You Don’t Mean a Thing

teacher_compassI have continued to meditate this past week on the quote from Stanley Hauerwas that I shared previously:

The project of modernity was to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story they choose when they had no story. Such a story is called a story of freedom – institutionalized economically as capitalism and politically as democracy. That story, and the institutions that embody it, is the enemy we must attack through Christian preaching.

There is an assumption within our contemporary world that the life we bring into this world doesn’t mean a thing, at least, not at the start. Meaning is something the individual must create for himself/herself. It is, we think, a version of freedom. We are told that if we come into this world with our meaning already established as a given, then we can never be free. Autonomy, being “self-ruled,” is the heart of our contemporary delusion. We have seen this taken to extremes in the recent past. Fundamental givens in life, such as gender and race, are now seen by some as subject to choice. Self-definition (“how I identify”) has become the latest demand in the Modern Project.

This is an extreme example of Hauerwas’ statement that modernity wants to produce people “who believe they should have no story.” Everyone is his own author, writing the tale of his life in living free verse. It also means that modern people are always on the edge of meaninglessness. When the story you are telling yourself is challenged or falls apart, you are bereft of a reason to live.

I saw an interview recently with a Romanian priest who spoke about his conversion from atheism. He had read deeply in Nietsche, Sartre, and other modern authors, and come to the conclusion that life is simply meaningless marked by interminable suffering. Anyone who finally becomes aware of this, he said, should commit suicide, and the sooner the better. He was obviously in a very dark place. A friend took him to the grave of the great elder, Fr. Arsenie Boca. And as he sat there, without recourse to reason, without praying, without thinking, he simply began to weep. He was astonished at his own weeping. “What’s the matter with me? How can I cry?” But he said, “Something like scales fell from my heart…” And he saw what he could not see before. By some miracle, he saw what he had been given.

Givenness is both at the heart of reality and at the heart of the Orthodox Christian faith. It is at the heart of reality: we do not bring ourselves into existence. Just as our life is a gift, our body is a gift, so our meaning and place in the world are a gift. In none of these things are we self-created.

It is at the heart of our faith: the spiritual expression of embracing the givenness of life is thanksgiving. All that we have, we have received as a gift. The right response to a gift is to give thanks. Everything else is a hardening of the heart.

A necessary delusion of the self-creation of meaning, is that the things we can choose are actually the source of our meaning. And so we invest education, career, family and the like with an ultimacy that does not belong to them. Indeed, it is a form of idolatry.

Saying to a piece of wood,’You are my father,’ And to a rock,`You gave birth to me.’ For they have turned their back to Me, and not their face. But in the time of their trouble They will say,`Arise and save us.’ But where are your gods that you have made for yourselves? Let them arise, If they can save you in the time of your trouble; For according to the number of your cities Are your gods, O Judah. (Jer 2:27-28)

Meaning is something that is always larger than ourselves. It is the-self-in-relation-to-everything. Thus, to create one’s own meaning puts forward the arrogance of defining everything else as well. It is like taking a piece of wood and declaring it to be our God.

The classical Christian life is born of humility and thanksgiving. It is an acknowledgement that we belong to something greater than ourselves and not of our own making. Only with such an acknowledgement do we treat everything and everyone around us with the proper respect and dignity. For if my life is not my own creation, then neither is your life my creation.

Christians recognize and confess that the story of Christ and His Pascha are the meaning of all things. It is the story that God has told the world about itself, about Himself, and about our place in the midst of all things. It has a beginning. It has a place within history. It also has a place that transcends history and offers redemption to every part of the story. Nothing else has to be said.

A rich young man came to Jesus and asked Him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus told him, “Keep the commandments.” But this wasn’t enough for the young man. “I’ve done that. What more can I do?” And Jesus said, “Sell what you have, give it to the poor and come and follow me.”

Keeping the commandments is not a bad place to start. Keeping them is a recognition that there is something greater than my own self. I yield before the law of God. But there is indeed something greater. More than the commandments, there is the radical abandonment of our self for the sake of the Kingdom. There is more than just adhering to a godly standard. The one who gives Himself completely to Christ has set himself in the position that Christ and His Pascha alone will make sense of his life.

If the rich young man kept the commandments, everyone would say, “He’s a good young man.” If he gave everything away they would say, “Is he crazy or something? Why on earth would anyone do something like that? It’s irresponsible! He could have accomplished really great things with all of that money!” And everyone would stare at him and whisper behind his back and shake their heads in disbelief. And he lives for many decades in this same state of poverty. When he dies, they wonder why he wasted his life. In the Kingdom of God, he will sit upon a throne.

