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.



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

  1. Byron Avatar

    Jodi, you say that your are convinced that God has a plan for our lives. That is undoubtedly true…..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.

    Wonderful conversation in this thread!

    As a side note, I have taken a bit of an “opposing” view to the idea that God has a plan for our lives. I don’t dis-believe this but have observed that, to many people, it quickly comes down to God having a plan “for MY life” and I tend to think of that as an ego-centered viewpoint. My regular rejoinder is to say, “If you want to find God’s Will, leave yourself out of it.”

    In the same way that, if we want to know the opinion of someone else, we cannot interrupt and try to bring their view(s) in line with our own, trying to find God’s Will requires that we stop looking through the lens of our own desires and/or plans. Essentially, as has been stated here many times, follow the commandments, do good as you have opportunity, etc…. God often reveals Himself in these things and when He becomes so clearly present, we can more easily know and follow His Will. Just my thoughts.

  2. B. Preston Avatar
    B. Preston

    Nice article. Reminiscent of the 1985 hit song ‘Road To Nowhere’ by the Talking Heads. Its worth reading the lyrics.

    Of the song David Byrne said, “I wanted to write a song that presented a resigned, even joyful look at doom. At our deaths and at the apocalypse… (always looming, folks). I think it succeeded. The front bit, the white gospel choir, is kind of tacked on, ’cause I didn’t think the rest of the song was enough… I mean, it was only two chords. So, out of embarrassment, or shame, I wrote an intro section that had a couple more in it.”

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Actually God’s plan, His will, is quite clear: In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1Th 5:18)

    In the prayers of the Orthodox Church, when we ask things from God, we pray for “those things in accordance with our salvation.” And, for us, that means the working out of our lives towards our final healing and union with God. Nothing more, nothing less. We assume that in saying this we are blessing God and saying yes to everything He must (will) do in our lives to bring that about. I sometimes warn people, “Salvation can be a very messy business.”

    The working out of our salvation is a very mysterious thing. I think that this is not nearly about “what should I do with my life?” My thoughts on “what should I do?” are “Do the best you can and obey the commandments.” But this deep burning desire we have to think that the plan of my life is for some other greater good, etc.” is just an echo of the modern project. Believe me, people almost never thought this way prior to a couple of hundred years ago. It’s really an illusion about things we cannot know.

    I saw an interview with the Bishop of Alaska (back in the 80’s). They asked him about success and he said that “Success cannot be measured in terms of seminaries built, or churches built, etc. Success can only be measured in the Kingdom of God.”

    So unless I personally know how God is going to bring about His kingdom and my salvation, then I have no idea what “plan for my life” really means.

    I’ve been through many changes over the years. I was on what looked like a career trajectory in the Episcopal Church, and I was doing “fairly well.” When I became Orthodox, suddenly, I thought I would live out my days in a backwater, mostly as a worker priest in a storefront mission. I certainly had no idea that I would be writing, traveling, speaking, being translated, etc.

    And I dare not make any trajectory from this point forward. In the blink of an eye, the same thing that gave me a heart attack 2 years ago could give me a stroke and leave me unable to do anything (or kill me). And that is the nature of our lives.

    So, the question is, what do I do today?

    When you’re young, you obviously do some things that are directed towards the future. And you do your best. Just don’t be surprised when the future is not what you planned (it pretty much never is).

    God’s plan for my (our) lives: “He is gathering together into one, all things in Christ Jesus.” Ephesians 1

    I’m just trying to stay on the bucking bronco of my life until it’s done. With my last breath, I would like to quote St. John Chrysostom, “Glory to God for all things!”

  4. Jakob Avatar

    Thank you for a timely post Fr. Stephen,

    I know it probably is a bit “cheesy” but history really is His-story. As you say so well we tend to believe that we can decide the outcome of history, well it wasn’t ours in the first place… It is His. At the bottom of all this is pride. I myself often believe that I can change things for the better but if I take a second to pray (which I often fail to do) I realize quickly that I can not know the eschatological outcome of my action, particularly pertaining to anyone else then myself. That being said I believe it needs to be clarified that as part of Christ’s body in the world we are able, by the Holy Spirit, to make the reality of the Heavenly Kingdom known in the world when we submit to the will of the Lord. This is not progression, it is transformation. It is not progression, it is procession. It is not progression it is incarnation. The language the modern project utilized to promote it’s creed, “I can change the world for the better by my own” has obscured the language of prayer by way of noise. The modern project needs noise to thrive. I can’t change the world, but I can ask the Lord in the stillness of my heart to change me more and more into His likeness. The eternal I AM calls us to turn to Him, meet Him. To do that we need to leave earthly cares behind.

