We Will Not Make the World a Better Place

RelativiteitI have written previously about various aspects of the “Modern Project.” It is the world we live in. Its ideas and assumptions enter our thoughts with no critical inspection or hesitancy. We are modern.

However, the gospel is not modern and many ideas of Modernity are contrary to the gospel. It is necessary, therefore, as a simple matter of discernment to question and examine the assumptions of our world.

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. (Rom 12:2 NKJ)

The Modern Project believes in progress. It believes and is utterly committed to the idea that things move forward and improve. Just as microchips get smaller, faster and cheaper, so, too, the world gets better, more advanced, more civilized, more free, more fair, richer, healthier, smarter and wiser. We assume that we know more and understand more than those who came before us. We are the goal of everything that has come before.

I am certain that many readers are already taking exception to some of the assumptions described above. But even though we might agree that some of these things are simply not true (we are not wiser, for example), we still think they should be! Modern political discussions are almost entirely about competing plans for a better world. No one suggests that a better world is a false idea.

A better world is not only a false idea – it is rooted in heresy.

You will search in vain for the notion of making a better world prior to the 16th century. Though there are visions of the “New Jerusalem” within the New Testament, it is a “heavenly city” and not a model for an earthly goal. The Kingdom of God is not “of this world,” nor is it something that people work for or “build up.” The Kingdom of God is God’s gift, is already coming into the world and cannot be stopped. But the Kingdom is not measured by social progress or the betterment of humanity – it is measured only by the crucified and risen Christ. He is the first instance of the Kingdom and is the sole defining mark of its character. That which is not yet crucified and risen is not yet the Kingdom.

So from where did the Modern Project derive its notion of progress?

The Reformation probably sowed the seeds of the myth of progress. The drive to reform the Church gave birth to similar ideas across the whole of society. There were occasional outbreaks of radical reform that included political and social upheavals. The most enduring such reform was the Puritan movement in England that carried its vision to America. There the Plymouth Bay Colony was said to be a “City on a Hill,” an American vision that continues to fuel the imagination.

In the first half of the 19th century, powerful religious movements swept away the institution of slavery (with a Civil War to boot in America) and began to lay the foundations for the prohibition of alcohol and women’s suffrage. The success of the first issue fed the imaginations of those who dreamed of the marriage of the Christian gospel and modern technology. As various Christian revivalist movements arose, so too did the notion of a progress towards the Kingdom of God.

The classical statements of these ideas can be found among the Fabian Socialists in England and in the Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century. The echoes of those movements have not disappeared. In some cases they have passed into the common language so profoundly to be an inherent part of the modern worldview.

But, in truth, we have never had such control of the world that we could “build it” or permanently “change” it. We only live here – we do not own the place.

Stanley Hauerwas has famously noted that whenever Christians agree to take charge of the outcome of history, they have agreed to do violence. He therefore labels violence as “idolatry,” an attempt not to obey God’s commandments, but to assume the place of God.

Perhaps the most tragic instance of this hubris was the Treaty of Versailles and its accompanying effects. Following the tragedy of the Great War (World War I), the Allied Powers  established themselves as the arbiters of the shape of the world to come. They drew boundaries, created countries, and designed our modern world. The result has been the bloodiest century of war in history. Everything from World War II to the continuing bloodshed in the Near East, indeed almost every civil war the world has seen since, has come as a result of the plans and decisions of that fateful “peace.”

Its most immediate effect was the disastrous handling of the Balkans, the establishment of modern Turkey with the deportation of half its population (the Christian half) and the Armenian genocide. Across the globe the colonial powers reinvented the world without regard for geography, race, or religion. It was a modern world. If history can be a judge, then we must declare modernity to be a failure.

But the myth of progress is written deep into our culture. We do not care for the poor – we have a “war on poverty” with the result of poverty’s institutionalization. Many massive government schemes in the name of a better world have yielded deeply flawed results and even worse unintended consequences. These failures are often met not with repentance for their fundamental errors, but simply with calls for more money and more planning. The bureaucracy of the better world has become the single largest consumer of the world’s resources. Progress is becoming unaffordable.

None of this speaks ill of the commandments of God. To share what we have with others is at the very heart of the Christian gospel. All the good that a society does – health, education, etc., are proper and can be described as God-given duties. But there is a subtle and radical difference between such duty and the notion of progress and the outcome of history.

Technology has been a great boon to humanity on the whole. It has increased productivity to levels that create unimaginable wealth. However, it is also clear that we are no closer to solving the problem of the distribution of wealth now than we were two thousand years ago. Justice, within the human heart, is not subject to evolution or progress.

There are narratives used by many to spin the myth of progress. Most of the narratives are self-serving of the various constituencies that invoke them. Those who own the largest and loudest media also own the loudest versions of the narratives. And their progressivist accounts of modernity are made to seem both obvious and undeniable.

But there is no promise nor account of progress within the Scriptures. It is an idea that is heretical in its roots. For it is a distortion of the apocalyptic hopes of Christianity, written into a political and economic story. It is the secularization of the Kingdom of God.

I recently did a search across the web for the phrase “building the Kingdom of God,” and was dismayed at how common it was. Even within Evangelical sites of good repute, the notion received large play. One site argued that our present efforts for the good would somehow be received and incorporated into the Kingdom, and would thus be eternal. It’s an interesting claim, but without neither any warrant in Scripture nor a basis within the Christian tradition. It is simple heresy. We do not build the Kingdom. We do not add to it, nor can we diminish it. It is the work of God.

There is no building of the Kingdom, because it is already complete. It is theologically without meaning to speak of the Kingdom in a manner that is less than complete. The phrase, “Thy Kingdom Come,” is rightly understood as a prayer for the inbreaking of the End of All Things. For the End that shall be, already is. And that End is already beginning to be manifest in our world. But where it is manifest, it is truly present. It is not manifest and unbuilt, or a work-in-progress. This is its mystical reality. Those who have no understanding of the sacramental, mystical nature of the Christian faith easily misunderstand such things and reduce them to yet another human project.

If Christ tarries, delays His return, then it is certain that the present world order will cease to exist. The land that I live in will collapse as surely as all others before it have. It is the way of earthly kingdoms to come and to go. And what we might accomplish in our lifetimes will have perished as well. The myths and the narratives of the present will be forgotten with the past. The Modern Project will be seen to have failed (“Babylon the great has fallen”).

By faith [Abraham] dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.  (Heb 11:9-10 NKJ)

We do well to work and wait, observing the commandments of God, renouncing the arrogance of Modernity.

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.



124 responses to “We Will Not Make the World a Better Place”

  1. Margaret Avatar

    So true, Fr. Stephen, thank you for posting this! Glory to God for All Things!

  2. kay Avatar

    Today’s headlines (“Scientists Claim Free Will is an Illusion” & “Transgender Priest to Preach at National Cathedral”) sorta bracket the length and depth of our cultural delisions and hubris. Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for your post today.

  3. Dallas Avatar

    I agree with you Father. Wonderful post. I think the current demise of “Christendom” is a golden opportunity for the church in this regard. It is ending the 1,700 year period when the church “slept with the enemy” of worldly empire and domination systems. We have the opportunity to mine our rich tradition and more properly align the institutional church with the spiritual Kingdom and not various worldly ones. Perhaps that will also open up more opportunities for ecumenical dialog, with the politics of power, prestige, and possessions playing less of a role over time. I speak of one “catholic” church here; the one currently fractured into tens of thousands of bickering worldly pieces.

  4. Peter Schweitzer Avatar
    Peter Schweitzer

    Worth reading in light of Father’s excellent post!

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thank you for the link! What a sweet, sweet sermon and exposition of Dostoevsky. He got it right!

  6. Salah Sedarous Avatar
    Salah Sedarous

    Thank you father. Your article reminded me with the work of Malcolm Muggeridge who became aware of the tragic condition of a world filled with great expectation regarding progress through modern science and technology. Yes, we have built a better medical system, but the majority of the poor who needed it are kept outside, built much advanced communication systems, but we live in isolation across dinner tables, and built faster transportation systems, but each is alone in their world. We are waiting for the miracles of sciences that will cure our illnesses, but we can’t appreciate the miracle of life in every human. Our blindness and our pride have glued us the house of creation (universe), but not to the builder. Our search of knowledge is director to uncovering the mystery of the Universe, and therefore, we lost sight of the the ultimate Truth. Man who the crown of creation and the image of the creator is searching with his nose in the mud of the created world to increase his knowledge and pride.
    Here, I let Malcolm words speak for itself.
    Thank you again father

  7. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    A very thought-provoking piece, Fr. Stephen. Much to mull over.

    It interfaces with another question I have been struggling with in recent times. As my life in Christ deepens, I find that I fit into the world less and less and my way of life takes on a more “monastic” flavor. I do not participate much in my own culture and seldom even read the news anymore.

    I do not say this as some sort of boast for it is not something I set out to accomplish; it just is and I am content with it. I certainly pray for the world and its struggles, even if I am not up to date on the details of them.

    However, my question is this: do I have a responsibility to participate more? After all, I am not a monastic. Do I have a duty to learn more about events in the world or my community? Do I have a duty to vote or act in other ways to try to influence political structures? (Even though I do not believe in political solutions, some political outcomes seem more closely aligned with evil than others.)

    I believe I have a duty (and desire) to love and serve my neighbor but that seems quite a separate thing. Loving and serving is personal and doesn’t invoke the “violence” involved in trying to take charge of history’s outcome.

    Any reflections on this question would be appreciated.

  8. Jeff Avatar

    We can retrieve:

    Hauerwas is correct that philosophical forms of liberalism seem to imply an anthropology that is at odds with what Christians claim about being human. But does this incompatibility rule out a hermeneutical retrievability? Rather than posing a hermeneutics of suspicion to philosophical liberalism, why not a hermeneutics of charity that would (a) retrieve elements of philosophical liberalism in relation to Christian theological claims and (b) see strands of philosophical liberalisms antireligious rhetoric as entailing a genuine concern
    for the human being?

    There seems to be both a criticism of
    Christendom by Hauerwas and a narrative of suspicion against the
    godless liberalism that is trying to eliminate religion without considering
    that Christendom`s complacency needed a dose of godless liber-
    alism, just as Athanasius needed Arius to clarify the Christian point
    about the incarnation (and, by extension, the Trinity). The question is
    whether an incarnational Christian view of the human being could in-
    tegrate philosophical liberalism’s emphasis on freedom, equality; and
    tolerance without betraying the Christian message of divine-human
    communion; and whether a Christian understanding of the church`s
    relation to the state requires that the church sometimes be told by the
    state what do to. There is very little unpacking of the Christian affirmation
    of the incarnation for political theology in Hauerwas

  9. davidp Avatar

    Thank you this great article. Our gadgets, inventions, medical procedures, etc…has made life better but not our politics and certainly not our meanderings in philosophies of the last couple of centuries.

  10. Patrick Avatar


    Could you speak a bit on how what you have written contrasts with the Protestant concept of predestination? Is our world ‘a done deal?’

  11. Dallas Avatar

    Beautiful, but sad observations.

  12. Misha Avatar

    Not a bad set of observations but I’m skeptical that you will draw the right conclusion from them. You seem slowly to be unraveling the modernist worldview but seem to want to avoid putting the blame where it should lie, with the Enlightenment – the notion that man is the measure of all things. That gave us modernity, egalitarianism, democracy, feminism, totalitarian socialism, etc.

