Faith comes first

He that believeth and his baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be damned (Mark 16:16). – Our Lord Jesus Christ

 All you need is love. – The Beatles

“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love (I Corinthians 13:13).”   Ecumenists justify a fundamental tenet of Ecumenism – that dogmatic differences do not matter as long as we love each other – based on this well-known (and true) statement of St. Paul. Yet in many other places, the Apostle to the Gentiles asserts that without Faith one cannot be saved. (Every time a relativist throws 1 Corinthians 13:13 in your teeth, tell him to read Romans and Hebrews.) In addition, one may not merely have faith in something or other, or in some Christ or other, but in the true Christ. One must believe the Truth.   Love is greater, but love is not the first step. To love one’s neighbor in truth and not in one’s imagination, one must desire his true good and not just his good feelings. To love God, one must love the real God and not a figment of someone’s imagination.

We must, then, begin with the foundation of belief in that which is true and not in that which is false.   Otherwise our power to love is misdirected, and we pour our heart into something not quite real. We have all made mistakes like this in our loves and loyalties, and therefore I am sure you know what I am talking about. A lot of books and movies glorify romantic protagonists whose supposed heroism lies in suffering from this mistake, but romantic protagonists in the spiritual warfare do not go to Paradise.

Believing in that which is true and not that which is false is bound up with being in the Church and finding salvation in the Church. There are two maxims here of utmost importance: St. Cyprian of Carthage famously said that extra ecclesiam nulla salus – outside the Church there is no salvation – and this saying entered the perennial, undoubted tradition of the Church as expressing the authentic teaching of Christ and the Apostles. The obvious next question is, “How, then, does one know if one is in the Church?” St. Maximus the Confessor tells us that the primary criterion for membership in the Church is “the correct and saving confession of the Faith.” Heretics, then, according to this criterion, cannot belong to the Church, much less be bishops and priests of the Church.

Fascinated by the outward beauties of the church’s tradition – icons, chant, architecture, etc. – people often forget that Orthodoxy is bound up with, well, orthodoxy. The real Church is the church which confesses that which Christ taught to the Apostles, and the Apostles to the Fathers and Martyrs and Ascetics, and so on down to our own day. One needs to believe in the True Faith in order to be in the True Church.

Something funny happens to a lot of Orthodox, however, on the way to the Judgment Seat. For, as we know, orthodoxy is not all there is to Orthodoxy. The historic, organically continuous Orthodox Church has enormous riches of art, architecture, literature, chant, institutions, folk customs…you name it. It is the central institution, the animating principle, of an entire civilization, the highest civilization in history, and the highest artifacts of this civilization are those created by and for the Church.  Moderns starved for beauty understandably become intoxicated with the beauty of Orthodoxy, but they may risk indulging this appetite at the expense of their orthodoxy. Not all that glitters is gold.   Moderns starved for antiquity, stability, and authenticity understandably want to cling to the outward semblances of venerable institutions, no matter what.  The “what,” however, may involve a fundamental loss of integrity.

What we easily forget is that all of the outward structures and the outward beauties of Orthodoxy are not the Faith but are rather by-products of Faith and aids to Faith. The real Church is not the church that owns the cathedrals with the best Byzantine iconography, but is rather the Church that confesses the true Faith. Today a lot of people conveniently forget this or only give it lip service, and they will not leave these great edifices and the infrastructure they symbolize, with all its attendant conveniences and emotional comforts, no matter what.   Unfortunately, the owners of this infrastructure are the patriarchates and synods that have in fact betrayed the Faith by belonging to the World Council of Churches and proclaiming that their faith is the same as the Pope’s (not to mention praying with rabbis, mullahs, pagans, and witch doctors).

I do not want to insult you by asking baldly, “Are you in this only for the ‘bells and smells?’” But I do think that each of us has to question himself daily: If I were forced to choose between the Faith itself and the outward comforts of the Faith, which would I choose?   Today the resources to produce such comforts are mostly in the hands of men who have betrayed the Faith, and those who insist on following such men risk losing their salvation thereby.   St. Paul exhorts us to go outside the camp, bearing the reproach of Christ (cf. Hebrews 13:13), in order to be with Christ and not with His betrayers.

Let us now return to our first theme, that of love. The power of the soul that, when transfigured by grace, energizes towards agape, spiritual love, the highest of all virtues, is the desiring power.   Our desiring power, however, must be directed by the rational power, or it will be misdirected to that which is not worthy of love.   The desiring power is the same power that is attracted to Beauty and is therefore dangerously prone to loving appearances. Our rational power, informed by Truth and conformed to Truth, must direct the desiring power, or we will pour our hearts into the not-quite-real, and (here is the scary part) feel good about it.  In our church life, we can be enamored of a church that is not the Church and feel good about it. We can be in the real Church and often feel simply wretched.

All of this requires clarity of thought and purity of heart to make the right choices and stick with them.   It can be a long and hard road. As a starting point, however, always remember: Faith comes first.


crucified monk

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