There Is No Such Thing As Secular

Southwest Trip 392Just so that we can be clear: there is no such thing as a secular world. By that, I mean that there is no such thing as the world apart from God, a world without God, or a world existing in a “neutral zone.” The good God who created the heavens and the earth, sustains them in their very existence. He has not made Himself absent, nor so endowed the world that it has existence apart from Him. We have created ideological zones in which we try to remove all reference to God or to control behavior in such a way that it can be conceived apart from God, but these are mere intellectual tricks. We cannot make God disappear, regardless of our ideas or declarations. God is simply everywhere present, filling all things.

Understanding this and embracing this is perhaps the most fundamental step in living a right relationship with the cultures in which we dwell. Creation is not our enemy, nor are the institutions, mores, customs, folkways, etc., of the culture around us inherently evil. The successful moments of Orthodox culture, whether of Byzantium or Holy Russia, are not examples of a past that must be reclaimed and re-instituted in the present. The successful moments in Orthodox culture (however relative that success may have been) are demonstrations of what is possible in the Divine/human life of faith.

Cultural activities such as music, dance, the arts, commerce, etc., are also inherently human and are inherently holy. That we pervert them or employ them for perverted ends is not surprising – even religion itself is frequently directed towards perverted ends. By “perverted” ends, I am not particularly referencing sexual perversion, but rather every deviation and turning from the proper ends ordained by God for true human fulfillment.

While it is true that God became man so that man could become God, it is equally true that God became man so that man could become man – truly human. To be truly human we must sing and dance, create art and tell stories. We engage in commerce and build cities. All that is human life and existence is a gift from God and has a God-given purpose and direction.

The false narrative of secularism says that religious activity is the realm of human concern with God, and the only proper realm of such concern. It holds that there are such things as non-religious activities and thus realms of human concern where God is not proper nor welcome. The intrusion and introduction of God into such activities is seen as the intrusion and introduction of elements that are foreign and extrinsic, even corrupting of the activity itself. Many Christians have given way to these assertions. Thus we allow ourselves to think, “Now I am doing something Christian, now I am not.” Such thought is, unconsciously, a renunciation of the Christian God. I have described it elsewhere as “Christian Atheism.”

The false dichotomy of religious/non-religious, or sacred/secular too easily demonizes culture and the world or their activities. Some religious groups seek to solve this problem by creating a parallel Christian culture: thus “Christian Rock” music and “Christian Romance” novels. A common result is often bad music and bad literature. As a rejection of culture it becomes a false creation.

The salvation of the human person must include the salvation of the whole person. It is the transformation of our life into the image of Christ. I can easily imagine Jesus the carpenter making tables and chairs. I expect Him to have made truly excellent tables and chairs according to whatever knowledge he was given. But I don’t expect Him to have carved little Stars of David on them to make them acceptable. If a chair rightly fulfills its role as chair – then it is good. It does not also have to be a carving post for religious anxieties.

The dichotomy between Christian/non-Christian obscures more global concerns. Our faith is far more endangered by the dominance of consumerism than by the lack of overt religious content. Consumerism distorts our humanity as well as any faith that becomes enmeshed in it.

The consumer-driven religious life has resulted in Churches that major in personal fulfillment with little attention to doctrine and sacrament. It is a new form of Christianity, one that differs from its own Protestant ancestry as much as its ancestry differed from the Catholic. And though it has its largest representation within Protestant or non-denominational Churches, both Catholic and Orthodox communities are not immune to its power and its thought. Orthodox Christians are sometimes as guilty of “shopping” for their parish (or jurisdiction) as any mega-Church seeker.

In the Tradition of the Church stability and continuity are more than occasional values. Tradition must be inculcated and passed on – it cannot be chosen, bought, or shopped. But Tradition should not be a concern for Orthodoxy alone: being human is a tradition. Despite the fact that the modern world likes to constantly re-create itself, the most fundamental things of human life are nurtured and taught by a generation older than oneself. This happens within the family, the extended family, the Church and the larger, more immediate community. The breakdown of those communities, in consumerist and commuter isolationism increasingly mean that the culture fails in its most primary tasks of socialization. We are becoming a culture of barbarians (with apologies to barbarians).

