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Deficient Anthropology at the Root of Cultural Crisis in the West

Andrew Stephen Damick

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Give not that which is holy unto dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you. (Matthew 7:6)

The Wall Street Journal reported on March 10th that St. Francis Episcopal Church in Stamford, Connecticut has started a new program:

For the first time in 10 years, Mary Wilkinson went to church one Sunday in January. She sat in a back pew at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Stamford, Conn., flipping through a prayer book and listening intently to the priest's sermon.

What drew Ms. Wilkinson back into the fold was a new monthly program the church introduced -- Holy Communion for pets. As part of the service, the 59-year-old retired portfolio manager carried her 17-year-old tiger cat to the altar, waited in line behind three panting dogs to receive the host and had a special benediction performed for her cat, Purr Box Jr. "I like that the other parishioners are animal people," Ms. Wilkinson says.

Here's a quote from the website of this parish: "And don't worry about barks and meows and squeaks and peeps and whines and loud purrs or ferocious growls... those are simply the prayer noises of your beloved pets."

What's the next sacrament for Episcopalian pets? Marriage? Ordination? You may think I'm kidding, but who would have predicted they'd give Holy Communion to dogs?

There's clearly a deficient anthropology afoot in the Episcopal Church and all America these days -- a proper theology of man is essential to true Christian faith and praxis. The lack of understanding the incarnate reality of human existence -- what it means to be human, what it means to be a child of God, what it means to be man, what it means to be woman -- is, I think, the source of much of the Episcopal Church's shenanigans lately. That is why it's possible to ordain an openly homosexual bishop, to marry homosexuals, to ordain women, and to give communion to dogs. The Holy Mysteries (sacraments) are deeply involved in what it means to be human, and so it is of no surprise that an attack on the sacraments should now stoop even to quite literally inhuman levels.

It's my belief that the West in general has a deficient anthropology, mostly because of its inability to fit the seeming paradox of the meshing of God's sovereignty with man's free will. Various answers to this quandary have been posed -- bondage of the will, Calvinistic predestination, Purgatory and indulgences, name-it-claim-it theology, sacramental symbolism (i.e. no "real presence"), iconoclasm, and so on. What ultimately is at work here is an unwillingness to come to terms with the Incarnation, namely, that God became a man. The implications of that event are both staggering and thoroughgoing -- on the one hand, they mean that the Uncreated has become a creature while yet remaining Uncreated, while on the other, they mean that the creature may become Uncreated. (What else did St. Athanasius mean, anyhow? God became man that man might become god.)

You may be finding it hard to connect the dots here (as I did), butconsider the scandal of the Incarnation: God became a human male, born ofa woman in a real human society. He lived, preached, healed, died andresurrected. That is, after dying on a cross, he got up out of His tomband walked around again. His heart stopped beating, then later started upagain. He gave us the Holy Mysteries to join us intimately with Him, thatwe might become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). TheMysteries are given to redeem us in our fallenness and bring us toperfection, that we might become by grace what He is by nature.

Without coming to terms with what it means to be psycho-somatic beings (that is, composed of both soul and body), we will continue to have an unbalanced understanding of ourselves and of our God. Either we will attempt to devalue the body in favor of the soul, creating a highly mental and/or emotional religion (whether that religion be one of faith or atheism) or we will devalue the soul in favor of the body, focussing endlessly on sexuality, personal appearance, and even a morbid obsession with seeking out physical suffering as a "spiritual" good. Standing at the balance between these two extremes, however, is orthodox Christian asceticism, the careful, sober bringing of the body into the service of the soul so that both may glorify God in unity and enter into deeper, more intimate communion with Him.

In calling us to asceticism, God proposes a marriage between us and Himself. If any of you have been married or considered marriage, you know that the question of who the beloved really is will always be essential in your union. Because it is God Who gives us our being and speaks into being what His design for Creation is (both its material and immaterial aspects), and because He is the one Who created marriage, then that means that this union must be according to His design or else it is nothing. All the Mysteries are His to give, not ours to control or make "relevant" to modern culture.

How, then, can the sacraments be so radically redefined, divorced from all Christian tradition and even clear reason? How can marriage be redefined? How can openly unrepentant sin be honored with ordination? How can Holy Communion be given to Fido? Why is it that disfiguration and dismemberment of the human body are such dominant themes in popular art and culture? Are these our suggestions for what it means to be raised to the stature of the fulness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13)? Do we really expect God to give His blessing to these blasphemies, just because we ritualistically or legally say that He will?

I know I seem to be picking on the Episcopalians here, but really I'm using them as an icon of what's happening in America. If we as Americans would return to the anthropology traditional to the Christian Church, then we would see the possibility for salvation open up again for us. Until then, our nation will continue to heap inhuman absurdity upon inhuman absurdity, while conservatives try to stave off the inevitable, all the while ignoring the roots of the problem.

If we return to a balanced, orthodox anthropology, then we can begin to see the Incarnation for what it truly is. As we look into the human face of Christ, we see the God-man and therefore come to know the Holy Trinity. Only then will we "all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ." May God grant it.

Addendum: One of our readers apparently contacted the parish in question and was informed that pets were in fact not being given Communion, then passed this information on to me via email. I am pleased to hear this, though one could see how easy it would be to get the impression that pets were receiving the Eucharist from these quotes:

"Join us for a Sunday Afternoon Eucharist for You and Your Pets!", "...we will celebrate a Rite III Eucharist for you and all your pets" and "St. Francis Episcopal Church is one of few Episcopal churches in Connecticut to offer a monthly Communion service for animal lovers AND their pets." (From the parish website.)

"What drew Ms. Wilkinson back into the fold was a new monthly program the church introduced -- Holy Communion for pets" and Ms. Wilkinson "waited in line behind three panting dogs to receive the host." (From theWall Street Journal article.)

From other commentary I have read, I am certainly not the first person to interpret these statements to read in favor of pets communing, but it is good to know that the interpretation is wrong.

The essential criticism still stands, however, for in stating that pets are praying along with the congregation in liturgical services (which is claimed on the parish's website) this parish is making a declaration tantamount to claiming that inhuman creatures can be part of the Body of Christ. From a traditional Christian point of view, they cannot be a part of the Body -- Christ is not consubstantial with anything but the other Persons of the Holy Trinity and with mankind. He is the God-man, not the God-man-dog or God-man-cat. Though all Creation is lifted up with mankind, He did not come to grant salvation to our pets, nor did He die for their sins, nor does He raise them up to communion with Himself. With the possible exception of seeing-eye dogs, I see no place for non-human animals in the liturgical services of the Church.

Andrew Stephen Damick has a B.A. in English Language and Literature from North Carolina State University, and has recently published a book of poetry written to reflect the Orthodox Christian faith and the English poetic tradition. He begins study for the priesthood in the Fall of 2004 at St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary.

Recently published by Andrew Damick:

Posted 3/14/03



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