The God Who Is No God

A God who remains generalized and reduced to ideology is no God at all. Only the daily encounter with the living God, with all the messiness it entails, can rise to the name Christian.

Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe 


Belief in a true and living God is a very difficult thing, fraught with consequence. Belief in the idea of God can be tokenism at its very worst. This distinction between the true and living God and the idea of God goes to the very heart of the secular crisis of the modern world. There is no room in the secular world for a true and living God – while the idea of God is perfectly suited to the emptiness of the secular mind.

For the individual Christian this distinction is the great crisis of the believing life. There is a divide in our culture between the ideas we think and the lives we live – and the division is often accepted as normal. This is more than mere hypocrisy – our problem is not that we fail to live up to our ideas – our ideas frequently fail to have anything to do with the life we live.

In secularized culture, religion is not eliminated – it is placed at a remove. The remove in which religion is placed is anywhere that does not matter, anywhere that does not touch our daily lives. The secular genius of the modern world (including America) was its contention that religion and belief are the same thing. The acquiescence of believers to this arrangement was, in effect, an agreement to render their faith impotent.

The fatal flaw in this agreement can be summed up simply: true religion is not a set of beliefs – it is a set of practices.

We believe in prayer – but we do not pray. We believe in forgiveness – but we do not forgive. We believe in generosity – but we do not give. We believe in truth – but we lie.

Again, the manner of our failures goes beyond mere hypocrisy. The divorce between belief and practice is a cultural habit reaching far beyond religion. There is a radical division between thought and action throughout most of our culture. The frequently indistinguishable character of the contemporary Christian from the contemporary unbeliever bears witness to a deeper problem.

The practice of Christianity has been increasingly banned from the public square. We have agreed to privatize our faith. What we believe has become a matter of “conscience,” rather than the offensive matter of practice. The Reformation largely erased the outward forms of the Christian life: feast days; pilgrimages; vestments, etc. The Reformers were correct that the inward life of the Spirit was far more important than the ephemeral forms in which it was exhibited. However, they failed to notice that with the disappearance of the outward forms, the disappearance of the inward life would pass without notice. Today, the outward debauchery of Mardi Gras is the legacy of an abandoned Ash Wednesday. Christian practice is reduced to drunkenness (no American city seeks to ban Mardi Gras for its religious content – the practice of drunkenness is not as offensive as a Christmas Creche).

Early Christianity was surely marked by practices: without them, there would have been no need of martyrdoms in the arenas of the Roman Empire. Early Christianity was not a set of beliefs – philosophies were cheap and plentiful in ancient Rome. It was the Christian refusal to offer worship to the Emperor and the gods of the Empire that brought them to the arena. They refused to engage in the practices of the pagan state. The radical generosity of Christians came under the abuse of the Platonist philosopher Celsus. He excoriated Christian acceptance of thieves, rogues, prostitutes, drunkards and the like while the Christian refusal to declare upstanding pagans (such as himself) as “just,” was a rejection of Roman society itself. Christians were dangerous.

The closest thing to danger presented by Christians in the modern world is the insistence by some that the unborn actually have a right to life and should be protected against the actions of those who would destroy them. However, many Christians (including some who claim to be “pro-life”), accept the secular fiction of the separation of Church and state, and offer that their private beliefs should not determine the actions of others. Their private beliefs are useless – before God and man.

The American theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, commonly states that “there is no such thing as private morality.” It is inherently the case that morality is a matter of behavior between people. A “private morality” is no morality at all. To believe that the unborn have a right to life but to refuse to insist that such a right be observed by all, is, in fact, to declare that there is no such right. If there is a “right,” then it is immoral not to demand that everyone accept such a right.

Whatever we profess as Christians can be acted upon and practiced – or it is a useless profession. Christ’s parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 confronts Christians with their practices: feeding the hungry; visiting the prisoners; clothing the naked; giving drink to the thirsty. No mention is made of Creed. It is not that belief is unimportant – but the dogma of the faith undergirds and informs our practice of the faith. “Faith without works is dead,” because it is no faith at all.