It is a commonplace to lament the “lack of civil discourse.” We would do better to lament the lack of civilization – for it is this most fundamental lack that is manifest in our inability to talk with one another. The dominance of the consumerist/commuter culture does not bode well for the near future of the traditional Christian Church. For the tradition of the faith requires a different kind of human being than we are currently nurturing.

There is no such thing as the secular, but the holy world created by God can be so distorted that it becomes opaque to itself. In such a world human beings lose their way, imagining themselves as something less than human – a recipe for misery.

But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy. Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation. Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme,or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men– (1Pe 2:9-15 NKJ)


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.


48 responses to “There Is No Such Thing As Secular”

  1. Kev Avatar

    Thank you Father for another great post. How do you think that this steady decay of our culture can be stopped? I suppose that it is by more and more of us living out our faith.

    Unfortunately that is becoming extremely hard to do. When ever one does he is persecuted now days.

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    Stopping a culture is a large issue and is simply in the hands of God. The outcomes of history must always be committed to God. But for us, these thoughts help us think carefully about what it means to be faithful. Consumerism, etc., need to be resisted. We should live our faith with greater care, but not in a paranoid manner. There are temptations for us in both directions.

  3. Emma @ Words And Peace Avatar

    thanks, I think this is exactly the word the Lord was intending me to hear today!

  4. Tom Avatar

    Thank you, Father. Enlightening and encouraging as usual!

  5. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    Am I correctly understanding this (excellent as always) post as a criticism of the notion that a Church has to “bring itself up to date”? Just want to be sure I’m not reading more into it than there is. Thank you, Father, I always enjoy reading what you write!

  6. Ruth Ann Avatar
    Ruth Ann

    A favorite quote that I remember from reading the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is “Nothing on earth is profane for those who know how to see.” I felt, at the time, that I understood what he meant.

    John Kavanaugh opened my eyes to how destructive consumerism is in Following Christ in a Consumer Society. I read it again every Lent. It’s hard to extricate oneself from consumerism.

  7. Dino Avatar

    Ruth Ann et al,

    The Elder Aimilianos provides this answer as to how to extricate ourselves from consumerism, in his homily on “Orthodox Spirituality and the technological Revolution”:

    The most dreadful enemy created by post-industrial culture, the culture of information technology and the image, is cunning distraction. Swamped by millions of images and a host of different situations on television and in the media in general, people lose their peace of mind, their self-control, their powers of contemplation and reflection and turn outwards, becoming strangers to themselves, in a word mindless, impervious to the dictates of their intelligence. If people, especially children, watch television for 35 hours a week, as they do according to statistics, then are not their minds and hearts threatened by Scylla and Charabdis, are they not between the devil and the deep blue sea? (Homer, Odyssey, XII, 85)

    The majority of the faithful of the Church confess that they do not manage to pray, to concentrate and cast off the cares of the world and the storms of spirit and soul which are to the detriment of sobriety, inner balance, enjoyable work, family tranquility and a constructive social life. The world of the industrial image degenerates into real idolatry.

    The teachings of the Fathers concerning spiritual vigilance arms people so that they can stave off the disastrous effects of the technological society. “For the weapons of our warfare… have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4), according to the Apostle Paul. Spiritual vigilance [Nepsis] is a protection for everyone “containing everything good in this age and the next” (cf. Hesychius the Elder, PG 93, 1481A) and “the road leading to the kingdom, that is in us and that of the future” (Philotheos the Sinaite, Philokalia, vol. II, p. 275). Spiritual vigilance is not the prerogative only of those engaged actively in contemplation. It is for all those who are conscientiously “dealing with this world as though they had no dealings with it” (1 Cor. 7:31).

    In the industrial era, people became consumers and slaves to things produced. In post-industrial society, they are also becoming consumers and slaves to images and information, which fill their lives.

    Restraint and spiritual vigilance are, for all those who come into the world, a weapon made ready from the experience of the monastic life and Orthodox Tradition in general, one which abolishes the servitude of humanity and preserves our health and sovereignty as children of God.

    From The Authentic Seal: Spiritual Instruction and Discourses. (Ormylia [Halkidiki], Greece: Ormylia Publishing/Holy Cenobium of the Annunciation of the Mother of God, 1999), pp. 343-352. ISBN: 960-85603-3-0 and ISBN: 960-85603-2-2.

