Modernity’s Sacraments

My newsfeed must be set for “shock.” Never does a day go by that there is no something outlandishly alarming featured as a story, somewhere, illustrating the insane march of modern culture. Much of me would like to think that the problem is in the newsfeed and not in the culture itself. However, on a basis that is frequent enough to be alarming in itself, I find something in my daily experience that confirms the insanity in my newsfeed. I can only conclude that the world is getting stranger by the day.

I recently saw a story that proclaimed God to be “queer,” as if that were news. The extremes of gender studies have been buzzing around religion departments long before the concepts were even hinted at in mainstream America. Of course, the most amusing part of such notions is that the very departments that now anoint God as the ultimate version of their ideology, are the same departments that would have been embarrassed to admit that there even was a God just a few decades before. Mainstream denominational Protestantism, in danger of losing all belief, has recently found something to believe in, and does so with all the fervor of a new convert.

The Unitarian Church down the street from my parish has a lighted message board for the passing traffic. Mounted atop an obligatory rainbow, it oozes slogans daily that invite people to come and experience the new God they have found.

The conversion of God to the new cultural beliefs is not terribly surprising. Modernity is an inherently religious project. It is highly “secular” only in a very refined meaning of the term. But, more than that, it believes in secularism. This is only one of many inner contradictions within the modern project. It is thoroughly committed to the creation of a better world, while holding to philosophies that would deny the ability to actually define “better.” It is this emptiness that I suspect has given rise to the new piety.

At the heart of modernity is the belief that we can dominate nature and shape the outcomes of history to our liking. It is the placing of the human “will” at the center of all things. It is important to understand that this fundamental orientation towards creation can play both sides of the street. In America, both liberal and conservative religion are captives to modernity as they are locked in a mutual struggle of their opposing wills.

“Democracy” is one of the sacraments of modernity. It is treated as a primary means of grace in history. Political action organizes the human “will” for projects of “goodness.” What constitutes the “good” varies with each ideology. Both sides fail to see that they are arguing in a mirror where all images are reversed. Both believe in power.

It is important to understand that if every goodness intended by God were to be lawfully imposed on the world by some form of authority, the world would not be a better place. It would only be as lawful as it is now. Christ did not die to create a more lawful world (one already existed). He came to raise the world from the dead. A more lawful corpse is still a corpse.

Modernity is itself the death throes of a civilization committed to rebellion and domination. It moves from one madness to another. It cures diseases and raises the dead only to watch the rise of greater diseases and new forms of death in a whack-a-mole game of tragic futility.

The Kingdom of God only exists in Christ, with Christ and through Christ. And, lest this be seen as yet another religious imposition from above, this same Christ is none other than the Logos within all creation, who reveals the truth of each thing and everything. Life in union with Christ is also life in union with our true selves (and one another). It is life in union with every particle of the created universe. It is the life that gathers all things together in one, in Christ Jesus, into the glorious liberty of the children of God.

The French philosopher Voltaire said, “With great power comes great responsibility” (a phrase made famous these days in a Spiderman movie). We observe this in many obvious ways. We do not put a three-year old in charge of the family cooking – the heat of the stove is too much power at that age. We do not license ten-year-old’s to drive cars for the same reason. The technology of the modern world represents the most wide-spread harnessing of power in human history. It is tragically met by a culture whose spiritual and moral maturity are at a low ebb.

Human wars were initially fought with primitive weapons of brute force. Their brutality was face-to-face and, as such, presented a spiritual and emotional challenge to every warrior and his society. “War is hell” (Sherman’s dictum) is an apt description, drawn from experience. Modern war often deals in abstractions. Rockets, bombs and drones allow massive killing at a distance. The Global War on Terror has seen a casualty ratio of nearly 100:1. Modernity is an efficient war machine. Those deaths happen at such a remove that the general population has no awareness of them at all.

Abortion is discussed as a moral abstraction. According to the World Health Organization, 40-50 million abortions take place every year in the world.  Two-percent of that number are in the United States. Such numbers are beyond comprehension.

Moral maturity requires a constant feedback from the consequences of our actions. Modernity creates moral infantilism. Indeed, most Americans have never witnessed a death, and increasingly avoid its reality, even in funerals (now becoming “celebrations of life”). As such, we are morally incompetent to formulate opinions in matters of consequence (we are deeply shielded from too many consequences).

In the course of writing this post, a series of articles began appearing in the New York Times extolling abortion and vilifying its opponents. I was doing my best to ignore it as a noisy distraction. However, today, an article appeared, written by a woman abortionist relating her experiences during her recent pregnancy and birth of her child. She did not shy away from the contradictions and cognitive dissonance that would inevitably arise in those circumstances. However, she offered a summary that was chilling in the extreme:

As a doctor, I can draw a distinction, a boundary, between a fetus and a baby. When I became a mother, I learned that there are no boundaries, really. The moment you become a mother, the moment another heartbeat flickers inside of you, all boundaries fall away.

Nevertheless, as mothers, we must all make choices. And we must live with the choices that aren’t ours to make. We can try to compartmentalize. We can try to keep things tidy and acceptable. But in reality, everything is messy: the work of doctors, the work of mothers, and the love of each one of us for our children.

And yet somebody has to do the work.

There are no arguments that could possibly counter such a statement. This is the confession of a modern heart. Even when all of nature is shouting the truth, “somebody has to do the work.” Be still, my heart, I have work to do.

The article served as a reminder of the character of our world. The battle is in the human heart. There are no external solutions to the madness of modernity. Such madness has always been around. Sometimes it has coalesced around moral causes of which we would likely approve. That might be a still greater danger.

The Fathers urge us to “guard the heart.” When we pray, it is right not to pray “at” those with whom we disagree. It is better to stand, somehow, within them (recognizing that their sin is yours as well), and from that place offer prayers to God. This is the work somebody has to do.

There is ultimately only ever one choice – to choose God. Understanding and seeing that as the choice before you is the grace of salvation. Lord, have mercy.


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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97 responses to “Modernity’s Sacraments”

  1. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    “Modernity is itself the death throes of a civilization committed to rebellion and domination. It moves from one madness to another. ” This phrase struck me particularly hard after hearing the AM show on a major “news” network extolling the world wide celebration of “Pride.” This is just one of the latest versions of madness forced upon us as a rebellion an an attempt at domination. There is much truth in what you say Father.

  2. Byron Avatar

    I have frequently pointed out to others that “there is no democracy in heaven; there is a throne”. It never fails to draw a shocked look of confusion and usually a (at least) semi-angry response. We worship democracy because it allows us to worship ourselves, I think.

    Last night, I watched the wonderful movie “Ostrov” (the Island) again. Your statement about standing “within” those with whom we disagree reminded me of Father Antoly’s statement about “knowing this demon personally”. May God have mercy and give us compassion to pray this way!

    And yet somebody has to do the work.

    It reminds me of the sign at Auschwitz, “Work sets you free”. May God forgive us….

  3. Brandon Avatar

    Thank you father. Perhaps on your newsfeed recently you’ve seen Project Veritas expose Google/YouTube for appearing to interfere in the Ireland abortion referendum by manually adding pro-life terms to a search blacklist. Many of your past articles almost predict this – sadly it’s not much of a surprise when you understand the Modern Project as you’ve laid it out.

    Do you have any thoughts on this particular modern project?

  4. Douglas Kasten Avatar
    Douglas Kasten

    Father, there is so much in your column I want to talk about. But I sit here alone in New York City and have no one to talk to. That is not the problem as I’m on a business trip and it allows room to think. More importantly, to pray. And my take away from your column, which of all your columns i find the most penetrating, personally, is that modernity must be understood as a religious project. And i would add that of one doesn’t start there then it, modernity, will not be understood at all. Your column eloquently argues the point. And so, still alone for the moment, i can pray a little more and love my neighbor in this city. Your words have helped so much.

  5. Niko Avatar

    Confession of a modern heart is striking, wounding, and lasting…
    Is it right to deny the heart yearning for God? For anything? I think probably not.
    Weeping for sin and calling for repentance in my life first, that’s what I’ll do.

    This really struck me profoundly:
    “The Kingdom of God only exists in Christ, with Christ and through Christ. And, lest this be seen as yet another religious imposition from above, this same Christ is none other than the Logos within all creation, who reveals the truth of each thing and everything. Life in union with Christ is also life in union with our true selves (and one another). It is life in union with every particle of the created universe. It is the life that gathers all things together in one, in Christ Jesus, into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”

    Yes, I will find Christ, and find myself also.

  6. Deborah Avatar

    Thank you. I’m copying this post off so I can spend time reading it deeper.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Douglas et al,
    I have to say that the growing madness within our culture is something that has been deeply, woundingly heavy on my heart of late. I’ve probably written half a dozen articles and then abandoned them. It would be so easy to write in a way that only complains, becomes bitter, or increases the burden for everyone else. That is not my intention.