The heart of the Orthodox faith (both dogma and practice) is found in its proclamation of union with Christ. “God became man so that man could become god,” in the words of St. Athanasius. Human life was intended to be lived in union with God. In the Genesis story of the fall we learn the essential character of our brokenness: we severed our communion with God and turned towards the path of death and destruction. The nature of sin lies precisely in its movement away from union with God. The path of salvation is precisely the path of union with God. This is made possible by Christ’s union with humanity. He took our broken condition upon Himself – trampling down death by death in His crucifixion and descent into Hades – He raises us up in His resurrection to the path for which we were created. From glory to glory we are changed into His image as we live in union with Him.

This is more than a doctrinal story – it is also a description of the practice of the Christian faith. We love because we live in union with Christ, “who loved us and gave Himself for us.” We feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner because in doing so we do this to Christ. Every practice of kindness and mercy is an act of union with Christ. The Church’s life of feasts and fasts, sacraments and services are the practice of worship – the life of union with Christ. They are not religious entertainment nor mere educational events: they are the visible manifestation of the inner life of God in man.

Christians in this world are “as the soul is to the body,” in the words of a second-century Christian writer (Epistle to Diognetus). As such, they are the life of this world. The presence of practicing Christians is properly the presence of the Kingdom of God. The in-breaking of the Kingdom in this world is a disruption of the culture of death initiated in the fall. The world’s love affair with death is and should be threatened by the manifestation of the Kingdom. This is only true as Christianity is practiced. That Christians “believe” something is no threat whatsoever unless that belief is made manifest in practice.

The proposed constitution of the European Union (to give an example) offers religious freedom to individuals. Orthodox Christians have complained that such “freedom” was guaranteed under Communism – but that in the name of protecting individuals, parents were forbidden to teach the faith to their children. The Christian faith is practiced as a community. An agreement to define the faith as an individual matter is an agreement to destroy Orthodoxy. The world’s onslaught of Christian practice is subtle and relentless. Christians would do well to practice their faith and refuse devil’s bargain offered by modern states.

We are called to a life in union with the true and living God. That life infuses every action of the day – every breath we take. Anything less is an agreement with the enemy to place our God at arms length and to serve a god who is no God.

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.





41 responses to “The God Who Is No God”

  1. paula hughes Avatar
    paula hughes

    A very good beginning to Lent. Thank you Fr. Stephen!

  2. Pete Avatar

    Father Stephen, thank you so much for this post. It seems that recent events have been less subtle about telling Americans where Christianity is in relation to the secular philosophies of the nation; a wide variety of people have weighed in on this. But to me, it is novel and true to describe the importance of practice, namely, because Christians are usually written off for the sake of their hypocracy or seeming hypocracy.

    So I wonder, in those first centuries, when the local Church communities each had so many issues–as the Epistles relate to us, did the secular powers point at hypocracy in the communities? Or was that of no concern? In Antioch, the people were called “Christians”–did the world not see the sinners in the midst of the flock for their sins? Or did they just see a welcoming, loving, and cautious communion gathered? It is just so interesting that a world like ours is quick to denounce hypocracy while post-modernism is so rampant. I can only assume that the first century Roman world, with its many philosophies, was much more concerned with dscerning truth in life and death. It appears as though we’ve gone through a lot of trouble to give ourselves a “bad name”.

  3. Kevin Basil Avatar

    Father, bless. Please, help me to understand how you reconcile the implicit disapproval of “religion” when you say in yesterday’s post, “The taming of the Christian faith makes it harmless and without offense. I suspect that this phenomenon marks the conversion of Christianity into a religion — a pious activity that saves none,” and the implicit approval of it when today you speak of the practice of “true religion.”