    The demise of “Christendom” is not an opportunity to escape “sleeping with the enemy”. It is a fact to be lamented and Christendom is a societal icon which should be reestablished. It will not establish the Kingdom of God on earth, nor is it meant to “make the world a better place”. It is simply a way of living pleasing to Christ and the Fathers of the Church through whom we know Him.

  13. Kevin Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    Overall I agree with you assessment, but I do have one question for you. What elements of modernity are deemed acceptable from an Orthodox point of view? I ask specifically as it relates to modern medicine.

    I have a rare genetic disease that is diagnosed at birth through the practice known as newborn screening. Had I not been diagnosed at birth I would have been institutionalized for life. The disease I have, when untreated, causes severe developmental delays. I am now a passionate advocate for this condition (known as PKU) and for newborn screening which makes it’s diagnosis and treatment possible.

    Modern medicine has given me a life I would not have otherwise had. I do not consider it as opposed to God, but as a tool which can be used for good for His sake. When I advocate for awareness of this condition and for newborn screening, I do try to make the world a better place. I do not believe this makes me theologically a progressivist, as I understand the limitations of my actions.

    Would thoughts might you have as to how all of this relates to those who do seek to do good in the world, but who understand the reality of this fallen world? Medicine is just one example, but obviously there are many others.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    I appreciate your concerns. My intent is indeed to “unravel” the modernist worldview – and in many of my writings the Enlightenment certain gets its due credit. However, Christendom has never been a project of the Orthodox Christian Church. It has found itself in such a situation from time to time, and often somewhat happily. I certainly offer no objections to such a reality. But it seems to me that the concern to reestablish Christendom is, in fact, just another modern scheme, with a view to improving how Church and world interact. Such situations have only ever existed because of the desire of the State to have such a relationship. Currently, we seem to be enjoying a possible renewal of such a situation in Russia and a few other Eastern states. But, what the State gives, the State also takes away. But the Church abides and always shall abide because it does not serve any earthly Kingdom. If the Church ceases to be the steward of the Mysteries and agrees to take charge of the idolatry of history’s outcomes, it will cease to be the steward of the Mysteries and simple become a sacrament dispenser in service of something merely human. Such a thing might even produce some “moral improvements” for a period of time. But we have no such vocation. History is in the hands of God – or indeed – history has been vanquished in the resurrection of Christ.

    These historical things are going to come and go. It is modernity that has fooled us into thinking that we can manage them. We cannot. Of course, you can have opinions on such things are argue with people about them. But those are just useless conversations – not about anything other than theories. We are Baptized into a reality, not theories. We serve the Mystery of the Kingdom. Why should we want something less?

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    I have offered no disparagement of technology. There was even technology before modernity. Modernity is not the source of all things technical. Orthodoxy established some of the first hospitals in history (in the Byzantine empire). Those who pursue medicine should continue to do their good work, and their research. May God protect you and may they find a cure some day.

    But you and I will still die of something – myself probably long before you. After all applications of technology and medicine, we’ll still both be dead. Mortality is fatal.

    Currently, simply working to provide the world with clean water and screens on windows would save more lives annually than all current medical applications combined. This is not to disparage medicine, but to recognize how “first world” medicine often is, compared to simple human health concerns. Far more children will die in the next year from lack of clean, potable water and from exposure to disease bearing insects than will die in many years from PKU.

    I think it is good and godly that you care for others, particularly for those who share your condition. It is good and compassionate. For those whose lives are saved it will indeed be a “better” world (for them). But we don’t actually make the world a better place. We save some lives and this is good. It was good even before we began believing in myths such as a better world.

    A difference, however, is that those myths have been the source of more human suffering than almost anything else in human history. I am suggesting that for Christians, the commandments of Christ (love God, love your neighbor) is enough without falling into the trap of modernity’s mythology. That mythology makes us into the fools of politicians and manipulators, whose alliance is ultimately with the evil one.

    If making the world a better place were a proper goal, Christ would have given it to us. It is not. It is idolatry.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    I do not think these observations are sad. It is modernity’s madness, murder and mayhem in the name of all of its better worlds that is sad. I am speaking of the beauty of God’s commandments and the simple life of loving God and loving our neighbor without subscribing to the mythical lies of the evil one.

  17. Ken Boeker Avatar
    Ken Boeker

    I loved this article Father. Thank you!

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The myth of progress and some of its genesis and consequences you describe quite well. I think it odd however that you left out a major contributor: Darwinism. It is nothing if not a materialist eschatology of perfection, in many ways the culmination of the Enlightenment ideals.
    Foundationally it is a philosophy antithetical to Incarnational Christianity more than it is science. It continues to underpin the myth of progress and the ultimate triumph of technology over man more than any other single matrix of thought.

    The period of time between 1848 and 1917 paved the way socially, politically, economically and philosophically for the secular terror we have lived under ever since. A time of bread, circuses and massive gladiatorial contests for Caesar’s pleased and profit. Its most recent embodiment is in the Presidents from Carter on who adhere to the same type of Wilsonian democracy that gave birth to the Treaty of Versailles.

    A great critique of these trends can be found in the work of Henry Adams, particularly his book of essays The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma He deals with the limits of technology specifically.

    A more indirect critique is found in his book Mt. Saint Michele and Chartres

    I have to remind myself often that the way of Christ is the way of the Cross, not that of building more barns

  19. simmmo Avatar

    I wonder why the Puritans thought prohibition was necessary for progress… As a lover of wine, this is certainly heretical!

    On serious note, your example of the Christian-influenced hospitals in the Byzantine Empire implies that things may get materially better for people in the present with the Kingdom of God because of the love and charity of Christians enabled, of course, by the Holy Spirit. It may not be the modern conception of progress. However, it does signify that something has indeed changed for the better in the Christian era. This is why, it seems, Orthodox Christians look back at Byzantine with so much nostalgia.

    And isn’t it the case that whilst the Kingdom of God is not of this world, it is certainly for this world? For if God created heaven and earth to be joined together, as symbolized in Orthodox Church architecture, then in some sense the Kingdom of God is among us. The question is, what does this mean for us as we go about living our lives in the present?

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    I find that as soon as I engage the Darwinian conversation rabbit trails destroy the conversation. It was more than possible to make the point without the reference.

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think we should go about living our lives as faithfully as possible, committing their outcome and the outcome of history to God. God certainly “so loved the world.” But He did not put us in charge of the world. It is a sort of “Babel Syndrome” as I described recently that is at work in modernity. The belief that we can control the outcomes of history is novel, wrong, and productive of evil rather than good. Of course, the defenders of modernity point to every material success to justify their program. They dismiss their failures by blaming them on poor planning, poor funding, etc. and even religion! Again, there is no argument from me on the goodness of technology used in accordance with God’s commandments, nor with research, etc.

    But the assumptions of modernity are not required for any of those things.

  22. Charlie Avatar

    @simmmo; indeed we are -in- the world, but we are not -of- the world.We are taught by God Himself to ‘render unto Caesar…’ as well as ‘unto God….’
    we can take comfort in the Beatitudes – the third antiphon we hear weekly what we can be like; Blessed are those who … — this a present tense announcement, as well as a goal.
    it is not for us to do on our own, in fact we frequently ask of our Heavenly King to ‘come and abide in us…’

    the -modern project- is the ‘family name’ I think, of quite a few ‘Modern heresies’ – more is better; we don’t even want to ‘keep up with the Jonses’ we must surpass them at all costs; nicer house, next years’ car, better school for the children, you can find lots more idols the world worships.
    I am reminded of something I heard from a ROCR priest in Oregon speaking on the spiritual decline of America – he didn’t say so but it was there to hear – but in the UK and up here too.
    Anyway, the Church was –supposed– to take herself into the world, but instead we let the world take herself into us instead.


    so we can’t make the world a better place – butt we can, we must, make ourselves better people.

  23. fatherstephen Avatar

    Christ is everything. I find it interesting that some take the sobering message of not making the world a better place as something of a bitter pill to swallow (not you). But it was always only a strong delusion.

    It was never the better we were created to pursue, but rather the Good. We have made the better of which we only dream and scheme to be the enemy of the Good that is always at hand as a gift, a treasure, the Pearl.

    The Kingdom is not made for better men, thank God. It is for us sinners and thieves on the Cross and those who in a Single Moment pray God, “Remember me!” It is immediately accessible to drunkards and prostitutes and all who are not worthy. The moral men and their better world have been the enemy of the true Kingdom. They substituted their religions and morality for the Banquet. They were never able to come to the Banquet, distracted by the marrying and cows and a better world.

    But the Kingdom has had nothing to do with them (other than invite them as well) and has not been delayed or forestalled. It has been breaking into the world at a steady pace.

    Perhaps if some become disillusioned with Modernity they might be able to hear the invitation. St. Silouan heard it in the depths of hell! What can the world do?

  24. Margaret Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I cannot thank you enough for your response here to Charlie. God be praised!

  25. Kevin Avatar

    Thank you for your response, Father. I truly appreciate your insights. As a catechumen, I am constantly amazed at the depth of Orthodoxy. In my previous life as an evangelical, my questions on this subject would have yielded a simple reply of “just have faith”. I love how Orthodoxy challenges every fiber of my being, including the philosophical presuppositions of the world I was born in to. My previous spiritual environment did not challenge those presuppositions. Orthodoxy does.

    It is truly refreshing to be in this path into the Church.

    Thank you again…

  26. dino Avatar

    What a fantastic article and conversation.
    And indeed, it is very very often that we hear Christ’s sweet invitation to Him once we have plummeted the depths of Hell!
    How true it is that the world cannot ‘become a better place’ through man’s intervention (as promoted through modernity) without it ever being anything other than one more ‘Babel’. Creation can be saved though, when, through Man, it becomes (eucharistically) united to the Creator. But ever since man diverted creation towards himself -making himself the critical point of reference (a god) – man came to accept as true that he can and should ‘control’ creation. This is done or undone through each and everyone… And doing this obviously makes all of creation feel like a ‘problem’ needing solving and betterment…In fact fallen man and the rest of creation become a threat to each other rather than each other’s means towards their salvation and their One True point of reference: God. On top of that, one inherent characteristic of humans (that differentiates them from animals) is that – although animals adjust to their world – humans like to create ‘their own world’. And all of creation becomes a ‘problem’ to fallen man, one that can never be solved from anybody’s worldly viewpoint, most especially since death cannot be overcome by a creature, a being who’s coming into and leaving this life is not in its control in any satisfactory way – other than suicide(… )The “other way” of course, the only way, is that transcendence of suffering and death that is offered us through Christ our Saviour.

  27. Alvin Avatar

    Blessings, Fr. Stephen!

    Have you read N.T. Wright’s book ‘Surprised by Hope’? If so, what is your take on what he says, and where do you agree/disagree?

    Thank you for your time!

    Grace and Peace,

  28. MichaelPatrick Avatar


    I’m in agreement yet, as a former Protestant, I can’t help wondering your take on the Cultural Mandate, i.e., mankind’s role as earthly vassal of the suzerain King:

    “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Gen 1:28 NKJV

    To the point, what is this and how is improvement excluded?

  29. fatherstephen Avatar

    I have not. I generally like his work.

