Modernity Is An Abiding Crisis – It Cannot Exist Without One

The ideas that constitute “modernity” center around life as management. Modernity assumes that life can be managed, and that human beings are well-suited for the job. It’s greatest successes have come in the careful application of technology towards various problems with a resulting rise in wealth. The well-being that comes with that wealth is limited to the things that money can buy. Non-tangibles remain as elusive as ever. Modernity prefers problems that can be solved. As such, the short history of the modern world is the story of a civilization that staggers  from one crisis to another. It derives its sense of self-worth and meaning from the problems it solves. It is existentially desperate for such problems.

No one historical event or idea created the modern world. It is an “accidental” philosophy, made up of disparate elements assembled in the wake of the collapse of the Medieval world (generally called the “Reformation”). The times that gave rise to modernity were revolutionary and radical (or were perceived to be). It’s heady stuff to be reforming the world. It’s also exhausting.

I have often thought that people generally have narrow interests. We want to work, to play, to love our family, to live in peace with some modest level of comfort. Of course, a consumer economy cannot operate in a world of satisfaction. Modern consumption with an ever-expanding economy requires that our dissatisfaction remain somewhat steady. The same is true of the political world. For people to vote, they must be motivated (like shopping). Problems need to be advertised so that people will vote for their solutions. As such, our society has moved from crisis to crisis, slogan to slogan, with a faithfulness that can only be described as religious in nature. Though America invented the notion of the “separation of Church and State,” nothing is more political than American religion, nor is anything more religious than American politics. Modernity is a religious project.1

Religion, per se, needs no gods or temples. It requires purpose and direction and a narrative for the direction of life. Human beings are not constructed in a manner in which we live devoid of religion. The term itself is instructive. “Religio” is a Latin word that refers to “binding” (“ligaments” has the same root). “Religion” is “that which binds us,” or “holds us together.” Modernity, as a set of ideas, has been the dominant religion of Western culture for well over 200 years. What Christianity that continues to exist within it generally exists as a Christianized version of modernity. Modernity is the set of ideas, therefore, that answers the question, “What would Jesus do if He was going to fix the world?” Ecumenism tends to flourish in such a setting because the “religious” differences between denominations are insignificant. What matters is the State and the culture as State.2

Modernity has been marked by a series of quasi-religious projects. The “New World” itself largely began as a religious project. The problem was not escaping persecution (an American myth). Rather, it was the dream of building a new world according to the radical ideas of English Puritanism (at least in New England). The “rights of man” exploded as a religious campaign in France, sweeping away the old order as well as not a few heads. Again, it is a mistake to think of such fervor as “political” in nature. Politics is about governing – revolutions are always religious in nature – people “believe” in them.

America’s Westward drive can only be understood as a religious campaign. Notions such as “manifest destiny” married the American project to the book of Judges and the conquering of the land of Israel. Bob Dylan observed, “You don’t count the dead when God’s on your side.”

The single greatest act of idiocy of the modern project was the “War to End All Wars” (World War I). The mass carnage of an entire generation brought nothing of significance as a result. Again, mere governance is incapable of such madness. Only the blindness of a false belief can create such nightmares.

Following the Second World War (which was utterly conceived in religious terms) the struggle with Communism became the great religious impulse of the post-war period.3 Towards its end, Reagan declared the Soviet Union to be the “Evil Empire,” capturing the religious mood of an era. Billy Graham’s preaching in the 50’s was as much about anti-Communism as it was  about sin and redemption. Presidents loved him. It is worth noting that in its 220 years of history, the United States has only known 17 years of peace. To a large extent, the modern state exists as war (a religious war).

The collapse of the Soviet Union created something of an existential/religious crisis in the West. Historian, Francis Fukuyama, declared it to be the “end of history.” Without the religion of anti-communism, capitalism itself felt empty. Did we spend all of that treasure and energy resisting Communism just so we could have Walmarts? Indeed, the spiritual emptiness of the West was apparent to almost everyone (except the West). Solzhenitsyn shocked American pundits when he described the vacuity of its spiritual life in his Harvard Address (1978).

I live in Oak Ridge, TN. I moved here shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This city (the home of the Manhattan Project that built the first atom bomb) went into a bit of a tailspin in the 90’s as the Cold War came to an end. It was a microcosm of the whole military-industrial complex (in which is located in some dark corner, the Vatican of modernity’s religion). The decades since have been marked by a fevered search for a religious substitute. This has partly been found through the propaganda-driven recreation of the Cold War by the demonization of post-Soviet Russia. Both political parties today channel a hatred and fear of Russia that eclipses anything ever expressed about the Soviet Union.

The single most successful current religious movement surrounds the issues of climate change. I am not suggesting that the climate is not changing nor that human activity is not a contributor. Rather, I am suggesting that it has gained a religious basis that serves the larger purposes of modernity and its religious needs. If fingers were snapped and tomorrow the climate suddenly stabilized and returned to 1960 standards, the emotional loss for many would rival the death of God.

When the pronouncements of religious leaders agree with the headlines of the New York Times, we do well to ask which religion is being espoused. Regardless of actions taken and not taken, we will not “save the planet” nor lose it. However, the concept of saving the planet serves well the unifying cohesion of modernity’s religious needs.4

The religious character of the current “crisis” is not to be found in a concern for the environment. Rather it is in the concern for a crisis. How desperate things are has little or nothing to do with the matters at hand and everything to do with modernity’s desperate need for purpose and meaning. The very people who wring their hands about future suffering justify present suffering (such as the wholesale slaughter of the unborn) in that its presence helps pay for the uninterrupted lifestyle of consumer capitalism.

The concerns of modernity’s religious demands often contain an element of truth. That same truth is ultimately swallowed up by the unattended destruction that provides for its way of life. Fulfilling those present demands is no more a solution to the problems of the world than any of its previous wars, genocides, and head-chopping revolutions. Filled with good intentions, they are the demands of a religion of insanity.

Christian theology has a concern for all things: “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” As such, it is possible to construct a “theological” account that supports the various projects of modernity. However, the Church does not exist to serve the demands of a false narrative. Coming to understand who we are and why we are is essential to Orthodox existence. Its endangerment may be the only true crisis of our time.

Footnotes for this article

  1. Christianity in its modernized forms is also driven by crisis and slogan. As such, it often resembles the politics of the world it inhabits.
  2. The State is that arm of society in charge of “doing.” If Modernity as religion is about managing the world, then the State will always be its primary expression.
  3. Communism itself was a religious project. Its wholesale destruction of the Orthodox Church was an effort to eliminate a threat to its own religious claims.
  4. I am not a “climate skeptic.” I am a political skeptic. If there is a crisis, the least trustworthy people in the world to manage such a thing are those who currently govern. The religion of modernity has produced perhaps the most incompetent ruling class in human history.

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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96 responses to “Modernity Is An Abiding Crisis – It Cannot Exist Without One”

  1. Eric Avatar

    “the Church does not exist to satisfy the demands of a false narrative”

    Yes, thank you for this Fr Stephen. (Although I’m not too sure whether to thank you for possibly the most depressing photograph illustrating the calamitous infantilisation of my own denomination)

  2. Byron Avatar

    Well said, Father. That modernity requires crisis is patently clear to anyone who looks, but so few are actually paying any attention. To some extent, we ourselves enjoy the thrill of jumping from crisis to crisis, even in our own, small lives. Crisis is excitement: “Finally! I can do something!”. Boredom (and silence) is now considered our main enemy, it seems.

  3. Beakerj Avatar

    Very interesting about crisis – when all I want is peace! Our press is certainly all about crisis & lurid tales. I wonder what a balanced view of each day would look like on a newspage?

