You Barely Make a Difference and It’s a Good Thing

Socialist-Studies-A-Better-World-Is-Possible-AboutYou are not saving the world. In fact, you barely make a difference.

These are harsh words. They are meant like a splash of cold water to wake us up from the dream in which we live. They are by no means meant to say that you don’t matter. In fact, you have infinite value. But your value is not based on saving the world or making a difference.

I’ll start at the beginning.

At a certain point in history, people began to be told that they could take charge of history; they could change the world and make it a better place. This was a new idea, even a radical idea. That point in history is what we now call “modernity.” The beginnings of modernity were not very pretty. Apparently taking charge of history and making the world a better place is messy business. It began with several revolutions. A lot of people had their heads cut off. When the beginning was over, new people were in charge but nothing was particularly different. The French Revolution got rid of the reigning Bourbon family. After many years of social unrest and bloodshed, France had an emperor, Napoleon. Oh, and a new flag.

Strangely, the idea called “modernity” was never blamed for the bloodshed. Instead, the “modern world” took hold and became popular. Today we believe in it, lock, stock and barrel. However, almost everything that makes up the modern project is a lie, little more than an advertising campaign. The lie has become an entire culture.

The truth is, we are not in charge of history or managing the outcome of the world. For one, it’s too big and too difficult. There are so many variables within our lives at any one time that managing them is constantly fraught with the “law of unintended consequences.” In many ways, the second half of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st should be named the “Unintended Years.” The messy state of the world in which we now live is not natural. It is almost entirely man-made. And it was made by people who believed they could manage the outcome of history.

Saying these things out loud (or in print) will open me to the accusation of “not caring,” and, we are told, the world is in its present mess because “people don’t care.” That is not true. People do care; indeed, they care too much. They care so much that they say ‘yes’ to leaders who tax their money to spend on various wars and other projects meant to manage history. And it fails. Repeatedly.

What doesn’t fail is the ability of the “modern world” to fool itself with the madness of its own arrogance.

How would you live, if you thought that you barely made a difference? Is it possible to live a life without making a difference?

It is not only possible, it is unavoidable. No one alive has any idea whether their life will have “made a difference.” Can you name 15 people who lived in 1915 that made a difference? We know the names of presidents and generals, the occasional assassin, sports heroes and movie stars, but there were 1.8 billion people in the world in 1915. How many of them made a difference?

What does it mean to “make a difference?”

Generally, the idea is linked with the myth of progress. With concerted effort and sufficient resources, we are making a better world, etc. Some undefined future awaits us, if only we care enough to make it happen.

But this is a myth. We can make changes, but change is not at all the same thing as progress. The leaders of the Western world in 1914 started a “war to end all wars.” It was one of the greatest projects of the modern era – the first “modern” war. At its end, there were 38 million casualties. The “winners” of the war sat down in 1919 and redrew the map of the world in the Treaty of Versailles. Every conflict that has occurred since that time has pretty much been driven by the arrogance and mistakes of the maps they drew. The world has been stuck repeating the same war all over the globe as we suffer the consequences of the “better world” we created.

They redrew the map of Europe, laying the foundation for years of turmoil in the Balkans. They redrew the Middle East, inventing new countries with little regard to the history and composition of the new nations. The war they started gave birth to the Communist revolutions that enslaved Russia and elsewhere for the better part of a century. The treaty gave rise to Hitler. On and on the consequences go, as the world constantly struggles to cope with one new eruption after another. The United States, considered the most successful of all modern projects, has been at war 222 out of its 239 years: that’s 93 percent of its history.

Most of the people who have lived and died over these modern centuries, only wanted to live and love and die a decent death. Farmers wanted to farm; mechanics wanted to fix their machines; parents wanted to raise their children in peace and safety; teachers wanted to share what they knew with another generation; and so on. But all of these things have largely been disrupted by the drive for a better world. Farmers are disappearing; the machines have taken over many lives; families are in almost total disarray; teachers long to quit a profession that has become one long series of frustrations. The better world is always in the future.

The better world has no place within the Christian life.

We have no commandment from God to make the world a better place. We have no commandment from God to “make a difference.” Only God makes a difference, and only God knows what “better” would actually mean. As Christians, the proper life is one lived in accordance with the commandments. We should love. We should forgive. We should be generous and kind. We should give thanks to God always and for everything.

We should understand that this is a description of the “better world.” We are not making a better world, we’re waiting for the coming of the Kingdom of God. With every act of love, there is the Kingdom. With every act of forgiveness, there is the Kingdom. Every act of generosity and kindness sees its inauguration. As Christ told us, “The Kingdom of God is among you.”

Modernity is the practice and faith of gross idolatry. We worship technology, money, politics, science, everything that we believe is a human tool capable of building a better world. No tool is any better or different than the people who use them. A bad man cannot use a good tool to make a good world. A bad man makes a bad world and nothing more.

When we were baptized, we were asked to renounce the devil. More than that, we were asked to spit on him. That same devil suggested to Christ that he could make the world a better place if only He would bow down and worship the devil. Christ rebuked him. The same offer has been made to us. It is called “modernity,” and it is a devil’s bargain.

It is for us to renounce him, and spit on him along with his bargain. Christ will give us back our souls.

There are right and wrong questions. When we stand before the judgment seat of Christ, we will not be asked whether we made a difference or whether we left the world a better place. The questions will be about the commandments. Feeding, clothing, visiting, etc., are very homely practices (Matt. 25). It doesn’t take all of the resources of the modern world to do them. They are all immediately at hand.

The better world and making a difference is a conversation we should refuse to engage: it does not belong to us. Speak the truth. Keep the commandments. Let God make all the difference in the world.

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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Comments

156 responses to “You Barely Make a Difference and It’s a Good Thing”

  1. Paul Avatar
    Paul

    Challenging post Father. The fight for our souls is constant. Sometimes I feel that good people “fail” in today’s world and bad people “succeed.” I use the terms fail and succeed cautiously because their definitions are determined by the modern world. Navigating through this mess can be so disheartening. Thank you for this post. We will keep our heads up.

  2. CJ Avatar
    CJ

    Excellent post, Father. I’ve been rebuked by some friends for my lack of interest in the activism and protests surrounding certain social issues here in the US. I think that I share the perspective you’ve outlined here, but wasn’t able to articulate it as well as you have done. Thank you for laying it out so well.

  3. Abby Avatar
    Abby

    I. Love. This.

  4. Fr. Elias Warren Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    The following sentence from today’s epistle is a stellar summation of the situation for persons, nations, and denominations! Exceedingly well spoken! Thank God for your compassionate insight:
    “What doesn’t fail is the ability of the “modern world” to fool itself with the madness of its own arrogance”.

    GOD GRANT YOU MANY YEARS OF LIFE AND COMMENTARY!

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Interesting. On the TV show The Librarians Sunday the theme was abut making a contract with the devil to ” make a difference” to ” make the world a better place”.

    The consequence was that there would be mass tragedy.

    The the contract was activated by a wish for one’s deepest desire. All was set right when a signatory to the contract, taking the place of a tempted friend, wished that the tempter ( the one in charge if executing the contract) become human.

    The acts of kindness, mercy and forgiveness are deeply human and deeply divine.

    It would seem, as Far Stephen has noted, that our salvation requires that we be simply and purely human and so know Him who took on our nature and ressurected it and raised it into the Kingdom.

  6. Kevin Avatar

    Thanks again for a stable mooring.

  7. Jenn Avatar
    Jenn

    My husband and I were discussing this very thing not last week.

    I came across a quote posted by a lady in our parish that basically said we should not ask our children what they want to be when they grow up, but what they want to change about the world and what job they could do to make that happen.

    I just started questioning everything (we don’t talk to our kids like this…should we be…why doesn’t this resonate with me the same way it does for so many others in our parish…) and my husband mentioned your previous posts on this topic, and the lies of the modern world on “changing the world.”

    So, thank you for this well timed and encouraging post. May God grant us wisdom and strength to teach our children to love and forgive their neighbours, and in doing so, change their world. 🙂

  8. Psalti Avatar
    Psalti

    Yes. A thousand times yes. Thank you for saying it so clearly.

  9. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    It’s interesting that whenever we (as in my friends, online and/or in person, and myself) discuss (we are civil folks) whether the world is “better” today, the discussion always falls into two fairly easily aligned camps: those who see the technological advances made (“dentistry!”) and consider them sufficient to call the world a better place and those who see the continual denigration of humanity and see the world as getting worse.

  10. Mark Mesley Avatar
    Mark Mesley

    So when Jesus told us to be, “salt and light”, surely He was expecting us to “make a difference”. While I accept your thesis that many of our attempts to change the world have ended up making it even worse … this could be used as an excuse to “do nothing”.