  5. Carmelita Lindner Avatar

    Thank God! I really enjoyed reading your article. I will try to do my job, and try to be less frustrated when I try to teach the little ones.

    Thank you.

  6. EPG Avatar

    Tom (aka Volkmar), I want to join Nicholas in thanking you for the quote from Robert F. Capon.

    Nicholas, I also have noted parallels between some of the things our host here has written and some of Capon’s ideas, and wondered if Capon was in some way drawn to Orthodoxy, but, for some reason, just couldn’t make the leap (he was an Episcopalian until his death a couple of years ago). I am certain that he was well versed in the Fathers, but don’t know if he had any exposure to later Orthodox writings.

    More generally . . .

    Somewhere in Mere Christianity (I have not had time to look it up), C.S. Lewis writes something to this effect: You cannot harness Christianity to some secular project, and expect to make anything of it. In other words, movements directed to “Christianity and World Peace,” “Christianity and Ending Poverty,” or “Christianity and Vegetarianism,” or “Christianity and Social Progress” are bound to fail, and you will end up with neither the Kingdom nor World Peace. On the other hand, Lewis adds, if you devote yourselves solely to the Kingdom of God, who knows what might follow in its wake?

    The sentiment seemed congruent with what our host is arguing (at least to me).

    Finally . . .

    As I read the original post, and many of the comments, I thought of a passage from Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, one of the great science fiction novels.

    A nuclear war and its aftermath have destroyed civilization, and nearly destroyed humanity itself. An order of Catholic monks preserves a few remnants of that civilization (ours). Eighteen hundred years after the “Flame Deluge,” a proto-scientist of the new emerging civilization—a firm believer in “progress”—visits the monastery in the North American desert to view the scraps that the monks have preserved (“The Memorabilia”). He wonders how it was that so great a civilization could destroy itself. The abbot replies that perhaps it was because the old civilization was great technologically, but in little else.

    For those who have not read it, I highly recommend “Canticle” as a worthwhile meditation on the futility of the illusion of progress.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    EPG, et al,
    On the similarity to Capon. I read a book of his (one), in the 1980’s. It’s fault was like many Protestant problems. He was right about something, but made it the only thing. In Orthodoxy, if things are done correctly, then everything is much more integrated. Capon understood something about grace, but did not have that something integrated into the ontological approach of Orthodoxy. It made his work suspect at times.

    I liked the Canticle for Liebowitz. Also read it in the 80’s. Interesting book.

    I’m really glad that someone quoted St. Theophan the Recluse earlier, with full approval of what has been posted here. I’m not writing anything new, but applying what is old to what is novel. It is the theories of modernity that are novel. That most people are deluded is not novel.

  8. Byron Avatar

    Many thanks for your continued explanation, Father. I very much need and appreciate your guidance!

    The modern project needs noise to thrive.

    This is interesting on more than one level, Jakob. A very insightful observation, I think!

  9. Thomas Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Thank you for elaborating on this difficult topic. Can I bring in the fight against modernity as “a Christian’s most important struggle” or focus (I may be misrepresenting Fr Thomas Hopko’s words here) for clarification?

    Some Elders have said that “keeping the faith” will be the ultimate test of holiness, when performing miracles will be impossible due to our sinfulness. Others have at times raised alarm about topics such as the coming of Antichrist, the mark on barcodes, warning against using ATMs and so on. It would be unfair to mention names because these Elders who may have become saints were also people, with weaknesses and a narrow understanding of the world. It is a slippery path to take disparate comments and make them dogma, I have seen people suffer as a consequence of following what you have eloquently described “a path to nowhere”.

    For those of us who read here and are seeking the truth in the Ortodox way of living, this is a key issue: modernity is our reality and we are members of our generations. Is the struggle an internal one against sin and thoughts, passions and inclinations? Must we pay attention to the external enemies or ignore them altogether? I’m not tempting you, this is not an easy question to answer and even holy Fathers have said opposite things. I am looking for some guidance and I will accept it with an open heart.

    However overwhelming it may seem to attempt to maintain a traditional way of life, celebrating major Orthodox feasts while at work, we have Christ as long as we live. We call his name, or at least we try to pray within the confines of our spiritual poverty.

    Is there a fear that by constantly bringing the danger to mind we lose our inner peace? This may be an issue to me alone, but if I have 5′ of solitude a day, I would rather say the Jesus prayer than worry about the decadence of the modern world. I have a young daughter who is exposed to all sorts of militant secularism; we go to Church on Sundays and pray, we struggle with the modern contempt of our faith. Christ sees this and hands out his Grace. Isn’t that more than enough? Is this not out societal self-inflicted σκωλωψ (challenge?)