    I keep returning to “Nepsis” every time I comment (constant spiritual vigilance), but it really is the only practical method that bestows on us the ability to live as Christ lived in any situation. To fulfil all the commandments in one fell swoop. Or rather to fulfil what is revealed to be the one commandment. As there are not really ten or more, just one. And it is not really a commandment, but, rather a revelation of God’s mode of being, a revelation of the substratum of existence. But to acquire and to keep ‘Lord Love Himself’ (to use a favourite expression of Fr. Lev Gillet) – that constant watchfulness must become our second nature…

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    Mrs. Mutton,
    “up to date” is often just a phrase used to sell us more stuff.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    The Elder, including urging watchfulness, has most helpfully here suggested what we should watch out for. Thank you!

  10. Henry Avatar

    Father Stephen

    I have just moved to a new area and I am shopping for a church, one that meets the particular needs of my family. At least in America, we can no longer expect to be buried on the same property where we were first baptized, maybe not even on the same property where we were baptized for the second or third time.

    If nothing is secular, then should the church minister to the needs of the “whole man,” body, soul, and spirit? That would indicate that the church should minister to health needs, mental health needs, financial needs, educational needs, and perhaps even exercise needs.

    I know a successful pastor in another city. He is obsessed with the “felt needs” of his flock. He is willing to try anything to reach out to his community (including exercise classes).

    Like you, I am appalled at the quality of much that is found in contemporary Christian art and music, but at least they are trying. I wonder what fruit some of the mega-churches will ultimately produce. I have seen some wonderfully good fruit grow on some pretty strange looking trees.


    Your friend the pragmatic American Protestant

  11. EPG Avatar

    “I can easily imagine Jesus the carpenter making tables and chairs. I expect Him to have made truly excellent tables and chairs according to whatever knowledge he was given.”

    When I read this passage, I immediately thought of the Shakers, who literally made excellent chairs and tables according to the knowledge they were given. A visit to one of their intact villages (such as that at Canterbury, New Hampshire)demonstrates that they (for whatever flaws they did have) attempted to live lives in which the sacred was ever present.

  12. Kev Avatar

    I’m too poor to participate in the consumer society. And I think that other Christians should respect that fact. But most don’t. They wonder what must be wrong with you that you’re not successful. But I am successful at keeping dependent on God.

    How many of you are willing to be poor? That may be the only way to get out of the consumerism. Just be a failure. Like me.

  13. John Avatar

    Then why have icons?

    I thought He made ox yokes. 🙂

    Please briefly address your separate priesthood and the text you concluded with that says all Christians are priests.

  14. Jann Schlebusch Avatar
    Jann Schlebusch

    Excellent true Biblical perspective, Thanks. You understand the meaning of Rom 12:1 and you understand true covenantal life. If God grants us freedom again in South Africa, we hope to establish a true Theonomy/Theocracy here.

  15. Karen Avatar


    While waiting for Fr. Stephen’s reply, you might check out where he addressed the Orthodox view of the ordained priesthood and the priesthood of all believers here:

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    John, good question.Your question asks about the distinction between the priesthood of all believers and the ordained priesthood.

    Preliminary – “What is a priest?”

    For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices. Therefore it is necessary that this One also have something to offer. For if He were on earth, He would not be a priest, since there are priests who offer the gifts according to the law; (Heb 8:3-4 NKJ)

    This NT definition of priesthood works for me. The function of a priest is to make and to present offerings to God.

    Orthodoxy believes that this is perhaps the most essential of all human activities. We were created to be priests of creation. This is sometimes called the “natural priesthood.” God created us and set us in paradise. There we were the keepers of the Garden. Our role would have been to offer all things to God (through thanksgiving). God gives to us, and we give thanks to Him for what He has given us and offer to Him what He has given to us.

    For all things come from You, And of Your own we have given You. (1Ch 29:14 NKJ)

    Or, as Chrysostom’s liturgy says, “Thine own, of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all.”

    But we fell from this role as priests and instead ate that which had not been given to us – indeed, the only thing that had not been given to us. The first sin was also the rejection of our role as the priests of creation. But God called His people and gave them the Law. He said to them:

    `Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. `And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.” (Exo 19:5-6 NKJ)

    Note that ancient Israel in the Old Covenant was itself called to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” But, of course, God also appointed Aaron and his line to be priests – the Levites – and they offered the sacrifices that were prescribed. This in no way removed the priestly burden and ministry from Israel, but imaged it, and made it concrete in a specific fashion and for a specific reason. But the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, the essential work of humanity, was a commandment for all of Israel.

