Riding the Tsunami

There are periods of history that fascinate me, particularly if their events can be felt in our present world. My method of study is to read multiple works with a focus on detailed accounts and only a minor amount of analysis. The past couple of years, my attention has been drawn to periods of plagues and pandemics (surprise). It is undoubtedly the case that these have been turning points in human history. The plague of Justinian (541-549 A.D.) was a key factor in the rise of Islam a century later. The Black Death (mid-1300’s) changed the face of Europe and, I believe, helped sow the seeds that would  become the Reformation. England had outbreaks of the Plague (several different kinds) in the 1600’s, together with the Great Fire of London (1666), and the English Civil War (1642-1651) during which there was constant turmoil within the governing powers and widespread experimentation within religion. It is a period that contributed many key ideas to what today we call “modernity.” This aspect of human history stands in stark contrast to treatments in which one idea of one thinker leads to another idea by yet another thinker, and so on. It’s never really accurate to make statements like, “Augustine was the root cause of later Western heresies…” (or some such thing). History doesn’t work like that: it’s a tsunami.

It has become a commonplace to think about the role of comets and asteroids crashing into our planet. It seems to have wiped out the dominance of dinosaurs and allowed for the rise of mammals (66 million B.C.). That event, it is said, was one of a number of near-extinction events on the planet. In the billiard-ball universe in which we live, such events happen all the time (somewhere).

The 17th century in England saw the fall of the government (after a fashion), and with it, the control of religious conformity and publishing. It resulted in an explosion of religious fervor and creativity. There were Anglicans, of course, and various groups of rival Presbyterians. The Puritans were largely Presbyterian and Calvinist. There were also various other groups, some with very radical ideas: Fifth Monarchists, Grendletonians, Muggletonians, Ranters, Quakers, Seekers, Brownists, Diggers, Levellers, Baptists. What is most striking about this explosion (for me) were the groups espousing various forms of millenarianism, expections of a coming of the Kingdom of God on earth (the “Fifth Monarchists” counted four monarchies described in the book of Daniel, and were awaiting “King Jesus,” the Fifth Monarch). There were various suggested plans for a Communist state, and for the abolition of all royalty. If you can imagine a modern radical idea, you can probably find someone who was preaching and writing about it in 17th century England. Many of those ideas were exported to America, and some of them found ways to become “respectable.” Much of Modernity began in those decades – and, of particular note – began as religious ideas. Modernity has always been a religious movement.

I want to return to the image of a tsunami. A single explosion or tectonic shift in an ocean setting is enough to flood the coasts of vast regions. Around 8,000 B.C., a landslide in Scandanavia created a tsunami that flooded vast portions of Southern England and other areas of Britain and helped bring an end to “Doggerland,” the ancient landbridge that connected Britain to the Continent of Europe. We can only imagine the changes it brought about at that time. The religious/political tsunami that was 17th century England continues to flood the world with the detritus of modernity. In many ways, we are as impotent in its face as the prehistoric inhabitants of Britain were against the tide of the North Sea.

It is in this wash of culture and its flood that it’s worth thinking about the Church (Orthodox) as an ark of salvation and safety. It is an ancient image of the Church, a place where God gathers those who are being rescued. The ark is not an instrument of flood management, however. It is a raft. Modernity imagines itself as the manager of the world and its historical processes. It is an idea that is itself part of the destructive flood of our time.

We are not the cause of the tsunami, nor may we even point to those in whom the tsunami has risen the highest. On an individual level, history can be met with choices (many times). On the aggregate level, history is the result of choices made long ago and by others – and, even then, those choices are rarely accurately described as conscious decisions.

If you sit and stare at a flowing creek for long, perhaps playing about its shallows with sticks and such (this is an activity my grandchildren have afforded me from time to time) it is possible to see how utterly connected the many currents and flows are with one another. An action in one spot can yield a reaction downstream, though the one downstream may know very little of what happened before. We individuals who inhabit this point in the stream of time fancy our decisions as though they were independent of so much that went before. We climb on the ark of the Orthodox faith with very little regard to how that particular “stick of wood” came to be floating just here, just now. In point of fact, it came here with the tsunami of modernity.

The strange ideas of 17th century England washed up on the shores of America and provided the lumber for the modern project. They spread in other directions, as well. Through the nations of Europe (aided by other local tsunamis), they washed up in Russia, in time. Just as England had its Civil War in the 1600’s, so Russia had its Civil War in the 1900’s, with borrowed ideas and slogans and improved techniques. The English Civil War beheaded a king and hung an archbishop. The Civil War in Russia executed the entire Royal family and soaked the fields of that land with the blood of millions of Christians (and many others). As the water from that tsunami rose, it washed an intelligentsia and a Church out onto the shores of Western Europe and America. Some of the voices of that political/religious detritus spoke well and kindly to their Western havens of rescue. Indeed, they spoke so well and kindly, that, in time many of the children of those rescuing havens joined them in their ark of safety. Orthodoxy, in a welcoming form, came to our shores on the tide of Communism’s atrocities. As history goes, it was a welcome accident.

From onboard the ark, we view things a bit differently. First, we trust that God is the Lord of the tsunami just as surely as He is Lord of the sparrow and the lillies in the field. The mystery of how He works all things for our salvation is summarized in His crucifixion. Most of that mystery is simply opaque. It is a confession of faith that the Cross represents the interpretation of all things. It is what I learned on board the ark.

That being the case, it is for us to give thanks for all things, try to stay dry, and wait for the waters to recede.

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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87 responses to “Riding the Tsunami”

  1. Byron Avatar

    Will they recede? Not in my lifetime, I don’t think. But “the waiting’s the thing”. May it be beneficial for our salvation!

  2. Timmy Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, your insights are a much needed gift for so many of us. Thank you for sharing your writing!

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    But it is sad when people known and loved are washed off the deck of the Ark into the teeth of the storm with, apparently, no life vest. Or that voluntarily step off the deck out of spite thinking they are in a better place.

  4. Michael Hooper Avatar
    Michael Hooper

    I really like your insights on the tsunami of our times and the symbol of the ark as our saving grace. Might we also be on the Titanic while the band plays on and the deck chairs are rearranged. But might we also be the crew trying to save souls and get as many on the life boats as possible?

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Since Christ is the Captain of the boat, I trust that He knows how to handle the situation of those washed over the side, etc. He who provided us with an Ark – will He not do all things for our salvation? So, light a candle and pray, and trust the Captain.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ve been on the Titanic, and swam to the nearby Ark. No, the Church is God’s Ark. It’s a little leaky from time to time.

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father and Michael, all this I understand and do but that does not erase the sadness. Nor do I think it should. Indeed embracing the sadness allows my prayers to be offered with tears, Tears of contrition and hope. A part of my Cross no doubt.
    I also have a lifeline out to a friend for years now which seems to be drawing him back. One of these days, he will climb back aboard.

  8. Jamie Mahan Avatar
    Jamie Mahan

    Hi Fr Stephen,

    Your last several posts have been driving some nails for me, maybe helping to patch some leaks in my corner of the ark. My wife and I recently became catechumens in Indianapolis. One of the clearest images I’ve had in mind through my approach back into faith is that of the Ark. I’ve felt pretty water logged for a while, but I trust and hope God will haul me back on deck in whatever way is best for me. Still struggling with freaking out about the waves, and the reminders I find in these words help return my attention to the Captain. I couldn’t help but think of the Grand Funk Railroad song, I’m Your Captain “I’m getting closer to my home”
    Thank you.

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I know the song. God give you grace in your journey together with your wife.

  10. Kathleen Hughes Avatar
    Kathleen Hughes

    Wow! Thank you, Fr, Stephen. I had a mental health melt-down yesterday. This helped me tremendously. Can’t take my eyes off the Captain!

