And All Our Yesterdays

procession-de-la-muerteSome things in the world happen very slowly – and they are less perceptible because of it. Continental drift is real, but is only noticed when viewed over millions of years. Though we live our lives in mere decades, our own existence is frequently caught up in larger, slower forces. We act out the drama within a play that often began centuries earlier. My life can easily be but the 15th Act of the play while my ego imagines that I am at the beginning, and even that I myself am the playwright.

The drama of our world is older than the drama of the continents – but that is a story told only by God. Nevertheless, smaller pieces of the play can be extracted and examined with great benefit. Self-understanding and discernment sometimes require this process. Many of our thoughts are not our own, or not of our own making. We speak the lines of greater forces, often unwittingly. When I become the spokesman of the Zeitgeist then I am in danger of a kind of historical possession, my authenticity hijacked by the Spirit of the Age.

The drama of the modern world has been playing itself out for several centuries now. The empires and kingdoms of the Middle Ages, with roots in religion and Rome have gradually felt their way forward with the rise of the nation state, colonialism, nationalisms, and today’s latest iteration – globalization. Each act within its unfolding has had its own worldview and language. Every variation has required new virtues of its players and written new speeches for its actors.

The play has been marked by deeply violent upheavals. And every variation that has unfolded has done so in the name of a new stability and even “the end of all war.”

As the Holy Roman Empire evolved into today’s Europe, it has done so with some of the bloodiest wars in human history.  The present forging of the European Union has not been without violence (cf. the Balkans) nor has it been marked by an easy prosperity or a happy European melting-pot.

Modern Euro-forces, like their Holy Roman, Nation State, Colonialist and Nationalist predecessors, claim for their emergence an inner necessity. The European Union is an inevitable, evolutionary movement towards a greater future.

Christianity and the Church once played a dominant role in the European identity. The Church put the “Holy” in the Holy Roman. The movement away from that empire, however, has placed increasing distance between Europe and the Church, the individual European and God. It is interesting to hear a modern Orthodox critique of the Euro Project:

European culture is based on man. Man is its program and its goal, its means and its content. Humanism is its chief architect. It is totally constructed on the sophist principle and criterion that man— European man— is the measure of all things, visible and invisible. He is the supreme creator and giver of values. The truth is whatever he proclaims as true; the purpose of life is whatever he proclaims it to be; good and evil are what he pronounces to be good and evil. To put it briefly and bluntly: he makes himself God. Have you not noticed how immensely he loves to play God, in science and technology, philosophy and culture, religion and politics, art and fashion— to play God at any price, even by inquisition and papism, by sword and fire, by savagery and cannibalism? In the language of his humanistic-positivistic science, he has pronounced that there is no God. Guided by that logic, he confidently concludes that, as there is no God, he is God. (Man and the God-Man, St. Justin Popovich, 2011)

The Church, whether Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, has done a delicate dance over the past several centuries – sometimes accommodating, sometimes challenging the evolving Euro-Elephant. The dance has not been confined to Europe. For though Europe is but a small part of the modern world, and not even its largest economy, its own evolution has carried the world with it. The United States, despite early resistance, eventually became involved in Europe’s wars (dubbed “World Wars” – everybody gets to play!). The Colonialist phase was perhaps the most blatant effort to shape the world into a larger version of Europe. The lines of demarcation that today represent nation states across the world were drawn by Europeans for the most part, often with no attention to natural divisions of geography, language and tribe or religion, with occasionally devastating consequences (fueling many of today’s civil wars and conflicts).

To a large extent, the word “modern” or “post-modern” simply means “European” (including when it is applied to America). And it is that modern evolution that today creates the landscape in which the Church must live. That landscape gives new meaning to words, and creates new “virtues” suitable to its cultural/political projects.

One of those virtues today is described as “tolerance.” There is, of course, a Christian meaning of the term. But in the modern context, the word describes the virtue of holding certain things as “private” and refusing to criticize or judge any number of things that might seem or feel “objectionable.” Among the “privately held” things are religious beliefs.