  11. Paula Avatar
    Paula

    My parish priest always had a good answer when people would ask him how they could make a difference in the world. He would say to look around at the people within your orbit, converse with them, interact with them, and if an opportunity to be of service to them arose, do it. Don’t fly off to some far away place to address some social issue you read about in the Huff Post.

  12. JCL Avatar
    JCL

    Our weary world begs us to untangle its problems.

    Beware the traps: Chase your tail in a “which side are you on” debate, or take the shortcut and pledge fidelity to a Shiny-New Savior Du Jour.

    But the Holy Spirit beckons us to bend toward God, mind the personal, respond to the local. A small beginning, but it is all that needs to consume our focus for a lifetime.

  13. Sharon Avatar
    Sharon

    Sadly and to my great frustration (with my Protestant brothers and sisters), I have observed churches that make “feeding, clothing, visiting, etc.” ends in themselves – in order to “make a difference”, with no apprehension, acknowledgment and experience of Eucharistic Joy. I find these churches oppressive. These commandments only make sense in the light of an Eucharistic Life. I know you (and Schmemann) have said it better…

  14. Matushka Elizabeth Avatar

    This piece really speaks to the heart of many issues, Father. I really appreciate what you’ve written here very much. Thank you.

  15. Jerry Avatar
    Jerry

    I really enjoyed this post. A lot to chew on and see if I have bought into the lie and how to change that.

  16. Allen Long Avatar
    Allen Long

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen,

    Wow! Such a contrast to the thinking and teaching I received in a Seminary during the late 70s and early 80s. Then the teaching was “Go where you will have greatest impact!”
    Lord have mercy for the many years that I was deluded.

  17. Agata Avatar
    Agata

    Thank you Father,

    What a beautiful post.

    Mark suggests that Christ’s commandment to be “salt and light” was meant to “make a difference”. But I love how Fr. Meletios Webber (I love how he describes such profound things in such simple ways..) says that Jesus did not tell us “to be right, but to be righteous” (which simply means to be good). If we all just strived to be good (work on ourselves, not others), the Kingdom of Heaven would come overnight (that’s again from Fr. Mel…).

    You ask who was alive in 1915 that made a difference? How about the Saints?! Saint Silouan on Mount Athos, Elder Soprhony, his disciple… I recently met a person who’s entire family converted to Orthodoxy simply because they came across Fr. Sophrony’s book on St. Silouan somewhere in Belgium, 20 years ago. What I learnt from these two Saints was to endure difficulties with patience and hope in God, and that was enough to save my life a couple of times. They did not mean to “make a difference”, they lived seemingly “selfishly”, concerning themselves with only God and their souls.. But the influence of that was of cosmic proportions. We are not brought up to think this way, it’s a difficult mental switch to make, especially for Western minds, but it is so worth the effort…

  18. Fr. Antonio Arganda Avatar
    Fr. Antonio Arganda

    Right again, Father. “Progress” is the religion of the present age and it worships technology, money, science and politics. We must be aware so as not to fall into idolatry.

  19. Nicholas Avatar
    Nicholas

    Well, that’s liberating! Truly Good News.

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mark,
    Seriously. Do you think people are going to do nothing? Would that were so. Your concern, I think, is just the sound of modernity speaking in your head, the fear that unless we do something the world will be worse. Christ told us to be salt and light. He did not say, “Do this so that the world will be a better place.” It is interesting that in 1700 years of Christianity, no one (NO ONE) every spoke about making the world a better place. The idea only comes around with the birth of the modern project. How could 1700 years of Christian saints have failed to get that idea if it were even remotely true?

    Do nothing other than keep the commandments. You are not in charge of the world and making it a better place is none of your business. It belongs to God alone. The obverse of this is idolatry.

  21. Ronda Wintheiser Avatar
    Ronda Wintheiser

    St. Theophan the Recluse, in THE SPIRITUAL LIFE:

    “You need to put out of your mind any plans about ‘multi-beneficial, all-embracing, common-to-all mankind’ activity such as the progressives rant about… Remember, the Lord does not forget even a glass of cold water given to someone tormented by thirst.

    “The progressives have in mind all mankind or at least all of its people lumped together. The fact is, however, that ‘mankind’ or ‘the people’ does not exist as a person for whom you could do something right now. It consists of individual persons: By doing something for one person, we are doing it within the general mass of humanity. If each one of us did what was possible to do for whoever was standing right in front of our eyes, instead of goggling at the community of mankind, then all people, in aggregate, would at each moment be doing that which is needed by those in need, and by satisfying their needs, would establish the welfare of all mankind, which is made up of haves and have-nots, the weak and the strong. But those who keep thoughts of the welfare of all mankind inattentively let slip by that which is in front of their eyes. Because they do not have the opportunity to perform a general work, and let slip by the opportunity to perform a particular work, they accomplish nothing toward the main purpose of life.”

  22. Margaret Avatar
    Margaret

    When my daughter was 2 years old I was given the unexpected gift of getting to move overseas with her for my husband’s job. We lived in a big city in the middle of Europe and I did not speak the language. This experience completely opened my eyes to the very words you speak here and I basically had to perform perfunctory daily duties of home and family, knowing no one outside the family for quite awhile and eventually finding a church worship in in English and the blessing of Christian mothers as friends. God was with us then and is with us now and one thing He spoke loudly to my heart in those early days overseas with my first and very young child was “do what is in front of you” “do the next thing” which translated into loving my neighbor, my family, praying and keeping house. God was so very good to limit my ability to “change the world” something that I really may have pursued if I had been allowed to stay in America at that time as I had just received my BA in Psychology and had already began volunteering with a famous university program…Thank you for this post, Fr. Stephen, it is very very encouraging.

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Ronda,
    What a great quote! Thanks!

  24. Janis Schmidt Avatar

    There is a price to pay for speaking the truth in todays modern world such as and Edward Snowden and others.discovered. Snowden was lucky in that he chose to go to Russia where Putin took him in and protected him from the rapacious US authorities. I told the truth that she should stop babying my brother, and that my sister made up a story that her brother in law had molested her. As a result, my mother (with my brother’s assistance, no doubt) had me written out of the will. None of my family has any contact with me, doesn’t even tell me of a death, like my mother. So I am alone. I find myself to be happy and content most of the time. At about the same time, I was given a talent to write, which I am doing, 283 pages so far.

  25. David Avatar

    Thanks you Father & you are right to scorn/repudiate Modernism’s philosophy of progress. We often instinctively label things “Progress” in the West, which are at best mixed bags of “cultural-subtractions–from cultural-additions”. The supreme arrogance of the modern unitary State, especially in the secularized West, is so fraught with such pretensions we rarely notice our own complicity with it. Also, your exhortations to focus smaller and more locally on obedient living…& leaving “progress” to God is wonderfully liberating advise.

    Yet like before I can’t help but wonder (fear) you’re overstating things, maybe for shock effect! 😉 To say there never has & never will be any “real” carefully defined Christian progress seems contrary to the history in the book of Acts…and the Apostles & their heirs turning the Roman world upside down via the Gospel? Has Russian seen net-cultural progress since 1989, 1949, 1929 — or any country before Orthodox missionaries evangelized, Bulgaria, France, Ireland, North Africa? We also noted before the Apostles’ exhortation to set aside childhood for true Christian maturity/adulthood (no longer foolish & tossed about…) seems to imply some form of Christian progress in mature, adult living, no?

    Not at all trying to be contentious here, just asking for help in thinking through all this rightly and carefully. Lord have mercy.

  26. Kathleen Boraas Avatar
    Kathleen Boraas

    David: In also trying to think this through: Is maturity the same as progress? Sometimes maturing means finding out you know less than you thought you did.

  27. Mike H Avatar
    Mike H

    I recently read the following quote by Christian Wiman, a poet very much aware of what’s referred to here as the “modern project”.

    ”So long as your ambition is to stamp your existence upon existence, your nature on nature, then your ambition is corrupt and you are pursuing a ghost.”

    I take his point to be similar to the one being made here – it’s a critique of how we approach the substance of our actual lives.

    Since better understanding the substance of the definition of “caring” being presented in the last few posts, I’ve really been cut deeply. How much of life has passed me by! How often do I look past Christ present in the world and people right in front of me! Do I even know HOW to do otherwise? True “caring” has to be specific, not general, formless, and without name or face. While narrower in scope (from a certain point of view), it’s much more difficult and demanding. It’s MORE real. It involves risk. It costs something. It’s messy. However, this doesn’t preclude an awareness of or a “caring” about the world that is outside one’s immediate sphere of influence (as the whirlwind tour of history present in this very post demonstrates) as the problems of “the world” are perhaps closer than we think.

