The Cross and the One Ring of Power

The greatest trial surrounding the One Ring of Power in Tolkien’s novels, was the temptation to use it. No one (except for Sauron himself) seemed to think that they would do anything but good with the Ring. The Ring would protect Gondor; the Ring would bring order to the world (Saruman). And though it was indeed occasionally used to escape Trolls or to get friends out of Elfin prisons, every use drew the Ring-bearer deeper into a shadow world of non-being. Tolkien certainly wrote his novels in a manner that would allow them to stand on their own: they were not allegories. Nevertheless, he embedded in them a wisdom that transcends the bounds of Middle Earth. Modernity is the One Ring of Power.

The birth of modernity (the forging of the Ring) took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries driven by a fascination with the principles of rational science. With greater use of those principles has come greater power over many aspects of nature and our lives. This has been coupled with the myth of democratic empowerment, such that every citizen believes that a wonderful ability to change and shape the world is possessed by each. Everyman is a Ring-Lord.

The strange, even paradoxical, temptation of the Modern Project is to do good. That simple temptation becomes an irrefutable argument for taking up the Ring of Power. I was sitting in a doctor’s office recently, browsing magazines. There was an article about a young singer who was touted as “using her voice to end gun violence.” I’m sure she meant well, but the hyperbole is purely modern. No one will ever “end” gun violence. We will not “end” stick-violence, or knife-violence, or hand-balled-up-in-a-fist-violence. No doubt, many things could be done to lessen gun-violence. However, it is the nature of the Modern Project that we never seek to curb: we seek to cure.

This drive to cure (or “end”) is filled with a utopian assurance that has given rise to our many “wars.” We have a “war on drugs,” a “war on poverty,” a “war on terror,” and so on. The nature of modern war is “total.” When it is said that there is a “war” on something, there is an indication that no price is too high to pay for victory. That the war is long, even unending, is beside the point: it’s a war.

Though we can point to various changes wrought through the application of science, there is something we do not see. The power to do good has not produced good people. Those who wield the most power are the most easily corrupted. In Middle Earth terms, we are governed by wraiths.

The logic of the Ring sounds compelling. How can wielding the power to do good not be a good thing? In the context of Tolkien’s mythology, we understand the dangers. However, our modern myths fail to take account of the effect exercising power over others has on those who do so. And though many of us might argue that we have very little such power, our minds do not agree. We believe that we either do, or that we should. Our minds are rarely at rest within the context of our lives. We are all in danger of becoming wraiths, even if only from the anxiety of thinking about what should be done with all that power.

The New Testament presents the Crucified Christ as the image of God’s power. God does not act like a Supreme Ring Lord. When He acts, He yields a loving cooperation to His creation. He does not compel or force us. His power lies in His willingness to lay His life down for all. He tramples down death by death.

The mythology of modernity has created nicknames for those who would oppose its paradigm of power. Christians who choose the Cross are quickly labeled as “Quietists,” hinting that only Ring Lords are true Christians. It is worth noting that the disciples more than once wonder why Christ takes no action. They do not see that His action is a singular commitment to the Cross: He will not turn aside.

I have rarely encountered a Christian in the modern world who has renounced the Ring itself. We do not believe that our “empowerment” has corrupted us. We imagine that the right people, with the right power, exercised in the right manner will solve the problems of the world. We fail to see that none of us wielding power would be safer or more effective than the next.

The road to repentance begins with the renunciation of the world. The Lady Galadriel refuses the temptation:

“And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!”

She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illuminated her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.

“I pass the test”, she said. “I will diminish, and go into the West and remain Galadriel.”

The path of diminishment is the way of the Cross.

There is a “mind” of diminishment (Phil. 2:5-11). It is a willingness to be small and insignificant. I think that until we cultivate this mind within ourselves we will continue to be enthralled (literally) to the lure and lore of modernity. We will continue to imagine ourselves as the soldiers of reforming and reshaping power, the bringers of good into the world.

  • Do you think of yourself as part of a contingent that is saving/preserving your Church?
  • Do you worry about political/social issues and whether the right side is gaining ground?
  • Do you want to make a difference in the world?
  • Are you frequently provoked to anger by what you see around you?

These (and many similar things) are symptoms of a growing disease. They are mythic notions that draw us into a wraith-like existence.

Refuse the Ring. It is not ours to use or own. Throw it away.

I can already hear the many protests.

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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165 responses to “The Cross and the One Ring of Power”

  1. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Another quick thought: “all that goes on in the world” is what news outlets think they are telling us. They are telling us a tiny sliver of information that constitutes almost nothing. Everything that goes on in the world is just that – everything. We should ignore the fact that someone out there is telling us “this is what’s going on in the world.” They haven’t got a clue.

  2. Paula Avatar

    Dean…thank you for those questions. Your Gerontissa is wise!
    Father… your answers are most helpful. “Everything that goes on in the world is just that – everything. We should ignore the fact that someone out there is telling us “this is what’s going on in the world.” They haven’t got a clue.” I must remember that…I do recall you saying this in the past. Also want to check out the “pin app”.
    Oh, Dean….Minchen is a “her”?! Oh Mercy!

  3. Dean Avatar

    Wrong antecedent…I was referring to you! Lol

  4. Paula Avatar

    Dean….Oh! LOL!!!

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    My mistake…the app is called “pocket.”

  6. Chris M Avatar
    Chris M

    Very good point, Ben! I’d almost forgotten that even Frodo eventually succumbed to the power of the ring! I was so focused on the uniqueness of the little guy being the hero (at the time the novels were written it was still unique, I believe, even if the trope has been over-used in fantasy since then), that I neglected the importance of Bilbo’s pity and Frodo’s identification with Gollum. If not for that poor, pitiful creature and the mercy he was shown, Frodo would have delivered the ring right to Sauron’s front door.