    I think a lot of people do suspect that something to do with love is the meaning of life – but aren’t sure what. The more Christians show real love, the more we will look like we have something to say about the bigger picture – & they will want to know God & be part of the redemption story.

  4. Randy Myers Avatar
    Randy Myers

    I’ve been reading and benefiting from your blog for quite sometime and it has become more timely for me in recent months as I have become a seeker having left Protestant ministry (I now work as a first grade teacher in a Roman Catholic school with the Tohono o’Odam nation).
    I was raised and served in one Methodist tradition or another (Holiness and Mainline). Your observation of modernity’s obsession and reliance on crisis is spot-on. Crisis is necessary to the project whether it be in larger schemes of “transforming the world” or on the most personal level of crisis experiences for the sake of faith. It does indeed wear one out. I’ve found myself to be more of a pilgrim in search of peace these days.
    Thank you again for your blog and for sharing your insights.
    Randy Myers

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I could quibble here and there with your historical analysis, but it would be quibbling…and of course the new religion that hates Russia also targets the Orthodox Church with our own government leading the way. They cannot countenance the presence of an actual Church. Real faith must be trivialized, infantilized or destroyed. Just as Charlemagne, the other princes of Europe, the Ottoman Empire and 20th century US led by that staunch Calvinist, Woodrow Wilson, sought revenge.

    Everything must be leveled, controlled or destroyed.

    Only the Cross provides hope. That is always there.

  6. Janine Avatar

    It’s funny, today I blogged on the Triumphal Entry. Everybody expected Jesus to fix everything. It didn’t matter what He said. It didn’t even really matter that the Scriptures prophesied a Suffering Servant, or One who was “lowly.” He just had these abilities and so he would be the one who would restore all the things we want. What a tough message He still carries.

  7. Pete Avatar

    “The religion of modernity has produced perhaps the most incompetent ruling class in human history” citing your quote above Father. – Amen!

    Again to your quote above “the Church does not exist to serve the demands of a false narrative. Coming to understand who we are and why we are is essential to Orthodox existence. Its endangerment may be the only true crisis of our time.”

    I would add to that even a narrative that lacks truth in scope and proportion serves as a distraction. We can’t get mired in side shows. Knowing who we are , why we are and whose kingdom we have been transformed into gives us that Truth in scope and proportion. To be oriented in our eschatological roots that were inaugurated (i.e.,origins are) from the foundation of the world, pointing to God’s (in)expressible love and to Know That is our expression of the shared life which is communion. This is also the past & present made real now.
    Absolutely everything else pales in comparison. Our small part is to know that we are sinners in a way that touches the heart, so that repentance is the consuming interest. This is easier than you think. Do that is the midst of your sinfulness, not after you have decided to make a new start. That is key. Simply act. God will do the rest. You will know joy and the restful place. This just takes a little attention. That is all. The word righteousness means to be made right – or aligned right i.e., oriented properly toward the good i.e., the ultimate Good, with essentially no moral overtones included.
    Moral purity doesn’t work here, but wholeness and clarity of soul. Things start to come into focus. Purpose becomes the natural sublime experience. That is our calling; what we were designed for and (pre)destined to become. Surround yourself with faith. This helps considerably.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The historical analysis is such a bit of broad brush strokes. Admittedly, I tend to see modernity as not having depended as much on Nietzsche as you commonly do – and over that we may quibble. I hope I’ll get to spend some leisure time with you when I’m in Wichita for the Eighth Day Symposium events in January. Perhaps we will solve the narrative!

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Even modernity itself, with all of its faults and distractions, is but the merest sideshow. I think to myself – there is a “Deep State” but it’s not hiding in Washington. It’s much, much deeper than that! And it’s not the Illuminati. It’s the Disilluminati – and they’ve been at it since before the Garden of Eden. We struggle not with flesh and blood. By the same token, the true battle goes on – trampling down death by death – day by day – until we are finished.

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Reading Nietzsche was my full introduction to the “modern”. It was not new. It sonme ways it was Nietzsche’s take on the ancient, pre-Christian Greeks. A very rough idealized neo-paganism. Nietzsche’s friendship with Wagner was connected to all of that. One can find many of the same ideas in Emerson. The fascist ruler can be seen in Plato’s Republic if one looks hard enough. Ultimately as you point out as did Blessed Seraphim Rose, modernity is formed and shaped as a concentrated rebellion against God. It is an ideology of power and destruction that finds a natural home in statism and the evil behind it hates the Cross. Ironic isn’t that all of the machinations and destructions of the evil one always end at the Cross. He is always defeated in his “victories”.

    It is deeply sad however that we human beings keep falling for the same lies.

  11. Janine Avatar

    Maybe it’s because we still fall for the same old lies that we still need the same antidote, the same medicine. I frequently feel that societies don’t get the religion they want, but the one they they need. Just something I muse on every once in a while.

  12. Nancy Avatar

    How do we live with all the noise? I recognize and see many of these faults within our world. I see the chaos and I very much see religion in politics and social issues. Even when I try to ignore it and do other things it feels impossible to get away from. My electronic entertainment is pretty much just the Hallmark Channel now!! LOL

  13. Harold Avatar

    Dear Father,

    Have these notions of crisis and management entered the church? E.g. do we see the pain and unbelief in our world as a crisis we manage with our optimized programs of outreach? Do we approach the financial difficulties of a congregation only with polished presentations designed to lead to revenue enhancement?

    If the answer to the question is yes, what are alternatives to the church viewing things as problems to solve? Is the alternative to act more purely in love rather than looking for results? I think if the church sees itself as a problem solver it is a dangerous temptation to pride.

  14. Dean Arnold Avatar
    Dean Arnold

    This is a great article. You’ve really turned the “narrative” upside down.
    Janine’s comments on the Triumphal Entry bring it into focus nicely.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    If you are born in this culture, then, chances are, you are permeated with the propaganda of modernity. Part of that propaganda is that modernity is not a set of ideas, but just a “period of time” in which we now know better than what has gone before and that we are about making a better world. That invades everything – the Church included.

    I do not write about this in order to change modernity itself. I write primarily to other Christians and for other Christians, and, particularly the Orthodox. I hope to broaden our vocabulary and offer some help in “discerning the times” (when I write on this topic). I am, I hope, making possible a conversation that might not happen so much, otherwise.

    I do that because I’m a priest, and it’s something God has given to me to do. But, it’s very important to remember that only God is important and all things have an importance themselves as they relate to Him. The goodness of God is that He even uses our failure (and even our sin) for our salvation. Christians, of all people, should be at peace, even in the worst of times. The battle has already been won.

  16. Janine Avatar

    Dean Arnold, thank you kindly

    Father Stephen, you write:
    “I do not write about this in order to change modernity itself. I write primarily to other Christians and for other Christians, and, particularly the Orthodox. I hope to broaden our vocabulary and offer some help in ‘discerning the times’ (when I write on this topic). I am, I hope, making possible a conversation that might not happen so much, otherwise. … I do that because I’m a priest, and it’s something God has given to me to do. But, it’s very important to remember that only God is important and all things have an importance themselves as they relate to Him. The goodness of God is that He even uses our failure (and even our sin) for our salvation. Christians, of all people, should be at peace, even in the worst of times. The battle has already been won.”
    This is a great thing. Thank you.

  17. Byron Avatar

    How do we live with all the noise? I recognize and see many of these faults within our world. I see the chaos and I very much see religion in politics and social issues. Even when I try to ignore it and do other things it feels impossible to get away from.

    Nancy, so much of living in these times is distraction. Not even in the big picture but in the everyday life we lead. I’ve found that turning off the radio and TV go a long way towards letting me live and focus on God. Of course, this results in my not being aware of much of the big goings-on in today’s world (I am sometimes blindsided by some event that many others have been following for some time), but I’ve found that’s really more of a gain than loss.

