Fr. Alexander Schmemann famously said that Christianity is “the end of religion”. But if Christianity is not a religion, what is it? In a word, it is the source of a new birth, a new nature, a new kind of human being. Apart from Christ, all people share a human nature that is weak, fallen, darkened, vulnerable to evil spirits. As St. John wrote, “the whole world lies in the Evil One” (1 John 5:19). In Christ, we have the possibility of having a new human nature, one strong, upright, filled with light, safe from the grip of the Evil One, sheltered in God. The world therefore consists of two kinds of people: those who have been born only once, and those who have been born twice. The Church is the home of the twice-born.
The Lord revealed this one night to Nicodemus, teaching him that entering the Kingdom was not simply a matter of keeping the Law, but having being born again, born from above. That which is born once, of the flesh, remains merely flesh, and cannot enter the imperishable Kingdom. To enter that Kingdom one must also be born from above, by the Spirit (John 3:3f). St. Peter echoed this teaching in his First Epistle, written to the newly-converted baby Christians of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. Before their baptism they were merely children of flesh, wandering in the futile pagan way of life inherited from their forefathers (1 Peter 1:18). But now, he wrote, they had been “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (v.3). Their former birth of course came through the seed of men, but this new birth came “not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is through the living and abiding word of God”, the very Gospel word “which was preached to you” (v.23, 25).
Now that they had been born again, what were they supposed to do? What do newborn babies do immediately after their birth? They long for their mother’s milk, and that is what Peter tells his newborn converts to do: “like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow up to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). The phrase here rendered “milk of the word” is the Greek logikon gala, a phrase notoriously hard to translate. The Greek word logikos is cognate with the word logos, “word”, a noun rich in nuance and history, one that occupies over two pages of explanation in a Greek lexicon. Some versions render the phrase “spiritual milk” (compare Paul’s use of the word in Romans 12:1, where he bids us offer up our bodies as a logiken latreian, as “spiritual worship”), a contrast to the literal milk from the mother, with the meaning “metaphorical”.
However the phrase is rendered, from where do we get this milk? The Church is our mother, certainly, the one who gave us birth in the baptismal waters. But where is this milk found? In the Word. We partake of the logikon gala when we listen to the logos of the Church’s teaching. This comes through sermons, through listening to Scripture being chanted in church, through private Bible reading. St. James tells us the same thing when he bids his readers to “receive in humility the implanted word (Greek emphyton logon) which is able to save your souls”, the “law of liberty” (James 1:21, 25).
Why is listening to Scripture so important? Because every day we are bombarded with propaganda, with lies and half-truths (or as one wag said, “lies, damn lies, and statistics”), distortions which would turn our hearts from God and His righteousness. Like all effective propaganda, it is does advertise itself as such. We do not turn on the television at 6.00 p.m. and hear the announcer say, “Welcome to the six o’clock brainwashing.” No, he or she says, “Welcome to the six o’clock news”, but for all that there is a strong element of propaganda and brainwashing there just the same. It is like air pollution—largely unseen, but all around us.
We are constantly bombarded with such secular brainwashing. I remember a story once told by Barry McGuire, famous for his sixties’ protest song The Eve of Destruction. After his conversion to Christ, McGuire was derided by some unbelievers who said, “You Christians—you all been brainwashed.” He replied, “That’s true. But let me tell you, so have you. The only difference between all us Christians and you is that we’ve all at least chosen who we want to wash our brains.” Barry was right: the brainwashing from the World is daily and constant and never-ending. All that we have to counter-act it is the pure milk of the Word, a word which we have freely chosen and in which we find true liberty. Drinking this we receive pure spiritual nourishment, and we turn from lies and half-lies to truth in all its fullness. No wonder St. Peter told his newborns in pagan lands to long for it. In this dark world, it is the only way to grow up to salvation.