    People joke about Tolkien’s deus ex machina – “The eagles are coming!” – but, Return of the King truly had a superb climax…

    But, that leads me back to my original argument: does Gollum’s importance negate the usefulness of Gandalf’s machinations and the fellowship’s struggles or does it simply suggest none of us will ever completely understand the role we’re playing in the grand scheme of things (and, to never discount the importance of the most pitiful among us) ?

  7. Paula Avatar

    Father…oh pocket! I have that on my toolbar…didn’t know what it was! Thanks!

  8. Learning to be still Avatar
    Learning to be still

    I recently watched the Ken Burns series on Vietnam. It is a story of smart, well-intentioned people trying to save the world. As a result, thousands were killed, maimed and wounded, and two countries/cultures were torn apart. Nothing else was accomplished.

  9. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    More and more they are telling us only what they want us to know and to influence our thinking. I was thinking also that if you set your filter to eliminate hate, you run the risk of Google cutting off any Christian news.

  10. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Learning to be Still
    Actually the numbers of those who perished in the 2nd Indo China War counting the dead of both sides climbs to nearly 2 Million. Those wounded and those traumatized number far more

  11. learningtobestill2016 Avatar

    Thank you for the correction, Nicholas. Decent people with the best of intentions, trying to save the world, ended up killing millions, maiming millions more, and tearing apart more families than we can imagine.

    We have been doing the same in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and I hear there may be plans for North Korea.

    One wonders how much longer the world can survive decent people with the best of intentions, trying to save the world.

  12. learningtobestill2016 Avatar

    Does anyone else remember this? I have never forgotten it.

  13. Chris Avatar

    I suppose it’s difficult to calculate the number of deaths caused by inaction.

  14. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Don’t forget Libya or all the South American countries we have “intervened” in over the years. The old adage is that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Now that we are the King of the Hill in the world for awhile our temptation to use the Ring is growing. When I was young, I was taught and the general consensus was that the US was a benevolent friend that sought justice and the American Way. It was even in the words of the beginning of the TV show Superman. We have become more like Saruman the White (remember he was a white wizard, allegedly good..) Father’s point is proved out in the examination of history and in the evening news (if they tell you.) The only answer is to refuse the Ring and go into the Uttermost West.

  15. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    I would bet more die from action than inaction

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Please note carefully that modernity and technology are not to be confused. Medicine, physics, etc., are not “modern.” The pre-existed the modern period. Modernity has wrapped itself in them such that any critique is defended with penicillin discoveries, modern dentistry, etc.

    Modernity is a philosophy, a set of ideas that can and has been clearly identified by many, many authors.

    Nor is what I’ve said an injunction not to “do good.” Modernity has no patent on doing good.

    Just to clear up some confusion and to respond to some unposted remarks.

  17. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Father, I hope and pray I haven’t stirred confusion. I am still very much a scientist (while no longer active teaching at the university) and God willing, I will grow in faith while using my capacity in science according to the needs of others ( ie not my own interpretation of their need) as an Orthodox Christian.

    Just in case, I will restate here briefly what I have written elsewhere in this blog. I’m now an Orthodox Christian and what led me to Christ was actually findings, specific data in physical chemistry. So through physical chemistry (ie not despite science but through science) Christ found and called me. This happened very likely because through the Grace of God and the effects of that Grace working through my Seminole culture-influenced childhood, my thinking was not so influenced by modernity when I explored atomic and subatomic phenomena. Rather, modernity shaped more of the political landscape I participated in while I took on the ‘power’ of professor, in which my professional mandate was to ‘reform’ the instutional structure of the university. I’ll stop there because a lot could be said on that subject and I don’t want to divert the conversation.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think it could be argued that the ideas described collectively as “Modernity” not only did not create or own technological change, but have perverted and distorted its natural course.

  19. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Yes, Father!

  20. Kristin Avatar


    Thank you for your clarifying thoughts. Some moments I can get there myself, but I am stunned by the allure the modernity has, and I almost imperceptibly to myself get swayed by its falsehood. Granted, I was raised a bit this way, and my family is full of type A overachievers…

    I like the image of doing what we do in life, in our own corners, while simultaneously reaching our hand to take hold of the Lord.

  21. Kristin Avatar


    Thank you for your encouragement! You are right, there are so many ways to home school! I am in Arizona, which allows us great freedom with little oversight.

    Every time I start the year with a plan, early on I wind up scrapping it due to circumstances. This year is no different, with a new wrinkle in my health. It’s discouraging. I’ve been challenged in this thread to really look to God, to pray (as if this is really a novel idea…), to let go of the many things and stick with the best things.

    As this is also our first year really experiencing the Orthodox Church, I am trying to relax a little. This is an enormous change, and, thanks be to God, some of our deeply held and destructive patterns are being addressed! But oh, how painful this can be…

  22. Kristin Avatar


    I am fascinated by your comments regarding science. I failed to see beauty in the sciences until I began to discover it through home schooling! Although I have always loved nature, I never cared to understand the descriptive language of science. And only in the last couple years have I been able to look around and ‘see’ science is everywhere.

    Oh how I would love to sit and hear you talk over coffee or tea…

  23. Bessarion Avatar


    Thank you for your reply. Thankfully I am not leaning on links such as the one posted for my education in Orthodoxy. I have followed Fr Stephen’s blog for some time now, and it has been the driving force behind my growing interest.