    This too shall pass, the world is not getting better or worse, in God’s plan who knows how this may turn out?

    I also suspect that definitions are failing us; where some of say “better” we may mean “more comfortable”. Few truly seek hardship and most of them are dedicated to a life struggle to empty themselves for God to enter. Fr Aimilianos writes with authority on seeking discomfort and my good friend Dinos is a master on Elder Aimilianos.

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    While any number of the passions present a more immediate and sometimes painful struggle, the challenges presented by modernity are all-pervasive. I think that there are many people who will go down a modern path and yet find salvation. Many people commenting here are only just now hearing anything about the nature of the problem.

    It’s a set of temptations. Learning to identify them and live with Christ as our anchor and our hope is just the job of living that’s been given to us. The really strange aspect of this is that everyone around you will think in modern terms. The last time I was in England, for example, the young 20-somethings I was with had never heard anyone question progress. There were some very interesting conversations that followed. It’s there in the Fathers (as the quote from St.Theophan illustrates). It is interesting to me to read Dostoevsky, in that he was writing at a time when many of the ideas of modernity were first being espoused in some of their present form. His insight about it is as good today as it was then.

    The critique of modernity isn’t just an Orthodox thing. There are even secular philosophical works that question it (particularly in that it’s just not true).

  11. Dino Avatar

    Even the mere perception that our heart is troubled, including being troubled with our worries on the subject of modernity’s asphyxiation of our spirit, allows us to know and say that: ‘I have turned all my attention to these worries — forgetting Christ’. But it is Christ we need to awaken (Mark 4:38), that is the only essential, because only His peaceful presence can truly transform our thoughts and bring about His immense calm, even in the midst of this great tempest. We desperately need to guard and nurture our focus on Him who is our only strength. I find Father Stephen’s clarifications on Modernity’s corrosive indoctrination a necessary assistance to the indispensable spiritual watchfulness that has the power to guard our joy in the midst of a myriad (modern) assaults to it.

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Want a relief? Listen to Pentatonix version of Mary did you know? A 5 person a capella group that produces incredible music.

  13. Panayiota Avatar

    All the cities man has ever built have only payed homage to Satan. It started as far back as Nemrod and the Tower of Babel.

  14. Nicholas Avatar

    Re: Capon

    Father, it’s interesting that you say “[h]e was right about something, but made it the only thing” because at one point Capon defines heresy as throwing out what you don’t like in Christianity and (little-o, at least) orthodoxy as keeping everything, holding it all together. The latter was his modus operandi, as far as I can tell.

    You know, having read several of Capon’s books, I’m wracking my brain to think of something Orthodox that he did not say or something he said that is not Orthodox. It’s actually quite hard!

    He does not talk explicitly about theosis or deification. But he does talk quite a bit about self-emptying, very much in the vein that you do, Father.

    I thought for a moment that maybe it is the Church that he misses. But, although he does not talk much about, say, the lives of the saints, he talks quite a bit about his very Schmemann-esque sacramental theology. (EPG, perhaps this is where he read some contemporary Orthodox writers?)

    Capon does not use the ontological language of the Fathers, per se, but I think arrives at the same conclusions. It is important to remember that he was reacting primarily against legalism in his Protestant tradition. He wanted to throw out the entire legal metaphor. What was important for him was who can raise the dead.

    He reads everything through the lens of grace, even the Last Judgment. But this is not far off from what I’ve seen from many Orthodox, in particular I’m thinking of Fr. Hopko. And his eschatology follows C.S. Lewis.

    The only real contradiction I can think of is that his moral views may have differed a bit from traditional Christianity. Yet he still had a rich view of our God-given natures, Creation, and our place in it; you get that from reading The Supper of the Lamb.

    I’d love to know what you found suspect, Father. Forgive me, I love the man.

  15. Thomas Avatar

    Thank you, Father Stephen.
    Each word you have chosen has struck a different cord- what a contrast to the dissonance of my modern life!

    I read the Democratic Man article again and it was of great comfort to my soul. It is challenging to oppose the erosion of tradition and do it in gracious way, without offending or alienating those around us. I want my family to live with love for Christ and at times I react spasmodically to a specific “threat”: music, modern art and popular culture.

    Incidentally, art critics have often said that we haven’t produced anything of merit for 4 centuries- a bit harsh, but the modern project is killing creativity and imagination and forcing a mind-numbing easily digestible culture. It has many names but it is ugly and Christ has no place in it. And we never mention death or we will be ostracised.