    It’s not a call to disengage but rather to engage one’s life, which is huge because some “Christian” calls for less “caring” or withdrawal from “the world” are really little more than displays of nihilistic hopelessness, isolationist fear and escapism, or selfish indifference masquerading as religious devotion and faithfulness.

  28. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    Thank you Father.

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    David,
    I’m not overstating, but I am trying to be clear enough to drive a stake through the heart of some persistent and pernicious ideas. You cannot describe the Church as “making progress” at any time in history, for we haven’t got a clue (apart from the Kingdom of God) how that goal comes about or when, etc. Indeed a century of hundreds of thousands of martyrs might be, in fact, more “progress,” from the standpoint of the Kingdom of God than a century of peace, prosperity and growth.

    It is a false conversation.

    All that we should imply from anything that we see is that God is good. That is enough. Once you start thinking that you know what progress means, then you start down the road of planning to make it happen. And of such plans, much evil comes.

    Russia has seen change. Period. If it turns out that within 5 years the Church’s growth and “progress” creates a backlash and it all comes apart, what will the progress have meant.

    You see, this entire way of thinking and describing things is not only false, it’s a lie. We should repent of believing it. We should do good, keep the commandments, and leave God in charge of outcomes, for He has not given it to human beings to judge the outcome of His work. Period.

    I’m pounding the stake here. Modernity is a vampire, sucking your godly blood out of you. Let it go. We cannot know these things.

    One clear evidence of this is that never in all the history of the Church until modernity came about, did anyone ever describe God’s work as “progress.” Not in the book of Acts, etc. Never. It’s a newly invented idea that has a godless agenda behind it. We should repent of it.

  30. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Thank you for these words to hold on to when the modern world is beating us down.

  31. David Avatar

    Hey Kathleen. I suspect most parents would call “maturity” progress but then maybe there’s a better word…”better” oophs, don’t think we get better either? The Apostle rebuked some for remaining children “babes” who still needed milk…but should have long since become mature adults who could eat meat. Parents naturally want to see this “better maturity” in their children & teens, as would coaches, pastors, and counselors of those with any number of illnesses or maladies. As the Church is a hospital for the soul…maybe over time our souls can heal, mature also get better…oophs again…i mean mature or adult. Nor is it progress, I suppose for there to four or four hundred thriving Orthodox Churches in a small community (country) than zero? I too loathe the modern philosophy of Modernity in all its expression. It is evil and need Fr Stephen stake in its heart. Just not sure that’s needs to be said here. Lord have mercy.

  32. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Hi Mark,

    I notice that Jesus did not call His disciples “to be” salt and light (as if we could make ourselves that). He said that this is what they “are” (in context, by being poor in spirit, being meek, by mourning, being peacemakers, being hungry and thirsty for righteousness, and by virtue of persevering in faith through persecution and by seeking to fulfill His commands, culminating in that to love even our enemies–see Matthew 5). Can you see the distinction here? He did also command His disciples to “abide in Him” (John 15), which sounds kind of passive to our modern ears, doesn’t it? But this “one thing” is THE key to the Christian life (Luke 10:38-42). It is this to which Fr. Stephen is pointing us in this post and many others.

    I’m an idealist (which I have discovered is just a form of spiritual delusion), and I have been as much a sucker for the idealism (ideology) being peddled by modernity as the next person–only I’ve found it leads to bondage. You see, I really have no control over “making a difference in the world,” but I am tied up in knots believing that I should. I waste mental and emotional energy trying to figure out how in the world I can take on one more thing I am being told a good Christian should (being “missional”, “intentional”, “purposeful”) though just getting through the daily grind frequently leaves me exhausted, and I discover I have little left to invest in prayer and abiding in Him (seems so darned passive–and true prayer is hidden and private, not for show!). Prayer is where I receive the grace I need to serve those God has placed in my life–family members, friends and neighbors, fellow parishioners, that lady cutting me off in traffic!–and for whom my contribution of love, forgiveness, and obedience to Christ really does manifest His Kingdom in a tiny way (but which may be no small thing to my husband, my son, my daughter, my friend who lives in a nursing home, or the fellow parents of children with disabilities I meet at my daughter’s public school, just to name a few).

    You would probably agree we are not here to be the saviors of the world (i.e., we can’t save ourselves). The world already has a Savior, Jesus. The modern myth of “making a difference” under discussion in this post is just another version of “we can and must save ourselves/each other”. No. That is Jesus’ job. Ours is to follow Him (obeying His commandments). We abide in Him, and He does all the rest.

  33. David Avatar

    sorry… “ALL” (that needs to be said)

  34. Helen Avatar
    Helen

    Fr. Stephen, I agree that we humans live under the arrogant illusion that we are going to “make the world a better place.” I differ with you that it began with “modernity.” As soon as early man found himself outside the garden he began his attempts to reinvent it. And, what was Emperor Justinian doing but trying to change the world?

    (Had I lived under Justinian’s empire building reign, I might have gladly let the empire be righteous so I would not have to be. We humans tend to want to change the world, but it would surely be convenient if someone else would do it for us.)

    I am not at all saying that we should focus on “making the world a better place,” but for the most part we just like to talk the talk. Two things have happened. 1) we have bought the “modern project”…”lock stock and barrel” 2) we have only given it lip service, letting the Emperor do our Christian work for us so we are off the hook entirely.

    We do not have to feed the poor, clothe the naked, house the homeless because we have built “social networks” that make Christian charity moot. We exist is this fog of deceit and are now free to embark on the next modern project… changing the climate, or preventing it from changing, having the next war “to end all wars,” ETC. We are an arrogant lot, and love to focus on grander things than helping our neighbor. I only differ with you that it is a recent error. This, and every other error has always been with us.

    Thank you for reminding us that our neighbor is the one near to us.
    And YES! we should ” leave God in charge of the outcomes” instead of persisting in the false belief that we are.

  35. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Helen,
    I do not agree. You can make an analogy and say that Justinian and others’ actions are as if they thought they were creating a better world. But the notion is, in fact, a modern notion. I think it simply creates a very fuzzy notion when we blur all human sin under that heading.

    Justinian was trying to shore up his empire, defeat enemies and tighten-up canon law, political law and suppress those heresies he disliked. Basically, it was just general emperor stuff. But there is no record whatsoever that he imagined this as a better world. It was just his idea of how to run an empire.

    Truth told, he’s small potatoes in the scale of human projects.

  36. Niki Avatar
    Niki

    Modernity has alot of problems, oh yes (and that’s an understatement!) but I can’t help but think it’s easy for us who have reaped tremendous benefit (and tremendous harm) from the last century or so of “progress” to smugly dismiss the whole concept and not realize and properly give thanks for all the amazing blessings we take for granted today that were not available even 100 years ago. Our children have a very good chance of surviving to adulthood, which was not the case 100 years ago. I don’t personally know a single woman who has died in childbirth, again that would not have been true 100 years ago. Smallpox, perhaps the worst disease in human history has been eradicated, wiped out – praise God! In the developed world, at least, hardly anyone dies of infectious diseases, malaria, rabies, etc. – those were huge, feared killers 100 years ago. While I agree 100% that many make an idol out of “progress” we should be grateful for the real advances that have made a big difference in thousands of individual lives. Have those advances made the world “better”? I have no idea and yes, that’s the wrong question to be asking anyway. But it’s not fair or accurate to rail against Modernity as a whole while we enjoy things that people 100 years ago could only dream of.

  37. Mark S Avatar
    Mark S

    @Byron
    If your modern friends are suggesting the world is in a better place because of the dentists, you know they have a weak argument 🙂

  38. Devin Avatar
    Devin

    How would you counter the charge that you may be arguing semantics? God has not asked us to make the world a better place, he asked us to follow His commandments, feed the hungry cloth the naked etc. Are we not making the world a better place by doing those things? Or by world do you mean the “system”. In other words that we can improve individual lives but we cannot change the broader world system?

  39. JCL Avatar
    JCL

    Devin, isn’t motive everything? If we pursue this world, we will lose God. If we pursue God, we gain everything of importance and share His light with the world.

  40. JCL Avatar
    JCL

    Niki, sadly smallpox is making a reappearance, like many diseases of the body and soul. Sin rehashed in a million ways.

  41. Niki Avatar
    Niki

    Smallpox is definitely not making a comeback. Other diseases yes, to a degree. Not smallpox.

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Niki,
    Please understand. Antibiotics are not the result of progress. They are the result of good work done by a good scientist. Things like that will continue to be done, without the myth of progress. What you are not seeing is that the culture mongers wrap themselves in the successes of our time and use them to justify their projects to create a better world. Modernity doesn’t mean a period in time, it’s an idea that has been around for the last 250 years. And it takes credit for all good things, and blames all failures on something else. Both are not the truth.