To describe a modern nation today as a “Christian” nation would be an affront to tolerance. In the Euro world other older associations, such as “French,” or “German,” might also bring approbation, unless defined in strictly linguistic terms. Various local examples of resistance to the new virtues are quickly labeled as “nationalistic” with overtones of Nazism, whether deserved or not.

Even “love” can have its own meaning within the modern context. St. John Paul II spoke very clearly and persistently about the modern “culture of death,” which was never characterized as speaking in a “loving” manner. Pope Francis has made a few remarks that the media have trumpeted as “softening” the Church’s stance on abortion and is hailed for his kindness and love – a “new Francis.” I think he is mischaracterized, but that what is being trumpeted is actually a “Euro-Francis.”

Orthodoxy runs afoul of the same modern project. Russia’s (particularly Putin) strong public affirmation of its traditional Orthodoxy is being criticized within Western media for being “reactionary,” and “dangerous.” It is certainly the case that a fair amount of nationalism and ethnic-centered sentiment can be found within the rhetoric of Putin’s supporters. But as Orthodoxy struggles to find its way within the current Euro-shaped world, it will doubtless encounter more criticism of a similar sort.

A recent criticism of Putin-style Orthodoxy came from within Orthodox circles (from an article by Fr. John Chryssavgis in the Huffington Post):

The full story about the spiritual and doctrinal foundation of the Orthodox Church includes a spirit of openness and receptivity. Authentic Orthodox spirituality is marked by tolerance of and dialogue with all people.

When Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew are together in Jerusalem on May 25, 2014, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of their predecessors’ historic meeting in the Holy City, their motivation and aspiration will be rooted in their awareness that “God is love.” That assurance comes much closer to the heart of Orthodox Christianity and to the heart of what matters about Orthodox spirituality than anything else. I hope that Mr. Buchanan, a Roman Catholic, will be watching with the rest of the world, including Swedish Minister Bildt, to see that the true face of Orthodoxy is not Vladimir Putin, but the face of humility and dialogue.

Of course, it would be hard to find a single contemporary elder of the Orthodox world who has spoken a kind word about dialog with the Pope. Equally absent are noted examples in history of Orthodox “tolerance” (in the Euro sense of the word).

There is something of a modern identity crisis within Orthodoxy and within every institution of the modern world. The crisis is brought about not by a loss of meaning within the heart of the faith, but within the cultural/political context of the modern world. How do Orthodox Christians live in a “globalized” world (by which I mean, the latest iteration of Europe’s own self-created identity).

Does it take up a confrontational stance, opposing almost everything the Eurostate touches? This is largely the position of St. Justin Popovich (and most of the contemporary elders who have commented on such things). Orthodoxy has endured centuries of dhimmitude under the Turkish Yoke. In that situation accommodation was a delicate art – both of sheer survival as well as true preservation.

The confrontational approach currently being championed within parts of Moscow has roots in other moments of history. Some of those are the failed hopes of 19th century Slavophiles and the dreams of a re-constitution of Byzantium. Many in the West are unaware that the Bolshevik revolution not only overthrew the Tsar but also dashed such deeply cherished hopes. It is easy to see both how such dreams can inspire many contemporary Orthodox as well as be abused by contemporary politicians.

Accommodation to globalism is not a strategy for long-term survival. For the global (read Euro) vision is indeed a culture of death. Death is, at best, a vanquished enemy, but can never be our ally.

Individual believers will struggle with these realities whether they want to or not. We live in the growing global culture and will have to direct our attention to it from time to time. Every virtue we espouse will need to be examined in the light of its true meaning. Language has been co-opted by the powers that be (it always is). The ascetic struggle will necessarily include both culture-critique as well as self-critique. And it will have to make peace with the fact that as believers we will be misunderstood. We are not of this world.

