Essay / Culture

Stripping the Altar

John Mark Reynolds, 2005.

For Eastern Christians today is Good Friday. Last night we recollected Christ’s gift of Holy Communion to the Church. At the end of that most beautiful of services in the light of candles the altar was stripped. Every decoration was removed. Every sign of honor was taken from it.It is a sad thing to see the altar bare. It is a visible sign of the time from Good Friday to Easter when the Church refrains from the Eucharist. That fast itself is an outward sign of the inward human wickedness which killed Jesus Christ. He came to give us goodness, truth, and beauty and we killed Him.

Many of us act as if we can live our lives autonomous from God and from the community of the Church. This is true of believers as well as unbelievers. We create our own meaning and we adopt a skeptical attitude to replace one of belief.

Skepticism is a precious tool in our philosophic tool kit and is very necessary in a fallen world, but it is no basis for living. It helps us strip away lies and deceit, and that is good, but when allowed to govern it strips everything good from the world. It leaves the altar bare and then does not allow us to even see the altar. Having seen through everything it is left proud of its inability to see nothing.

To create art, music, and literature is an act of faith. It requires belief that each man has a soul and that our words can be understood soul to soul. There is no gap between you and me, because these mere words, glowing on your screen, trigger communion at a deeper level. We understand, because men are more than the matter and energy that make our bodies possible.

Saddest of all is that moderns have gone about the planet intentionally removing the divine. We build communities with no zoning for Churches. We tear down groves and pave over brooks. We attempt to recreate the world in our own image and leave it uglier than we found it. We are no longer gardeners, but vandals. This is the essence of secularism which sees a tree and thinks wood, which sees a stone and sees a road.Secularism strips our world of goodness. It does so by allowing personal pleasures to become the measure of what is right. It refuses to admit that our natures may be disordered and that some great seeming pleasures may prevent us from great spiritual joy. As a result our culture seeks pleasure more, but enjoys it less. We worship our own decisions, but cannot give them meaning to anyone other than ourselves.

Secularism removes all truth. It cannot rest on any foundation, however secure. It must challenge the very laws of logic if those cannot be fully defended by unaided human reason. In doing so it destroys reason itself. It removes the soul and so makes language impossible as we are left with individual brains, computers made of meat, cut off from each other trying to touch each other through words. However words are ideas and must exist in the soul the true medium for ideas. It is the soul that informs the body and in union with it makes a man human. There is no Word that can reach a soul for in our folly we have stripped the flesh of soul and left it bare. It sits naked and unformed trying to reach something other than itself, but it lacks the power.Secularism destroys real beauty. It cannot measure ideas by the Mind of God, because it does not believe in any Mind that is not dependent on matter. There is nothing transcendent and so art becomes mere taste and opinion. Science alone is given the right to knowledge and the poet is left to either glorify it or mutter meaningless sounds to himself.

Soon men begin to question science itself which is based on the decision to favor elegance and beauty. Why should this be so? Such a culture strips matter itself of any meaning and can only worship chaos and darkness. It is no wonder that our popular culture hates the new Pope, heroic men like James Dobson, and men of courage like George W. Bush. They are believers and have refused the self-centered path of the functionally secular. These men are believers. They shine with a bright light and though not perfect, and often very imperfect, their real danger to the secularists is their belief. The secularists are frightened that some great light will blind them and they will not be able to see the world clearly. The believers worship a higher power than themselves and so appear naive or frightening to those who have snuffed out every light to avoid being blinded and who now sit in darkness.

This light is so much better than the skepticism we worship in the Academy. It is good and teaches us how to love even our foes. The believer loves even the secularist who vaunts of stripping the world of divinity for he knows that in his own heart he too has been a vandal. He too has been in darkness afraid to live in the piercing beauty of Christ. We do not lose our skeptical natures in Christ. Instead our skepticism is transformed into a pathway to the Good! This is a great miracle and the best news is that it is not too late. The invitation of Easter is open to all. It is not too late!Christ is the sun to our minds. He blinds at first as we stumble out of dark skeptical caves. However, He comes to illuminate, to cause us to question and to do true philosophy. Today the altar is bare. Tomorrow it will be bare, but Easter is coming even to the furthest East.

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