    The millennials often surprise me with their insight; I don’t understand them nor can I mix well with them. But those 20 somethings have more inquisitive minds and are looking for the truth more than my generation (branded X). They don’t conform and don’t simply accept theses. They challenge the status quo and are not afraid of being wrong. If they find Christ they will be fervent in their belief and not lukewarm or indifferent like some of us.

    We should very much look forward to resuming our dialogue with them and you in England! Glory to God.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You’re probably quite right in your take on Capon. I read him back in the 80’s, as an Episcopal priest. I liked his radical take on grace, but in the hands of many readers (Anglicans), that take on grace was just license. Wrong message to the wrong people.

    That left a warning bell in my head. But most of the warnings back then were “revisionist beware!” or something like that. Within Orthodoxy it’s just not the same. In Protestantism it’s very easy to simply work in the forensic model, of Grace versus Law. When Grace triumphs, the Law loses. The Law is an enemy. And it’s hard not to hear that in any conversation.

    It is a reason for me that the foundation of the ontological approach (which is simply the Orthodox approach) needs to be firmly established. We are not part of the Grace-Law conversation. Even the Law is grace within Orthodoxy. And grace burns as well as gives light, though even the burning can be sweet.

    I well imagine that Capon, read within an Orthodox setting, would come off differently. At the time I read him, I was in a growing war. Every crack in the door threatened to let the train come roaring through. Of course, the door cracked, the train came, and carried off the bulk of Anglicanism with it.

  17. Joe Avatar

    I wonder if God is allowing the enlargement of modernity (and all that entails) in order to ultimately make its falseness all the more apparent. Of course men will exhaust themselves with new ideologies and rehashes of old ones, the implications of which are long since forgotten or ignored, but this too is nothing new.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “I wonder if God…” pretty much says it all.

  19. Christopher Avatar

    “Want a relief? Listen to Pentatonix version of Mary did you know? A 5 person a capella group that produces incredible music.”

    Thanks for the tip Michael. Whenever I hear singers changing pitch that fast and nailing the middle of the note with K.D. Lang like precision (as the women do in the first part of the song) I think “Auto-Tune”…the modern project strikes again! Still, it is an enjoyable recording.

    “Incidentally, art critics have often said that we haven’t produced anything of merit for 4 centuries”

    I understand the sentiment, but it is not correct. True, the “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” aspect of modernism has created more bad art than good, but there are still diamonds in the rough. This is especially true in literature and music. It does seem the “visual arts” have suffered the most from modernism…

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Christopher and Michael,
    The desire and drive towards beauty (and Beauty) are “hard-wired” into human beings. It is part of our nature. Art will always rebound despite the intellectual and emotional onslaught. God gets the last laugh and it is one of transcendent joy.

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I am sure there is layering going on but I heard them sing on live TV they are amazing. Sweet Honey in the Rock is another a capella group who sing beautifully

  22. Agata Avatar


    Could you post some links to the music you are talking about?

    Thank you!

  23. Christopher Avatar

    “Sweet Honey in the Rock is another a capella group who sing beautifully”

    oooh, I like these gals alot! Listening now to their 2013 “Live! Jazz at Lincoln Center” via Tidal “Hi-Fi” 16/44 service. It’s a monthly subscription service Agata – you can try services that stream for free like Slacker Radio or Google Play, though these stream music in compressed formats – only Tidal streams loss-less. This may not matter to you depending on the fidelity of your music playback chain…

  24. Agata Avatar


    Thank you, I will look for the free sources, just wondered what to search for… One cannot possibly subscribe to everything available these days…. 🙂

    BTW, I am saving a couple copies of the “”Killer Prayer” booklet for you and Michael. Maybe you missed seeing my offer to share them with Fr. Stephen’s followers on the blog…. It’s the most beautiful reflection on our life of prayer, recommended by Dino, so to me no further qualification is needed. Indeed it’s most beautiful and helpful guide for us who struggle to begin to follow the hesychastic path while living in the world. I thought it would be appropriate to mention it to you and Michael at the end of this amazing conversation over the past few days….

    (just email me your snail-mail contact at my gmail address “agatamcc”. And of course disregard this message if you are not interested, maybe Fr. Stephen can delete it later…)

  25. John Timothy Avatar
    John Timothy

    Christopher – Thanks for cluing me in to the rage, it appears, for a cappella song. I don’t watch much TV or listen to much radio anymore. Been about 10 years now. I grew up singing only a cappella in church as I was born and raised in the Churches of Christ I really missed it while I was wondering through various churches looking, as it turned out, for Orthodoxy. Very pleased that I’m back to singing once again “as in the church”. Far superior to anything I ever heard accompanied by a rock band.

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Just go to Youtube and search for Pentatonix Mary did you know. That’s how I saw it.

