The Human Project

fuzzy“Becoming human” is a baffling phrase. Surely we are simply born as human beings. Of course this is true, but the nature of the modern world allows us to configure our lives in ways that can be described as “less than human.” When we visit a zoo and see a tiger pacing in its cage, we are not seeing a “true” tiger, but a distortion of the animal. Tigers cannot truly be tigers in small, confined spaces. Neither can human beings be truly human in just any configuration. Some ways of existing a simply destructive of what it means to be human.

Modern consciousness recognizes this under the general heading of human rights. Certain forms of living – slavery, extreme poverty, etc. – rob us of something essential. Infants, for example, sometimes die from the lack of human contact in an illness known as “failure to thrive.” Modern economies have created the widest range of choices in all of human history – but some choices leave us as caged tigers or neglected infants.

Human beings are social. We have a need to interact with our environment in certain ways. We are physical and sexual. We are spiritual and hunger for transcendence. We are speakers and makers of words. We impose order on chaos. The fullness of being human is beyond my ability to describe here. But it is essential to understand that the Christian faith, when rightly understood, has among its goals the fullness of human existence. Classical Christianity is inherently humanist.

The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. (Joh 10:10 NKJ)

The “thief” of our humanity comes in many guises. We steal humanity from one another. Sometimes we give our humanity away. Often we simply refuse the gift, choosing alternative ways that avoid the path of fullness. Not every abundance is truly human:

And He said to them, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.” (Luk 12:15 NKJ)

Modern cultures have defined themselves by the abundance of their economies. The average level of wealth enjoyed is staggering when compared to any time in the past. We eat foods without regard to seasons. We build homes without regard to climate. We choose mates without regard to children or tribe.

But we do not generally make choices without regard for economic or employment consequences. We uproot our families, dismantle the extended family, abandon friends and routine, place and every form of belonging with little hesitation if we can say, “I took a job in ……” It is an explanation that is universally acceptable – the equivalent of a moral Get Out of Jail Free card. Today I could easily imagine someone justifying a disruptive move for the sake of better cellphone coverage.

Much of contemporary Christianity has been formed and shaped in this very culture, and its most successful theologies are those that conform best to the consumer model. The simplicity of the Evangelical version of the penal substitutionary model of the atonement – that is – the account of why Christ died and how we are saved by His death – is a primary example.

That model is essentially put forward as a Divine contract. God does something for us, and we choose to accept it (or not). That choice establishes a relationship, understood as a contract (frequently termed a Covenant). This reduction of human life to contractual agency destroys the wholeness of our lives. We are not contract-based. True humanity is communion-based.

Our daily experience confirms this. Modern marriage is frequently discussed in terms of contract (thus any two people can enter into such a “marriage”). But no relationship would be experienced as satisfactory were it lived like a contract: demands, duties, negotiations, performance reviews, etc. We long for relationship as communion: mutuality, sharing, giving, trust, sacrifice, love, etc. There cannot be a contract to love. Human society as a contractual world is a world devoid of love.

A symptom (and they are legion) of our contractual life is the explosion in litigation. Every element of our modern life is increasingly surrounded with rules driven by the fear of litigation. Political-correctness in speech (and so much else) is rooted in this same fear. The boundaries of contractual life are also barriers to our humanity.

Of course, such mundane symptoms seem to be a far cry from doctrines of the atonement. But explanations that are essentially contractual arrangements become popular precisely because those who hear them think in contractual terms. It is of little use to engage in historical argument about where such thinking began. But it is essential for Christianity in the modern world to recognize this aspect of our culture and refuse to support it. The theology of the contract simply underwrites the culture’s destruction of our humanity.

I will suggest a strange measurement for true humanity: How do we suffer as human beings and how do we rightly bear the tragedy of our existence? These are unusual questions in the context of a culture that is designed to maximize pleasure and satisfaction and to minimize suffering. But suffering is an unavoidable part of human existence. And regardless of all attempts to the contrary, we will die, and everything we have done will pass away (this is our tragedy).

Suffering and tragedy are not only inevitable and universal, they also challenge our lives at the very point of their meaning. It is here that the modern project most often reveals its emptiness and the hollow nature of its promises. For even pleasure begs the question: to what end?

It is not surprising that end-of-life issues have become prominent in our times. It is at the end of our lives that suffering tends to cluster. Death is often painful and ironic. It mocks our ability to choose. We fight back demanding that we be allowed to choose the manner of our death. And so being human is finally defined by the ability not to be.

Such an elevation of choice becomes the engine of our inhumanity. In the name of ending suffering, we end our existence itself. And this is always true. When the primary goal of life becomes the absence of suffering, then we agree to do murder. For suffering cannot be abolished, only killed.

This sheds an interesting light on the question: “Why does God allow people to suffer?” Apparently, the Christian God does not think the elimination of suffering to be the ultimate good. And there is indeed something greater.

What is greater is the transcendence of suffering, the taking up of suffering into a life and a world in which it has meaning and purpose, in which suffering is ultimately and profoundly human and productive of being human.

Christ reveals the nature of true humanity:

“For on the night in which he was given up, or rather gave Himself up for the life of the world…” (St. John Chrysostom)

The voluntary self-offering of Christ is not a transaction, a sacrifice or payment required for the forgiveness of sin. It is the voluntary self-offering of God by which we are united to Him. It is also the primary revelation of God to man.

