched, as well as His Body, radiated God’s uncreated energy?

Barring the fact that the Roman Catholics do not accept the Orthodox doctrine of the uncreated energies of God, Roman Catholic sacramental theology on many points agrees with that of Orthodoxy. A fresco from the catacombs of Sts Marcellinus and Peter in Rome from the early fourth century depicts, as it happens, the very encounter between Jesus and the woman with the flow of blood. A photograph of it is included in the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, accompanied by the following comments: “[The] woman … was healed by touching the cloak of Jesus through the power that ‘had gone forth from him’ … The Church’s sacraments now continue the works which Christ performed during his earthly life … The sacraments are as it were ‘powers that go forth’ from the Body of Christ to heal the wounds of sin and to give us the new life of Christ … This image thus symbolizes the divine and saving power of the Son of God who heals the whole person, soul and body, through the sacramental life.” Roman Catholicism cannot therefore be held responsible for Newman’s comments on the miracle. Interestingly, he was not entirely consistent in his thinking. It is well known that Newman firmly believed in the transformation of the bread and wine into the very Body and Blood of our Lord during the Holy Eucharist, and that he set great store by visiting and praying before the Blessed Sacrament. The roots of Newman’s surprising attitude to the miracle should be sought away from contemporary Roman Catholicism.

But let us briefly set the matter aright. The cardinal fact of Christianity is God’s ultimate and definitive intervention in History, that is, in matter and time, in the Incarnation of our Lord and Saviour: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1.14). With this stupendous act the bridging of the gap between Creator and His creation, the outcome of the Fall, was accomplished, and the redemption of the world initiated. This all-important task of reclaiming for God the fallen world the Lord entrusted to the Church, His Body. All of Christ’s words and actions during His earthly ministry, and of the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit subsequently, have this purpose and no other. The task, let it be stressed, is not some nebulous mission to redeem men’s souls independently of their bodies; for human beings are in this life, and will be forever, by God’s eternal design, soul and body. Both are to be redeemed, along with the entire physical world, now enslaved to sin and death. For Christianity is resolutely opposed to dualism, to the tendency, that is, to separate the spiritual from the material. Down the centuries the Church has walked a tightrope between the worldly and the unworldly, the material and the spiritual, the spatial-temporal and the eternal. To lean to one side at the expense of the other is to fall into heresy. The underpinning reality and the yardstick is the dual, theanthropic nature of our Lord, at once fully human and fully divine.

Upholding Orthodoxy has not been easy. Already in the late Apostolic era Docetism and the rest of the Gnostic heresies, harking back to Plato’s dualist philosophy, to various degrees and in various ways questioned Christ’s nature, in particular denying His humanity. For them the material world was evil, or at least of no importance compared to the spiritual. One has only to recall Socrates’ attitude to his body. Shortly before he drank the hemlock and died he was asked by his friend Crito how he wanted to be buried. “Any way you like” was the response and laughingly he went on to explain to the rest of his friends that the real Socrates was his soul. Once he was dead, and his soul had departed, they could do as they pleased with the body. Whether they burned or buried it was all the same (Plato, Phaedo 115 D). The Jewish point of view, which passed on to Christianity, the new Israel, was radically different.

By the fourth century the emphasis had shifted and our Lord’s divinity became the target. Defeated by the Church at the time, the roots of all these heresies nevertheless survived, variously to trouble the Church in later centuries, by then joined by new and no less deadly enemies. To cut a long story short, it has to be admitted that though motivated by the best intentions the sixteenth century reformers lost their way from the start. Reacting to what they saw as the gross materialism of Roman Catholicism which, in their view, contradicted scripture and sullied the purity of the Gospel, they developed a distrust of the physical. Of course, without the physical the sacramental vanishes as well and Protestant sacraments soon became mere symbols. Newman, who converted to Roman Catholicism in middle-age after much hesitation, does appear to have remained an Anglican in some respects, as many of his fellow English converts thought at the time, and his ill-thought comments on the miracle of the woman with the flow of blood might be a consequence of this.

But to turn now to the crucially important role of matter for the Christian revelation: God’s creation of the world, the respective natures of God and man, the Fall, the Incarnation of the Son of God for our salvation, his words and actions in fulfilment of His task as narrated in the New Testament. Even a simple reflection on these and other central aspects of our faith shows that the physical and the spiritual go hand-in-hand. “Men of Israel”, Peter began his address to the crowds on Pentecost, “hear these my words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know etc.” (Acts 2.22) These miracles, wonders and signs performed by the Lord were not just spiritual events, a meaningless concept as it happens in the human context, but also physical; indeed, especially physical, a challenge to the senses of those who witnessed them, even to the point of shocking them: the spitting into the dirt and smearing the mud on the eyes of the blind so they might see, the putting of His fingers into the ears of the deaf so they might hear, the touching of lepers so they might be cleansed and corpses so that they might be raised to life again, and so on and so forth; and, yes, in the heat and dust and sweat and unsavoury smells of a jostling Middle-Eastern crowd, the healing of a woman who trustingly could only reach the hem of His garment. Modern sensitivities may be repelled by the Lord’s miracles and seek to explain them “spiritually”, but we mutilate the plain meaning of scripture at our own peril, as history, recent history in particular, plainly teaches.

