“Make It So!” vs. “Let It Be!”

Abba Poemen said, “Teach your mouth to say that which is in your heart.


Some years back, while driving through the mountains here in Tennessee, with an out-of-date GPS system in my car, I was instructed to take a particular turn and cross a bridge. Something inside me (guardian angel?) whispered a word of caution (it was night as well), and so I took the turn carefully and slowed. It was clear in a moment that, though there had once been a bridge in that place, there was one no longer. Another 50 feet and I would have been dropped a fair distance into a river. Lies are dangerous, even if they are as innocent as an out-of-date GPS.

My experience with the non-existing bridge has served me as an image of the nature of a lie ever since. A lie seeks to make true something that has no true existence. It is an “alternate,” make-believe, universe to the one in which we live. Our desire for alternatives (and our fear of reality) are among the many motivations behind lies. It is revealing, however, to think about the nature of lies (which also reveals the nature of the truth). It is, at the very least, a matter of existence.

This, for me, goes to the very heart of my complaint about much that goes under the heading of “morality.” Morality tends to describe our conformity with a set of rules. At its worst, it can describe mere convention, a following of the pattern of behavior that is publicly, or popularly, seen to be “good.” Throughout human history, and particularly across the past couple of centuries, that public perception has been a constantly changing model, applauding something in one decade that will come to be derided in the next. As such, morality can often be little more than fashion.

The Christian understanding of right and wrong should never be grounded in such shifting sands.

The classical Christian “trinity” of transcendantals runs: beauty, goodness, and truth. The insistence of the Fathers is that these things are realities and not simply subjective judgments. Beauty, for example, is not “in the mind of the beholder.” By the same token, goodness if not a relative matter. It does not describe what is “good for me.” And truth is a matter of what truly is. Truth is a description of reality, not simply someone’s professed perception of reality. There is no such thing as “my truth.”

Certain popular strains in our current cultural winds find their roots in various radical thinkers such as Nietzsche, Foucault, Derrida, etc. There we find the exaltation of the “will to power” as the basis of reality. Arguments and assertions from this wing of the culture describe the world in terms of power struggles. Those groups who have power are seen as defining the world to their own advantage. As such, even math and various sciences can be accused of “racism” or “sexism,” etc. “Truth,” in this analysis, only describes someone’s positional power and its attempts to dominate all others. The pursuit of truth is, therefore, a competition, or, even, a revolution.

This not a claim that truth is “relative.” Rather, it is a claim that truth is a simple assertion of power, a potential assault. This raises so-called culture-wars from the level of a disagreement about what might or might not be true, to the place where participants are fighting solely for the power to dictate what everyone must accept as the truth. In such a society, there is no truth, as such. Only winners and losers. Winners make the truth.

Of course, how much force this sort of campus-chic actually has in society-at-large varies from place to place, as well as being more present in some generations than others. Like many cultural fads, its dominance will wane as it trickles out into the mainstream, passing into the drips that reach our bumper stickers. (Sadly, the same can be said about Christian theology).

There is a temptation for Christians to take up the challenge and play for power. I suggest that such a use of power is a devil’s bargain, indeed, the last temptation faced by Christ (Matt. 4:8-10). It should be noted clearly: no one can be made or forced to love God. God competes only through His weakness, something that often causes His enemies to rejoice and His friends to cry, “Foul!” I can only argue that He knows what He is doing.

The heart of the Christian pursuit of truth is similar to our pursuit of God Himself. We do not invent God, nor can we simply remake Him at our own whim. Theology is, rightly, only a seeking to know.

The truth is that which is real, that which truly exists. It is the case that some things have more existence than others. Our own existence is tenuous and ephemeral. We seek that which truly exists that we might, through it, have true existence ourselves. We cannot grant existence to ourselves – it comes as a gift from the only truly Existing One.

If that is the case, it begins to describe the kind of life we live as Christians. It is not a passive existence, but neither should it be an existence that seeks to dominate. Those who exercise dominion are almost always involved in efforts to create a world of their own imagining, the world of their own will-run-mad. Such imaginings are themselves lies – a bridge to nowhere.

Years back, in my seminary days, there was a lot of buzz surrounding the phrase “co-creators” in certain circles. It was, in my estimation, another form of window dressing for the modern project. It sought to celebrate, in theological terms, the experiments in domination that mark modern culture. It imagined that, in some way or fashion, we share in God’s role as creator. In truth, we create nothing. Creation, in theological terms, describes bringing something into existence from nothing. Only God creates. Our feeble cultural manipulations never rise to that level – except as a lie.

There is, however, a true “synergy,” in our life with God. In English, the word would be “co-operation.” However, in that co-operation, we are junior partners of the most extreme sort. What we contribute to reality, when done rightly, is always respectful to that which is already given to us. Life is only rightly lived when it is “traditioned.” Tradition means to “hand down.” A traditioned existence is one in which all things come first as gifts. That is the true nature of life – we do not create it – we receive it.

Again, that reception is not purely passive. We use what we receive. We invent, we improve. We enjoy. However, doing those things with a heart that gratefully receives what has been given, and that seeks to know and understand the nature of that gift, is vastly different than the various arrogant modernisms of “making the world a better place,” and “re-inventing human beings.”

I was recently challenged by someone about the concept of a traditioned existence. There is something of a “natural” theology within that approach. The challenge was the question, “How do you know that something is natural and not merely a cultural convention.” There is no strict method for answering such a question. I can say, however, that if a particular life-solution requires the constant input of technological correction, there is good reason to suspect that “nature” is being seen as a problem rather than received as a gift. By the same token, it is possible to look at a range of civilizations over a range of time, and “do an average” in order to speak about what is “natural.”

It would be simple, using such an approach, to suggest that radical gender theories of the present time are passing epiphenomenon, notions that require artificiality, technology, and draconian legal measures in order to exist. Absent such interventions, they will simply collapse. The sexual revolution, is a prime example of this same false intervention. Sex without consequences begins to distort our humanity. It is an effort that will, in its own time, lead to a collapse. These are simply among the easiest examples.