For myself, I welcome every voice that pulls back the curtain from those who currently seek to remake our world. For the world they would construct has longed been warned against by the fathers of the Church, dare I say, Christ Himself. God have mercy on us.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



26 responses to “And All Our Yesterdays”

  1. Dino Avatar

    How very true! it seems as if -the once Christian- Europe, after the “debunking” of objective, eternal truths for the sake of private, individual “truths” of modern pluralist humanism, is now coming back to a very warped ‘new’ version of ‘objective-universal’ ‘truths’ for all to adhere to…

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    The new inquisition, carried out in the press, has become quite vicious as well.

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Austin, please.

  4. Greg Avatar

    Thank you for this thoughtful/sober reflection. Recent weeks have seen some pretty unusual social/political stands coming from Orthodox circles, that is for sure.

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Fr Chryssavgis’ words seem to be as much a part of the contest between the EP and the MP which unfortunately redolent with the same spirit that led to the schism between us and Rome as anything.

    The wisdom of the old folk saying which has both Lebanese and Russian versions: Bishops die but the grandmothers live forever.

    As Father Stephen has said repeatedly, we are not in charge of history. We are called to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling.

  6. Thaddeus Avatar

    Fr. Stephen could you elaborate on the difference between the modern concept of tolerance and the loving-kindness of God? And what advice or resources would you suggest on navigating the modern world with humility while remaining faithful?

    Thanks for your time!

  7. Janis Schmidt Avatar

    I am always moved by the depth of your writing. I think Christ is clear, “Seek the truth.” As you have so aptly pointed out, now that Man has replaced God, we certainly don’t want to hear the truth. I think no leader has been as maligned as Putin or the Russian people.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    A clarifying note. I have removed the conversation viz. comments disparaging of my reference to “St. John Paul II”. I am not thereby intended to express any opinion about the former pope, but to respectfully refer to him by his newly conferred Roman Catholic title. This is the common practice of the Orthodox when referring to Saints of the Roman calendar after the schism.

    It’s odd to me – having cited and used St. Justin Popovich in the article as I have – as firm an opponent of ecumenism as there has ever been – and quoted him approvingly as well as the holy elders who have so opposed it – to be ridiculed for a mere act of respect. I apologize to any who might have been offended by such behavior on the blog, and the harsh words of my own rebuke.

    Frankly, I sometime get tired of such childish behavior cloaked in piety.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    God, in His loving-kindness, surely does not thereby hold His own truth less firmly! The toleration taught in the modern multi-cultural world asks us to hold our faith as a “private” matter – not a matter that we should publicly challenge others with or cause offense. Only the publicly approved thoughts are to be held in an “offensive” manner (and those may be held with great vehemence – you can’t even attend an NBA game for the rest of your life! for example).

    Kindness causes no hurt. But it might easily give offense. Christ offended those who hated Him (and He still does). But not because He intended it. We should intend no offense – but we need not be ashamed of Christ nor hide our light beneath a bushel.

  10. Jeff Avatar

    That’s why ya’all gotta read Aristotle Papanikalaou’s new book called “The Mystical as Political”, one can dload it for 9 dollars ( I think), at Notre Dame press……, look, he has a great vocabulary for modern man , he knows there’s an issue with no political theology from O thinkers since Bulgokov, …., good reading all around , not confessional propaganda

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’ll track it down, Jeff. There are a number of Greek Theologians, Christos Yannaras comes to mind, who have written about “Hesychasm” and political theory. St. Justin Popovich has much to say about Theoanthropic education, social theory, etc.

  12. dino Avatar

    There is a large, fully-aligned to the mass-media, sector of the public in Europe, who have unequivocally adopted the ‘new morals’ of (essentially) anti-Christian humanism.
    An unbending intolerance that is willing to throw Christians to the beasts in the Colosseum, so to speak, – all in the name of ‘tolerance’ – is most evident here.
    We are being bombarded with the ideas of modern pluralism almost constantly, especially ‘in the city’. It gives the countryside an extra appeal.

