Abraham Was Not a Prodigal: Modern Secularist Individualism & the Life of Prayer
“Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Three Sons of Scripture Who Left Their Father’s House
There are three well-known stories in scripture that focus on a son leaving his father’s house, and yet the three stories are vastly different. The Parable of the Prodigal Son in Saint Luke’s gospel (Luke 15:11-32) tells of a young man who asks his father for an early inheritance. In the historical and cultural context that this story was told in, this is akin to the son saying that he wished his father were dead already. Shockingly, his father absorbs this insult with equanimity and generously grants his son’s request. The young man leaves his father’s home and goes off to a foreign land, where he squanders all of his inheritance on “riotous living” (Luke 15:13), winding up in a pig pen. Pigs, of course, were considered by the Jews to be unclean animals not even fit for a meal, so the extent of the son’s fall is enormous.
Abram, on the other hand, felt called from his father’s house by a still very hidden and enigmatic God. We might say that Abram caught a vision of God, and in that vision he saw also a hidden and seemingly impossible potential for his own life (Gen. 12:1-3, 15:1-6). Impossible as it seemed, however, Abram nonetheless took it quite seriously. He willingly left his father’s country never to return, going where that vision led, into a great unknown.
The third well-known biblical story of a son’s home-leaving is to be found in the prologue to Saint John’s gospel (John 1:1-18). Here, the divine Logos, the only begotten of God the Father who is in the bosom of the Father (John 1:14, 18), empties himself of his divinity and unites himself to what he is not, to human flesh, in an act of redeeming intimacy and love. By this intimacy he will raise the whole human being into a renewed opportunity for communion with the Father (Phil. 2:1-18).
The Prodigal Son can be likened to Adam, who leaves the bosom of his father’s house into the alienation of the life of sin and rebellion. Abram, on the other hand, is called out of this alienation Godward. He is to make this God-directed walk on the two legs of obedience and faith. The story of the incarnate Christ brings completion to Abram’s home-leaving, transforming it into a homecoming.
Today we will focus on the home-leaving of Abram.
The Home-Leaving of Abram in Modernist America
In a previous post we established that the Church, and so the Christian life itself, is a way. We are compelled as Christians to be pilgrims; to be walking a way. We cannot merely dream about and talk about God but, like Abram, we must make a real home-leaving into unknown territory that we might eventually make a homecoming in Christ.
To say this in contemporary America, however, is to risk being misunderstood. I have been aware of a certain rhetoric among some Protestants that is scornful of anything that smacks of “tradition” or “religion”, the latter of which seems often to refer to cultural and ritual expressions of faith that are understood as an attempt to please or placate God. The title of a blog article on definingthenarrative.com says it all, “God Hates Religion”. Such an attitude seeks to break radically and decisively with the catholic past and with the historical ways of the Church.
Ingrafted, “God Hates Religion”, Defining the Narrative: Discussing the Soul of America. 2010. https://definingthenarrative.com/god-hates-religion/, (accessed August 16, 2016).
For an example, many people refuse to use prescribed prayers and ritual acts, which in their sightlessness they can only see as being empty. As a result, such people have come up with what is essentially their own tradition of praying, what I like to wryly call the “I just wanna’” way of praying: “Lord God, Father God, I just wanna’ give you thanks and I just wanna’ ask so and so of you”, and so on. My wife, a cradle Roman Catholic, was amusingly astonished when she first heard such a prayer being offered. I was rather more disturbed by it. The boast will often be heard that this tradition, which it surely is, is more akin to “the Church of the Apostles”, as if the Church of the apostles was a static ideal to be found in history rather than a living reality still very much with us in the apostles’ successors.
Be that as it may, the point to be made here is that at least an aspect of this anti-religious attitude has its roots in the well-intentioned Protestant desire to see all of life as sacred; to democratize holiness. Unfortunately, this very program is the unwitting father of the modern secularism which many Protestants today find themselves lamenting. To say that “everything is sacred” has rather had the effect of making nothing at all sacred, especially because it has done away with particular instances of sacredness by which we come to appreciate the sanctity of all things. For example, if we cannot reverence (reverence, not worship) a cross, an altar, and particularly exemplary Christians who have lived out their calling to be a saint in admirable ways, can we reverence anything? It is the Eucharistic bread and wine, set apart and consecrated for communion with God, that makes all meals holy, just as it is Christ who makes all people human. The same can be said for the “priesthood of all believers”. Without particular examples of priesthood, this saying becomes meaningless.
Missing these connections, those who bear such anti-religious and anti-tradition attitudes reinforce themselves by cherry-picking through scripture and highlighting passages such as Mark 7:7-8 and Matthew 15:9, all the while relegating to the sidelines passages that describe Jesus’s own faithful participation in the synagogue and temple services (Luke 4:16; John 2:13, 5:1, 7:1-13, etc.). Even after the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension we’re told that Jesus’ own disciples were “continually in the temple worshipping and praising God” (Luke 24:53; Acts 2:46).