    Essentially, just remove distractions as you can and you will find a great deal of peace and focus. That’s been my experience, anyway.

  18. Byron Avatar

    Eighth Day Symposium

    If I make it, I’d love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation! Or maybe just share a piece of pie….

  19. biermonk Avatar

    Imagine if I went on vacation for a week.
    I’d read and plan and rush around and drown myself in things to do and see before my vacation was over. All to relax, of course. To come back energized to….to what? To get back on the proverbial treadmill.

    “Lord, do you not care…?”

    Imagine if I went to a monastery for a week.
    I might discover what it is to live like a human being.
    All to come back and…perhaps live like a human being.

    “Martha, Martha, …one thing…”

  20. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr. Freeman,

    The only thing I would add to your excellent post is that what people often need to see, or what they are more capable of seeing, is the inherent contradiction in their worldview.

    The same people who thrust back beached whales are just as likely to fight vehemently for the right to kill the unborn or the elderly. The same people who cry foul during the MeToo movement would, if the situation were right, they would call rapists heroes if it saved the planet. I didn’t make that up. We should eat cave men food because we haven’t evolved for grain consumption, but in no way should we return to the past in mimicking their social behaviors. The same people who want to save the world from climate change are often those who believe we came from nowhere, from no-thing, and that we are destined for extinction when the sun explodes and all memory of earth is forever forgotten, no conscious creature remaining. I actually know of friends of friends who had permanent birth control for the sake of the planet and who opt to have pets instead. Pets are another crazy contradiction. If you just watch a little television, count the number of times you hear pets referred to as children, treated as children, pampered financially as children – while the birth rate in the U.S. is plummeting. The world’s oligarchs believe we should reduce the population by 3/4 somehow, or even down to 100 million. Both pets replacing children and a population reduction strategy, that is working, is espoused by those who again, will admit that the planet is destined for destruction. The same people who admit that evolution does all that it does for survival will condemn anyone who disapproves of a union that would result in extinction naturally. All the while Satan attempts to get his original plan accomplished, to kill us all.

    It’s fairly amazing that when you really look into the character of Satan it’s not so much that he was originally anti-God but anti-man. But God’s persistence to make man into gods has made Satan the enemy of both man and God. The issue is, we are heretics, trying to claim our heritage as those made in the Image of God while inventing means to become gods not by grace, but by technology, by shortcuts, by bowing down to another, all the way to death and destruction. What a hell it would be to have your consciousness uploaded some day to a computer to live forever – if that were possible that is – but this is modernity’s hope in conquering death.

    God bless you Father,
    Matthew Lyon

    It’s just that you can’t, as you implied or said, mix Anti-Christ narrative with Christian narrative successfully. It’s a problem for Satan that he is so unimaginative to come up with his own original story, or he is prevented because it’s just how the world is, that in the end we’re really just forced to choose whether or not to bow down.

  21. Janine Avatar

    Re distraction and noise (and peace), I find that setting a prayer rule, as structure; i.e. praying the Hours, is very helpful. One can find them online in several places.

  22. Drewster2000 Avatar


    Peace is boring. And it doesn’t sell.

    Actually when making decisions in our daily lives, it is often wisest to pick the choice less flashy and requiring more work on our part.

  23. Janine Avatar

    Matthew Lyon, profound and true. But I especially love, as you put it so succinctly:
    “It’s fairly amazing that when you really look into the character of Satan it’s not so much that he was originally anti-God but anti-man. But God’s persistence to make man into gods has made Satan the enemy of both man and God.” How true, and you are right. If you look at the demonic activity in the Gospels, it’s always destructive to human beings. Accompanied by pain and toil.

  24. TimOfTheNorth Avatar

    Byron, you and me both… odds of getting to Wichita are a long shot at this point, but it’s on the wish list.

  25. Byron Avatar

    TimoftheNorth, I can get to Wichita (even have a friend who can put me up, if needed) but I don’t think I can afford the symposium (and I’d have to leave the final day anyway). We’ll see.

  26. Moses Avatar

    Thank you for this blog. It rings so true. It is very eye opening to us Americans and our nature to consume, consume, consume, and consume; never being content. Let me correct that, I consume and consume and I am never correct. My evidence is anecdotal but the culture is there and I have given myself into it way too much that it is a shame. Forgive me LORD and have mercy on me!

  27. Mark Northey Avatar
    Mark Northey

    I really appreciate this article and thank you for bringing forward these ubiquitous manifestations of Modernity. I especially appreciate your distinction between what is genuinely political (good government) and a sort of “politics” that is actually an impure “religious zeal,” filling the void of empty hearts, lives, and cosmos.

    One quibble: We Orthodox (especially formed in the West) tend to choose our tribe and demonize “the other,” which is to say we are as much formed in Modernity as our secular neighbours. You draw attention to Climate Change and the hypocrisy of abortionists passionate concern for the environment. My concern is that we not fall into ideological camps so readily. You are careful not to do this (with footnote 4), but I see comments leaning more heavily in this direction.

    The current ‘hoopla’ about going green and climate change is all unhealthy and misguided. But there may still be a climate crisis. The best science apparently points toward it, and some Orthodox-spiritual common sense (we cannot abuse, pollute, and exhaust the planet without restraint, ascecis, gratitude, and simplicity, and expect our actions to have no impact). But what then should an Orthodox do? Not fix the world, but fix his own heart. Live more simply. It’s hard work to swim upstream but it’s Christian work.
    Unfortunately, with the polarization between conservative and liberal, if someone who’s an atheist and a democrat says something, many Christians assume it must be suspect. Culture wars are profoundly modern as well.

  28. juliania Avatar

    Janine, I am enjoying very much singing the weekly kontakion tones – the ones that recommence every Sunday. When my little church was still operative, I would only be aware of them at the Sunday liturgy. Now, however, because they are ‘in train’ with Pentecost, which in effect is the same for all Orthodox, there is a Paschal moveability about them that is most uplifting.

    I’m not good at remembering the music for them, but I have traced familiar hymns to hopefully approximate the simple tunes. And singing is so very good for the spirit, as always the body responds. My church was (and is) old calendar, so this is a way of staying in touch with all, and a kind of eight day, ‘week’ – which I love as well.
    I also remember each morning ‘the sick and the suffering, captives for their salvation, and the homeless and destitute.’ It really helps face the modern world as Our Lord was helped by those very same in his.

    Thank you, Father Stephen. It also helps very much to remember that ‘the battle has been won.’

  29. Janine Avatar

    juliana, that is really beautiful

  30. Pete Avatar


    A simple note in response to yours –

    The scriptures do not say “for God so loved the world that he gave us a cause” What he gave us is a purpose that has as an implication the word ‘meaning’ and that is to know the Father through the son by the Spirit (Trinitarian life), The world goes from one cause to the next and is never satisfied. The world and the prince of this world will always have a counterfeit to the truth (ultimate purpose) for mankind to gleefully follow, though it produces despair, frustration and ultimately death. The seduction is to find yourself in a cause or a myriad of causes for the sake of a ‘better world.’.

    If (since) Christ has given us life, he has also given us a way of life. That life lived by Christ was one lived on purpose.

    It was not a life lived by accident. It seems, to your point that we don’t know who are, who we represent in the world. We lack this knowledge that Christ lived on purpose, with intent and had a practice. We miss the point that this mode of existence (as he is so are we in this world! – the Apostle John) entails these very things. In our current environment people and many Christians, even some Orthodox I know are quite carried about with the current political milieu. By an easy seduction they have exchanged the Ultimate purpose for a transitory (though seemingly important) cause. When we do this we lose our place, our meaning and our purpose.