  13. Ryan Avatar

    Can’t help but wonder, given their “progress” over the last decades, whether the Church of England will become the proxy-church of the Euro-Elephant, whose compromises serve to fuel the persecution of traditional Orthodox Christians.

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I apologize to any who might have been offended by such behavior on the blog, and the harsh words of my own rebuke.

    Frankly, I sometime get tired of such childish behavior cloaked in piety.

    Father, no need to apologize. To me that sort of approach is part of the modern mindset that sees everything in particulars and constantly divides instead of seeking the truth. It is definitely a two storey attitude.

    When Jesus Christ Incarnated He took on our human nature, not just the Orthodox nature. Holiness became the natural state of man at that point. We should look for it everywhere and honor it everywhere as a work of God.

    Such attitudes detract from the reality that the Orthodox Church is the Pillar and Ground of the Truth.

    I am tire of the sectarian nonsense in all of its forms whether it comes from Bishops, the newly Christmated and anybody in between–especially when I find it in my own heart.

    Here is a link to a poem that I find expresses much concerning out state:

    I have also been contemplating the title of your post, coming as it does from Macbeth’s soliloquy of death as the end of his ruling delusions is coming to an end.

    “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in its petty pace from day to day and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death.”

  15. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    We speak the lines of greater forces, often unwittingly. When I become the spokesman of the Zeitgeist then I am in danger of a kind of historical possession, my authenticity hijacked by the Spirit of the Age.

    While there is definitely a Spirit of the Age, the spirit of our age includes the idea that “historical forces” compel us because they are greater than us and “resistence is futile”. That is not true. To the extent that “historical forces” exist at all, they are the result of our decisions as human beings to enter into sin or not (a combination of both).

    As all sin is in me, so is all history. My prayers or lack of them, my virtue or lack of virtue, each has an effect on all of the intimate and personal connections that make up our communion with our Lord which transcends both time and space; visible and invisible.

    Each time I participate in the Divine Liturgy, I am experiencing all of that and more. It is the life in the Liturgy that is the real “historical force”; the real ‘drama’ of creation. If I were ever to really open my heart to what is going on in the Liturgy…well the saints such as St. Silouan, St. Seraphim of Sarov and many others show us a bit of what might happen.

    I am frequently motivated by judgment. That is giving into the ‘forces’. The saints are motivated by their participation in divine love. The linear perspective disappears.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    I did not mean to imply that we are compelled by historical forces to speak. But, for example, when words shift their meaning (“tolerance” as an example), and we inveigh them as a virtue without the caveat of interpretation, we unwittingly make the Church a mere ally in the modern project. I watched the Episcopal denomination have almost its entire Christian vocabulary hijacked by the culture. Thus, something could be said that sounded perfectly traditionally Christian, while meaning something that was nothing more than a political agenda.

    As a Christian writer I find that it is necessary to be vigilant and always pushing at the borders of language because language continues to shift.

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I know you were not engaging in that idea. Sorry to imply otherwise. It is just an expansion, to me at least, of what you were saying.

  18. Albert Avatar

    “Individual believers will struggle with…realities whether they want to or not. We live in the growing…culture and will have to direct our attention to it from time to time. Every virtue we espouse will need to be examined in the light of its true meaning. Language has been co-opted by the powers that be (it always is).”

    Father Stephen, when I deleted two specific references to our present circumstances I was reminded that this passage would have been an accurate assessment of Christian communities from the very beginning and throughout history. Names and ideas come and go; evil is constant.

    Here is another detail in the picture you have painted, this one from a purely rational point of view. It appears at

    “The Machiavellian perspective is called realism. But what does realism really mean? Pierre Manent..[political]philosopher] tells us that, for the realist, evil is ‘politically more significant, more substantial, more “real” than “good.”’ What is more, the realist political order ‘is now a closed circle having its own foundation within itself, or rather, below itself. To assert the necessity and fecundity of evil is now to assert the self-sufficiency of the earthly, secular order.’ ” (Manent, Intellectual History, 13, 15)..