    Of course, antibiotics might just create uncurable germs. The first plague of an untreatable germ will be, perhaps, a “modern” invention – where we took a good thing (antibiotics) and tried to create a world with no sickness, etc. and abused the good thing we invented.

    The Modern Project is not the cause of science and it’s a serious mistake to think that it is.

    Interestingly, penicillin was discovered by accident, rather than research. Perhaps we must say it was a gift of God, as is all of our good world.

    We have not made “advances.” We have learned some things and applied them, often to great benefit. But rid yourself of the notion of advances and progress. They belong to the language of utilitarianism which is the enemy of God and Christ, having been the cause of more suffering than can be described.

    Be a scientist. Do good work. Give God thanks for all of it. But don’t be fooled by the myths of modernity. They’re not selling a better world. They’re using the idea of a better world to destroy the good world we live in.

  43. JCL Avatar
    JCL

    What makes this message hard to swallow is this: How many of us have been in deep for a cause — time, money, mind and heart. (Sunk cost fallacy.) It’s awfully hard to step back and ask if we’re doing all the good we profess (and all the back-patting can’t be too healthy). Ever notice the power structures of so many good causes, small to large? I wonder if all the leaders and cheerleaders ever invite the Holy Spirit to the planning meeting. What could we be impeding in our rush to manage and go about fixing other people and things? Whom do we seek to make dependent on us? God lets us make some awful messes – though we think we’re doing so much good in His name.

  44. JCL Avatar
    JCL

    Niki, look it up.

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Devin,
    “Semantics” is the last argument for a lost argument.

    “Better world” is shorthand for an entire myth of progress. It is a slogan for a way of thinking. And it’s good advertising. Who doesn’t want a better world?

    But, the point is that we cannot make such a thing or even judge what it means. Only God knows what “better” means. It does not belong to us. We were given commandments to do some very specific things. In the name of a “better world,” we give ourselves permission to do a lot of things that are not commandments, and often with disastrous results.

    “Better place” is actually “secular-speak” for a utopia, a perfect world without God. Virtually every evil that has been perpetrated across our cultures for the past 200 years was done to create a better world. Again, who can argue against such a thing?

    But we must and we should. Or we can work for a “better world.” But do not claim that it is for Christ. He hasn’t asked you to do that. And, as noted, it’s idolatry.

    Feed the poor, clothe the naked, etc. But then do not say you’ve made the world a better place. Christ said that at the end of the day, the most we should say is, “I am an unprofitable servant.” That is the most strikingly anti-progress statement in the Bible. At the end of the day, say, “I have made no progress.”

  46. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    We are using terms like “progress”, “better” and the like. As I understand these words, they are relativistic because each hearer assigns their own meaning. Similarly, “Good” and “bad” are relativistic terms as we apply our own standards. For example, I think liver is “bad.” (Actually far worse than bad) my wife thinks it is “good.” Who is right? Both and neither, because the only definitions of better, progress, good and bad that matter are the standards of God and only He can determine the true measure of something against His own standards. Modernity seeks to pass judgment with these very terms which is why it is a false belief system.

  47. Anita Ashworth Avatar
    Anita Ashworth

    I love this article and will go back and read it again. I wonder if our modern unhappiness and frustration comes from realizing that we are not special, just ordinary beings that exist for a brief moment in the larger scheme of things. I am not an Orthodox, but have learned so much from your writings. Thank you!

  48. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    @Mark S If your modern friends are suggesting the world is in a better place because of the dentists, you know they have a weak argument.

    LoL! True, but you’d be surprised at how they push it. And, honestly, there is some small merit to it–a root canal only a 100 years ago would have been quite a horrible thing to go through! But they really lose the truth of the matter in minutiae. To paraphrase Father, “Dentistry is just good work done by a good dentist.” 🙂

  49. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Anita,
    There is a deep contradiction in modernity. We are told to care. We are told to make a difference. So we do all of that and keep noticing that it doesn’t work. Sometimes we blame ourselves, or we blame others. We get very angry. “Other people care about the wrong things and they’re the problem!” we think. But the real problem is that modernity doesn’t work. We don’t really make a difference. But we have been deceived and in our deception we have forgotten how to actually live. We live small. We live a day at a time. We do good works. God takes care of history.

    So a beginning is to renounce modernity. That doesn’t mean renouncing so-called “modern” convenience or science, etc. They are not modern, they are just technology. All ages have had various kinds of technology. But modernity is a “story” about technology and changing the world. And it’s not true.

    Governments with access to money and weapons can certainly make huge changes. They are especially good at killing people and blowing things up. But modern governments aren’t content with doing what they could do well. They want to change the world. Europe has been busy trying to re-invent itself. America is promised “change” every 4 years, yada yada.

    So, we renounce all of these notions that have been fed to us. We ground ourselves in the gospel and in Christ. We pray. We give. We work. We forgive. We share. We give thanks. That’s about it. Oh, and go to Church. The best prayer and thanksgiving is the Divine Liturgy.

    This is the life of man. It is enough.

    But the modern governments are not going to repent. They are going to continue to sell their nonsense and kill people and blow stuff up and build things that they can blow up. Whenever they manage to do anything useful they will want us to be pleased and to thank them. But they are going to continue doing what they do until they destroy the world. That is the story we are told in Scripture. Modern governments are Babylon. We should do our best not to serve them much less to believe them.

    God will take care of us and help us in the daily life of salvation. It’s His world. Not ours.

  50. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    A thought on “progressing” to “maturity”.

    Perhaps it is not “progress” or even “change” to which St. Paul calls his audience. Perhaps he simply recognizes where, if they had truly focused their lives on God, they should be as humans in God’s image. It’s not so much about terminology but about ontology. Just mulling it over a bit.

  51. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mark it is impossible to do nothing.We are all connected by the life of God…therefore every prayer, every thanksgiving ripples through every one. Only if we are truly autonomous individuals would it be possible to do nothing.

  52. Beth Avatar
    Beth

    Dear Father

    Your essay reminds me of the tenets of modern art and design – where function became the focus instead of form. Indeed, form was so much meant to follow function that form eventually became completely irrelevant and only a symbol of Conspicuous Consumption. I am reminded of Bishop Kallistos’ talk on beauty (kalos) – beauty which is goodness. I think so much of protestant thinking was about “going out” and “doing something” (to the world) – the so called ‘great calling’, that modern people became like modern art, completely defined by ‘what they do’. Usually this is the first thing people ask when you meet them – ‘so what do you do for a living?’ – I often feel like answering that I breathe … I think it may be well to remember that God created the world as kalon (beautiful-good) and we are made to be (become) kalon (beautiful-good) in the image of God, and to bear kalon (beautiful-good) fruit (Matt. 3, 7, 12 …) Perhaps if people focused more on becoming beautiful in their goodness in stead of functional/efficient/successful in their endeavors the world around them may become a more beautiful if not better place?

  53. Robert Avatar
    Robert

    There’s no role for (Orthodox) Christians in government? Government=Babylon, that sounds like anarchism.

  54. Laura Avatar
    Laura

    Thank you, Father, and thanks to all that commented. I have much to think and pray about.

  55. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Robert,
    Even the righteous prophet Daniel had a government role in Babylon. Perhaps it would have been better worded that “modern governments” are Babylon. There are plenty of good things that belong to the government to do. But the more those things are co-opted by the modern project, the more distorted and distorting they become. We’re not looking at something neutral.

    I know any number of government employees and contractors who find themselves being forced to implement a social agenda that is contrary to the Orthodox faith. The government has the most power over its employees and they are a vast legion. The modern project belongs to both Left and Right.

    The history of the “better world” efforts of modern governments has been primarily war and massive displacements of people. The European version of the project is a “re-imagining” of Europe. It has intentionally sought to make itself “multi-cultural” with only vague ideas of what that really means, or even a justification for why it is a good thing. At one point, Brussels was regulating size and shapes of vegetables in the EU!

    There is a deep distrust of normalcy and a willful ignoring of history and tradition. The forced creation of Bosnia has guaranteed continued strife for years to come. It was as bad an idea as anything in the Treaty of Versailles. The “baiting” of the Russian bear through US and EU tampering around the edges in various newly imagined projects risks heightened dangers of war, and has probably been a primary cause of the fighting in Ukraine.

    We now have a massive world campaign to re-imagine human sexuality and the family that can only end in various disasters. Much of it has no grounding in anything other than ideology.

    A major problem with governments taking on such modern projects is that government has an inherent power of coercion. Forced changed is rarely successful, or at least not in the ways that were intended. Pol Pot was only the most extreme example of this – but he learned everything he knew and did from modern governments in the West.