    That priesthood was still but a shadow of the true and complete fulfillment of priesthood. It is Christ, the God/Man who completes and fulfills the role of humanity as priests before God. He utterly offers Himself and all of creation, in an act of perfect and complete offering (in every respect) to God. In Christ, all of creation, as offering, enters into communion with its Creator, which God has purposed from before all time:

    having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth– in Him. (Eph 1:9-10 NKJ)

    We hold that Christ is the one, true priest. The only complete fulfillment of priesthood. It is His priesthood that humanity is called to as it offers creation to God. In the Church, God has appointed elders (Bishops, Presbyters), who serve, lead and guide the people of God. Part of that ministry includes presiding at the liturgy of the faithful in offering the Eucharistic Offering to God.

    There is a priesthood there, but it is the priesthood of Christ. Ordination, the setting into the ranks of the orders (bishop, presbyter, deacon), is for the good order of the Church. The ordained priesthood is nothing other than the priesthood of Christ, imaged forth in someone set aside for that work. That is the nature of the ordained priesthood.

    One of my favorite prayers in Chrysostom’s liturgy is said quietly by the priest before the beginning of the Great Thanksgiving:

    Look down on me, a sinner, Thine unprofitable servant; and cleanse my soul and heart from an evil conscience; and by the power of the Holy Spirit enable me, who am endowed with the grace of the priesthood, to stand before this, Thy holy table, and perform the sacred mystery of Thy holy and pure Body and precious Blood. For I draw near to Thee, and bowing my neck I implore Thee: Do not turn Thy face away from me, nor cast me out from among Thy children; but make me, Thy sinful and unworthy servant, worthy to offer gifts to Thee. For Thou art the Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received, O Christ our God, and to Thee we ascribe glory, together with Thy Father, Who is from everlasting, and Thine all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

    Christ is the “Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received.” It is His priesthood.

    The priesthood of all believers is also the priesthood of Christ and is shone forth in the essential act of the Christian life – which is itself a Eucharistic life – the life of thanksgiving in which we offer to God what has been given to us. Is there a contradiction or conflict in an ordained priesthood and the priesthood of all believers? Apparently not. The OT also had an ordained priesthood and a kingdom of priests.

    My observation is that among Protestants who championed the priesthood of all believers as though it somehow abolished the notion of an ordained priesthood, was that before long they forgot about priesthood at all. If you told the average Protestant that he was a priest, he would deny it or be utterly clueless about what you meant.

    If you say to an Orthodox Christian, “You are a priest,” they would have a fairly good idea what a priest is, and be interested in what you meant by saying that they were also a priest. It’s like saying “All days are holy.” But not ever making a distinction between days. Before long, no days are holy. All days are holy only means something if you have an example of a holy day.

    For the good order of the life of the Church, some men are set aside and placed in Holy Orders (they are under obedience and a life governed by a discipline with clear responsibilities and consequences). They image forth the priesthood of Christ and lead the offering of Christ to Christ in the Church’s assembly.

    That is the essential teaching of Orthodoxy on the matter. There are some technical discussions about the priest as being in persona Christi, in nomine Christi, etc. But what I have stated is its essence.

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father is not the ritual priesthood an artifact of our fall that also altered the natural transformative synergy of man and woman together?

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    I would not think so. The liturgical priesthood is the priesthood of Christ – but it does not act alone. We see a vested priest in the liturgy – but the action is still synergistic. I cannot think that there is anything “fallen” in the priesthood. The priesthood of Christ is “from the foundation of the world”.

  19. Catholic facing east Avatar
    Catholic facing east

    Super piece Father. We are human beings before we are anything else. Sometimes just sitting down and taking a deep breath can be as efficacious as prayer i.e. liturgical.

  20. John Avatar

    One point not raised explicitly – there is no “separate priesthood”, only the priesthood of Christ in which we all participate. No Eucharist may be offered without the people.

    John – Surely the notion of ordained elders who preside over the assembly is thoroughly Biblical? Technically they are “presbyters” in the language or Scripture and the Church.