  11. Dino Avatar

    Michael Bauman,
    I am convinced many have felt the pain you describe, regarding people dearly loved, who are ‘washed off the Ark into the storm, discarding even their life vest’.
    I guess it’s an even more advanced stage of trust in God: to cast off Godless anxiety for the salvation of people apparently on the road to perdition, trusting God has ways and means of caring even for them (1 Peter 5:7). The tears of desperate hoping help immensely.

  12. Sinnika Avatar

    Great article Fr Stephen!

    Your image of a tsunami is very vivid and fits well with what is happening at the moment.

    Although, I used to look at it from another perspective , almost the opposite way, where I found myself standing on a beach looking out on the Sea of Faith where the water was receding as I was watching it, leaving the sandy beach empty and exposed, and me stranded in great sadness.

    Since discovering the Orthodox Church, with its fullness of Faith and Truth, I have realised that the sea which I was so sad to watch disappearing under my feet, the faith of my fathers, was not actually much to hold on to as it was unable to answer all my questions about God and the meaning of life.

    Also, I have not yet been able to join the Orthodox Church, so I am not sure of where I am in this tsunami, or perhaps I am still on the beach waiting for the Captain to say, “Come and join us” .

  13. Drewster2000 Avatar

    @Michael Hooper,

    I suggest that though the church is God’s Ark, we as individuals often seem to have one hand grasping her rail and the rest of us testing the waters – or even going back to the Titanic for various reasons and lengths of time.

    And of course there are always people trying to determine who’s onboard the Ark and who’s not. A dubious use of their time and attention in the middle of a tsunami.

  14. Petka Avatar

    I know you mentioned the ark of faithful who left Eastern Europe last century to live and worship freely in the States. Remember too the ark of those who stayed behind: the old ladies, the priests and monastics in plain clothes, the countless souls who lived the Faith in difficult circumstances. It is not just the faith of martyrs which sustained the East, but the extraordinary witness of ordinary people who ‘held on to what is good’. In many ways their largely unsung history is the direct parallel to what we are all facing now…. unnoticed like Mrs Noah in the bowels of the ark, quietly getting on with the ‘small’ matter of giving glory to God!

  15. Christian Avatar


    I’ve read you for years, and I’ve enjoyed your work. However, it seems the entirety of your life’s work hinges on a particular reading of history, religion and philosophy. Brad Gregory comes to mind.

    What if your perspective is wrong though?

    It makes me wonder if what you are attempting to dismantle the very thing you yourself are guilty of? Namely, the modern mind you condemn.

    Perhaps we can be honest and recognize that at the end of the day our perspective is entirely contingent on ourselves. It’s an awfully modern thing to say, but it seems to me to be an unavoidable truth. I’m not suggesting truth isn’t objective, but I am suggesting that our perception of it is subjective.

    Looking forward to your response Father. Many blessings.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The entirety of my life’s work is simply being an Orthodox priest – and nothing else, really. As to my writings on modernity (which are only a portion of my writing) your question or observation would be more salient if there was anything particularly unique in what I’ve written. As it is, both the definition of Modernity as well as most aspects of my critique long pre-date me and are rather commonplace across a lot of 20th century writing. Chesterton, Belloc, Lewis, all wrote on the topic. When I was doing graduate studies at Duke, Stanley Hauerwas was a dominant voice and figure. We were fed a steady diet of books and discussions that worked with and through these ideas. Alasdair MacIntyre also comes to mind (After Virtue, etc.) A very good recent tome has been McCarraher’s book, The Enchantment of Mammon. Indeed, any contemporary writer who does not engage the critique of modernity, but writes as though it’s not out there, would seem uneducated to me (or avoiding something uncomfortable). There are a lot of such writers/thinkers – but I tend to see their work as being largely spokepersons for the modern project.

    If I’m doing anything unique, it is bring this conversation, which has been taking place for over a century, to the attention of Orthodox readers. I’m not a unique thinker – I’m a popularizer.

    It could be argued that our perspective is entirely contingent on ourselves – but I certainly seem to share that perspective with a number of others. Nobody is really all that unique.

  17. Agata Avatar


    You say:
    “Perhaps we can be honest and recognize that at the end of the day our perspective is entirely contingent on ourselves. It’s an awfully modern thing to say, but it seems to me to be an unavoidable truth. I’m not suggesting truth isn’t objective, but I am suggesting that our perception of it is subjective.”

    To be honest indeed, I’d be totally depressed and despondent if I was convinced to believe that the Truth is contingent, especially on myself!!

    My favorite quote from a Saint (I cannot remember exactly, maybe St. Mark the Ascetic) is this:
    “There can be no compromise between truth and falsehood.”
    Subjectivity is compromise, isn’t it?

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Christian, Agata,
    Of course, I’m not entirely sure to what Christian was alluding when he said, “Your entire life’s work.” If that meant being an Orthodox priest – then, like anything else in life, you could argue that it’s a “perspective.” So is my love for my wife, and even my preference for peace rather than violence, etc. That is to say, to say something is merely a perspective is a logical absurdity. For myself, I did not become Orthodox until I was 45 years old – which is to say it was something I’d considered, argued, thought about, abandoned, re-thought, etc., for about 20 years. When I committed myself to it, it was with all the considered judgment I could bring – as something work risking my life for. Because, in the end, you risk your life for something – including avoiding having a perspective if that’s what one has done.

    But, twenty-four years now further on, I am more certain than I was at 45. Of course, in the end, we all face some kind of judgment. God (or nothing). If Christianity is the truth (and I believe it to be), then Orthodoxy is its truest form (even for all its messiness).

    But, to a degree, Christian’s question, “What if you’re wrong?” (which is what it boils down to) is something that I’ll not know until it’s all done and over. In the meantime, to live as a Christian is to do no harm, but to seek to do good, to prefer love and kindess over evil, etc. I am satisfied and committed to what I know and what I trust. Since I’m not demanding that anyone else follow me, read me, or pay me any attention whatsoever (that’s a free choice), then I think others may answer these questions for themselves.

  19. Agata Avatar

    It pains me to see people coming here to argue, question or even offend you.

    And to the question “What if you’re wrong?” (I get that question too), I usually say “Well, we will know in 50 years for sure”.

    But the most wonderful answer to this question was once given here on the blog by Mary Benton. I have saved it, since I cannot always find it on the blog:

    mary benton says January 9, 2013 at 10:49 pm

    ….but, as I wrote elsewhere, I accept that I could be deluding myself. But I can think of no better way to live. And so, in the face of doubts (that will always resurface), I make a choice – along with Puddleglum.

    “Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things–trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.” (The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis)

  20. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Purely an emotional comment that is based on my 55 years of exploration and experience of both the Christian faith and some supposed alternatives. If the Orthodox faith is not real– nothing is real. Literally.

  21. Kathryn Avatar

    The world is too much with us; late and soon,
    Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
    Little we see in Nature that is ours;
    We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
    This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
    The winds that will be howling at all hours,
    And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
    For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
    It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
    A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
    So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
    Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
    Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
    Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
    But C. S. Lewis picks up on Wordsworth’s less forlorning glimpses
    C. S. Lewis:
    The map is admittedly only coloured paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together.
    The world is broken. I currently am experiencing and recognizing this brokenness as chaos. To remedy this, like Wordsworth, I will go to a quiet place, free of modernity’s distraction. Then, like C.S. Lewis, I will go to the mapmakers of our faith. Eventually, I will reintegrate into society, with a greater capacity to remember peace. ‘Reside in the Eternal Now’

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    An additional thought (after a night’s sleep). You mentioned the work of Brad Gregory (Catholic historian). I like his work. He, as I understand, has some familiarity and connection with George Marsden, another historian whom I enjoy. Both show familiarity with Charles Taylor (Catholic philosopher) whom I think does good work (and the list could be expanded). The reason such a list could exist is that the “perspective” (in general) that they share in common is not the life’s work of a single individual – but the many voices of people looking at the same things and expressing some similar conclusions. So, I’m just a single voice in the chorus.