  27. EPG Avatar

    To Nicholas—how wonderful it is to come across someone who loves Capon as much as I do (although I share some of Fr. Stephen’s concerns about some of Capon’s conclusions).

    To Fr. Stephen—I think you may actually have hit the nail on the head with respect to Capon. He was addressing legalism, but did not have the ontological vocabulary that, as I understand things (in part through this blog), permeates Orthodoxy. As a result, Capon’s insistence on radical grace probably could indeed lead some to license—especially in the context of the Episcopal Church. In reading his books, I sometimes thought that Capon did not make enough of the destructive power of sin, and, in rejecting a jurisprudential model of grace, did not know what to make of it (although he did caution that it could wreak havoc on people’s lives).

    Nicholas has discerned some parallels with Schmemann’s work, but, as far as I know, Capon never explicitly recognized any Orthodox writer in his books. It’s a curious thing.

    In any event, my favorite Capon book is one of his earlier works: “The Supper of the Lamb.” It’s a delightfully eccentric treatise on cooking through the lens of theology (or a treatise on theology through the lens of the kitchen—take your pick). It does not address his later concerns about grace over legalism, but is a spectacular meditation on the goodness of creation, and on how our most mundane actions can anticipate the Feast of the Kingdom of God. A terrific antidote to the temptation to assume a two story universe—Capon’s cosmos is most assuredly a single story. And, in that respect at least, Capon is also skeptical of modernity.

  28. Christopher Avatar

    John Timothy,

    It was Michael who clued us in – thanks Michael! John, if you have not already check out the free services of Pandora, Google Play, Slacker Radio, Tidal,etc. How these work is you put in one (or more) artist, say “Sweet Honey in the Rock” or “K.D. Lang” and it creates a ‘radio station’ that plays other music similar to your chosen artist and the kind you will like (based on computer algorithms that work so well it is sort of creepy). It is a great way to discover music – much superior to the “olden days” where we would listen to FM radio or browse a record store looking for something we might like. Frankly, these services got me back into music. They have every conceivable genre (I am mostly classical and jazz myself and I discover new music all the time). For the beginner, Pandora is a good service to start with as it has the most intuitive user interface and their algorithms are probably the best. Use the free services at first – no reason to $spend$ in the beginning. Pay attention to something called “bitrate” – the higher the better. You will be surprised with how much Orthodox chant/choir music you will find.

    Fair warning however, those computer sound card/speakers/earbuds you are likely using (made in China with parts that cost less than $1.50) are gong to be a (very) limiting factor. The good news is that by spending just a little bit more, you can get fidelity that just a few years ago would cost you a small fortune…

  29. Tom (aka Volkmar) Avatar


    I’m glad you and other saw some relevance in the Capon quote as pertains to Father Freeman’s topic. Capon was well versed in the Fathers. Augustine seems to have been one of his favorites judging by his extensive use he makes of Augustine in his last book Genesis, the Movie. Sometimes I also tend to think that RFC was something of a “closet” Orthodox because of his penchant for Trinitarian theology with a large order of Sacramentalism.

    I read Miller’s A Canticle For Leibowitz sometime in high school and found it extremely interesting. I have never forgotten it. I suspect that novel predisposed me to be attracted to the seemingly “timelessness” of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions. (I graduated from high school in 1972.)

  30. Tom (aka Volkmar) Avatar


    You have written accurately about Robert Capon. I just want to insert/add one thing…

    Capon wasn’t as much interested in “legalism” as what he was exercised against the faux “gospel” of Transactionalism — which was and still is the heretical life blood of the Reformation and the American Evangelical Circus.


  31. Tullius Avatar

    “God takes care of history.”

    So true.

    I referenced your post a couple times during a discussion with my students about Crime and Punishment. At some point we got to the somewhat typical question about utilitarian reasoning, “Would you have killed Hitler?” Fortunately some began to understand the dark impulses of Modernity, but most of their poor intuitions couldn’t get past what seemed like a “morally justifiable” murder. We think we’re in a position to evaluate global and historical outcomes. If I were a bit more quick-witted I might have said, “Don’t you think that if God had wanted Hitler dead, He could have done it without your input or assistance?” Of course, not everyone in there believes in God.

    All that to say, thank you again for another great source extended reflection.

  32. Ann K Avatar
    Ann K

    This from Father Kalomiros in “Against False Union” is apt: “Any attempt on the part of Christians to change the course the world has taken would be futile and ridiculous. The world is a sinking ship and it is sinking because its very structure is rotten. God does not ask the Christian to save the ship, but to save as many of the shipwrecked as he can.”

  33. Byron Avatar

    Want a relief? Listen to Pentatonix version of Mary did you know? A 5 person a capella group that produces incredible music.