That which is true, is that which truly exists. As such, it is always its own strongest argument. If it truly exists, it will continue whether I believe in it or not. The truth does not require ideology. This carries the corollary of a lack of anxiety. If the truth abides, whether I believe it or not, then I am not bound to “make it so” through the efforts of a culture war. It is, rather, for me to live it, to give thanks for it, and enjoy its fruit in the world.

St. Basil’s Eucharistic Prayer gives this voice:

O Existing One, Master and Lord; O God, the almighty and adorable Father: it is truly proper, right, and befitting the majesty of Your holiness to praise You, to hymn You, to bless You, to worship You, to give thanks to You, to glorify You, the only God Who truly exists, and to offer You this our rational worship with a contrite heart and in a spirit of humility, for You have granted us the knowledge of Your truth….


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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51 responses to ““Make It So!” vs. “Let It Be!””

  1. Byron Avatar

    So many good things here, Father. Many thanks for this!

  2. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mercy, thanksgiving and empathy are true and substantial although many think of them as mere sentiments at best.

    I do wonder what souls will be lost if we wait for the collapse of the unreal.
    suggests that failure to cry out against the evils of our generation has dire consequences.

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Forgive me, but that is a protestant reading of that passage. It is a specific message to Ezekiel for a specific generation. I’m not sure that it is correct to take it and apply it to every generation in every situation everywhere. Ezekiel is sent to the House of Israel that has a specific covenant with God. There is no generic covenant of God with America or its popular culture.

    This is a habit of thought that Americans have had for the longest time, assuming that being a citizen of our country makes you a Protestant Christian. The Church needs to be the Church and rightly show forth the light of the world. When we do that fully, we are a living “crying out.” But, the world in the West is just in the mess its in because its Churches failed to be the light of the world.

    I have no expectation that a non-Orthodox Christian will pay any attention to anything I say. On the other hand, I have, over the years, increasingly known more and more people who have chosen to become Orthodox Christians (sometimes influenced a little by my writing). We are a quiet presence in the US, growing patiently in some places. That, I think, is our present task.

    So, here’s the question: If you’re not going to wait for the collapse of the unreal – then what is it that you’re going to do? Voices raised on public media, etc., are mostly just noise. Either God is at work in all of this or it doesn’t matter. But I see know specific commandment or directive that suggests a path towards fixing the culture. We can live as an answer or we will have done nothing.

    Of course, many souls will be “lost,” or, better put, many souls will suffer in a coming collapse. Jesus died to save them and goes to hell to get them out, as well. Our Orthodox culture warriors spend more time attacking other Orthodox Christians than anything else – to the downfall of many.

  4. David Avatar

    Receiving a tradition can be just as destructive as seeking to build something new, or even believing a falsehood. I have seen this in the Orthodox church, via adopting a convention as a sign of being Orthodox. (I could just as easily say tradition, instead of convention.) I think in particular of things like women who convert to Orthodoxy and start wearing head coverings in church. In the convert church where I grew up, women did not wear head coverings. Then some started wearing them. Whether a woman wore a head covering became a mark of a woman’s seriousness about church and spirituality. (I note that “wearing a head covering” came to express much in regard to “gender theory” or gender roles as well.)

    That church developed two cultures based on things like head coverings, when people stood versus how much they would sit, musical styles, etc. And eventually it devolved into a schism. A schism with excommunications, a lawsuit over property, split families, and many who left Orthodoxy. As a young man, I was left to determine where the truth lie between those two groups. At the time, I felt compelled to choose one side or the other given the familial and personal ties I had to both groups. I think now that neither side had the truth. Both wanted it, both thought they had it, and both were willing to cut off other people in the name of truth or tradition.

    Putting on a tradition can distort our humanity. And it can result in its own collapse.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “Putting on a tradition” – interesting phrase.

    What you are describing is not Orthodoxy, but Protestantism. It is difficult for us (as converts) who have been formed and shaped in a democratic, individualistic, Protestant culture to actually be formed and shaped in Orthodoxy. It is extremely easy to reduce it to externals of one sort or another, or, worse still, to an ideology.

    I started a mission parish back in 1998, with very little practical knowledge of Orthodox practices. However, the single practice that mattered was obedience. I had a Dean and a Bishop. The first number of years my phone calls were frequent. I didn’t try to make decisions based on what I read in a book, or what somebody’s mother said back in the old country, or what someone’s “Elder” said elsewhere. Orthodoxy has a legitimate hierarchy and I told people – “I will lead the parish in obedience to the bishop.” And that’s what we did. We indeed had some who wanted other practices, and there was a small schism. But, they now answer to a different bishop. Still, a bishop. I think that 23 years down the road we’re all a lot wiser – certainly with better relationships.

    The most fundamental tradition of Orthodoxy is love. Whenever love fails, there is no practice that can replace it. Cultivating a life within the tradition, grounded in love, is key and is the heart of the matter. It is also the hardest part of a traditioned existence. Heck, everything else is pretty easy.

  6. Alexei Avatar

    Wonderful writing as always Father, thank you for this. Although I’m a little disappointed, based on the title I thought there would be a Star Trek reference 🙂

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I wrote the title before the article, and I thought there would be a Star Trek reference also. Somehow, it did not happen. Occasionally I surprise and disappoint myself. 🙂

  8. Laurie Marvin Avatar
    Laurie Marvin

    What if a priest had asked you to do something you felt was wrong? Or they behaved in a untrustworthy manner? I worry that obedience without discernment can produce some pretty dubious consequences or can devolve into a freedom from thought.

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Orthodoxy does not teach obedience to a local priest – certainly not in a manner that violates conscience. Monks and nuns obey their authority (abbots and such), but laity are not monks and nuns and do rightly live in obedience to their priest. A priest can give guidance – but – for example, if withholding communion were being used as a way of making someone do something against their conscience, it should immediately be reported to the bishop. That is spiritual abuse.