    From all eternity, God had us in mind for this precise moment. I do not pretend to understand that, but I know it to be true. It lies with us to pray, to live, to forgive and to groan before God (as St. Paul described) for the life of the world. As things go, this is not yet the craziest of times. Solzhenitsyn wrote for more than a decade with no hope of ever seeing his work published. And yet he wrote – there was a hope and a promise within his heart. He was born for his time.

    God give us grace to be and become what He has called for us to be.

  8. Mary Avatar

    “The Fathers urge us to “guard the heart.” When we pray, it is right not to pray “at” those with whom we disagree. It is better to stand, somehow, within them (recognizing that their sin is yours as well), and from that place offer prayers to God. This is the work somebody has to do.”

    I read this and wept. Thank you for helping me to put my priorities in order, knock me off my high horse and see the Truth. Lord have mercy on me a sinner.

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    This is so very difficult to do – to learn to pray from “within” others. The delusion of democracy teaches our heart to think in terms of opposition and to imagine that opposing something (or someone) is the important thing in our world. Beneath that is the assumption that everything good in the world will only come about because a majority of people “will” it. Beneath that, chillingly, is an atheist assumption: the world depends on us – not on God.

    As I write these words, I speak only as the voice of a fellow-struggler. I find this very hard for myself as well.

  10. Trish Avatar

    As someone who is constantly reminded of modernity’s directions, not by my newsfeed but by my own adult child who is transitioning, I would like to know more about praying within rather than at someone.
    It is a challenge to find the right attitude, to love and pray for, and be faithful to someone you love, without being drawn into society’s “pride.” It feels easy and simple to reason my way to that place until the complexities of intertwining relationships and the concern about the overall societal trend slip in.
    Do you have readings or prayers you would recommend? Not necessarily specific to this situation, but perhaps applicable to the core heart issues involved?

  11. Dino Avatar

    Thank you Father for putting your contemplations across so sagely – I was marvelling while reading this well-structured exposition of what I feel too.
    One consoling thought I have been deeply pondering lately –on all this madness– comes from a talk of Elder Aimilianos. I will not repeat it all here, but the gist of it is that we can be calm and (despite the dreadfulness we encounter) we can trust with a secret joy, in the undisclosed plan of Him who said: “Let both [meaning the wheat as well as the tares ] grow together until the harvest…
    It is a fact that tares have a function that can both help the wheat (as well as fight each other).

  12. Robert Avatar

    “The man who cries out against evil men but does not pray for them will never know the grace of God.”
    St. Silouan pray to God for us!

  13. Alan Avatar

    Thank you Father for yet another masterpiece!
    “The article served as a reminder of the character of our world. The battle is in the human heart. There are no external solutions to the madness of modernity. Such madness has always been around. Sometimes it has coalesced around moral causes of which we would likely approve. That might be a still greater danger.”
    A Thousand times AMEN to the above paragraph!

  14. Janine Avatar

    “And yet somebody has to do the work”

    My first thought: “Auschwitz.” (“Arbeit macht frei” came close afterward.)

    I was reminded of my Mother’s last few days. She was an Alzheimer patient, not terribly afflicted in memory except for her ability to express herself, but weak and not always conscious. I was discussing with the hospital the possibility of hospice at home. She was not in pain, but they were still talking about morphine. I finally realized that the very act giving her morphine would kill her. Auschwitz popped in my head, thinking we are giving people heroin to die. And then immediately, “I cannot kill my mother!” What a world.

    In light of what you write, it was really something to see people’s reactions in public when I took her out for a meal. We don’t seem to know people age. I kept her as social as possible, because I knew she perceived everything despite her speech handicap.

    I recently happened on Guroian’s book on euthanasia and the modern project , still relevant and excellent. That led me to Walker Percy’s “Thanatos Syndrome.”

    And you are so right, it is a religion. What’s really scary is that those subsumed in that faith don’t realize that it is a religion. We have a new puritanical fervor out there.

  15. Janine Avatar

    Re to pray from within others, I have found that God does the work, not me. Just grace, when that happens.

  16. Janine Avatar

    Trish, you didn’t ask me but one way I have found of praying for people is to literally picture myself handing them to God, to Christ. With my arms, giving them over, and with a prayer to say this is what I am doing. It takes away suppositions, judgments, outcomes. Just putting them where you can trust, and accepting that this is what we can do. I also find that prayers to the Panagia help me best with difficult relationships where I haven’t the answers.

  17. Janine Avatar

    Byron, I wrote my comment before I read yours … check!
    (I will take a comment break now!)

  18. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    “Byron, I wrote my comment before I read yours …”
    Oh that’s good! The thread of God’s presence with us made known! I make a “big deal” on such things that I see as so not-trivial!

    Father…thank you for yet another thought provoking post. You share with us your thoughts and struggles in a way that unites us, because our own struggles are our brothers’ and sisters’ as well. And visa versa. As I have said before, you are our own.

    Now I need to go and reread…

  19. Scott Avatar

    That is a chilling excerpt.

  20. Merry Bauman Avatar
    Merry Bauman

    Father, there is much here to sit with and to pray about. Yesterday the news was blasting about very vulgar and lewd Drag Queens doing shows/readings in public libraries for children – at taxpayers expense. Seeing the pictures, and some of the videos was horrifying. Kids are not allowed to just be kids anymore. That type of sexuality and performance is extremely inappropriate for children – period. Sexualizing children as society has been doing, is so beyond wrong I am continually shocked at parents allowing it. The mother who stood up and protested, organizing a group who got the library to stop this kind of thing – has been vilified, and her very life threatened in the most disgusting and violent ways. How DARE she try to stop this demonic behavior being forced on young children! Society has lost all morality, and value of life. Or so it seems at times. Death has lost the meaning it once had too – true. “Celebration of Life” has replaced funerals, and for many it is all they have ever known. Orthodox funerals are unique. They almost make you envy the one who has passed on. I love the prayers we offer and the prayers for the forgiveness of every sin. It allows us to share in the death and the future of that soul. It lets us feel like we have truly done something for that person. Death leaves behind such emptiness and helplessness in the loved ones. Being able to feel they have made a difference with their prayers is a real gift.
    My best friend’s dad – 15 yrs ago – was a Unitarian Minister. I asked him what they believed in, and he said “Whatever you want to”. I asked if he believed in God, and he said he thought that He probably existed, but he would know for sure when he died. How utterly sad, but how illustrative of what you were saying Father.
    He did die – a few years later. I always wondered how that went for him when he found out for sure.
    Pardon my ADHD and several subjects, but wow, so much you gave us to think about and pray for.
    Our continued prayers for you, and for your ministry of truth.

  21. Janine Avatar

    Merry said:
    “That type of sexuality and performance is extremely inappropriate for children – period. Sexualizing children as society has been doing, is so beyond wrong …”

    This is the problem I have with parades that are not PG rated, at least in daytime on Main St.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    To say the least…

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There was a time – certainly within my lifetime – that the sort of displays now commonly put forth in these parades would have been an occasion for an arrest. That was a saner time. That such displays are now not only common, but treated as virtue, is testimony to the insanity of our present moment.

  24. Ivan Avatar

    I have a fond memory of when I prayed “within” a fellow parishioner, and became more friendly with him. We had a brief argument one time, where I did not see the big deal in our disagreement of political opinions (everyone has an opinion, and we have the same ultimate goals in mind usually), and I quietly meditated for a long time on why that happened and what to do about it. Part of my response was to buy an icon of his patron saint, and pray for him every day, morning and evening. I did this until I lost my sense of concern for his peace of mind.

    My concern faded away when I had a transcendent moment where I felt myself sharing the same spiritual and physical space as he was in, though I was praying at home in my bedroom and he was in another city. During this moment I felt pure, blissful love for him, but also a window to feel his sincere concern (beyond that which he expressed in political conversation) for all people, especially vulnerable minorities. I hadn’t know how strong his feelings were about the topic, as for me it was just the latest partisan controversy where I thought neither the left nor right side really understood the problem.

    Later discovering the psychological theory that partisan anger usually involves a passion of empathy (which is supposed to be good, but is unhealthy when it causes excessive anger) explained how differently I and my fellow parishioner viewed the debate. I learned to look beyond the surface of media reports to consider – what does God Himself want me to know about out of all the messy current news stories? So I spend much less time (maybe saving an hour per day!) on news-media consumption, yet feel more compassion and understanding for society.

    Prayer is a fundamentally effective way to win the internal struggle to “live and let live” with people who have different views – because prayer fosters healthy, calm empathy. Prayer and other healthy habits have mostly replaced my anxious obsession with news and politics, and my much reduced participation in the news circus is enjoyable these days. I don’t think the news is all bad, rather it’s too focused on sin and problems, and these issue are mostly not actionable or within a given person’s “circle of control” – the news makes us feel helpless because we don’t know how to help.