    God has also placed some dear friends in my path who have recommended great books, such as some of Bishop Ware’s work which I’ve read. He’s also granted me a very accessible priest locally, who’s been generous with his time, to say nothing of a few others I’ve conversed with through email.

    I’m distressed by things like the link I posted because I want the Orthodox Church to be what I want it to be, free from voices like those of the conservative right in this part of the world. Ultimately that doesn’t matter because it doesn’t matter what I want and Orthodoxy is a beautiful tradition that I’ve already gotten an abundance from in my short time of study. It’s not powerful men with talking heads; that’s just a small tidbit of it.

    Anyways thanks for your comment. Pray for me.

  24. fotina Avatar

    A Christian response to “Ring of Power”.

    On Tuesday, October 24, 2017, His Beatitude Patriarch John X of Antioch and All the East, and His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph, Primate of the Antiochian Archdiocese, were the guests of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom [1] in Washington, D.C. Video of their 70-minute discussion regarding the future of Orthodox Christianity in Syria and America is now available. The hierarchs addressed questions about the place of Christians and the Antiochian Church in the future of war-torn Syria, the role the Church has played in humanitarian assistance to the millions of people in need, and why Orthodoxy is finding renewed appeal in Western countries.

  25. Chris M Avatar
    Chris M

    Love these discussions that inspire me to research stuff! I’ve already had to dust off my copy of Lord of the Rings and I recently started reading about Tolkien’s life. Never knew he was catholic! Anyway, found a quote from one of his WWI letters on his Wikipedia page that I think sums up his thoughts on the topic of discusssion (power, anyway, not modernity):

    “The most improper job of any man … is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.”

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You haven’t memorized the LOTR? We gotta up your game! I read it when I was in high school (Maybe ’67). An aunt who taught college gave it to me for Christmas saying that the college students liked it. I’d never heard of it (and no one in my acquaintance had either). I got the flu. Read the hobbit, and managed to stretch my convalescence through the LOTR. It wasn’t until about ’70 that I found other readers. In college and seminary I worked my way through the canon of material of all the Inklings – did my senior thesis in seminary on Barfield. I’ve never, ever, been out of love with the whole group.

    At a large, national Orthodox gathering, in 1999, Met. Kallistos Ware brought a room of about 700 priests to their feet in cheers when he said, “As that anonymous-Orthodox writer, CS Lewis, said:” I knew then that I’d converted to the right place. Of course, I was in a room with a bunch of men wearing long robes and beards…chances were pretty much in my favor.

  27. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Many years to the Gandalfs in the Orthodox Church!

  28. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Chris you might find the Simarillion interesting too, especially the editions that have Tolkien’s letter to a publisher (or editor) —( it’s looks like I have to break out my copy too). In that letter he reveals some of his thinking which I found enriched my appreciation and capacity to grasp more of the deeper levels and intentions in his stories. Hope I’m not over indulging in my imagination by ascribing to Tolkien an Orthodox view of nature. Tolkien was clearly dedicated to Catholicism based on what I’ve read about his life. Perhaps there is unity expressed in his Catholic view and the Orthodox view in the way that Tolkien’s work was expressing ‘anti-modernity’, if my understanding is correct. Hopefully I’m not being too redundant here, but I find his view of nature very similar to my own in the way one might see, hear and perceive ‘unseen things’. My own intention is not to romanticize but to express what I see in/through science in an Orthodox manner.

  29. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Ahhh, Dee I too would live to spend time with you over coffee.

  30. Byron Avatar

    >And only in the last couple years have I been able to look around and ‘see’ science is everywhere.

    I find this very statement very interesting. I have backed away from calling the movements of Creation “science” and view science as our methods of studying the material universe within which we reside. Creation is what it is; science is our attempt(s) to understand and categorize (and control) it. Creation would exist even if we had not created science with which to study it. Perhaps I am drawing too “hard” a line between the two?

    >I’m distressed by things like the link I posted because I want the Orthodox Church to be what I want it to be, free from voices like those of the conservative right in this part of the world.

    Bessarion, I think you will find that Orthodoxy is, in many ways, quite conservative–but, and this is important, not in a political manner. Many will frame any public statement by a priest, bishop, or monk with a political leaning but it is best to simply ignore that bias and listen to what is actually being said within the context of the Church and Tradition. May God bless your journey!

  31. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Byron, I know your first question revolved around Kristin’s usage, so I cannot answer for her perspective but just my own. I’m still learning how to express my thinking about science, accustomed as I am to speaking to a science (specifically chemists) audience. In this case, I haven’t had a lot of practice and have kept most of my observations that were in a spiritual context to myself. Therefore I’m not inclined to say a lot at this point that would be more philosophically sophisticated because I fear it might resemble the dialectic as it is presented in the modern project. Because of this uncertainty, I hope that what I say next or how little I might say next, will not stir up confusion.

    In my past, when I have taught chemistry, I have had the privilege to teach indigenous peoples on occasion. From my experience with my mom, whose understanding of fractions was third-grade level (and therefore not at all trained in ‘western science’), I had my first lessons about how to conduct science, specifically how to observe nature (with love and respect), how to ask questions (directly to nature but also to one’s peers and elders) and these questions were respectful and sometimes the ‘response’ seemed inscrutable, in which case the protocol was to rest and wait with the answer one was given. In the list you provided, observation, questions, and categorizations all fit in the protocol that I was given by my mom. The categorizations however were not treated as statements but as another level of respectful questions. However, the aspect of control you mention, seems to create a certain tension in me as though it doesn’t belong to the context I was taught when I was a child. Rather the approach was pretty much how to live in an environment that might present life-threatening circumstances or consequences. Nature was not an enemy to be conquered. Therefore the science I was taught wasn’t to control nature but was in part, a system, and a form of respectful communion of life in nature and prevention of problems, mediated with appropriate behavior and thinking.