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, wasn’t saying that the priesthood is fallen, but that we have a separate priesthood because of the fall that truncated our ability to function naturally as priests.

  22. Lyn Storey Avatar
    Lyn Storey

    Fr. Stephen,
    Excellent post.. Your thoughts on Culture being in herently human therefore inherently holy, while not being the point of your essay, nevertheless, brought to my mind a rationale and justification for Western Rite Orthodoxy. I am Anglican/Episcopalian, in an orthodox Anglo-Catholic parish. I am very drawn to Western Rite Orthodoxy, but there are none within 100 miles of me and I fear, from what I have been seeing lately, there are not likely to be many. I find it very sad that WR is not more promoted and encouraged in Orthodoxy. Indeed many downright dismiss it as not “true” Orthodoxy.

  23. Alan Avatar

    Dino, thanks for sharing that quote from The Elder. Outstanding stuff!!

  24. Steve Williams Avatar
    Steve Williams

    Another excellent posting , Father . I’m curious to see where you think capitalism fits into the picture .

  25. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m not at all certain that I should feel anything about capitalism. Economic theories are ways the powers-that-be justify their actions. They are more-or-less faithful to those descriptions. As a believer, I’m generally unable to do anything about economic theory. But my responsibilities are much the same regardless of the system in which I live. Those responsibilities are made clear in the teachings of Christ. To love my neighbor as myself and to share what I have with others. No theory absolves me of that personal responsibility.

    These commandments apply to all believers, regardless of their station in life. Again, theories will not likely carry much weight before the throne of God. Private property, hard work, the market, etc., cannot relieve the commandment to share what we have. Nor does a socialist economy take the place of Christian charity. There are always opportunities for generosity.

    I’m not an economic theorist (and I am quite unconvinced by those who claim a Divine sanction for one theory over another), but I think there is a distinction to be made between capitalism and consumerism. The development of advertising skill has created an ability to manipulate the passions in a manner never before imagined. We have made this manipulation into a scientific pursuit, complete with biofeedback and computer analysis. It creates an exploitation of our appetites that create a slavery of sorts. It concerns me.

    The same methods of advertising are used in the American political system. I now use the term “consumer-republic” to describe our “democracy.” The inner lives and thoughts of citizens are not nurtured in freedom, but manipulated into votes. I have no regard whatsoever for a government (whether the majority or minority) elected in such a system. They are not the product of a free society, but a demonstration of the techniques of marketing. Such a government does not prevent me from keeping the commandments of Christ – but a Christian, I think, in any measure of sobriety, should deconstruct the rhetoric of the Powers and not lend themselves more than necessary as their accomplices. I recall the words of A.I. Solzhenitsyn who wrote (in the 70’s) to his fellow Soviet citizens, “Refuse to lie. Refuse to participate in the lie.” After his arrival in the West (in his famous Harvard Address) he turned the same Christian conscience toward the consumerism of our culture. We do well to listen to such voices.

  26. George Avatar

    several thoughts:
    I don’t remember where I read this or heard this but God’s plan for my life is dealing with the situation I am in right now in a Godly manner-loving God with all my heart and mind and strength and loving my neighbor as myself in what ever I do.
    It is hard to make a living in a consumer society without participating in it. I must present my services as a commodity to be purchased. My competiton is presenting these same service as a benifit to the consumers egos. I have to do the same or I will go out of business. If I do not stroke egos I don’t have clients.
    Is nepsis aquired by practicing stillness and surrendering meditation-the Jesus prayer, prostrations?

  27. fatherstephen Avatar

    George, it is certainly nurtured by such practices.

    We should think carefully about work that requires exploiting the weaknesses of others (ego) in order to live. I recall that in Revelation, the “mark of the Beast” is described as the inability to buy or sell without it. I do not identify consumerism with the Beast, but we must take care never to use utilitarian arguments (“it is useful,” “it is required for the use of society”) to justify our actions. We are always free to do otherwise – though it might cost us everything. We are certainly in difficult times, but I think there is still time to do good.

  28. Kev Avatar

    We may have to choose poverty. And “blessed are the poor” will become more widely known.