    As I noted in the article, God doesn’t even force His enemies. That we live within a Tradition does not mean we lose free-will or become robots. A priest, when they lead, should do so by example and through love. If they use compulsion and coercion, they are committing a great sin.

    I have known of such offenses, and they are very serious matters.

    We always have to live with discernment and freedom.

    This is actually one of the points that I am making regarding truth as reality. Reality can speak for itself (and always does in the long run). It is fear and the lack of faith (and true belief in God) that makes someone want to coerce others. It is not the work of the Holy Spirit. So, your misgivings are right on target.

  10. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Abba Poemen said, “Teach your mouth to say that which is in your heart.

    This is a good saying, Father, because love is assumed to be in the heart, where the Holy Spirit has entered the heart. The heart’s beauty depends on the charity, chastity, trust and love that comes from the Holy Spirit. And words spoken that emerge from this deep sea are always balm to a wounded soul.

    Thank you so much for this article and it’s helpful message.

    P.S. I’m going to try to come up with a Star Trek story that emulates your message. : )

  11. Hal Freeman Avatar

    Excellent! Gotta share that!

  12. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Actually I should have said I’ll come up with a Star Trek story that provides an example of how it does not emulate your message–that’s a far easier task. But I found one that might carry the conversation forward regarding what is real, that which truly exists.

    In truth, we create nothing. Creation, in theological terms, describes bringing something into existence from nothing. Only God creates. Our feeble cultural manipulations never rise to that level – except as a lie.

    Reflecting on the words, “Make it happen”, the humble centurion says in his plea to Christ words closer to a plea to ‘let it be’, not to compel Christ, but to demonstrate his trust that the Lord can do whatever He pleases, and yet Christ, Himself, does not compel. The centurion sends a message to Christ: (Luke 7: 6-8) And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to Him, saying to Him, “Lord do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word and let my servant be healed. For I am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go’, and he goes; and to another, ‘Come’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

    The centurion recognizes Christ’s Kingship, due to his faith, and despite of the world’s disregard of His lowly, humble demeanor.

    I watched Star Trek NG episodes and enjoyed many of them when I was young ( also not a Christian). I wasn’t a Trekie fan, but at the time I did like science fiction. But my aesthetic taste has changed I believe because I’ve found a different deeper, life giving fountain. Nevertheless I’m reluctant to disparage the episode I’m about to describe, as if I’ve become somehow a better person. Rather, it is more like when you have tasted living water, nothing else compares.

    The story is called “The Inner Light”. And I believe it won several science fiction awards. I’ve got a link to the transcript here: http://www.chakoteya.net/NextGen/225.htm

    Embedded in the writing are themes we have heard before, life after death (in the form of memory), experience in the mind (rather than body). Teaching of a life/world/culture as a form of extending the ways of a tradition, and yet, embodied by an individual whose memory of it is singular and unshared. However, the part that I liked most at the time was Picard’s lasting memory of how to play an instrument that belonged that culture. At the end of the story he receives it like a gift. When he plays it, the culture and the world it came from becomes alive once more and it becomes enmeshed in Picard’s ‘present’ life. (my own spin on that theme)

    Interestingly, Picard didn’t ‘make it so’ rather he ‘let it be’. Something remained alive in him. However, and unfortunately, that ‘something’ was an imaginary contrivance using the technology of the dying culture. It wasn’t truly real. Rather what was real was that which came from his heart. And his heart’s expression was in the melody he played. Ultimately, I believe it was an expression of his love.

    I like Father Stephen’s words, so I’ll end with them:

    That which is true, is that which truly exists. As such, it is always its own strongest argument. If it truly exists, it will continue whether I believe in it or not. The truth does not require ideology. This carries the corollary of a lack of anxiety. If the truth abides, whether I believe it or not, then I am not bound to “make it so” through the efforts of a culture war. It is, rather, for me to live it, to give thanks for it, and enjoy its fruit in the world.

  13. Mark Shillaker Avatar
    Mark Shillaker

    Well, you’ve certainly hit a nerve here Father. Great stuff.

  14. C. K. Ashling Avatar

    Thank you! This is good, and true, and, indeed, beautiful. Somehow, I find the words of this article echoed in the exhortation of St. Paul, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8).

  15. Laurie Marvin Avatar
    Laurie Marvin

    Thank you Father Stephen. I was concerned about that and believe I was encountering such a situation when I initially encountered Orthodoxy, although I still became Orthodox. Thankfully that situation has been resolved in a somewhat peaceful manner.

  16. Síochána Arandomhan Avatar

    This is an amazing synthesis of ideas I have been working through somewhat on my own (and via others’ books and conversations of course). I will be rereading and thinking about it, and will be back to see what others are saying in the comments too. I have always been drawn to tradition (I am a creative person too) but it’s an interesting tension for me since for a lot of reasons I was not born into an obvious culture or tradition…..I am a very post modern person and have a natural affinity and understanding of other post-moderns even when my brain (and heart) do not agree with them.

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    My parents were born in 1924, my grandparents, in the late 1800’s. They lived a mostly rural, or semi-rural lifestyle. Thus, there were large continuities between them and earlier centuries. My parents visited with me some years back and we went to a local “Appalachian Museum.” As we walked through the many obsolete farm implements and such, they both commented on how normal everything looked – it was simply a picture of their childhood.

    Neither of them were particularly interested in television, and would rather do other things. Food, work, family, etc., were all the most common markers of conversations (not even politics). They converted to Orthodox Christianity at age 79. It fascinated me how seamlessly they adjusted to Orthodox thought and customs. It simply meshed well with a mindset that had always been there.

    Most of what passes as “culture” today is simply marketing. Even post-moderns, who have a great tolerance for disparate items, are really, in many ways, simply adapting to a world culture that offers a wide selection of consumer options.

    The greater question, I think, goes to the heart of things: What does it mean to be human? That’s not asking, “What are all the possibilities we can get human beings to purchase?”

    An aspect of Orthodox Christianity is that it is the last form of Christianity that is actually traditional, the others having largely married themselves to essential elements of modernity (the philosophy). Even so, it’s possible to be Orthodox and still do it in a very modern fashion (probably be grumpy a lot).