    The single most government-managed project in America has been the life of Native Americans. It is a standing testimony to the darkness of the modern project. That single place where the government of the most-enlightened of all modern states has unchecked power is also the single worst disaster of human existence in our midst.

    Government itself is not evil. The modern project, however, is. And if the government has married itself to that project…well…do the math.

  56. Bob Avatar
    Bob

    Father Stephen,
    So the Orthodox believe that the world is getting worse and worse and a Great Tribulation will come upon the earth and then Christ will return “On the clouds with great glory”. thanks

  57. Warren Aldrich Avatar
    Warren Aldrich

    Hi,
    Your thoughts are so often life changing to me and help me to not become even more of an agnostic than I am.
    I’m curious tho to hear your thoughts of living the Christian life as identity and participation in identity that is given to us. That is what for me helps me not to live out a complicated morality but to live out the presence of God within me.
    That presence is what gives me hope.
    Perhaps I’m not very clear here, but could you do a post on living out relationship and identity?
    Thanks, Warren

  58. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    So the Orthodox believe that the world is getting worse and worse and a Great Tribulation will come upon the earth and then Christ will return “On the clouds with great glory”. thanks

    Sounds a bit like heavy-handed Protestantism to me, Bob. Perhaps Father will shed more light on this line of thought.

  59. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Bob,
    That’s the witness of Scripture. But it is not at all clear when that is, or that if we are close, etc.

  60. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Byron,
    It’s pretty much the Scriptural take on the topic, but without all of the Rapture nonsense and troop movements, etc. The 2 Timothy passage seems to be absolutely part of the Apostolic deposit:

    But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come:For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God,having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away! (2Ti 3:1-5 NKJ)

    Also, St. Paul’s teaching:

    Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God. (2Th 2:3-4 NKJ)

    Christ Himself makes it clear that the end will be a time of great troubles and suffering. The Christian view of history is deeply contrary to a “better world coming.” We mess it up really well, and then God intervenes and the Kingdom comes (but not in a millennial reign on earth as some Protestants say.

    But we are not taught to watch for this thing or that thing as indicators of the times. We’re taught to watch for the Kingdom itself and Christ Himself.

    In the life of the Church, the Kingdom is already breaking-into the world, even as it did in the ministry of Christ, and that is a proper focus of our attention. Orthodoxy doesn’t really talk often about “world events,” but when it does, it is in much the vein that I have written about.

    I would highly recommend my article the Long Defeat and the Cross. We shouldn’t despair that the world is growing darker. We have been told that it will. Instead, we should turn our attention to the Cross and the self-emptying life that is asked of us.

    A good part of my concern in writing about the Modern Project is the warning in Scripture that the wicked one will “lead many astray. The Church’s life, when co-opted by the notions of modernity, takes on a false shape and becomes a dangerous force in the life of the world.

    Whatever good we are to do in this world is not done by making a better world. It is done by self-emptying.

  61. Bija Avatar
    Bija

    I am reminded of that story of the guy who drowned in a flood and got to heaven and asks God why he didn’t help him? The guy had said no to a rescue boat and no to a rope and no to a life jacket because he believed “God would save him” …

  62. Janice Avatar
    Janice

    This is a book I would buy. Please expand this thesis and publish it!

  63. Janice Avatar
    Janice

    This would make for a good book. Please develop it and publish it! Before it’s too late! 😉

  64. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Bija,
    The Kingdom of God is a joke to the secular world. The joke you shared would not have been told by the fathers. It’s much more like Ben Franklin’s “God helps those who help themselves.” It’s false and mocks God.

  65. Ronald Drummond Avatar
    Ronald Drummond

    This post struck me not so much as a splash of cold water but as one of those burrs or stickers that get stuck on pant legs or socks. I don’t mean that in a bad way. You simply can’t shake those off and move on, you have to stop and look for it and deal with it. It sticks with you and demands attention. Thank you.

    I think “making the world a better place” is far too small an aspiration for the Body of Christ. The world is already “good” because God has declared it to be so in creating it. It is marred by sin and death to be sure, but you can’t make sin or death “better.” They must be vanquished and the world transfigured. And as you mentioned, Father, this is the work of God, not man. We can only hope to enter into this work as “partakers of the divine nature.” And this we do by praying, working, obeying, and living in communion with Christ in his Church.

    Would it be acceptable to say that rather than make the world a better place or make a difference, Christians are called to live as the new creation, the kingdom of God inaugurated in Christ? And that this is done not by the grand-scale projects of modernity, but by the grassroots efforts of people loving God and their neighbor, working out their salvation with fear and trembling?

    It seems to me, as one commenter pointed out, that the Eucharist itself provides the “framework” for understanding all of this. Not a secular self-help project, nor an escapist flight from reality, but an encounter with the world as God created it: a “good” world where creation itself is transformed and revealed as the means of worship, communion, and blessing.

    What is needed is not a “better” world, but a world understood and lived in as the cosmic temple it is, with all its matter and energy seen as and used for communion with the Triune God, a world ruled and served faithfully by the royal priesthood God created humanity to be, and which the Church now is.

    Apologies for the rambling, but this post has been great food for thought, and a deep challenge to long-held (even unconscious) assumptions. Thank you, again.

  66. Robert Avatar
    Robert

    Thank you for the clarification and agreed –

    “There are plenty of good things that belong to the government to do. But the more those things are co-opted by the modern project, the more distorted and distorting they become. We’re not looking at something neutral.” and

    “Government itself is not evil. The modern project, however, is. And if the government has married itself to that project…well…do the math.”

    Indeed!

  67. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Ronald,
    Yes. That describes it well. Christians must realize that we have no project. We have no goals other than the Kingdom and that must come as a gift. There is nothing that we are building towards. We are not “winning the world for Christ,” etc. All of these projects have been notions that were invented, even among Christians, within the confines of the modern period. They are not part of the Tradition, much less of Scripture.

    We “make disciples” – “of all nations.” That does not mean to make all of the nations into disciples, but that disciples should be comprised from people anywhere and everywhere – it was simply meant to include Gentiles.

    These planning thoughts that have become so commonplace that when questioned as I have, many commenters can’t help but say, “But…but…but…” As such, this might not be cold water, or little stickers. It might be one of those “motor boat” articles. “But…but…but…”

  68. Brian Laprath Avatar

    Fr. Freeman,

    Marrying modernity (or what I assume you, the author, mean by having big dreams) to the bloodshed of progressivism is a mistake. Setting people free to dream and achieve their dreams, and forcing man to conform to rules against his will and killing him — those are two different things. Ambition does not equate to tyranny. As you said in your own words, “No tool is any better or different than the people who use them.”

    Granted, I am not an Orthodox Christian, but my belief is we will be judged according to our convictions, and God gives us wealth and resources to be used for His glory for the edification of His kingdom. When you demonize human ambition you stifle wealth used to bless others.

    You talk of a myth of progress. I agree there are many in positions of power who espouse an evil, ugly idea of progress. But progress which comes about organically without need for tyranny and bloodshed is not a myth. Would you tell Henry Ford 100 years ago to relinquish ambition because his innovations don’t make the world better? Asking me to name 14 more people does nothing to legitimize your argument or delegitimize mine. In places where there are ideas and wealth, everyone makes a difference.

    “We have no commandment from God to make the world a better place. We have no commandment from God to “make a difference.” Only God makes a difference, and only God knows what “better” would actually mean. As Christians, the proper life is one lived in accordance with the commandments. We should love. We should forgive. We should be generous and kind. We should give thanks to God always and for everything… We should understand that this is a description of the “better world.”

    While I agree with this paragraph, in concert with the rest of your post, you are minimizing God and humanity. God created us to create. Ambition and dreams while working together is a different matter than having ambition and dreams while wielding the sword. Too broad a brush stroke, sir.

    “When we were baptized, we were asked to renounce the devil”

    Lumping capitalism with Marxism and equating it with the devil? Not subtle. Redrawing maps and inserting dictators is not freedom, it is tyranny and misuse of the “sword.”

    I think I understand the point of your article. We should always look to God primarily. I only encourage you to look at the difference between progressivism and freedom instead of lumping them both under the term “modernity.” progressivism and freedom could not be any more mutually exclusive in definition. I believe God has better plans for us while we’re here than to live in a perpetual medieval age devoid of technology and creature comforts.

    Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. I’d wager there’s progress as well. It made my country great at one time.

