The Gospel of Progress – and the New Jerusalem

American fans of Monty Python will be familiar with the opening lines of William Blake’s poem, “Jerusalem” (and I apologize to my British readers for such an introduction). The poem was set to music in 1916 and became deeply popular in post-war Britain. The Labour Party adopted it as a theme for the election of 1946. It recalls the legend of Christ’s visit to England as a child (taken there by St. Joseph of Arimathea). Blake spins it out into a vision of the heaven to be built in the modern world:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountain green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

King George V is said to have preferred it as a national anthem over “God Save the King.” It is, indeed, used as an anthem in a number of contemporary settings.

It has to be heard and understood in the context of its times. It was first published in 1808. Blake, interestingly, was an outspoken supporter of the French Revolution and a critic of the many darker elements of the industrial revolution that was, as yet, in its early days. That struggle is something of a theme that has continued through to our present day.

Though we often welcome the innovation and conveniences brought by industrialization and technological advances, we also lament the frequent tragedies found in their wake. The present environmental movement seems torn between a green world of naturalism and a super-technological world in which the digital age marries convenience to a tiny carbon footprint. The jury is still out on this latter possibility.

In Blake’s time, industrialization was new and often had the effect of displacing traditional workers. As a child, he lived near the Albion Flour Mills in Southwark, the first major factory in London. The factory could produce 6,000 bushels of flour per week and drove many traditional millers out of business. When the factory burned down in 1791, the independent millers rejoiced. Some have suggested Albion Flour as the origin of Blake’s reference to “Dark Satanic Mills.”

At the very time that industrialization was bringing prosperity to some, it created new forms of poverty among the “unskilled” (or “wrongly skilled”) poor. We live with the same thing today. The abandoned factories of the Rust Belt, where poverty and drug-addiction have replaced a once thriving industrial world, point to how intractable this aspect of modernity has become. Two-hundred years after Blake, our Dark Satanic Mills are generally off-shore. Their Jerusalem, our Satanic Mills.

The tremendous success of industrialization (for some) also created a deep, abiding confidence in the power of science and the careful application of human planning. As problems increased, so, too, did various plans and efforts to manage them. There grew up, as well, a sort of modern, industrialized eschatology. The Christian faith believes in the coming Kingdom of God. Already, various reformers and off-shoots of the Puritans had imagined themselves to be creating an earthly paradise. Their utopian visions became powerful engines of change and revolution. As the heads rolled in Paris, the crowds imagined them to be harbingers of a new world. They were – but not paradise.

A name deeply associated with the Christian adoption of this progressive thought is Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918). An American Baptist who taught and pastored in New York, he put forward works that would become foundational for the notion of the “social gospel.” The 19th century had seen something of a collapse in classical Christian doctrine in many of the mainline churches of Protestantism. The historical underpinnings of those doctrines had faced increasing skepticism. Rauschenbusch was not immune to this. He dismissed the notion of Christ’s death as an atonement for sin, seeing in it, rather, an example of suffering love whose power was to be found in its ability to encourage people to act in the same way.

He described six sins which Jesus “bore” on the Cross:

Religious bigotry, the combination of graft and political power, the corruption of justice, the mob spirit and mob action, militarism, and class contempt – every student of history will recognize that these sum up constitutional forces in the Kingdom of Evil. Jesus bore these sins in no legal or artificial sense, but in their impact on his own body and soul. He had not contributed to them, as we have, and yet they were laid on him. They were not only the sins of Caiaphas, Pilate, or Judas, but the social sin of all mankind, to which all who ever lived have contributed, and under which all who ever lived have suffered.

These “powers of evil” were embodied in social institutions. The work of the Kingdom of God consisted in resisting these institutions and reforming society.

Liberal Christianity adopted Rauschenbusch’s vision in a wide variety of ways. That his vision was largely political should be noted. Interestingly, he saw the Church as a problematic institution and preferred to speak, instead, of the “Kingdom of God,” by which he meant the political project opposed to the six sins.