    Earlier this year, I had a great conversation with this other parishioner and it felt like we understood each other for the first time, though I had grown up in our parish. Our assumptions about each other and divergent efforts to be Christians in a difficult world had caused misunderstanding, and I thank God that we resolved it so nicely. When I mentioned the conflict in confession, what I remember is my spiritual father simply telling me to “let the other person be right.” That seems to means I must find what I do agree with in an argument and focus on the positive.

    A recently published book about outrage calls it an addiction (I would refer to it directly but Fr. Stephen seems to not like promotion on his blog). This book’s message has helped me with repentance from the sins of anger and despair about politics. Realizing I have other, better responsibilities is crucial – politics can take up endless energy and time. I also learned that my anger has roots in past and present events in my own life, and unreported issues, not much in the news or public debate arena. Removing toxic anger from my processing of political news makes me much happier about our government, country, and world – I really feel hopeful and excited for the future. I expect to have fun praying with compassion just like I already do, to weep with tears sometimes while doing so, but to keep a sense of humor about the enticing drama. And to focus more on people I know in real life, not controversial celebrities.

    This blog has been integral to the healing process I describe in this comment. It gives me some perspective much older people have on perennial problems. So I can relax and obey God gladly, rather than living in terror of impending doom or anger and anguish about interpersonal conflict. This morning I surveyed the descriptions of hundreds of books published by a university I want to attend through the school’s bookstore. They were fascinating and inspired me to simply read smart books, which involve a higher level of expertise, mindfulness, and education than most media. Some of our national or global crisis of anger involves illiteracy – not reading good books causes problems regardless of the non-reader’s opinions. And the Bible is our best book.

  25. Byron Avatar

    Prayer is a fundamentally effective way to win the internal struggle to “live and let live” with people who have different views – because prayer fosters healthy, calm empathy.

    Whenever people hold up signs about not needing or wanting prayers, I think “prayer changes hearts–and more than anything, we need that.” The modern world believes that nothing other than law and politics will save it, in spite of the fact that it changes nothing.

  26. Dino Avatar

    And corporate [faux]-“virtue signaling” is absolutely everywhere of late…

  27. Ivan Avatar

    Whenever people hold up signs about not needing or wanting prayers, I think “prayer changes hearts–and more than anything, we need that.” The modern world believes that nothing other than law and politics will save it, in spite of the fact that it changes nothing.

    Well, “live and let live” is controversial – some people hate this motto because it comes from the 12 Steps culture, probably first from Alcoholics Anonymous. And prayers for enemies or those who are in need of help are a major part of “let live.”

    People who do not want prayers do not want to be loved or to be encouraged to change their own behavior and heart, I think. It seems like they are saying someone else needs prayers, someone else is pitiful and subject to God’s choices, someone else has a sick soul – or that there is no point in prayer at all. The main thing is that they do not want prayerful intimacy because of shame around religion and God that makes them think prayer is a form of pity and provides an excuse for enabling abuse. Prayer seems offensive to people who hate God.

    The irony is that great leaders such as Mohatma Gandhi or the civil rights activists in America tend to have faith in God (often Christian faith), with prayer and fasting and so on. Moral-political idolatry impedes faith in Christ, while faith in Christ keeps us safe from idolatry. Authentic prayer ends the whole opposition and rebellion (or oppression) ritual with peace and love, which is resisted by the demon of anger and partisan goals (often elections, legislation, or funding). Activism is not always wrong or atheistic, and of course fundamentalism is the other side of this issue with too much prayer. Balance is key.

  28. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    ” “Democracy” is one of the sacraments of modernity. It is treated as a primary means of grace….Both sides fail to see that they are arguing in a mirror where all images are reversed. Both believe in power.”
    Ah! … etymology: demos=people; kratia=power, rule.
    In the hands of 21 century “moral infantilism” (on point, Father), where individualism and “empowerment” (a dangerous combo) are woven into our culture, where “toleration” and “rights” are demanded, where lines of opposition have been written in stone, and where God is relegated to the highest storey imaginable, and all this achieved in a most coercive manner i.e. shaming, blaming, slander, lies, exaggerations, all manner of violence on both sides , and where reports of this type are perpetuated by our illustrious news media (violence sells), it is no wonder that the impure is now called pure, the profane now sacred, “calling evil good and good evil”. Perfectly stated: “and yet somebody has to do the work”! The work of killing babies. Somebody has to do this. And I must say, what good would it do to respond? To who would you respond? The comment section? Write an email to the editor? The doctor? It would be of no benefit.
    Although these things are “no wonder”, it is tiresome to read the daily headlines and an article or two (no TV service). I ask myself why I bother. But I think it wise to be informed. And it definitely helps direct my prayers.

    Father, before I read the article I gazed at the picture at the heading for a good while. It is one of those pictures that captures the attention. Its title, Touched by the Devil, the artist, Hieronymus Bosch (gotta love that name), is quite the appropriate picture for this post. You are pretty famous for picking some really good pictures!

  29. Trish Avatar

    Janine – Thank you for your prayer suggestion. I love the idea of placing people in God’s hands, a place where I can trust.

  30. Janine Avatar

    Trish, thanks… I’m so grateful that was helpful to you!! Sometimes it’s the only way.

  31. Laura Stanley Avatar
    Laura Stanley

    Trish and Janine,
    I thank you for these comments. I have a gay daughter and thru her I have come to know many who are in the LGBTQ community. I have done the same thing, just asking God to have mercy. I also ask St Mary of Egypt to pray for them and me

  32. Dino Avatar

    As we pray for God’s mercy and illumination for all, may we not be disheartened by the prevalence of sin (even sin that has been renamed as ‘virtue’), rather, let’s remember that God can make straight lines out of our crooked ones…

  33. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Having worked for decades as a psychologist, I have encountered many people who are “different” in many ways. Diversity appears to be part of God’s creation – people have different skin and eye colors. Some are right-handed, others left-handed. We find in God’s creation people with absent or extra fingers, toes, limbs, even sexual organs. Are these “different” people sinful? In some cultures, at some points in history, people of minority status in these categories were indeed considered evil or inferior.

    In my work, I have come to know and care deeply about individuals who are “different” in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity. Most, I believe, were born different. A good many of them have suffered bullying and taunts from the time they were children because others could sense that they were different. Others have had to live secret lives to avoid the consequences.

    We do not know why some people are born “different”. But we can see that, having been ridiculed and tormented for who they are, they now seek a “pride” in their identity – a way to become free from the self-hatred that society has taught them. The manner in which some seek to express this “pride” may seem inappropriate or unhealthy to us – and it may be – as was the violence proposed by some Black nationalists during the civil rights movement.

    But rather than judging the injured for how they respond to their pain, our mission as Christians is to cultivate understanding. Understanding does not mean that we condone behaviors that are emotionally and spiritually unhealthy. But understanding lays the groundwork for compassion and mercy. It also involves owning our share in the sin. Our culture (and sometimes our churches) have been primary offenders in the tormenting of people who didn’t ask to be different.

    It is not our job to judge how culpable others are for behaviors that appear to be sinful. We do not know what it is like to be them – to have their genetic makeup, their environmental influences, etc. For all we know, despite outward appearances, their struggle to find God may be far more valiant than our own. They may have started from a much more difficult place.

    I might also note that, in recent times, we are seeing among the young, many individuals confused by our post-modern culture’s teaching that gender is but a “social construct”. Not having been given the security of a defined identity, some young people find themselves feeling they must “construct” their own reality. Hence, the explosion of new categories (e.g. non-binary, pan-sexual, gender fluid, etc.). I cannot imagine what it would be like to grow up in the midst of such confusion.

    Regardless of whether people are born different, become confused by our broken culture or are enslaved to sinful passions, I do know that all are God’s beloved children, no matter how lost they appear to be. Indeed, those who are most lost are most loved and sought by Him. He leaves the ninety-nine to go in search of the one. Our Savior did not judge or condemn these lost ones but welcomed them home, carrying them on His shoulders. May we learn to follow in Him more fully.

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I do not think that I or anyone here commenting would question that generosity and kindness towards every condition of humanity is normative for the Christian faith. Indeed, I have almost never seen otherwise over my years in the priesthood. I will observe, however, that your take on the conversation, or the state of the conversation in our culture is about 20 years out-of-date. We’re not discussing politeness and kindness. We now have a sexual/gender/identity political agenda that is being enshrined in law, in institutions, and in corporate America, long before anything like a consensus. Like the Roe v Wade decision, when the vast majority of the nation opposed such radicalization of abortion laws, the state and the cultural bureaucracies are institutionalizing a radical understanding that has no support, whatsoever, in science. There is no “live and let live” politeness taking place.