  69. Christopher Avatar
    Christopher

    ” It might be one of those “motor boat” articles. “But…but…but…””

    Indeed. If you had written an article on humility (such as this one) and simply used the word “humility”, it would have been a dozen comments and all nods “yes yes, but of course”. Take humility out of the abstract and explicate it in our REAL lives with such axiomatic truths such as:

    You won’t make a difference, indeed your great grandchildren will not even know your name

    We are not here to help

    You are not getting better

    And the everyone fires up their outboard motors – we are looking for a safe harbor where our ego and “self” makes a difference, where we have some control over our “self” and the world, and where we can pray and be “Christian” without actually having actual humility, and taking up our Cross and getting to know how really small we are in God’s creation and history.

    Father, I would not be so quick to limit this to “the modern project”, otherwise folks will simply define themselves out of “modernity” (as if they could do such a thing in reality) and carry on.

  70. Matt Avatar
    Matt

    Father,

    In defence of that joke, assuming it’s the one I think is intended, I think it’s safe to say that Bija didn’t summarize it with enough precision. At the end of it the preacher asks God why He didn’t save him, and He responds, “But I sent you two boats and a helicopter [or whatever it is in the version you’re telling]…” [emphasis added for this discussion].

    The punchline is not the preacher’s faith in God over man, but his inability to recognize and receive with thanksgiving God’s grace that was already working in everything going on around him.

    The joke can be relevant to this discussion in terms of raising is a question of whether Modernity itself may be allowed (or, perhaps more accurately, in what capacity God has allowed Modernity) as part of that which leads to our salvation.

    But then one can pose that question of anything, at which point I think Father Tom’s Maxim #37 applies.

  71. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Byron,
    It’s pretty much the Scriptural take on the topic, but without all of the Rapture nonsense and troop movements, etc.

    Yes, forgive me for being flippant, Father. I reacted more to the “Great Tribulation” part of Bob’s comment than to the substance of it.

    My apologies, Bob.

  72. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Brian,
    How do you measure your country’s greatness? That is not a Christian statement. “Great” is a judgment that belongs to God. Big “dreams” has mostly meant money, power, etc. “Freedom” in the modern period (and under the tutelage of the modern project) has meant “freedom” from Tradition and the past, and freedom from various restraints.

    You also make the mistake of thinking that modernity is what produces technology and “creature comforts.” That is simply not accurate historically. It’s just the propaganda of modernity. Our liberty is simply license. We are living in the consequences of mistaken theories of what it means to be human and what it means to be free, etc.

    I would encourage you to read my articles on modernity over the past year.

  73. Rob Robinson Avatar
    Rob Robinson

    Father, I see my religion and my way of life being threatened in a very real sense by “bad men”. I have worn the uniform of my country and did my active best to rescue another people from oppression.

    I am told to love, accept and forgive. But if that is all civilization does, it will die, I am afraid. Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for Evil to triumph is that good men do nothing.”

    We are able to pray, associate and speak freely because there are rough men who guard us from bad men.

    I know my duty to my people, and that os a paradox.

  74. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There is a great deal of paradox in all of this. Thank you for serving our country.

    But it remains true that many of the modern evils (bad men) are particular products of the great schemes of modernity. The present Middle East is an excellent example. The chaos that our neo-conservative efforts created in various regime changes created the vacuum that today is filling with ISIS. They didn’t just appear out of “bad men.” Chaos is extremely bad.

    Hitler is very much a product of the extreme efforts of the Treaty of Versailles. And so on.

    The “evil” of our world isn’t just being generated out of nothing. It is a part of the long trail of unintended consequences. No doubt, we will need protection.

    But it is also true that no matter how many good men there are in uniform, if God does not keep the city, the watchman wakes in vain.

    I am able to pray because God gives me breath. They prayed in the Soviet Gulag. There is so much to say in all of this. What happens when bad men send good men into a battle to do bad things?

  75. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Brian, Henry Ford is a interesting choice as one who made the world better. How?

    Assembly lines devalued human labor and craft; his worker villages eventually decayed into slums; the car itself is now widely recognized as the main agent in the (dubious) theory of anthropogenic climate change and other environmental catastrophes; the car created a unprecedented internal migration that tore the extended family and many communities to pieces as well as providing a moveable and private place of immoral sexual encounters not to mention leading to the creation of the tank and other instruments of war.

    The automobile today is an instrument of debt as well.

    There is not one technological advance you can name that has done anything to advance the growth of the human soul in the qualities of mercy and peace.

    To be sure they give the appearance of relieving suffering on a bodily level and some do. But at the cost of twisting what it means to be human and often transferring the suffering from the body to the soul.

  76. Thad Avatar
    Thad

    I really appreciate your blog, Fr. Freeman. I like that you catch me off guard and challenge me in ways I don’t expect. Reading this particular post, however, I wondered if you might indulge my inner devil’s advocate (an advocate that truly seeks to understand). Those who fought for the abolition of slavery come immediately to mind. I’m trying to imagine any of them reading this post. Should they have resisted the temptation become “informed” about the atrocities upon which their society was built, with all the “passions” for justice that would stir up? Should they and the slaves have just threw up their hands and said “We’re not called to change things or make a better world. Progress is a myth”? …Btw. I wholly agree that progress is a myth, in the sense that while we advance in any one or more areas, we are always regressing in others of equal importance. We always seems to be trading in one virtue for another vice. I’m just concerned that what you are advocating here could easily be used to justify a sort of bourgeois stance of apathy toward the plight of society’s most vulnerable (the very kind of thing you note you would be accused of in your post). Please help me to see the forest for the trees on this one.

  77. Jim Avatar
    Jim

    “The television reports are horrible – dead and dying, fleeing, abyss of human suffering. In Europe, Portugal is quickly drifting to communism. And in between those images of suffering, horror, and treachery, we see images of ‘great values in appliances.’

    “Essentially, the West is frightful – frightful because of its Phariseeism, identifying freedom with profit. Once a rightist senator said: ‘We must remember that the basic principles of a free market – profit and freedom – are indivisible.’ – all that with a heroic tone of voice… the faces of farmers, deciding to reduce their crops, with faces lit up with moral pathos – while the whole world is clamoring about hunger. The West is frightful because of its baseness in everything. When did that fall begin? Where did the West renounce itself, renounce the flame that ‘lighted up the whole creation, then went into the night and cried…’?

    “All the lofty phrases about ‘freedom’, ‘fairness’, ‘equality’, etc. (and their Christian rhetoric) sound unbearable, demonic, false. The devil is on the faces of the defenders of law and order and on the faces of revolutionaries.”

    From The Journals of Fr. Alexander Schememann, March 24, 1975

    After 40 years of “world improving”… when will we learn to live simply, love our neighbors, show mercy, practice righteousness, and pursue peace? Of course, I struggle to do that with those closest to me. Lord have mercy and forgive our arrogance in thinking we should be changing the world!

  78. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Brian’s comment made me ponder that the problem is that we are fed with these ‘differences’ as an intellectual distraction. However, if I am a ‘left’ or a ‘right’ secularist makes no difference to the fact that I am essentially godless. Whether one is forcefully controlled in an “Orwellian” manner, or in the conditioned “Huxley-ian” fashion matters little in comparison to the fact that they are slaves. I have seen those spiritual warriors at the foremost front (the holy ascetics on Mount Athos) who valiantly wage war with ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’ and it surprises me that they would generally eschew all of what the modern worldly ‘progress’ has to offer (even technologically) in the 21st century in order to live like peasants of the 13th century.

  79. Joshua Avatar
    Joshua

    Fr. Stephen,

    Hello, I am a recent convert to Orthodoxy and I have come across your blog and have found your thoughts very helpful as I seek to understand how to live the Orthodox life, so I wanted to say thank you, first and foremost, for sharing your understanding!

    I’ve read this post twice and read through all the comments to try and really understand what it is that you’re saying, and I think I’m still a little confused… Are your critiquing the belief that governments can bring the kingdom of God to earth? Are you also critiquing the idea that each individual should see science, technology, and large social networks to bring the kingdom of heaven? I also gathered from the comments that you are not saying science and technology are evil, simply that they are not the hope for our salvation at the Resurrection?

    Equally, are you saying (in the positive) that the way we express our faith, and fulfill our call as Christians, is not by running around trying to force the world to change into what WE deem as good (i.e. A technological utopia), but to do that which God commanded us (feed the poor, etc.), which is what the kingdom of God consists of?

    Also, what do you think of the fact that, percentage wise, murder, war, rape, starvation, and absolute poverty (no access to clean water, no fresh food, no livable income) are at all time lows (to my knowledge), combined with the argument that we think there are more wars, shootings, and death, simply because media cover it more, but the reality is that those things are less?