One of the aspects of Orthodoxy which heterodox Christians, especially Protestants, tend to find unpalatable is its sheer physicality, its “materialism”. I do not so much refer to the candles and the incense and the vestments of the clergy and the long, rich services, but to the relics, often in full view, and the icons, and the behaviour of the faithful towards them which Orthodox describe as veneration, but which non-Orthodox are inclined to view as bordering on the superstitious and idolatrous: the prostrations before them and the touching and the kissing of them and the prayers which accompany these, not always silently. The strong impression formed by the outside observer of, as it were, Orthodoxy in action, is of a real, living, pulsating religion, not something artificial devised by man. And then of course there is the physicality of the Orthodox sacraments and blessing services and indeed of everything connected with Orthodoxy. Blessed by the Church plain, material things acquire holiness and become the conduits of God’s grace. Our souls apart, being ourselves material bodies, our salvation is accomplished by means of matter and in no other way. At the same time the use of physical objects in worship guards the fullness of the faith, preventing Christianity from becoming either some form of neo-Platonist philosophy or mere humanism.

Orthodox Christians, therefore, have not the slightest difficulty in accepting the miracle in question as it stands in the Gospels, and could never opine as Newman did. In this miracle, no less than in all the other miracles narrated in the Gospels, which the rationalizing mind tends to dismiss or explain away in ways which supposedly make them less crude and objectionable, the very essence of the faith is at stake. Christianity stands or falls on this. Pace Newman and his finely balanced arguments, there is no room here for a via media, not then, not now, not ever. It is all or nothing. All this appears obvious to the simple believer, yet it poses insuperable obstacles to the ever-increasing army of learned scholars, even ones in holy orders who claim to believe, but do not see that by denying the miraculous in any real, objective, and therefore physical terms, they cut off, as the saying goes, the branch of the tree they are sitting on. To rarefy Christianity is to destroy it. So the woman with the flow of blood and the “poor Neapolitan crone, who chatters to the crucifix” may after all have known a thing or two more than Newman, his mighty intellect notwithstanding, about the ways of God which are mere foolishness to man. (cf. 1 Cor. 1.18, 23ff.; 3.18ff.)

The rock on which the Christian faith is founded, as already mentioned, is the Incarnation of the Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, at once God and Man. The Incarnation is the Mystery of Mysteries, “a greater and more profound mystery than that of the creation of the world” (Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 156). To undermine the mystery of the Incarnation, be that even to the slightest degree, is to undermine the faith. In defending this mystery Orthodox Christians are privileged to possess a weapon of inestimable value: the holy icons. And this is the best way of concluding this brief essay, for the holy icons most appropriately bring together the several strands, as it were, of Orthodox theology, life and worship into a single knot. The crucial importance of the icons did not always enjoy general recognition, but had to be fought for against the iconoclasts in a conflict which broke out in 726 and raged for more than a century. Iconoclasm was an attempt to take a dangerous, retrograde step, one that would have seriously emasculated the Christian faith. It was strongly and in the end successfully resisted. That great champion of the icons, St John Damascene, dealt most effectively with the theology of what was at issue, showing why the Church could not compromise on this crucial point.

Icons for Orthodoxy are not an optional extra: they are indispensable. That they instruct (“theology in paint”), edify and act as powerful aids in public worship and personal prayer, concentrating the mind and directing the imagination, is incontrovertible. But, more importantly, they point to, explain as well as symbolize and guard the central mystery of the faith. Even that is far from being the end of their importance. Blessed by the Church, icons, physical objects with a metaphysical reality, act as windows into the world beyond thus linking heaven and earth, the temporal and the eternal. They can actualize the presence of the holy persons they depict. And they can act as centres of divine grace and power. Explaining the nature and significance of icons Sister Thekla concludes that in their double essence, of this world and yet not of this world, “we hold a great treasure, for we are preserved from the dread of the absolute either-or.” (Sister Katherine and Sister Thekla, St Andrew of Crete and St Mary of Egypt, p.9).

“We are preserved from the dread of the absolute either-or.” Never before have the holy icons been more important to the faithful than at the present time when we are surrounded by godlessness and temptation, immersed in the sounds and images of an increasingly schizophrenic world which seems determined to separate itself from Christ and His Gospel, a world which gives every impression of nearing its predestined end.