    A while back, I had attended a conference (in chemistry) in which I heard from faculty who went to rural places populated by American indigenous peoples, to teach them science. They came back from the experience to report that neither children nor the adults wanted to learn science. And that they, the teachers/scientists, were frustrated with the lack of desire to learn. I had a lot of difficulty listening to this report. I asked them whether they thought to ask them (the native peoples) to teach ‘you’ (the western-trained scientists), about science? In other words to consider the possibility that there might be something helpful to learn in a form of exchange about science? I was treated as if I were speaking Martian.

    For some reason, and I have to think about this longer, but I’m not inclined to think of science as ‘made by man’ in the way that it is taught that it originates with particular individuals in the western culture. It seems, to my way of thinking anyway, to be a form of communion with nature, particularly during the process of exploration. But this would also mean that the scientist, would not be ‘objectifying’ nature as it is often the case in the ‘western’ approach.

    This comment seems rough to me and I’m still processing my own past in light of my conversion to Orthodoxy. Therefore I ask for forgiveness if this seems messy in thinking.

  32. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, your instincts are correct I think. It is the “control” part that is off. As I see science it is a structured exploration with the expectation that truth will be revealed.

    That too is rough. However the drive to control and remake is not scientific it seems to me. That is where science is preverted by modernity. I am thinking of “That Hideous Strength” in particular.

    It is not about control but finding how live in harmony with the creator in His Creation.
    The Dominion we are given is not about subjection but about Euchristic freedom.

  33. Karen Avatar

    I think the creation mandate we were given by God in the Garden was “cultivate”, not “control” or “manipulate.” That to me implies communion and “working with” nature, respecting its design, to make it more fruitful.

  34. learningtobestill2016 Avatar

    I would be interested to know whether the scientists in this forum agree with me that there are no scientific facts. There are only scientific theories. Some theories, like the theory of gravity, have been so well tested that we assume that they are true. Still, Aristotle’s theory of gravity was changed by Newton, and Newton’s theory of gravity was overhauled by Einstein.

    My point is that it seems to me that one of the conceits of modernity is the assumption that what is “scientifically provable” is true, and that which cannot be scientifically proven is false or, at best, doubtful. My own view is that what is “scientifically proven” is usually reliable, and that which cannot be scientifically proven is simply outside the realm of scientific knowledge.

    Of course, I am comfortable in believing that there is a great deal that is unknowable. Modernity cannot tolerate the idea that there is anything beyond that which the human mind can grasp.

  35. Chris M Avatar
    Chris M

    Ha! Unfortunately, Fr. Stephen, I haven’t completely memorized LOTR yet, but back in middle school my friends and I would sit together at lunch time and quiz one another on the saga. We were SERIOUS nerds! 😀 My sci-fi/fantasy love started with L’Engle, then I went to C.S. Lewis, then Lloyd Alexander. Finally, I read Tolkien. Now that you’ve told me about Barfield, I must read some of his work to see how he influenced a couple of my favorite authors!

    Dee – I’ve only glanced at the Silmarillion. I read the “Genesis” portion. I’d like to go back and read more!

    Learningtobestill – My education is in the social sciences – not hard science – but, you’re right, a “theory” in science is not necessarily true, but it is backed up by evidence. And, no. Science doesn’t necessarily “prove” anything. The goal of science is to gather evidence that either supports or contradicts a hypothesis. Sometimes, really important theories have to be adjusted or discarded. You should read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn (or, at least, go over the Wikipedia article)! Based on your comments, it sounds like you’ll find it interesting.

  36. Byron Avatar

    Dee, Michael, et. al.,

    I agree that there is more than the distinction I offered. I tend to use that definition to disarm people who claim no actual interaction with the world but look at, for example, a sunset and say “look, SCIENCE!”. I see that as simply Creation doing what it does, not “science”.

    Now the approach of communion, on some level, that has been noted by several folks is one that is absolutely correct to me but not what many mean by “science” when they talk of it. The folks I’ve talked to are typically more objective in their definition and tend to think of themselves above (or, at best, as observers) what is happening, not as people who may or should be taking part within it. Just my thoughts.

  37. Byron Avatar

    And to clarify, I think the objective approach to understanding creation too often implies, if not overtly states, controlling it on some level.

  38. Kristin Avatar

    I look at science and mathematics as ways of seeing what’s already there, as languages that can give us insight, to help us to see and understand. I do not think we can ever exhaust the creation at all; that is, we will never come to the end wherein we understand everything that is and the interrelationships between them.

    When I behold a flower, I begin to engage in wonder. As I learn more about pollination and observe a bee dancing almost magically in a blossom, my wonder increases. The knowledge I’ve gained could dull my senses, or could seduce me into contemplating power over nature, but it is somewhat up to me to allow such knowledge to intensify my wonder. It serves to humble me.

    Mathematics, in my understanding, describes what is using numbers and symbols. Fascinating! As long as I can see it this way, I can walk the path of learning more in order to see the beauty inherent within math.

    I have an inkling that epistemology is involved in all this…how we know… and ultimately that science and math must engage, or rather find their context within, philosophy and theology. For without contemplating our telos—our purpose and end—or understanding our place in creation as worshippers, who find their best expression of being in worship of our Trinitarian God, then we have no reason to suppose we have limits, that ethics plays a part in what we do, and that we can do actions that we ought not to do. And that all leads to us using science, and knowledge in general, as power over creation and one another. And oh how we can brutalize in unrestrained ways…

    I hope this clarifies and adds to the conversation.