  19. PJ Avatar

    This is (very) off-topic, but does the Orthodox liturgical calendar include the feasts of western pre-schism saints: Cyprian, Gregory, Leo, Isidore, Peter Chrysologus, Augustine, Benedict, etc.?

  20. Dino Avatar

    Yes it does.

  21. PJ Avatar

    This gives me pleasure.

  22. Karen Avatar

    PJ, you might enjoy this project that I recently came across:

  23. Dn James Avatar
    Dn James

    ‘Accommodation to globalism is not a strategy for long-term survival. For the global (read Euro) vision is indeed a culture of death.’

    My quote of the day is not the above, but the antidote to this so called ‘globalism’. ‘Bishops die, but grandmothers live forever.’

    Orthodox culture is at its heart local. Yet by the leading of the Holy Spirit it is also universal.

    As an Orthodox Christian with a neo-Malthusian view of the ‘Euro vision’ culture of death, I have a great sense of hope for the future. As the ‘rape of man and nature'{Philip Sherrard) reaches its hard limits of success and begins to retreat, the opportunities for the cultural reflowering of Orthodox culture will be innumerable.

  24. Laura Avatar

    “Many of our thoughts are not our own, or not of our own making. We speak the lines of greater forces, often unwittingly. When I become the spokesman of the Zeitgeist then I am in danger of a kind of historical possession, my authenticity hijacked by the Spirit of the Age.”

    Thank you, Father! I’m always heartened by this line of thought because it has the potential to tear off so many blindfolds.

    I’ve always wanted to start a website called “I Know the Name of the Zeitgeist” and enumerate the millions of scripts we each follow unconsciously throughout our lives. In my daydream it inspires attention to the inner self and a mass discarding of all scripts for authentic existence. 🙂

  25. Margaret Avatar

    Concerning your response to Michael above here in the comments, Fr. Stephen, I so appreciate your vigilance! My husband and I also watched the Episcopal church vocabulary get hijacked by culture. God be praised that you — and many others — are vigilant!

  26. jacksson Avatar

    To me the following words of St. Ignatii Brianchaninov speak to the situation of the Church and the world for that matter in our day. The world powers in the period of time that saw the beginnings of the Church foolishly thought that they could forestall the Resurrection of our Lord. Today the foolishness of the world powers is shown in the attempt to destroy and sideline Christianity; this will never happen and for those of us who roll over and play dead, we will be trampled, but for those who live the life of Christ in their lives, those who progress through the stages of purification, illumination and glorification (theosis) will ultimately be victorious. As a certain priest, now in Tuscon, Arizona, used to say in all situations, “Glory to God.” Enough said, now for the words of St. Ignatii:

    “‘Who shall roll the stone from the tomb for us?’ These words of the holy women have their own mysterious meaning. They are so edifying that love of neighbor and a desire for his spiritual benefit will not allow us to be silent about it.

    “The tomb is our heart. The heart was once a temple, but it became a tomb. Christ enters it by means of the sacrament of Baptism, in order to dwell in us and work in us. Then the heart is consecrated as a temple to God. We steal from Christ the possibility to work in us and enliven our “old man”, which ever follows its attraction to our fallen will, our reason poisoned by falsehood. Brought in by Baptism, Christ continues to abide in us, but He is as if wounded and mortified by our behavior. The temple of God not made by hands is turned into a cramped, dark tomb. A very great stone is rolled over its entrance. The enemies of God set a guard over the tomb, and seal its entrance blocked by the stone. They seal the stone to the cave so that in addition to the stone’s great weight, this famous seal forbids anyone to even touch the stone. The enemies of God themselves watch over the preservation of this deadness! They have thought through and set up all these obstacles in order to forestall the resurrection, to prevent it, and make it impossible.

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