    There’s a traditional way of saying this: we are witnesses. The disciples of St. John said, “He who saw it [that blood and water flowed from the side of Christ] has borne witness—his witness is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe.” (Jn. 19:35) John said of Jesus that He “came into the world to bear witness.”

    What you’ve described as “perspective” can be taken to say, “That’s just your opinion,” and imply that it’s nothing more than an opinion. To be a witness is more than that – it is to say and report what you have seen. The fact that what I’ve said and reported is said and reported by many others would tend, I suppose, to suggest that it’s more than a single opinion, or just the idle musings of an old man.

    In your comment you said, “perhaps we can be honest and recognize that at the end of the day our perspective is entirely contingent on ourselves.” That’s not honesty, and you do great disservice by suggesting that anyone disagreeing with you must be dishonest. It’s not honest – it’s despair. Again, if the witness were only a single voice everyone (including the voice itself) would be justified in holding it to great scrutiny. But if that voice is part of a chorus – spoken over a significant span of time by a wide variety of people (which is true of the critique of modernity) then it would be reasonable to say, “Perhaps they are seeing something that is true.”

    The arguments re:subjectivity can lead to a form of madness in which we simply cancel ourselves out of existence. Is there a level of subjectivity in our perception? Of course there is. That is why we enter into conversation and study with others. We listen, we learn, we self-correct, etc. Writing my blog is a little thing. Keeping up and responding to the comments is massive. Over the years there have been about 100,000 comments – of which 10,000 or more are mine. It’s a conversation. I bear witness to what I’ve seen, others share their understanding. We discuss. It’s a pretty human approach.

    That I’m only a voice in a chorus that seems to be singing much the same song would suggest that the “perspective” it represents is not entirely subjective – that there must be something outside that is available for others to see. It could, of course, be mass hysteria. But that’s the sort of reasoning that is just another form of madness.

    As for the “perspective” of modernity – since it is peddled all day long by mass media, and is the tool for political control and making money, we do well to ask questions of it. It’s not a perspective – it’s a tool that continues to prove its lack of bona fides every day. And it suggests that any critique is just “a perspective.”

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Christian, (more thoughts)
    It is of note that a number of the thinkers I’ve cited in the critique of modernity are Roman Catholics. The rise of secularism and modernity were initially a Protestant influence. It’s not surprising that thinkers such as Belloc and Chesterton were among its many early critics. I would add to their number many of the leaders of Anglo-Catholicsm (the Oxford Movement) in 19th century Britain. They all saw a rising challenge from the modern project. Orthodoxy is very late to this discussion – though early forms of it are found in Dostoevsky and a number of other 19th Russian intellectuals.

    Orthodoxy has important things to say within this larger conversation. I’m frankly dismayed by Orthodox writers who do not take it into account. They are either ignoring the times in which we live (as though we actually could) or being co-opted by the times in which we live. As far as modernity goes – it seems that it is essential that it be understood consciously in order to maintain any integrity in its presence. Sometimes that consciousness may only be, “It seems that something’s not right…”

  24. Christian Hollums Avatar
    Christian Hollums


    All great authors. I’m rereading Brad Gregory and Charles Taylor currently.

    You said:
    “What you’ve described as “perspective” can be taken to say, “That’s just your opinion,” and imply that it’s nothing more than an opinion. To be a witness is more than that – it is to say and report what you have seen. The fact that what I’ve said and reported is said and reported by many others would tend, I suppose to suggest that it’s more than a single opinion, or just the idle musings of an old man.”

    I haven’t suggested that other historians, philosophers, priests, etc. don’t draw the conclusions you do about modernity. However, neither you or the authors who have drawn these conclusions about history are witnesses to events that occurred 100’s of years ago. They are relying on “witnesses” and drawing their own conclusions. I’m not debating or suggesting that you are alone in your conclusions about modernity.

    Perhaps “perspective” is an inadequate terminology but being a “witness” to an event doesn’t make the truth any clearer. I’m not really following the distinction you are trying to make between the two in terms of reliability and trustworthiness.

    Would interpretation work better in this case? Neither you nor the authors you have referenced are witnesses of the history being deconstructed and given philosophical meaning to. Even if you were witnesses to these events your interpretation of those events would still be limited and subjective, unless you are claiming that your interpretation of past and present historical phenomena is infallible.

    Regarding “subjectivism” I wasn’t suggesting that truth is subjective. I’m not a relativist. I am suggesting that our perception (ability to see & understand) that truth is subjective as limited human beings. If the Christian faith is apocalyptic (revealed), what I’m suggesting shouldn’t be that controversial.

    Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank have both argued that a Christian understanding of the church cannot lead to a support of modern liberal democratic principles without compromise. That you sing a similar note is clear. My original comment is that perhaps they are wrong in the conclusions they draw about modernity, and by proxy you as well.

    Is there another lens for us as modern people to view modernity that is less critical, but also honest about its deficiencies?

    Thanks for your thoughtful responses as always Father. Blessings.

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Since nobody that I know debates the events of 17th century England, or 14th century Europe, or any of the other historical events that I’ve mentioned, or commonly mention, then it’s beside the point to suggest that one actually had to be alive at the time to be a “witness” to the events. The witnesses are pretty much all in agreement.

    As to interpretation – I’m not even sure there’s really a debate to be had on the interpretation. That thus-and-such gave rise to the ideas of secularism is pretty much an agreed point, even by modernists. Or such things are modern individualism, etc. Where the differences come would be not in interpretation but evaluation. What value do you give these agreed-upon events, currents, and historical forces?

    Modernity’s defenders are pretty much married to some version of progress as the controlling narrative of history. The critics do not. If you’re reading stuff, I strongly recommend the McCarraher book, The Enchantment of Mammon. Very detailed material.

    I’m sure there’s lots of defenders of modernity – it’s a speciality in Liberal Protestantism (’cause they sort of have to defend it). In my own life at one point, all I had been exposed to were either Liberal Protestant thinkers, for whom Modernity was simply a given, or rather Fundamentalist Protestants (the real thing) for whom historical arguments weren’t much of a concern – it was “all in the Bible.”

    When I studied under Hauerwas, it was an introduction to a critique I had not heard – but seems inevitable if you hold to the Christian faith in its traditional form (as, say, Orthodoxy). Modern assumptions about the nature of the human person, for example, seem incompatible with the teachings of the faith (and, despite being “modern,” have nothing to do with science or technology). So, it seemed then and now, that if you are a seriously committed traditional Christian, then some kind of critique of modernity (as I have used the term) is inevitable and necessary.

    I differ from Hauerwas on a number of points and from others among those I’ve cited. It’s actually a broad conversation.

    So, in answer to your question, I’m not a clearing house of who’s written what viz. modernity. I don’t know if there are more “moderate” voices or not. There probably are.

    Am I wrong in the conclusions I draw about modernity? That’s not really a historical question. Am I wrong about modernity’s radical individualism? Are human beings actually more of a “communion?” There’s an Orthodox answer to that. Is “progress” an incorrect metaphor for describing historical forces? I cannot see how it is anything other than pure fiction. It’s just Star Trek. Human life is pretty much the same whether you have computers or iphones, or not. In the end, we all just as dead as a caveman. Ain’t no progress in death.

    I could go on. But you’re asking questions with very broad parameters which avoids actually saying anything at all. Are you saying that I’m wrong about the progress narrative? That can be discussed. Am I wrong about secularism (that nature does not exist apart from God?), that can be discussed. Am I wrong about radical individualism, i.e. that we do not create ourselves as persons? That can be discussed. Those things actually seem pretty obvious to me both as critiques and in their truth (as a believing Christian).

    Please note, I do not include within “modernity” the existence of technology nor its “improvement” over time. I do not include medicine and such as “modern.” Those things long predated modernity. Modernity is a set of contemporary ideas that tend to be widely accepted, particularly by the major makers of popular culture.

