What Can One Man Do?

In our modern world we sometimes forget that a single person is not able to do much on their own. If Wittgenstein was right, then we really can’t do anything on our own. We live, for good or ill, within a culture, within a social matrix that makes most aspects of our life possible. Language is a social construct; world-views are a social construct; family is a social construct and I could continue for quite a long period of time.

To say that we cannot do much on our own does not mean we are powerless within the constructs around us. Societies change – and for various reasons. A construct can be rejected and replaced. But where do we go for our alternatives?

An inherent part of modern societies is their belief that social constructs can simply be chosen and invented according to what seems best to a society. Thus we have seen the great social experiments of the modern world, from Communism to Fascism, to Free-Market Democracy and a host of others. All primarily sharing in the idea that societies are self-defining.

This is an aspect of what I have earlier referred to as “cultures of forgetfulness,” or “cultures of amnesia.” It is not the past or any inherited limit or commandment which informs the structure of a society – only the will of its people (or whatever will is governing).

This, of course, is in deep conflict with the Christian understanding of what it means to live in communion with the living God. The Christian understanding assumes and expects that God has spoken to us and made Himself known. At the same time He has also revealed to us what it truly means to be human (Christ is fully God AND fully man). Thus we accept that there are parameters given to us as human beings and as a society. This, to a large extent, is a function of Christian Tradition – to hand down from one generation to another the living understanding of what it means to be truly human as well as what it means to truly be in communion with God. The Orthodox Church adds to this that the Tradition is a function of the Holy Spirit, ever revealing in each generation the one Truth of the one God.

The inherent problem of the modern world and its view of the individual, is that a culture is more than one man can do. Society is more than a collection of individuals, an average of what is thought – it is a powerful collective, forming and shaping the lives of its members regardless, to a great extent, of the individual choices they may make.

It is thus that we all live according to some tradition, be it a figment of our cultural imagination or the Tradition of Holy Orthodoxy. What none of us can be is people who have no tradition. The tradition we have may be the thin ice of modernity – but even modernity, though it be anti-tradition, is itself a tradition.

Thus the question of tradition becomes inherently important. If it is unavoidable, we do well to give it some thought. I have said in any number of places that the Orthodox Church is the last “traditional” Church. I would, of course, add to that the “Oriental Orthodox,” those Churches who refused to accept the Council of Chalecedon (Armenian, Coptic and Ethiopian). But all other “churches,” including Rome to a large extent, have rejected Christian Tradition in favor of the tradition of modernity. I understand that to say this of Rome is controversial – but I ask only for them to bring me a liturgy that says otherwise.

Of course, the Holy Tradition of Orthodoxy, is now surrounded by foreign cultures. In fact, it has been an extremely rare thing in the life of the Church that it has been surrounded by anything other than a foreign culture, even when that culture was nominally Orthodox.

Thus it is the Scriptures tell us that our “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). There is a culture to which we belong within the life of the Church. That culture is not Byzantine, nor Russian, nor any ethnicity of the earth, but the ethnos of heaven. It has a language, even if the language is spoken in many languages of this world. The Church has a way of taking language and raising it up to become the language of heaven.

There is an art with a grammar than refers us beyond itself and to the coming reality of heaven. And we have a King who sits enthroned before us and within us. Praying, confessing, forgiving all for everything, this culture is ever being formed in our heart.

It is, of course, a difficult task to live with our “citizenship in heaven.” The powers outside the Church – especially these modern powers – want the Church to be a subset of their ethnos – a part of the larger culture. But how do you fit the whole of heaven into the small confines of a single human culture? The culture of the Church will either cease to be the Church, if it agrees to become but an artifact of something else, or it will come the empty tomb of Christ – proclaiming that the “kingdoms of this world are becoming the kingdoms of our Lord and His Christ.”