    Finally, one last question in how Christians are called to live: would you agree with the statement that wherever I find myself, (scientist, farmer, politician, janitor etc.) I should do my work with the utmost care and to the best of my ability, and to help, love and care for others, and if an opportunity arises to make a huge change in the world, to prayerfully consider it, to engage it if I feel called to do so, but to not idolize that work, to recognize that it could go terribly wrong, or that it could fail and turn to ash, and to keep my joy and sense of value grounded in that I belong to Christ, whether I am an unknown who works at the soup kitchen every Saturday, or a Nobel Peace Prize winner who made the cure for cancer.

    Again, thank you for posting this!
    -Joshua

  80. Tom (aka Volkmar) Avatar

    “If the human race could have straightened up its act by the simple pursuit of goodness, it would have done so long ago. We are not stupid; and Lord knows, from Confucius to Socrates to Moses to Joyce Brothers, we’ve had plenty of advice. But we haven’t followed it. The world has taken a five-thousand-year bath in wis¬dom and is just as grimy as ever. And our own lives now, for all our efforts to clean them up, just get grimier and grimier. We think pure thoughts and eat wheat germ bread, but we will die as our fathers did, not noticeably better.

    Once again, the world cannot be saved by living. And there are two devastatingly simple reasons why. The first is, we don’t live well enough to do the job. Our goodness is flawed goodness. I love my children and you love yours, but we have, both of us, messed them up royally. I am a nice person and so are you, except for when my will is crossed or your convenience is not consulted—and then we are both so fearful that we get mean in order to seem tough. And so on. The point is that if we are going to wait for good living to save the world, we are going to wait a long time. We can see goodness and we can love it. We can even love it enough to get a fair amount of it going for us on nice days. But we simply cannot crank it up to the level needed to eliminate badness altogether.”

    Robert Capon

  81. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    It might help our discussion to remember the basic tenant of Modernity. In fact, it has little to do with technology or its development. Modernity is the philosophy of life that elevates the Self, the Ego above all else. Me, Myself and I become paramount in an individuals thinking and attaining what the Ego wants becomes the driving force of our society. The caring for the Self over the Other is a natural outgrowth of the emphasis on Me, Myself and I.
    The Self, the Ego is the source of Ancestral Sin. The elevate it in Modernity is to elevate Sin. It sounds nice that we get to dream and we get to fulfill our needs, but that always seems to come at the expense of others. I am reminded of the the words of Shakespeare in Hamlet: “To sleep, perchance to dream; aye, there’s the rub for what dreams may come….” Our dreams for ourselves often result in harm to others even if we do not intend to harm.
    Take the automobile brought to us by Henry Ford. We think nothing of driving to the store to purchase food for the family, but that convenience in fulfilling our necessity has consequences we never think about. Whether or not we except Climate Change, there is no doubt we are polluting the atmosphere. Manufacturing an automobile causes all sorts of pollution. Mining the ore and refining it pollutes air and water. There is the slag to deal with, filled with toxic compounds that are concentrated by the process and then leech into our environment. My point is not to dwell on the technical aspects but to point out just enough to suggest that pleasing “Me” as Modernity would have us think is proper, it is costly to others. It is also antithetical to the Gospel as the Lord told us to die to the Self.

  82. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thad,
    I have not said that nothing changes. Change is inevitable. Nothing stays the same. Progress, however, is a story about what the change is doing. It posits that there is something towards which the change is moving. If my brake fails and my car rolls down the driveway and hits a tree, that is not progress – it’s change and motion. If I’m driving down the interstate towards a destination, I’m making “progress.”

    I am deeply grateful for the abolition of slavery and thing it was an utterly right thing to do – just like freeing the serfs in Russia. Progress, however, would posit some social end-point towards which we are moving. That there is no such thing is my point. There are good things to do and to be done. Abolishing slavery is an inherently good thing. But it should not be described as “progress” towards something else.

    The notion of progress belongs to the philosophy of Utilitarianism – sometimes described as “the greatest good for the greatest number” and “the end justifies the means.” It is deeply practical and a hallmark of modernism. It is also contrary to the Christian faith. For reasons I have stated.

    We cannot know the right social good (as a goal) and it is wrong to use evil means to achieve a desired good (as St. Seraphim himself said). The end does not justify the means.

    Christians should do the right thing because it’s the right thing, and do it on a daily basis. The right thing is the right thing and is not a matter of utilitarian progress. Change is change but only a utilitarian can describe it as progress. In short, Christians should repent of believing the false ideology of utilitarianism.

  83. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Joshua,
    In general, yes.

    That things are actually better, measured by the things you stated might be true. But, it will change, and possibly for the worse. We cannot know. They are not, however, a result of “progress.” Progress is an ideology about change and people have been taught to think of all change as progress. Never has a philosophy had such loyal adherents! They think everything they see is proof of its truth.

    Science is good. Technology is good – if they are rightly used. Progress never really says anything about how such stuff is used.

    Christians should not live with the philosophy of progress. We should live in obedience to the commandments, doing the right things because they are right. The outcomes – the true outcomes of all things – are ultimately only known to God. “All things work together for good…” (Romans 8:28). That describes the mystery of our salvation. However, we do not have a commandment that says, “Make everything work together for good…”

    We simply cannot know what that would mean.

    What if the standards of living and health were improving steadily for many years – all across the world. And what if along with that, the souls of human beings were being destroyed? It’s progress, I suppose, but towards hell.

    I know that in a single human life there are better years and worse years and we cannot say which of the two does more for our salvation. God only knows. We could never inflict worse years on someone in order to “save” them. It would be against the commandments. God might do such a thing, but only God could know how such a thing would work.

    So, we are not stuck or frozen. In don’t do nothing. We keep the commandments. If you have technology, don’t use it for evil. But you also will not be able to use it to save the world. Only God knows what that would mean.

  84. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Nicholas,
    Let’s think about automobiles. Automobiles have changed everything. We design everything around their convenient use and necessity. We are now utterly dependent on them. So their advent changed the face of America.

    Winston Churchill, visiting the West Coast in the years after WWI, saw the early developments of automobile shaped structures (highways, etc.). He concluded at the time that oil would become the essential global strategic issue (he always thought in such strategic terms).

    We could have done without the automobile, or done very differently by it. But we consumed it. And it consumed us.

  85. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Henry Ford is a interesting choice as one who made the world better. How?

    Assembly lines devalued human labor and craft; his worker villages eventually decayed into slums; the car itself is now widely recognized as the main agent in the (dubious) theory of anthropogenic climate change and other environmental catastrophes; the car created a unprecedented internal migration that tore the extended family and many communities to pieces as well as providing a moveable and private place of immoral sexual encounters not to mention leading to the creation of the tank and other instruments of war.

    The automobile today is an instrument of debt as well.

    There is not one technological advance you can name that has done anything to advance the growth of the human soul in the qualities of mercy and peace.

    To be sure they give the appearance of relieving suffering on a bodily level and some do. But at the cost of twisting what it means to be human and often transferring the suffering from the body to the soul.

    Wonderful post, Michael Bauman. Many thanks!

  86. Joshua Avatar
    Joshua

    Father,

    Thank you for such a quick response, it definitely helped clear things up. I think I understand now what you mean, especially in regards to the modern philosophy seeing change as “progress” and progress as a blatantly good thing. The Nazi’s were change, and they revitalized the German economy, but they certainly were not a good thing.

    Thank you!
    Joshua

  87. GF Avatar
    GF

    I think we all struggle to know what the Christian life looks like in the midst of the Modern Project and all that we have been taught. A metaphor came to mind last night that is helping me picture it and my “job”: it is as if we are on a large cruise ship that is moving from one port to a distant one. The purpose for each passenger is to enjoy the view and help everyone else enjoy it as well. After all, that’s what the Cruise is about—being “one” with the Cruise Creator and all those He created. That entails doing our share of the work to keep the ship afloat and the people and other passengers well cared for (cooking, navigating, maintaining the ship, being kind and loving, etc) Part of my job, too, is to spend some time on deck taking it all in—that 20-30 minutes a day that Hopko suggests that we sit in silence. For those who follow that course, the Cruise becomes a taste of the Kingdom—fulfilled, ultimately, at the end of the journey. The image of people running around on deck trying to make it better or change the Itinerary is almost comical—when it is not demonic. It’s a great view today from my part of the ship—time, though, to go scrub the decking. It is my part and it is good.

  88. drewster2000 Avatar
    drewster2000

    Anita,

    “I wonder if our modern unhappiness and frustration comes from realizing that we are not special, just ordinary beings that exist for a brief moment in the larger scheme of things.”

    Yes! It’s back to the sin of the Garden: pride. Making a difference sounds like such an altruistic thing to do with your life, but driving it all is just plain old pride. If my real purpose is just “lived in accordance with the commandments. We should love. We should forgive. We should be generous and kind. We should give thanks to God always and for everything”, that’s not only boring (from the outside) but it doesn’t promise us any kudos or renown. Frankly it sucks! And there is no way we can see “progress” on our self-made agenda from this vantage point.