    I already know people who have lost jobs over this stuff, and children whose lives are being distorted and possibly destroyed – in the name of an ideological take on human sexuality that did not proceed from science but from the fringe of liberal arts departments in universities. The fact that a cultural madness is running amok, unchecked, does not alter Christ’s commandments and the need to love and serve. Nor is anyone saying different here.

    I will note for the record, that the sexual revolution, in all its forms, has always required abortion as its bedrock foundation. As Mother Theresa noted, we live in a culture of death. The latest developments are merely the ongoing iterations of that culture. It is killing people – and it starts with their souls. Speaking the truth in that setting is becoming increasingly difficult. It may, soon enough, become illegal.

  35. Byron Avatar

    It is already illegal in parts of the western world; Canada is one that comes to mind.

    However, I think it is also important to remember that we need to be compassionate. We–none of us, are as we should be. Sin corrupts our bodies, our desires, our thoughts,..everything about us. The confusion in our society is a result of our society’s embrace of many, many sins. The fruits of this embrace are only beginning to become evident. If there is repentance, it will take many generations to heal. Things will get much, much worse before they get better, I think.

    The truth of ourselves is found in Christ, not in ourselves (as society teaches). I think one of the best things we can do is homeschool. Teach the children well and do not entrust them to the State. And pray constantly. More than ever before, we must trust God’s Providence and do our best to love those who seek to recast God in their own image.

  36. Byron Avatar

    That last line should say “recast God into their own image.”

  37. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen,

    My comment wasn’t intended to criticize or provoke, simply to offer an alternative perspective. We all walk in different circles and not all readers may have had the opportunity to know the deeper feelings and struggles of people of gender minority status at the level that I have. It is easy to be critical or judging of the idea of a person (“these people) whereas we are more likely to be moved to compassion if we know the individual and their story.

    I am not oblivious to the movements in our culture and battles over what is legal. Many people have lost jobs that they successfully held for decades when someone incidentally discovered that they were gay. I know of one such example that occurred at my old Catholic high school. Such acts of prejudice are not 20 year old news. Sadly, they still current and people are hurt and disillusioned because of them. I talk to people who leave the Church because of such actions and attitudes. They see Christianity as hypocritical, preaching love but not acting on it.

    We are a deeply divided culture. I am reflecting on what it means to love my enemies. No matter how wrong I think someone is, my duty – my joy – is to love them. This is more than a word. Behind every abortion is a person with a story. Behind everyone pushing for laws I don’t agree with, is a person with a story. If I keep my focus on laws, I will miss the humanity of the people whose stories fuel their beliefs. I must put love before any law or social movement.

    Again, I’m not criticizing or saying that you don’t love. I’m simply sharing how I personally interact with our broken world. I will be still now and pray. As always, thank you for all you do.

  38. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Dino…I had to go to those verses…oh how very powerful!

    Isaiah 45:2-7
    ‘I will go before you
    And make the crooked places straight;
    I will break in pieces the gates of bronze
    And cut the bars of iron.
    I will give you the treasures of darkness
    And hidden riches of secret places,
    That you may know that I, the Lord,
    Who call you by your name,
    Am the God of Israel.
    For Jacob My servant’s sake,
    And Israel My elect,
    I have even called you by your name;
    I have named you, though you have not known Me.
    I am the Lord, and there is no other;
    There is no God besides Me.
    I will gird you, though you have not known Me,
    That they may know from the rising of the sun to its setting
    That there is none besides Me.
    I am the Lord, and there is no other;
    I form the light and create darkness,
    I make peace and create calamity;
    I, the Lord, do all these things.’

  39. tess Avatar

    I think something we– as a society, a generation, a culture– have forgotten how to articulate is that sexual transgression, whether it is fornication or adultery, is deeply destructive. I daresay it is much easier and likely to hurt someone with sex than it is to love them.

    Hence the strictness of the rules, I think. Kind of like setting off fireworks— there are lots of safety rules because it’s so dangerous. But American Christians, at large, haven’t been following the safety rules regarding sex, either, so they’ve lost their ability to speak to other flavors of the same sin. I think St. Theophan the Recluse made the observation that if we want our kids to be holy, we’ve got to do it first. We teach by modeling.

    68% of men who go to church use porn, or so say the stats. That’s a much bigger problem than the 6% or fewer who make their way through same sex or gender identity struggles. Not to mention the so-called Christians who cheat on or otherwise abuse their spouses, or the ones who divorce for reasons as fickle as their secular counterparts.

    So how can we teach non-Christians how to not hurt each other with sex when Christians do it to each other all of the time? I don’t know, and it really disheartens me sometimes.

  40. Dino Avatar

    I think that one particular issue with certain ‘modern’ vices as opposed to the ‘classic’ ones (despite their relatively smaller number of actual ‘practicians’ [as you rightly mentioned 68% of men who go to church use porn, or so say the stats, a much bigger problem than the 6% or fewer who make their way through same sex or gender identity struggles]), is that of the ‘rebranding’ of vices as ‘virtues’. It’s the quasi-Marxist trick of convincing people that black is white and vice versa through clever narratives – usually focused on ‘rights-ism’… So what shocks more is not “sin per se”, but the “acceptance of it” by those who do never actually ‘do the deed’ of the sin. Not that one must judge and criticise others, but, we cannot lose the fundamental discernment of right and wrong, of nature and ontology: it would make repentance as a potential much harder…

  41. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s a real problem. On the pornography thing – no doubt, there is a deep weakness manifested in its use. There was a reason why there once were laws that would have prevented its existence or easy availability. When the laws are removed, the results are pretty predictable, even for Christians. Those failures are tragic but not surprising. When society becomes Deadwood, without a sherrif, people begin behaving badly. Slowly, it extends to nearly all of them. Law serves as a restraint. When restraints are removed, yet more evil is revealed.

  42. Beakerj Avatar

    Mary Benton, in my work as a Senior Youth Worker I too work with a lot of ‘different’ individuals, & feel about them the way you feel about your clients.
    Fr Stephen, I’m so glad to hear you say that you think no-one here would act with less than love towards anyone who is gay or trans. But I do think that part of what has fueled the energy now poured into a political agenda has been the horrific scapegoating of anyone with same sex attraction or gender dypshoria by some churches, where this ends up being all that matters about them, & their whole life revolves around people condemning them for this, & the whole rest of their humanity ignored. That has broken a lot of people, people who needed to be recognised & loved as humans made in God’s image, before they could ever find the strength to tackle anything else. No matter how conservative someone’s theology, that should never have happened.

  43. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Beakerj, there is a difference between conservative theology and bad theology. The legalism of bad theology twists everyone. Bad theology happens for the same reason as what you decry. When the Incarnation is forgotten, that Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine, all kinds of twisted stuff happens. We loose both are ability to feel compassion and our ability to repent. Thus, often, even compassion hardens into political ideology and without repentance we judge everyone else.

  44. Janine Avatar

    Laura, thank you for reminding me about St. Mary of Egypt. I will pray also for you and Trish.

    Fr. Stephen, sometimes I have felt that the restrictions that we know from a history of paganism derive more from a kind of teaching against what we might call an idolatry of sexuality, rather than a simple prejudice against being “different.” As far as I am concerned, Orthodoxy does not condemn people for their thoughts, but rather calls us to the struggle between any of our impulses and the place God would lead us. We start out knowing none is perfect. And we are all equally called to humility, tough for all of us, imperfect for all.

    That said, I am not a stranger to the gay community. I come from & have spent my life in the cities where “Pride” was born, before anyone heard of AIDS. I have had many friends whose early experiences are more complex than “I was born this way,” and are no strangers to opposite gender attraction even if their experiences are mostly otherwise. We are all “complicated.” But certainly we are all called to love our neighbor.

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    beakerj, Michael, et al
    I agree with Michael in this – bad theology is the problem – not conservative. And the same bad theology that works by condemnation does not just affect those with difficult temptations in their lives – it was/is harsh on almost everything. Very dark.

    My experience – which has been long and rather broad (as a Christian) – is that the sort of treatment that is rightly vilified is and has been rather rare. In 40 years of ordained ministry, I’ve not seen the kind of treatment that some people want to cite as though it were the normal, default position of Christianity. Historically – that has simply not been the case. The kind of things done in 19th century England (imprisonment, etc.) are almost unheard of anywhere else in Christian history. The stories of the Desert Fathers are replete with such things as “two monks fell into sin…” (meaning, had a same-sex encounter). The tradition doesn’t freak out or anything – it’s rather matter-of-fact.

    That someone has difficulties with various attractions is not new or surprising. It has always been the actions of an individual that come in for condemnation (like all sin). The acts that were traditionally labeled as “sodomy” are not natural – no one is born with an inherent desire to do those things…that must be learned or taught (perhaps that’s true of almost all sexual actions).