    I believe that being human is something that is “handed down.” First, it is handed down as biology. Our DNA is a record of our “tradition.” There’s a lot of survival that went into its being in existence. Second, there are fundamental cultural forms that are handed down: language, folkways, etc. The most fundamental elements of culture are also elements of survival.

    Thus, when someone comes along (as they seem to do every day) and suggests that the family can and should be restructured in fundamental ways – I am suspicious. The “law of unintended consequences” seems to me to suggest that we are idiots if we think that tinkering with the most fundamental elements of human experience do not have an unacceptable risk/benefit ratio. Present studies show that the vast number of young boys and men who are in families without a father – and its correlation with social problems – is a good example. America has imagined that the only “value” is freedom of choice, even when those choices are stupid and destructive. We are not a wise civilization. We are a rich civilization. There’s ever so much difference.

    Fundamentally, I believe that Christ is the example of what it means to be human (even as He is the example of what it means to be God). He is the God/Man. Orthodox Christianity, at its best and fullest, is the living memory of the God/Man and of those whose lives have been shaped by following His teachings and commandments.

    I offer no nostrums for fixing the culture at large. It is a marketplace, run by money. Instead, my question is, “How do I live in a manner that moves towards the goal of becoming fully human?” I am 67 years old, so this is a question being asked towards the end of life. That frees me from problems like, “What do I want to do for a living, etc.” Of course, dying well is the last important question for being human. Thankfully, Christ and many generations of His followers have given us examples of what that looks like, too.

    Be blessed!

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I am well aware of the particularity of Ezekiel but there is a sense in which being a witness to the Truth we have each received is necessary. You do it. In your particular way.
    There is evil that has hurt people that are embedded in my heart.
    I have no desire to witness to the “world” but there are certain ways in which people in my parish participate in, ignore or are ignorant of what has dehumanized those people I love( not related to Covid at all BTW). I have been give certain things by God that allows me to address some of them in particular ways. I cannot ignore that or I feel as if I would be passing by on the other side.
    We all battle. Some battle in prayer, deeds of mercy and patience. Martyrs and Prophets battle in a more public way. St. Demetrios of Thessilonika took up arms to slay the Persians as is shown on one of his icons (the only such icon I know of in which a human enemy is being killed).
    There are particular aspects of modernity which need to be faced directly without rancor or apology but with mercy foremost. A call to wake up and repent. Simply waiting damages too many. It will not change the world or create progress. That is beyond me. In that sense only the collapse will suffice.

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. As you note, I’m not silent. I do not counsel silence to others, either. Mostly, in an internet world that is so noisy that voices get drowned out and buried, when most people speak of “speaking to the world” they imagine sharing a post on Facebook. And it gets uselessly noisy. The parish, my family, my neighborhood, the stores I shop in, are, by far, the important arenas of my life.

    Interestingly, I love to shop local. I’m quite gregarious, so that when I go to Home Depot (my favorite store which is about a half-mile from the house), I almost invariably fall into conversations. I’ve gotten to know some of the staff well-enough to ask after a relative who is having difficulties, etc. There’s about a half-dozen places like that in my small town that I frequent – and try to be a local presence there myself – rather than a faceless customer.

    Most of the folks in my parish are asking questions similar to the ones that I ask. Finding ways to support each other in all of this is important.

  20. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Father,
    I can relate to your descriptions of your childhood family life. In my own situation similar to yours my grandparents were born in the late 1800’s. Parents were born in the 1920’s. I don’t idealize their life. But I never remember any conversation among them that was a discussion on politics. Even with my mother who’s life was affected so much by racism and hatred in this culture, she did not speak of it openly, perhaps out of shame. I do remember she criticized me for talking like ‘white man’ on one occasion— causing a fair bit of shame and anger in me— nevertheless they didn’t talk about politics. Their greatest concern was their family and its welfare.

  21. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Writing on my phone doesn’t really work well for me. My typos frustrate me —most come from the software word entry.

  22. GretchenJoanna Avatar

    I have been wrangling with how to convey this perspective — before I have fully “internalized” it, of course — to the high school class that I teach, which “project” tempts me to engage in a sort of culture war at the parish level, and to be anxious about the results. I think this paragraph summarizes key points:

    ‘That which is true, is that which truly exists. As such, it is always its own strongest argument. If it truly exists, it will continue whether I believe in it or not. The truth does not require ideology. This carries the corollary of a lack of anxiety. If the truth abides, whether I believe it or not, then I am not bound to “make it so” through the efforts of a culture war. It is, rather, for me to live it, to give thanks for it, and enjoy its fruit in the world.’

    I probably should recite it after my morning prayers every day! It reminds me to stay in the Vine, who also said that He is Truth. Thank you, Father Stephen!!

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    When I think through practical instructions in the faith, I always come down to Fr. T. Hopko’s 55 Maxims. They are down to earth and related to the “next good thing.” We are able, because of technology, to live very abstracted lives. I think that we fail to realize that abstractions tend to alienate us from our own soul/selves. There is more of our soul in a spadefull of dirt than in an afternoon of Facebook/Twitter/etc.

    Earlier in my marriage, when I would find myself somehow out of sorts with my wife, I picked up the practice of going and washing dishes or doing something else quite practical (and kind). It was always amazing how it dissipated the anger and the moodiness. May God give you grace in your teaching – help you find words and images that speak the truth of your heart. The young hearts are so hungry and don’t yet know what for.

  24. Alan Avatar

    “Most of what passes as “culture” today is simply marketing.”
    A simple, yet profound statement. Thank you Father!

  25. Ook Avatar

    Your comment about co-creators reminded me of a music lesson from 45 years ago. The teacher brought up the phrase Soli Deo Gloria, explaining that Bach used it as a signature because his music was created through the grace of God, and that Beethoven did not use this phrase partly because he saw himself as the creator.
    I cannot find any details of this controversy (even after 10 minutes with Google!) but if my teacher was correct, it appears that those who imagine they are making the world a better place through their own genius have been around hundreds of years.

