Premodern meets Postsecular: What is a Christian? The importance of listening to the early mothers and fathers

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Some have asked me recently, why do you spend time reading the translated works of the early desert mothers and fathers (sometimes called unhelpfully Patristics) to be able think about the faith and mission in the 21st Century?

Well firstly, because this writing was written before modernism.  So much of what is written from the enlightenment to recently is based on a western modern culture.  For example much of Anglican and Lutheran writing is set in the context of the reformation onwards.  Modernism is so deep in the DNA of much writing, that we forget that there is a premodern source for Christianity.  If we look to the early writers of the premodern period, then there is real wisdom in some of what is written that can be a deep resource for reflecting on modes of understanding and expressing Christianity in a post-secular context.

A good example is the book, The Roots of Christian Mysticism by Olivier Clement.  This is an amazing book, that explores authentic Christian approaches to meditation and contemplation drawing on ancient thinking and understanding.  This book has literally challenged me deeply.

One of the most beautiful writings regarding what it means to be a Christian was written in a manuscript called “A Letter to Diognetus Chapters 5 and 6″

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humankind either in locality or in speech or in customs. For they dwell not somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor practice an extraordinary kind of life…But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and other ethnic groups as the lot of each is cast, and follow the native customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life, yet the constitution of their own citizenship, which they set forth, is marvelous, and confessedly contradicts expectation. They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a homeland to them, and every homeland is foreign…They find themselves in the flesh, and yet they live not after the flesh. Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, and they surpass the laws in their own lives. They love all people, and they are persecuted by all. They are ignored, and yet they are condemned. They are put to death, and yet they are endued with life. (Chapter 5)

In a word, what the soul is in a body, this the Christians are in the world. The soul is spread through all the members of the body, and Christians through the diverse cities of the world. The soul has its abode in the body, and yet it is not of the body. So Christians have their abode in the world, and yet they are not of the world. The soul which is invisible is guarded in the body which is visible: so Christians are recognized as being in the world, and yet their religion remains invisible. The flesh hates the soul and wages war with it, though it receives no wrong, because it is forbidden to indulge in pleasures; so the world hates Christians, though it receives no wrong from them, because they set themselves against its pleasures. The soul loves the flesh which hates it, and the members: so Christians love those that hate them. The soul is enclosed in the body, and yet itself holds the body together; so Christians are kept in the world as in a prison-house, and yet they themselves hold the world together. The soul though itself immortal dwells in a mortal tabernacle; so Christians sojourn amidst perishable things, while they look for the imperishability which is in the heavens. The soul when poorly treated in the matter of food and drinks is improved; and so Christians when punished increase more and more daily. (Chapter 6)

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