For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (Rom 5:10 NKJ)

But the salvation we have “by His life,” is not a salvation without suffering. If anything, the Christian life contains specific promises of suffering. Christians are those who have followed Christ and voluntarily lay down their lives.

It is true that we are promised a final victory, but that victory is not a birth beyond self-offering, but a new birth into the eternal self-offering that is the life of God.

The Christian Church is the living Tradition of the self-giving life of God. Everything within that Tradition is in conformity with that life and moves everything within it towards that conformity.

There is no such content in the modern project. Instead, the false promise of life without suffering is offered for a price (whatever the market will bear). And, of course, it is itself a mockery of the larger part of humanity. For the suffering that can be alleviated for some cannot be alleviated for all. And those who are condemned to contemporary suffering (those who cannot afford the alleviation) must watch in tortured entertainment while the suffering-free world is constantly displayed before them as the media sells it to others.

The modern distance is more than a space between the have’s and the have nots: it is the gulf between those who can afford to postpone their suffering and those who cannot. The American culture not only fails to lift its poorest from their poverty. It also imprisons the largest proportion of a population in the free world. Of course, unlike Stalin’s slave-filled prisons, these must suffer, knowing “they deserve it.”

I am not offering an indictment of an economic system. We should be free and work and live and play. But we do so to the wrong ends. Our culture suffers from a deep spiritual sickness rooted in the false promises and doctrines of the modern project. It is simply not working by the measurements of our humanity.

There is no substitute for the gospel, nor can the gospel be altered to make it conform to a false promise. Christianity that is rooted in the modern project is not able to save. Like the modern project itself, it mocks human beings by underwriting the false assumptions of their culture. Christianity as the “modern economy at prayer” is among the saddest forms ever forced upon the Scriptures.

We hunger for communion with God and each other even while we make contracts to avoid it. But Christ is the truly human who takes upon Himself the sin of the whole world. That reality is inexorable and cannot be erased. The Divine Communion presses itself upon us and calls us to itself, a sweetness so wondrous that even its suffering is known as “joyful sorrow.”

All articles are written by Fr. Stephen Freeman, Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, TN, unless otherwise noted. 

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

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


55 responses to “The Human Project”

  1. Ben Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for this article.

  2. Allen Long Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Very thought provoking and helpful for me.

    Thank you, again!

  3. Robert Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    Not disagreeing with anything you have written, this post brings to mind the failure of Realists to make a convincing case for how we assert things ought to be. So we speak of being or becoming “truly human”, of the clear distinction between right and wrong, etc. It is far from self evident however. The very fact of our ability to (re)define ourselves demonstrates the inherent fragility (and need for maintenance) of what Christians assert to be normal and proscriptive.

    Not that I have the answers, other than the general observation that we need to be clear about the issues at hand, the underlying assumptions that need to be laid bare. Appeals made to ‘true humanity’ are futile to a Nominalist.

    I am not telling you anything you didn’t know already, but perhaps you or other readers have some thoughts about this.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    Christ would be the definition of “truly human.” The bankruptcy of Nominalism is that fact that it really has nothing to bring to this conversation.

    But even if Realists are somewhat “vague” in the meaning of “truly human,” it is still possessed of more fullness than the reductionism of the modern project. Human beings as pleasure-centered/consumers/shoppers is just empty.

    The tiny level above that is pleasure-centered/consumer/shopper Christians who are just waiting to get their rewards in heaven. “Got Jesus?”

  5. Jeff Avatar

    Father, the whole ” biological ” hypostasis ‘ being – unto – death …, tragedy that Zizioulas explains so well , seems to me more of the culprit than the modern world , ( tho I see a lot of anti modern in theology , Pantelis Kalaitzidis says ” The Church and it’s theology cannot motivate the people of today , the people of modernity and late modernity , so long as the modern world continues to be scorned and disparaged by the Church , and ignored as revelatory material and flesh to be assumed”

  6. Bruce Avatar

    Father bless!!!

    Thank you for this Light as we approach His Transfiguration.

    It seems to my simple mind that when we begin to live our lives doing all ‘in remembrance of Him'(i.e. with all the ‘doings’ of our lives) we open the possibility, with God’s grace, to become ‘truly human’ seeing with new eyes and hearing with new ears His revelation and communion with us in the midst of our daily circumstance…especially those where He seems absent or even our enemy.

    AA’s Big Book has a phrase that seems appropriate to this discussion “God is everything or He is nothing”….and as we find Him in the places we’re so convinced He’s not….in our problems, our failures, our brokenness and many imperfections…we become teachable and open in humility to the Church’s promise that He is truly everywhere present and fillest all things.

    God bless you and all you do!!!

  7. James Avatar

    “Classical Christianity is inherently humanist’. I love that statement. One thing that struck me while studying the EO/historical salvation theology was how prohuman it was in contrast to my Evangelical theology. Not to be inflammatory or hyperbolic, but I found the way I as an evangelical spoke of God sounded more like I was describing a Roman diety while claiming it to be ‘biblical’. God bless.