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    Kevin Basil,
    Obviously the word “religion” is capable of several meanings. It’s too broad a word to pin down to a single usage. Thus context is everything. We don’t have a word that can be singled out for this duty. Fr. Schmemann used “religion” in a perjorative sense on occasion. I suppose I would also point to the adjective, “true.” That usage, btw, was meant to echo the KJV in James, “True religion and undefiled before God is to visit the widows and the fatherless in their affliction” (i.e. “practice”). The word translated “religion” there could also be rendered, “piety.” English is tricky on religious language, don’t you think?

    This does not address my use of the word “morality” when I’ve earlier written that Chrisianity is not “moral.” Again, different uses of the word. These are the sorts of things that in the distant future will help provide dissertation topics for someone studying my writings. 🙂

  5. handmaid leah Avatar

    truly I needed to read this and I thank you from bottom of my heart for posting these words.

  6. Yaakov Avatar

    Thank you.

  7. Rhonda Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Splendid as usual & thanks!

    If & when you have time, would it be possible to contact you directly via email? I just have a few questions.

  8. […] “…true religion is not a set of beliefs – it is a set of practices. We believe in prayer – but we do not pray. We believe in forgiveness – but we do not forgive. We believe in generosity – but we do not give. We believe in truth – but we lie.” (via JD Swartz) […]

  9. Karen Avatar

    Powerful post and convicting. May God grant us grace to practice our faith in a world that is increasingly hostile to such practice. Thank you, Father.

  10. Terry Avatar

    So, should I cross myself before having lunch with folks from work? It is definitely a Christian practice, but it is off-putting to most secular Americans. I know it depends on context and the state of my heart and all that. But as a general rule, what would you recommend for the average Orthodox guy?

  11. Barbara Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    To be in union with God with every breath and every action, would be wondrous. I am far from that union, even though I long for it. I know the danger of relegating God to the realm of ideas – I have experienced that despair. I’ve also experienced the despair of trying to match my practice to my beliefs, because I can never do that perfectly, and I do it for the wrong reasons (what can be called personal integrity is really a form of pride). I think I also confuse beliefs with ideals, making “practice” too black and white or rigid. My priest calls it the “if, then” syndrome. If this is true, then, then, then, then….

    Can you say more about the relationship between practice and beilefs? How is what you are saying different to my protestant upbringing that focused on right behaviour and being very certain about what is right and wrong?

    Thank you for your posts – they are always a blessing.

  12. John Avatar


    I do. I’ve gotten so used to it that I don’t think about it much any more. Very occasionally someone will comment on it, but most don’t care. Doing so, somewhat discretely so as not to make a show, causes no offense, at least not any that I’ve noticed. And if it does, I suppose they will just have to live with it. We have reasons for prayer before/after food and it isn’t to show off (hopefully, God help my own hypocrisy).

  13. Andrew C Avatar
    Andrew C

    A hearty “amen” from this (Protestant) corner of your readership. This was a superb post. Thank you.

  14. todd Avatar

    A bishop repeatedly reminded our church that we in the Church have no rights, only responsibilities. Maybe I’m pushing his statement beyond its intended meaning, but it came to mind as I read your post.
    Perhaps we should not emphasize the ‘right’ of the unborn to life, so much as our own ‘responsibility’ to protect the defenseless. And regardless whatever rights the government might deem to grant or revoke, our responsibilities remain the same (lawful or not).

  15. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen! This paragraph especially “spoke” to me and what a thought it is!

    “Christians in this world are “as the soul is to the body,” in the words of a second-century Christian writer (Epistle to Diognetus). As such, they are the life of this world. The presence of practicing Christians is properly the presence of the Kingdom of God. The in-breaking of the Kingdom in this world is a disruption of the culture of death initiated in the fall. The world’s love affair with death is and should be threatened by the manifestation of the Kingdom. This is only true as Christianity is practiced. That Christians “believe” something is no threat whatsoever unless that belief is made manifest in practice.”