    However, the minority actions of some Christians (loud condemnations, etc.) have served to provide fodder for those who would blame all Christians, or refuse to discuss the complexity and nuances of human sexuality. It is a very difficult topic at present, particularly in that it has become so laden with political rhetoric and energy.

    It calls for tolerance and patience. In terms of the Church’s life – the teaching is quite clear and should remain quite clear – so that may be used as part of the medicine for our broken souls. And that requires mercy and kindness.

  46. Thomas B Avatar
    Thomas B

    Father, brethren and…sisteren,

    One of the benefits of living in London is that occasionally, I get to bump into Dino at church. The other includes mild weather and an infinite supply of understatements and political satire delivered by politicians – not comedians.
    To the topic: why do you think we are so concerned about the state of the world today? Go on Dino, tell it as it is 🙂

    Is God any less in charge of it than in other ages? Who are we to judge whether things are better or worse and frankly, how amusing it is to see clay arguing with clay over its state of soul?!

    Don’t we have enough of our own sins and faithlessness to worry about? I don’t see real persecution, I went to church in a secular state and nobody attacked me. They may disagree with my views and beliefs but they have yet to hang me up upside down and tear my intestines out – that would be proper torture, although I have been tortured by recent arguments about how wrong we have been. Mostly nominalistic and sophist (turning black into white) arguments that won’t last very long.

    Patience; you all know how this story ends. I advise restraint and prayer – to myself mostly.

  47. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    I am currently reading a fascinating book on Theosis in which the author first takes the reader on a path through the various “ages” we have experienced since the time of Christ. I’m sure that many of you are more well-read than I am on such things so I will mention just a little of what I have learned.

    The author describes “Modernity” as having been the age from 1789 to 1989. Prior to that, the common perspective was a spiritual one and people looked to religion as their preeminent authority. However, as scientific discoveries seemingly debunked certain central notions the Church espoused at the time, such as the earth being the center of the universe, human reason and empirical investigation (“Science”) began to replace theological explanations. It seemed that we (i.e. our culture) no longer needed God to understand reality. We could understand it ourselves, through our own reasoning and senses. through empirical investigation. Hence, the “Enlightenment” or the Modern Age.

    The author then describes how this development helped spur the growth of Evangelicalism, as there emerged a sort of “scientific” approach to the Bible, making it the final authority rather than Church Councils and Tradition. He describes any of a number of movements that occurred during this time and the political influence enjoyed by Evangelicalism. (My aside – I think that, in recent times, many have lumped all Christians into the Evangelical religious right with its political influence and, rejecting that, reject Christianity as a whole.) The author also notes that many young people are leaving Evangelicalism currently and joining the ranks of the “Nones” (as in “none of the above”, when asked their religion).

    In any event, sweeping over many details of history, we have arrived in the Post-Modern Age which, unlike Modernity’s preoccupation with human reason and science, all of this is questioned, i.e. whether there is any rationality or knowledge that is certain, or even whether there is any objective reality – or just your reasoning, your reality, which is fine but subjective and quite possibly no more valid than mine. It is fascinating how the author ties this in with discoveries in quantum physics and how some have overgeneralized these findings to an amazing degree.

    My whole point in outlining this (and certainly not doing justice to all of history) is to point to what I sense is at the heart of much of our current dilemma. If the primary cultural perspective of our time is one in which there is no objective reality and thus no objective right or wrong, people are left to construct their own. Gender is just one more social construct that has previously been defined as male and female but, as a social construct, it can change. New and different identities can be constructed and, with cultural relativism at the fore, we must respect and protect everyone’s right to construct their own reality.

    This is a very different phenomenon than the simple existence of the 10% homosexual subpopulation that has been observed across cultures for centuries. Most of these folks will testify that they didn’t choose their orientation – why would they choose to be spurned? The Post-Modern movement, however, encourages choice and creating one’s own identity, sometimes on a daily basis. I believe that part of the energy behind the Post-Modern movement is backlash (to the extreme) in response to the very real persecution that the 10% experienced.

    This persecution needs to be corrected – but Post-Modernity is attempting to correct it in a very unhealthy way. Children are being exposed to way too much before they are able to understand the fallacies of the Post-Modern view. I fear this is having a negative impact on their development in ways that may be difficult to ever correct.

    Indeed, we must pray. It seems an impossibly fine line to simultaneously stand against persecution, proclaim God’s truth and offer a haven of love for the many people who are lost in the darkness of Post-Modern thinking. Yet all things are possible with the God who has called us to be light for the world.

    Please forgive my ramblings and correct me if my synopsis is faulty.

  48. Agata Avatar

    But Dino already told us “as it is”… just a little bit higher up in the discussion:

    “…in the undisclosed plan of Him who said: “Let both [meaning the wheat as well as the tares ] grow together until the harvest…
    It is a fact that tares have a function that can both help the wheat (as well as fight each other).”

    I found that very comforting and reassuring… Along with the reminder to work on our own holiness (of which today’s and last weeks Sundays of the Saints remind us).

    BTW, I once read that only the Holy Spirit can help humans conquest the sin of lust. Many other religious and philosophical traditions inspire people to preform great feats of asceticism (fasting, standing on one leg for months, etc), but they all fall into the lustful sins. Such purity only comes as a gift of the Holy Spirit. And this is why is only available in the Church.

  49. Janine Avatar

    Mary, just as an aside, 10% is currently widely considered an overinflated statistic. The number is growing with new mores among millenials, but reliable statistics from polls in many Western countries over the past 5 years have consistently been 4% or below.

  50. Beakerj Avatar

    Thank you for that Fr Stephen. It may just be that I know more people who have been through the bad theology – certainly those I know who have been sent away for ‘conversion’ therapy, a form of psychiatric torture very often, are amongst the most damaged & vocal. Most of those went to Protestant Fundamentalist or Evangelical churches.

  51. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Interestingly, we have a large number of former evangelicals in my congregation. I’ve often thought of Orthodoxy as a long, slow “conversion therapy” for them. For us all, I think of Orthodoxy as a long, slow road towards becoming “truly human.” On the other hand, I can think of nothing more painful than being subjected to any therapy that was not voluntary. And, even then, God alone is the One who changes us. There are many, many things in our lives that we’d all love to change, only to be deeply frustrated that, despite all of our “Christian” efforts, remain the same. Sometimes these are sins.

    I recall speaking with someone who struggled terribly with the sin of pornography/masturbation. They did not fall into it any more frequently than most men, but the self-loathing that accompanied it was off-the-chart. I suggested, to their surprise, that God might have His own reasons for not removing this rock of stumbling. God is never the author of sin – but grace is a very mysterious thing and does not waste our sins. “Where sin abounds, grace abounds more,” St. Paul said. Discovering the grace that is in the midst of the sin is, I think, one of the surest ways to gain victory. Generally, it works through the humility that it creates. The lies of the enemy teach us self-loathing (of the wrong sort).

  52. Janine Avatar

    Father, you wrote:
    “I suggested, to their surprise, that God might have His own reasons for not removing this rock of stumbling. God is never the author of sin – but grace is a very mysterious thing and does not waste our sins. “Where sin abounds, grace abounds more,” St. Paul said. Discovering the grace that is in the midst of the sin is, I think, one of the surest ways to gain victory. Generally, it works through the humility that it creates. The lies of the enemy teach us self-loathing (of the wrong sort).”

    Wow. Thank you so much for that.

  53. Karen Avatar

    Very timely post, in that, two extended family members at opposite ends of the spectrum over hot-button issues in political culture got into an impassioned comments discussion on FB yesterday over a meme one had posted. I jumped into the fray–not sure with what outcome. It did again heighten my awareness of the complexities of the social situation with which we are faced and the deficits on each side of the polemical debates.

    In the midst my pondering all this, my son came home from a double-shift as firefighter/paramedic and started relating some of the calls he answered with his colleagues that were on his mind. He has mentioned calls of this type before, which concern residents of a religious-based institution in that community for girls of all ages who are wards of the state, several of whom are pregnant, several of whom can become violent. My son was relating one such call with a young woman eight-months pregnant, who was having murderous thoughts toward the wardens/staff of the homes. She claimed she had symptoms that needed medical attention, but when my son and his colleagues were trying to find a hospital that would admit and treat, each ER they called, being by now very familiar with these repeat patients, was trying to pass off the case to “the hospital that is closest”. They tried without success to get this patient admitted at the hospital that was closest, but the hospital claimed she had no symptoms warranting their keeping her and sent her back to the institution where she lived. It made my heart heavy looking at the bleak reality and vicious circle some in our society seem so stuck in.

    Thank you, Father, and thank you readers for the wonderful comments. Ivan, your story was incredibly germane to my recent experience and shows the way forward in such circumstances. Very encouraging. Thank you!

