I am reposting this review because A Life Together is on sale for $2.99 for Kindle until March 1.
Takeaway: Community, like all great Christian paradoxes, is both here, with what we really experience, and potential, with what we might imagine.
I have been thinking about our theological isolation as I have been reading the two books For Calvinism (my review) and Against Calvinism (my review). It is interesting to interact with other Christians that cannot comprehend thinking about a theological issue in any other way than the way they conceive of it. It is not that it is wrong to be sure of our faith. But if we are sure of our faith because we have never thought of our faith or understood that there are other ways to think of our faith, then are we really sure of our faith?
So I think it is important to read works outside our theological comfort zone. If you are a Calvinist, you need to read John Wesley. If you are a Baptist, you should read Pope John Paul II. If you are Methodist, you should read Bonhoeffer or Barth.
I try to read something that is explicitly Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic every couple of months. I am a ‘low church’ guy that appreciates the importance of liturgy and the sacraments, but I do not fully understand the theological and cultural systems that inform them.
When I first heard about A Life Together, I was intrigued. What would Bonheoffer’s book have looked like if it were written by an Orthodox priest under communist Russia? This is not quite what this book is about, but there are some parallels. Sigrist, starts by profiling Father Alexander Men, a Russian Orthodox priest that was murdered by communists in the final days of the Soviet Union.
But what this book is really about is an exploration of an untranslatable Russian word sobornost. It is sort of community, friendship, ecumenicalism, unity, but not quite any of those words.
One of the things that most appeals to me about Orthodoxy is its conscious embrace of mystery. The Orthodox church by some conceptions is stunted because it resists systematic theology, instead embracing the idea that theology that is too explicit is too reductionistic. This is illustrated well by a discussion of gifts within community early in the book:
“…The gifts of the Holy Spirit are revealed in community. As such, they are for all the community, and so one gift does not quest the other, even when, as happens often, they are opposite. So the analytical does not quench the emotional, the gift of tears does not quench that of laughter, the gift of the spiritual elder does not contradict that of the psychologist, the gift of ecstasy does not stand in disharmony with that of calm.”
The embrace of the plurality within the church, without minimizing the individual (or segment) within the church is illustrated by a quote from Alexander Men:
“And it seems to me that such pluralism, such interaction of different points of view, is an important pre-condition for the vitality of Christianity. And perhaps it was providential that Christianity was split into different tendencies, because without this it would probably have been something uniform and forced. It is as if, knowing people’s tendency to intolerance, God divided them so that each person in their place, in their own garden could bring forth their own fruit.”
This book, like several other Orthodox books I have read, it short and wandering. It is not explicating a particular passage or idea, but rather wandering around it, trying to get an idea of what community is about by looking at it from different angles. Sigrist is not so much writing about a theology of community as he is giving us several poetic looks at what community might be like, or is like, or could be like.
I enjoy the mystery and paradox of it all, but I also crave some definition. This book will irritate many. It is not straightforward and clear. It is the opposite of straightforward and clear. But I do think there is value, especially for those of us that like thinking about the minor details of theology, to be told that sometime what is important is not the answer, but the question, and the way that the question is asked.