  8. Michelle Avatar

    Ok, Im going to take us for a detour here, but coincidentally this and Father Stephen’s last post touches on something Ive been mulling over lately. Namely, a culture/time periods’ influence on the Church’s thoughts (theology) regarding who Christ is and what he has done/does for humanity. The culture/time period I have in mind is the one in which the early Church was birthed into, dominated by GreeK/Platonic Philosophy, and then later Neo-Platonism (and then every proceeding century up to the present). Father Stephen alluded to this in his post “Everything in Motion” when he stated, “These thoughts originated long before with philosophers such as Plato and Heraclitus. But the fathers of the Church took up the concept and refined it for the use of Christian theology.” Now for my question: How does the Church determine which culture/time period and their conjunctive philosophies should be ‘taken up and refined’ in order to help reveal the gospel message (theology)? Something seems amiss to me when considering why the Church Fathers took up Platonic concepts to convey the gospel; did they “take them up” to better explain what could have otherwise been explained in different terms? Or did they “take them up” because these philosophical concepts were providentially present during this time period, as though the very existence of these philosophies themselves and their existence at this precise moment in history were indeed no accident, for the purpose of aiding the Church fathers in conveying proper/true theology. If the latter, then I can imagine the Evangelicals claiming that the philosophies swirling around during the Reformation, and during the Enlightenment “were no accident.” And, hence, the contractual/penal-substitutional model of atonement also was no accident.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    Some of your comment is a bit cryptic – you should probably spell things out without just short references. But, I’m not interested in winning an argument with modernity. I don’t have to. Modernity is what it is, and I (and the Church) will not change it. But the Church must not and should not lose itself within modernity. It is for the sake of the true life in Christ that I write as I do. These are not a set of ideas to be debated. It is a description of how to rightly live. I have no description or example of a “modern” Orthodox life that is significant within the Kingdom of God.

  10. Robert Avatar


    Of course claims can be made, but the question is whether such are in accord with the Councils, Tradition, the witness of the saints, Church Fathers, and so forth. In that regard, the Evangelical claim has very little to support it.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    Michelle, good questions.

    Antiquity was far more sophisticated than many people realize – particularly educated antiquity. Though Platonism provided a vocabulary and certain ideas – and was a very strong current within antiquity – it was far from being the only current. And the fathers who used Platonic vocabulary made radical changes and redefined many terms, so there was never a wholesale borrowing of a culture, only a critical appropriation. And that appropriation was itself refined over the course of centuries so that its precision mirrored the interior experience of the Church. As such, it could hardly be improved.

    The same could be done today (and is done today to a certain extent). I would argue that what I do (though I am least among theologians) is not removed from the work that many other Orthodox thinkers do as we engage the modern world. When I, for example, engage the language of “contract” and “consumerism,” I am engaging the culture. It is a critical appropriation. Part of that critical appropriation includes bringing the language of the fathers into the conversation. If reading me is sometimes a little thick (and I know it is), try reading St. Maximus!

    As for the “no accident” theory of culture – I think it works for the culture of origin, but not so well otherwise. Christ did not start the Church in the 16th century, etc. When the fundamental meaning of God and atonement is changed – (which they were) – well – I don’t how such could possibly be justified.

    But, as noted, it was not a non-critical appropriation in the first place. The Reformation was in error – as were some of the things that came before (Anselm, for one).

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’ve often wondered how upsetting it would be if I wrote that “God is not a personal being.” That is, in fact, theologically correct, but flies so much in the face of popular understanding that it would sound controversial. Many Christians actually have a pagan understanding of God.

  13. Robert Avatar

    Michelle/Fr Stephen,

    “the appropriation was itself refined over the course of centuries” – this cannot be stressed enough. It was a process, a long, contested, tumultuous process. We imagine and fantasize that what the Fathers wrote, what the Councils concluded, what the Church appropriated – that this was completed in an instant, without controversy, appearing crystal clear and evident to all. It was not. And many appropriations were later refined, re-defined, or altogether rejected (some ideas of Clement of Alexendria and Origen come to mind, there are many such examples).

    To come back to Michelle’s question more directly, the contractual/penal-substitutional model of atonement has been shown, over time and time and again, not to be in accord with what the Church has declared to be in accord with the Gospel. This is not to say the concept of atonement per se is altogether foreign to orthodox Christianity, but that is a larger subject and I believe Fr Stephen has written about that before.

  14. Robert Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    In regards to the Nominalism question – we have this tendency to put things into the “given” column, things that don’t really belong there, but it is so convenient to do so. And this concerns me.

    For example – gender roles and the accompanying sexism. When we say “well, men like to fight” we imply some sort of natural giveness about the male (in contrast to the female). “Women love to be in the kitchen” this implies some inherent and natural role and quality about the female (which, conveniently, the male doesn’t have). So you see where I am going with this. These examples can be easily dismissed as simplistic – but that missed the issue: What do we use to define what it really means to be “truly man” and “truly woman”? There are distinctions of course, I am not arguing for uniformity and I am certainly not making a case for transgender. I am asking the question – what are true and lasting (i.e. Christian) distinctions not based on changing cultural norms and mores?

    It is in Christ we are truly human. Truly man, truly woman. But what does that mean? That’s could be strong argument against tossing out changing cultural norms, or so it seems to me.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    Well. To be truly human is to be cultural as well, in some sense. So, it is entirely appropriate that culture shapes what it means to be male and female. It’s part of how we come to be anything at all. See the previous article on ethos and tradition. Of course it is possible for us to force people into norms and leave no room for individual development – but this wasn’t really the case classically – not to the extent that some allege. It is obvious, for example, that women are meant to bear children and men are meant to father them. The roles that support the nurture and development of children and the extended family are fairly obvious as well. That doesn’t include our present economic structure which is anti-family and extremely anti-extended family.