It is, of course, an interesting approach to the faith and has been a well-spring for many of the Christian social movements of the past century. It is also a jettisoning of the ontological and spiritual content of the faith traditionally associated with classical Christianity (such as Orthodoxy). It is also the form of Christianity favored by the cultural elite of our time. It needs none of the messiness of doctrine, only the clarity of moral teaching. Indeed, it would be possible to practice such a Christianity believing Jesus to be merely human.

Another aspect of the modern social gospel (endemic, I think, to its so-called “demythologized” approach to the Scriptures) is its adherence to Utilitarianism as a moral principle. That principle is a results-oriented philosophy, described best as a moral model in which all efforts are managed towards a desired end. It presumes the control of outcomes.

None of this needs a God, nor a Savior. As such, it is ideally suited to a secularized Christianity. In large part, it provides a Christian slogan for otherwise secular ends. In Rauschenbusch’s time, the place of the institutional Church was strong, almost unassailable. Over time, the secularization of the Church, married to his vision of the gospel, has resulted in the death of the very institutions that gave it birth.

The rhetoric of “building the Kingdom,” made popular by Rauschenbusch, is a deep distortion of the phrase, despite its best intentions. Christ is far more than a good man who set an example, and more than a victim of social wrong-doing. The Christian story is far richer. The nature of sin is death, not mere social oppression. Death reigns over us and holds us in bondage to its movement away from God. It certainly manifests itself in various forms of evil-doing. But it also has a cosmic sway in the movement of all things towards death, destruction, and decay. Our problem is not our morality: it is ontological, rooted in our alienation from being, truth, and beauty – from God Himself. Broken communion leads to death. Immorality, in all its forms, is but a symptom.

However, God, in His mercy, entered into the fullness of our condition, our humanity, taking our brokenness on Himself:

Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. Hebrew 2:14-15

This is not the language of Christ as exemplar – it is Christ as atoning and deifying God/Man and Savior. The Kingdom of God as improvement, regardless of how well intended and managed, is still nothing more than a world of the walking dead. The Kingdom of God, as preached by Christ, is nothing less than resurrection from the dead.

We have been nurtured in a couple of centuries of Utilitarian rhetoric and thought. Nothing seems more normal to us than setting goals, making plans, and achieving results. It is not surprising that we might imagine God working in a similar manner. This is not the case.

Consider the story of the Patriarch Joseph. Betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused by his master’s wife, thrown into prison, where he meets other prisoners and interprets dreams, thus coming to the attention of the Pharoah, whose dream he interprets and offers wise counsel, whereby he is made Regent over Egypt, saving his family from famine.

What people in their right mind would ever consider such a plan as a means to reach the goal of saving themselves from a famine they had no idea was coming? No one. Indeed, event after event in the story appear to be nothing but ongoing tragedies. Joseph himself would later say of these things: “You [my brothers] meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.”

That is the inscrutable nature of providence – as illustrated repeatedly in the Scriptures. The mystery of God’s providence, the working of the Kingdom of God in our midst, is inscrutable.

“He has exalted the humble and meek and the rich He has sent away empty.”

In these latter days, the masters of machines and money have imagined themselves to be “building the Kingdom” (Blake’s Jerusalem) with plans, intentions, goals, and utopias. [Such language was the bread and butter of public speech in my time among the Episcopalians]. The plans generally seemed to involve the rich helping the humble and meek so they would no longer need to be humble and meek. With every success they became even greater strangers to God. Their Churches stand empty, their children having forgotten God and looked towards other dreams.

It is the nature of the humble and meek to be clueless about the management of worldly affairs. They are generally excluded from management decisions. It is instructive in this regard to consider the nature of Christ’s commandments: they tend to be small and direct. Give. Love. Forgive. Take no thought for tomorrow. Endure insults.

