The Disappointment of Religion

Reading the lives of the saints often raises our expectations. We read of someone transfigured with light, or of someone who is present in two places at once. We read beautiful descriptions of the inner life, of an awareness of our union with God or clarity with regard to the nature of all things. In comparison, our own religious experience will be sterile, a voice crying out in the wilderness met with stony silence. For some, such comparisons can lead to despair. For others, these comparisons make them doubt the authenticity of saints’ lives. In many cases we simply discover the disappointment of religion.

The modern religious search often begins in disappointment. The rhetoric of religious believing and the reality can be miles apart. There can be very legitimate reasons for this disjunction. The truth claims of many religious groups border on the absurd. Complex dogmatic constructs quickly reveal themselves to be the intellectual fabrications of cultural and psychological forces. Disappointment leads to disbelief.

A hallmark of the modern world is the emphasis on the individual. Religious systems that cater to this emphasis (whether knowingly or unknowingly) often find rapid success. The same rapid success can be followed with rapid disappointment. The criteria of individual values, rooted in emotion and psychological states, are notoriously changeable. Those who live by experience, die by experience.

Experience is the great watershed of individualism. The greater the emphasis on the individual, the greater the emphasis on psychology and emotion – for these are the primary aspects of individual experience. If the focus shifts from my place within a network of relationships to my place within myself, then the focus necessarily leaves me with nothing but “me.” Love ceases to be a set of practices and becomes a feeling.

Feelings and psychological states are inherently a part of the human experience – but they are a very poor basis for human community and culture. The rise and dominance of consumer culture is the result of experience being exalted to the pivotal point of our existence. We shop, we buy, we consume in order to “feel” good. And the feelings which we deem “good,” are themselves those that are sold to us in the deeply psychologized world of advertising. That God makes me feel good can be  little more than saying, “I like salt, sugar and fat.”

People are always hungry (for salt, sugar and fat) and people always have an array of feelings and psychological states. But these are secondary elements of human existence – meant to be balanced, made whole and subservient to our greater life. Consumer societies will never be happy, stable, or healthy. Their happiness and stability can be managed by those who have the power of propaganda. By themselves, they will never create a healthy civilization.

The purpose of the Church is not to create healthy civilizations, nor does the Church exist to be yet one more outlet of good feelings and neuroses. The Church is that place where God is being reconciled to man, and man to God. It is that place where all things are being gathered together in one in Christ Jesus. It is the ecclesia, the Divine Community of the Body of Christ, in which we may be made whole and in which the truth of our existence can be made manifest.

How does that make you feel?

Depending on the state of our lives, feelings in the ecclesia can be terrifying, satisfying, depressing, or meaningless – everything human beings are capable of feeling. It is also inevitable that we bring with us into the Divine Community the brokenness of our psyches. Thus, we are prone to use others in distorted ways. We attach ourselves to leaders and use their confidence or eloquence (or far darker things) to patch together the shattered pieces of our own psyches. We use our peer groups in destructive ways to create islands of belonging, fleeing the alienation and abandonment of our inner history.

These (and many similar things) are the distortions of individualized consumers. We do not know how to live without meeting the irrational demands of our feelings. Our psyches have no training in how to heal – only in how to use things and people around us for comfort, defense and need.

This cultural reality makes it very difficult to speak of authentic Christian experience – for we speak to one another as addicts. We largely know experience as an alcoholic knows alcohol. That an alcoholic might prefer vodka to wine tells me nothing about vodka or wine. Religious experience tells me almost nothing about God, the Church, truth, etc. It is God, the Church, truth, etc., viewed through the fog of distorted modern perception.

Facebook offers us the icon of our modern selves: I like it.

Not surprisingly, Orthodoxy is not well adapted to modern existence. You may or may not like it. Orthodoxy does not care whether you like it (or it should not). There are many drawn to certain aspects of Orthodoxy – conversions are commonplace today. Conversions that are similar to the consumer-variety – those that populate the world of denominationalism (and non-denominationalism) are not unknown – but they are productive of but three things: unhappy Orthodox, former Orthodox, or former consumerist Christians. It is this latter that is the proper goal of the transformation of the mind (Romans 12:2).

That transformation, from consumerist governed by the passions, to disciple governed by Christ, is the very heart of the Christian life. In its earliest stages it is deeply disappointing and necessarily so. Our passions need to be disappointed and reordered.

I have written elsewhere that ninety percent of Orthodoxy is “just showing up.” I meant then and repeat now that the slow work of transformation requires our presence within and to the ecclesia, the Church gathered. My forgiveness of others is often a rebuke of my own passions: I find you irritating, because I am governed by my passions. Christianity, from the time of its gifting to us by Christ, has consisted of daily taking up our cross and following Him. It is a road of dispassionate living.