    Hope you find some useful things to read in the vein you’ve described.

    I’ll add a short “footnote” that you might find of interest. One side-effect for me of reading in depth on the 14th and 17th centuries, has been a greatly deepened appreciation for the struggles of those times. The depth of corruption in society, as well as the corruption with the Church (of various sorts) makes the various reactions quite understandable. Frankly, I’ve come to see some of the reasoning behind the notion of royalty (as it was practiced) to be pretty much as bad as racism and as inevitable in its failure (thank God). I am not a medievalist, a Byzantinist, a Holy Mother Russia devotee, or any such thing. I live squarely in the modern world and believe it’s where I was always meant to live. My critique is aimed towards deficiencies – and in correcting them we would not be trying to turn back the clock. If you’ve heard me as advocating some return to an earlier time, then, I think you’ve misheard me. My concern for Orthodoxy in the modern period, is that we not lose our integrity to narratives that are inimical to the faith. The Middle Ages, Byzantium, Holy Russia, etc., also had plenty of aspects that were contrary to the faith (and should be critiqued). Hope that helps.

  26. Matthew Porter-Valbracht Avatar
    Matthew Porter-Valbracht

    Perhaps, Father, the real meaning of this need to resist “modernity” is that “modernity” is simply the form “the world”, against with Christians have always had to struggle, has taken in this time in which we live?

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, good insight. I think “the world” is now obsessed with what is correct and what is fair. What is good is of no concern. Therefore, repentance, the acknowledgement of lack of goodness, cannot be considered because that means I have not been correct. Therefore I am a liar.

    Thus Arthur Miller in his play, “The Crucible” has the character in charge of the witch hunt say repeatedly: “God damns liars.” It is the only justification he needs.
    One of the characters, Giles Corey, taken from the actual documents of the trials is pressed with heavy stones so that he will say or deny whether he is a witch. His only reply: “More weight”. Then he dies. Hos property cannot be taken. This he perserved what was good.

  28. Dino Avatar

    Matthew, Father, Michael,
    I was thinking along similar lines that there’s definite parallels between the term Modernity and the term Apostasy (as well as the term: ‘the World’). Chiefly because modernity is a worldly ‘package’ that wasn’t predicated upon some pagan background so much, as upon a very Christian one…
    [Its “antichrist–ian” undertones have a lot to do with its offering various “Christian” notions, albeit, bereft of the crucified and exalted Christ. And even its atheist voices were voices of baptised atheists. (‘Apostates’ rather than ‘Infidels’ in other words)]
    And this ‘Christianised’ antichristian argumentation is everywhere of late. E.g.: the Judas-like [John 12:5] manipulative weaponisation of ‘charity’, often used as an argument to convince Christians to do things the Modern world decides are virtuous (in its warped mind) and they might object to.

  29. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Not having the gift of discernment, it can be difficult to sort out the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.

    Opinions are held in high esteem these days, we’re all experts; well a lot of us think we are?

    Admitting that we don’t know as much as we think we do and trust are important elements in learning. It takes time and effort to get any sort understanding. Reading, reflecting, making the right connections, etc.

    If enough people are thinking and writing along the same lines, perhaps they have something valuable to say. Does what they say have any relevance to my lived experience?

    Regarding trust. John 1. 1-4. Do I believe and trust St. John’s witness? Is it reliable? Can I give myself to this? Is it just St. John’s opinion? Maybe he got it all wrong.

    We can end up going round and round with circular arguments, getting nowhere and contradicting everything.

    Can I trust what I read here on this blog? Evidently so, or I wouldn’t be commenting.

  30. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dino, Michael, Matthew,
    I would like to put the brakes on, if you don’t mind. I think it is useful to describe and understand the cultural currents of modernity. I think it becomes less than helpful if it becomes demonized. Matthew’s observation that we have always had to struggle against the “world” is a good reminder that there was always plenty of pressure to sin long before modernity evolved.

    My interest over the years in writing about the problems of modernity isn’t to fight a culture war (we’re going to lose that war for the most part). It’s a matter of discernment – to understand certain ideas that are so pervasive and that have a great tendency to corrupt our understanding of the faith. For example, Schmemann wrote of “secularism” as the “great heresy of our time.” But the antidote to that isn’t to fix the culture, but to live a sacramental life – to have our minds renewed (Romans 12). The antidote to modernity’s radical individualism is to live a life of communion with God and neighbor, to say with St. Silouan, “My brother is my life.” The antidote to the notion of progress is to contemplate all creation as the work and providence of God whose purpose is to gather together in one all things in Christ Jesus.

    It is true that the core ideas of modernity evolved especially in the “tsunami” of the past 400 years and came out of a Christian context. But it was a Christian context that was already highly damaged.

    Chesterton observed about modernity that it was not lacking in virtues, but was, instead the “virtues run wild.” The point of integration of the virtues is the authentic life in Christ. In truth, few people have seen examples of what that looks like (for various reasons). But the “antidote” to that is to live an authentic life in Christ. Whatever the problems of the world at present it is still the world that is governed by the providence of God. It is our “arena.”

    It is also the case that, though the virtues run wild in modernity, there are some within that mix who actually manage a form of goodness that sometimes puts Christians to shame.

    “Do not be overcome with evil but overcome evil by doing good,” St. Paul counsels. It’s such a good word.

    As an afterthought: I’ve not seen much response on the image of a tsunami (which was the core of the article). The last thing any of us does with a tsunami is blame its victims. If the virtues have run wild, then its also the case that virtues have not disappeared. I had hoped that using this image might explain some things, but also nurture a merciful understanding. This cultural tsunami is not the result of human willing. People are no worse than they’ve ever been, and are sometimes much better.

  31. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you for this gentle reminder, that not all the world “has gone to hell in a handbag.” Much in our culture is still good. As has been noted, human life began in a garden but will end in a city. Years ago I was listening to a missionary who had long labored in Indonesia. He mentioned that one of the most gentle and kind souls he ever met was a Moslem lady. His grace is still available throughout the world to hungering hearts, “The true light that enlightens every man….” John chap.1.

  32. Kenneth Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for this post and for all your helpful comments. Regarding a “culture war”, can you help clarify exactly why this is a misguided approach? Is it an example of trying to “control the outcome of history”, or our actions not following the way of the cross?

  33. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I was trying to say much as St. Paul and you said. Do good, be good do not “fight” to overcome the darkness. The Sacramental life requires a focus on the good. Goodness is the brake. Goodness, by God’s Grace is what allows us to be in the world, not of it.

  34. Kathleen Hughes Avatar
    Kathleen Hughes


    I love what you said! Thank you!

  35. Christian Shaun Hollums Avatar
    Christian Shaun Hollums

    Father et al,

    Thanks as always for your thoughtful responses. As I mentioned I’ve always enjoyed reading your work, as well as the few conversations we have had on Facebook in private. I have a deep respect for all that you have written. It seems to me, and perhaps I’m in error, being an Orthodox Christian hinge on sharing this interpretation of the past and the present. When I read you, I get the feeling one cannot ascribe to any aspect of liberalism or modernity in a broader sense and still be Christian.

    This leads me to a question, and it’s a big question, perhaps better discussed elsewhere; can one practice Orthodox Christianity faithfully, and come to a different conclusion about the present world we live in? Are there other Orthodox Christians who have come to different conclusions about modernity than you have, who are still faithful to the basic principles of the faith?

    Said differently, can I believe that Jesus Christ is fully divine and fully human while also valuing democratic liberal principles? How much diversity can exist among those who share a common dogmatic tradition?

    Thanks as always for your time Father. Blessings!

  36. Salaam Avatar

    Father, having read your book Everywhere Present: Christianity and a One Storey Universe, and your blog for at least 15 years now, I think your Orthodox critique of modernity, the critique’s purpose and scope, is quite clear. I think all your regular reader family would say the same! Your comments above have also nicely summarised your message.