    Side note: I think the very best version of this is by Kathy Mattea. Not a capella but excellently sung.

  34. Josh Duncan Avatar

    Michael Bauman:

    The idea that technology transfers the suffering of the body to the soul has set my mind ablaze. Is that turn of phrase original with you? There’s a lot to be mined there, especially when you start digging into specific bits of technology.

  35. Wes Callihan Avatar

    This is an outstanding defense of, and Christian application of, Edmund Burke’s philosophy (and other more recent cultural conservatives like Russell Kirk, and many of the Southern Agrarian writers too). It’s also very much in the spirit of C.S. Lewis’s essay “De Descriptione Temporibus” (On the Description of Times). Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for writing this; it’s well worth sharing and rereading.

  36. Christopher Avatar

    “This is an outstanding defense of, and Christian application of, Edmund Burke’s philosophy (and other more recent cultural conservatives like Russell Kirk, and many of the Southern Agrarian writers too)…”

    Wes, just a small quibble but I think it would be more accurate to say that those thinkers were borrowing and “applying” a Christian understanding of man and history to their cultural and political contexts. Of course, they all came out of the Western Tradition but they rightly saw (at least in part) the ground and error of the modern ideal. They also (somewhat ironically) were tempted by certain “political solutions”, though at their best they recognized the limitations and futility of such ideas. Unfortunately they were swimming against the great tide of their culture, just as we are today…

  37. Nicholas Avatar

    Father, yes, I think you are right that Capon crucially lacked the language of ontology in his theology of salvation. I do think it is interesting, though, that the criticism of “license” is one that was made also of your “Unmoral Christian” piece. And both you and Capon heartily denied it!

  38. David W Avatar

    Hi Father,
    I agree with your critique of the notion of Progress. This to me raises the question of how institutions, namely the Church, respond to an objectively changing world. For instance we might look at the immiseration produced by the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. My understanding of history is that in previous eras the concerns of poverty would have laid in large part with the Catholic, Anglican Church. In the face of forced urbanization, weakening of clerical power, etc, the Church was unable to deal with increased levels of poverty. The result, in sum, was the emergence of workhouses, aka the Poor House, the State’s solution to the problem. Perhaps we should be trying to imagine an Alternate Universe Modernity where the Church, or some qualification of that term, was able to formulate a solution to people’s needs. In saying this, I grant you that the Orthodox Church seems validated in many ways that it precisely has refused to change. The liturgy, for instance, is (among other things) an affective refuge from the Modernity you critique.

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It was an interesting situation, historically, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. In many ways, the government prevented the Church from “evolving” with the times in a proper manner. For example, the populations shifted but the Church failed to accommodate the new location of parishioners. They were under-served. This, of course, was driven more by government policy and a Church that had already begun its present moribund path.

    Russia is an interesting renaissance of sorts. The Soviets completely stripped the Church of any involvement in eleemosynary work. With the fall of the Soviet system, the Church has returned to a traditional role, though I understand that the needs still greatly outstrip the resources.

    A recent proposal has been put forward from Church sources to look at an alternative economy – a banking system not based on usury.

    Here in the US, the OCA is slowly moving forward with the establishment of a “Church bank” for wont of a better term. It’s getting increasingly hard to get banks to loan money for things like Church buildings. The diocese of the South (my diocese) pioneered an effort and has been establishing its own “banking” program, in which parishes put their money in a common fund, managed by the diocese. It pays them interest (better than the banks do), and uses their money for loans within the diocese for things like new parish buildings. Those moneys are paid back. Fully 25 percent of the diocesan budget goes back to mission and church planting. It’s very much a growing diocese. The diocese of the West is getting ready to incorporate a separate entity to do something similar nationwide.

    I suspect we may see yet more creative approaches arising as the old order fades. The old ways are disappearing and necessity breeds invention.

    The Church is actually quite adaptable when it’s not being interfered with. There are things that must not change, but many things that can. Wisdom is knowing the difference.

  40. Agata Avatar

    Thank you so much for sharing Pentatonix Mary Did You Know! Is this possible that this is all a cappella? How can some human beings be so beautiful and talented at the same time!?

  41. Erik C. Young Avatar
    Erik C. Young

    I agree with your sentiment: Paul saying, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.” Certainly, I agree that all growth is God’s. I disagree, although not sure how vehemently, with your idea that the “difference” is somewhere “out there”, like some Platonic ideal, that only God should be concerned with. I think about controversial Christian characters of the 20th century who, when looking at their circumstances, said, “the hell with this.” People like Dorothy Day, Ammon Hannacy, Walter Rauschenbusch, and even Gustavo Gutierrez, people who kicked the bed of a sleeping American Church and created real change and, according to every metric I can imagine, made a difference.