  30. Karen Avatar

    Thank you, Father, for post and clarifying comments. I tire of this delusion of the modern age. I was reminded by this post and some of your comments here of the rationalizations from his Protestant faith (I cannot bring myself to call his gloss on Protestantism “Christian”) that allowed John D. Rockerfeller to ruthlessly crush all his competition to build his oil monopoly and his obscene wealth from that enterprise. He is also known as one of the spear headers of the (demonic) Eugenics Movement. His descendants, biological and ideological, largely continue this tradition to the present day in various forms through the industry and “philanthropy” they underwrite. Maybe if modern Christians were to examine this dubious cultural heritage its history and its ties to our cultural institutions a little more closely, they could be shocked out of the present delusion you describe.

  31. fatherstephen Avatar

    Well, since progress was not a concept until around the last 350 years, I first have to say that the Tradition never understood those verses to have anything to do with progress/improvement. I think we find it unimaginable that there could be a civilization that was not thinking in terms of progress/better world.

    But it is possible to farm, to build a house, to build roads, sewers, hospitals, industry, etc. without the controlling idea of building a better world. There is a way in which this progressive philosophy distracts us from what is at hand and needs genuine attention. It also makes us forget that we are only here for a very short time.

    Improvement is excluded because it presumes that we know what we cannot know and that we control what we do not. There are obvious “improvements” i.e. we build a road, etc. And I should build a road with a mind to building a good road. But progress takes the focus away from what is at hand and places it towards a future defined (or not defined) point. I am then required to control ever-more variables to get my required result. The ultimate progressivist effort were the Central-Planning economies of the Communist states in the 20th century. At their worst, it was “necessary” to enslave many people and kill others to meet centrally planned progressive targets.

    Hauerwas’ maxim concerning managing the outcome of history requiring violence is, I think, quite accurate. The strange Rustbelt abandoned communities and the ruins of Detroit are examples of something deeply diseased in American culture. I could point to many other things, and I’m sure everybody has a favorite hobby horse to ride as an explanation for these things. And it’s more or less beside the point.

    Our modern progressivism has often focused on a very few things (economic growth, consumerism, etc.) while neglecting others (treating beauty as a “luxury” rather than a normative part of human living. It’s simply a side-effect of a cultural narrative that is deeply flawed.

    The Modern Project, of course, is not the only flawed narrative for a culture (there have been very many). But it is our flawed narrative. I’m not immediately interested in fixing the culture (though I care about it). I’m interested in “fixing” Christians by calling them to a greater discernment and to properly understood theology.

    I should add, that the Cultural Mandate is largely a late Protestant notion, used to justify many statist projects in the Post-Reform period. It’s produced a nasty bit of history. These verses were not treated as being of much importance in the Fathers (certainly there was no idea of a Cultural Mandate) nor of an earthly vassal of the suzerain King. That’s a very modern, Protestant reading.

    I think the fathers would say that the commandment has long ago been fulfilled (St. John Chrysostom said as much) and that it is now merely descriptive of how human beings live. Indeed, the Cultural Mandate in the hands of moderns has darned near subdued the earth to death. We would do better to allow God to subdue us.

  32. Joseph Jude Avatar
    Joseph Jude

    Father Stephen,
    I don’t understand why you seem to believe that progress is wrong? You stated, ” But the myth of progress is written deep into our culture. We do not care for the poor – we have a “war on poverty” with the result of poverty’s institutionalization( How do you know this? Many programs have helped people) Many massive government schemes in the name of a better world have yielded deeply flawed results( What about Social Security for the elderly) and even worse unintended consequences( Sounds like a certain party’s argument) These failures are often met not with repentance for their fundamental errors, but simply with calls for more money and more planning.”

    If we follow this extreme view that you are presenting; benefits like Social Security should be taken away, it’s the government getting involved. It’s not fair that the young are paying for the elderly. They are trying( Government) to make progress for people who cannot and should not work till the day they die. Do you believe at all in social justice or do you think this goes against the faith? I assume you think it is just another evil modern construct. I think you are mixing Orthodoxy with your own worldview. I am scared that you are trying to present the faith as something it is not.
    No, Father I think this is a very unbalanced view. I agree to disagree with you 🙂 Thank you for your posts, they get me to think!
    Best Regards

  33. Joseph Jude Avatar
    Joseph Jude

    Attached is a link to Orthodoxy and social justice, it is part of the larger Tradition.


  34. fatherstephen Avatar

    Joseph Jude,
    You misunderstand the article and are imputing thoughts to me that are not mine (nor are they in the article).

    There is indeed a strong tradition of social justice in Orthodox teaching. How could there not be? But there is not a place for social engineering in the tradition. And it is this latter that is frequently a hallmark of the Modern Project.

    As to my critique of some programs (War on Poverty) – the most famous and devastating critique was the late Sen. Daniel Moynihan’s (liberal Democrat of New York) study of the destruction of African American families as an unintended result of government welfare programs. It stands as a classic example.

    Though I do not care to debate this with anyone – I personally have no problem with a single-payer medical system (as an example that I am not touting a Republican agenda). I think Social Security is a roaring success (when properly funded). I would in fact tout the latter as a good example of simple social justice that has avoided the pitfalls of social engineering. It has a well-defined purpose, etc. and does exactly that – provides a modest pension.

    I tqke very seriously the suggestion that I am substituting my private thoughts for the tradition of the Church. That would be outside my stated purpose in writing. This article is not such a case.

    Feeding the poor, taking care of the elderly, providing health care are not the exclusive domain of the social engineering progressives of the Modern Project. They have hijacked such beneficial and proper functions. The polarization of American political discourse, however, makes it very difficult to offer a critique of the Modern Project without being accused of some extreme laissez faire position. It’s a pity. But I would thank you to ascertain the facts of what I’m saying before offering accusations.

    Progress is not synonymous with responsibility. Progress is an ideology driven by assumptions that are contrary to the gospel. Responsibility and justice are by no means inherent parts of progress.

    One appropriately says, “Here’s some help.” The other says, “I know what’s wrong with you and I’m going to fix you.” In the name of “fixing,” many evils are done.

  35. Dino Avatar

    One of many reason’s that the modern idea of progress is ‘Babelic’, is that it cares not about the transcendence of pain, suffering and death that is the heart of the Christian Gospel of the Cross (1 Corinthians 1:23), but wants to eliminate the cross itself.
    Eugenics and Population Control (and unfortunately the end always justifies the means – [another reason why the modern idea of progress is Babelic]- in these notions) mentioned above by Karen are some examples of what falls under the description of ‘progress’ in modernity.

  36. Dino Avatar

    *examples of what falls under the description of ‘progress’ in modernity.

  37. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The Myth of Progress is essentially violent and nihilist in its essence. I first started studying it when I was in college. Have not really stopped since.

    The Vietnam slogan: “We had to destroy the village to save it” pretty well sums it up.

    During college it seemed to me that that myth was symbolized by the ICBM multiple warhead missiles. Now, perhaps the drone would be a better choice.
    “They know better”.

    Technology as long as we exercise dominion over it and do not let it replace our humanity or compromise our humanity can bring beneficent things, but never salvation.

    Every engineer, scientist and computer expert should steep themselves in classic literature, poetry and other forms of human created beauty. They should be ruled by the ontological effects as much, if not more than the fact that we have the power to do X. Some things we should not make.

  38. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen,

    I understand and appreciate your response to Joseph Jude, but I might ask for a further clarification.

    How might those attempting to address social problems on a larger scale be able to distinguish between the “roaring success” of Social Security-type programs and the “deeply flawed” War on Poverty-type of programs? It is easy to make a post-hoc comparison and declare one a success and the other a failure once the outcomes have been observed for many decades.

    I am not accusing you of being political but trying more to understand how the former escapes being labeled as “progress” and “social engineering” while the latter does not. Many people around when Social Security was first proposed might have disagreed with you. My question is not based on historical interest (of which I have little) but more trying to understand how people of good will avoid the pitfalls of “progress” while still attempting to address the needs of their neighbors on a societal level.

    As an aside, would you not agree that it was slavery that destroyed the African American family? (To the extent that one considers it destroyed – not a totally fair generalization, given the many strong and beautiful African American families in our country.) The welfare system, after all, has both helped and hurt people of all races.

    “Our neighbors have needs – but social engineering ultimately destroys human dignity. The elite “plan” for the rest of us. It’s dangerous.”

  39. fatherstephen Avatar

    Modernity did not invent charity, or the idea of government support. What it did invent was the notion of social engineering. That is, that we could bring about changes in human behavior through various reward/punishment/training, etc. Prohibition was perhaps the first great failure (unintended consequences) of the social engineers. Eugenics and various population control schemes have been popular since the early 20th century.

    Engineering says that someone knows what kind of world we want, or should want, and uses the power (which is ultimately coercive) of the state to achieve that kind of world (though often failing). Frankly, following Max Weber’s famous theories on bureaucracies ultimately shifting their goals towards maintaining their own existence, we have seen the growth not only of social engineering, but the constant growth of such engineering bureaucracies. But that’s a rabbit trail on my part.

    The transfer of money (redistribution) has taken place from long before Christianity – being practiced in Egypt and Rome and elsewhere on fairly large scales. It has always been necessary, since free markets always tend to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a few and are met with revolutions of one sort or another unless they are addressed at an acceptable level. Caesar’s takeover of the Republic would not have been possible without the promise of land redistribution.

    Ancient Israel had a mechanism in the Law for the redistribution of wealth (the Sabbath and Jubilee system as well as the Laws on gleaning).

    Byzantium continued the Roman practice of the “dole” for the poor. The Church in the medieval period generally distributed about a third of its income to the poor.

    How effective such measures were is not an issue. We are obviously capable of being more efficient than any society in history.

    But social justice does not set a goal of coercing a desired, designed result. Social Security has the mild coercion of taxation (FICA). And that is distributed. The result is an end to abject poverty for the elderly. It’s touch and go, I know. Medicare is similar. Once you’re over 65, America is a socialist republic. I’m looking forward to it.

    You should read Moynihan’s report. The destruction of the black family certain has its roots in slavery. But there were more intact black families in 1950 as a percentage than today. Families are eroding across the country. Take a look at this summary.

  40. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father except for the phasing out of treatment as one gets older the punishment of hospitals who really treat those who are sick and in need–its great.
    (My rabbit trail–but lots of smart pills on rabbit trails)
    The Myth of Progress is violent, coercive and fundamentally irrational–at least from a Christian perspective.

  41. Christina Avatar

    As an engineering student, I could not agree more with your assessment that STEM people need to be steeped in the classics and a knowledge of beauty. In the past, the engineering and philosophy departments at my University have teamed up to teach an engineering ethics course. I was horrified to discover when I tried to fit it into my schedule that the philosophy department decided that it wasn’t necessary and refused to continue to offer it. A knowledge of that nature is vital. The example I think of is a robot I read about that some people in Japan built to stand in as a caregiver/companion for the elderly. Sure, we have the technical ability to build robots like that. And I admit,the technology that must have gone into that robot is really amazing. But humans need humans.

  42. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Christina, I admit to be something of a Luddite. My Dad was a doctor and an early adopter but my mother was an accomplished dancer and dance teacher. But my Dad grew up as a pioneer in New Mexico and new the natural beauty of creation and the capability of human beings to work with it to produce more abundance and health.

    My first real wake up call regarding technology, though, was in 1979 when a Time magazine piece came out with a spread on artificial intelligence. They interviewed one of the “leaders” in that field who said that he was certain that the work on AI would create “the next dominant life form on the planet.”