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The beginnings of modernity go back to the late 18th century (at the very least). There’s much about Beethoven that marks a movement into modern thought. Mind you, it’s not thought about technology and such, but thought about the nature of human beings and our place in the world. As the “shackles” of the past were being thrown off (royals being murdered, etc.), there was a heady optimism about the future possibilities. I think there was, with many, a mistaken idea of just how easy a better future would be.

    I will follow up my earlier observation viz. culture as advertising and note that two of the largest companies ever in existence (Google and Facebook) both derive their income from advertising. Global advertising is currently about $400 billion and growing fast. That figure does not include the amount spent to get you to look at the advertising.

    The real story of modernity is not the evolution of ideas. It is the monetization and commercialization of ideas.

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    There was a member of my parish and renown scholar, Anthony Gythiel, of blessed memory who laid the origin of modernity at the feet of Augustine of Hippo. Prof Gythiel, as I said was a scholar and translator, professor of Medieval History. In his 20’s he was a Roman Catholic monk and witnessed many of his brother monks killed by the Mau Mau in Kenya. In doing his translation work for Jarislov Pelikan and others he visited a Benedictine Abbey here in Kansas and found the works of many early Father’s of the Orthodox Church in their original language and read himself into the Orthodox faith.
    Prof. Gythiel’s thesis that Augustine was the font of modernity rested on two points: Augustine’s anthropology (Augustine postulated an early version of “I think therefore, I am.”); and Augustine’s theory of linear time. The vigor with which Prof Gythiel condemned these twin lines of thought in Augustine cannot be overstated. It was breathtaking. Prof. Gythiel saw them as a fundamental denial of Jesus Christ’s Incarnation and God Himself.

    Both of those postulates are critical to nihilism and other philosophies of the flowering of modernity in the 18th through 21st century. He had an incredible mind and a stalwart faith. I do wish he had published some of his own work. Nevertheless, he Traditioned the faith to many.

  28. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The monetization, commercialization,and homogenizing of ideas. The imposition of group think masquerading as individuality and “freedom”. Reminds me of Brave New World.

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    With due respect to Prof. Gythiel, I think he’s reaching. These sort of “origins” thoughts can easily be stretched too far. In a certain way, anything leads to everything, so that a case can be made in many different ways. A conversation about St. Augustine viz. modernity can be interesting, but, I think, easily draws the conversation into abstractions. For one, it posits a sort of inevitability that is historically inaccurate. It’s like, “take a wrong turn in the 5th century, and the next thing you know you’re in trouble in the 19th century – inevitably. I think that is bad history. Its causations are nearly so straight forward.

    It’s a common problem, I think. Romanides does the same thing – also hinging everything on St. Augustine. Essentially, it is reductionist.

    The commercialization that begins to take place in 18th and 19th century Britain was not a historical necessity, nor was it driven by some Augustinian issues. It also creates impossible obstacles, as in, unless we go back and fix the Augustine thing, we cannot deal with modernity. That’s just not true. There was a very strong medieval, Christian culture throughout the Middle Ages in the West that were deeply indebted to certain Augustinian ideas. Had not the Franks begun to play political games with the Papacy – those Middle Ages would have likely been marked by an “Orthodox” West. The schism was not an inevitability.

  30. NSP Avatar

    Fr. Freeman,

    I have read your rejection of coercion in your writings before. I was wondering if this means that the concept of “the coercive power of the Church” and her obligation to use it is (for samples of discussion on this topic see here and here ) something foreign to official Orthodox ecclesiology, even in past centuries?

    @Michael Baumann,
    After reading your comment, I searched for Prof. Gythiel, and while I couldn’t locate any of his writings, it seems that he has been the translator of several illustrious Orthodox writers like Lossky, Evdokimov, Gabriel Bunge (another convert from Catholicism) etc. I found this semi-autobiographical article written by him.


  31. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Michael and Father,
    I’m glad you brought up Augustine in this discussion about the impact of modernity upon Christianity. One of the important points that Father Stephen has made about modernity is that its origins are in the heresies of Christianity. It is on this note that I proceed with this comment to compare Augustinian theology with the words “make it so”.
    On Augustine: Indeed, there are several conceptions that Augustine held and promoted that diverged from the Orthodox Way (ie bordering on or flat-out heretical). I have learned about these divergences from my own readings of Augustine directly and some from other authors. I don’t want to ‘write-off’ Augustine entirely because he is indeed an Orthodox saint. Nevertheless, even saints get things wrong, and with Augustine there are several points that are worth bringing up here, in the comment stream to Father’s article.

    St Maximus explained an important patristic distinction which it seems that Augustine fails to consider, namely, that man’s created reason can never apprehend the uncreated things of God because they are radically different. Here I quote St Maximus: ” Through experience alone and through grace it brings about, by means of participation and without the help of the intelligence and its intellections, a total and active perception of what is known.” (Philokalia, vol. 2, 242).

    (I will note here that I’m describing what I have read in some of these criticisms and will beg Father’s comments for correction as needed)
    For Augustine, it seems, it is always the human intellect, which is the rational mind (ie not the nous) itself that is illumined or given vision. Thus it seems, Augustine elevates the capacity of the human intellect to apprehend God. Another critique along the same lines: Augustine apparently makes no distinction between revelation (that which comes directly from God) and the conceptualization of God, which is thinking about God developed from and out of our conceptualizations. As a result, Augustine’s theological system fails to discern the Orthodox distinction between uncreated essence and the uncreated energies of God. The essence of God is beyond man’s capacity to apprehend; however, man does have the capacity to experience and participate in and know God through God’s energies (or workings).