    That’s a further explanation of how I see these working.

  39. DL Avatar

    Fr. Freeman,

    “Do you think of yourself as part of a contingent that is saving/preserving your Church?”
    No, unless you consider teaching what one believes to be Orthodox, or true, or good and beautiful to be an aspect of participating in the salvation/preserving of the Cosmos. In that case, yes. For instance, teaching Christians that we live in a one-story universe is part of a contingent that is a participation (as all true teaching is) in the salvation/preserving of all things.

    “Do you worry about political/social issues and whether the right side is gaining ground?”
    I don’t know about “worry” but am I concerned? Yes, of course. To not be would be inhumane and un-Christ like. The critical point rather is how we respond to political/social issues. Also, if we were to ask an African-American living in the South during the Civil Rights Movement (or even now) if he were worried about current political/social issues and whether the right side was gaining, I think he might give a different answer than you or me. Or, if we were to ask a Jew the same in 1930s Germany, or women in any time period. It is easy not to worry when one is white, Christian, and male.

    “Do you want to make a difference in the world?”
    I want to make a difference within myself. I want to repent. To think that might not impact the greater world, or should not, or should, is entirely another matter. Since we participate in all things, we will (and do) make a difference, the question will always be, to what end? What difference? After all: “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” I would say that such makes a difference in the world—but yes, any difference must start with me first. Instead of trying to change my neighbor, I should try and change myself (repentance—acquiring the Spirit…). However, such might lead to a difference in my neighbor’s life.

    “Are you frequently provoked to anger by what you see around you?”
    Hopefully no more than Jesus was at the money-changers or the Pharisees. However, those two things should give us plenty of opportunities.

    We must refuse the ring. However, as you note, we must not refuse throwing the ring into the fires of Mordor. That means participating in the salvation of the cosmos. That means being aware of and concerned about threats to the least among us (social/political issues). Such threats, along with our current money-changers and Pharisees, mean being angry sometimes. And keeping with your LOTR analogy, throwing the ring into the fire did, indeed, make a difference in that world.

    I agree with much in your post, but I also think it is much more complicated than a simple refusal.

  40. Esmee La Fleur Avatar

    So many of my Orthodox Christian friends are obsessed with chemtrails, vaccines, and political issues of all sorts. They seem to have forgotten that this is a Fallen world and that none of that stuff will ever be “fixed.” In fact, giving attention to these kinds of issues is just a distraction from what our true purpose is in this life: to love God and to love our neighbor. And the way we do that is to worship God through prayer and ask Him to have mercy on us all and to off material help to our neighbors whenever possible. Everything else is basically just a waste of time and energy.

  41. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman


  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    To a degree, your comment simply says to all of those questions, “Yes, but I’m doing it because it is good.” I am not saying that we should live in the world and not care about it, or take no action, etc. However, saying that in the context of modernity is like saying “sic’m to a dog” (to use the Southern expression). We are so driven by our “doing good” that we quickly lose sight of everything else and become captive to the spirit of the age.

    I am not trying to save the Church. The church is saving me. Teaching a one-storey universe is not an effort to change the Church in any way, but simply to make clear what the teaching of the Church is in a manner that modern people can understand it. What they do with it is beyond my control. I don’t want a one-storey universe movement or some such thing. It would be silly. We don’t need it.

    The anger of Christ at the Pharisees and the money-changers is a card that is played all too often, basically justifying a passion that consumes us. “Be angry and sin not,” St. Paul says. That, I suggest, is extremely rare.

    As for politics, it is a bottomless pit. Again, the Civil Rights movement is cited as a model for things that bear little resemblance to it. For one, it was far more a religious movement than a “political” movement. Indeed, it would make no sense in a purely political analysis. King’s non-violence was grounded in the gospel. I could say much more about this…but time constrains me.

    Obviously, everything is always more complicated than we describe it. It is for the reader to understand how “the Ring” works in his/her own life and what throwing it away looks like. I suggested those questions simply as a way of kick-starting the thoughts. There are probably much better questions.

  43. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ve noticed the same thing. It concerns me.

  44. Learning to be still Avatar
    Learning to be still

    Chris M – I have read Thomas Kuhn, and once attended one of his lectures. As you noted, it had a profound impact on my view of science.

  45. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    There is a common misunderstanding among scientists and non-scientists alike regarding the purpose of objectivity, which I would like to propose, is not to objectify nature but rather not to be overly attached to one’s favorite idea, which is something that I think learningtobestill and Michael allude to.

    One thing that I avoided in my earlier description of my mother’s peoples’ science was the role of validation. Getting on this topic is like stepping onto a banana peel for me, it was the crux of heated discussions when I had a certain level of authority in curriculum development in the university setting. Where we need to be objective is to be able to discern whether what we like or want holds an inappropriate hold on our hearts and minds. In this regard, native peoples understand the importance of a form of triangulation. There is a three pronged approach in their science, exploration, question formation (which is also similar to forming an hypothesis) and triangulation (which is similar to testing/validation)–again in some respects it isn’t all that different from the basic approach in western science. Triangulation, using more than one form of query, or testing method to understand a phenomena, was necessary because lives depended on a particular correctness of information.