    We lack fundamental awareness. The Church’s admonition is true. Continual repentance in the sense of running to someone as much as it is running from something is important to be established in. There is a huge positive in repentance that should be emphasized too. By way of experience Purpose becomes what is natural, not foreign to us and is sublime. This proper place, practice and orientation becomes known. We become foreigners in this land and start to live our calling i.e., what we were designed for and (pre)destined to become. (i.e., in truth – ecclesial being)

  31. Mihai Marinescu Avatar
    Mihai Marinescu

    “Modernity prefers problems that can be solved. As such, the short history of the modern world is the story of a civilization that staggers from one crisis to another. It derives its sense of self-worth and meaning from the problems it solves. It is existentially desperate for such problems.”

    You know, this is an excellent insight.
    Just a few days ago I pointed out to my manager (!!!-that’s what hierarchy is reduced to nowadays, a hierarchy of management) a few unnecessary problems that could be easily avoided with some intelligence.
    Her answer , I realize now, is something that speaks for modernity as a whole: “if we wouldn’t have this problems, we wouldn’t have a job”. And she’s right. The majority of jobs nowadays depend on this very fact: constant, unnecessary and sometimes extremely absurd changes, that cause more problems then they solve, but these problems in themselves are essential for the existence of such jobs.
    Talk about a vortex leading you faster and faster down the drain- that’s what today’s economical system is basically.

  32. Nancy Avatar

    I guess what I am saying is that you can’t really escape modernity completely. Yes…pray more and have a prayer routine, go to as much church as you can. But we still have to live our lives in this world. I have children and they have friends and they like video games and talk online and watch You Tube and we of course have rules about how much and what they watch. We have friends and neighbors, my husband has a job outside the home. I homeschool my kids but I have other friends online and in real life. I mean saying cut out distractions..what does that mean….is that really a solution. Some may say that watching Hallmark is a distraction but I homeschool my kids and take care of the home all day, so when 3 pm comes along, I love my time sitting with a Diet Coke and watching a Hallmark show, it’s relaxing and rejuvenating. Should I be praying… I suppose but it is okay to have fun and have some entertainment. I just think distraction is not the right word or the right answer in dealing with modernity and wondering what is. We can’t escape it, we can minimize the influence but it can’t be completely gotten rid of unless we became hermits in the mountains and I have kids and family. Living life…even a wholesome one filled with good things a person still runs into the anxiety of modernity.

  33. Janine Avatar

    Nancy, you’re right, that’s a full schedule. But maybe the prayer is a time-out, a kind of drawing the curtain for private time, escape, and renewal. It always turns out rewarding, even when I don’t necessarily feel like it. But as in all things, what is helpful is the guide.

  34. Jeff Pauls Avatar
    Jeff Pauls

    Thank you, Father,

    I experienced an example of your point when I went back to school to finish my degree. I had started it right after HS like many others, but then I met someone and moved 3000 miles elsewhere and “education” took a back seat.

    I digress…

    As I “re-began” my college career at 36, I was not unexpectedly a little nervous about it all. But as I entered into my first semester of a BS in Elementary Ed, the high level of anxiety caught me off guard. As I did the work, I noticed that my fellow students were often very busy and intense with every assignment and project. After I got a few favorable grades under my belt, it dawned on me that it wasn’t that I was slacking off or not doing the work, it’s just that I wasn’t frenetically freaking out about every assignment.

    I realize that my push back to this approach was probably due to a number of things–my temperament, my age at the time and the experience I had by that time. But whatever the reason, I’m grateful that I realized this mode of being wasn’t a prerequisite for being successful in my pursuit of the degree.

    And this highlights one step on the map that leads us out of the way of being you described. When I was in the midst of all that hubbub, there was a little voice speaking. Instead of ignoring it, for some reason, I took five minutes and listened. I kept doing that until five turned into ten turned into fifteen, etc. I was transformed, and I was able to complete my degree relatively free of the extra burden of anxiety that surrounded me on every side.

    And I guess I haven’t really realized until now, that that revelation and my unwitting acceptance of it was just one of many similar instances all along the way of God teaching me what it means to be human.

    Once again, Father, God uses your words as a lens to show me what He’s been doing, what He will keep doing and most importantly, who He is. Thank you.

  35. Byron Avatar


    We’re not going to escape modernity and, as you note, we do have to live within it. Distractions are not, in and of themselves, terrible and evil things! So not let them take over your life (as many do, simply moving from one to the next). Do not let them feed the passions, if you can help it. I have a few hobbies that are utterly irrelevant; I expect we all do. As Janine rightly pointed out: “But as in all things, what is helpful is the guide.”

    Prayer is always good, but we are weak. What was the saying of one of the Fathers? “Stand at the brink of hell for bit and, when can stand no more, step back and have a spot of tea”. Something like that. May God bless and hold us all close!

  36. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Bryon , That was Elder Sophrony, U believe. Not one of the Fathers but certainly of the mind of the Fatherz

  37. Byron Avatar

    Thanks Michael! I could not remember….

  38. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Despondency is a significant symptom of modernity. When I seek distractions I have learned to ask myself what it is I seek. Peace, joy, love, these are fundamental needs. Yet often what we do In the throes of despondency does not take us there.

    Idle chattering is destructive but I do it nearly all the time in my head. And my prayer life is disturbed by it. Then in despondency, I look for distractions.

  39. Ioana Avatar

    Dear Michael and Byron, I think the fathers suggested the same strategy:
    “If you do not have the strength to take hold of yourself and fall on your face in prayer, wrap your head in your cloak and sleep until the hour of darkness passes from you.” Saint Isaac the Syrian.
    Hello, father. Do pray for us.

  40. Yannis Avatar

    Entertainment is not wicked in itself. You can use it to give rest to your mental and physical faculties from the exertions of meaningful work. You should not exhaust yourself, but take care of the body that God has entrusted to you.
    But the entertainment itself must be sound, and not introduce undue influences into your life. Remember, the modern world is good at “teaching” through the entertainment it provides.
    Nor should you further strain your faculties (e.g. eye-strain from screen-time, too much exercise, etc.)
    Finally, and most importantly, entertainment must not become an end in itself (“I have worked hard for this extra money; I can now afford ready meals and other things that save me time; I now have the time to watch TV all evening, and the money to get many channels!”).
    I find that doing certain crafting activities provides me with relaxation, particularly for my brain, while keeping my hands mildly busy – and I get to make real things (unlike what I do at the office)! (I also watch YouTube clips of people teaching & using techniques in these crafts, to fill in for the apprenticeship I never had – this constitutes most of my “TV”)

  41. Dean Avatar

    Well said. I follow the basic pattern you describe. Since I can’t read much, I do hobbies also, learning lots from Utube. As the proverb: “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Yes, it IS so satisfying to make real things, things people can use and benefit from.

  42. charles morris Avatar

    Much grist for the mill. Some really thoughtful ideas complementing Fathers cogent analysis. All I can add is another Dylan quote: You gotta serve somebody, it might be the Devil and it might be the Lord…” its obvious ‘who’ modernity and her adherents serve , Lord have mercy on us all! CHRIST SAVE US ALL

  43. juliania Avatar

    Before I came here this morning, I was reading the post which Father Stephen put forward in November about communion (having missed it then). Lately the readings on my church calendar have included some from Saint Paul that, frankly, distressed me. I usually read them aloud, and I did so, but my spirit was jarred. In particular those verses that speak of bad behavior and ‘let them be accursed’ were very hard for me to say out loud.
    Well, some of the Gospel readings had the same effect on me as they spoke of ‘leaving father and mother’ and
    ‘one will be taken and one not’, ‘from him who has…’ etc. etc. Hard sayings. How to assimilate these? It was very difficult.
    Two things. First I thought, St. Paul is a human being, and his lessons are about human beings. In effect, he has his own modernity to face. Or, to speak to. Modernity is our time. We do commune with it. It even breaks our heart very often as our loved ones are tormented by it, and we can’t seem to help.