    Modernity is a major heresy, temptation, false teaching, obstacle, etc. of our present time. For the Orthodox Christian, heresy, temptation, obstacle, false teaching, sin, etc have been present in various forms since Adam, so in that sense the present age is no better or worse than the ages before or to come.

    Sometimes in the thralls of the critique some of us describe the current age as worse, so to speak, than some other age. This I think is just an exaggeration device? to counter modernity’s claims of being better than any other age, and to counter the theory of progress. That’s all. Many in the Church have at various points in history have used the same device, so to speak, to emphasize the need for vigilance and repentance today.

  37. Bill Atkin Avatar
    Bill Atkin

    If God is Lord of the tsunami, then why are so many people drowning? Why would you need an ark in the first place?

  38. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In short, the answer is “Yes.” There are Orthodox Christians who value, quite strongly, democratic liberal principles. There are things (such as this) that are part of a conversation, and, at times, an argument within Orthodoxy. That, too, is permitted. So, I hope that is useful to know.

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s a metaphor. And, like all metaphors, it has limits as a description. I meant (and did) describe the present world and its circumstances as something like a “tsunami” in contrast to something like a chain of ideas. It’s messy. Into this mess, comes floating the Orthodox Church, which has floated up at a different time. It’s not the only thing that floats. By “drowning,” I would suppose one would mean being overwhelmed by the historical contradictions and confusion that constitute modern culture. I do not assume that such drowning constitutes a loss of salvation or any such thing. How God saves each of us is not something that can be described in a simple manner.

    The Church as “Ark” is an ancient metaphor. I think that it doesn’t make us immune to the “waters” of the present time, but provides as possible place in the dry and a place of safety.

    But, it’s a metaphor. I would say that God is the “Lord of the tsunami” because I think it’s absurd to posit that there is anything of which He is not “Lord.” But that’s also a very long and ancient conversation. Cf. the book of Job.

  40. Salaam Avatar


    Father Stephen has written many articles around the topic of democracy. I recommend them. This article (https://glory2godforallthings.com/2016/05/27/democracy-kingdom-god/) is a good start.

    Note that the focus is on such things as the idolizing or worship of democracy and the ideological baggage that comes with democracy as we know it today. It’s not democracy itself. After all, we used to elect our bishops.

  41. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman
  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    An additional thought: The vast majority of Orthodox Christians will not think on these topics much at all, and, of course, it is not necessary that they do so. What matters in the Orthodox life is that we remember God in all things, live the sacramental life, keep the commandments as well as we can, and give thanks. Theories of history and such are only of interest for someone who has that question, but there’s nothing in the spiritual life that requires it. A large part of my work is guided by this quote from Fr. Georges Florovsky:

    A historiosophical exegesis of the western religious tragedy must become the new “polemical theology.” But this tragedy must be re-endured and relived, precisely as one’s own, and its potential catharsis must be demonstrated in the fulness of the experience of the Church and patristic tradition.

    In that light, I would describe what I’ve sought to do in my writing on this topic as a “historiosophical exegesis of the western religious tragedy.” But, more importantly (and this cannot be put on paper), has been to “re-endure and relive” that tragedy as my own – that is – to bring the whole of my religious experience into the light of Orthodoxy and think on it, in the manner of “theoria.” I think it is this that is helpful to many as they seek to make sense of their own experience.

  43. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    The historical aspect, although not essential, does fill in some gaps. I was taught philosophy from an historical perspective; these philosophers, from the ancient Greeks, to these days are the thinkers and ideas that have shaped the Western world. Also Church(RC) history was taught from the same perspective. But strangely enough the Great schism wasn’t touched. We went from the early Church straight to the Reformation and then modern Church history. In the West the great schism is of little interest, but the Reformation seems to be of greater interest and cause for concern. Orthodoxy it would seem is irrelevant.

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Or just under the radar…

  45. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Maybe so, Father, but I think something as important as the Great Schism and basically one thousand years of Church history not being taught in an academic context speaks volumes. And anything in theology, the Filioque for example coming under Cardinal Newman’s development of doctrine to justify many changes in doctrine. But that is just one setting in the UK.

    One priests that taught me was a friend of Ephrem Lash at that time, so Orthodoxy wasn’t completely under the radar.

  46. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Mistake; five hundred years and not a thousand.

  47. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    No another mistake, it is a thousand years.

  48. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m being kind and gentle. The West’s willful ignorance of the East has a much darker interpretation that is likely true on some level. I honestly think that many in the West just thought it was something that would wither up and go away. By the same token, few, even in the East, know much about Ethiopian Orthodoxy. Sometimes, it’s just “out of sight, out of mind.”

    It’s why I mentioned in the article the fortuitous (providential) arrival of certain Orthodox voices in the West during the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. They raised the self-consciousness of Orthodox (that had almost fallen asleep) as well as an awareness within the West of our reality and our importance. I wouldn’t be Orthodox today without those voices.

  49. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Thank you Father Stephen. I’m not really sure about motives myself, but some do seem a bit suspicious.

    I don’t a lot about Ethiopian Orthodoxy either, but did have the opportunity to be at their liturgy with them in Addis Abba, in 2007. Their year 2000.

  50. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    We have some Ethiopian Orthodox who read the blog, as well as many Coptic Orthodox. But, I know that I have a lot of ignorance viz. the Ethiopian Church.

  51. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Now, Fr. Stephen I’ll show my ignorance of Ethiopian Christianity. In the West Ethiopian Christians were known as Coptic, as were Egyptians. But in our more politically correct times, in the UK, the Copts were now to be referred to as Orthodox. Monophysite was also to be done away with in RC circles.

  52. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The most common term these days is “Oriental Orthodox” that includes all of those in communion with one another that did not accept the Chalcedonian formula. There have been very fruitful and harmonious discussions between Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox – such that there is a more or less mutual agreement that we “intend” the same thing by the different language we use.

    When I was first ordained as an Orthodox priest, the direction from my Bishop (Dmitri of Dallas) was that Oriental Orthodox laity who came to my church (there were very few Coptic Churches in the US at the time) and wanted to receive communion were to be confessed and given communion. He said, “And when you hear their confessions, don’t bring up Monophysitism. They won’t know what you’re talking about.” The common Orthodox directive for receiving them into union with the Eastern Church is that they are to be received by confession only (no Chrismation, etc.). Thus, there’s a recognition that they are not at all far removed. Unfortunately, the internet being what it is and nurturing tribalism, I’ve seen some websites in which young Copts are really pushing Monophysitism and virtually recreating a problem that was on the way to disappearing.

    I am, from time to time, invited to speak to Oriental Orthodox conferences. I always enjoy those opportunities. In those experiences, the “audience” seems quite Orthodox.

  53. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Thank you Fr, Stephen, for your clarification; it’s good to know. It was some years ago when we were told about the terms that I mentioned and wasn’t very clear, thus my mentioning political correctness; that’s how it came across.

  54. Christian Shaun Hollums Avatar
    Christian Shaun Hollums


    I think many of the questions you pose are unavoidable, and understandable. In some of the comment’s it’s been said “modernity is a heresy”.

    To my original comment, I think your conclusions about modernity are a bit overstated, repetitive, and easily lead your readers to conclude modernity is a heresy in a generalized way. I think in some ways they have been conflated with a way of being and or practicing the Orthodox Christian Faith.

    I personally believe the principle of theosis leads to a vision of society in which the church and state are separated, and that the state is structured to protect human rights, which would even include religious pluralism. One could call it a theocratic liberalism.

    In the end, theosis cannot be enforced or imposed but must be freely realized, which translates to protection of freedom to reject particular beliefs, even belief in God. After all this type of libertarian freedom was given in the garden, even if perhaps libertarian freedom is not perfect freedom.


