Recent studies have documented the fact that we begin to acquire language from our earliest moments. Even the babbling of infants plays a role. Sounds, words, facial expressions – all have a part in perhaps the most complex of all human activities. As we learn to speak, we not only learn words and sounds, but we simultaneously learn the unspoken rules that govern every language – the rules of grammar.
I recall long, tedious lessons in elementary school surrounding the rules of grammar. We diagrammed sentences, made distinctions between direct objects and indirect objects. We learned to name everything and to describe the rules by which we spoke. We labored long to learn something that we already knew. My sense of grammar increased greatly when I studied my first foreign language – Latin. There the rules were magnified with declensions, conjugations and pages of memorized and recited inflections. In all of these academic exercises, I was learning to talk about things that any five-year old knows intuitively. Grammar is how we speak – and if we have to think too much about grammar – then our speech is halting and tortured. Fortunately, human beings are wired for grammar.
This insight has also been applied to theology. For though the faith can be articulated, it has an underlying grammar that allows it to be spoken – and to be spoken correctly. And like the underlying rules of language, the grammar of theology is often unspoken. It is acquired rather than taught.
More than this, the Orthodox faith would say that Christ Himself is the “grammar” of all creation – this is one meaning of His description as the Logos of God.
All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. (Joh 1:3)
For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. (Col 1:16-17)
Christ is the grammar of all creation – all of creation “speaks” Christ.
Perhaps the most famous example of this grammar is given by St. Irenaeus in his refutation of the Gnostics. Fr. Georges Florovsky gives this summary:
Denouncing the Gnostic mishandling of Scriptures, St. Irenaeus introduced a picturesque simile. A skillful artist has made a beautiful image of a king, composed of many precious jewels. Now, another man takes this mosaic image apart, re-arranges the stones in another pattern so as to produce the image of a dog or of a fox. Then he starts claiming that this was the original picture, by the first master, under the pretext that the gems (the ψηφιδες) were authentic. In fact, however, the original design had been destroyed — λυσας την υποκειμενην του ανθρωπου ιδεαν. This is precisely what the heretics do with the Scripture. They disregard and disrupt “the order and connection” of the Holy Writ and “dismember the truth” — λυοντες τα μελη της αληθειας. Words, expressions, and images —ρηματα, λεξεις παραβολαι —are genuine, indeed, but the design, the υποθεσις (hypothesis), is arbitrary and false (adv. haeres., 1. 8. 1).
In the Apostolic Teaching, St. Irenaeus refers to this Apostolic Hypothesis and lays out in great detail and commentary pretty much the content of what today we would call the Apostles’ Creed – the Symbol of Faith used in the Church at Holy Baptism. This is elsewhere described by other writers as the regula fidei (the rule of faith).
This hypothesis is the grammar of the faith. In refuting the Gnostics, for example, the grammar would insist upon the Crucified Christ and the pattern of salvation as taught in the Scriptures. This was often completely discarded by the Gnostics. At the time of Irenaeus, the heresies refuted by the Church’s grammar were large, even easily discerned.
But as time went on, the need repeatedly arose for the grammar of the faith to be stated explicitly rather than simply inculcated within the Church’s life. The statements, affirmations and anathemas of the various Councils represent not new doctrines, but explicit statements of the implicit grammar (hypothesis) of the faith.
The Orthodox Church, however, speaks the language of Christ in all its life. The grammar of the faith is by no means confined to Conciliar proclamations. That would be the way of death and forgetfulness. In Orthodoxy, the whole of the Christian life gives expression to this eternal grammar. It is why Orthodoxy is described as a way of life and not a set of ideas.
Nothing embodies this more fully than the liturgical cycles and practices of the faith. For we pray what we believe and believe what we pray. Icons, for example, are not just theoretical portrayals of dogmatic content – believers kiss them, burn incense and bow before them, giving “honor to whom honor is due.” Believers live the 7th Council. This is true for the whole of the Orthodox faith – for nowhere is Orthodoxy an isolated idea or notion – it is always an embodied, integrated whole that is lived by the believer. And this itself is part of the grammar of the faith.
