sacramental ontology

Too many Christians are living like atheists, operating as if God doesn’t exist. We don’t expect to bump into God around the watercooler or doing the dishes. We might believe in God, but we don’t expect to encounter God.

…Christians live like atheists, according to the Orthodox priest and author Stephen Freeman, because we think we’re living in a two-story universe. In this two-story universe, the cosmos is a house with two floors. As Freeman describes it, “We live here on earth, the first floor, where things are simply things and everything operates according to normal, natural laws, while God lives in heaven, upstairs, and is largely removed from the story in which we live. To effect anything here, God must interrupt the laws of nature and perform a miracle.” For us to see or hear from God, God has to come downstairs to visit us. But most of the time, it’s just us alone on the first floor. God is absent, upstairs and minding his own business.

When we live our lives in the two-story world, we practice what Freeman calls “Christian atheism.” Since God is “up- stairs,” God is “not here.” God isn’t close; God is elsewhere, far away and distant. And not just physically distant, mentally distant as well. God is at the back our minds, an afterthought, if we think of God at all.

What we need to recover, according to Freeman, is a one-story vision of the universe. We need to see that God is, in the words of Freeman, “everywhere present and filling all things.” In a one-story View of the universe, God and humanity are all living on the same floor. We’re roommates with God and expect to see each other all the time. Like Jacob declared, we’re living in the house of God.

…Theologians have a fancy name for this one-story view of the world. They call it a “sacramental ontology.” Ontology is concerned with “existence,” our thoughts and ideas about “reality.” A good definition of sacrament is “a visible sign of an invisible reality.” Putting the two together, “sacramental ontology” is about how everything around us, everything that exists, points us toward God. All the world is a sign.

But that’s not quite right. Sacraments are more than signs. …If sacraments are merely signs, we’re back to living in the two-story universe, with the downstairs “sign” pointing toward an upstairs “reality.” But as Flannery O’Connor teaches us, sacraments participate in and embody the spiritual reality they symbolize. Sacraments bring the miracle close. As Catholics say about the Eucharist, God is “really present” in the sacrament, in the same room with us, and not just observ- ing us from the upstairs. A sacramental ontology expands this vision, coming to see God as “really present” in all things and everywhere in the world. Again, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” God’s vitality and life crackle through nature. …The sunlight, the wind, and the rain are not just signs pointing us toward the Creator. God is “really present” in nature. God is embracing us in the sunlight on our face, the raindrops on our skin, and the breeze in our hair. God comes to us in people as well. As Hopkins wrote in a different poem, “Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.” God is really present in the faces and hands of other human beings as we love each other.

…This sacramental ontology shows up all over the Bible. My favorite example comes from Acts 14, the first sermon in the his- tory of the world preached to a wholly pagan audience. …Unable to appeal to Abraham or Moses, Paul turns the attention of his audience to the natural world. God is “every-where present” in this one-story world. Just like a roommate, God has always been speaking to us. As Paul says, “He has not left himself without witness.” God’s voice is heard in the rain and in the harvest. God is close where there is good food and the laugher of friends. God has been with you this entire time, declares Paul, “filling your hearts with joy.” Start with joy if you’re looking for enchantment. Let gladness be your guide to the gateway of heaven.

Recovering this sacramental ontology is the next big step toward enchanting our faith in this skeptical age. This is a one-story universe. So let’s stop going through the day living as if God doesn’t exist. God is everywhere present. God isn’t that mysterious neighbor living in the apartment above you. God is closer than you can imagine. The signs and sacraments are all around you. …You are living in the House of God.

Hunting Magic Eels: Recovering an Enchanted Faith in a Skeptical Age by Richard Beck

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