    Another significant theological distinction in Augustine, is his lack of appreciation for the revelation of the pre-Incarnate Logos (Christ) in the Old Testament. Instead, he says such encounters were not from God, but wrought by angels (ie came about through a creature, ie a created being). (Augustine, On the Trinity, 3.11 (22, 27), 119, 126). Some authors claim that Augustine’s triadology overemphasizes the unity of God’s unity, with important theological ramifications, in that he has a clear lack of understanding of ‘person’ or ‘hypostasis’, as defined by the Orthodox Church. According to these critiques he appears to reluctantly concede to such usage. Augustine’s orientation to the Cappadocian Fathers’ theology, reveals a lack of understanding of their meaning of person. Instead, he prefers to use the term ‘relations’ within the one divine essence. And these authors claim that this orientation historically lead to the development to the Filioque. Ultimately, this orientation of the ‘de-personalization’ of the Holy Trinity, places a priory on the conceptualization or abstraction of the essence of God. And if such an emphasis is made, we lose the patristic vision of the ‘concretely experienced reality’ of the three divine and distinct Persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and our hearts and minds become unintentionally closed to the experience (important to emphasize that this is different from the conceptualization of) of the Holy Trinity. The mystery of the Holy Trinity cannot be explained but experienced. In other words, the Orthodox Way eschews rational speculation on our faith or on the Holy Trinity. Instead, we must experience it (received) and live it (participatory). In this Way does the therapeutic and transformative experience of the living God become a reality for the believer.
    In this approach, we also need to be careful that we do not disparage the importance of our intellections as Augustine describes, but to question their priority over the experience of God that comes from the heart. Finally, in the emphasis on the capacity of the rationality to apprehend God, we exhibit the motto, “make it so” and, potentially, we lose the opportunity of the received experience of “let it be”. ‘Make is so’ is a phrase that apparently came from usage in nautical commands. In American life it is exhibit as a ‘can and will do’ kind of mentality and grasp for power, that is embedded within our cultural heritage.

    Father, if this takes us off track, please forgive me. I’m not interested in bashing a saint, rather only to highlight potential errors in his theology. Please correct as needed.

  32. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar


    Having spent more and more time trying to answer the church vs state question as of late, I have come to the conclusion that the “It was the Franks!” trope is just another version of the same mistake. For example, the so-called antipopes of the 11–12th centuries that supported the Orthodox understanding of united church and state, pushed back against the decisions regarding forced clerical celibacy, and were distressed about the schism that the non-Emperor-supporting popes (the ones currently recognized by the West) perpetuated. The so-called antipopes even had miracle working relics (eg, Clement III), which were dumped into the Tiber(!), to shore up political support for the opposition, who demanded separation of church and state, power *over* the state, and all sorts of other wild stuff that haunts us to this very day. These [now] “official” popes convened Lateran I, started the First Crusade (to *break* Imperial power: the big names were Normans and other minor prices that wanted to minimize the Holy Roman Empire’s claims), and much else—all in a very short span of time. After a wave of revisionism in the 12th century, the work picked up again in the Counter-Reformation and then again in 18th and 19th centuries, with the “official” popes (eg, Urban II) getting sainted almost in conjunction with the drive for the doctrine of papal infallibility and some of the other modern changes. Even the term antipope (and its Latin equivalent) is not much older than that, as far as I can find. It was—and remains—messy. In short, I think distinction of and then the elevation of the church above state (of which the “Franks!” trope is a apart) is not the answer to secularism, but perhaps its *very root* in the world. It *is* the two-storey universe.

  33. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The Church obviously has the authority to “bind and to loose.” I take that to describe the authority forgive in God’s name – for the purpose of the healing of the soul. There are, of course, occasions of “epitimia” – “penance” in which an individual forgoes communion for a period of time at the direction of their confessor. Again, this is for the purpose of the healing of the soul. (cf. Canon 102 of the Quinisext Council in Trullo)

    Orthodoxy does not have a history of an Inquisition, per se, though the saddest stories in our history are probably things like the persecution of the Old Believers, etc. These are not actions that are treated as correct. Coercion is simply contrary to the well-being of the soul.

    It can be the case, obviously, the communion without repentance (on some level) can be detrimental to the soul and body (as St. Paul tells us). It is for that reason that communion is withheld (when rightly understood). It is not withheld in order to coerce obedience. Such obedience would be pretty useless to a soul’s health.

    Spiritual abuse is real and quite tragic. In most cases, it comes down to coercion in some form or other. How sad when we imagine that love is insufficient.

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    My knowledge of Augustine, per se, is simply insufficient to comment. Problematic, it seems to me, is that the term intellectus is the Latin translation of nous. But, again, I do not know enough to comment in detail.

    As years have gone by, I have become very wary of the “this is where the wrong turn happened” approach to history and theology. I don’t think it works quite like that.

  35. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I only had in mind the early push to exalt Papal authority as a strong, Frankish political intrigue. It was not consistent, or evenly applied, etc. It certainly becomes a trope – particularly at the hands of Romanides. Once the ball got rolling – the Papacy as an institution believed its own propaganda and didn’t need Franks or anyone else to keep it going. My earlier point, however, is that it is a mistake to assume that some wrong turn, centuries earlier, made the schism inevitable. I think inevitability is a problematic way to treat history – though it’s quite popular.

  36. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Indeed, the emphasis upon “this the wrong turn” and all else proceeding from it, is a kind of linear thinking when there is so much to suggest that what we call modernity is the result of a confluence of many sources.

    And also regarding the translation of the word intellectus vs nous, my best understanding of Augustine’s usage comes more from context of his writing rather than the specific translation of this word. Nevertheless, such interpretation from the full of his writings is a daunting task. What I haven’t yet read is any evaluation of how Augustine’s conceptualization might have changed over time. In other words, does this emphasis on rationality become more evident and precise or is it always contextually defined.

  37. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, but the main point of Prof Gythiel was that now is what is important. Augustine’s ideas did not begin with him or end with him they are always with us, a constant temptation to degrade ourselves and the Incarnational reality of time. I am afraid you are being too linear. The demonic whispers that lead to modernity have been with us since the Garden. The Cross is the only way to overcome.

    NSP, regretably Prof Gythiel did not publish his own work. He was a translator. He taught too both professionally and in my parish. He was quite a personality too.