    Most of the recent redefining of roles is just a lot of nonsense driven by one of the most bizarre economic arrangements in history. It cannot last and it will collapse on itself after having produced some generations of the most screwed up people in history. After, of course, its larger policies have done everything they can to screw everybody else up and bomb their infrastructures into the Stone Age. But it will collapse. And I grieve to even think about it.

    We cannot know what it is to be truly man except as it is made known to us in Christ. Truly woman is reflected in the Theotokos. And its in reflection on those realities that these things become more clear.

  16. Jeff Avatar

    Geez, sorry Father Stephen , I was writing on the run , I was only mirroring Zizioulas ‘ ( post Lapsarian ). thought of Heideggerian being- unto – death , or Met. Z’s ” hypostasis of biological existence”, which he refers to in the subjection and necessity of ‘ given ‘ existence , so man can’t be free , his freedom is trapped by ‘ necessity of being ‘ …., death ….., and the Pantelis comment was to add ( tho re reading it sounds disjointed ) ..that there is hope that the modern world might not be the problem , but can also be revelatory material to be assumed, which is where we live My 2 cents

  17. Jeff Avatar

    I’m guilty for not tracking on that post at all , it was very compassionate , my apologies

  18. Paul Avatar

    Father, again thank you for this amazing post. I have noticed that when I shun suffering, when I avoid it, when I fear it, I feel most distant from God.
    I agree with you that so much of our modern culture works so hard at avoiding suffering, even amongst our Christian brothers and sisters.
    Crying out against this is so hard to do but you’ve done it well.
    Living out against this is even harder.
    Only through the Church and God’s grace can we try.

  19. Michelle Avatar

    “…the fathers who used Platonic vocabulary made radical changes and redefined many terms…And that appropriation was itself refined over the course of centuries so that its precision *mirrored the interior experience of the Church* ”

    Thank you Father, I don’t have extensive knowledge on this subject, but it’s something I’ve just started to explore. And it’s easy to be misguided when one does their “research” by browsing the vastness of the internet. While browsing around I’ve found the dominate consensus to be that the early Church’s theology was adopted, borrowed, and directly formed from Platonism and Neo-Platonism. This could only be true if these philosophies were divinely/providentially existent and present at the time. But Im fully aware that the sites I’m gaining my info from may be biased, distorted caricatures of the truth. From what Im hearing from you and Robert the early Church was, by the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit, utilizing and refining concepts already present to them in order to developed their own *authentic* language (theology). Awesome.

  20. Michelle Avatar

    Im also hearing from you and Robert that later developments occurring in the West (before, during and after the Reformation) that eventually led to Protestant theologies are not authentic manifestations of Truth, in that they directly contradict the already established, fundamental work of the Holy Spirit. Ive heard the explanation by Evangelicals that the early Church live in erred after adopting Platonic/Neo-Platonic concepts, but that a small kernel of truth quietly existed, and finally sprouting into full bloom later on once the “heretical” (Platonic) ideas had been purged during the Reformation.

  21. Robert Avatar


    There is no doubt in my mind that the Church Fathers’ use of neo-Platonic concepts was by divine providence. However providence is hard to demonstrate, and claims of divine providence are easily made. It is more fruitful in my estimation, particularly in doing research, to pay careful attention to how and why the Church over time accepted certain appropriations and rejected others. What criteria were used to make these judgments? What were the ‘processes’ (i.e. persons, events, concepts, developments, etc.) in and through which these decisions came about? What was the measure against which new developments were held?

    Protestantism at its core is a restoration theology – the truth was lost, but now it has been restored. There is no Scriptural or historical justification for such. There is no need to restore that which is full. The Church has always been the ground and pillar of truth as the body of Christ. Indeed there have been developments, but these are clarifications of that which it was given in full on the day of Pentecost and which has been passed on (“traditioned”) faithfully ever since.

  22. Michelle Avatar

    Literally just now coincidentally came across a quote that I think is very fitting for the discussion,

    “Concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything.”
    – St. Gregory of Nyssa

    “Wonder” comes from the Holy Spirit, transforming concepts into authentic theology. This is what the Orthodox Tradition possesses that other traditions lack. This is what’s drawn me away from the Protestantism and into the Orthodox Church. Indeed, I remember this and joyfully proclaim every Sunday; “We have seen the true Light! We have received the heavenly spirit! We have found the true faith! Worshipping the undivided Trinity, who has saved us.”

  23. Robert Avatar

    Amen and amen, sister!

  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Although a great simplification of the process what happened historically was this: The early Church Fathers, particularly the Eastern Fathers who knew and were educated in both the context and meaning of the Greek philosophies and language were able with great effort and over several centuries hammer out an understanding that took us all to a higher level. I look at it as a process of refining.

    Due to the various historical factors, the west lost the appreciation for both the process and the content of that refining work. When Greek philosophy was ‘rediscovered’ in the west, it was lacking much of the refining work that had already been done. The best minds in the west tried to redo that work. However lacking the context and the organic understanding of the language, much that was done was insufficient or simply incorrect.

    Many saw what they thought was a neo-pagan resurgence and revolted. Unfortunately, the revolt carried much more of the neo-pagan influence than was realized. The revolutionaries cut down a lot of good, old-growth trees and nourished the weed trees that remained. A sparse, dry desert-like landscape remained with an occasional oasis of deep, clear water but many mirages as well.