    Second, and I haven’t completely fleshed it out, the meeting of Abraham with the angels of the Lord and his conversation concerning Sodom, where his nephew Lot lives with his family, kept coming to mind. I think it was okay and proper for Abraham to argue with the Lord about saving souls in Sodom. Repeatedly Abraham says “O, let the Lord not be angry…” Christ also, in the reading I read this morning does say to the leader of the synagogue – don’t you lead your ox and your ass to water on the sabbath? The Caananite woman also says “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall…”

    Let the Lord not be angry. I think St. Paul was wrong to deliver a curse on the Thessalonian wrongdoers. Still, that is a difference between his writings and the Gospels, a slight, understandable, difference and we work to forgive him for it. It is still a lesson. It tells us how deeply Paul was hurt by the malfeasance, when he has toiled so hard against it.
    And somehow it expands the way we ask our souls during evening service, in the terms of blessing described by Father Freeman, to bless the Lord. Wonderful are the works of the Lord, even those that are beyond understanding. Let Him not be angry when it happens that we object, even argue sometimes, and overstep our station. We do it mindful of the compassion of Christ, which comforts us in our own shortcomings. Because we are here, where He once was and is in us, in the midst of our own modernity, an abiding crisis.

  44. Nikolaos Avatar


    St Paul has been called in the Orthodox world as “the one after the One”. He has revealed more about God than any of our Saints, even if he is not named “theologian”. I am not aware of him cursing Thessalonians.

    In Galatians 1:8-9 he utters the “let him be accursed” in reference to himself (the apostles), the angels or anyone who proclaims a different gospel. The greek word translated to “accursed” is “anathema”. This means out of communion from the rest of the Church. This is not modernity, it is the way the Church deals with heresy and false teachings.

    Forgive me if I misunderstood you.

  45. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    As modernity has assaulted traditional Christianity, occult practices have increasingly been promoted as replacements. The popularization began in earnest in the latter half of the 19th century. Theosophy, Science of Mind and Jungian off shoots to name a few of the early contributors. They have metastasized since the 60’s and have tried to incorporate the use of puesdo-icons and fake explanations of the Orthodox spiritual path as well as importing occultic-pagan practice from the Hindus while stripping the more overt paganism that is the core of Hindu teaching. Even the physical exercises of yoga can be used to influence folks from the Christian path of prayer and quietude centered on Jesus Christ and repentance.

    It can be very subtle but is becoming less and less so. I have intentionally avoided describing the more lurid occultic practices that have become more common. Each denying in their own way our need of salvation.

    All of them are practiced and promoted within a matrix of heresy and blasphemy about our Lord Jesus Christ. Most of them variations of classic heresies long condemned by the Orthodox Church in detail.

    But, shoot that is all “old” stuff. We know better now and as a consumer, no on else can tell you what is right and wrong. Of course all of the occultic stuff is even older. Only the Cartesian blasphemy is new.

    Prior to becoming Orthodox, I experienced many of these false, even evil, practices first hand. They all lead to death and, if possible, to the dissolution of the human soul. The resulting amalgam fueled by hedonistic sex is the “spirituality” of modernism. It is not just a matter of philosophy.

    Only the Cross of guarding one’s heart against lies, followed by deep repentance and giving thanks for the merciful providence of our Lord while worshipping Him as Incarnate Lord, God and Savior is the antidote.

  46. Nikolaos Avatar

    Michael wise words. I know Orthodox Christians who attend yoga classes for physical benefit. I would advise anyone to obtain a blessing from their spiritual father before doing so. Reading Klaus Kenneth’s book “Born to hate reborn to love” is illuminating, on some of these eastern practices.

  47. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    juliana, you might be right if that all St. Paul said, however, he was a master at covering the dichotomy of this life: sin and repentance. Sin leads to death while repentance leads to life. Repentance flows from His very Cross.

    In my almost 40 year journey to the Church I came across the Gospel being preached as either on or the other: we are worthless sinners in the hands of an angry God; or, God forgives everything always if you just acknowledge Him as Lord. Both are wrong by themselves. Indeed that kind of choosing one side of a seeming dichotomy is the beginning of many heresies.

    St. Paul taught frequently what the correct conduct and belief should be for Christians and there can be no exception….BUT when you fail, and you will fail, go boldly before the throne of God. The Orthodox Church teaches the whole truth. That was quickly and easily pointed out to my late wife and I in our very first catechetical class by the priest who later laid hands on us to receive us into the Church.

    Hearing him say that was a great relief for my mind and I began to accept that I was home. That was in 1986 about 33 years ago and I have not forgotten the words and the setting.

    Besides the undeniable presence of our Lord and Master, that moment and those words are a bed rock for me to constantly turn to Him and His mercy despite the many things I do that should be cursed.

    Such an approach can only be taught and practiced because of His Incarnation that we celebrate this time of year. Fully God and fully man without division or confusion.

    …even the earth gave a cave to shelter the one who contained the uncontainable God.

  48. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Nikolaus, last winter my priest gave an adult education class on yoga that included many interesting details. The energy channeled and the “self” sought is really, at best, a natural unillumined self and sexual energy. Not of God.

  49. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    It’s interesting that the subject of yoga has come into this conversation.

    The premise I’ve heard is that if it isn’t done in a ‘religious’ manner (however way that might be defined), it’s not religion.

    The irony is that some manner of religion (or the perceived lack it) is being defined by a secularist perspective that claims that it doesn’t have a religious stance, either, since it is ‘secular‘.

    What I really appreciate about Fr Stephen’s article, is the observation of the ‘religious’ within the modernity, which attempts to deconstruct religion and make it into something else.

    Here is an article on yoga in the Orthodox Word magazine.

  50. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    Byron, I got you a ticket for the Friday events of the Eighth Day Symposium, and a seat at Fr. Stephen’s table at the dinner that night. The confirmation is being sent to Fr. Stephen to send to you.

    I send best wishes.

    I have been very glad to read this post and the comments.

  51. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, yes what you describe is how yoga has been sold. However, if there is any kind of mantra involved, you are right back to some dangerous territory.
    As Nickolaus said, it would be wise to check with you spiritual father/confessor not only at the beginning but throughout the course.

    That is doubled for any “mediation” coupled with it.

    Best meditation for Orthodox (only) is the Jesus Prayer but also only with the guidance of one’s spiritual father/confessor.

    None of this stuff is neutral.

  52. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Byron, my wife and I will be there at Fr. Stephen’s table. Erin Doom is having to put in a bigger table. Should be a shindig.

  53. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Michael I agree with you and didn’t intend to suggest or imply otherwise. I appreciate what both you and Nikolaus wrote. My only intention was to elaborate on how ‘it’s ‘sold’ as you say.

  54. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Michael you might enjoy the article in the Word magazine.. Take a look at the link. The article is called Orthodoxy and yoga by Jason Falcone.

  55. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, I know

  56. Byron Avatar

    Nicole, thank you! I am humbled by your generosity!

    Michael, it will be wonderful to meet you and your wife!

    Hopefully I will not spoil anyone’s dinner! Gotta go work on my Ps & Qs…!

  57. Beakerj Avatar

    Just a note regarding yoga – people could easily swap to Pilates instead, which was developed as a totally physical form of rehabilitation.