  54. Beakerj Avatar

    Fr Stephen, they sound lucky to have you. I still have regular near-full blown panic attacks where I worry that God secretly hates me, that I’m getting everything wrong, & so on. The fruit of harsh ideas about God meeting my pre-existing panic disorder, plus a lot of isolation from illness creating some enduring trauma.
    I’ve made it out of the evangelical church now, & into a nearby Anglican one which is much gentler. There are no Orthodox churches nearby enough to be a real part of them…& lots of Orthodox things still freak me out. I’ve made it as far as orthodox so far.

  55. Milos Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    In response to your comment to Beakerj, can you expound on what the right sort of self-loathing would look like?


  56. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    I know this won’t make everything better for you regarding panic and past teachings, but I am certain that God does not hate you. Just minutes before seeing your comment, for reasons unknown, I watched a video on YouTube by a fellow who “died” (or had a near-death experience) and “went to Hell”. He had done some horribly wrong things, purposely rejecting God, vowing to break all of the commandments, etc. Yet, in his experience, he called on God and God appeared. The story is longer than I can relate here but God, acknowledging he didn’t deserve another chance, gave him one. The man lived, his life now given to God. He is no longer afraid.

    I don’t usually watch many videos and particularly ones of this sort (I’m not so interested in hell) but I share this with you because maybe there was a reason for me to see it. In the past, I suffered from panic and OCD that probably made me feel much as you do now. No matter what our faults or afflictions, God does not want to lose a single one of us. He loves. He is love. We don’t have to deserve His love – only accept it as best we can.

  57. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ve seen the term used by some contemporary Athonite elders – in which it would be a very profound form of humility. I do not use the term, ever, because it is way too loaded with the wrong stuff. I can envision that there might be a healthy, clean humility that the phrase describes – it is seriously above my spiritual pay-grade.

  58. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Beakerj, Mary,
    I’m no expert on the OCD stuff and such, but it seems to me that we have an area of the brain that is stuffed fulled of dark, negative, angry things. I’ve heard it referred to as the “Lizard brain.” It’s a very primitive part and without any filtering through the higher parts, it’s frightening. We see this come out in a number of stroke patients. I’ve seen patients who cannot speak, but can only cuss, and then, only when angry. It’s a brain lesson.

    This same part of the brain seems to play a major role in certain disorders, such as OCD. A person is dogged with thoughts – but why are all the thoughts dark? Why not be dogged with happy thoughts? The reason is because the problem is related to a brain place filled with these dark, primitive urges and thoughts.

    We do not worship the Lizard God – but some people clearly preach Him. When the image of God gets married to the Lizard brain – the result is purely toxic. There are a variety of ways to quieten that part of the brain – some of them are medication-based. But, I am certain that it is the least qualified part of the brain for doing theology.

  59. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Of course, key to proper recognition of incarnational anthropology is affirming that God created us male and female. Sexually we are binary. It also requires that we recognize the serious lack of full sexuality we all suffer from.

    To be a fully Christian man requires of me many, many behaviors that I am, at best, marginally competent in. Indeed, the general lack of ability to rise to the standards that our Lord sets for us as men and women is all the more reason to fence off the practice of sex. It is a bit like giving a loaded gun to a toddler.

    If God did not love us, He would not have incarnated, gone to the Cross from which he forgave us precisely because we do not know what we are doing and then rose from the dead. That is the Good News!

    Repentance, for me is partly realizing that I have no clue but God loves me anyway. Our sexuality is enormously complex, indeed it is woven into the very nature of the Cosmos but it is complex in utter simplicity: “male and female He created them, and blessed them” Gen 5:2 Yet we are each and all created in His image and likeness. Even the worst of sinners.

  60. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Thanks to all for this conversation. Got to thinking about St Maximus’ writings on male/female and found some interesting articles.
    (A tip of the hat to the second one 🙂 )

    Elsewhere, an interesting reference to St Ephraim the Syrian:
    “…It seems as though masculine and feminine are not so clearly two separate things, but they seem to exist in men and in women, in both genders. In fact, the first human was created male and female in Genesis 1:27, and according to Saint Ephraim the Syrian, Eve was already inside of Adam. The first person was separated into man and woman. In the second Chapter of Genesis, woman was taken out of man, and when Adam saw Eve, he recognized her as similar to himself: “This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” In fact, men and women share the same human nature. Each of us as male and female came from the union of a man and a woman. We see aspects of masculine and feminine in both sexes. Each of us, male and female, is in the image of God, and each male and female is considered an icon of Christ. Christ was a man, yet he saved all of humanity, men and women, by taking on human nature as a male.”
    (The title of the piece is Gender as Icon and Vocation, from St Andrews GOC website)

    Makes you think, doesn’t it….

  61. Byron Avatar

    Paula, I believe the thinking along what you have referenced should continue into the sacrament/mystery of marriage, where man and woman return to “one flesh”, bringing life. The interplay of communion, love, and life and what it means to be fully human and in the Image of God is quite a lot to ponder!

  62. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It is sin that creates the confusion

  63. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Yes Byron, it is a lot to ponder! I deliberately offered the two articles and a quote, because my ponderings are hard to put into words on a subject the Saints present so deeply. As Michael says, it is so very complex, but yet simple…which in itself is the complexity!

  64. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I wonder whether heavy engagement in specific social ‘media’ encourages a shift to “lizard brain” use. I’m not referring to pornography or similar unacceptable venues, but to “news commentary” and even “home improvement”– generally perceived as acceptable engagement in this society. Hyper avidity to gain some specific ‘end result’ that would ‘improve one’s personal circumstances’ in some way, seems to be the dominant undercurrent in such venues.

    Recently, I’ve started up regular swimming in a recreational place with an indoor pool. There appears to be a TV everywhere including the dressing room. Perhaps there are positive reasons for this set up, but unfortunately, perhaps because I haven’t been exposed to this stuff for so long, I find myself almost instantly addicted. This behavior seems pretty weird, almost comical.

  65. Dino Avatar

    At the risk of sounding alarmist – but we do need to be wise as serpents (not just innovent as doves) – there’s a cryptic prophecy on the omnipresence of the screen (I think it’s naive to refuse to explain said prophecy avoiding this interpretation) by St Kosmas Aitolos. Essentially claims that the devil will set up show in every corner (even in private spaces) attempting overriding our resistance…

  66. Beakerj Avatar

    Fr Stephen – thank you so much for this, I agree it’s a lesson in the brain, & it’s certainly a lesson in my brain. It’s just heartening to see that you get it & don’t recoil. This issue always comes up for me when I’m under extra stress & I’ve been suffering from work related stress for the last 8 months or so, as austerity policies continue to bite here in the UK. We need the tide to turn as the poor & vulnerable are suffering so much, & so unnecessarily.
    And Dee – I don’t think there’s any doubt that social media very deliberately works off a dopemine loop to keep people coming back for constant small hits, limiting becoming involved in anything that involves concentration. I see it in the young people I work with. I’ve been seeking out more time doing things like gardening, & listening to a long novel on headphones, which takes my brain totally away from all the ‘noise’, it’s like a friend reading to me as I enjoy the garden.

  67. Janine Avatar

    To you in the UK : If you are members of the Eastern Orthodox Church you are getting a new Archbishop whom I personally and many people in the US are going to miss very much! (Metropolitan Nikitas has been the head of the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute — part of the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, and I have been his student. He’s much loved among our churches in California where he has taken a very active pastoral role.) Axios! Related to the topics we’ve been discussing, Met. Nikitas has held several international conferences and has played an active advocacy role regarding issues of Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery.

  68. Byron Avatar

    Perhaps there are positive reasons for this set up, but unfortunately, perhaps because I haven’t been exposed to this stuff for so long, I find myself almost instantly addicted. This behavior seems pretty weird, almost comical.

    Dee, it is common. Our society is one of distraction and screens are currently the main way we are distracted. For myself, I got rid of my TV years ago but still spend so much of my day in front of computer screens (at work, at home, and even at the gym or out to eat, they are everywhere). It is hard to get away. Dino’s warning, I think, is spot-on.

    I always think of the reason I read that the Amish decided to not allow TVs into their homes: they are one-way devices. They simply overwhelm us with whatever they want to sell us and there is no limitation one can impose on the nature of the information (aside from turning them off).

  69. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr. Freeman,

    I sympathize with your distress. I think something that has helped me weather some of it has been a Reformed apologetical method, Presuppositional Apologetics. I have ditched the parts of it that rely on Total Depravity and Sola Scriptura, but for me, part of the frustration in the modern project is the Christian response to it which is often so lacking that it feels like utter defeat when you hear Christians engage.

    And your method, which you lay out both argumentatively, emotionally, etc. – I believe is that method. The examination of a worldview and how it self-destructs gives us the realization that the world in Christ is the only world you can live in and be in the real world. Every other system dead-ends, or ends-dead. This by no means removes the distress, but it does establish hope because all other “options” are removed.