    The Myth of Progress is fundamentally anti-human and desires to destroy (despite its promises). The primary philosophical components are materialism (all forms from Epicurus on), positivism, and nihilism combined with a form of non-messianic chiliasm. Still it seems the true believers all want to be prophets of the glory to come. We have still not escaped the evil one’s seduction that we can be like God without God.

    The influence of the Myth is pervasive and inescapable but seems to be concentrated in the science and technology sector. Economically and politically the most viable form is fascism(not the German kind)which was really birthed in the French Revolution. Still it did not grow very much until the early 20th century. I wish someone would do an intellectual history of the last half of the 19th century from a Christian understanding. It was a devils playground to be sure.

    The Myth has an almost natural home in the American mind: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and all that.

    You said it best: Humans need other humans because that is the primary way we experience God–with, in and through other humans.

    Two recommended readings: The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma by Henry Adams and Exit the King by Eugene Ionesco (a Romanian Orthodox play write.)
    If you ever have a chance to see Bertold Brecht’s play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui do so although I doubt it is being produced anymore.

    If I were designing a curriculum for STEM students, the first two years they would be immersed in classic literature, philosophy, art and music. Nothing created after the French Revolution. Also included would be a study of pre-industrial tribal cultures and a good comparative religion course focused on the anthropology of several major faiths: Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They would be required to participate in some kind of craft such as quilting, sculpture or pottery. A few basic math and science courses. The next two years the emphasis would shift to the science/tech skills but would continue with the human skills too and could begin to add in more contemporary history and philosophy.

  43. John Avatar

    Not related to this post, but have you read the short book “Way of a Pilgrim”? Would you consider writing a post about it?

  44. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes. I’ve read it – it’s a great classic within Orthodoxy. I’ll see what my creative juices can do.

  45. Christopher Avatar


    I have been lurking here for a while and really appreciate the quality and prodigiousness of your output. Many specific examples could be included in a list of modernist projects. I would include most (all?) of ecumenism as well as the misanthropic environmental movement.

    “ Social Security has the mild coercion of taxation (FICA). And that is distributed. The result is an end to abject poverty for the elderly. It’s touch and go, I know. Medicare is similar. Once you’re over 65, America is a socialist republic. I’m looking forward to it. “

    As someone who works in medicine and sees the results of social security and medicare in peoples lives, I would never say anything like this. For most of the elderly, social security is a redistribution program where they (the elderly – the richest demographic in America) benefit from those with less. For those who are truly poor, social security does not even begin to address their needs. Medicare was better until recently, but with “Obamacare” updates it’s becoming a true rationed care system where the value of your life is determined by actuaries. There is a reason those who can afford to leave socialized “utopias” of Canada, Great Britain, etc. and come to America for their health care…

  46. Dean Avatar

    Christopher…I live in a mobile home park. Many ( a majority) of the residents live only on social security benefits. Bereft of these benefits they would live as millions of elderly in Mexico do…having to scrounge for every penny they have by collecting cans, cardboard, etc. I know this is the case having lived there. My own parents lived on social security benefits plus a pension of about 90 dollars a month. I certainly don’t believe the afore mentioned are taking benefits from the truly poor. Many elderly would literally starve without these benefits.

  47. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen,

    You’ve got me all mixed up. I am admittedly not a historian. However, I did follow your link to the short summary of the Moynihan report. This report was written in 1965 and seems to have played a role in the construction of the War on Poverty, rather than being a critique of it, “Modern scholars, including Douglas Massey, now consider the report one of the more influential in the construction of the War on Poverty.” (quoting from your Wikopedia link).

    Also the War on Poverty that you see as having been so destructive included among its major initiatives the Social Security Act of 1965 that established Medicare and Medicaid (I believe you said you were looking forward to the former.) Also, there were some other programs with some pretty well established track records, such as Head Start, VISTA (now known as AmeriCorps) and Job Corps.

    Now, I know it sounds like I’m being argumentative – and that is not at all my goal. Your article itself was excellent and I come to your blog for spiritual growth, not political discussion. However, I accepted your invitation into this little history lesson and found that I could not follow your line of reasoning.

    This is unusual – you are an excellent teacher and so I am seeking clarification once again. “Social engineering” seems to defy objective definition (e.g. Medicare is not social engineering but perhaps Food Stamps are?). Also, how mild the “coercion” behind a given social program seems to be a matter of opinion (e.g. some resent the FICA tax, others do not).

    Given these difficulties, how does a Christian of good conscience know what to support? (Or, as I asked earlier, is it permissible to withdraw from the political arena completely?)

    BTW – The final paragraph on my 6/23, 10:07 PM comment was not authored by me. An error, I’m sure, but I do not want to receive credit for someone else’s words.

  48. David Armstrong Avatar
    David Armstrong

    Great article. I think we might distinguish, on the one hand, between “building the Kingdom” and “building for the Kingdom.” Only God builds the Kingdom, and it is the height of Christian capitulation to modernity to suppose that it’s us who does it. But on the other hand, it seems that the Church is called to anticipate, in her corporate worship, life, proclamation of the Gospel, and her other works, the apocalyptic hope of the Church for the day when God will raise all humans from the dead and judge them through Jesus Christ. At that point it’s really just terminology, but we might say that in the same way that our love in our current human relationships, if true love, which comes from God, will last into the Kingdom, so will those things that are done in response to the Kingdom, in some sense we don’t quite understand. I agree we might need to be more clear on terminology, since terminology is where we often get in trouble when it comes to modernity, but I think that basic principle is written into an inaugurated eschatology: because the Age to Come is already and not yet, the Church is to embody in her own life the way the rest of the world is someday going to be. As N.T. Wright so aptly said, “The Church is supposed to be in practice what the rest of humanity is supposed to be in theory.”

  49. Randi Avatar

    Please explain why followers of Christ are not part of building the kingdom of God.

    Thank you,

  50. Christopher Avatar

    The wealth/income by age divide in America is dramatic:


    For every mobile home park you can cite, I could cite whole swaths of upper middle income class neighborhoods surrounding all of our cities. It is a simple and incontrovertible fact: SS is an income redistribution program that on the whole (in most cases) takes money from those with less income/wealth/means, and gives it to those who have more income/wealth/means. Now, of course there are exceptions (those who pay into the system who are at a relatively high income level/younger age – myself for example) and those who benefit who are at the bottom of the income gap. But these are the exceptions, not the rule, and they in no way justify the whole system IMO…

  51. Christopher Avatar

    Oops, I meant to address the above post to Dean specifically – my apologies…

  52. fatherstephen Avatar

    Mary Benton,
    I don’t think a Christian of good conscience has an easy time of it. I think our programs are frequently “mixed” with components of social justice and social engineering. So we never get away “clean” in these discussions. Moynihan’s paper was seen as an indictment of certain forms of social programs by conservative critics – noting that the dissolution of the family was the primary cause of poverty with a government response that helped (unintentionally) finance the dissolution of the family. Perhaps it was a bad example.

    I have not wanted to engage in political discussion (and everything in America has become extremely polarized). There are “better world” advocates in both parties – both parties are rather Modernist in their own ways. Neither party is the Christian party, nor the party of Classical Christianity.

    The “better world” model (as I’ve inveighed against it) could easily sound like any program with a good intent would be problematic. For surely the good intent would be to make things better.

    It is the root philosophy of the “better world” that I am addressing with a critique as to why it is inimical to true theology. I wrote privately to someone that the “better” often becomes the enemy of the good. If I were addressing these questions (social justice) from a classical Christian position, then the question would be, “Is this a good thing to do?” Rather than, “Will this make things better?”

    There are many outcomes that can be described as “better” but whose means of getting there are not “good.” An example is the “better” that a pregnant woman wants when she gets an abortion (and she certainly wants something that she perceives as “better”). But the killing of a child is not good. St. Seraphim of Sarov said that we cannot achieve good things through evil means. Of course, God brings good out of evil because He is a good God, but never commands us to do evil so that He may do good.

    Governments coerce. That’s what they do. There are a variety of forms that coercion takes. Some are external – “we’re going to take your land to build a highway,” and some are internal, “We are going to change how you think and feel about this topic.” The latter, I think, is rightly perceived as more coercive.

    Would it be a “better” world if everybody thought thus-and-so about such-and-such? Perhaps. But is it right to coerce people’s thoughts. The majority of history has held this to be an inherent part of the worst oppressions. But we regularly engage in just such social programs (engineering).

    The measure I am applying on the level of government is “What is the good that is worth this coercion?” I also appreciate (and think it less coercive) if those who are being coerced agree.

    But my concern has been far more with the individual (and Church) subscription to the philosophy of a “better” world. We do not control the outcome of history (nor do governments) and it is idolatrous for us to think we do. Christians rightly concern themselves with the “good” that lies before them rather than the “better” that they image. We do not know, nor have we ever been promised, that our efforts will succeed or last. Some have here suggested that the changes in the world that we have made through love will somehow be incorporated into the Kingdom of God. I find that to be incorrect, and built on false presumptions about the nature of the Kingdom to come.

    This created order will perish:

    But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness,looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2Pe 3:10-13 NKJ)

    Frankly, since we hardly know God, I find it astounding that we would presume to know that some work we did will somehow outlast such a conflagration. The very nature of our eternal existence with God is itself a mystery – barely discerned by the saints – but people speak of “building up” the Kingdom and the like.

    So, what do we support? Support being good. Be kind, be generous. But do not support efforts to “make people into better people.” This reminds me of the sick spouses who marry thinking they will improve their wife/husband. It is a ticket to misery.

    My point viz. the state, is that Modern Culture has bought the notion of fixing other people and fixing the world. And that philosophy has produced the largest mass murders in history – in history. We’re more civilized as Americans and have put our killing behind us (or so we imagine), but the same “better” world that gave us the “mandate” of “from sea to shining sea” that exercised genocide on an entire race of people, today has more comely goals. I find the kinder and gentler goals of the modern better world to be at least as evil.

    I tried to show my bona fide of not being a predictable American conservative (as I was being accused by Joseph Jude) by noting my own comfort with Social Security, Medicare, etc. I don’t find them to be unacceptably coercive. They may be badly run, and, I think, will only get worse because we are in very bad times culturally. We will find it very difficult to do anything well because, at present, we are an extremely incompetent lot.

  53. fatherstephen Avatar

    It’s all over the map. There was a lot of wealth in my parent’s generation – they reaped the benefits of high interest rates (when they were saving and I was borrowing). But they would not have been able to live apart from Social Security – nor will I when I retire in about 7 years.

    From a personal political perspective (thus not as a teacher of the Church) – I’ve thought that contributions should have been means-tested (while at present all income about $125,000 a year is not taxed for social security) and that receiving payments should have been means-tested – (receiving decreasing amounts according to need). Instead, we were told it was a “pension” program – but then it also became a welfare program. Thus it was confused. I think it’s fine for it to be a welfare program for the elderly poor. It makes good sense. At present, with its mixed bag – it’s mostly just a political football that both sides try to use against one another – pretty much like everything in our culture at present. We are deeply divided and dysfunctional. I do not see any improvement in the offing. I believe our country will encounter a very serious collapse at some point from which we will recover or from which we will not. But perhaps not in my lifetime. Our long-term trend lines are very serious.

    None of that should make me panic or change to a large extent my Christian life. I must do the good that lies at hand and keep God’s commandments. So long as I do not concern myself with success I can be content to do God’s will.