  58. juliania Avatar

    Sorry folk, I misspoke, and that must have confused everyone. Not in letters to the Thessalonians, but to the Galatians did the matter of ‘let him be accursed’ come about. And yes, not the people themselves, but any preaching a different gospel. My confusion was that the reading from Galatians 1:6-9 comes (old calendar) in the midst of other consecutive Thessalonians readings.
    I was trying to make the point that we grapple with hard sayings all through the Scriptural texts – for instance in the Psalms – and I think what they point to is the ‘modernity’ of that particular writer’s particular worldly confrontations. But I’m sorry if it sounded like an accusation of Saint Paul himself; I didn’t mean it to be. I meant that I myself found it very hard to speak that sentence aloud (even just to myself) and in the text it is repeated, which is somewhat unusual. I will say however that when Saint Paul is speaking to his beloved child Timothy (in the sequence I have, after the Thessolonians II letter) he says a similar thing so very gently it was a pleasure to read aloud : “…that you may charge certain persons not to occupy themselves with myths and endless geneologies…the aim of our charge is love…” A different context; a different way of relating to the problem.
    I was struck by Father Stephen’s heading, ‘modernity is an abiding crisis.’ It seemed to answer my difficulty and I’m sorry to have messed up my explanation.

  59. juliania Avatar

    I do want to say thank you to those who responded to my post. Perhaps I should have said “It felt to me wrong to say…” rather than what I did say. What I did say was too strong, I agree. And Nicholaos, I have been Orthodox for more than 40 years (I’m an oldie) but hadn’t heard the phrase “the one after the One” about Saint Paul – rather that both Saint Peter and Saint Paul are the pillars of the church, and that Saint John is the theologian. But pardon me if I have offended any of you; it was unintentional.

  60. Nikolaos Avatar

    Juliania no one took offence at anything you said. The word accursed is perhaps too heavy to translate anathema, the lack of communion.

    The characterisation of St Paul as “ the first after the One” is very well known in Greece. I don’t think it is a formal theological expression of the Church. Some friends extend it to “the first after the One after the one” where the second “one” refers to Theotokos and is a feminine adjective.

  61. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Language, the tongue of a people, has caused many a misunderstanding with those who do not speak the same tongue. Sometimes it is worked through. Sometimes not. When it hasn’t, very sadly and unfortunately it has led to seemingly permanent divisions in the Church. Here I have in mind the Oriental Orthodox. This language barrier seems to have been further fueled by allegiance to certain leaders and powers rather than to Christ, Who calls to Himself every tribe nation and tongue.
    This certainly could have been resolved, but it wasn’t. Still continues to this day.
    This bothers me a great deal.

    Juliania…here at the blog we sometimes express ourselves in the midst of a great many ponderings. What comes out of our mouths is a sharing in such a midst. It doesn’t necessarily mean a finality, but that at that moment, a thought shared. And the well meaning feedback helps continue that thought. But I think many times we are unable to reach a final conclusion. Because just when we think we’ve “got it”, so much more can be said!
    On the other hand there are times when what is being said is misunderstood and the resolve to work through it is absent, perhaps due to a perceived threat that would shake the foundation of a person’s understanding of life. In that case perhaps it is best to walk away for a while and risk the division.
    Just some thoughts, Juliania. Your comments sometimes do challenge me! I have to reread them to try to figure out what you are saying. But there is no doubt in my mind that you mean well. Regarding your initial comment…your words about forgiving St Paul – you definitely lost me there! I had a vision of saying to St Paul something to the effect…”well, I forgive you… ” !! That sounded about as right as telling the same thing to Christ!
    Anyway, thanks Juliania for your contribution here. I appreciate it.

  62. Dean Avatar

    It is good to have you and Dino who have Greek as a first language. I, for one, am glad we no longer pronounce the anathemas, where we attend, on the Sunday of Orthodoxy. Yet Scripture can be jarring. It is hitting me hard, at times, as I read the NT translation by David Bentley Hart. When he comes to rough Greek phrases he does not try to smooth them out as he translates to English. This can be as if one is confronting certain passages for the first time. Hart’s translation of Matt. 25:46 is especially noteworthy. His notes are copious throughout. These are great aids for me as I do not read Greek. Does he have his own biases? Of course. And he names them. Yet so do Protestant translations, and the unsuspecting can be mislead…such as what the NIV does with the word “tradition.”

  63. Janine Avatar

    I get acupuncture treatments which have helped me a lot for relaxation and certain chronic pain. The theory behind it is that there is a kind of system of energy in the body which is something similar to our blood system or lymph system, and the “energy” needs to circulate properly. I do know that after decades of meditation/Jesus Prayer practice, I am sensitive to it. (It’s possible that was natural with me, I don’t know.) My “direction” while I am being treated (which involves periods of time left alone) is simply that I am constantly praying the Jesus Prayer at the same time. I practiced yoga long ago (without overlays of mantras or anything like that) and I do believe that the “energy” that is meant to be helped, released, or whatever you want to call it can be, like everything else, conducive to good movement in faith toward Christ, if we choose that direction. If these energies are real created parts of body/soul then they are indeed given by God for union with God. It is my belief that prayer is the real direction we need, and the guidance, care and protection of our Church.

  64. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    There are the energies of God and in proper order we can partake of those, there are natural energies and then there are the dark energies which are carnal at best. Accupuncture uses our own natural energy for the most part combined at times with the energy of the practioner. There can be meditative practices too that come from a pre-Buddhist tradition.

    A good practitioner can aid in healing. It depends in part on the direction of one’s concentration and focus.

  65. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Paula, very good description.

  66. juliania Avatar

    Thank you, Nicolaos, and Paula. That is very interesting about the saying in Greece. I did try to do a search on it but came up empty. And sorry, Paula, for my obscurities – I didn’t mean, of course, in the ‘in church’ manner of forgiveness but more that we understand why Paul is speaking harshly here when in respect to Timothy and the Ephesians his tone is different. All of what I said was for me connected to our problems being in the world and also apart from it, which are what I thought Father Stephen’s original post was addressing. It is most likely my own being too much in the world which causes me to shrink from the bold saying. I am too much in the world in having a large family that is immersed in worldly problems. I don’t think I myself am so much, but I cannot pronounce an anathema on them.
    I very much take your point, Paula, that what happens here is a give and take of ideas always centered on what Father Stephen provides as a challenge (that is how I always see it). Not a challenge in the sense of combat but to get us, perhaps, out of a rut in our thinking, and closer to the essence of faith. It is ‘taking the mind into the heart,’ never forgetting that is where we ought to end up. I try to do that with my family too.

  67. Byron Avatar

    It may be helpful to remember that an anathema is not an eternal separation; it is a (formal) recognition of the state in which they willingly place themselves. The Church will always view the prodigal the same as the Father does and rush to joyfully greet them upon their return.

  68. Nikolaos Avatar

    Dean we have to be careful which translations of the original text to use, in modern Greek too, let alone in English. Perhaps Father Stephen can recommend the safest one in English. Have you come across the “The Orthodox Study Bible – New Testament and Palms” ?

  69. Mark Northey Avatar
    Mark Northey

    Hello Nikolaos;
    The OSB English translation relies on the New King James version (a Protestant work) for the New Testament. This is a wonderful translation, but far from the original Greek text. It obscures and hides many wonderful nuances that Hart’s translation brings faithfully to light. It also uses words now steeped in centuries of Western Christian connotation. For those who are interested in an honest, unpolished look at the scriptures, more closely resembling the original Greek than anything else (remotely) we can access in English, Hart’s translation is the only option. What a profound gift that he is formed in the Orthodox Tradition himself.
    It is a huge gift to English readers ‘in the West’.

  70. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I have to disagree viz. Hart’s translation. There’s lots of good work in it – and it’s an interesting idea of how to go about the project – but there is too much “Hart” in the work. Indeed, he gets in the way of the text.

    Generally speaking, most translations have weaknesses. With the OSB, some of those weaknesses are helped by the study notes. No translation ever does justice. There are particular failings within Protestant work, though most of those failings are peculiar faults and not general faults.