    But the hard part is that all of this is communicated one on one. We will never get the media to interview you at length on human flourishing. The media keeps people from ever evaluating anything for the most part.

    What you are providing in my opinion is a Transcendental method of apologetics, and I believe it is the right one. Christians don’t realize that when they share things about the Christian faith, that our Faith judges all of the thoughts of men, it is not on equal footing with other ideologies – so when we engage, and of course we can do this lovingly without ever mentioning this fact, we do not assume the worldview of the unbeliever to argue them up to the Christian world – we start with the Christian world and pull the unbeliever up by showing the failure, the conclusions and contradictions they don’t already see inherent in their thinking which they have adopted passively, into a place where the wisdom of this world is shown to be anti-wisdom, self-destructing, self-defeating, ultimately nefarious.

    I think the methods with which we engage the culture, our personal witness, preaching in the Church, wherever we get the chance to communicate – that a good deal of time should be devoted to showing where the thinking will lead you. C.S. Lewis and the Funeral of a Great Myth comes to mind.

    It is really helpful to me that when I see liberals and conservatives arguing over this and that – that what we are dealing with more than politics is heresy. Our country still bases so much of it’s argumentation to the general public on Christian ideas, this is probably just to sway the masses, but Jesus/love/God is invoked constantly to defend the most detrimental-to-human-existence practices. But to argue from such a place is not so much a liberal/conservative issue, it’s heresy. When we remember our own American church history, we realize all doctrinal aberrations came from within and multiplied and changed seminaries and brought in German scholarship and brought philosophy antithetical to faith – it was an inside job. As Ross Douthat has pointed out, we’re heretics.

    I don’t grieve as much as I should, Lord have mercy on me for that. I’m glad you are even if it is burdensome because our effectiveness in conversation, prayer, sharing our faith – should start with some grief born from love. I remember a missionary sending agency’s founder telling a group of people interested in full time missions saying, “If you’ve never wept over the people, the people group, you are wanting to go to – you should never go.” That’s a paraphrase, but it seems like that might be a good pre-requisite for all Christians, to seek godly tears before we talk into (and avoiding talking at or over) the world we live in.

    Thank you Father,

  70. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr. Freeman, Beakerj, Milos, Janine

    I wanted to share something from John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin. While there are better Orthodox books, Owen in this book, seems very in the vein of Orthodox thinking though he is Reformed and Puritan. The Puritans were extremely self-relfective and probing. The reasoning was probably due to their theology of Elecation, nevertheless, important insights can be drawn.

    Owen says of people who struggle continually with a particular sin that the person is grieved over, has prayed repetitively to be removed, has struggled with, they have no peace – that God may not answer their prayer because if He did and the sin was gone, they would feel no need for God after this. That the real problem for many is that they do not see that they need to repent of all of their sin and if God took “the big one” away, they would be fine. We are blind to how sinful our “little sins” are, and to keep us humble He doesn’t take it away. That is hopeful, but also very scary – because it means that our deadness to the awareness of who we are, where are motivations lie, the things that excite/bore/entertain/interest/evoke affection, these go unattendend unless there was something glaringly obvious rearing it’s head.

  71. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon


  72. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Dee, Dino…
    Dee…the TV at the public swimming pool immediately reminded me of the irritating TV screens at the gas pumps. The gas pumps! At first I looked hastily for the “off” button. There is none.
    Media…it is like a force. Inescapable. Intended to overwhelm and cast a shadow over actual reality.
    Pardon that I may sound alarmist. I think older people (like myself) react more acutely to such changes because we were born at a time when technology was in its beginnings. We still communicated face to face, or at least on the phone (which began to be called a “land line”), or by written letter. We had “pen-pals”…those across the miles we may have never met. Communities were tighter. Not by intention, but by natural communication/communing. Now, when we (elders) see all these changes…social media, as it is called, it hits us as bizarre to the extreme. I realize I tend to be extreme in my descriptions. I beg no one take offense, those who use social media…please.
    Those who search for answers when in wonder, I think it wise, while considering the many reasons for our “condition”, to consider its source as well. The force behind the breakdown of society would like us to see no breakdown at all. Satan has the entirety of this age to cover our eyes. He fights God not outright (he knows he can’t) but by manipulation of the world out there, which in effect, would hope to change our mind , insidiously. But as St Paul says ” But we have the mind of Christ”, that is, when we keep our mind on Him.
    Simply put, the warfare is real.
    But Christ tells us to “Fear not”. He is with us.
    Don’t fear. But by all means be aware. Consider, and act accordingly in good faith. And of course, pray.

  73. Scott Avatar

    The worst screens are kids’ smartphones. I grew up in the 70’s with a lot of unsupervised neighborhood play, but I can’t let my kids do that. Any kid might have their parents’ old cell phone with the data plan still on.
    Before the internet, there was always the risk that little Johnny or his friends might find Dad’s stash under the mattress, but now porn is everywhere with a few keystrokes. Imagine a playground where a kid flips over a rock and there’s a Playboy underneath. It’s that easy.
    Some parents just let their kids run around with a teeny Tijuana nightclub in their pocket.

  74. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Yesterday I received this article. While I am not a parent, I was raised in the era the author speaks of. In light of Scott’s comment about ‘kids’, I post the link:

  75. Dean Avatar

    Paula from AZ,
    Thanks for parenting link. Our daughter does these two things well…being strict AND loving with our 2 grandchildren. But a little encouragement doesn’t hurt, to keep on keepin’ on!

  76. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Indeed, Dean…encouragement. The author of the article does come across pretty straightforward…tells it like it is…through the eyes of a physician, strictly speaking 🙂

  77. Jamie Avatar

    Paula AZ, I appreciate your mention of the written letter as a means of communication. When was the last time you sent or received a written letter? Remember the anticipation you feel when you see your name on an envelope, written in the hand of someone you know and not by a computer? Giving someone else that same experience is such a simple way to assault the depersonalization of our culture; such an easy way to show kindness. And it’s fun!

    ” . . . letters mingle souls.” — John Donne

  78. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Believe it or not, my niece and I exchange letters from time to time. She writes exuberantly about her young boys, my grand-nephews. There are no holes barred in the expression of her love for them. She tells me detailed stories and sends many pictures. Real pictures…you know, the ones you develop! They are on my fridge.
    Yes Jamie, her kindness blesses me to no end. And it is fun…even down to picking out cards that suit each other!
    Thanks Jamie for pointing that out.

  79. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Paula, you and your niece are my new heros

  80. Dino Avatar

    The traditional letter is the most perfectly refined form of communication according to Elder Aimilianos. It is hesychastic (by not imposing upon privacy), commital, thoughtful and responsible all in one.

  81. Beakerj Avatar

    Hi Matthew, John Owen & the Puritans endless wrangling over who’s in & who’s out is part of the reason my faith & anxiety is in the state it’s in. I’ve left all those sources far behind, although you meant well.

  82. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Your comment above, Dino, is short and sweet. Compact, yet says much.
    You mention “traditional letter”. I think of how letters were a primary mode of communication back in ancient times when a herald, or messenger, would deliver the words of a king (or of course, the letters of the Apostles to the churches), written on papyrus, or some kind of material. Prior to that, on stone tablets (the origin of the saying “written in stone”?). There are also letters written in the form of poetry, sonnets.
    Sometimes words are better expressed in written form where a person takes up a pen and “traditionally writes”. There is something very personal in that. Yet, as you say, not as an imposition, but very endearing. Words are read with the eye and at the same time enrich the eye of the heart.
    In modern times, with communication through screens…well, Jamie used a perfect descriptive…our world becomes “depersonalized”. ‘Person’ becomes ‘non-person’. So we exist in isolation.
    There is separation rather than unity. Separation between male and female, between mankind and the earth, between mankind and the cosmos, between mankind and God. Michael says above concisely…it is sin that results in this confusion. And it is Satan who saw to it that this sin would destroy us, out of thwarted pride.
    But we have a Redeemer. The evil ones have not the last word.
    Words. Letters. Will they completely go by the wayside some day?
    It is a strange world we live in.

    Thank God for the Church. Thank God for all He gives us…everything. Thank God for those united in spirit. Thank God for the work cut out for us, for the sake of Christ , and His Church. It may look like it, but the gates of hell are not prevailing. We are simply in a battle, where the victory is simply being upheld.

  83. victoria Avatar

    Scott- what you have said about cell phones and smart phones and constant connectivity is indeed true and also something I wrestle with as a parent… right now, my 14 year old daughter is the very very last of her friends not to have instagram, Facebook and snapchat – though she does have a smartphone…

    What i find is that when we were young, we could go play, our parents had no idea where we were, but that was largely alright. With our kids, we can literally know where they are at all times (with location sharing – which I have actually purposely not ever used with my kids because I think one completely erodes trust if one always can check up on others via technology)- but we can literally know where our kids are at all times and yet, they have the entire world in the palm of their hands. Its shaping our youth in a manner dramatically different than our own formation – because pornography seeks our kids, insanely untrue political propaganda seeks our kids, every rabbit trail of Instagram and video games and stupidity of all sorts and what have you seeks to take all of our kids time away.