As is true in the story of Joseph, the work of providence is largely seen only in retrospect. Its daily work in our lives will, more often than not, find us unjustly imprisoned by the lies of a wicked employer, or nailed to a Cross while being mocked. St. Paul describes the providence of God:

“For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men.We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored!To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless.And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now.” (1 Corinthians 4:9–13)

If we are to speak of “building up the Kingdom of God,” let it be restricted to that work within us of “acquiring the Holy Spirit.” And then, speak with humility. Again, St. Paul says this about such things:

“For I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God.”(1 Corinthians 4:4–5)

Our hearts long for “Jerusalem,” indeed. But the city we long for is not the project of William Blake’s dreams. It is ironic that Blake lived in a culture that had intentionally destroyed all of its monasteries, murdering many of its monks. And then it wondered where Jerusalem had gone.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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46 responses to “The Gospel of Progress – and the New Jerusalem”

  1. Perpetua Avatar

    Dear Father,

    Thank you.

    Thank you first for making your own journey to this place. Thank you for letting your journey be something we can see because you can and do articulate it. Thank you for unpicking and illuminating the strands of the places you’ve been and the Church you discovered and entered.

    I have been in many of the parts of Christendom that you have been in. And now I am with you in Orthodoxy. A group of us who were once traditionalist, high church, so-called “continuing” Anglicans were newly illumined on October 1 of this year. During our catechetical process, you kept me company and helped me to keep going. And this particular year’s end meditation is perfect for me.

    Thank you.

  2. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    May God preserve you in the fullness of the Church. His mercy endures forever!

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It seems that one of the challenges of living Christian is the challenge NOT to resolve the paradox of The Incarnation and how that is integral to all we know/don’t know; do/don’t do. We seek knowledge yet are forgiven precisely because we do not know: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34.

    … and all of that is before we get to the (forgive the word) mystical, transcendent and unseen aspects of being/becoming a Christian personally and corporately. Another set of seeming paradoxes.
    Is it possible to know God’s mercy, grace and joy if we have not sinned? Can we possibly appreciate the Kingdom or even know of it unless we have fallen? God has to know death for us to live?
    The number of such paradoxes seems infinite or almost so.

    Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God; have mercy on me a sinner.

  4. Janine Avatar

    A beautiful essay. Thank you, Father.

    It might just be my own perspective, but I seem to be reading here and there articles by people feeling a sense of loss for one reason or another this season. I think this instruction in transformation is very essential to such a time. That great example of the story of Joseph in some way illustrates the words of St. Paul. When Joseph was reviled, he nonetheless blessed. This is the work of God among us, it seems to me. It’s just that, as you note, none of that is predictable to us. How it happens is not predictable.
    I will keep pondering your approach to the theme of Jerusalem, and thank you again. Perfect time for this article, isn’t it?

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman
  6. Janine Avatar

    Wow, Michael Bauman. Thank you for that

  7. Nikolaos Avatar

    Patriarch Joseph is the only righteous person of the Old Testament who is a type of Christ. So blessed and unique in being probably the only monogamist of the Old Testament. An inspiring example to every Christian.

    Let us give thanks to the Lord for enabling us to live one more year and seek his blessing for one more, to enjoy this forum and benefit from Fr Stephen’s wise counsel.

  8. KS Avatar

    Beautifully expressed, especially the contrast between our “world of the walking dead” and “the Kingdom of God as …. nothing less than resurrection from the dead.”
    I remain very grateful for these posts.

  9. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    The present environmental movement seems torn between a green world of naturalism and a super-technological world in which the digital age marries convenience to a tiny carbon footprint. The jury is still out on this latter possibility.

    Dear Father, I couldn’t think of a better expression than this and decided to just repeat it!

  10. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    How appropriate this post is for the beginning of a new year, a time when traditionally we all poise ourselves to “build the kingdom” within our own lives once more, to make progress and to finally vanquish all our enemies.