    And I know the truth of this: “The world’s onslaught of Christian practice is subtle and relentless.”

    Thank you, again!

  16. David Robles Avatar

    “We are called to a life in union with the true and living God. That life infuses every action of the day – every breath we take.” I agree. But isn’t it true that this is something that can only be experienced in the now? I’m afraid this union with God (our humble experience of it) can only be lived moment by moment. My responses now are what matters. The disposition of my heart now is the only thing I can work on and pray for. My actions yesterday have already been judged by God. My experience of God tomorrow depends on my response to His providence for me tomorrow (and I should not worry about that ‘now’, even though I can cultivate a spiritually healthy attitude ‘now’ about whatever may come my way.
    I think Barbara’s comment is very interesting, “I’ve also experienced the despair of trying to match my practice to my beliefs, because I can never do that perfectly”. Exactly, so perhaps we should stop trying to do this and instead learn, by pursuing the healing of the powers of our soul (which can only be done by pursuing my communion with God, ‘now’), to cultivate our awareness of that communion (My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. John 10:27). We need to learn to commune with the Father, in the Son through the Holy Spirit ‘now’. This is a dynamic process isn’t it? We follow Him wherever He goes, “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8. This means learning to become attuned to the still small voice of our Lord Who among other ways speaks to us volumes by what we encounter moment by moment. I no longer try to match the world of my ideas with my experience. I need to learn to come out of myself (the world of ideas and thoughts in my head) and direct my attention to God who knocks on the door of my heart (we experience our communion with Him there-in the heart), because he desires to enter in and have fellowship with me. O the wonder of the love of God!

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    Cross yourself. I wear a cassock in public, and it is real off-putting to secular Americans. I think we should have a ready answer, as St. Paul says, for the questions that visible Christians actions might provoke. They should be gentle, not too long, and not defensive. The worst they will say is that you’ve gone “Tebow.” I happen to like his unapologetic Christianity. He does not talk much about it – but he backs up what he believes with lots of action. It is little wonder that so many mock him and take offense.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    I would say, “stay away from the big picture.” I only need to be in union with God on my next breath, rather than every… as a matter of fact. Fr. Sophrony of Essex said, “Stand at the abyss until you can’t take it, then have a cup of tea.” The next breath is not the same thing as the abyss, but we are sorely taxed by it, and need plenty of cups of tea. By staying away from the big picture, don’t think of always, all the time, every breath, etc. Just small things, one at a time, and then don’t judge. Do not think about whether you’re doing it well or not.

    If you’re not certain about right and wrong, then do the best you can – we’re not judged for our lack of omniscience. I think the Protestant upbringing you refer to had a rigid behavior model – but not a model of union with Christ. We simply work at loving Christ, and then do what we love. Gently.

  19. fatherstephen Avatar

    Where I would agree with the American founding, is the contention that the “rights” we have come from God and not from government. Unless they come from God, then they are not rights. I will take the founding documents of this country at their word and accept that there are such things as God-given rights. I’ll even accept that those rights include “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (which is not happiness in the sense of being “happy” but in the sense of well-being). These “rights,” to use more Orthodox language, are what we would describe as things that belong to our nature (which was created by God). By nature we have life. By nature (or certainly as a person) we have freedom. We are also created to pursue well-being. Without these things we are living contrary to what it means to be human (in an Orthodox understanding). Thus, I’ll agree with the “secular” documents of America’s founding. Every child certainly has a “right” to life – the Church is quite clear on this. Life and personhood begin at conception. I like your bishop’s insistence that we have responsibilities – we are responsible particularly to the weakest among us (children, the handicapped, the infirm, the aged, etc.). Among the weakest, the unborn are surely most weak. The government (or whatever entity) make claim to limit our rights – but, since they did not give them to us in the first place, they cannot take them away. Would be tyrants in America should read the Declaration of Independence and tremble. I would not take up arms against them, but it is a foolish thing to take away the rights of the people you rule.