Learning to live within the ecclesia, is learning to renounce the distortions of individualism and the dominance of our desires. We do not renounce our individuality, but rather take up our individuality as persons – as those who live for and with others. My individual life is not strictly my own. My life is a common life – the Life of Christ that dwells within His ecclesia.

This new life is far from a disappointment: it is fulfillment. But those who would be fulfilled must first be disappointed. A beloved friend once advised me: the truth will make you free – but first it makes you miserable.

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.





28 responses to “The Disappointment of Religion”

  1. […] Proclus (Niceu)Reference: ☆ ☆ ☆ 2) The Disappointment of Religion fatherstephen on […]

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  3. Alexandra Avatar

    Christianity is a road of dispassionate living??? Not well put. Passion is a devine power of our soul. Christianity is about fully preserving our passion and SHIFTING it to the right direction, Jesus. Jesus wants to be passionately loved!

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    You are correct regarding the passions. However, the fathers use the term “apatheia” “dispassionate” to describe that state of our soul where the passions are not disordered and leading us. The “passions” are terms for emotions, and energies of the soul, etc., that mean something quite different than the term “passion” as you are using it. Sorry if it’s confusing. An article such a this link might be helpful.

  5. Molly Avatar

    I haven’t found much of this yet — or at least not so as to be overwhelming. Perhaps because I’m fairly young?

  6. Brent Avatar

    Father Stephen wrote, “the truth will make you free – but first it makes you miserable.” Yes . . . I agree. The more I learn about Orthodoxy, the more I am drawn to it . . . and the more unsettled I feel! It’s partly your fault.

    Okay. I have never been to any kind of worship service at an Orthodox church. I live in Central Texas, about 100 miles south of Dallas and 100 miles north of Austin.

    1. Is there a certain Orthodox church that you would suggest I make he first visit to?
    2. Which services would you suggest I begin with?
    3. Is there a service that I should not go to as a visitor?
    4. Is there anything in particular that I should know before I go?
    5. What is the preferred attire? Dressy casual? Casual? Does it matter?
    6. Are worship services celebrated on the same time table everywhere? For example, is the Divine Litury celebrated at the same time everywhere? Do different parishes have their own schedules?

  7. NW Nikolai Avatar
    NW Nikolai

    Hebrews 5:8-9 has greater significance for me now, as I endure through the disappointment that I may be governed by Christ. This was the conversation I had with my priest today as I met with him to receive the sacrament of confession and the priestly prayer of absolution. Thank God for His Church and apostolic succession of the priesthood. And thank-you Fr. Stephen for this timely post that brings me greater understanding on the journey. The ongoing disappointment has turned me a bit crosswise lately and this helps me get straitened out..

    Brent, look up Frederica Matthews-Greene’s article 12 Things I Wish I’d Known, It will answer most of the pertinent Qs you have at this point.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    Texas is a very big state. If you are able to visit St. Seraphim Cathedral in Dallas, I would recommend it strongly. The faithful there can answer many questions, including about parishes in the greater area.

    1. St. Seraphim Cathedral in Dallas
    2. Divine Liturgy on a Sunday – it’s this full assembly of the Church – don’t be shy. Introduce yourself. Go to the coffee hour. Ask questions. You’ll find a friendly, welcoming congregation and helpful answers, I suspect. Great bookstore, too.
    3. Any service is fine.
    4. Frederica Matthews-Green’s little pamphlet “12 Things I wish I’d known” referenced here is good.
    5.Comfortable clothes. Long pants on men, always. Modesty – no printed t-shirts (indeed I would wear a regular shirt rather than a T). Clothes matter to a degree. Modesty, and respectful. Generally comfortable. Orthodox worship can be “physical” at times so we tend not to be coat and tie.
    6. Each parish has its own schedule. Divine Liturgy on Sundays tends to be at 9:30 or 10:00. It’s at 9:30 at St. Seraphim. You will doubtless hear mention of “Vladyka” Dmitri, the former Archbishop of Dallas and the South, who resided at the Cathedral, and fell asleep in the Lord last August. “Vladyka” is an affectionate Russian term for a bishop that means, “dear Master.” Many of us believe him to be a saint. He was one of the most wonderful people I have ever known – truly blessed of God.

    God be with you!

  9. Joe Avatar

    Brent, the only Orthodox Church between Austin and Dallas is St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Waco (corner of 17th and Sanger). Divine Liturgy starts at 10. Visitors are always welcome!

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    Christos Anesti! Glad to know you’re reading this morning!