    The same can be said for people like St. Innocent and St. Herman of Alaska who rigorously advocated for the native people of Alaska, often against their own countrymen. Or St. Silouan of Athos whose ascetic athleticism in praying for peace in the world greatly influenced people like Thomas Merton to strive to live up to that strenuous asceticism. Or St. Tikhon of Moscow who spread the Orthodox faith throughout North America. These aren’t people taking hold of history and steering it any particular direction other than toward the Kingdom of God. What was Paul doing on his missionary journeys if not making a difference? Why put the hand to the plow if not to change seed into fruit?

    I believe your fondness for the past, at times, strays wide of Tradition and into the realm of Traditionalism. Perhaps this colors your perspective with a blind idealism of the past. All things that I am guilty of as well.

    Anyway, I admire and appreciate your contributions to American Orthodoxy, and I very much enjoy your posts here and elsewhere. But I have no intention of ceasing my efforts to change my world for the better, that is, to make a difference. It’s my belief, through a thorough study of scripture and a lot of trial and error, that we can make a difference and would be remiss as Christians if we stopped trying. We just have to remember to give God the glory when His Kingdom is advanced.

    Χρόνια Πολλά!

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think you deeply misjudge me. I do not have a fondness for the past. I can think of no period in Church history that was ideal, or even less dangerous and screwed up than ours. I am way beyond any such thing. Nor will you ever find me having once written in a way that idealized any period of time. I hold the Tradition, but am not a Traditionalist. If you tend that way yourself, then you are simply projecting it on me.

    What I am saying about making a difference, etc., is a purely theological observation, rooted in the Fathers, Scripture and sound reasoning, as well as an accurate critique of modernity. Indeed, many of my teachers in the critique of modernity are not Orthodox – but across a theological spectrum. You might not be reading widely enough.

    Frankly Rauschenbusch and the project of the social gospel is not something to be admired. It had no vision of the kingdom, only an “improved” world, as measured by American bourgeois standards. Gutierrez, one of the fathers of Liberation theology. Sorry, but Marxism doesn’t cut it for me either. Too much blood.

    I do not think you can enlist St. Silouan or others in a modern program of world betterment. I think it’s a serious theological error that simply reads them into a general modernist scheme, such that any “improvement” you like equals “betterment of the world.” In that sense, Jesus was such a failure and could have done so much more.

    It’s a semantic game you’re playing with “difference.” Heck, just breathing air “makes a difference.” So, frankly, saying that someone makes a difference is meaningless. When popular usage, as engaged in these articles says “make a difference,” it means, making progress towards some particular (or generalized) goal. It carries a lot of baggage with it: planning, utilitarianism, etc.

    St. Paul doesn’t have a utilitarian bone in his body.

    Frankly, you need to read more and think more. The kingdom of God is not advanced – and you cannot find such an expression anywhere in the Scriptures nor in the Fathers. It is a co-opting of the Kingdom of God into man’s project – which was precisely what was done by Schlierermacher, Rauschenbusch and the larger part of the 19th and 20th century Protestant theological model. It has nothing to do with Orthodoxy, except where ignorance has left Orthodox Christians blind to its allure.

    Read more. Study more. Find out why I’m saying what I say. This stuff isn’t off the top of my head. Would you like a reading list?

  43. James3 Avatar

    Actually, Fr. Stephen, referencing your reply to Erik, many of us might appreciate seeing what you would put together as a recommended reading list, even if we don’t share his particular sentiments, questions, or opinions.

  44. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Agata, Mary Did You Know? is not fully A Capella but most of the work the group does is A Capella. Their bass is particularly creative in how he uses his voice to give the feeling of instrumentation.

    In addition to the added instrumentation on that track, their is clearly a lot of engineering of the music that has gone on. Very difficult to maintain simplicity when the sellers and marketers get involved. Still beautiful.

    My lovely wife downloaded their entire Christmas album and it is almost as lovely as she is.

    I hope they stay true to their roots.

  45. Agata Avatar


    Thank you, even if the music is “spruced up” a bit with technology, I don’t mind, it’s still beautiful. I hope I can figure out how to download that Christmas album your lovely wife downloaded… I did not have time to look into it yet….

    (I am still saving a copy of the Killer Prayer book for you [all gone now, thank you to all who asked for it]. Maybe I will bring it for you to SF for the next Lenten Retreat, Fr. Peter told me it is scheduled for the 5th Sunday in Lent, St. Mary of Egypt Sunday. If I remember right, you are in the area and came to Fr. Stephen’s talk…?)