What can one man do? He can refuse to be reduced to a receptacle for modernity. He can proclaim the reality of his Baptism. And he can pray, fast, repent, give alms, forgive as though these were the most important activities in his life. In the Kingdom of God these are the “coin of the realm.” He can become “rich towards God.”

This has apparently been possible in the very worst of human circumstances. Even the Gulag had its saints. What can one man do? “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


8 responses to “What Can One Man Do?”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Photo: Crowd of humans.

  2. Lana Balach Avatar
    Lana Balach

    “But how do you fit the whole of heaven into the small confines of a single human culture?” :-)!!!

    The great struggle of so many of our churches….

    I was born and raised orthodox but until one year ago I had never heard the entire liturgy in english. It rocked the core of my being and has launched my whole family on quite the journey, the most important one of all! Thank you for everything you write. It reinforces and encourages me to keep digging….

  3. fatherstephen Avatar

    Karen C

    You are a gem. Thanks!

  4. Bill Tickel Avatar
    Bill Tickel

    Astute and pitch-perfect . . . You could not have posted this at a more appropriate time, both in my own life, and in the life of the political and moral culture around us.

  5. Ioannis Freeman Avatar

    Social constructs equate for the most part with relativism — a deadly ideology for the human soul. But there is a part of social constructs that serve as a vessel for Holy Orthodoxy. What comes to mind right away is the intriguing study of Archbishop +Christodoulos of blessed memory in linking Christ as Church to Greek culture.

  6. Robert Avatar

    Very interesting and encouraging Fr. Stephen.

    Recently I asked myself the question: “looking back on my life – what would I have done differently?”

    Reading your post, I realize that it is much like question you pose: “What can one man do?”

    The answer I came to (besides “sin no more!”) is also much like the answer you provide. I came to the conclusion I will worry less about money, belongings, status and the like. Instead, I will prepare for life with God by devotion to prayer, attending to confession and the Divine Liturgy, humility, fasting, and good deeds.

    This is, as you say, what one man can do. This is perhaps all we can do.

  7. Lucias Avatar

    The tension between ones revealed role and ones ability to choose, pride versus humility, is according to my understanding the original sin of Lucifer.

    From what I am starting to discern the entire western thought process beginning with Roman supremacy and then eventually the reformation and the enlightenment etc. The things we now struggle with in society are just still a further application of this idea. I am convinced that we are far from the end of the road when it comes to the application of this idea. If not corrected we, as a world, will make the early pagan world look normal again.

    Years ago I began to use a saying of mine, “Reality is what is not what you want it to be.” I didn’t realize where that simple conclusion would lead me.

    The other side of what you are talking about, the communion together of humanity in total struck me this morning. Bishop Kallistos Ware says the following :

    Why should all be punished because of one man’s sin ? The answer is that human beings, made in the image of the Trinitarian god, are interdependant and coinherent. No man is an island. We are “members one of another”, and so any action, performed by any member of the human race, inevitably affects all the other members. Even though we are not, in the strict sense, guilty of the sins of others, yet we are somehow always involved.

    This is a powerful statement, the implications of which I am only beginning to fathom.

  8. Tiffani Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Wonderful and encouraging post. I was raised Roman Catholic, but I am seriously considering a conversion to Orthodoxy because of the vast invasion of modernity into my Roman Catholic faith. It is not an easy task to leave the faith of one’s youth to become the convert, but as my husband and I attempt to raise our four children in the Catholic faith, we have been forced to note how very similar the political correctness of our diocese is with the political correctness of the rest of the outside world. “Outside” is therefore now “inside”, and I seek the Tradition of Orthodoxy as a distinction between the emptiness of modern culture and the spirituality of heaven for my children. There must be stark differences between the Church and world for any spiritual growth to occur.

    I am no Theologian, so I may be speaking out of turn or incorrectly, but this is how I ignorantly view the Orthodox faith versus the lack of faith that surrounds me outside. I hope I have not confused the issue with my comments.

    Thank you:)

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