    My own approach on a science topic, in which I need to learn and be exposed to as little bias as possible, but can’t do the actual exploration myself, is to read research within peer reviewed journals that have an international community of reviewers. International reviewers frequently have ‘competing interests’ and a paper that gets through that gauntlet usually has some quality. Although even such research isn’t immune to bias. One needs to be able to read and recognize bias via sampling methods, testing/validation methods and conclusions.

    All of this is why I pushed for science literacy in the curriculum (and among faculty)–but to no avail, because that push was part of the modern project. And now I return back to Fr Stephen’s original essay and I’m grateful for his words.

  46. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Indeed, discernment and prayer.

  47. Theodosia Avatar

    Please Father, thank your IT people for me for fixing the problem that prevented me from having access to the newest comments, beyond a certain number. I could read all of them today, even though they exceeded the normal number.
    By the way, thank you Father for all the effort you put into this work, for it is unbelievably fruitful… God bless you and the work of your hands.

  48. Eli Avatar

    The whole kenotic strength in weakness is all well and good, but it has always troubled me that this can be so easy to preach if you aren’t personally under threat by those presently wielding power. I mean, what do we tell dispossessed groups? “you shouldn’t bother resisting your oppressors, because if you gain power it will only corrupt you.” I’m sure that’s not what you mean to suggest, but please explain how what you’re proposing wouldn’t effectively boil down to that.

  49. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar


    The [very modern] trend of conspiracy theorism is one of the deepest, darkest expressions of modernity. It assumes a two-storey universe, progress, and everything else modernity preaches as foregone conclusions, differing only in how it responds to the real world. There are many common responses—numb/distract the soul by various passions (consumption, emotionalism, etc.), give up (despondency), or even fight back (i.e., try to “change the world”)—but almost all of them, while still holding a distorted view of the world, basically accept it as it is—materially, at least. Conspiracy theorism, however, rejects even the most basic observations of the physical world as false (i.e., “An airplane is not an airplane but a …!”), instead denying God’s creation at the deepest levels, from natural processes to, quite paradoxically, the the very technology that they use everyday to post the nonsense they’re consumed with! It is kind of like taking the worst of modernism—in that it (among other things) accepts the idea of progress towards utopia but without any action (except shouting), however small, towards any kind of good—and combining it with some of the worst of postmodernism: not only is truth objective (thus mutable and not Personal—everyone can have their own private world), but all speech (especially “the media”) is power and all power is a direct challenge to the conspiracists’s notion of self, which often involves the myth of self-sufficiency and paradoxically *them* having power, speech, property rights, “the truth”, and so on whilst happily squashing the other. Combine that, in turn, with an elitist, basically Gnostic (in the traditional, not popular, sense: an actual, convoluted hierarchy of fallen powers that are continually manipulating each other and the world (which is itself evil and illusory and unreal in some way) and hiding many “something”s), and yet thoroughly materialistic view of the world (i.e., since God is in the other storey, the Gnostic gods must be material and hidden by other means, so they must be powerful, secret organizations or individuals, or aliens, or what have you) and you get conspiracy theorism. It is, in addition to being mad, opposed to The Faith on just about every level in a way that even modernism isn’t.

    There are also lots of ways we’re not helping the situation, though—I hesitate to lay the blame solely at the feet of modernity for this latest “progress” into the darkness. It is easy to have anti-positions, to beat down strawmen about Catholicism and Protestantism, instead of real asceticism and theology (which comes through real prayer). Any time intellectual theology (as basically and as loosely as those terms are applied and understood) is emphasized but the corresponding praxis (e.g., praying everyday and fasting (without excuse), dressing modestly (for women *and* men), tithing, almsgiving) is “for the individual to decide” or some nonsense, we see anger, especially, develop, as well as a mind that is looking for [secret, hidden] faults, is totally oblivious about Christian living, and consumed with being “right”. This seems to be a natural result of Western theology, and hence why we see it among Orthodox who have either adopted such a mind or never truly left it—and make no mistake, the Western captivity ain’t over, but is merely in its second phase. But those things, despite what some people on the internet seem to believe, are not what Orthodoxy is about. Ask one of these conspiricists (or pre-conspiricists, i.e. the “super correct”) why such-and-such a group is “wrong” and they can go on for hours, if you let them—this kind of talk even takes over parish discussions and whatnot and it is *toxic*—Orthodoxy is *not* an antiposition to anything, but Truth! But try asking about something *positive* and *practical* but still somewhat basic: how can we identify our nous? What directional shape (in addition to The Cross) does the sign of The Cross make over our body, if we’re doing it right (hint: St. Sophrony would get it right away)? Ask these and you’ll either get awkward silence or something really long and rambly (probably with lots of Orthodox-sounding words) that doesn’t answer the question.

    It is also easy to have quasi-mystical views about things and be somewhat of a contrarian (again, paradoxically, it is the popular thing to do! Want to be really radical, though? Obey your priest!). It is even easier when The Church is continually persecuted, lied to, and treated as the underdog. But it is only Orthodox if the mystical vision is *from Christ*, the humiliation real only if it is voluntary accepted *for Christ*. You can see that it is not a true humility because these same ideas about suffering here and now are often coupled with a “but when Judgment Day comes…” kind of theology—it should be a red flag when someone is intent on a very passionate, elaborate view of Hell and/or punishment because, despite their [potential] protests to the contrary, it is not grounded in theology (people really don’t read much of The Fathers, certainly not enough to have such strong opinions on a subject like this) but a conspiratorial, comeuppance, “just wait—its coming” kind of attitude where the [modern, pro-progress] “Savior” is going to overthrow the [Gnostic-style] “powers” and every [special, elite] “true” believer will receive the [postmodern] “paradise” of their own imaginings where they’re finally given the power to have “real” power. Or, put another way, this kind of thinking is basically the same as one would expect of the inner-circle followers of the antichrist. So yes, it is, as Fr. Stephen said, quite concerning. We need to pray—and not forget all the other forms of foundational, Orthodox *action* that our spiritual lives are built on. Healing this begins with *us*—the best thing we can do for these people, as with any others, is to start and end with our own prayer and repentance. They’re only sick because we’re not serious about our own healing, and that is how the end will come. Your inclination was quite correct, both in what to do about and how to spot it (i.e., its fruit): distraction and, especially, pervasive anger.