What good is a compass that points to itself? It means nothing. It is a compass for people who are going nowhere.



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.



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34 responses to “You Don’t Mean a Thing”

  1. Corey Avatar

    I’m reminded of this piece’s antithesis, David Benatar’s antinatalism. He thinks that it is immoral to have children, since he believes that it is a great harm to be brought into existence. It is his hope that humanity will wise up, realize that we are tragic accidents of physics, and voluntarily proceed into blessed extinction.

  2. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    If Benatar’s still alive, then he’s a major hypocrite.

  3. Agata Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for this beautiful essay.

    Could you please explain the icon you selected?

  4. Laurie E Avatar
    Laurie E

    Christ the Geometer?

  5. Laurie E Avatar
    Laurie E

    A woman in our church received this icon as a gift. Father was not familiar with it so researched it before blessing it. It’s a wonderful icon.

    Somehow, Father, your line “What good is a compass that points to itself?” really resonated with me, and is still doing so.

  6. Jonathan Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you, beautiful!

  7. drewster2000 Avatar

    Another wonderful gem:

    “What good is a compass that points to itself? It means nothing. It is a compass for people who are going nowhere.”

  8. Margaret Avatar

    Hi Fr. Stephen, thank you so much for this post!
    I have wanted to ask you a question and I hope you do not mind, but why do you quote Hauerwas so often? Is he Eastern Orthodox Christian?
    (I apologize as you have probably explained your citations in another article and I’ve just missed it!)
    God bless all you do!

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Hauerwas is a Protestant theologian. Time Magazine declared him to be “America’s Greatest Theologian.” That doesn’t really mean much, other than that his is an important voice. But, on a personal level, I studied under him and find his critique of modernity to be accurate and to the point. When I was studying with him, I often thought, “But this would be so much more effective if it were expressed in an Orthodox context and manner.” And so I make him speak Orthodox!

    But since my readers include many non-Orthodox, I find it useful to use non-Orthodox citations from time to time, not as authoritative, but worth using if what they say is right.

    The best of Orthodox theology should be very familiar with non-Orthodox thought and with secular thought. Just as the Fathers knew the philosophers before their time. Fr. Dumitru Staniloae (Romanian) is probably one of the greatest Orthodox theologians of the 20th century. Certainly the most masterful. But when he writes he constantly engages both Catholic and Protestant thought. That is done because we’re not just talking to ourselves, but to them as well.

    I sometimes find priests who are not familiar with theology outside of Orthodoxy. The pity of this is that the Orthodox theologians they are reading are themselves familiar with it – and they therefore don’t understand fully what they are reading.

    I did a lot of Orthodox studies over the years, but I’m also grateful that I did a degree in a non-Orthodox institution where I was forced to read the whole theological canon.

    I also think Hauerwas has an amazing ability to say things that clarify. He very much influenced how I write.

    Thanks. It ‘s a good question.

  10. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you for your response concerning Prof. Hauerwas, Fr. Stephen. I especially like “so I make him speak Orthodox”! I will pray, too, and perhaps he will become what he already is in so many respects.
    Glory to God for All Things!

  11. Roman glass Avatar
    Roman glass

    The cry of modernity: “We came from nothing and we are going nowhere!”

  12. Michele Avatar

    I have seen this icon called Christ as Architect, or Christ the Architect and I have seen references saying it is a plate in a Bible in Paris, France. I would also be interested to know more about it, Fr. Stephen, if you have that information.

  13. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    One of the greatest tragedies of this Post Modern Age is the utter rejection of the value of human life as being made in the image and likeness of our God. In a world obsessed with meaninglessness and “science” as the end all be all, how can we, who think ourselves the result of mutated pond scum, as Evolution Theory holds us to be, understand our true place and worth in the communion of the saints? Fr Stephen your article here is so poignant and speaks to the emptiness of life when one has no meaning. Is it any wonder we have so many people struggling with addiction trying to kill their awareness of the pain and emptiness inside them?

  14. Byron Avatar

    Wonderful, wonderful article! Many thanks, Father!