The loss of such a grammar in most forms of Christianity is more than a diminishment of the Church’s teaching life. For human existence always has a grammar. The loss of a specifically Christian grammar represents the greatest tragedy of Reform in all its guises. The grammar of believing is generally so embedded in the faith that its presence is unnoticed. Reforms uproot and destroy the fundamental grammar of the faith in massive exercises of unintended consequences. It is for this reason that Christians today live in a Two-Storey universe – with the teachings of their faith divorced from the grammar of their lives. They live like secular atheists and wonder why believing is so difficult. Foreign languages are always like that – we struggle to remember the words and constantly say things in a broken and mistaken manner. We imagine that reciting the Creed makes us fluent in Christianity while we have no feeling for what it truly means or why it should matter.
The Christian world lives with the shards of an original Christian language. It will say “evangelism” but mean something completely unrelated to the word’s original grammar. An Orthodox Christian is asked, “Are you saved?” And they respond by wondering why on earth anyone would ask them such a question (for it is not native to the grammar of the faith).
The grammar of Christianity, Protestants might assert, had, by the time of the Reformation, been fundamentally changed within Roman Catholicism requiring a complete overhaul (Reformation) That is true only to a modest degree. For much of the old language survived. But as the Protestant movements swept away the civilization that had existed, they set in its place a radically secularized world in which the Church increasingly separated itself from the business of everyday life and took up guest residence on the upper floors of the culture. I reference Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars for anyone interested in reading case studies of Reformation era secularization.
Contemporary Christianity speaks the language of its consumerist culture and has reframed the gospel itself into a marketed concept. It does not and cannot sustain the fundamental life of the Christian faith. Its continuation represents the progressive destruction of the grammar of the gospel.
This understanding is the ground of my recent articles objecting to the alteration of the position of Scripture within many Christians circles. For as St. Irenaeus himself noted, simply using the Scriptures does not at all mean they are used rightly. The grammar of the faith is the most fundamental legacy of the Apostolic deposit and it is written into the entirety of Orthodox life and practice. Every child whose fingers are folded and shaped for the sign of the Cross is already being immersed in the grammar into which he was Baptized. We do not wait until he is an adult in order to teach him a grammar that by then would be a foreign language.
Orthodoxy in the modern world is indeed a foreign language (sometimes quite literally). I watch the faithful struggle week in and out to live and speak a grammar contrary to the majority consumerism of the surrounding world. There are subtle pressures to adapt. Those who have united themselves to holy Orthodoxy often feel like they have made themselves strangers in their own land, unable to speak easily with family and friends. The same experience was probably common in the First Century as well.
The experience of the faith as an embodied whole is almost impossible to describe to those outside. For the experience of non-Orthodox Christianity has become so accustomed to the grammar of secularism that their perceptions are deaf and blind to the Orthodox witness. “We believe the Scriptures!” is doubtlessly true. But you believe them in a manner that is contrary to the faith. Your Christ looks like a fox and not a king. Where are your saints and images? Why do you smell like that? Where is the altar? Why do you not face East when you pray? Why don’t you cross yourself when you pray? Why do you say such terrible things about the Mother of God? What did you do with Holy Week? Where are the holy monks and the nuns? Who will teach you how to pray?
For those who think such things are “adiafora,” I say: “Apparently so.”
In my previous article I compared children’s use of play to the place of ritual words and actions in the life of the Church. I absolutely did not mean to imply that one thing is like the other. I mean to say clearly that they are very much the same thing. And I say this both to change how we understand play as well as how we understand ritual words and action. Play is far more serious than people imagine – and ritual words and actions are more playful than they dare conceive.
The similarities are very instructive. Both have a structure behind them. Play, though sometimes spontaneous and purely creative, still has a reality behind it. Something is being enacted, whether it is a formal game or simply an exercise in imagination. The structure contained within play is part of its fun – it is never meaningless in its movements and actions.