    We are NOT special – at least not by what we do, but rather by who we are (children of God) and therefore we have no control over our position or level of “specialness” – and then we die.

    That can’t be the answer, so we go about trying to write the story our way and remake the world in our image.

    But every good thing is found through the door of its opposite. Our world all becomes right when we give up the position of world changer and simply live as one of His children, loving what He puts in our lives and just being who He made us to be – and not trying to make a difference.

  89. Jodi Avatar
    Jodi

    I appreciate your post. It presented a lot of good things to think about. However, I also believe that God absolutely has a plan for every human life or else He wouldn’t have created them. And if I truly believed that my life doesn’t make a difference, then I wouldn’t be living in the Middle East working with Syrian refugees.

    So I see what you’re saying and your points are good but life doesn’t ultimately boil down to obeying God’s commands only. It’s also a call to believe Him to do great things- even greater things, one might say…

  90. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Jodi,
    God will do great things indeed. But He has not given to us to plan His great deeds, or even to know what they are many times. I mean “your life doesn’t make a difference” in the secular meaning of the term. We are not the cause of the Kingdom of God.

    It is God Himself who makes the difference, and He sometimes does it through us. But if, for example, we actually knew that our lives would make a tremendous difference, it would eat us up.

    Suppose, to take a silly example, it were revealed to me that 200 years from now, a small series of articles I had written were going to change everything and for the better. (Very ludicrous). But such knowledge would destroy me. I would not be able to do what I do, and my arrogance would be insanity.

    We don’t need to know what difference anything makes – indeed, we simply cannot know such a thing. Most of what is true and real about anything and everything is hidden and known only to God.

    So, the question is whether we can do good and keep the commandments without actually knowing how important we are?

    It is said in the Fathers that God sustains the universe in existence through the prayers of a very few. And the identity of the very few is not known – even to them. There they are, the most important difference-makers in the universe, and they are clueless. If that is true, then perhaps you and I can go about our days doing good and keeping the commandments without needing to know how important it is or whether it makes a difference.

    “Making a difference” is all about the ego, not the Kingdom.

    Jodi, you say that your are convinced that God has a plan for our lives. That is undoubtedly true. But if you think you know what the plan is, then you are mistaken. I have no idea whether I will be alive tomorrow or not, and neither do you. Consider the rich fool. He thought he had years of leisure ahead of him, but his soul was to be required that very night.

    God’s plan is just that, God’s plan. It is not your plan or my plan. And it is for God’s purposes alone.

  91. drewster2000 Avatar
    drewster2000

    GF,

    Great analogy concerning the cruise ship. In fact you could also say that there is one group thinking that the ship is headed to some wonderful utopian destination which will actually cause the great ship to be a thing of the past, simply a means to an end.

    And there’s another group who recognizes that their main purpose is to “enjoy the view and help everyone else enjoy it as well…being “one” with the Cruise Creator and all those He created.”

    As Fr. Stephen says it comes down to not knowing our place. ““Making a difference” is all about the ego, not the Kingdom.”

  92. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    Fr. Freeman, I am new to your blog but let me share with you that I’m fairly certain God wanted me to read this post at this particular time in my life. I’ve always shared in the general sentiment of what you state with simplicity here, but these words run deep. I have much to ponder. And then, when I read a little more, particularly your words about Beauty and Aesthetics – and when I saw the four authors you have listed under Culture – well, let’s just say that I realize that I’ve stumbled upon Real Treasure in the midst of all that twinkling glitter that is *not* gold on the Internet. I am looking forward to reading more of your words, and learning more about Orthodoxy.

  93. Alan Avatar
    Alan

    Thank you Father for this outstanding article. The problem, I believe, is that many, many of us who call ourselves Christian, are actually devout modern, secular, humanists. Thank you for blowing the lid on this. It’s helped me greatly. Your repeated statements that all we’re really to do is to keep the commandments, love our neighbor, etc are deeply freeing.

  94. Michael Avatar
    Michael

    I’m wondering how you apply this to social movements like civil rights and women’s rights.

  95. Nicholas Avatar
    Nicholas

    Tom (aka Volkmar), thank you for the Capon quote! It is very appropriate.

    I often think of Fr. Stephen as the Orthodox Robert Capon. Both in terms of provocative writing, but also theologically, “the unmoral Christian” is very very Capon-ian.

    I’d be really interesting to hear what you think about that, Fr. Stephen. (If you are familiar with Capon–if not, well, he’s fantastic.)

  96. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    A perfect case in point Father, the automobile is a good illustration of what you have been saying. As I sit here addressing my computer I am remembering the days before such things. I got the mail once a day and it took me a few minutes to read it and a few more to respond. Now I get buried in E Mails (I had nearly 30 from this blog to read) and have spent my whole morning slogging my way through these and the many others I have received. Is this really progress? I think not. I have more “Face Book” friends but I have fewer intimate and real relationships.

  97. Marissa Avatar
    Marissa

    Niki, many have been saved by advances in technology. Many more have been killed: see abortion and modern (20th century) warfare. It is only technologically advanced societies that can kill in such tremendous numbers (60 million abortions in America alone since 1975). I would rather live in a world more than 100 years ago where abortion was simply not as possible and widespread as it is today if it meant more women dying in childbirth, and I say that as one of those women who would have died if it weren’t for modern technology. It is better to suffer doing the right thing than to avoid suffering doing the wrong thing.

  98. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael,
    There is what some call the point of diminishing returns. With a certain amount of effort, you achieve 95 percent of your goal. The remaining 5 percent, however, will take almost infinitely more effort.

    The Civil Rights Movement, in its opposition to Jim Crow laws and similar things was absolutely great and necessary. But then, there comes the remaining 5 percent to reach some sort of non-racist utopia. Truth told, you never reach it, but you create a perpetual industry (especially in politics) that sloganizes the 5 percent and never goes away (nor makes much “progress” at all).

    On women’s rights, I would say that I’m completely flummoxed by the topic. On the whole, it has been a tremendous failure in that it has been driven by the wrong questions and thus with the wrong goals. It has focused primarily on economic issues and political issues, reducing women to economic and political units. But the expense has been the family.

    The truth is that the human race (and most animals) are binary. All of the nonsense that suggest otherwise is nonsense. We are created male and female. And an absolute priority is the procreation of children and their stable nurture. That requires the family and always has. This most fundamental aspect of human existence has been treated as “plastic” and infinitely variable – with the cost being paid by children.

    When a couple wants to get married, but their primary questions are about how do they both fulfill their careers, I think they are not ready to get married and have children. They “might” both have careers. But the true career of both of them should be centered in the home, church and children. Everything else is just a job.

    But the progressive movements of various sorts, particularly when they extend beyond an immediate and obvious good, simply produce misery. We are “progressing” away from being human. And it shows.

  99. Reid Avatar
    Reid

    Well said, Marissa.

    David Bentley Hart has written eloquently on a shift that took place in the late Western Middle Ages in which the thinkers of the time began to treat will as prior to nature (a view, as I recall, that Hart says is logically impossible). In consequence, the word “freedom” changed meaning. To traditional Christians and even ancient pagans, freedom meant the unhindered realization of one’s nature. A man is free when he fulfills his nature, which is to be in the image of God. God is perfectly free in that He never acts contrary to His own perfect goodness. With will prior to nature, however, freedom came to mean unfettered expression of one’s will. A man is free when he can do whatever he wants. God is perfectly free in that He is utterly sovereign, no one being able to stay His hand.

    The latter, false, kind of freedom is the premier, perhaps the exclusive “virtue” recognized by our society. Yet for the man whose heart is not pure, such freedom constitutes abject slavery: he wills much that is contrary to his nature (i.e., that is unlike God), and nothing hinders his carrying out what he wills.

    Technology develops to facilitate the accomplishment of man’s will. Until we so resemble Christ that we will what He wills, that is a terrifying prospect. We may indeed develop technology to save mothers and babies, but we will use it to kill our own children in unthinkable numbers. This, as I understanding it, is why the Lord mercifully confused the languages at Babel, to save men from the slavery and perdition of achieving all that they will.

  100. Mary Ellen Avatar
    Mary Ellen

    I agree with you Father Stephen on the issue of women’s rights having experienced the downside first hand. As a young mother I thought I could do it all and it led to so much unhappiness on my part which was passed on to my children. I was blessed with a child in my forties and made the hard decision to quit work. I cannot tell you the difference it has made in my family and for my own salvation. I feel that I have been given the greatest gift in the world. This whole post has made me so grateful for Orthodoxy and the Church. What a refuge from the insanity of the world!

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