  55. Christian Shaun Hollums Avatar
    Christian Shaun Hollums


    One more thought. While I do think the Orthodox Church can and must accept what is true and good of democratic liberalism, it must reject the secular commitments to mangodhood and its attempt to build heaven on earth without reference to the divine. Which you have rightly spoken out against at great length.

    The challenge of the church in my mind is to establish the foundation of an authentic Christian “community”, so that secular forms no longer have a monopoly on community in order to break the misconception that religions is identical to political indifference or reaction.

    In my limited experience with the Church, I have not felt or experienced a deep or meaningful community that in any way resembles the deepest friendships I’ve had in my life.

  56. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Christian, as regards ‘progress’ it has long and widely been criticized by western philophers and historians. The list is long. I will mention just three Henry Adams, Karl Popper and J. B Bury.
    The ground for the critique is different but one word is frequently used is ‘myth’.

    As to community in the Orthodox Church: it actually exists at a very deep and abiding level that most people, including me, usually miss.
    https://orthochristian.com/92315.html gives a description of the nature of that community.

    Our community is not a community of affinity as usually thought of, yet those who are willing to make the great effort to go more deeply into the heart find it even though it seems invisible sometimes.
    It is a journey of struggle, hope, repentance and thanksgiving.
    Interestingly the largest part of our community is often thought of as ‘dead’. Yet they are still here. Not all are saints.

  57. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Strangely, I’ve never said a single thing about how the state should be structured. I suspect that you read things into my work that are not there. There are specific ideas in modernity that are heretical, and I’ve been careful to discuss what they are and why. I’ve certainly never even remotely suggested something like a forced theosis, nor have I suggested limitations on religious freedom. But, I’ll leave you to make your judgements.

  58. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I have never suggested that the Church should build anything, much less any projects about how we might partner with the world, or best shape ourselves to be of use to the world. I think they are the wrong questions. I think the Church should be the Church. We fail at that constantly. Again, I think I’ve become a straw man in your thoughts. I’m sorry that is the case. It would, perhaps, be of more use if you have a conversation about specific things and statements rather than generalizing about what you think I’m saying. What I hear in your critique as that you are somewhat married with the myths of the modern project and are judging my worked from the basis of civil and political theory – how to have the best society with a useful Church.

    It was not, you should note, that described secularism as a heresy – that’s Fr. Alexander Schmemann. I think there’s lots of things that flow from his teaching on that.

    The fact is we live in a culture that is formed and shaped by a secularized version of liberal protestantism. I can’t think of a single historian who would argue this is not a fact. That Orthodoxy would have a sharp critique of that is to be expected. That Orthodoxy should find a way to get comfortable with that is – I think – a mistake.

    God back and read For the Life of the World. First – it’s not my work (it’s much better) – but it also is an important framework that I presume when I write anything.

  59. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “What is true and good of democratic liberalism.” The few things that I would number in that category were taught by Orthodox theology long before modernity ever came into existence. As for the present world order of “democratic liberalism” – that’s largely a fantasy. We are run by corporate interests who allow a Potemkin Village of democracy to cover their existence. The level of corruption involved in almost all of our public life is about as bad as it has ever been in human history – but it’s well-disguised, packaged for public consumption, etc. My writing, when it relates to this public life at all, has been to call for Orthodox Christians to not be conformed to this world (and its self-promoting fantasies) but to be conformed to the image of Christ. I think we do that badly, and, for the most part, actually live in the manner you are describing – as mostly democratic liberalism in our thoughts, complete with a sort of bourgeoise suburban mindset, trying to live some form of an Orthodox life. Many of the questions that I raise are the sorts of things that the average American Orthodox Christian didn’t even know could be asked.

    As to your own friendships – that’s such a complex matter with nothing anyone outside of your own self could begin to speculate on. I suspect that everyone you meet in an Orthodox Church is enduring a difficult struggle of their own. That has been my experience. I began writing this blog back in 2006 in order to share what seemed to be of use and helpful within my parish life and ministry. In the end, God will judge it (for which I give thanks).

  60. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Christian, (I continue)
    It is important to note that I have never suggested that history should have gone in some direction other than it has. That’s the kind of thought that someone could impute to me that is actually quite foreign to me. “Modernity” is what it is – history unfolds and is ultimately in the hands of God and the work of His providence. But the “modern project” is clearly just that. It is an ad campaign. It is “modern” historians who invented the word “modern” and “modernity” to describe our period (it’s original meaning was never anything than the “period right now”). They also invented the terms “middle ages,” “dark ages,” “prehistoric,” etc.,very much with an idea to casting history into the myth of progress. Everything that was is only a prelude to the wonders of modernity and we alone understand all things.

    Self-examination is an inherent part of the Christian life. If we do not critically examine the times we live in, and the massive propaganda that permeates our every waking hour, in the light of Christ – then how are we not failing to rightly know ourselves – and to know God?

    But, finally, please – when you critique what I write – be sure I’ve actually said what you think I’ve said. I’m glad to be shown where I’ve gone off the mark – are the characteristics of radical individualism, secularism (we’re independent of God), history-as-progress, etc. (the actual details I’ve most often identified) incorrectly described and identified? Is the critique of them theological flawed?

    Please note, there’s not a single political party that I know of that is alligned with the critique that I’ve offered. There’s no subtle political message in any of it (other than that voting might not be all that it’s cracked up to be).

  61. Kenneth Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, we are so steeped in the worldview of modernism that we desperately need to hear your critique, and we need to hear it many times and in many ways to really get it. I am deeply grateful for your teaching, spiritual advice, and patience with all of us. Glory to God for all things.

  62. Steve Gage Avatar
    Steve Gage

    I 100% agree with what you just said there.

  63. hélène Avatar

    Yes, thank you Kenneth, it is very good to “hear” your words…

  64. Christian Shaun Hollums Avatar
    Christian Shaun Hollums


    My initial comment wasn’t a critique, but a question, followed by more questions. I’m not sure what critique you are referring to; can you expound? I’ve tried to be very careful with my comments. Perhaps the word “entirety” in my initial comment was an exaggeration; please forgive me. However, I believe you have 360 blog posts tagged with the term “modernity”. So, it’s a topic you have spoken at length on, and it seems to be of significance to you.

    Albert Einstein was once asked why he offered the same exam to his students two years in a row, to which he replied, “the answers have changed”. What was true for 1942 was no longer true for 1943.

    What if the answers have changed, and your reading of historical phenomenon is a bit simplistic?

    Your response thus far has been that the majority of religious scholarship affirms your interpretation of history. I value their contribution, but when it comes to high performance thinking the majority is almost always wrong. So just because the majority agree with you, doesn’t mean you’re right. Approximately 3% of people are inclined to do something different, and 97% of people prefer to live on auto pilot.

    Since you do feel as if I critiqued you, I would like to try and offer a clearer critique of your work.

    Words like “modern project” are vague and ambiguous. I’ve read your blogs, published book, and listened to hours of video clips from you. I do not think that your writing represents a specific political party, and I’ve not made any such claim in any of my comments. I’ve also stated in a previous comment I think you are correct in criticizing the secular myth of progress.

    What is confusing for me specifically is what ideas / present traditions fall under the banner of “modern project”?

    Is it Church and State separation?
    Democratic liberalism?
    Religious Pluralism?
    Human rights?

    If you are critiquing these forms, what is the alternative?
    Do you believe these traditions require one believe in the “myth of progress”?
    Can has the Orthodox tradition engaged with these current political/ethical/economic traditions in a way that allows those traditions to coexist?

    Thanks as always for your time and response. Forgive me if I have sinned against you.

  65. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The bulk of my critique of modernity has been not about the culture/state or how to change them (in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever suggested any changes). I’m not doing a civics class nor offering a philosophy of civil theory. Instead, the critique is about certain dominant ideas and how they influence our spiritual perception of ourselves, of God, and the world. So, the state/culture could be arranged any way it wants to be and there would still be something to observe and critique. If we lived in 14th century France or England, there would be many, many things to critique as well that color and shape our perception of God, the world, and ourselves that distort the Christian mind and would be useful to understand and consider.