    And even with public school, private school -and some homeschool classes -books and classes are online. I have tried to block sites that would be pornographic etc, only to find that my kids could not access what they need for school – meaning that I need to be totally on standby to enter my admin password so they can complete an assignment.

    And I feel like I need to hire a family tech manager to set our technology up in such a way that I can manage it because its constantly getting the better of me- because trying to use some of these family internet safety softwares also sucks all of my time away – creates issues in the family . If I had it to do all over again, I would never have gotten my kids smart phones.

    Its an amazing drain on everyones time.

    A book everyone should read is IGEN – which talks about our generation of kids born 1995 and later and the effects of being always connected, always wired and having every manner of distraction at their fingertips and the startling effects on our youth, of social dysfunction, depression, anxiety, isolation etc. It is striking.

  84. Janine Avatar

    Victoria and everybody else, thanks,. The constant bombardment of image and information, packaged to be received by our brains as truth (and kids growing up with brains seemingly codependent and plugged in), seems to be the great distancer from an inner kingdom of God. It’s not just about lies or heresy, but the very capacity to know what discernment is. I don’t mean to be alarmist. As Father says, somehow we are meant to be here, and we need to know our own mission in the time.

    As an aside, I was reading a book in which the author pointed out that the machine age gives rise to the assumption that *everything* is always progress (like the latest social mythology, take your pick) because we always need the new machine, and obsolescence is now thus an ever present fact of life.

  85. Janine Avatar

    And yet, I do not hasten to add, places like this blog and our conversation are also “here.” Perhaps that is the real answer.

  86. Janine Avatar

    Oops, I mean I hasten to add… now it’s me confusing everybody 🙂

  87. Dino Avatar

    Victoria & Janine,
    I recall my beloved Elder Aimilianos, almost fifty years ago now (!), saying (back then):

    “The most dreadful enemy created by post-industrial culture, the culture of information technology and the image, is cunning distraction. Swamped by millions of images and a host of different situations on television and in the media in general, people lose their peace of mind, their self-control, their powers of contemplation and reflection and turn outwards, becoming strangers to themselves, in a word mindless, impervious to the dictates of their intelligence[…] The majority of the faithful of the Church confess that they do not manage to pray, to concentrate and cast off the cares of the world and the storms of spirit and soul which are to the detriment of sobriety, inner balance, enjoyable work, family tranquility and a constructive social life. The world of the industrial image degenerates into real idolatry.
    The teachings of the Fathers concerning spiritual vigilance arms people so that they can stave off the disastrous effects of the technological society[…] Spiritual vigilance is a protection for everyone […] not the prerogative only of those engaged actively in contemplation. It is for all those who are conscientiously “dealing with this world as though they had no dealings with it” (1 Cor. 7:31).
    In the industrial era, people became consumers and slaves to things produced. In post-industrial society, they are also becoming consumers and slaves to images and information, which fill their lives.
    Restraint and spiritual vigilance are, for all those who come into the world, a weapon made ready from the experience of the monastic life and Orthodox Tradition in general, one which abolishes the servitude of humanity and preserves our health and sovereignty as children of God.

  88. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    I just have to say, in light of Victoria’s comment…
    God bless all you mothers and fathers. All of you, embroiled in such challenges in the raising up of your children. This takes much fortitude. Surely by the grace of God you continue. I can not help but think…had I been a parent if I would have had such devotion. What if’s can not be answered. But I remember how “far gone” I was. Had I had children…..???
    God bless you all…and your children.

  89. Janine Avatar

    Thank you Dino. Wow. Yes, harder and harder to “know thyself.”

    And as Paula says, all the mothers and fathers in all the comments have a special vocation, and it sure isn’t easy. Prayers for all.

  90. Christopher Avatar

    “….This morning I surveyed the descriptions of hundreds of books published by a university I want to attend through the school’s bookstore. They were fascinating and inspired me to simply read smart books, which involve a higher level of expertise, mindfulness, and education than most media. Some of our national or global crisis of anger involves illiteracy – not reading good books causes problems regardless of the non-reader’s opinions…”

    Ivan, God bless you. I confess a longing and desire to congregate with more young people such as yourself who recognize the *illiteracy* of this modern age.

  91. Christopher Avatar

    Mary Benton,

    The narrative you weave (your June 29 1:55 am post and subsequent ones) of our created nature, the nature of sexuality, desire, will, and morality, “understanding”, “persecution” and our Christian duty is a distinctly *modern* one and I am in awe of Fr. Stephen’s, Dino’s, and others patience with it.


    I own/run a medical practice now, but I spent 20 years as a network/systems administrator. I am a proverbial expert at managing technology and I still struggle and make mistakes. I run a commercial level proxy server/border device in my home, but smart/cell phones have too many variables to be properly and safely managed, so my children (2 daughters, currently age 10 and 5) are not allowed to have them (until they are of age and can legally sign the contract themselves – 18). They will no doubt be the last of their friends to not have them.

    That said, all their friends will have them so…

  92. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Those who are wise shall shine
    Like the brightness of the firmament,
    And those who turn many to righteousness
    Like the stars forever and ever.
    “But you, Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book until the time of the end; many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase.”

    Do we suppose that Daniel’s prophesy is a reflection of the gnosticism (increase in knowledge) that began with the early church and continues to this day? Perhaps gnosticism is not the right word. What does Daniel mean by this?

  93. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Well, not Daniel, but the illumined one speaking to him.
    Daniel 12: 3-4

  94. Dino Avatar

    I believe Mary is aware, despite her comment, that there is a golden human yardstick given us in Christ. There is also a knowledge (of the Logos), the complete loss of which is the loss of the actual reason-for-the-continuation of the existence of all creation.
    This is strongly hinted in the story of the flood (Genesis 6 : 12 -13). It is also –more recently– described, in that vein, by Elder Sophrony while amplifying upon St Isaac’s ‘scandalous’, famed saying that ‘one can never compare the person who sees his sins in the stillness of God’s presence to one who returns thousands to the faith’ (i.e.: the first is enormously higher than the second).
    He explains that the loss of the knowledge of God the Logos from upon the face of the Earth (a knowledge that –even when found in one single individual alone–apparently suffices to justify the continuation of the Earth’s existence, an earth that can still, somewhere, produce ‘God-knowledge’) has an indistinguishably close second: the loss of the knowledge of Man (as in the knowledge of the pre-eternal ‘logos’ of Man’s existence).
    The rich deviations from the yardstick of such a knowledge of Man cannot be (supposedly ‘considerately’) normalized because of their undeniable occurrence in fallen humanity. It makes no difference if genetic differences, or environmental influences shape such deviations, it even makes little difference if these deviations are proclivities to laziness or to anger, to promiscuity or to perversion, to pedophilia or to homosexuality, to over-strictness or to paranoia etc. etc. The truth of the eternal principle of the perfect ‘yardstick’ is a guiding star, without which we cannot justify why we even exist. Modern relativism/subjectivism dislikes such maximalist statements and self-justifies its dislike as ‘tolerant, loving consideration’ despite it robing us of the most needful thing: the ‘thread’ that can take us out of the maze.
    We must guard against such relativism (as I recall CS Lewis prophesized in ‘Men without Chests’ would take over mankind).

  95. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    My patience fails me a lot…but, it’s easier with relationships that have lasted for seven years (as in Mary’s case). I’m always surprised at people’s patience with me.

    I don’t like to hear it, but the present morass of our society and culture was created as much by the Christians within it as not. And, I think the story has been far more complex and layered than people acknowledge. I was once asked why more Episcopal priests did not leave the Church around the time I did, or in the decade following. The sad truth is that many of them had been divorced and remarried, or their spouses, etc., and they ran afoul of the Orthodox marriage canons viz. the priesthood. That’s only one of many examples of things that Christians had begun to let slip. The sexual revolution took place with a quiet complicity, I think. What we see now, if you will, is the judgment of God (not on the poor people who have lost their way) but on us all as we reap the consequences of our negligence and foolishness. We have to pray for a space of repentance and pray for those who needed more and got less.

    Or so it seems to me.

  96. Victoria Avatar

    Dino –

    that first quote you wroteof Elder aimilianos – i wrote that down recently and sent it to a friend of mine. It is strikingly profound considering that he wrote it 50 years ago.

    The Holy Spirit will Always find a way but the lack of silence – that is something which is unprecedented in human history

  97. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    Great post and great discussion. Thanks to everyone for all your comments.

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