    I finally the human race insanely foolhardy and hopelessly forgetful, but each time I mention this to God, He gently scolds me, asking that I not talk about His pride & joy that way. He loves us beyond anything we know as reason and won’t be dissuaded from doing so.

    When we speak I find He is much more interested in spending time with me than in making “progress” in my life. Indeed He wants to have adventures together of all sorts, and I discover later that such progress happened when I was unaware of it and often most of it was accomplished by Him.

    I totally do not understand Him, and I mean that in the best way possible. But He loves me even though I would have gladly condemned myself to death long ago – and so I love Him back. There is no better option.
    And the more I hang around Him, the more I become like Him. And yet still His thoughts make no sense to me.

    But I have learned that my understanding is not necessary. He is my God and I am the sheep of His hand. All I need to know is that He is a good God and He loves us. That must be the foundation which informs everything I am, know, do and say. When I’m with Him I realize just how much I am in need and am barely able to feed myself, let alone build a kingdom for Him that He has not asked for.

    I have no words. Lord have mercy. He is so good.

  11. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Drewster, Our Lord always leads me to repentance. Mt 4:17 is what He has given me through the Jesus Prayer. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
    When I studied history, I took a seminar on “The Idea of Progress”. A key element I learned was that progress ideologically is a Positivist doctrine and quite destructive. Have not been a fan since (about 50 years ago).
    Its ideological poison is a drain on all of us. Totally unnecessary when The Kingdom of Heaven is there when I repent.
    Joy, healing, love, forgiveness.

  12. Síochána Arandomhan Avatar

    These are profound thoughts to consider, especially when many are talking about “New Year’s Resolutions.” (I don’t really make resolutions, but I often make something like intentions, which I can hope in my mind through a variety of (often unforeseen) circumstances.

  13. Laurie Avatar

    Hi fr Stephen . I like your article. Many of us have plans but God has the last word. Could you maybe explain a bit more about the communion of saints? Is it a communion of prayer or faith ? As a former Protestant I, not sure about asking saints for things, thank you


  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I understand. It’s certainly outside the realm of Protestant experience and thought (except for a very few). The “communion” of saints – is a true communion. It is a sharing (koinonia) in a common life. We are in them, and they are in us. The Church is one – both in heaven and on earth. As Christ said about Abraham, “God is the God of the living, not of the dead,” making the point that Abraham is alive.

    The experience of prayers to saints (asking for their help) has been part of the Church’s life for 2,000 years – and was only attacked and dismissed in the 1500’s when Protestantism rejected it. We do not pray to the saints as though they are God. We do not worship them. But the word “pray” simply means to “ask.” Nothing more. Many Protestants have confused it with worship (which it decidedly is not).

    We ask for their help. My experience has been that they indeed hear us, and help us, and pray for us. It is a communion of “fellowship” – as in – we are comforted by their help and the knowledge of their presence with us. They are with God, standing before His throne. But they are also with us.

    There is a tendency in Protestantism, to create a very lonely version of Christianity (“me and Jesus”), oftentimes not even needing the local Church, or, at best, treating it as optional. The true nature of our life in Christ is one of communion – with God, with one another.

    “If we walk in the light as He is in the light, then the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin, and we have communion (koinonia) with one another” (1Jn 1:7). The true nature of our life in Christ is a shared life – we share in the life of God and share a common life with one another.

    Think of a marriage. It is a common life. So, also is our life with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We sometimes see this in a sense of their presence with us (particularly in the Liturgy). But it is also there at all times (the icons remind us of this). Prayer is simply the “language of heaven.” If I am to speak with someone in heaven, then I do it in prayers. I have no idea how that works (but I don’t know how my phone works either). What I do know is that it is real and true.

  15. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, there is both formal and informal communications. I have known folks who sometimes just have “chats” with their saints much of the time. Except when they really fully open their own hearts to the God Bearers then more full, complete and formal prayers are both necessary and proper.
    There is real communication that goes on. I know a man who really loves St. Raphael of Brooklyn. He always honors St Raphael through his icon at our parish (the original icon). He told me once that when honoring St. Raphael asked him. A question from St. Raphael came about another person whom my friend had been praying for with St. Andrew asking if my friend was still wanting mercy on the other person..