    Thus, I’m not critiquing any forms. I’m critique ideas (and I’ve repeatedly said this in my articles that modernity (the modern project) is a set of ideas. It is possibly true that the forms of the present structure is the best there have ever been, or just the best we can do. That still doesn’t mean that there are not things to be discerned and critiqued viz. the Orthodox mind.

    I think that part of your difficulty in understanding my work is to assume I’m suggesting that our forms are wrong and should be changed in some Orthodox direction. But, you’ll not find that in my writings because I’m not saying that at all.

    An example: Democracy. I have not critiqued democracy, but, instead, written about the “sin of democracy.” This is not to say that a democratic form of government is a “sin” and, therefore, we need a different form of government. That original article, and others that I have written about democracy, have identified a false mindset that fails to understand and honor “hierarchy” as an inherent part of creation and of the nature of our relationship with God. I then look at how that failure tends to color how we see the world, ourselves, God, the angels, etc. As far as governments go, ours is probably about as decent as any other – though it’s certainly not what it claims to be. One reason for this, I suspect, is that the world is inherently hierarchical and we create invisible hierarchies and cover them up with a great deal of false and misleading rhetoric about democracy. For example, with only the most recent addition to the Supreme Court, every sitting member of that body was educated at Harvard or Yale. Why? America has an elite – but if you talk about the elite – you’re likely to be labeled as a right-wing extremist. We use the language of democracy, most often, as a smokescreen. But, if democracy isn’t what we really have (yes, I know we’re a “republic”) wouldn’t it be more useful if we called things by their real names and held them accountable for what they are?

    All of the things you cited: religious separation, democratic liberalism, religious pluralism, human rights, capitalism, are, in many ways, a sham. They are ideals to be discussed in a classroom but mostly just smokescreens for other things. Perhaps they are useful ideals and can themselves be used to critique the present distortions. I’m fine with that. I haven’t suggested changes in forms. I have, instead, sought to uncover how we think and why and examined that in the light of Orthodox teaching and thought.

    Since I’m not suggesting (and never have) a change in forms – it goes without saying that Orthodox tradition has to co-exist with these forms.

    What you seem to be thinking is that my writings have been political in nature, or suggesting am “Orthodox project” to rival the “Modern Project.” If there is an Orthodox project, it is simply to be the Orthodox Church with Orthodox parishes living the Orthodox life. Looking carefully at the world with which we co-exist (at this time) is thus a necessary part of staying Orthodox and healthy.

    If I seem to be cantankerous about this it is partly because repeatedly in these writings on modernity I have been careful to state that I’m not doing politics, not suggesting political reforms, etc. What is the alternative? – it’s in our mind and in our perception so that we can begin to discern the Kingdom of God and understand the world from the perspective of the Kingdom of God. That, no matter the times or the forms, will always take the form of a critique – because the world is not the Kingdom of God and we’re not progressing towards the Kingdom of God (it doesn’t work that way), just as we are not “progressing” towards the resurrection of the dead.

    I hope that is helpful. By the way, “The Modern Project,” is a term so common in the academic world that it has its own wikipedia page. I use the term in pretty much the same way as it is described there – writing in what is the common vernacular of that conversation. Thus, it’s not “my opinion” that there is a “modern project” that has certain features – it’s just a commonly accepted and discussed idea. At most, I’m making a contribution from an Orthodox perspective. I haven’t cited this majority conversation to say my perceptions are correct – only that I didn’t make the topic up as something unique to myself. There’s a huge literature on the topic from all kinds of perspectives. Many of them are political, some are religious. What I have offered is simply an Orthodox take on the topic – in ways that I have found helpful and offered to others in case they might find it helpful as well.

    I don’t think that all of our current traditions (such as liberal democracy, capitalism) require the myth of progress. It’s simply that the myth of progress permeates the modern project (usually without resistance). I would say, if I had to do so, that the notion of progress and the notion of secularism (that anything exists on its own and apart from God) are the two key pieces of modernity to be critiqued and deconstructed from an Orthodox perspective, followed closely by radical individualism. Indeed, I think that in my writings, those three are by far the most common targets.

  66. Byron Avatar

    Is it Church and State separation?
    Democratic liberalism?
    Religious Pluralism?
    Human rights?

    Christian, these are all political distinctions and categories. Father has spoken in the past of how the Modern Project is a set of assumptions that are considered irrevocably true and beyond critique (by many). They frame and guide the conversations of the times more than they are the actual subject of them. The Modern Project is about how you think about and view the world moreso than of what you speak.

  67. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    On your specific question: I think Church and State separation is a good idea – as my late Archbishop once said on the topic, “We’ve never really seen a State Church work out well.” It is also not an idea that makes any sense in a society that is pluralistic.

    Democratic Liberalism? It is what it is. When it works it can be pretty benign. It’s not really an idea that works well over the long haul – it’s not working in America very well and we’ve had the longest use of it in the world. What would help it? I don’t know.

    Religious Pluralism – it is simply a demographic fact that will likely never change.

    Human Rights – I think Orthodox theology would rather speak about “human dignity” – the language of “rights” is somewhat problematic – but it’s something we can work with. We should recognize, however, the “rights” is an abstraction and has come to mean whatever the powers-that-be say it is. Like the right to kill a baby in the womb. Or the right to die, etc. The language of “rights” is used to obscure what is really taking place. So, it can be worked with, but it’s not the natural language of Chritian moral theology.

    Capitalism? – cf. Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, etc. It’s a way to structure an economy but Christians should be governed by the commandments regarding their wealth and not base their life-decisions on a modern economic theory. It is wrong to oppress the poor and “market forces” is not an excuse. But, that doesn’t mean we have to advocate for a different system. It means that Christians (Orthodox Christians) should use their money in an Orthodox Christian manner no matter what the economic system is they live in.

    My general imagination is to picture the Church living in a world that is not of their making (whether Roman Empire, Medieval Europe, Modern China, Holy Mother Russia, Byzantium, Modern Liberal Democracies) and to ask the question, “How do I live an authentic Christian life in such a world?” I do not think that we have been tasked with forming and shaping the world. I do not think that those are our legitimate questions.

    That last assertion is probably where I part ways with a lot of theologians, including any number of Orthodox ones. They think (and this is largely a modern idea) that we are tasked with making the world a better place, and argue and discuss, and try to find a seat at the world’s discussion table. I do not think Jesus handed us over to such wolves. Instead, He gave us the Church. That seems to be the only “Project” that He had. He certainly doesn’t seem to have done anything else. The Church, I believe, is God’s project for the salvation of the world. The world is messed up and will always be messed up no matter how it describes itself or what games it engages in in the process. But, as Christians, we are free. The gospel we practice in the Church and as the Church in the world do not depend in any way on the structures around us. Doing “Church” can get us killed from time to time. But that is what we have been asked to do by God.

    Again, I hope this is helpful. I think that I have failed to make this clear.

  68. Byron Avatar

    Woop! My comment popped up at the same time as Father’s! Please forgive me for stepping on your toes, Father….

  69. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    As to only asking questions and not a critique, when you ask:

    “However, it seems the entirety of your life’s work hinges on a particular reading of history, religion and philosophy. Brad Gregory comes to mind. What if your perspective is wrong though?”

    It comes off as a critique – perhaps a bit passive-agressive, but a critique. It suggests: “The entirety of your life’s work might be based on a false perspective.”

    So what does someone answer to that: “Oh my goodness! Nevermind, everyone.”