  38. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. Now is what is important. The inheritance from St. Augustine (now), however, is such a complex thing that speaking about it as “St. Augustine” is problematic.

    Modernity does not go back to the Garden. But, there is nothing new about sin. If we simply speak of modernity in terms of “sin,” then there really isn’t any need to speak of modernity.

    The first time I read St. Augustine’s Confessions, they struck me as “modern” in tone – he does a self-reflection in them that cannot be found anywhere else before him. I was trained in the classics and was surprised when I saw this in his work. In that sense, I would agree with Prof Gythiel that there is something about Augustine that is distinctly “modern” – it could perhaps be said that the West is inherently Augustinian. But that would need to carry lots of nuance. I might add, that Augustine’s view of the self that feels “modern” is not something I would think of as sinful, or as part of the “modern project.”

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Augustine was working primarily from his knowledge of neo-platonic thought – and that vocabulary was a strong part of the Eastern Fathers as well. His grasp was not as subtle or Hellenic as the Cappadocians, for example, much less St. Maximus. But he’s in their ballpark. In point of fact, Augustine himself was whittled down by his interpreters – particularly St. Caesarius of Arles. There, it got simplified and tended to become ossified. The intellectual life of the West was waning. It would be interesting to study both how Augustine himself would have understood “intellectus,” and then look at how it changed over time.

    Even the East went through a period when St. Gregory Palamas’ work was largely unknown and the language of the Divine Energies was forgotten. As shocking as it may seem, it’s pretty much the 20th century that brought him back to center stage. All of these things are quite complex. They tend to get oversimplified in popular treatments.

  40. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Interesting info Father! Thank you for this!

  41. Nikolaos Avatar

    The Orthodox Church celebrates St Augustine on 15th June. Various Fathers and especially St Photios the Great, are lenient with his theology and adherence to the filioque herecy: https://www.goarch.org/-/saint-augustine-greek-orthodox-tradition

    If Fr Stephen humbly admits insufficient knowledge to comment, I do not dare to express a view. However, my heart tells me he is a Saint because of his love of God, the Church recognises this and the hymns of the Church are always the most instructive resource:

    In truth you were revealed to your flock as a rule of faith, an image of humility and a teacher of abstinence; your humility exalted you; your poverty enriched you. Hierarch Father Augustine, entreat Christ our God that our souls may be saved. (https://www.oca.org/saints/troparia/2021/06/15/101736-blessed-augustine-bishop-of-hippo)

    Having acquired the radiance of wisdom, thou didst prove to be a Divine instrument of piety, O Hierarch Augustine, thou favorite of Christ. As an initiate of godly love, raise up on the wings of Divine longing us who cry unto thee: Rejoice, O God-inspired Father. (https://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2011/06/saint-augustine-bishop-of-hippo.html)

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    He is a saint of the Orthodox Church. I think he’s a good lesson in the fact that being a saint of the Church does not make someone infallible in doctrine. I do not mean to be overly loose about such things. There are those who have a revisionist agenda and will use a generous approach on these things because they want a hole large enough to drive a truck-load of heresy into the Church.

    I have no such interests. But, when the life of the Church becomes governed by reaction – something is lost as well. There is every reason to be generous with any well-meaning Christian – though it doesn’t mean treating them as Orthodox teachers. There is correct doctrine – which must be held by a “correct heart.” The heart is the really difficult thing to come by – and all too rare, in my experience.

    The Apolytikion and the Kontakion that you’ve quoted are the standard-issue for bishop-saints.

  43. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Father,
    I appreciate the nuance regarding “Augustinian Heritage” and from this point forward I’ll be ever more vigilant regarding which translation I have of Augustine. I have learned ancient Latin (not Church Latin) and perhaps at one time I might have been able to read Augustine directly in his own language. But that time is long gone and so is my skill in ancient Latin. I do rely on translations.

    On his perception of the Trinity, whether truly his own or that which we have inherited, there are important points that I want to highlight and contrast, as of this morning when I read the Bible more reflections arose. Specifically it is the person of Jesus and His obedience to God the Father and also the aspect and importance of love. By the emphasis on the hypostasis, the Orthodox Church also emphasizes the love shared between the Three Persons of the Trinity. Furthermore, Christ’s own example is that of obedience to the Father. When He asked John the Baptist to baptize Him, He did not order John to do so. When John stood aghast and in awe of the Lord’s request, the Lord reassured him, to say it is in fulfilment of righteousness (ie ‘Let it Be’ not ‘Make it so’). How many times did the Lord say in effect ‘let it be’ according to your faith, when someone came to Him for healing? And when He was baptized, and the events began to unfold to reveal His Sonship, Christ Himself did not open the heavens to reveal Himself, rather it is said in Luke, that a voice from heaven spoke (suggesting the Father who spoke), “Thou art my Beloved Son; with Thee I am well pleased “. By uniting the Father and the Son together, in effect blurring the distinction of their Persons, we also blur the vision of Christ’s obedience to the Father (the ‘let it be’ approach).

    So much of our culture responds to the concept of ‘let it be’ to that of ‘throwing in the towel’ of ‘giving up’ our responsibilities to ourselves and to our neighbors. If my recollection serves me, I recall Gene Rodenberry had wanted to create the second series to reflect more of his own values which purportedly arose from Buddhism. He desired to show that man can make of himself what he wished, and Roddenberry wanted to affirm that we can have our cake of peace and prosperity and eat it too. “Make it so” was an apt motto to affirm man’s capacity to make his ‘highest morals’ a reality. What is missed in such thought is the contrast of the life of morals to the life of Christ. {It is frequently a point Father Stephen wishes to make, and I suspect often goes over our heads in understanding–so entrenched we are in “Make it so”.}

    Not long ago I watched a news clip that someone put on their phone for me to watch. It was a 12 year old child who self identifies as ‘transgender’. And not long ago, we had psychologists’ comments about how the story of St Mary of Egypt reflects that she was likely abused at an early stage of life.

    It is easy using our morals of this day, to ascribe one as abuse and the other as cultural identity. However, there is a significant difference between cultural/moral acceptability and the life of Christ.

