Written by Vladimir Moss



     The Orthodox Church instructs her children largely through the use of symbolism and analogy. Physical substances such as fire, air, water, earth, bread, wine, oil, salt and yeast symbolize various spiritual realities. For, as St. Anthony the Great told the philosophers, nature is a book in which we read the thoughts of God…


    Astronomical objects also have symbolical meanings. For example, the sun symbolizes God, the moon – the Church (for she, like the moon, borrows her light from the sun, God, and waxes and wanes in time), and the stars – the Orthodox bishops. Thus when we read in Revelation (12.4) that a third of the stars were cast to the earth, some interpreters understand this to mean that a third of the bishops fell away from Orthodoxy…


     What about space and time? Modern physics has overturned our notions of space, time, matter and energy. Do these new ideas on material reality reveal any spiritual lessons for us when we probe their possible symbolical meanings?


     “Is space the warp and weft of reality?” asks the physicist Anil Ananthaswamy. “Or time? Or both, or neither?”[1] It would be instructive to attempt to define ecclesiastical reality in analogous terms. Is the Church defined spatially, in terms of the number and geographical extent of its members and communities? Or temporally, in terms of its historical origins? Or both, or neither?


     The difference between Orthodox and Roman Catholic ecclesiology is largely a difference between spatial and temporal definitions. Catholicism is the sum of those individuals and communities that are in canonical obedience to the bishop of Rome, which see, uniquely throughout the earth, is guaranteed to be Catholic forever. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, knows no geographical centre, and no spatial point of infallibility, but is defined by its continuity and consistency in time. To be Orthodox is to be linked through faith and apostolic succession to the apostles, and through them to the founder of the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ. Of course, Orthodoxy does have a spatial dimension: we are linked in the One Church to every other Orthodox individual and community in every other part of the world, and the Saviour of the Church has promised that the Church will have some spatial extension even to the end of time. However, the temporal dimension is more fundamental, because if we ask the question: how or why are we linked to each other? then the answer must be: because we all share the faith of the apostles, being faithful to Holy Tradition as passed down without change from the time of the apostles to the present day. If an Orthodox of our own time does not have this same relationship to the faith and Tradition as had the previous generations of the truly Orthodox, then we know that he is not really Orthodox, even if he belongs to an organization calling itself “Orthodox”, but is a heretic or schismatic. For “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13.8).


     Thus our connectedness with other Orthodox in space is dependent on, and the consequence of, our common connectedness in time with the Orthodox of all previous generations going back to the apostles. For the Orthodox Church is built in the shape of the Cross with its two arms symbolizing space and time. It is the vertical shaft, signifying the growth of the Church in time, that upholds the horizontal arm, signifying the present-day extension of the Church in space.


     Now the Catholics also talk about apostolic succession. But in fact they have no continuity in faith with the apostles, and therefore no apostolic succession in the real sense. For every successive pope has the power to redefine the faith, and therefore in effect recreate the teaching of Christ and the Church in his own image through the issuing of ex cathedra redefinitions of the faith – Jesus Christ, for the popes, is not the same from one papal reign to another. Thus the Roman Church of the Apostle Peter and Pope Gregory I is not the Roman Church of Gregory VII, still less that of Francis I. Holy Tradition, the mystical continuity and consubstantiality of the Church in time, is honoured in theory, but violated and broken in practice. For the contemporary Catholic, what is important is not the conformity of his faith with that of any previous apostle or pope, but his obedience only to the present incumbent, Pope Francis I.


     In this context, it is interesting to compare the situation in contemporary physics. “’There are attributes of physical systems which don’t refer to space, but which change in time,’ says Abhay Ashtekar of Pennsylvania State University. ‘One could say that for those attributes, time is more fundamental than space…’”[2] For the Church, on the other hand, time is more fundamental than space for precisely the opposite reason: that its most important attributes – faith, Tradition - do not change in time.


     As for Protestantism, it cast aside the spatial anchor of Rome without restoring the temporal continuity with the Early Church. Indeed, it broke with Tradition even more decisively than Catholicism, and cast aside the concept of apostolic succession completely. Since every individual Protestant can interpret the Scriptures as he wants, he is essentially, as Archbishop Hilarion Troitsky pointed out[3], a mini-pope who can recreate the faith without reference to the Church or Tradition or anything outside himself. He is therefore a kind of windowless monad with no real connection either in space or time with the rest of the Church. Of course, the social community of his parish is important to him, but it is important to him psychologically rather than spiritually or dogmatically. Belief in the Church is not part of his Creed; it is neither One, Holy, Catholic nor Apostolic, but simply an insubstantial “invisible church of all believers”, having neither matter nor energy. For how can an object that is defined neither temporally nor spatially be said to exist in any substantial sense?


     Let us pursue our cosmological analogies one step further, to the mysterious substance that is light… It is an axiom of Einstein’s theory of relativity that nothing can travel through space-time faster than light. Modern physicists are exploring the inter-relationship between space, time and light. Thus for Polchinski the constant speed of light “provides a reference of both space and time. A light ray always moves at one unit of space per unit of time – a constant diagonal on any graph of space against time. ‘The direction that light rays travel is in neither space nor time; we call it “null”. It’s on the edge between space and time,’ says Polchinski. ‘A lot of people have this intuition that in some sense the existence of these null directions might be more fundamental than space or time.’”[4]


     Now light is a very important symbol in Orthodox theology. It is the very first creation of God (Genesis 1.3). But more than that: the Creator Himself “dwells in unapproachable Light” (I Timothy 6.16), and at His Transfiguration revealed Himself to be Light in His Divine, Uncreated Energies. Christ said: “I am the Light of the world”; He is “Light of Light, true God of true God”. And “in Thy Light shall we see Light” - in the Light of the Holy Spirit we see the Light that is Christ.


     In ecclesiastical symbolism, as in physics, light can be seen as “more fundamental than space or time” and “on the edge between space and time”. For the Light of God is that Uncreated Energy that creates and builds up the Church in both its vertical (temporal) and horizontal (spatial) arms. Consider what happens when one man joins the Church through Holy Baptism. A ray of the Light of God descends upon the water of the font, and the man rises from it purified and enlightened. Through grace, one more unit (member) has been added to both the vertical and the horizontal structure of the Church; for “a light ray always moves at one unit of space per unit of time”.


     But if the Light of God’s grace is withdrawn from a man, then he becomes, in the terrifying words of the Apostle Jude, “a wandering star for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever” (v. 13). And if a whole Local Church loses grace, then the result is still more terrifying, being analogous to the explosion of a super-nova (the Crab super-nova appeared in the heavens in July, 1054, precisely the date of the fall of the Western Church) and the creation of a monstrous black hole that sucks light-bearing objects (baptized Christians) into its maw but cannot emit any light itself. The Church is diminished in a sense by such an event, being one or more units shorter and narrower. And yet her basic shape is unchanged, and the power and beauty of the Light that emanates from her remains undiminished. For in the spiritual heavens, as in the earthly, Light is the one constant that never changes, being beyond and above both space and time.


June 4/17, 2013.

[1] Ananthaswamy, “Space against Time”, New Scientist, 15 June, 2013, p. 35.

[2] Ananthaswamy, op. cit., p. 36

[3] Troitsky, Christianity or the Church?, 1917.

[4] Ananthaswamy, op. cit., p. 37.

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