    Thanks for your continued posts and trying to learn the “language” of Orthodoxy. Though we have comments from every angle, I think Fr. Stephen tries to be consistent and clear (and a bit innovative, in a good way) with language, and I value that very much. I think most of the “language”, though, doesn’t come with words: it is our actions and everyday lives that form the largest part of our language as Orthodox Christians, both in and outside of formal liturgical services. And we really don’t “have it together” when it comes to our words, either, especially in English. It is not because we don’t know enough Greek or anything like that (some of the translations from Greek scholars seem to bother me the most!) but because we don’t take *English* seriously enough. For one example, there is a popular trend, repeated somewhat innocently by many, that there’s a difference between “ancestral curse” and “original sin”. But this distinction isn’t there: The Fathers use them interchangeably and the distinction was invented “whole cloth” by one of the more controversial people of the last century (who regularly attacked Orthodox saints!; this is just one more part of the second phase of the Western captivity). I bring that up to say that even some of the “orthodox” language that we think we know just isn’t so. The only way to deal with that is to get serious about our faith (the more we live it the more we will see, experientially, when things are not true) and get serious about our English language. Another example: I regularly “call out” the young people at my parish any time they use the “F word” (f-u-n). I think it is a huge blight upon our culture, one which completely changes the way we think. I make them say “pleasurable”, “exciting”, or something else. That disconnects them from “the world” and, all of the sudden, all the patristic and Scriptural commentary about self-pleasure (whether good or bad) and the rest that was hidden by our demonically-crafted use the the F word rushes into their minds. It has already affected some of the kids substantially—we’ve now got kids who not only know what the nous is, but can sense its motion and are starting to “get” hesychasm! So language is no small thing; St. James wasn’t just making an off-hand analogy when he compared the tongue to a ship’s rudder and said it “is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell.”. But back to your point more generally, Orthodoxy “in English” is still a huge work in progress (and involves more than words). Keep posting, keep striving—your posts already seem to me to take language (and The Faith) very seriously and that is what is needed. Orthodoxy isn’t some secularized “part” of our lives—it is *literally* life and death, and we need to treat it as such.

  50. Esmee La Fleur Avatar

    Thank you so much for your long and well thought out response. I very much appreciate it!

  51. tess Avatar

    I have to smile a little bit about trying to “fix” the people (conspiracy theorists or not) who are trying to “fix” something else… modernity gets us all!

    Perhaps it matters less what we believe about these issues that are inconsequential to our salvation, but *how* we believe about those issues? Do we place them under the providence of God and tell our egos to quit trying to control everything? Do we pray for the salvation of the people who disagree with us? (And ask them to pray for us?)

    I merely say this in defense of some intelligent, kind and spiritually honest people I know who also happen to have some beliefs which I find to be odd. 🙂

  52. DL Avatar

    Fr. Freeman,

    “To a degree, your comment simply says to all of those questions, ‘Yes, but I’m doing it because it is good.’

    That is a rather odd interpretation of what I wrote given nowhere do I state we should “do” something because it is “good.” To the contrary, nothing I wrote has anything to do with “doing” anything because it is “good” in the sense of what modernity tells us is “good” or what “doing” means. Again, I agree with much you wrote; I only take issue what with you think we should conclude from it. In its conclusion, your post seems to take a fatalistic bent derived more from the Stoics than the Christian faith. All the best. Cheers.

  53. Mule Chewing Briars Avatar
    Mule Chewing Briars

    The portrayal of General Mikhael Kutuzov in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace always fascinated me. Here is a man, a deeply flawed man, but one who has learned to refuse the Ring of Power. When everyone else in the Tsar’s court is screaming at him that he “has to DO something” about Napoleon in Russia, he keeps retreating further and further back into the depths of the Russian countryside, avoiding open battle as much as possible, and taking care that his soldiers remain well-supplied and in order.

    When Napoleon arrives in Moscow, he finds the city abandoned and empty. Eventually the city does what all large cities do when there is no one around to keep order. It burns, and there is no one around to put the fires out, except the bewildered French, who are still awaiting Tsar Aleksandr’s surrender. The onset of the brutal Russian winter smites the unsheltered French army like a massive body blow, and they flee back the way they came. Now Kutuzov’s unbloodied army springs into action, sniping at the retreating French and accelerating their defeat.

    “The stars in their courses fought against Sisera.”

  54. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is interesting, I think, that Martin Luther King, Jr., advocated non-violence. It was deeply criticized by many within the African-American community at the time. But, I think, he was also wisely aware of the dangers within violence – not just people getting hurt – but people getting changed!

    What do we tell dispossessed groups? If the goal in life is to join the possessors and find your seat at the table of power, then we should probably tell them to kill their enemies and learn to use power as effectively as possible. If, on the other hand, they want the Kingdom of God above all things, we should point them to that Kingdom. Those who “possess” the Kingdom are the only true “possessors.” Social justice is good – but it is an always abstract concept, just out of reach.