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    David, I agree. This can only be now. See my response to Barbara’s comment.

  21. Joel Avatar

    Fr, this felt like reading something from a Church Father were they writing today. What you shared basically sums up Francis Schaeffer’s message in “True Spirituality” (written in the 1960s), but is still desperately needed today.

  22. Photios Adams Avatar
    Photios Adams

    Thank you so much Fr. Stephen…just what the Healer ordered for the Lenten preparation….My family has been deluged in the cares of this world over the past few months; its good to be reminded of what truly matters.

  23. […] noise and the clutter to get to the heart of what is important. Check out his pre-Lenten reflection here. Posted in […]

  24. […] Glory to God for All Things Orthodox Christianity, Culture and Religion, Making the Journey of Faith « The God Who Is No God […]

  25. Barbara Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen and David, for your helpful comments!

  26. John Avatar

    I often teach that we have no rights, only responsibilities. I had no idea someone else used this same terminology. What I usually say is “You have all the rights and I have all the responsibilities.” I tell couples to approach their marriage that way. If they would both do that, it should work out pretty well. It is the way one looks at rights, are they mine or yours? They are yours. I am debtor.

  27. Mark Avatar

    In the March 2012 edition of First Things magazine, G. K. Chesterton, from his 1926 book The Catholic Church and Conversion, is quoted: “We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. We want a religion that is right where we are wrong,” and “We do not want, as the newspapers say, a church that will move with the world. We want a church that will move the world.”

    Would that he were right. Sadly, while his intent is surely a pure enough desideratum, as a conclusion, it is less so convincing.

  28. paula hughes Avatar
    paula hughes

    Well, John, I guess that is sort of like the right of way in traffic. It is best to give it rather than to try to take it! Thanks!

  29. coffeezombie Avatar

    John: In my experience, you can take that attitude too far in a marriage. If one person never brings up issues, expresses displeasure—that is, demands his own rights when he or she feels they are being violated—, then the other person may never realize that he or she is trampling on his or her spouse (or that the spouse feels this to be the case). As most of us are not saints (and this situation may even be a tall order for a saint!), this tends to breed contempt and bitterness.

    In other words, I have had to learn recently that demanding my rights (in a humble way, of course) is actually an act of love for my wife, because I am helping her to love me (love, like faith, is necessarily active)!

  30. John Avatar

    Hi coffee
    A sense of entitlement and open communication are not the same thing, nor are they contradictory. BTW, all Christians are saints. 🙂

  31. Darlene Avatar


    How does one demand their rights in a humble way? It seems contradictory. Granted, I’m most likely misunderstanding you.

    Marriage, with all its nuances, is often a complicated matter. Prayer, both personal and together, and a longing to be united with Christ in our thoughts and actions, and helping each other in this endeavor – this has helped my marriage. Yet, there is more…so much more. No matter how much we learn in this life, it is but the tip of the iceberg. In His Kingdom, the age to come, we will be enlightened beyond anything we could have ever imagined. What a glorious revelation that will be!

  32. coffeezombie Avatar

    John: Absolutely, they are two different things. My main concern, though, is that it can be easy to misinterpret the “you have rights; I have responsibilities” in such a way as to actually prevent open communication. And all Christians are saints, but not all Christians are saints. 😉

    Darlene: I was, most likely, not being clear, in my attempt to cleverly make use of John’s words. 🙂

    It really comes down to, as John said, open communication. When I have a complaint, for example, I should voice it (as a complaint, *not* as a criticism), otherwise my wife doesn’t know what I need/want. If I never do, then I’m most likely going to start feeling like my wife doesn’t care, and so on, and it can be caustic to the relationship.

    In other words, one of my responsibilities to my wife is to tell her when I’m unhappy with the way things are, so we can work together to make things better.

  33. Sean Avatar

    Amen from a Latin Rite Catholic, father.