    If you’re Orthodox, then you’re following the Scriptures within the life of the Church, and not trying to “recreate” the Church or doctrine based on a private reading in the first place.

    I’m going to offer a small example of translation problems. The word “logos” in Greek. “In the beginning was the “Logos,” etc.

    It can be translated “word,” “order,” “organizing principle,” a whole host of assorted and not unrelated things. The problem with translation is first: you have to choose one English word. English has a vast vocabulary. It’s always difficult to translate a smaller vocabulary into a larger. The languages with larger vocabularies are even further removed from primordial words than simpler languages. So, it’s not a matter of picking the “right” English word. There is no right word. For Logos means all those words, but it means them all at the same time. And that is something we have almost no feel for.

    The best work on what I mean is Owen Barfield’s magisterial, Poetic Diction. There will never be a substitute for the study of other languages – nor a substitute for that which lies beneath and within the language itself.

    A failure of Hart’s work is that it promises more than it delivers, and, as such, is just as misleading as other translations. Interestingly, in its latest liturgical directives, the GOA in the US quit translating Logos, and just left it Logos, much like the OCA does with Theotokos.

    Slavonic, interestingly, translates Greek better than English does. It is a much smaller vocabulary, and adheres much more carefully to the Greek, with a one-on-one equivalency. In English, we have the word “theologian.” Everyone knows what a theologian is, even when they do not know the Greek words “Theos” and “logos.” In fact, to the English ear, the word has no relationship with God or the logos. We don’t “hear” those words as words.

    In Slavonic (and Russian), theologian is “bogoslov.” “Bog” means “God” (theos) and “Slovo” means “word” (logos). You can’t do that in English.

    I highly recommend Poetic Diction to anyone who wants to think deeply about the problem of words and meaning.

  71. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Thanks Father for the recommendation of Poetic Diction. I found a pdf copy online years ago when you first mentioned the book. Haven’t read it yet but I did read another book of his that you recommended, History in English Words, which I found quite helpful.
    Link to Poetic Diction:

    It is a print from someone’s private book, and it has underlining and marginal notes.

  72. Nikolaos Avatar


    To give an example of Fr Stephen’s “there is too much “Hart” in the work”, look at his Jude 1:19 translation:

    “These are those who cause divisions, psychical men, not possessing spirit”.

    This is quite a literal translation that is very difficult to discern. In his note he maintains that there is no reference to the Holy Spirit, just a juxtaposition between “psychics” and “pneumatics” as categories of persons.

    But surely what makes someone “pneumatic” (spiritual) is the grace of the Holy Spirit is it not ?

    All modern Greek translations of this line, interpret it as, men who are governed by animal instincts, who do not possess the Holy Spirit or not having psychic instincts renewed by the Holy Spirit.

    The OBS translation is more discernible and refers to the Holy Spirit by using capital “S”.

    “These are sensual persons, who cause divisions, not having the Spirit.”

    The best Greek (also Latin, Hebrew and Syriac) scholar I was blessed to meet and get to know, was the now departed Fr Ephrem Lash. I trust his Greek more than anyone else. When he performed the English Liturgy in London, he would read out the bible passage in English, while holding the Greek bible, translating instantly. I know because I was holding the candle next to him.

    Nevertheless, I could never understand why he chose the word “advocate” instead of “comforter”, in the “Heavenly King…” prayer. It is indeed a more literal translation, but colder and juridical ( Fr Stephen I will stand corrected ). Perhaps a small example of too much of a translator’s insistence on the “letter” ?

  73. Dino Avatar

    interesting! …’advocate’ seems to puts the stress on the Spirit’s action (as if on our behalf) while ‘comforter’ on the Spirit’s action (as if upon us). Of course the Greek contains both notions and a great deal more.

  74. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Following Mark’s request, I’ve deleted his comments – and a few others as well. I should clarify. There are many things about Hart that I like – I think he’s brilliant and worth reading. He is, however, often his own worst enemy. But, I think he’s well aware of his own weaknesses and has had to bear the consequences that come from that.

    His New Testament project is something of a case-in-point. The ideas that he puts forward – that a literal approach would show much that is lost in translation – is notable. But it is flawed from the outset and for reasons that I’ve mentioned. Let’s take the word “psychikos.” Literally, it means “soulish” (we don’t have such a word). But, the fact is that it does not mean “soulish” (if there were such a word). It cannot mean that because psychos “means” a number of things in Greek, each of which requires a differing English word to accurate convey the meaning in context. That is simply inescapable.

    Hart’s work gives the false impression that a word-for-word translation, evening though “rough,” is actually more accurate and that, having read such a translation, you now get the meaning better. But it’s not true.

    I recall when I was in college, immersed in Homer. My Homer class had all of three students! We pressed forward each day, reading our work and analyzing certain points together with our professor. At the end of our prepared lines, we then began to “sight-read” as much as we could. One day, doing my preparation, I realized I was no longer translating – I was simply reading. For those who speak multiple languages today, this is nothing unusual – indeed, it’s the point. And when we get to where you’re “thinking” in a foreign language, only then do you begin to actually understand it.

    I’m surrounded by English-as-second-language readers all the time. Some of them are very fluent. Of course, I have to remember that they don’t actually have American experience. Thus, I can make any number of culture references (a movie, a tv show, etc.) and have to stop and explain (these days I have to do that with young adults as well!).

    The point is that no translation can ever do what not translating does.

    Mark, please note that I have not been among those bashing Hart for his universalism, etc. I don’t tend to bash them (many are close friends). The one chapter in his new book on that topic that I truly disagree with is the one in which he dismisses the silence of many fathers who seem, on the one hand, to hold some kind of apokatastasis, but indicate that it should be passed over in holy silence. That Hart shouts from the rooftops what many great Fathers specifically said should be passed over in silence is an example of the problems with Hart. His actions on this easily provoke condemnations that are unhelpful.

    Smart and brilliant are great things. Wisdom and prudence are even more so.

    It’s odd that someone whose own English frequently requires translation (a point about which he is very stubborn) should lecture the rest of us about the importance of understanding a text. I deeply admire his learning, but, again, find that he is his own worst enemy.

  75. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Lash was a great translator, no doubt. His work is more “British” to my American ear – and it’s interesting that the two dialects drift apart at times. Every translator has to make decisions (particularly when working with English where the vocabulary is so vast). I suspect that some of Lash’s own theological leanings were revealed in the choice of “advocate” for parakletos. I much prefer “Comforter” for similar reasons.

    Here’s a very interesting example of impossible translations. It has to do with Mary. For the Greeks, I frequently hear “Panagia” (“All holy”) as a term of endearment, a sort of sweet “nick name”, when speaking to and about the Theotokos. For Russian, “Bogoroditsa” (“Theotokos”), functions in the same way. Oddly (because of Protestant usage, I think), English has no word with an equivalent “heart.” “Theotokos” as a common usage is very, very new in English, having been introduced through Greek Orthodox and OCA and others in translations that are less than 50 years old. The English Church (Lash) chose to translate this as “Mother of God.”

    It’s simply the case that English has no real devotional language regarding Mary. I find that I often have to use foreign words (like “Panagia”) when I want to speak to her in this way. I’ve asked for help, but she has suggested nothing, so far. I suspect that our Orthodox English-speaking children will have to invent something for us.

  76. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mark, et al,
    I again strongly recommend Barfield’s Poetic Diction. The problem is far deeper than our discussion. And it’s that depth that interests me most.

  77. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    I so very much benefit from your comments. Over the years they seem to be as enriching to me as your articles, probably because they are bouncing off “live” remarks of others here on the blog.