  29. Greta Hoostal Avatar
    Greta Hoostal

    Dear Lyn Storey,

    Sorry there is no Western Rite parish nearby! Have you seen this site: ? People in such difficult situations can write to the people running the site, for help. I can think of a few ideas at least, not necessarily all practical or desirable though: 1. Make trips to that nearest parish when you are able, making overnight trips if necessary. 2. Move closer to it. 3. Move to that or another city with a Western Rite parish. 4. Become a member even by long distance (possibly?). 5. Rouse up interest in your current church about converting the whole church to Western Rite. 5. Rouse up interest in your community & a mission may be started. 6. Attend an Eastern Orthodox church at least temporarily; there may be more than one in your area, & one might be more to your liking—or at least less to your disliking!—than another. In an Orthodox church, there are certain things that may be to some tastes & not others, such as the tunes of hymns. I think the ones at my church are mostly from Kiev (& are generally appealing to Westerners), but another church may have Byzantine tunes, which have a very different sound. So what I mean is if you have been to one Eastern Orthodox church & didn’t like something about it, I’d like to encourage you to try another, which you may like more.

    I know there is true Western Rite Orthodoxy, such as Sarum Mass. I have also heard though of people taking Protestant liturgies & adapting them, trying to make them Orthodox. Maybe that is what is seen as not true Orthodoxy, & I can understand, because to do so (I think) would be to leave aside the Orthodox liturgical tradition, while using an innovation, albeit with certain things changed—the very framework should be Orthodox. I am praying you will make it into Western Rite Orthodoxy one way or another! (^_^)

  30. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The Western Rite liturgy that the Antiochian Archdiocese uses is adapted from the old Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

    As to not being “really Orthodox” that is a common opinion not so much for the liturgy as for some of the other adaptations such as an iconostasis and in come cases, lesser fasting rules, western music, etc.

    There are two western rites in the U.S. the Antiochian and the ROCOR. There are far more Antiochian western rite parishes that ROCOR at this time.

    Only western rite liturgies that have been approved the canonical bishops are western rite Orthodoxy. Anything else is not.

    Both the web-site of the Assembly of Bishops and certainly the Antiochian web site has the capacity to do detailed searches.

    However, I would hazard a guess that if there is an Eastern Orthodox parish near you, you are generally better off going there and holding out for a western rite parish.

  31. fatherstephen Avatar

    I spent 18 years as an Episcopal priest – and thus am intimately familiar with “Western rite,” at least in a general Western sense. And I understand the love people have with its familiar words and actions. Personally, I think too much is made of Eastern Rite versus Western Rite. There is just Liturgy. I felt quite awkward for several years within Byzantine/Russian practice. An action that had become almost second-nature (celebrating the liturgy), became a matter of intense study, faux pas, etc. I finished most Sundays feeling stupid and clumsy. After 15 years of Orthodoxy, the Liturgy has once again become comfortable – at least I do not have to think constantly about what is coming next or where I’m supposed to stand, etc.

    But, as a priest, I found a wealth of material that once existed in the West but was purged through Reformation, Counter-Reformation, Renewals, etc. The greatest weakness of the so-called Western Rite is its paucity. The doctrinal content of Eastern hymnody, for example, is the great bulwark of the Church’s life. Lex orandi, lex credendi – what we pray is what we believe. It is often questioned whether the present state of Western liturgical content is sufficient to sustain the Orthodox life.

    These are legitimate questions and not to be soon answered. Having said that, I would not want to discourage anyone within a Western rite setting, nor presume to make judgments that belong to bishops alone. But I would encourage anyone within Orthodoxy – even if your heart longs for the Western rite – to simply long for Christ in the sacrament. God will provide – if not the rite of your longing – then the food of immortality nonetheless.

  32. John Avatar

    Father: You say, “cultural activities such as music, dance, the arts, commerce, etc., are also inherently human and are inherently holy”; and in the following paragraphs you more or less do away with the distinction between religious and non-religious activities. This resonates with me along the lines of “living a sacramental world-view”. But I also wonder: if there is no distinction between “explicitly religious” and non-religious activity, why do we have Churches at all? If all space is sacred, why do we distinguish between sacred and non-sacred space? Or, if all things are holy, why do we venerate relics? If all things are indeed holy, how can some things be “more holy” than others?