  54. Dean Avatar

    Thanks for your response. I agree that many in my age category are well off. Just look at the behemoth RVs that some drive. Myself, I’m a retired teacher and receive a pension for 23 years service. Because of this, my social security is reduced to half. I’m okay with this. However, I am still very pleased that the elderly poor do receive their monthly S.S. check. It’s not a lot but at least they can exist with some degree of dignity especially with the added help of Medicare.

  55. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for your lengthy and thoughtful response.

    Personally, I do not experience government (in the US) as coercive of my thoughts – but perhaps that is because I pay so little attention to it. And I live in a country where I am allowed to pay little attention to the government, as long as I pay my taxes and avoid breaking laws. Political parties often try to persuade me but I pay little attention to them as well.

    The primary message I take from what you have written, though much simplified, is that must keep Christ ever before us. If we begin to believe that anything or anyone else can save us – or that we can save ourselves – we are in great danger.

    If we remain close to Christ, His love may radiate through us to relieve some of the suffering in this sinful world. But we must never mistake this loving action of His for some accomplishment on our part that will transform this corrupt world into His kingdom.

    How His kingdom will be fully realized is mystery beyond our understanding – but we are to trust, in humility and obedience. Anything else is indeed idolatry.

    (Please correct me if my re-statement is inaccurate.)

  56. Henry Avatar

    If you are interested in the subject, check out The Predictable Surprise (The Unraveling of the U.S. Retirement System) by Sylvester J. Schieber, former chairman of the Social Security Advisory Board. I found it a difficult read due to the complexity of the topic, as well as my emotional reaction to the content. Without any particular political ax to grind, the author simply recounts the facts that have led us to where we stand today. It is truly disturbing that the players in this game knew the predicted outcome of their actions decades before the resultant problems became front page news.

    Ironic isn’t it, although I know we are not ultimately in control of anything, even this blog article represents an attempt to improve our world. Can we do otherwise, even knowing that we can’t predict the outcome of our efforts? It seems that on some level doing good must ultimately be its own reward.

  57. Jamey Bennett Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    You’re a gem, and I have found you quite insightful over the years, and you’ve always been kind to me.

    But I think you jumped the shark on this one. No one said we should make the world a better place until the 16th century? Then what do you make of St. John Chrysostom insisting that we strive to make earth just like heaven? https://enlargingtheheart.wordpress.com/2010/07/03/john-chrysostom-%E2%80%9Cthy-will-be-done-in-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven%E2%80%9D/


  58. Daniel Avatar

    The most troubling thing to me in these comments was to read that Fr. Stephen will be retiring in 7 years.

    Fr please…..please tell us that you will still continue to blog in your retirement years!!! I can only speak for myself, but I’m sure many others will agree, we’d be lost without it.

  59. fatherstephen Avatar

    Ah, you’ve rushed to judgment! Chrysostom certainly inveighs in moral manner that we should even now do all things on earth even as they are in heaven, but he doesn’t in any way subscribe to some notion of progress or making a better world. You’re reading things into him that simply are not there. I stand uncorrected.

  60. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thank you for the kind thoughts. My “retirement” (inasmuch as I’ll ever have one) will only be from full-time parish responsibilities. Priests serve until they can’t. I will write until I can’t or a bishop tells me to stop. But it is of interest to me that when I started the blog at the end of ’06, I soon wrote the following words. It includes the line, “This blog doesn’t matter.” It is still true, at least in the manner that I meant it.

    God matters and what matters to God matters. I know that sounds very redundant, but I’m not sure how else I want to say it. There are many things that do not matter – because they do not matter to God. Knowing the difference between the two – what matters to God and what does not requires that we know God.

    And this is theology – to know God. If I have a commitment in theology, it is to insist that we never forget that it is to know God. Many of the arguments (unending) and debates (interminable) are not about what we know, but about what we think.

    Thinking is not bad, nor is it wrong, but thinking is not the same thing as theology. It is, of course, possible to think about theology, but this is not to be confused with theology itself.

    Knowing God is not in itself an intellectual activity for God is not an idea, nor a thought. God may be known because He isperson. Indeed, He is only made known to us as person (we do not know His essence). We cannot know God objectively – that is He is not the object of our knowledge. He is known as we know a person. This is always a free gift, given to us in love. Thus knowledge of God is always a revelation, always a matter of grace, never a matter of achievement or attainment.

    It matters that we know God because knowledge of God is life itself. “This is eternal life,” Jesus said, “to know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.”

    The Orthodox way of life is only about knowing God. Everything we do, whether it is prayer, communion, confession, forgiveness, fasting – all of it is about knowing God. If it is about something else, then it is delusion and a distraction from our life’s only purpose.

    Knowing God is not a distraction from knowing other persons, nor is knowing other persons a distraction from knowing God. But, like God, knowing other persons is not the same thing as thinking about them, much less is it objectifying them.

    Knowing others is so far from being a distraction from knowing God, that it is actually essential to knowing God. We cannot say we love God, whom we have not seen, and hate our brother whom we do see, St. John tells us. We only know God to the extent that we love our enemies (1 John 4:7-8).

    And this matters.

    This blog does not matter – except that I may share something that makes it possible for someone to know God or someone may share something that allows themselves to be known. This matters.

  61. Christopher Avatar

    “I stand uncorrected.”

    It is difficult Father, this distinction you are making. I was raised a Unitarian Universalist, which is probably the best place to understand the modernist project and mind because they literally worship it. The Unitarians taught me to think however (God bless them) and when (by God’s grace) I started to question the presuppositions of the whole edifice, I came to Orthodoxy about 20 years ago now. I was for many years simply perplexed however by how many bishops, clergy, and my fellow Orthodox parishioners were these two headed creatures – how they were a confused and contradictory mixture of the modern/materialist/sentimental man and the much more robust classical Christian man. Don’t they know they hold the Pearl, and can they not see the difference between it and the fallen world around them!

    It is however the age we live in, and it is the cultural soup in which we swim and I have over time grown accustomed to it. When I moved to my current location six years ago, the only parish in my town is a small mission parish – started about the time we arrived. My wife jokingly calls it the “Liberal Orthodox Church” (after the “liberal” mainline denominations) because so many there are so unrecognizably Orthodox. They are easy to recognize as modern people however. They busy themselves with many of the things Joseph Jude’s organization does above: “social justice”, the “historical evolution of the humanitarian idea”, “war”, “peace” “reconciliation with other faiths” etc. etc. You should see the excitement in their eyes – the energy put forth. God judges them, not I, so I have no idea how much harm all this is to their salvation and it is none of my business so “I have become like a man who does not hear, and in whose mouth are no rebukes.” They still occasionally ask me to participate and I just smile and politely say no. They were quite put off the first year or so – so much so they were openly critical of my wife and I. It was then that I had to tell them truthfully what I thought of their philosophy, how it was not related to Christianity in the classical, Orthodox sense.

    I wish I had the wit to flush all this out better but I don’t. I think you could spend more than a few posts on this. I would not worry about the dreaded “political” talk however, because it is unavoidable to some extant because so much of this modern mind is forced and re-enforced in our culture by “point of the sword” as St. Paul says (i.e. the power of the government).

    One thing I am convinced of – to many Orthodox are only marginally better off than the typical modern person in seeing this distinction. I think it is because a clear Christian anthropology is not getting through (is this the fault of preaching? Is modern anthropology drowning out what is being said?), but again I am not sure.

  62. Jamey Bennett Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    I have no wish to debate someone I so greatly respect, but I think I’m going to have to register my disagreement one more time. Let me be clear: I am not arguing with your whole post, I think you make several helpful points of correction. Nor am I proposing that the Modern Project is somehow validated by the teaching of St. John Chrysostom.

    I would also say, I have not made any rush to judgment, as I came upon this passage in Chrysostom when I was a catechumen six years ago, and it made a great impression on me. I might be wrong, but I’m certainly not speed reading or proof-texting.

    I have tried to read this passage several times the way you are reading it, and I simply believe he is not saying what you are saying:

    “However, even before heaven, He hath bidden us make the earth a heaven… He hath enjoined each one of us, who pray, to take upon himself the care of the whole world. For *He did not* at all say, ‘Thy will be done’ *in me*, or in us, but *everywhere on the earth*…. He says this so that error may be destroyed, and truth implanted, and all wickedness cast out, and virtue return, and no difference in this respect be henceforth between heaven and earth.”

    I’m certainly not imagining him to believe in enlightenment progress or the American dream. Throwing out wickedness, destroying error, implanting truth, promoting virtue “everywhere on the earth” and not simply in personal morals. God’s will being done everywhere (whether in the farmhouse or the government) would certainly be a better world.

    I cannot reconcile “A better world is not only a false idea – it is rooted in heresy.” with St. John Chrysostom, or for that matter, our Lord’s prayer. In the end, on how to read Chrysostom here: I agree with me.

    I won’t comment any more, but I will read any follow-ups from you with an ear to hear.

    All the best,

  63. Panayiota Vaporis Avatar
    Panayiota Vaporis

    Panayiota Vaporis says:
    June 28, 2014 at 9:32 pm
    I have read and re-read this blog and the comments posted. Mary’s comments about allowing Christ to shine thru each and everyone of us was right on and what Father speaks of in every post, not just this one in particular. That is the Christian message.
    I believe much of the confusion people have, is understanding our original state as we were in the garden. The wrong idea of original sin, which is so prevalent in our world has caused this confusion. The wrong idea that we must do certain things to get into the kingdom. That we were created sinful. We were not. Our lives should be spent finding who we are, not who we think we can create!
    The ironic thing is that all that has come out of this wrong thinking about who we think we can become and what we can do, is a heresy that has infiltrated our culture. It says, that I will do a couple of good things, fight for some cause I believe in, but still be part of this world culture and I should be fine when my life come to an end. That’s what I see everywhere. In church, in schools on bumper stickers. I find it indigestible.
    Find Christ thru prayer, fasting alms giving, there we will find ourselves. Have mercy on me.

  64. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton


    I appreciate your sharing the passage from St. John Chrysostom. It is indeed worth pondering at length…I also particularly liked the following line,

    “For there is nothing to hinder our reaching the perfection of the powers above, because we inhabit the earth.”

    I do not claim to understand such profound truths but I am wondering if the differences you and Fr. Stephen are having may be rooted in the words “world” vs. “earth”, and how their meaning is regarded in spiritual discussion.

    It seems that St. John Chrysostom is telling us that we do not have to wait until we have passed from this earth in order to fulfill the call to care for the entire world or attain to the perfection of heaven.

    Yet it would be a different thing to suggest that we were going to, by our own efforts, “improve” this world and thereby make it into the kingdom of heaven. We are called to live the kingdom while in the world but the kingdom will never be of this world.

    Forgive my presumption, as certainly these things are beyond me, but the discussion reminded me of a confusion I had in the past so I thought I would share the thought.

  65. Christopher Avatar

    “I cannot reconcile “A better world is not only a false idea – it is rooted in heresy.” with St. John Chrysostom, or for that matter, our Lord’s prayer. In the end, on how to read Chrysostom here: I agree with me.”


    If I may expand on what Mary says, I think you have to remember that “a better world” as defined by the modern mind (i.e. neo-darwinistic, materialist, etc. etc.) is a very different thing as to how St John and our Lord would define it. Not only is the definition completely different (and at odds) but the way to get there is different. Indeed, the starting point is different. A Christian (or rather a traditional/classical Christian as the term is too widely defined these days) has a different measuring stick and a different understanding of what the “world” is (for example it is “fallen” – a modern does not believe this).