In addition, it cannot be ignored that the Revelation of John, which ends our scriptural canon, takes place within, and describes in great detail, a highly liturgical and religious environment. John affirms that his vision takes place in the context of worship when he says, in the introduction, that he “was in the spirit on the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10). In other words, John was worshipping at the Sunday Eucharist, which becomes to him an open window to the heavenly Eucharist. The liturgical worship in heaven that he describes smacks of the temple worship and also of catholic worship today, which is just as it should be since we understand both the temple worship and the Christian liturgy to be types and signs of the heavenly worship to which they point and in which they participate. Liturgy is a window to heaven.
Traditions are Not the Problem
This is not to say that anything or anyone – that any encounter in life – cannot and should not be for us a window to heaven. All of life should be communion with God; it is only sin that darkens the window of this world and hides from us the heavenly. Because there is sin, and even if there weren’t sin, the Eucharist, or Divine Liturgy, serves as a window to heaven in a special and particular way. Heaven is particularly near us when we gather in worship. It is not that these “religious” things are things that we have made up just to be religious and pious. Rather, they have been given us by God through his Son (Luke 22:19; John 6:53; 1 Cor. 11:24) and by the vision granted us by the Holy Spirit (Exod. 24 – 31; Rev. 1:10, 4, etc.) as the very means by which we commune with him and come to knowledge of him. Furthermore, they have been given us through the teaching of the Apostles, who themselves readily and unashamedly admit that much of their own activity consists of correctly passing on “traditions” (1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15, 3:6; 2 Tim 2:2).
Traditions are not the problem. The problem is when traditions cease to open out to God and become opaque things-in-themselves. This is true for everything in this life, and it happens because of our sin, not because there is an inherent flaw in creation as God has made it. Creation as God has made it includes seasons and cycles and ritual events (Gen 1:14) and is, in some very palpable way, a revelation and communication of God’s majesty and deity (Rom. 1:19-20).
Our discernment between what may merely be “the traditions of men” and what are the signs and symbols of the presence of the heavenly has to be nuanced, examined, and informed. We cannot be overly simplistic when it comes to this important matter, and we certainly must not be complicit in the atheism, agnosticism and general suspicion of the religious and transcendent that is so characteristic of secularist society. Such an attitude has everything to do with modernist empiricism and nothing to do with the early Church. There is the heavenly worship, and we must enter it here on earth with the things of creation, even as we must allow that heavenly worship to enter into our midst. This “entering in” of heaven to earth and earth receiving heaven is called “the sacramental”. It forms the very foundation of the Christian faith: the Incarnation of God in Christ.
Our Home-leaving and Abram’s Home-leaving
We in contemporary America are good at forsaking our fathers’ countries. As a nation of immigrants, it is in our DNA to proudly and quickly leave our past in the dust. We undiscerningly scorn tradition and our own heritage (and yet, we outlandishly complain of a lack of community and rootedness). We do this largely without vision, more as the Prodigal than as Abram. We walk uncertainly into a dark future with nothing of substance to call us forward, being compelled only by a strange loathing of our past and the places from where we have come. Some are moved by a smug sense of the triumph of the contemporary, some by a brutal vision of technical mastery over this uncertain and flesh-bound world, some define their lives by the confused contours of economic, political and social programs and sundry ideologies.
None of these things are what brought Abram from his father’s country. Abram was not a prodigal, Abram was not an activist nor a politician nor a Protestant, nor was he an inventor of some utopian social order. Rather, for all of his mistakes and missteps, Abram was yet a follower of the vision of God. Abram caught this vision, even if fleetingly, and he loved it above all else. He pursued it, he trusted it, he risked all for it. And, by his pursuit he himself and, indeed, the whole world, were transformed. Abram became Abraham, and the Christ was eventually brought into the world, who is truly the child of that impossible promise.
This transformation was not due to Abraham’s own manipulations, but was brought about by the one whom he saw and allowed to work in him. Abraham allowed the vision of God to work in and through him, and by this God was made known and the world was brought a mighty salvation. Abraham was not one who talked about God. Rather, he was one who made the journey that the vision of God required of him.
Contemplative Prayer and the Church
This journey is to be made in the one catholic and apostolic Church, with her sacramental and spiritual life. It is really only within the context of the Church that Christian contemplative practice has a home and makes sense. It is the Church who prays through the individual believer, just as it is Christ who prays through the Church, and all this for the life of the world. Lest prayer, especially contemplative prayer, degrade into some exercise that ends up only affirming our unexamined capitulation to modern secularist individualism (I just wanna’) – which for the Christian can be nothing more than a fallen, down-cycled life in the foreign country of sin – contemplative prayer must be made and engaged within the reconciling community of the Church, which is the very body of Christ on earth, and his body is one. The Church is indeed a way, even as that way extends all the way home to that promised heavenly city of God (Heb. 11:15-16; Rev. 21).