    I know you have some reservations about the work of Fr. Seraphim Rose, but he was once asked by his co-laborer Fr. Herman, about his favorite composer (of classical music). Fr. Seraphim’s response was that he preferred to wait for the music in heaven. This presses the point, doesn’t it? On the one hand, there is so clearly something truly beautiful and therefore godly expressed in the works of Bach and Handel that surely we could call them “holy”. And yet these are somehow not the same as the vesperal hymns. There does (at least in my experience) seem to be a difference between the “explicitly religious” hymns of the Church and the “secular” or even “religious” works of classical music. Am I mistaken?

    (To be fair to Fr. Seraphim, he also advocated noting/learning from all that was good in culture – so much so that he would have his novices read Dickens and go to Shakespeare plays!).

  33. fatherstephen Avatar

    John, these are good questions. There is always the problem that with “all things are holy,” soon nothing becomes holy (at least in a secular world). The sacramental examples – sacred space – sacred music, etc. – serve many purposes. But the one thing they do not do is to serve to point out other spaces, music, etc. as not holy. As such, they would be the creators of the secular.

    Rather, I think, they serve to make explicit what is everywhere and always implicit. If I do not encounter God in the liturgy, I will not encounter Him elsewhere, most likely. If there is no ordained priest, there will be no priest within my own life. These demarcated places of the holy serve to reveal all places as holy – and are thus just the opposite of secular creators. That is the perversity of our using them to mark other things as not holy.

    This tension was quite clear in the OT. There was the Temple, etc. but God would remind Israel that He did not dwell in a building made of hands. But recall that the Tabernacle/Temple was His own command. He commands the sacrifices, but also tells Israel that He hates their sacrifices. It was not the Temple that He despised, or the sacrifices, per se, but their use to limit the holy. They do not rightly limit the holy, but reveal it.

    Revealing the holy, they teach the heart how to discern. Culture is, of course, a mixed bag. Music is inherently good, a gift from God. We can also hear other things in music – things that would destroy what it is to be rightly and truly human. But even in such perversions, we can recognize beauty, or talent. Or we can recognize how far short something falls because we have seen how well something else fulfills.

    Fr. Seraphim may have been a saint, I would not be surprised to see him canonized eventually. But it will be a lesson, I think, that canonization is not the same thing as an imprimatur of infallibility. He was a truly great soul and his untiring work – particularly in producing works that impacted the Church in Russia, are worth commemorating.

  34. George Avatar

    God is everywhere present and fills all things, but we in our fallen vision cannot see Him. So God in His mercy has given us sacred things to focus on so we can see Him. Is this not true?

  35. Catholic facing east Avatar
    Catholic facing east


    To be granted the vision of God is not something one can talk about at will, as one can with a work of art (say).

    On the other hand, icons always point to their prototype. St John of Damascus distinguishes between images by nature and images as imitation by art. There is a hierarchy in religious images. In Orthodoxy:

    “The first class of images, according to John, is ‘natural image’, term that denotes a primordial relationship, found as a primary irreducible component of an ultimate reality. This general statement is particularly valid when referring to the Son as the living, substantial, unchangeable, and natural image of the Father-who is the cause and principal of the two other persons, and the source of relations from whom the hypostases receive their distinct characteristics”

    (Anita Strezova, Relation of Image to Its Prototype in Byzantine Iconophile Theology p. 4)

    In other words the vanishing point of an icon is always the incarnate pre-eternal God. Icons are windows, through which we see – actually see.

  36. Catholic facing east Avatar
    Catholic facing east


    Today is the feast of St. Simeon the New Theologian. I thought I might point to the greatest of the Byzantine Hesychasts in the estimation of Met. Kallistos.

    What is hesychasm but a direct encounter with the Uncreated Light without beginning and immaterial, that surrounded the transfigured Christ on Mount Tabor?

    It is also confirmed Orthodox doctrine, having been upheld by no less than two councils (Constantinople in 1341 and 1351); although local and not Ecumenical in the strict sense, they nonetheless carry scarcely less weight than the seven more widely known Ecumenical Councils (see The Orthodox Church, Timothy Ware, pp. 66-67).

    A rather controversial point (to be sure) but one that had to be highlighted as you seemed to be heading (unawares, no doubt) into the desert.

    Christos Anesti!