  46. Sharon Joy Avatar
    Sharon Joy

    Father – bless!

    I second James the 3rd – a reading list please!

  47. Gene B Avatar
    Gene B

    I always understood that this world is ending. Certainly all of the Orthodox prophecies given to us by our Saints explain this clearly. For Christians, the Kingdom within is to be realized on the earth within the Church. But we all hope for the Kingdom that is to come, after Christ returns and we are resurrected.

    So my interpretation (and Father, correct me if I am wrong), is that our world is like an incubator, where we are subject to tremendous temptations so Christ can purify us through the fire. Especially today, those who can make it through the temptations will be purified and saved through them.

    I believe the only consolation for us Christians living in the modern age is to understand that no people before us have had such an amazing array of temptations laid before us and at the same time the ultimate freedom to indulge accordingly. At the same time, we must resist.

    I see God when people are handed over to sufferings. Without the sufferings the sinning couldn’t stop. For many, the only opportunity for salvation might be to suffer in the flesh through loss, pain and illness. We can’t really understand this. But I have seen it. I believe our God loves us so much that He will do what is necessary to save us.

  48. TimOfTheNorth Avatar

    I couldn’t help but think of this post as I heard Garrison Keillor recite Milton’s “On His Blindness” on the radio this week. Committed Protestant though he was, I think Milton captured the essence of patient and faithful dependence on God to do His own work.

    When I consider how my light is spent
    Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
    And that one talent which is death to hide
    Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
    To serve therewith my Maker, and present
    My true account, lest he returning chide,
    “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
    I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
    That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
    Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
    Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
    Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
    And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
    They also serve who only stand and wait.”

  49. tess Avatar

    Thank you for sharing the poem, Tim. It was a balm for my soul.

  50. Albert Avatar

    Father Stephen, I was glad for Eric’s comment, and surprised at how glad I was for your response. Both helped me a great deal. I need to read more too. But reading here is a great place to start. The ideas are expressed clearly and succinctly. Often I get lost in trying to follow booklength discussions. Again, thankyou for your work.

  51. dan Avatar


    Thank you for your service. In my opinion there is an unfortunately negative and naive view toward the use of force from many Christians. I agree with you that good (and sometimes rough) men are the only answer to bad men. Soldiering can be every bit as Christian an act as feeding, in fact there is sometimes no difference between them. Where it goes wrong is in service of the modern project instead of as an end in itself. I think the Chivalric knight pursued to partake in the Kingdom of God, not to create modern Utopia.

    Having said all that, in practice, I am at a loss to figure out how to justify military action in the modern age. In our current political system, winning a war is unlikely. Winning a war humanely is impossible. Our pragmatist governments and modern people lack a sense of virtue necessary to make any prolonged effort possible. When force is reduced to arm of politics, I don’t think it can be justified.

    Just as the farmer, the mechanic, and the teacher mentioned in this column have been displaced by modernity, I think so has the soldier. My thoughts on this are certainly evolving and I could well be wrong.

  52. philip Avatar

    Thought provoking post. Speaking of modernity, some suggest the idea of modernity was inaugurated with the birth of ” consumerism”. The BBC produced an excellent 4 part series exploring this idea a few years back called the Century of Self. Well done and disturbing :

  53. Byron Avatar

    Great series, philip; truly frightful. Thanks for posting the link!

  54. Seraphim2478 Avatar

    Very thought provoking article father, I appreciate the reality check. I also appreciate your recent book “Two Storey Universe”, I believe it will be handy and useful tool to illustrate a foundational difference between the Orthodox worldview and that of Christian sectarian worldview.
    I found this article very enlightening and refreshing, there is such an emphasis on “Performance and being a mover and a shaker”. It seems to me what you are saying is we are where we are, God is with us, and we must shed the mask, we must take off our Halloween costumes and allow God to reveal our true nature, to cooperate with His Grace through the keeping of the commandments and put on Christ! Wonderful Father you have helped me to better see where all this pressure comes from in my life, this constant urgency to become someone else and make the world a better place. I guess Mahatma Gandi was partially correct, ” Be the change you want to see in the world”, the change would be becoming Christ like and not changing the world through “Social engineering programs”. Lol

  55. Paul Avatar

    Do good work, but do not seek to encourage others to do the same. Do not call out evil. Do not raise awareness. Simply follow the commandments and say, “if others do too, that will be enough.” Pray that they do. Just don’t get involved beyond the letter of the commandments.

  56. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    That is a very uncharitable in incorrect reading of what has been said. I have said nothing about the letter of the commandments. In my experience, those who spend the most time telling everybody else what to do, and what they should do, actually do very little themselves. But telling others to do it, and “caring” about it deeply, seems to suffice.

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