    The modern mind rejoices in the mirages and the dryness and ignores both the oasis and the fecund lands where the fullness lies.

  25. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes, there is information out there that has been a dead horse beaten for a long time by certain Protestants. They are created by those who don’t know what they’re talking about and read by those who don’t have enough information to judge the value of what is said.

    I started my academic training as a Classicist, reading Greek and Latin writers of the pagan period. We started with Plato, translating him. We also read Homer who wrote some centuries before that. Not until all of that was well-grounded did we move on to the New Testament, and later to the fathers. But to understand the fathers you have to actually know their world as well. And it’s not just the fathers – the New Testament itself uses common Greek language and terms of its day. When St. John says “In the beginning was the Word,” He says, “In the beginning was the Logos.” It can’t really be translated – but it’s an extremely powerful, very load term in the language of his day. The same term was taken up in the next generation by St. Justin the Apologist. And the work goes on and on.

    St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory the Theologian, in the 4th century, were both trained in the philosophical and intellectual schools of Alexandria, the most sophisticated of their day. They would have studied everything that was known (including some medicine). The schools there were still largely taught by pagan philosophers. But, for example, Plato himself, 4 hundred years before Christ, already believed there was but one God (whom he called “the One”). So pagan philosophy was quite serious, even having a mystical side and was very able to engage Christian thought.

    From Alexandria they went to Athens and studied more. All of this was supplemented by their Christian studies. They had to be able to challenge and refute the best of pagan thought in their day in order to preach the gospel. And the did. They used that training, however, to articulate the faith.

    The Creed and the doctrine of the Trinity (even as taught by evangelicals when they bother to mention the Trinity) was hammered out through their careful and great labors and debates and refinement. Some of them suffered persecution over a single word. This same process continued for a number of centuries.

    I shudder when I hear someone who has never even read Plato, or studied Greek oftentimes, repeat these slanders against the holy fathers. Oftentimes they don’t even know where their own ideas came from (“purging the platonism of the fathers”). A fair amount of Protestant thought, or what became Protestant thought, was derived from the debates with Islam. Yes, the whole Sola Scriptura idea was borrowed from Islam. There are many ways in which, philosophically, Protestant thought is little more than Christianized Islam.

    But they persist in these slanders because it suits their own needs to defend themselves. But the proof is in the pudding. They produce no saints. They do not build civilizations. They build consumer republics with ugly buildings and empty people. They erect an indoor stadium and put on expensive entertainments and think themselves superior to those who built cathedrals and civilizations and who evangelized the world, and preserved the Scriptures and even preserved all knowledge (every scrap!) of the civilizations before Christianity.

    These modern people have made the world dumber, less interesting, and filled with a nightmare emptiness. The modern, secular world is not the creation of atheists. It is the creation of Protestants. The atheists are their offspring.

    It breaks my heart to say things like this – but it is true. These are historically verifiable facts. Even many Protestant thinkers agree with me about this. Except those who only repeat slanders and compound the ignorance of those who want to learn the truth. I pray for them. May God have mercy.

  26. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    A useful book that attempts to describe the loss of true theology is Hans Boersma’s “Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry” Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2011

    Boersma is a good Protestant scholar. He overlooks Eastern Orthodoxy but that doesn’t diminish his insights into the pathology of theology in middle and modern ages that’s turned God, by now, into an idea or ideology — anything but the very ground and purpose of all being who gives and empowers everything, everywhere and at all times.

    It’s definitely worth reading for those interested in some of the history that Father discusses so fluently here and in other articles.

  27. Bruce C Meyer Avatar
    Bruce C Meyer

    There are some things in your argument that strike me as Straw Men. The enemy seems to be the Magisterial Reformers, which are called nominalists, and the two of them are conflated with modernists, and the scriptural doctrine of the substitutionary atonement is trivialized and called bad names. To be sure, there are enough fools and heretics to go around. But if you are going to lay modernity at the feet of my people (Protestant), you could at least find the most well nuanced representatives to attack. I for one think I can learn from Orthodoxy, but I won’t listen to ad homina and such. All that being said, thank you for your work in bringing the truth of the Orthodox Faith to contemporary ears.

  28. AsinusSpinasMasticans Avatar

    Bruce –

    The way I see it this. The Magisterial Reformers took every channel by which God interacts with the world and sealed it up behind a bulkhead, leaving only the Scriptures as a tenuous link to the transcendent world. This link was closely guarded by an emerging academic coterie to make sure that unauthorized information, i.e. “superstition”, didn’t escape.

    The pressure began building in the 18th century when people started asking “Hey, why should we treat the Scriptures any differently than we treated the saints, the visitations, the relics, the scapulars, or the Legenda Aurea? It kinda reads like just another collection of Bronze Age Near Eastern mythology to me.” That’s when Modernism really broke out, but the impulse was there in the Magisterials.

  29. Michelle Avatar

    Thank you, MichaelPatrick. I was going to ask if anyone could refer a book to a beginner enquirer like myself.

    And thank you, Father Stephens. Your comments have been clarifying/edifying, and helpful in directing my efforts in making sense of all this (centuries upon centuries of) theological history.