  15. Mark Avatar

    It was the search for meaning that both drove me and drew me from such a seemingly great distance to confront the God who is, the I AM of eternity. Evolutionary theory could provide stories of how I (and, of course everyone else) came to be, but it was absolutely bankrupt when it came to why. Making my own story was akin to whistling in the dark. And having my own story necessarily also involved me in the Great Competition a knife edged highway of performance with a steep and slippery slope on both sides.

    I wish that I could say that I am a possessor of all you are expressing, Fr. Freeman. By that I mean that I had apprehended all that for which I was apprehended so many years ago, but it is still a journey. Thankfully, the end is becoming clearer little by little as fears and falsehoods slip away, a long nights’ journey into day.

  16. Allen Long Avatar
    Allen Long

    Thank you, again, Fr. Stephen!

  17. J Clivas Avatar

    Modern man sees himself as an erasable blip on the computer screen of life.

  18. Mihai Avatar

    Father Stephen, what is the name of the Romanian priest?

  19. Boyd Camak Avatar
    Boyd Camak

    For ordinary Christians with a job and a family, how can we live a life that does not “make sense.” Would trying to follow Thomas Hopko’s 55 maxims qualify?

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mihai, I do not know his name, but I saw an interview with him in a film on the life of Fr. Arsenie Boca.

  21. Michele Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen! I did not find that URL while Googling for information on the image.

  22. Daphne Avatar

    Thank you for the article, Father. I am so saddened by the fact that both my sons have decreed, under the guise of ‘freedom of choice’, that their children should ‘decide for themselves later on’ if they want to have faith and what that faith will be – it seems to me to deny them their essential identity as children of God, as well as to leave them vulnerable ‘when other comforts fail’. I pray and entrust them to God’s love, but I can clearly see in one of my grandsons a spiritual side that he has shown since the age of not even two – he is now five – and it saddens me that I am not able to nurture it in my own limited way. Do you have any words of wisdom for me?

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Pray a lot for them. If your sons allow you, give them an icon. But trust in God.

  24. […] Fr. Stephen’s second blog particularly “got me,” echoing as it does the old observation, now apparently thought as extinct as the Dodo, that we are who we are at least partly by “status, not contract.” By missing that, the narrativists miss as much or more than anyone so clueless as to deny that we (moderns?) do tend to tell self-narratives. […]

  25. Adriana Avatar

    the name of the Romanian priest is Ciprian Negreanu.

  26. […] Christian thinking.  Our concept of autonomy greatly misunderstands the true nature of choice as Father Freeman explains in one immensely powerful […]

  27. Margaret Avatar

    Daphne, please forgive my advice here on Fr. Stephen’s blog, but do pray and I am sure you will as that is why you mentioned this here. Pray the Akathist to the Mother of God Nurturer of Children for all your children, grandchildren and their spouses and your other relatives as God shows you. This has been a great comfort to me and was recommended by a dear friend and mother of children who also needed such prayers. My children need these prayers too. Fr. Stephen is correct, trust God! And pray! God bless your efforts — and He will!

  28. Dino Avatar

    may God enlighten your children and your grandchildren…
    I believe that for an ongoing prayer for another’s salvation, the most potent one is that prayer which is never unsettled from its firm trust in God.
    Besides, it is His business…;
    and the greater our trust in God’s providence and its ability to work with all adversity, (as well as our belief in the person themselves),
    particularly when the praying one is one who fasts as well as prays,
    the greater God’s ‘obligation’ to harken.
    The magnanimous nobility this kind of trustful prayer also creates in the one who prays (free from stressful,vexatious angst), can also naturally extol them in the hearts of the ones prayed for.
    This way, when an opportunity for a discerning word arises, it comes out right and it’s planted auspiciously.

  29. Daphne Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen! And thank you, too, Margaret, from the heart, for your warm words of encouragement. I should remember that my kids and grandkids are God’s children first and foremost, and that they mean more to Him than even to me, so I must trust that He will find a way to lead them to Him.

  30. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Daphne, Amen.

    In the meantime, while God does His oft-mysterious work, please know that you don’t stand alone in prayer for them.

  31. Daphne Avatar

    Dino, thank you so much for your very pertinent comments. You have touched on a number of important points that I am aware I need to focus on – such as the need for angst-free reliance and deeper trust in God (my own cry is very much “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief”), which leads to discernment (such a tricky concept to put into practice) among other things. I find one of the hardest things to relinquish is self-reliance!

  32. Daphne Avatar

    MichaelPatrick, I am so grateful for your comforting assurance!

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