    A sinner…

  37. George Avatar

    Thank you Catholic facing east. I am a sinner, too, but not unaware of where I am heading.

  38. Catholic facing east Avatar
    Catholic facing east

    Writing of the energies of God, MKW goes on to say:

    “The world, as Gerard Manley Hopkins said is charged with the grandeur of God; all creation is a gigantic burning bush permeated but not consumed by the ineffable and wondrous fire of God’s energies”

    Marvelous observation by MKW here. I never thought of GMH as a metaphysical poet but I can’t think of The Grandeur of God in any other terms. Having read it a few times and savoured the imagery.

    MKW is careful to point to the person of God incarnate here. All too easily, we veer towards the abstract. In our brokenness (again, I am a sinner):

    “These energies are not something that exists apart from God, not a gift which God confers upon humans, they are God Himself in his action and revelation to the world.”

    And again, here:

    “It is through these energies that God enters into a direct and immediate relationship with humankind.”

    “When we say that the saints have been transformed or ‘deified’ by grace of God what we mean is that they have a direct experience of God Himself. They know God – that is to say, God in His energies not His essence”

    I can tell you very little about the ‘deification’ process, save to say that it must be accomplished entirely as an act of grace (as was the initial act of creation). Entirely undeserved. I am a sinner. Of this I am also certain…

  39. George Avatar

    Any grace that God has given me, I know, is totally undeserved.

  40. Catholic facing east Avatar
    Catholic facing east

    Of particular note is Orthodoxy’s devotion to Tradition.


    “To accept and understand Tradition we must live within the Church.”
    Fr. Georges Florovsky

    Notice how stable Orthodoxy is…

  41. AR Avatar

    George, thank you for the simple, experienced- based way you describe things. Your comments have always been helpful to me. How long have you been enjoying your Orthodox Christian faith?

    I’ve only been Orthodox for around four years, maybe a little less. I do not really feel any closer to theosis than before, but like you said I find that God descends to me in the sacred things and people of the Church. I “see” him in this way just enough to keep me going. If I become discouraged He says to me, “Just a little more patience.”

    Recently I had the privilege to venerate a myrrh-streaming icon of the Mother of God. After this experience I felt for the first time ever that I had a sense of her person and presence. Now her icons communicate to me in a way they didn’t before.

    I find most spiritual writings too difficult for me. I have previously been led astray into false spirituality when I was lifted up by the glorious sound of the spiritual words. This was so devastating. So I have to be very cautious and remind myself that I have not inherited the glory because I haven’t passed through the crucifixion except in the most cursory way, if that is possible. I feel safe without detailed technical theological knowledge because I am in the Church. However, Athanasius is a favorite of mine and I like to pray through The Incarnation of the Word to try to educate my feelings. And I think he said the same thing you said, that however far we fell in our enslavement to sensory things, the Word of God condescended that far to teach us of his Providence and Love. When we compare his works to those of mere heroes… or perhaps when we compare icons to mere art… we see evidence of his divinity. But this is something I’m only beginning to experience. How much further I must have to go!

    I like to hear from others who have had more experience than myself. I recall as a Protestant reading a story called “Hind’s Feet on High Places,” in which at one point the main character is walking through the dessert waiting for the Shepherd to appear and tell her where to go next, and she sees a long line of people starting with Abraham at the head of the line. Every person in line is holding hands. It seems to go on forever and she despairs of getting to the head of the line, but then the last person in the line holds out his hand to her.

    I’m so grateful for all the people in the church and on this blog who hold out their hands to me.

  42. George Avatar

    I’ve been Orthodox a little over 20 years ( I’m now 64), but I was always searching for Orthodoxy. I stopped searching when I found it.

  43. AR Avatar

    So for you there’s no anxiety involved in religion?

  44. drewster2000 Avatar


    Just as George’s comments help you, your comments always help me. I read someone reaching out with candidness and without guile, seeking to understand, seeking God. What a blessed thing to behold!

    Thank you for your presence here.

  45. AR Avatar

    Drew, your kindness is consoling. Thank you!

  46. […] a reformed college professor once said. No wonder I was impressed with this article, There Is No Such Thing As Secularism. You really should read […]

  47. […] a reformed college professor once said. No wonder I was impressed with this article, There Is No Such Thing As Secularism. You really should read […]

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