  30. fatherstephen Avatar

    The Reformation uncoupled the faith from Tradition and started down a road the created modernity. I don’t think Luther or Calvin had any such thing in mind. In fact, I think very few did. Contemporary Christianity is a far remove from anything the Reformers dreamed of. But it was a product of their work. They dismantled some things and unleashed certain forces that swept away Classical civilization. Modernity is a bad by-product of a flawed theology. Unintended consequences perhaps. But compounding it today are Christians who have so changed the faith that it now underwrites modernity itself.

    The sons and daughters of Luther and Zwingli, Calvin and Cranmer preside over moribund churches that bless the unthinkable. There are certainly plenty of faithful sons and daughters of the same, but their offspring will travel well-marked roads towards modernity. At present, modernity is pulling all of Christianity towards it like some giant vortex. I write as I do, and frequently about the dangers and nature of modernity, to draw Orthodox Christians away from the vortex, and help as many others escape as possible.

    I prefer not to be unkind or engage in ad hominem stuff – the false account that Michelle related (which I’ve heard from certain Protestant quarters before) occasioned my outburst. It required, it seem to me, at least moderate dudgeon.

  31. Jeff Avatar

    Protestantism has engaged modernity :, here’s a quote of one who urges the Orthodox also:

    “In every case, we should note that this whole discussion concerning a conditional public presence for the Church and theology began in the West, where secularization, 
    the privatization of religion and the separation of Church and State prevailed. There is the possibility that this discussion may signal the quest for a new balance and a new synthesis between secular and sacred, public and private. Unfortunately, the discussion in 
    question has no yet substantial relevance to the traditional settings of Orthodoxy as long as the Church there clings stubbornly to its phobic imprisonment in the forms and models of the Constantinian era, remaining trapped in its character as a state Church and its national-patriotic role; and ultimately, as long as it remains blithely devoted to the model of a “Christian society” of which it imagines itself the spiritual leader and exclusive representative/administrator, even in today’s conditions of pluralistic democracy. The dialogue about the Church’s place in the public sphere concerns Churches that have accepted modernity, pluralism, criticism and self-criticism, as well as the principles of an open society; those Churches that understand the challenges, the gaps and the contradictions of post-modernity and post-secularism. The Orthodox Church will finally 
    have to decide what world, what society and what epoch it is living in!

  32. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Jeff, helps to cite sources. Anonymous quotes are more than frustrating, they have questionable weight.

    Also, it’s impossible to tell where the quote ends and your thoughts start. That said, the ideas you’ve shared seem to have merit. I only wish they were credibile.

  33. Annie Avatar

    Thank you dearly for this beautiful post, Father Stephen. For some time I’ve been working on a story about transhumanism and our culture’s inability to find meaning in suffering. This morning someone told me it was time to conquer nature and control our destiny, and my heart began to ache. What on earth could such an anti-life attitude hope for? What do those words even mean?

    And then you wrote: “For even pleasure begs the question: to what end?” Perhaps that’s the difference. When I speak about Christ, I speak of joy, and that joy permeates the suffering. But mere pleasure can do no such thing, it exists without context, and so one is on the treadmill of despair, where even pleasure itself comes to be a punishment.

    I’m just rambling now. What I mean, again, is thank you.

  34. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Jeff, one of the major forces shaping the Orthodox Church for the last 600 years (longer than Protestantism has existed BTW)is the persecution by the state; first in the Ottoman Empire and her successors(still on going), then the Soviet state and now the ravages of the jihadists in the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia. [IMO, this persecution and the subsequent corruption and diminution of the Orthodox witness contributed to the rise and spread of the Protestant revolt as well as greatly to the ossification of which you complain.]

    The Orthodox from the Middle East have never known a time when we shaped the culture perhaps why we tend to be more pragmatic. Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox have known such times and to the extent that such power is held onto as a idol it is a thing that must go. It will eventually pass because it is not of God.

    It is true that we have little institutional understanding of how to operate in a secular world but one thing I hope never to see is the introduction of so-called pluralism, openness or its cousin egalitarianism.

    The Holy Spirit will guide and protect us if we cooperate with him. Unlikely that we will ever again have the dominant voice in any culture at least not in the foreseeable future but that does not relieve us of our prophetic role–calling all to repentance.

    The modern equivalent of the catacombs is much more likely. The Orthodox won’t be the only ones there, but we do have the most recent experience of living and even thriving in such an environment.

    My journey to the Orthodox Church took about 20 years from the time I first started looking to when I was received. I explored directly or indirectly a wide spectrum of Christian and non-Christian varieties of faith. The varieties that had any life in them at all, on further inspection, turned out to be as the metaphor I wrote above–mostly dry desert for the soul. Only the Orthodox Church offered more–the living presence of Jesus Christ in the ordinary things of life and a chance to allow the Holy Spirit to heal and transform my soul which had been shredded by my journey unfortunately. I am not unique

    Modernity has nothing to offer to the Church. It is a nihilist vision of darkness and nothingness that worships the created thing while ignoring or blaspheming the creator. The author is, of course, the father of lies.

    The dialogue about the Church’s place in the public sphere concerns Churches that have accepted modernity, pluralism, criticism and self-criticism, as well as the principles of an open society; those Churches that understand the challenges, the gaps and the contradictions of post-modernity and post-secularism. The Orthodox Church will finally have to decide what world, what society and what epoch it is living in!

    I will wager that not a few of the elements the author of your quote thinks should be abandoned as archaic relics are elements that are essential to the fullness of the Christian faith. And the churches who the author thinks have accepted the challenges have likely bought into the mind of the world more than not.