    Given the above, the humanist/progressive understanding of working for an improved or “better” world (including the more recent anti-humanistic trends – the environmental movement from the late 60’s on for example) is not compatible with Scripture/Gospel/Fathers/ etc….

  66. fatherstephen Avatar

    Of course St. John is in no way espousing what I have called a heresy. Here’s a possible difference of what I mean. St. John enjoins his hearers to “make earth a heaven…” I would as well. Forgive your enemies. Give and share…etc.

    But the Modern Project would take his words as a mandate of a different sort. As a materialist philosophy (for so it is), it would organize and plan “how to make earth into heaven.” Then would begin various coercive measures to make people forgive their enemies. It would take their goods and redistribute them, etc. And the result would not be heaven but simply another coercive effort at a “better world.”

    We should take upon ourselves the care of the whole world. Yes. As Dostoevsky famously says, “Each man is guilty (or responsible) for the sins of all.” This is theologically correct. But the Modern Project would do what God does not. God does not coerce the gospel. St. John said that the killing of a heretic is among the greatest sins. When the gospel becomes a secularized mandate it is not heaven on earth, but hell.

    St. John was speaking from the pulpit not dictating legislation.

    I do not mean to make some “wall of separation,” other than to note that there is a proper wall between my own obedience to the gospel and coercing another to such obedience. And this is the “better world” notion of which I speak.

    But obeying the gospel as St. John enjoins makes “heaven on earth” but not in a manner that abides until Christ returns. The world does not become a “better place” independent of me. I would suggest that Mt. Athos is “heaven on earth” (with some pockets of hell in darkened hearts). But, remove the monks, and replace them with Islamic fascists and it will be hell in a minute.

    “We have no abiding home…but we look for a city whose builder and maker is God.”

    At the heart of my thoughts is the reality that in the Kingdom of God, we only “reveal” what is already true. Heaven is already on earth, paradise already present. I can reveal that by my thoughts and actions. But I do not “make it” except in a certain nuanced manner. It is certainly true that such a paradise and heaven are revealed in the Divine Liturgy, and yet the darkened hearts of the faithful cover it again in moments sometimes.

    Perhaps my point turns on semantics in this case – but that is a writer’s privilege. In the manner that I mean the words, the Modern version of a “better world” would be heretical. St. John is not saying this.

  67. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    A question, Fr. Stephen.

    I have read some who would argue that the poor should only be cared for by the charity of the faithful – and that there should not be any taxation to redistribute wealth.

    Taxation is certainly “coercive” – making me wonder if you are espousing this view. Yet your earlier remarks about redistribution of wealth lead me to think you are not taking quite such a radical stance.

    It raises an interesting question. The charity of the faithful (on a material level) seems frightfully insufficient to meet the needs of the poor in our world. Yet it might be noted that taxation has certainly not eradicated poverty either.

    Material solutions, without faith in God, will never be adequate because sin (through war, politics, etc.) will keep resources from people. Hence, we cannot legislate or “coerce” a solution because we cannot coerce faith.

    On the other hand, I find myself reluctant to abandon all governmental effort to bring services to people in need. To simply drop Medicaid, for example, without another option in its place would leave millions of people with no way to access healthcare. Your thoughts?

  68. Christopher Avatar

    “To simply drop Medicaid, for example, without another option in its place would leave millions of people with no way to access healthcare”

    Mary, If I may speak to this in a practical sense: As a business manager for a medical practice I would answer “yes and no” to this sentence. “No”, in the sense that “access to healthcare” is quite literally free to all in America as it is illegal for emergency rooms to turn away anyone. “Yes”, in the sense that some do get additional care through medicare (e.g. rehabilitation services which is what we offer).

    However, in practice Obamacare has greatly complicated the picture. As an example, in our state they have implemented these plans in such a way that they only reimburse at medicaid rates. Now, the money we receive at this reimbursement level does NOT cover costs. In other words, every medicaid patient we accept is a “charity” case – the practice/doctors lose money. This was OK in the past as the number of medicare patients was low enough we could offset the lost money with patients from plans that allowed us to cover costs, pay employees/doctors, and realize a small profit. Now with the exchange (i.e. Obamacare) plans also reimbursing at these rates, this becomes more difficult. If our “payer mix”, leans too heavily towards these types of reimbursements, then we can no longer afford to run the business. In practice what that means is that at some point in the future (my best guess is about 4 to 7 years), we will have to stop accepting medicaid and obamacare patients all together. The trend for lower reimbursement is also occurring in medicare, so we will have to stop accepting it also (though the trend there is slower so I am not sure when).

    So in a very real way, Medicaid is already in the process of being “dropped”. The only way any doctor/clinic/hospital can actually afford to see these patients (i.e. Medicaid/Obamacare) is to run you practice in such a way that they patients are receiving very sub standard levels of care. This means in a sense, the government is forcing us into a two tiered system where those who can afford it get normal “access to healthcare” which in the jargon the doctors use is “standard of care”, and the rest get government “access to healthcare” which will be very poor stuff indeed. Notice however, that this still allows the politicians to claim that all Americans get “access to healthcare”, and perhaps most importantly allows the “average” taxpayer/voter to believe that they are making the world a better place…

    By the way, what is happening in my state is in no way unique. The only states that are avoiding this particular path are those who have distanced themselves most strongly from Obamacare (not coincidentally mostly “red” states) This is leading to a somewhat ironical situation where if you are truly poor and need “access to healthcare”, you will want to be in a “red” state…

  69. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    If one reads the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution:

    We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence (sic), promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

    it is easy to see that the U.S. has been under a chiliastic eschatology from the very beginning but only if one understands the classical Christian approach to such things. An understanding that is in short supply unfortunately.

  70. marybenton Avatar


    My question to Fr. Stephen was not intended to open a discussion on healthcare reform.

    Working as a psychologist, I bill Medicaid, Medicare, insurance companies – and I see some people for free. I know that the system before reform had problems and the system after reform has problems and any future system is likely to have problems too. (Emergency room as access is a myth, however, because there are many life-saving measures that will never be done in an ER.)

    My question is more oriented toward trying to understand how the Christian interfaces with the “world” – to do as much as we can for those less fortunate without the pitfalls of modern progress that Fr. Stephen warns of. No easy answers, I’m sure, but was just looking for a bit more.

  71. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mary, the more ‘modern’ the government the more sacrificial and personal our giving must beecome, less institutional.

    Modernity does not want us to practice virtue of any kind in any visible way. It will be more and more difficult.

  72. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Thanks, Michael. A good thought to chew on.

  73. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    There is a drastic difference in the intent of government giving and personal and/or Church giving. Governments look at such things as a quid pro quo: “we give you things, vote for me”. So they want a monopoly on the power to give. See the recent protest of members of the NY City council against Wal-Mart giving substantial amounts of money to charities in NYC. The council members wanted it to stop because they saw it simply as a way for Wal-Mart to get into the NYC market. It may be that, but it clearly shows the attitude behind most government ‘giving’.

  74. jrj1701 Avatar

    I have been noticing this trend, there are cities that are trying to discourage churches from opening soup kitchens, homeless shelters and food pantries, and the government tend to not give as Christians were told in Luke 6:30.

  75. xenia williams Avatar

    there is that passage in the Bible where Jesus says the poor will always be with us. And there is that passage where He tells us to love God with all heart mind soul and body and love others as one would love oneself. And the lives of the saints demonstrate the Christian life in regards to both: St. Sophia, St. Nikolai the wonderworker, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, St. Xenia, St. John the Almsgiver…the list goes on and on….Our lives as Christians seems to be simply to obey the commandments of God within ourselves and in regards to others in the conditions we find ourselves in. If one wants to put a “modern spin” on it, there is that dictum Live Simply so that others may simply live. But in the end…life is a mystery, and the ways of the Lord is a mystery.

  76. Christopher Avatar


    I had a chance this week to talk with my sister in law who has been to seminary (protestant) and now works as a “Urban Minister” – which as far as I can tell is something akin to a Christian social worker. She excitedly told me about a paper she wrote in seminary about “building up the Kingdom of God”, and believes that is exactly what she is doing. She said it is the middle path between “the Social Gospel” and “Fundamentalism”. So yes, this idea is alive and well!

  77. Anastasios Avatar

    I take issue with the quoting of 2 Pet 3:10-13 to imply that that creation will be totally destroyed and then re-created from scratch. From what I’ve read, the fire mentioned in that verse is actually a refiner’s fire.

    The idea that “the earth will be destroyed anyway” is often used by dispensationalists and other Protestants who oppose the idea of environmental stewardship. Mark Driscoll recently said that “I know who made the environment. He’s coming back and he’s going to burn it all up. So yes, I drive an SUV.” He said he was joking, but the statement accurately describes how many Republican evangelicals view the environment.

    The early church was in danger both from legalists who thought they could perfect themselves by their own efforts, but also from anything-goes types who thought that since the flesh was inherently evil/mortal anyway, it didn’t matter what you did to or with your body. I think a similar danger is present today. Yes, utopianism is a danger, but so is the nihilistic, libertine idea that “nothing I do really matters, this world doesn’t matter anyway, so I’ll just watch TV all day, drive a gas guzzler, eat junk food, etc.”

    Orthodoxy for its part has a rich tradition of environmental stewardship. Read here (ironically, this article is from a Catholic author praising Orthodoxy!): http://ncronline.org/books/2013/09/divinely-written-icon-orthodox-theology-can-lead-new-christian-thinking-creation. It would be a shame (and very un-Orthodox) if we took a naive reading of 2 Peter 3 and ended up with Driscollian attitudes.

    I think it’d be going too far to say that we can build the kingdom of God, or that things we build will be “brought into” it. But, surely that doesn’t mean we can’t participate in, or build something that can be sanctified by, the Kingdom? Just visit any cathedral. 😉

  78. Anastasios Avatar

    Perhaps to put it more concisely: In Orthodox Russia, you don’t build the Kingdom. The Kingdom builds YOU!

  79. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think you are establishing false choices – between some improvement model or Mark Driscoll. You did not actually deal with the Scripture other than to more or less dismiss it. The Kingdom we expect will be a resurrected creation – and the Scriptures are quite clear about the this as a fairly cataclysmic notion. I think it has to be set aside as an eschatological hope that is even now breaking in to our world.

    That we have a proper relationship and regard for creation is clear – but it is wrong to confuse environmental concerns with the coming resurrection. I’ll just use a human body as an example. I take care of my aging body. It has suffered a heart attack and other indignities and I try to respond appropriately. I expect the resurrection, but barring something quite unlikely, I expect that my body will “dissolve” in the fiery heart of a grave, long before its resurrection. No matter how much I take care of it, a dead body is still a dead body. Even the incorrupt bodies of the saints do not make their resurrection easier, etc. They are a sign to us but not anything other than a dead body.

    What God is going to do to creation is of a character almost utterly removed from what we now know.

    The concern for creation (whether climate, pollution, etc.) is quite in vogue. It is also quite popular in the halls of Babel. The pronouncements of various Church leaders in support of such things, using great moral suasion, is also quite popular. It might not even be wrong. But it has nothing to do with that which is to come. It could, God forbid, even play into the hands of the wicked.

    Frankly, the naivete is equally present on the part of those whose latest moral concern is the planet. The passions associated with this are largely political. I would counsel caution – even to Patriarchs.

  80. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Anastasios, the passage in Peter seems to relate to Paul’s that all shall be tested by fire. The things of God will last. It is a call to holiness in both a personal and sacramental way.