    Do you think the Protestant detachment from religious authority (sola scriptura) has influenced the current move away from religion in the public square, or is it more than that?

    Just to clarify, this is not an attack on Protestant Christianity, but merely a question coupled with the observation that the main line Protestant denominations are dying out and the worshippers seem to be leaving for theologically safe mega churches if anywhere at all.

  34. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think it’s a very different dynamic at work. Despite rhetoric, there has never been a sola scriptura position in Protestant Churches. It is necessarily the fact that there must be some sort of matrix of interpretation upon which scripture is interpreted. Many protestants deny this and continue to use some unconscious matrix that is unexamined. This matrix evolves, largely driven by various culture forces, and their interpretation evolves. A historical example of this is the evolution of interpretations of Scripture supporting the prohibition of alcohol use. So-called sola scriptura churches discovered such interpretations only in the mid 1800’s, having used alcohol themselves up until that point. If it was actually a Scriptural point, how had they missed it until then? The matrix had shifted and they shifted with it. Since there is almost no historical consciousness within most of these groups, they aren’t even aware of how their own interpretations change.

    That is a very critical read, I am aware, but it is correct. As for the mainline groups, they were long dominated by forces other than Scripture, and some were pretty aware of it. Calvin’s system for some, Lutheran scholasticism for others, and almost any wind that blew for Anglicans (since they were largely driven by the winds of English (or American) society – and still are).

    The expulsion of God from the public square is a political position, nurtured by the state (whether consciously or unconsciously). The state has replaced God in the lives of most in the West (whether consciously or unconsciously). This is not to say that the role of the state is expressed patriotically. However, the public discourse of the state is the prime arbiter for moral practice, for most people’s world-view, etc. We are secularized with little idea of where God fits in at all. In that sense, there is a bit of embarrassment about the whole God thing.

    There are obviously people who are profoundly pious, but with a woefully inadequate “matrix” of interpretation. As such, there is a great deal of flux and variation that blows through Western piety with precious little grounding. Religion in America is in its greatest crisis in many generations. It will have a hard time weather the storms that inevitably blow.

    I have no idea what a “theologically safe” mega Church is. The theological life of such institutions is as firmly driven by culture winds as any mainline presence.

  35. Chrys Avatar

    Father, your response is worthy of a post in its own right. That was a terrific summary of some of the inherent defects in Protestant theological foundations. Those of us who struggled with the challenges of Protestant spiritual disciplines often encountered these issues at root. Very well said. As for the mega Church, I think these often reflect a social decision (a desire for a “dynamic” or “successful” community – though these are not the same thing – that can satisfy the current penchant for a wide menu of groups and activities). In many ways, too, the more enthusiastic groups in Protestantism appeal to the modern desolation that results from an increasingly virtual or synthetic life — a desire for something experiential that is powerful . . . which is the same dynamic that drives so many modern diversions – and which easily elide into passions. All of these reflect a tragic absence of and a yearning for genuine Communion. The hope is that it will eventually lead to a “bottoming out,” and a search for what is Real – for God, and genuine Communion. As I noted elsewhere, when one can experience Communion, little else is needed; without it, nothing else is adequate.

  36. Chris Avatar

    Reblogged this on The Pilgrim and commented:
    Do yourself a favor and take 5 minutes to read this.

  37. fatherstephen Avatar
  38. Chris Avatar

    Are you ever in South Carolina. I’m friends with Thomas More who is the priest here in Columbia and he said he knows you.

  39. fatherstephen Avatar

    I am from time to time. I have a brother in Columbia. I’m a native of Greenville, a graduate of Furman. My family and I were received into Orthodoxy at Holy Apostles in Columbia when Fr. Peter Smith was the priest. So, yes I do get there. I will be in Columbia for sure in late May for the wedding of a niece.

  40. Chris Avatar

    Cool, I’m a hospice chaplain so at some point I would love to pick your brain. I’m currently Episcopalian but I feel a tug.

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