As a young boy I enjoyed toy soldiers. I spent quiet hours creating battles and various scenarios of conflict. Occasionally these war games would involve another child and would last the better part of the day. There were rules to what we did, even if they were rarely spoken. Tanks and bazookas have a particular role and place within the order of battle, for example. Their placement would be critical to the outcome of the imaginary scene that was about to unfold.
I have sometimes tried to remember in my adulthood how we agreed that one side won and the other lost. There was a quiet agreement to allow the tragedy of the battle to unfold. Had there been a competition, a requirement to win, the game could not have gone forward. The game was the battle itself and its possible heroic actions. But the outcome could not be foreseen. Heroism remained, even for the vanquished.
Children who were no fun to play with were those who could not lose. Those who must win are frequently dangerous as well. They are bullies on the playground. And those who could not lose somehow mistook the game for something it was not. It was the something being enacted, a reality beneath and behind the game that mattered. It was this greater something that gave meaning to the actions and preserved the dignity of both winner and loser. For most games need winner and loser. If you are not willing to be the loser, you make yourself greater than the game. And so you cannot play. These are children who, sadly, have become literalists, robbed of the glory of their childhood and prematurely lacking in joy. They are anxious like adults whose lack of faith in the game itself makes it impossible for them to bear losing.
Ritual words and actions share this quality of something beneath and beyond. There is a holy game behind every word, every action. Something within the reality of salvation is shown forth and made present in the sacred play of worship. As the priest stands at the altar saying, “This is my body…this is my blood…” everyone agrees that what matters is that something beyond and beneath is also there. And for a time this man stands in the place of God, this sinner in the place of the Savior. And everyone joins in by proclaiming, “Amen.”
But there are those who will not come into the play. They have become literalists and grumble that “it is only bread and wine…nothing more.” They have forgotten their childhood and the wonder that is the world of play.
The games of children are not silly or full of nonsense. They are probably the most serious activities undertaken by human beings. For in their games, children are searching for the deeper pattern and learning to walk in unseen paths. They are engaging in transcendent activity and becoming ever so much more than they might be otherwise. A child becomes a man, a hero, a dragon.
And this most instinctive of human activities is a gift of God. It is a divine template placed in the mind and heart of a child, an unspoken knowledge that there is a deeper game, a set of rules that may be found and lived, a greater pattern discerned and mastered. Children know that they were born to be more and they seek it with every moment of the day.
It is the forgetfulness of this greatest gift that turns a man into something less than human. When we no longer look for the pattern and forget the way of the game we cease to be what we are created to be. One of the Fathers declared that man is mud who is called to become God. And so children play their muddy games and are not surprised that mud should have such a destiny.
The ritual words and actions that are the liturgical world are the holy game, the game of man and God. Before the world was created the Lamb was slain. And the game of slaying the Lamb would be played again and again. Abel and Noah knew the game and took the innocent from the flock, bound him and offered his life. And the blood of that life was smeared on the doorposts in the game of Passover where the slaves rose up and the masters’ firstborn fell. And the waters drowned the glory of Egypt.
But all of this was the play of children. All of the lambs were the first lamb and the last. Mary had a little lamb and took him to the Temple. And there she heard the ritual words:
“Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (Luk 2:34-35)
And the words are spoken again with rite and ritual, children plunged into the death of the Lamb and clothed in white robes. And like a children’s game of ring around the roses, a priest leads the child around the font singing, “As many as have been Baptized into Christ have put on Christ!”
The difficulty comes for the adults who cannot bear the Game. They cease to see the deeper pattern or believe that something unseen is greater than what is seen. The Game becomes but a game and they mock the ritual as empty and without value. But it is the life devoid of the Game that has no value. The life that is not rooted in the deeper pattern is a life that has lost its shape. There is no song to be sung for such a shapeless thing, no dance that steadies its gait.
The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world continues to shape the world that is formed for His presence. Everything is Pascha. It is Word made flesh and flesh made Word and emptiness and fullness and redemption. Children continue to play and priests chant and sing and dance and say the words that must be said.
And a little child shall lead them.
(*) About Fr. Stephen Freeman
Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.