    The Church lives in no epoch and in all, she exists as an outpost of the Kingdom of Heaven in the depravity of fallen human existence and a living testimony to the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. She is neither pure nor perfect, she could not be and fulfill her mission of healing and transformation. Our communion with Jesus Christ extends throughout time and beyond.

    Yes, there are plenty of sinful and fallen examples that are painfully obvious within the Church to which anyone with an ounce of mental activity can point, but she is still raising up saints who demonstrate great holiness. She is strengthening the rest of us to stand against the deluge of darkness that modernity has unleashed as we worship the undivided Trinity who has saved us.

    By the grace of God we will adapt but we will not change.

  35. Robert Avatar

    Jeff, which paper, there are many. Not going to read through them all digging for the quote.

  36. Daniel Avatar

    Father, thanks for another outstanding post.

    Confession time: I have recently purchased your first book but have not yet read it. Do you address these issues (True Classical Christianity, the reformation, the modern project) in your book?

    If not, may I be so bold as to ask you to write a second book on these issues?

  37. Daniel Avatar

    Father, I love reading these posts on the modern project. I’ve been a life long Evangelical and am not Orthodox, although I would like to be. So much of what you write on this topic completely resonates with me. Part of the reason I started to search out Orthodoxy was because in my Evangelical churches, I could sense something was totally amiss. I knew that something was way off base, but couldn’t really describe it to anyone else. My problem though is that I’m a total product of modernity. I’m neck deep in it, of not totally swallowed up by it. So while your posts resonate with me, I’m still left sort of wondering: “OK, what Fr. Stephen wrote sounds spot on, but I’m still not sure what to actually do about it.”

    Forgive me Fr. I’m a complete modern and would desperately like not to be one, but have no clue where to even begin.

  38. fatherstephen Avatar

    We’re all “modern.” It’s the culture in which we live and to a certain extent, we will always have to struggle with it. It’s almost impossible to “not be” something. We have to be something – something positive.

    The only form of Christianity that is not “modern” to a very large extent is Orthodoxy. That’s where I would start. But not as a shelter from modernity. It’s about finding God and knowing the true and living God and being united to Him. My critique of modernity is useful because it unmasks the ways in which our modern world obscures the truth of the living God and distorts the Christian faith.

    God is not part of the modern project (they didn’t leave any room for Him which is why He has to live on the “Second-Storey”). The path to God is well-trodden by the saints. Their lives continue within the Orthodox Church and their path can be found there.

    But be patient with yourself and with God.

    About the Second book. It is under construction and will have substantial material on the modern project. Thanks for the encouragement!

  39. fatherstephen Avatar

    It was not surprising that the author of your quote lives and works in Greece. Because the Church is the State Church it is possible to get a very false idea of its reality. He writes and describes it as a very stable institution, one of many. Much of his language reminds me of the documents of Vatican II where the Catholic Church was thinking in very institutional terms and about a kind of accommodation to modernity. It has been a disaster.

    What the author said has pretty much no application to Orthodoxy in America (where I live). But the Church is not properly an institution. It is more like a sacrament of the Kingdom of God. It rightly sits as a contradiction of this world no matter what culture in which it resides. Even in ancient Constantinople, it was the monastics who often preserved the Church by remaining radically not of this world.

    Modernity, as I have been describing it, is not something with which we can make peace. To do so is to commit suicide. The death of Christian Churches all across Europe is an eloquent elegy to making peace with modernity.

    I do not long for anything in the past, nor do I advocate anything like that. I speak of Classical Christianity, and even Classical civilization, but not to idealize any civilization. The Church dwells here on earth but is not of the earth. I write to keep that awareness sharply before our eyes. I have no illusions about changing the culture. Simply read my recent articles on the “Long Defeat.”

    You would do well not to read the internal conversation of Greece and transpose it to Orthodoxy in general, much less to what I have written.

    Interestingly, one of the best writers and most persuasive intellects on the topic of modernity and secularism is Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher. I highly recommend his works if you want to dig deeper. He is a Roman Catholic, I believe.

  40. Daniel Avatar

    Thank you Fr. for the encouragement. So glad to hear of the book!!

  41. Corvus Marinus Avatar

    I would like to echo the recommendation of Hans Boersma’s Heavenly Participation. Boersma provides a fine summary of the issues and the history involved in the movement to nominalism, which he clearly regards (following the lead of the Catholic nouvelle theologie movement) as a destructive influence on the course of western Christendom. A favorite professor of mine, Reformed in background, found Boersma’s book earth-shattering, and it has been hugely influential in her thought since; she recommended it to me, and I recommend it to anyone who has intellectually begun to approach the challenges of sacramental thinking. Boersma is also a lot easier than what little I’ve read of Charles Taylor.

    Lately I’ve also found Alexander Schmemann, John Behr, and D. B. Hart helpful in their own ways in shedding modernist/Protestant assumptions about reality. This is not to mention ancient writers like Maximus the Confessor. Nevertheless, I confess it was Archimandrite Sophrony’s writings on St. Silouan, and not chiefly intellectual problems, that first drew me, ineluctably as it were, toward the Classical Christian worldview.