    I was about 60 years old when I started writing on this topic – already some 15 years after my entrance into the Orthodox Church. It included more than a little doctoral-level work under one of the major theologians who writes on the topic. So, it’s not something I took up lightly. You did not ask, “What if I (yourself) have not understood what you’re trying to get at? What if all my reading of this has failed to grasp what you’ve said repeatedly?” As such, my reaction is, I suppose, one of exasperation. Really, “my entire life’s work?” Please read my responses carefully and see if the explanations given in them differ from what you thought/think I’ve been doing. If not, then I don’t think there is anything more I could say to make it more clear.

    And, I do forgive anything that has been a sin against me – or just exasperated me (which is more like it). Please forgive my exasperation and any way it has colored my responses.

    Lastly, I suppose my work can be taken as a “prophetic voice” viz. the Church at this time and in this culture. If it is a false call to “be the Church” and not simply be a participant in Liberal Democracy and the Modern Project, then God will be my judge. St. Francis was asked, “What if the Pope refuses to recognize your new Franciscan order?” He replied, “I’d forget about it and move on.” (or words to that effect). If I’m wrong in what I’ve written, and judged to be so by God, then it’ll just take its place alongside my many other sins. But you can only speak what has been given to you. It’s also a reason why I write with the blessing of my Archbishop. If I’m wrong, then I await correction. It’s the only way I’ve ever written. And, I do get corrected now and again (by other priests as well). When it happens, I make changes.

  70. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Well, your answer helped reassure me that what I’ve written has been understood – by some.

  71. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Fr. Stephen’s “life’s work” from my perspective is simply being an Orthodox pastor and priest. That simple and that complex. If you think he is wrong in his critique then I suggest you have no idea of the balance and sobriety with which he approaches the topic: calling people to repentance within the historic practice and theology of the 2000 year tradition (enlivened by the Holy Spirit) of the Orthodox Church.
    Frankly, I think you have abused our host. The fact that he replies to you in such a mild, measured manner is proof how far off the mark you are.

    God forgive me a sinner.

  72. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In Christian’s defense – I’ve been impressed by how measured he is in his questioning. You should see some of the stuff that never makes it past moderation! I’ve also had a couple of emails (off blog) who have said that they found this conversation to be helpful.

    I can be frustrated sometimes – and defensive – which is my own sin (and pride). So, it’s good for me to be publicly examined from time to time. I think Christian’s doing a good job – even if I get a bit exasperated. 🙂

  73. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I am glad for that, but I went through so much similar stuff in the years leading up to finding the Church and since(a period of 73 years), I do not have much patience for it no matter how well it is done, and you are right, Christian does it well. I have seen the damage it does too.

  74. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Well, I think his questions are honest questions and not just taking pot-shots. So, there’s probably others with similar questions. In many ways, the questions are obvious – in that we are all deeply enmeshed in the inherently political nature of modernity that it’s hard not to hear it even when it’s being denied.

  75. Kenneth Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I have a question for clarification. I’m trying to connect the dots for how secularism might lead to a belief in progress. I can see how secularism leads to a management mindset, because if God is absent then we imagine that we’re in charge of making history come out right. I also can see how combining this with a belief in progress would make modernity seem in some sense “salvific,” as if we will be “saved” through progress. Hence it becomes something we “believe in” like a religious belief. However, I’m less clear why we would be so certain that we’re doing a good job with management that things are ultimately getting better. What do you think is the main reason that connects secularism to a belief in progress?

  76. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There is not a direct connection, necessarily, between secularism and progress. Modernity, if you will, sort of brought them together. Progress, as a notion, largely got its beginnings as a secularized version of Christian Apocalypticism (expectation of the coming Kingdom of God). There was a lot of that sort of thing in the 17th century (like the 5th Monarchists I mentioned in the article). But as such expectations begin to be secularized it’s just a small leap from such an expectation to “and we have to make it happen.” The amazing powers revealed in the engines of the Industrial Revolution, that began to really be manifest in the 18th century, sort of gave energy to the notion that such amazing things (cheaper and cheaper goods, etc.) would somehow change the world.

    It did change the world and made many people rich. It also made many people poor. It also overplayed its hand in the environment, etc. The problem with progress as a notion is that the world does not become a better world just because it’s richer. It would be better if people were better – and, as we well know, wealth does not make people better. It just makes them wealthier.

    I think the most dramatic presentation of the myths of modernity are clearly displayed in the narrative of the Star Trek series and movies. They are, in many ways, a world predicted by the myths of modernity. It also just make-believe. But it’s a story we like to tell ourselves.

    Stanley Hauerwas once said, “Modernity is the story we tell ourselves when we tell ourselves we have no story.”

    That’s secularism (we make up our own story). Progress is a way that makes that made-up story sound like it’s going somewhere – and it’s not. It’s the wrong story. The story of Christ and the Cross is the story of the people of God – and – ultimately – the story of the whole universe. That is the gospel.

  77. Kenneth Avatar

    Thank you, that is exceedingly helpful! By the way, understanding these ideas better in recent days has been very “freeing” for me. There were so many things on my worry list that did not need to be there. Instead I can focus on my own heart, learning how to trust God and live “smaller” as a real human, which is where my attention was needed in the first place. I am very grateful!

  78. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes! That is ever so much more the point.

  79. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Indeed Father,
    I too get what you’re saying. Furthermore, I sincerely appreciate the hammering into my head too. And for that, I sincerely thank Christian for the exasperation that he has caused and the detailed answers he drew from you. It helps me to unfetter my mind and heart. I ‘ve been very edified and unfortunately for you, Father, I can’t get enough of your words on this topic.

  80. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Michael,
    I also see a bit of abuse too and it did make me feel uncomfortable, also. I usually come out of my hole with both pistols blazing when this happens to Fr Stephen. I’ve been cited for being over-protective by one of my confessors. But I’m trying to be more sober myself in my comments. But as I know you know, I’m not very good at it!

  81. Christian Shaun Hollums Avatar
    Christian Shaun Hollums

    Michael & Dee,

    Abuse is a very strong word and I’m not following how I’ve abused anyone in my comments. Please forgive me if I’ve caused an offense.


    Thank you for the clarification. I do not think I’ve misunderstood your overall thinking about the “modern project”, even if it seems I have in my comments. Unfortunately, this is a pretty limited form of communication, so misunderstandings are a probability.

    With that said I disagree with you on a few points, but I also don’t think this is the best place to work out all those disagreements. It seems I’ve caused offense for several readers here, and I’m going to kindly bow out of the conversation.

    Thank you for taking the time to provide a detailed response to my questions. The dialogue has been very fruitful for me.


  82. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, I like your manner. You make me think.

  83. Kathleen Hughes Avatar
    Kathleen Hughes

    Michael Bauman,

    Thank you for the article about the Anti-Humans and the Re-Education Experiment. It put me in mind of Mother Alexandra (formerly Princess Ileana of Romania), who founded The Monastery of the Transfiguration in Elwood City, Pennsylvania. In her book, I Live Again, she described a chilling conversation she had with a woman who was one of the leading Russian communists who had come to Romania to try and transform it into a Godless society. I remember my stomach churning as I read it.

    Princess Ileana ached for her people and did all she could for them, but she still prayed for this woman and saw the humanity that was buried deep within her. Princess Ileana was eventually exiled from Romania. She ultimately made her way to America where she did a lot of speaking to make people aware of the situation in her country. When her children were grown, she became a nun and later founded the monastery.

    In late 1989, the dictator of Romania fell, and she was allowed to return to Romania as Mother Alexandra at the age of 80. She was met by throngs of cheering people everywhere she went. She departed this life the next year. Another story of great faith in the face of terrible circumstances. May her memory be eternal!

  84. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Kathleen, I am grateful you appreciate the story. Your recounting of Mother Alexandria’s life I had not read in awhile.
    The persecutors have gotten better. Only by God’s mercy will anyone survive.
    Fortunately, His mercy is not fragile and it is ubiquitous.

  85. Alan Avatar

    Thank you VERY much for sharing that story!

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