    Many people criticize St. Paul’s advice to slaves, etc. But he wrote as someone who was largely “dispossessed” despite his being a Roman citizen. Nothing is more truly subversive than the Kingdom of God – rightly understood. I recommend reading some of Stanley Hauerwas for ideas of what that might look like. This article of mine from last February might be of interest.

  55. Eli Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    I didn’t mean to imply that resistance to oppression should be violent. There are plenty of ways to nonviolently resist oppression. I’ve always maintained that to challenge the violence of the system with violence is to unwittingly assimilate to the system.
    I also wasn’t suggesting that the dispossessed merely reverse the power dynamic to revisit oppression on their former oppressors. Standing against slavery isn’t a call to enslave those who formally enslaved others. Standing against the political and economic interests that facilitated the poisoning of Flint Michigan’s drinking water is not calling for poisoning the water of those political and economic elites. Standing with and for the dispossessed is not calling for the dispossession of those who are “possessing” the dispossessed.
    It seems to me that nonviolent pursuits of social justice not only harmonize with God’s subversive Kingdom, but are inextricably linked to it. As subjects of His Kingdom, we accept that Cesar will attempt to crucify us for our devotion to God. If it comes to that, all well and good. But I see no contradiction in all the while nonviolently standing against systems, institutions, and individuals who practice crucifixion. Why not both/and rather than either/or?

  56. Dean Avatar

    While in college I read the Anabaptist, Donald B. Kraybill’s book, The Upside-Down Kingdom. Memory on it is fuzzy, but as I recall it delves into what this discussion is all about. Treats of how Jesus dealt, and still deals with, the marginalized and dispossessed.

  57. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I agree, though with the caveat that we understand that we might be crucified and not succeed. As soon as we think that the point is to succeed, we’re heading down the road to violence. We cannot make the world be just. We can act justly – even in civil disobedience. But the dangerous thing that dangles before us is the temptation to make it happen.

    It might seem subtle – but it’s crucial. The point is that God fights for us, not us for Him. God is in charge of the outcome of history. Patience, kindness, long-suffering, repentance – these are our primary weapons.

    I’ll go back to the Civil Rights movement. What did not happen, and has yet to happen, is that America did not repent for its racial hatred. It changed a few laws. Only repentance heals anyone. There is much, much more that our nation needs to repent of – and we cannot even tell ourselves the truth.

    For one, it’s not somebody else that is doing the oppression – we all have a share in the sin – and we have to repent together. This is very difficult. Only repentance can bring justice. And so it waits. Laws change, but the evil continues in new and subtler ways.

    I think great strides were made in the Civil Rights Movement – but we quickly settled for small things and left off repentance. It’s why the topic is still so much alive.

    How do we bring about repentance? By repenting. We lay aside the Ring.

    Our dispossessed (which is far larger than those for whom the Civil Rights movement took place) are a long-standing institution in America, so much so that they are part of the infrastructure of our culture. Only the most profound sort of change would alter than appreciably. In the meantime, they live, and are often closer to God than most others. We should find our way among them.

  58. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Your response to Eli remind me also, that while I had ‘fought’ as an activist in certain fronts, I was a participant, of enslaving others on other fronts. I have bought at certain stores or certain goods, which I know are affordable to me because of terrible working conditions and poor wages of the poor who have made them, nevertheless I bought them. I participate in their enslavement to poverty. Repenting is more than lip service to the discussion of oppression. We could be Nineveh when we hear the words of Jonah, but are we ready to look into our own hearts and repent?

  59. Eli Avatar

    I certainly agree with you, Father, about success. One of Martin Buber’s quotes has always stuck with me: “Success is not one of the names of God.” No, I think the disposition proper to the Christian in their nonviolent struggle against social injustice was aptly conveyed by journalist Chris Hedges when he said, “I do not fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists.” It’s that hope against hope; against all futility; unto death; even death on a cross – where every last vestige of false pretense or ulterior motive is eradicated; where one gives over oneself and all existence with it in a kenotic gesture of surrender. From such a vantage, John Milbank is right to claim “Christian theology is a hair’s breadth away from nihilism.” On the Cross, we and the cosmos have been voided of our separation from God; of an existence apartment from Him. All has been lost because He has been found.

  60. Esmee La Fleur Avatar

    Dee of St. Herman’s – that is such an excellent point! I am certainly guilty of this as well.

  61. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    One thing I learned from reading the Gulag:. “When they take you, you have to believe all those you care about are dead, or they will break you.”.

  62. Panayiota Avatar

    All of “wars” that we supposedly are fighting, seem directly related to our deep need for addiction and the wars within ourselves.
    The first step in the anonymous program is to admit our powerlessness. So easy to forget.

  63. learningtobestill2016 Avatar


    “I think the disposition proper to the Christian in their nonviolent struggle against social injustice was aptly conveyed by journalist Chris Hedges when he said, ‘I do not fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists.’”

    Thank you for that,

  64. Miriam Avatar

    Thank you Father, for this post. It is especially hard here at a large university to resist power and the need to “change the world.” That seems to be the most common response when I tell people that I am studying environmental science (no, I don’t really want to change the world, I just want to appreciate God’s creation). Everything seems to be valued based on how much it “empowers” you, and your goodness based on how much you fight, argue, resist the system. It is all very exhausting and I struggle with not getting caught up in it. Lord, have mercy on us.

  65. Joe Avatar

    Wow, Father…I’m years behind in reading this post and yet it’s timeless ring can still be heard. It’s just what I needed to hear after feeling inundated and helpless as (some of) the world celebrates the yearly “pride month”. Lord have mercy, and thank you Fr.!

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