    To assume the Driscollian position would be to ignore the command in Genesis to “dress and keep the earth” ….and Romans 1. There will be a new heaven and a new earth.

    You are correct concerning the Orthodox approach to the environment. All of that however is within the divine eschatology and not of our making except through humility–allowing the Holy Spirit to transform us and the creation around us.

  81. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton


    Just a quick, somewhat off-topic comment – why do you think it ironic that a Catholic author might praise Orthodoxy? Many of us Catholics think quite highly of Orthodoxy.

    BTW – I couldn’t tell from article whether the author was Catholic but it was a nice article in the National Catholic Reporter. Thanks for the link.

  82. Christopher Avatar

    “….So yes, I drive an SUV.”

    One of my indulgences is the reading of science fiction. It is an indulgence because it is a spiritual midfield, but I have enjoyed it since I was a kid. I particularly like the authors who still have a bit of old fashioned humanism left in them, and have not completely succumbed to the current misanthropic mindset. I recall that in the mid nineties Analog Science Fiction and Fact published an article by a physicist where he addressed climate change (warming as it was then known). As he pointed out, the climate has always changed this fact in itself is not morally “good” or “bad”. There are pros and cons of a changing climate for both humans and the rest of creation. For example, one of the pros in a warming climate is the fact that what is today frozen Siberia becomes arable land, meaning the planet can support a much larger human population than it can today. Of course, most modern environmentalists are explicit or hidden Malthusians and so they think this development would be “bad”.

    The modern misanthropic environmental movement has a hidden moral calculus that reads “climate change = bad, really bad, like panic and run for the hills bad”. This presupposition is never, ever examined. In fact, whenever I have brought it up all I get is glazed eyeballs – or outright denial.

    Also, as far as I can tell, the “environmental” patriarch and other Orthodox/Christian environmentalists accept this moral calculus uncritically. Does anyone have any information that this is not so?

    When I tell people that for me, climate change (whether caused by human activity or natural forces) is not even a technological, let alone a moral problem, they look at me as if I am crazy/ignorant and or a “fundamentalist”. It reminds me of David Bentley Harts assertion that we live in one of the most superstitious ages in the history of man.

    By the way, the Orthodox laymen Wesley J. Smith is doing real yeoman’s work documenting all this over at First Things:


    So yes, I too drive an SUV. I thank God for its utility, size, and practicality for the whole family. Since we have more proven oil reserves than ever before in the history of mankind, I look forward to years and years of plentiful, cheap gas to put in it. I also pray to God that my children and their children’s children

  83. fatherstephen Avatar

    Like yourself, I hear very little science and very much political/philosophical concerns in most of the climate conversations, with many Malthusian assumptions. Within Orthodoxy, I discern many similar allegiances(?). When I’m being very suspicious, I think of envirnomentalism as the “New Left,” picking up where Communism failed in 1989. The strength and political organization of the current movement had tremendous growth at that very time. And here, it was the Left in the Western democracies, not the old left in the Communist regimes. Interestingly, both Russia and China are often missing on the topic (they have very little to gain from putting back in place the central planning they have been working to dismantle).

    That being said, I do not totally gainsay various climate concerns. The Left champions (theoretically) the needs of the poor. Just because they are terrible at solving those problems doesn’t mean that the poor are non-existent. Only that the Left is philosophically challenged when it comes to practicality.

    I think we might very well be in a period of increased warming, with increased melting of the polar icecaps. I suspect that the process has reached a tipping point (because it’s a very long process). But it’s equally true that the planet is a very large, active system and could respond to such melting with a new ice age. That’s a theory that’s not too popular right now, but was the rage in the 80’s.

    The idea that the sea levels of the last millennium should be the normative sea levels for the future is, to me, absurd, given the history of the planet. I think we need to dub the entire program the “King Knute” project (he who famously commanded the tide to come no further).

    I am deeply concerned, on the other hand, with over fishing, pollution of the oceans and the problem of farm runoff, etc. These are actually very treatable problems, requiring relatively minor political will. But, somehow, they do not rise to the level of “planetary crisis” such that the powers that be can use them to increase their own power. (yet).

    So, I’m green, because I live on this planet and like to eat clean food and want my grandchildren to enjoy the same. I am not a Malthusian. I think the population managers are from the pits of hell.

    So there. I’ve laid my cards on the table. I drive a 40 mpg toyota, because I’m half-Scottish and can’t stand to spend money on gasoline. 🙂

  84. Christopher Avatar

    “I am deeply concerned, on the other hand, with over fishing, pollution of the oceans and the problem of farm runoff, etc. These are actually very treatable problems, requiring relatively minor political will….”

    I agree. I would be an “environmentalist” if the movement had stuck with it’s original very humanist goals, but starting sometime in the early to mid sixties, it developed into something very anti-human. Poisoning your neighbor for short term financial gain is obviously not loving him.

    In my local area, environmentalists and the political left have convinced the fed’s to declare certain areas “national monuments”, not because these areas have an extraordinary value, but simply because they don’t like the idea of hunters, fishermen, or even hikers taking advantage of the these areas. They like to view them from afar and know that man is not ”ruining” these areas by his mere presence.

    Many who want to save money on gasoline and help the environment by reducing CO2 emissions end up purchasing EV’s or more commonly hybrid vehicles. What they most often don’t know is that the batteries for these vehicles are all made in China. The areas around these battery plants are quite poisonous to both animal and man (because China’s “environmental” concern is somewhere close to non-existent). Even conservative estimates put the death rate from this poisoning in the hundreds a year – it’s probably in the thousands. Thus, these vehicles are complicated global products that have all sorts of “unintended consequences” for a buyer who is thinking he is “saving the planet”…

  85. Drewster2000 Avatar

    …and the SUVs and the Toyotas will all meet up in the Great Beyond, forgiving each other for over-thriftiness on the one hand and over-indulgence on the other, the real point being that they both made the journey….

  86. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The environmental movement is a progresdive political ideology that proposes global materialist fixes for local spiritual problems.

    It is really simple: the environment will change as we change. The solution is sacramental not political.

    Of course we need to do what we can to promote ascetic activities as they become obvious to us to care for the creation always remembering that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.

  87. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    I’m curious, Christopher, where do you live where they actually prevent humans from ruining natural areas? Sounds idyllic.

    Of course, it only sounds idyllic because we never think of ourselves as one of the ones who ruin. I include myself here. If I were hiking in this place, I wouldn’t toss my trash in the woods, disturb the habitat, etc. So let me in – just keep those other folks out.

    The sad part of this is that we humans are all sinners and are very adept at denying or minimizing our personal sinfulness and its impact. We are also quite skilled at pointing out how the things that other people want are the source of the problems in the world, while the things we want are quite moderate and reasonable.

    We simply do not like asceticism. We may do it in religious practice if it doesn’t interfere with our lifestyle too much – but if starts to encroach…if asceticism calls us to change what kind of vehicle we drive (or if we even drive one), what sorts of electronic devices we use (or if we even use them), etc. we start getting uncomfortable.

    Michael, I agree that the solution is sacramental. Political change seems appealing because it promises to move faster (let’s MAKE everyone do what should be done) – but it all falls apart in the end. Sin just finds a new structure through which to express itself – if there is no change of heart.

  88. Christopher Avatar

    “I’m curious, Christopher, where do you live where they actually prevent humans from ruining natural areas? Sounds idyllic….We simply do not like asceticism. We may do it in religious practice if it doesn’t interfere with our lifestyle too much – but if starts to encroach…if asceticism calls us to change what kind of vehicle we drive…”

    First of all, you are absolutely correct that I do not like asceticism. I struggle against it everyday! Or perhaps more accurately, my sinful passions cooperate with the demons against my efforts. Recently, I have been making a note of just how many times I cooperate with these demons in just my thoughts before I am able to make my way to morning prayers. It’s incredible is it not – almost enough to drive one to the sin of despair if we did not have Faith.

    That said, I would make some important distinctions. Since I do not subscribe to the reasoning (technological or moral) behind say, “reducing my carbon footprint” (indeed, as I cite above, increasing CO2 levels is probably a moral good), I don’t see how I can link acesis to driving a small, fuel efficient vehicle for example. Indeed, since all things being equal (i.e. crash worthiness in design/construction) a larger vehicle is safer than a smaller one (this is a proven fact and is simply due to physics, crush space around occupants, etc.) the prudent, moral thing to do is to drive the largest and heaviest vehicle I can practically afford to purchase. (again due to physics this means more weight=more energy spent moving it=more fuel burnt) See Ralph Nader, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, etc. for a background in all this (i.e. don’t take my word for it! 🙂 ) You see, while I pray to God to protect my family from bodily harm I also attempt to act prudently by driving defensively, and driving the safest vehicles I can purchase. The extra cost of fuel (which in actuality is only a few hundred dollars a year) is well worth the price (as you know, the cost of a TBI suffered in a serious automobile accident far exceeds a few hundred dollars).

  89. Christopher Avatar

    A continuation of my reply to Mary:

    Another important distinction I would make is that Christian acesis (or anything else Christian for that matter) is in no way the spirit behind the modern misanthropic environmental movement. Indeed, it is a spirit of anti-humanism (and thus a demonic spirit) that animates them. To quote David Attenborough:

    “(humans are) plague on earth…like a plague of locusts, which consumes all it sees and then dies off”

    To quote David Suzuki “(we are) “maggots…born as an egg…eventually hatch out and start crawling around…defecating all over the environment”

    Or, for a the multimedia experience of this spirit, Google the “10-10 campaign video” and watch how those who dare question or oppose this demonic spirit are blown up, beginning with school children. Now you can argue (cynically, I would say) that this is meant to be mere comedy, but I would argue it reveals the true spirit behind this movement (at least, to those with eyes to see and ears to hear). This spirit does not love the sinner and hate the sin – it BEGINS with hating the sinner. None of this is surprising, since the environmental movement is just a branch of self loathing modernism.

    So when the environmentalists and their allies (the political left, the current administration, etc.) recently created two “national monuments” within a few miles of my home, they indeed do it because man is “ruinous” to his very core, and thus hated. Never mind that we locals have lived in harmony with these “natural” areas for a very long time, and that the BLM had already quite sensible multi-use rules in place that more than adequately protected these areas from development, preserving wildlife (while allowing the occasional hunter to practice his art), etc. No, this was done for those who sit in their homes and in their hearts hate the hunter, the hiker, the rancher, and anyone else who does not agree with their philosophy of man and this spirit. Indeed, they hate themselves – so we are to pray for them…

  90. Matt Avatar

    With respect, Christopher, your rationale about vehicle size

    Indeed, since all things being equal (i.e. crash worthiness in design/construction) a larger vehicle is safer than a smaller one (this is a proven fact and is simply due to physics, crush space around occupants, etc.) the prudent, moral thing to do is to drive the largest and heaviest vehicle I can practically afford to purchase.

    strikes me as utterly demonic. Every argument about “safety” creates a danger to everyone else around the vehicle and is only justified in terms of ignoring externalities and “better you than me”.

    The reduced visibility from sitting in a larger vehicle, along with the greater inertia and less time to react to anything that happens, greatly increase the chance of a collision in the first place. The overall result is:

    1. Better mitigation of damage only for onself
    2. Reduced ability to prevent damage in the first place
    3. Greater damage to everyone and everything else

    By the logic that supports this, I can argue that everyone should place sharp, uncomfortable barriers on the seats on either side around them whenever they do something, or build as tall a house as they possibly can to get sunlight at their neighbour’s expense, or just be as nasty to and suspicious about each other as they can in everyday life so they never get one-upped.