    I write these things mainly in hopes to reify Father Stephen’s message. It is indeed important to recognize where our inheritance, whether through the faux pas of our bishops and priests, comes from. We belong to Christ, therefore as Christians, we Orthodox need to learn to differentiate more fully the distinction between “make it so” and “let it be”. And sometimes that will include the words of a respected saint and of course, our current day brethren, whether laity, priest or bishop. That said, by the way, I’m not endorsing any revolt against a bishop, for that too is a “make it so” approach.

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    St. Augustine’s Latin was still very good – he was well-educated and trained. He is a very unique character, about whom we know a great deal (even having his autobiography). He was courageous, and entered into the fray in opposition to heresies of his own day. He was doing his best with what he had – which did not include a particular command of Greek or an ongoing conversation with what was taking place in that part of the Empire.

    When I read him, I can feel the Church of his time and many of the peculiarities that were evolving in the Western world. Peter Brown is hands down his best and most important biographer. Indeed, Brown’s work on the historical/sociological world of Late Antiquity is unrivaled. I wish we had material of that quality for the Eastern Church.

    Our lens of East vs West that is often applied to Augustine is probably unfair and keeps us from seeing much that is of value. His Trinitarian musings are odd, for my taste, far too dependent on pure philosophical speculation and less grounded in the dogmatic thought of the Eastern Fathers in that regard. A weakness for Augustine, historically, is that he was as important as he became (or the Augustinianism that followed him). The East had more voices (rather than a single great figure).

    None of us is ever meant to stand alone (and Augustine certainly didn’t mean to).

    A last follow-up on “let it be” vs. “make it so.” “Let it be” presumes that someone else is acting as well – and, for us – I think that means that God is acting. Always, and first. We pray for our daily bread, not “I think I’ll make my bread today.” What bread is God giving me today? What Cup has He asked me to drink? Often, I suspect that this line of thought is part of my aging. It was for St. Peter:

    “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.”(This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.)”
    (John 21:18–19)

  45. Byron Avatar

    My understanding is that St. Augustine is recognized as an Eastern Saint due to his piety, not his theology. And I have heard his commentary on the Psalms is very good indeed.

  46. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    A good distinction Byron.

    Dear Father,
    You’ve just handed me the resource I was looking for! Indeed Peter Brown’s latest edition has an epilogue in which he describes the latest research on recently discovered homilies and letters revealing how St Augustine thought might have changed across his life. And this is true of all of us, as you describe, Father, in your quote from the Gospel of St John. Like you, I’m of the same generation and age (minus one year I think) and that includes childhood exposure to southern US culture. I think you may be onto something about how one ages might color our response to ‘news’ and in particular to the political field of activity. l would describe my own response as disengagement. Importantly, you emphasis that the “let it be” is to simply not get in the way of the Lord–which is so easily done when one is attempting to ‘make it so’.

    It begs the question whether we actually trust the Lord. In my prayers I do my best to emphasize in my heart obedience and edification, “Thy” will be done. Not “I hope Your will is the same as mine and ‘let it be my way, Dear Lord’.”–a fairly easy pothole to fall in for us politically bound, U.S. Christian Americans.

  47. Síochána Arandomhan Avatar

    Thank you so much Fr Freeman for your generous response to my earlier comment. It made me day! I already meant to come back to this entry and reflect on it and now I have two full essays to think on. Even better! It’s wonderful to be welcomed into this conversation. I stopped using social media this year and made it a goal to have more meaningful conversations and interactions. I think it is worth it!

  48. Mr. Ambrose Little, O.P. Avatar

    I’ve been mostly lurking, reading and not commenting, since Fr. Abertnety recommended your blog to me. Regularly very good stuff. Thank you for your work here.

    This is pure gold as far as I’m concerned, especially this:
    ‘That which is true, is that which truly exists. As such, it is always its own strongest argument. If it truly exists, it will continue whether I believe in it or not. The truth does not require ideology. This carries the corollary of a lack of anxiety. If the truth abides, whether I believe it or not, then I am not bound to “make it so” through the efforts of a culture war. It is, rather, for me to live it, to give thanks for it, and enjoy its fruit in the world.’

  49. Ben Avatar

    “I can say, however, that if a particular life-solution requires the constant input of technological correction, there is good reason to suspect that “nature” is being seen as a problem rather than received as a gift”

    This sentence has been stuck in my brain for a few days now. While I agree with where your going, I think, I am having trouble drawing the line. Basically civilization itself is dependant on a constant input of technology, agriculture and sanitation are just the beginning. Without technology we would basically be monkeys wandering the plains and picking berries (like the garden of Eden, maybe?). I realized that’s a ridiculous thing to reduce your statement to, but I don’t know where to stop this “rule of thumb”. If I argue that our current views of sex are wrong because they require technological intervention, then how do I justify every other thing in my life?

    Or maybe I’m missing the whole point. That’s very likely.

  50. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Everything requires wisdom and discretion. My observation could easily be pushed to the point of the absurd. But, to stay with the sex example, when, since the advent of the pill, we’ve built a culture that quietly assumes the universal desirability of this technology, thus pressuring women to avoid child-bearing, or to delay it until later in their career path, we’re using technology, not to ask about the actual nature and health of human childbearing, but mostly asking how we can alter and control the most natural flow of our lives simply for the convenience of consumer capitalism.

    I’m not suggesting that all interventions and managements in our life are sinful or wrong – but that much of it is unwise and destructive in the larger picture. We are distorting what it means to be human – for the sake of things that are simply not worth it.

    The “human” question is rarely asked, when it should be among the primary questions.

  51. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The human question is rarely asked. That lack of humanity is deeply embedded in our entire culture, especially our politics. The combination of technology and ideology is cruel. http://anothercity.org/analyzing-the-new-totalitarianism-of-today-5/ discusses the situation. There was a lot of work by historians and philosophers and novelists addressing the danger. As indicated in the article, the transcendent reality of Christianity is the only antidote. Entering that reality always begins with repentance.

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