Understanding and Living Our Faith: The Downside of Books and the Written Word
“The person who is in communion with Him who inspired those who wrote the Divine Scriptures, and is initiated by Him into the undivulged secrets of the hidden mysteries, will himself be an inspired book to others…” (St. Symeon the New Theologian)
I love books. I read constantly, usually reading multiple books at the same time. I have written three books, two of which are published and one that is coming out next year. Books, as well as blogs, articles, and the written word, in general, are edifying, educating, illuminating, and in some cases, transcendent in that they elevate more than just your mind. They touch your soul and draw you closer to God because—whether fiction or non-fiction—they capture something in their pages that is God-breathed and sacramental. The Bible, of course, is this type of book. But I am also referring to books by artists and authors whose writing and what they share flows from a strong conscious or unconscious awareness of God and His goodness.
However, as is often the case, there is a downside to many things that are typically good and beneficial. For example, eating fruit is healthy, yet eating too much of it can cause health issues related to excessive sugar intake. Reading books has a downside, too, and poses a subtle but significant danger to our faith. I realize this is bit of a provocative statement that warrants explanation and is ironic, considering I am using the written word to make this point.
A Holistic Connection
Unity and division have been on my mind lately. I am continually impressed, or perhaps, better said, depressed, by the division we have in all aspects of our lives. Our country and the world seem so divided like in no other time. Our churches suffer, too, from much intra and inter division. In Orthodoxy, we understand division emanates from the sin within us. The fundamental divide is between our nature, which is good, and our will, which is damaged. It causes us to instinctively choose opposite of God. The only way we repair this damage between our nature and will—a work of a lifetime that we will never achieve in full this side of the grave—is to live the sacramental life daily so we become increasingly Christ-like over time. St. Paul reminds us of this basic truth in Romans 7:13-25.
So, what does this have to do with books and the written word? One of the core truths of our Orthodox Christian faith is that it is relational. Everything in Orthodox Christianity is understood and experienced in relationship—our relationship with God and our relationship with each other. Christ emphasizes this in the Gospels (Matthew 22:36-38, Mark 12:29-31, Luke 10:26-28). The Ten Commandments are all also about this, with the first four instructing us how to love God and the next six how to love each other. Our faith is never just about doctrine, canons, theology, or ideas understood and lived apart from relationship.
Uniformity Vs. Union
Division is an infection, a spiritual cancer that attacks relationships at their core. It first affects us within and then manifests itself in all aspects of our lives. In John 17:21, when Christ prayed for the Churches, He prayed “that they may all be one.” We are not all one. We suffer the effects of division at all levels to include within parishes and between parishes, and within churches and between churches. Too often, in my teachings and conversations, I encounter divisive thoughts based strictly on what someone has read in books or other written materials about other types of Orthodox Christians, or other Christians in general. When I ask them if they have experienced the people they have been reading about, perhaps been to their parishes, services, had meals with them, spoken to them at length, the answer is almost always no. I have also observed when they have had these experiences, they will either notice that the books they read were not always accurate or were surprised that their beliefs and practices are much closer to their own than the books would suggest.
The work of Christ is the work of unity (not uniformity). Christ said if you are not with Him you are against Him (Matthew 12:30). He prayed we would be one. We may never achieve Christian unity. But if we don’t want to be outside of Christ’s will, we must be careful in our hearts that we are not contributing to division, either in attitude or action. Working toward unity breeds unity even if we never fully achieve it.
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware often repeats the following message in formal or informal venues when he quotes the late Cardinal Suenens of Belgium: “To unite, we must first love one another. To love one another, we must first get to know one another.” Let’s not let books and any written word become a source of further division. There is so much we can learn in books and from writings, but there is much more we can learn through relationships with each other.
“Moreover, my son, guard yourself, for there is no end to the making of many books, and much study is weariness of the flesh.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12)
To find more of Michael’s exploration of the written word, click the link below and enter “Michael Haldas” in the search bar.
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