    I’m not going to argue the utilitarian game-theory calculus of this, but there is no way a deliberate choice that you are endorsing here remotely resembles a Christian love of neighbour, to say nothing of fasting from luxuries.

    (I will agree about the misanthropy though, been there done that and almost literally got the T-shirt if I hadn’t (rightly, if for different reasons) thought it was a waste of resources. The “comedy” about killing people is murder in the heart enough, though that kind of dehumanization has been shown many times to make real-life violence much easier to do or condone.)

  91. Christopher Avatar

    Matt says: ” Every argument about “safety” creates a danger to everyone else around the vehicle”

    You have a point here. However, the only real solution is a “one size fits all” vehicle product choice. Now we know in reality one size does not fit all, as for example I have a wife and 2 children (with strollers, bulky car seats, etc.), thus a compact car is not really realistic (even if it were safe). Of course I could support through government fiat that everyone up-size to my vehicle size, but that would bring on all the intended and unintended consequences of centralized planning and the “we will make the world a better place” philosophy. Or, to extend your logic, you might as well say that we should all be on scooters (they maneuver well, stop well, and when they hit other vehicles do much less damage than my large SUV 😉 and anything else is “demonic”. To top it all off, what would you do with work trucks, delivery vans, commercial trucking? Surely you would agree you can not move all that to rail?!?

    Perhaps I was not being very clear. The point I was trying to make is that I do not believe we can link one’s acesis to the vehicle one drives, at least not in the simplistic and false choice way the modern environmental movement and it’s Christian sympathizers might have us do: If you are not downsizing, saving gas, and “reducing your carbon footprint” then you are not loving your neighbor…

  92. fatherstephen Avatar

    Christopher, et al
    Christopher is spot on about the nature of asceticism. I have become somewhat familiar with new forms of Orthodox devotion: Orthodox tattoos, glorifying beards, exalting Orthodoxy a “tough Christianity,” all of which is simply the “branding” of Orthodoxy and identifying oneself with the brand. It is consumer Orthodoxy and simply a display of the passions, less than Protestantism.

    I completely understand the “asceticism” of spending an enormous amount of money on a “safe,” “super efficient” car, and imagining that with every mile driven you are somehow practicing “asceticism.” I can also imagine the bumper stickers that would almost inevitably accompany the vehicle.

    There are other “lifestyle” versions of “asceticism.” Become a “Vegan” (because you hate meat) and pretend that you’ve given something up, while judging those who do not do the same. This is all the kind of “tokenism” that is the common language of our shallow lives. It is meaningless in spiritual terms, other than as examples of the passions in which we are drowning and the delusion that surrounds them.

    There are normative forms of asceticism – practiced everywhere and by all (at one time). Those forms are what they are because the Tradition understands the nature of the human and of our passions, and understands the required nature of the ascetic struggle to overcome them.

    Fasting. Do you have an app for that?

    People should engage in the traditional forms of asceticism: fasting, abstinence, giving your stuff away (alms), vigils, prayer, repentance, etc. Even if these can only be engaged in the very small measure – at least the small measure is an accurate measure rather than the bloated ego of Christian boasting and branding display.

    People do not understand. The problem with the environment is sin and death (not the moral version – but the ontological one). The planet is poisoned because we are poisoned. As Jesus turned the water into wine, so righteousness will heal the planet – and nothing else.

  93. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    I think my comment was perhaps misunderstood – which happens from time to time in a forum such as this.

    I wasn’t suggesting that Christian asceticism should dictate what size of vehicle Christopher (or Matt or Fr. Stephen or I) should drive. Nor was I making a specific argument for or against the “environmental movement”, however one might choose to define it.

    What I was suggesting was that Christianity/asceticism calls us to sacrifice and we have a natural aversion to sacrifice – even though it will cleanse and heal us if we allow it to.

    I completely agree, Fr. Stephen, that there is no asceticism in the prideful acts of “deprivation” that are made for show (Christ was quite clear about that). What I have also seen, as a Catholic in the days of meatless Fridays, is the plethora of fish fries and sales on expensive fish that appeared to be an effort to make sure we still enjoyed our “sacrifice”. Asceticism that doesn’t involve at least a little sacrifice of one’s own will doesn’t seem like asceticism to me.

    Asceticism can be as simple (and as hard) as being about to buy something and stopping myself and asking – do I really need this? – and deciding not to buy. (And never mentioning it to anyone, so there is no boast to ruin it.)

    I mentioned vehicles and electronics specifically because we Americans have a love affair with both, often craving newer, better, fancier just because. One doesn’t have to risk one’s family’s safety to step back from this pull just a bit.

    And I wasn’t picking on you, Christopher, any more than I am picking on myself. I have “stuff” pulling on me almost every day and I often lose the battle. It is hard for me to believe that our excessive consumerism does not damage the created world – but more importantly, it can do great damage to our souls.

  94. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The creation has a sacred capability that can only be realized in two ways: if we use it in accord with God’s will and in the fullness of time when all things are made new.

    Machine produced items will never have the same depth or carry the same energy as human crafted items.

    Human craft links us to creation and one another. It can be healing and salvific.

    I understood exactly what you meant mary.

  95. Matt Avatar


    A vehicle needs to be large enough to carry what it needs to carry. I see enough scooters around here that that is no reductio ad absurdum for me.

    I got 2 things from your previous post that I was responding to:

    1. that, logically, an actual, literal tank, or a NASA crawler-transporter, would be the best family vehicle, unless you could get something even bigger. (the main limit being that egress, ingress and movement within the vehicle should not itself call for another vehicle, at least not one moving at high speeds)
    2. a reactionary culture-war flippancy aimed to spite a moralistic imposition from outside busybodies. (a more extreme example)

    If the boasting false asceticism is a homophobe being proud of his heterosexuality and thinking himself Christian for it, this kind of thinking is the LGBT pride parade. (granted, the way things are going they might well bring in the crawler-transporter to carry one of the floats!)

    Fr. Stephen,

    I have become somewhat familiar with new forms of Orthodox devotion: Orthodox tattoos, glorifying beards, exalting Orthodoxy a “tough Christianity,” all of which is simply the “branding” of Orthodoxy and identifying oneself with the brand. It is consumer Orthodoxy and simply a display of the passions, less than Protestantism.

    While I first came to the Orthodox Church knowing nothing about this sort of thing, now that you mention it pride in that imagery has since become a routine temptation. Thank you for calling it out!

    (That said, I am almost certain there is an app for fasting out there, probably checking out restaurants that serve technically fast-friendly food and whatnot, or automatically bringing up fast-friendly recipes through your phone’s calendar reminder system.)

  96. Christopher Avatar

    “I think my comment was perhaps misunderstood – which happens from time to time in a forum such as this. “

    No worries. With my dialectical/polemical, run-on-sentence writing style (which unfortunately reflects what’s going on in my head too often) it’s a wonder anyone can understand me at all. At least my wife does…sometimes…;)

    “ logically, an actual, literal tank, or a NASA crawler-transporter, would be the best family vehicle”

    Actually I would agree with this to some extant (to your consternation I know). I would modify it and say a vehicle that has an integrated safety cage (like a race car) modified to allow easier ingress/egress, loading, etc would be better. Then, you can build around it a very light chassis/engine combo and not compromise safety (again, like a race car). Unfortunately, this sort of construction is still too expensive for the mass market. However, don’t be anxious as we are moving in that direction!! The pundits are predicting that each future generation of vehicles will be much lighter and much more safe than the previous. While some credit can go to government CAFE standards (although like so many regulations these wholly unrealistic goals in particular probably cause more harm than good – for example they are in large part responsible for the manufactures downsizing their sedan offerings and the public simply moving into truck based SUV’s to retain the room/utility they used to have with larger sedans). Most of the credit goes to the fact(s) that the vast majority don’t want to spend more on gas than they have to, many believe their CO2 emissions are a moral negative (obviously, I don’t), and of course safety is a goal for more and more purchasers.

    “… this kind of thinking is the LGBT pride parade. (granted, the way things are going they might well bring in the crawler-transporter to carry one of the floats!) “

    As they say, LOL! I don’t know if I should thank you for this image or not (I’m leaning to not)…;)

  97. Darius Avatar

    Hey Fr.Stephan, I’m kinda confused here. But isn’t helping out others as God commanded in Scripture (like in Proverbs 3:27, Philippians 2, John 13:33-35, Deuteronomy 15:11, and Luke 10:25-37) is what causes people’s lives to be made better. And thus, if a lot of people helped out others, wouldn’t that community be a better place? My real question here is, assuming that the Humanistic version of making the “world a better place” is like making the tower of babel and proving that mankind can do any great thing by themselves and thus making them puff up in pride, does the REAL Orthodox Christian goal of life involve using our God-given talents help out/give to others in the world (such as using gifted intelligence to find a cure for cancer or invent something that would improve people’s lives)? What is the clear difference between the Orthodox Christian duty of helping others and giving to others and the Humanistic goal “make the world a better place”?

  98. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The difference is actually very great. We are certainly commanded to serve others, to be of help, etc. We do this because it is a commandment and because we are being taught to love.

    The subtle notion that we are somehow changing things, making the world a better place, leads us into actions for the wrong reason, and quickly has us measuring how to control the outcomes (and people). It is the road to secularism and a secular view of the world.

    Whether our actions add up to a “better world,” is none of our business. It is God’s business. We are not in charge of the world. We are servants of the world. Christians have been lured into an increasingly secular/practical view of things and have forgotten why and how we live.

    For example, I have conversations frequently with Christians who have become confused about abortion issues. They begin thinking about how to “improve” things and make things better. They reason that perhaps what we need is to simply decrease abortions. While saving any human life is a good thing, we are not commanded to tolerate a little killing. It’s like the Lawyer who asked Christ, “Who is my neighbor?” A very practical question, but beside the point.

    As to improving lives. A cure for cancer would be great, in one aspect. But everyone will still die from something. The problem with death can only be addressed by Christ who tramples down death by death. The train of thought that sees relieving suffering as the primary goal of life leads inevitably to killing people – because killing them is ultimately the only way to end their suffering.

    That train of thought is behind everything from abortion to euthanasia to many other sinful and tragic modern practices. All of them done in the name of a compassion that is a false compassion. If there were no cancer, the same number of people would still die, only of something else. It doesn’t mean that we do not work for cures, but that it is still not “a better place.” It’s a world of death. Only the Kingdom of God is a better place. In this life, our practical work aimed towards this life, is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The ship still sinks and everybody dies.

    Again, this doesn’t mean that we do nothing. But we do it for reasons other than making the world a better place.

  99. Karen Avatar

    I look forward to your lengthy post discussing the merits of 19th Century dentistry or 1st Century AD plumbing.

    Your counsel here is to sit and do nothing. Don’t change unfair laws! Jesus will return and fix Jim Crow! Don’t clean up pollution; this world will pass away. Endure misery and give all your money to the Church so its hierarchy can sit in gilded palaces. When Jesus was confronted with sick people he healed them. When the Five Thousand (really, about 10,000. The Gospels only counted adult males.) were hungry he fed them. There is not one solitary instance of Jesus telling the suffering that their suffering made them glorious. The only thing he ever did was stop the pain. To see suffering and allow it to continue is to join ourselves to Satan.

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