  11. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    “Reading the lives of the saints often raises our expectations. We read of someone transfigured with light, or of someone who is present in two places at once. We read beautiful descriptions of the inner life, of an awareness of our union with God or clarity with regard to the nature of all things. In comparison, our own religious experience will be sterile, a voice crying out in the wilderness met with stony silence. For some, such comparisons can lead to despair. For others, these comparisons make them doubt the authenticity of saints’ lives. In many cases we simply discover the disappointment of religion.”

    Great thoughts, Father. This is one reason I appreciate the writings of Archimandrite Sophrony. He is very honest about the difficulties he endured during his spiritual journey. He speaks often of the intense pain and suffering that tend to accompany growth. Yet he is also quick to remind the reader of the goal, that awesome crown of glory.

    Although the lives of the saints can set one up for disappointment, I am ultimately glad that we preserve the memory of the great ones who have come before us. The saints are testimonies to the fact that God works powerfully in the Here and Now.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    Indeed. I think my point is that we need to be disappointed. It’s part of what it feels like to be healed.

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  14. rmdoson Avatar

    Very well said, Fr. Stephen! Thanks again.

  15. Juliana Avatar

    What a great read! I was chrismated almost three years ago and continue to struggle with how uncomfortable and sometimes disappointing the Truth can be. Orthodox worship doesn’t come with a rock band and a light show to engage our emotions. I sometimes miss the Baptist church of my childhood. And, thanks be to God for good memories. Thanks be to God for kind, Godly Sunday School teachers, preachers, pianists, music leaders, and, of course, my parents who influenced me and who struggled to live according to the Scriptures with the guidance they were given. I remember shortly after converting that I missed Sunday School. But, gosh, now, what a relief to be free of those study lessons, and instead free to stand in the nave and behold the saints and the altar. I am relieved to step off the emotional and mental ladder that my Baptist past encouraged me to ascend. I’m relieved to be able to stand, watch, listen and use the senses that God so providentially gave me at my birth.

    “Be still and know that I am God.”

  16. Joe Avatar

    (Unintentionally delayed response. . .) Alithos Anesti!

  17. Raphael Avatar

    Brent, I was a protestant for 40 years and was not “looking” for a different church to go to and I wasn’t in an existential crisis. That came later when through my normal course of daily reading and prayer I learned, simply at a cognitive level at first, that the Orthodox church is the fullness of The Faith. My spiritual father told me when I started down the path to baptism in the Holy Orthodox Church that it would require eating a lot of humble pie and he was certainly right. No one from my family, biological or church, could understand why I was making this journey. I also had and have to, unlearn much error. However, there came a time when it felt like I have always been Orthodox. Much the same way it feels like I have always known my lovely wife. After some time of marriage it is hard to remember a time when we were not together and when I do it seems like she has always been there. I’m not sure if this is making sense. In any case just go and keep going to the Divine Liturgy and any other services you can get to. Allow yourself to be present. Realize that if there is something you think needs to be changed in the church you are probably wrong. I am a neophyte, a babe thefaith. I no

  18. Raphael Avatar

    I know nothing. Just go, meet with the priest, allow yourself to be guided, get an Orthodox prayer book and pray…a lot. I will be praying for you.

  19. Brent Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen and Raphael.
    I certainly treasure this blog.
    And I’m counting on those prayers.

  20. Raphael Avatar

    Brent, you are most welcome. I am reading Father Stephen’s book Everywhere Present, Christianity in a one story universe and Metropolitan Philip’s book Meeting the Incarnate God, From the Human Depths to the Mystery of Fidelity. I highly recommended them once you start this journey. Also, the courses on Orthodoxy through the Antiochian Orthodox Deanery of the United Kingdom and Ireland at

    Are very helpful…

  21. Juliana Avatar

    There are also monasteries. Google Orthodox monasteries in Texas. I find great benefit in visiting my parish’s skete that is about one hour from my house. Sketes and monateries typically have space for guests. With advance notice they tend to be very amenable to having guests stay for a few days.

  22. Yaakov Avatar

    This makes me happy to be miserable… very timely article.

  23. Michael Patrick Avatar
    Michael Patrick

    Sorry for the off-topic comment…

    P.J. Allow me to remind you that you were going to “point to chapter and verse” in a prior comment you made about Fr. John Behr’s book, “The Mystery of Christ”. This is under in Fr. Stephen’s recent “Intuition of Narnia” post. MarkBasil and I still hope that you will respond as you said you would.

    If you’d rather not follow this through, that’s OK too; just let us know.

  24. jwebsd Avatar

    One of your finest posts Father. I am going to share with with others. “Just showing up…” Amen.

  25. Peter Avatar

    off topic: a Byzantine chant in English

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