  42. Rick Avatar

    Father, with regard to suffering and modernity, is there something to be said in Orthodoxy for what seems to be a false kind of suffering? I’m thinking about the growth of tattoos and body mutilation in our culture. It seems to be trying to satisfy a need (a hunger, as you said) for meaning. For lack of a better way to put it, do we need to make a distinction between suffering with a telos vs suffering without telos? Or, oddly, to seek suffering for its own sake? Perhaps your second book might cover this cultural phenomenon. I get the sense there are mild scriptural cautions about this; as in, “My yoke is light” and “pick up your mat and walk” and so forth.

  43. […] Stephen Freeman, The Human Project) I refuse to quote more than this introduction, lest you think I’ve given you “the […]

  44. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think your instincts are in the right direction on this, though I think it’s somewhat complex. I noticed when I was in England that Tattoos (though they have them) were thought of as “American.” I saw several jokes about it on the tele.

    In many cases I do not think it’s at all about suffering – but about identity. The inside is empty and the attempt is to make up for it on the outside. The same thing is done with clothing and styles – modern tattooing is just a bizarre form of clothes in America. We believe that our choices form our identity. Clothes (and tatt’s) represent choices we have made. We want people to look at our choices and think they are seeing us. But we are not our choices. “We” – our identity – is always prior to any choice that is made.

    The nature and power of “identity crisis” is rooted in shame, our deepest and darkest emotion. Shame is the feeling we have about “who or what we are” rather than about “what we do.” This is on the psychological level. There is a deeper level, that of the spiritual, but most people are nowhere near ready to deal with the truly spiritual. They must first deal with the psychological.

    One of the advantages of an “ontological” approach to faith and God (besides it simply being true) – is that it goes to the very heart of “being” (“ontos”). It is the place and manner of becoming grounded in who and what we are in God (rather than what we do). Until that begins to be settled, we will always be shame-driven (and therefore shallow) as we dart around various schemes of moral performance, trying to become something by what we do. It doesn’t work.

    There is a different and slightly related phenomenon among us of “cutting.” It is complex as well. There, it doesn’t seem to be so much about suffering, but about pain. I’ve wondered about the connection between cutting and piercing but don’t have enough experience to draw any real conclusions.

  45. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    When recently I watched a documentary on the life of Amy Winehouse it seemed pretty clear that self-hurting was how she felt she could touch something real. Her fame was fantastic. Personal relations were increasingly ephemeral. Although she was insecure, affirmations felt shallow. Swinging like a pendulum between pleasure and pain, she slid into death by overdose at age 27.

    I believe that pain is real but only in Christ where we and our pain are fully known to God.

  46. Robert Avatar


    Thank you, it helps to understand the quote in the larger context. His assessment is spot on:

    In my opinion, the Orthodox Church and theology’s first and foremost concern in the present context cannot be to preserve at all costs the “Christian” or “Orthodox” character of the state, nor the utopian and seductive illusion of a “Christian” society or a “Christian civilization.” It must instead engender the call to repentance, humankind’s preparation to receive the preaching about the kingdom of God, a creative, spiritual fruitfulness, and the Christ-centred healthiness of Christian communities. The public ecclesial and theological discourse ought to embody the ethos of the Cross which is that of Christ: it should be a word of witness to the new reality experienced by the Church, a word of protest concerning social and institutional evil, the violation of human freedom and dignity; a word of support for the “others,” the “least of the brethren,” the weak and the victims of history who are an image of the “Other”
    par excellence.

  47. fatherstephen Avatar

    Robert and Jeff,
    While the writer’s thoughts are apropos of a certain mindset (primarily in the single rare case where the Orthodox Church is the state church), it is not apropos of my article or thoughts. Red Herring.

  48. Robert Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    I understand the author to say that the Orthodox Church as a state institution is something of the past and should not be held as an ideal to be resurrected. It is in a broad sense in agreement with much you have written, but irrelevant to the present subject at hand.

  49. Jeff Avatar

    I think the term ‘ modernity’ probably throws me off in your comments and writings , as there are ‘ post , pre’ …., and a growing number of writers who define it not as anti religious …., I have read your two storeys book, and understand it personally as integrating the whole for me….., but I don’t see modernity , pluralism, post , post secular etc., ( in comparison to what ?), as a single problem

  50. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think you’re looking too closely at the questions with far too many fine points. “Modernity” as I use the term, is quite common in academic parlance, and in just the way I use it. I think, as well, that you’re trying to engage this in a manner that sort of picks it apart (“not a single problem”). Many readers, approaching the matter in general and for the first time, seem to see what I’m saying and find it helpful. Extreme precision is occasionally called for. But this is not that place.

  51. Jeff Avatar

    Thnx, cause when I follow the comments , I usually see it devolve into pluralism , modernity bad ( too confusing ) , and darn that Protestant theology…., , ( that’s why I’m a fan of Papnikalaou and Kalaitzidis , Demacopoulos etc., they’re always moving into unsafe harbour ), ….,

  52. Rick Avatar

    Thank you, Father.
    Yes, I think it is complex — that there are a number of different reasons why people get tattoos. Many insist they are beautiful. While some, if not many, feel there is some kind of honor or reward in the suffering through the pain itself.
    As to cutting, it may be quite different. As I understand it, the cutter gets some relief from their suffering (anxiety) which is like falling in a bottomless pit, or that you are dying, and the pain of the cutting returns you to the here and now and stops the falling — a way to stop the loss of control.
    They may all be related in some way , as I think you suggest. Centered around meaning and being. Or a sense of it’s non-presence.

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