  78. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    I am grateful for your comments and feedback. I very much appreciate you pointing to the root of the problem, that it is much deeper than our discussion. I need to read that book!
    I apologize for my contribution to the unhelpful comments. I make no excuse. It is good that you delete when some of these conversations ‘go south’.

  79. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I would suggest that Theotokos can, and in my opinion is beginning to, develop a similar connotation as Panagia. English is quite open to accepting words from other languages and making them its own. That is how the language was built. Nous is another such word. The words will develop their own cultural richness similar to the Greek, especially as we pray them. That will not happen if we continually and slavishly think it must be Greek, Greek, Greek and nothing but Greek.
    After awhile, the Greek thing is not only irritating but in some people’s hands insulting and even demeaning.

    If we do not encourage and allow these words to become English, the Orthodox faith will always have weak roots.

    Editorial comment:. Some folks want it that way.

  80. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, I think you’re right about the development of Theotokos on the level of the heart. I have felt that very thing over the past 20+ years. I was in Essex, at the Monastery of St. John, where the Jesus Prayer is offered in 2 services a day, each about 2 and a half hours in length. Turns are taken saying the prayer, each person appointed doing a rope of 150. Often, towards the end of the 150, the prayer becomes, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” It is also done in a variety of languages, depending on the person. I recall listening to a Russian nun praying, “Presvetaya Bogorditsa, Spasi Nas!” (Most Holy Theotokos, save us.) It was the first time I realized that “Bogoroditsa” has connotations of endearment in Russian. I caught it from how she spoke the word. Never could anything on a page convey what that short decade of prayers did. I often do the Jesus Prayer in Russian, simply because I can hear its heart (and my own) and always hear echoes of that nun’s sweet voice.

  81. Nikolaos Avatar

    Fr Stephen

    Fr Ephrem very much disliked the name “Theotokos” and preferred “Panagia”.

    For those of us that are connected to the holy monastery of Docheiariou in Mount Athos, we love the name “Gorgoypikoos” (quick to hear or ready listener) and are attached to this specific icon. This because it is the only name I am aware of, that Panagia gave to herself.

  82. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, your experience reveals another level that can allow the English Orthodox experience to become even more rich and layered. We can use, infact do use, all of the traditional languages. The icon of The Panocrator in the dome of my home parish has written around it in three languages: Jesus Christ, Son of God. In Greek because Greek is the language of the New Testament, in Arabic because the founders of our Holy Temple spoke Arabic, English because that is our language now.

    There is no hierarchy of language but each is brought into the conversation as necessary and as the heart needs. Personally I love the Arabic Paschal greeting, which I cannot type. It has a joyful robustness to it that neither the English has for me.

  83. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    For what it’s worth – it was in a class under Geoffrey Wainwright at Duke on the theology of language that I first found my way into my dissertation topic and the direction of my subsequent studies. It was pondering the “iconicity” of language that opened many doors of understanding. I still haven’t touched bottom. But I think about these things a lot.

    Historical English had a devotion to Mary. The best I can tell, “Our Lady” once had a great deal of affection tied to it – but that was a different time.

  84. Mark Northey Avatar
    Mark Northey

    Thank you for your further clarifications on this Father, and your recommended reading. In my initial reactive ‘gushing’, I made no room to state that I do read Hart carefully and critically, and fully agree with your cautions in that regard.
    I will do my best to find and read Barfield’s Poetic Diction.
    Interestingly the word you chose this time, “soulish” is attached to another very helpful clarification for me. I had never understood the various nuances of meaning in the scriptures when “soul,” “spirit,” “body,” and “flesh” were used, until I read this article:
    “The Spiritual was more Substantial than the Material for the Ancients”

    Once I understood these things better, so much of the language of the Fathers and saints of old made more sense to me. (I used to always feel leery about anything that seemed too ‘gnostic’, failing to recognize that there really is a gnosis affirmed by the Fathers, and there really is a connection between this corruptible body and un-spiritual life).
    Perhaps you see things differently than the position Hart takes on the breadth and depth of meaning of these various terms he addresses in the article?
    I would be most grateful for your thoughts on this as it was quite a formative “aha” moment for me when I read it last year.

    Thank you again. (I echo Dean’s comment).

  85. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Ah, yes. The iconicity of language. An Inexhaustible exploration to be sure. Al Massih Qam! I believe is the phonetic Anglicised Arabic. I love it. The English and Greek just do not carry the same weight somehow.

  86. Janine Avatar

    Nikolaos, that icon is so special to me. I see it in the Metropolis Church in Athens in the summer (that is, the Byzantine small church next to the main Metropolis). In my church we have just baptized a Pakistani convert who is marrying a young lady whose family I know. His birth name means “Swift.” After I told him about this icon he decided to take the name Grigoris.

    For me “Panagia” is a tender name by which to address her.

  87. Janine Avatar

    BTW Nikolaos, a belated Xronia Polla

  88. Janine Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, re Bogoroditsa: I don’t know the etymology of this word, but in Greek an “-itsa” declination on a feminine word is diminutive, and therefore said with affection. I have, of course, heard people refer to the Panagia as “Panagitsa.” There are also churches with this name, apparently.

    BTW there is another well-known icon in Athens which was brought from Asia Minor called Panagia Grigoroussa (who is vigilant to fulfill the prayers of the faithful).

  89. Janine Avatar

    BTW Father re “Our Lady” — I think that is a beautiful term. It might not have the fullness of meaning of Theotokos or Panagia but it nevertheless conveys devotion and love, and also the essential devout respect for what I might lamely call the feminine archetype of fullness of Mary. Lady is also an aristocratic term which gives us a sense of her elevation in our “society” of the Church. And there is only one “Our Lady” which everyone would know by the term.

  90. Janine Avatar

    PS “Our” Lady also speaks of our communion and the Body of Christ and the work of faith we do together (as in leiturgia)

  91. Nikolaos Avatar

    God bless you Janine

    The authentic icon in Docheiariou is a fresco. Have you seen it ?

  92. Janine Avatar

    Thank you Nikolaos! It is so beautiful
    God bless you

  93. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Thank you again, Father. You have well summed up my own weltanschaung. I thank God every day for you because of your ability to express what I believe, despite my inability to express it myself. I have been told that the ability to put into words what we cannot say ourselves is what great writing is all about. I will let you conclude the syllogism yourself.

  94. Christopher Avatar

    I really like how you succinctly draw the tread of modernity through history in this essay Fr. Stephen. Long ago when I read the 1920 Encyclical of the EP that is “the” foundational document to what is today the WCC, I was struck by its easy and transparent appropriation of Wilsonian democracy.

    On Hart: McClymond’s essay on Universalism in the current First Things (which is part of a continuous conversation in First Things between various RC’s and Hart dating back to the asian tsunami) is all over the place and not very good at all (parts of it are absurd, like when he places Hart’s philosophy within Protestant social gospel), but he does have a point when he links Hart’s recent work in this area to Theodicy. Hart explicitly admits that his is a *moral* project (i.e. the *moral* meaning of creation ex nihilo, God, man, etc.). Hart shouts because he is attempting a *justification* of God and the existence of good and evil, and his NT translation is part of this.

  95. Mark Northey Avatar
    Mark Northey

    When you’re able Father, I would love to hear your thoughts on the article I linked to in my Dec. 11th comment.

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  1. This is a wonderful conversation! Father, thank you for your reply; it is beautiful. I’ll add that I IM’d you…

  2. Thank you Mark, so true! I am wondering if we can learn a lesson from the false predictions of the…

  3. I suppose to explain myself a bit better I would like to say that it seems to me that our…

  4. My latest commute listen is St. Augustine’s “Confessions,” Janine. These folks were indeed the most learned people of their day.…

  5. Indeed, Father, I should introduce that topic into my teaching—lest it be forgotten!

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