    It is not some wild fantasy. The saints are really there and we can really communicate with them and they with us. It is sustaining when I hear stories of the real communication that can go on.
    Glory to God in His Saints

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Excuse me. St. Raphael asked, not St. Andrew.

  17. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr. Freeman,

    Thank you for this. To hell with such progress if I never made that clear before. If we are like Joseph, patient in trial, hopeful when persecuted, on and on, we will ascend to Jerusalem. The entire journey will be a struggle, setbacks and forward motion.

    Revelation1:9 (NET)
    I, John, your brother and the one who shares with you in the persecution, kingdom, and endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony about Jesus.

    This is the setting for how he ascends in vision bodily, and the testimony obviously includes the real atoning death of Christ and His Resurrection.

    This one verse blows the social Gospel down. Romans 12-15 too. The social gospel and other utopians never understand that fearlessness of death in Christ is the subversion of structures that seem to be preventing the expansion of the Kingdom but are actually doing nothing to prevent its advent. Overthrow one utopia for another utopia and all you get is dystopia. Now, I think I finally understanding that if Providence is not something you will submit to, dystopia will be inevitable. The “moral” Christian society that does not engage in stillness, but only motion and pragmaticism, is dystopian.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “Submitting to providence”

    A great tragedy in our world is that providence is at work, always, everywhere, in all things, sustaining us, nurturing us, etc. Providence is the goodness of God at work in all things. The pity of modernity (and much else) is that it imagines itself to be the origin of goodness and that only its false progress “makes the world a better place.” You cannot make better what God Himself has made good. It is an idolatrous notion.

    Were we to submit to providence – we would be embracing the goodness of God. In our own lives, we should learn to so taste of that goodness that we turn away from sin (which tastes so bad). Taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who trusts in Him.

  19. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr. Freeman,

    I think my resistance to Providence, the conception, has been a Calvinist Providence. I think it’s helpful to me to see Providence as a real-time thing whether it is or not, and that’s how it’s portrayed often in the Bible. God has a long-term End, that will come to pass regardless of any resistance to it. He is working now, moving, the Most High’s Hand moves history. And one day He will erase the boundary, between the earth and the realm of the heavenly. On Earth, as it is in Heaven.

    The Calvinist and other determinist versions of Providence feel like submission to fate, maybe even fatalism. I think the Orthodox view (while sometimes indistinguishable on the surface) has a synergism of co-working, and that co-working, is submission: it cannot usurp/take matters into its own hands.

    I just thought of this: we cannot be Sarah and Abraham.

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I had a conversation about this history/providence confusion just the other day. The West has tended to get hung up on history/providence (via Augustine and Calvin, I suppose). When you read Dionysius the Areopagite, who has ever so much to say about providence – it’s about the extension of God into His creation as the divine energies – literally the goodness of God that permeates everything that is. It’s very much present tense.

    We have been highly schooled in reading creation in a strictly historical manner (cf. Marxism, Modernity, etc.). It has a way of obliterating the present and ability to perceive the divine energies working everywhere and in all things. I recommend Vladyka Alexander Golitzin’s book, Mystagogy: A Monastic Reading of Dionysius Areopagita. It’s not an easy read – but it’s quite clear.

    I’m presently immersing myself in Dionysius and Maximus, in what might be a foundation for a new book.

  21. M E Emberson Avatar
    M E Emberson

    Just an addition to your reference to “Jerusalem” as a national hymn in England. The tune is from “The Planets” by Gustav Holst. Mass singing of this can be witnessed on ‘The Last Night of the Proms’ which is available on line to those interested ,the whole audience and the crowds outside join in.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Correction. The hymn for Jerusalem (as sung in England) was written by Sir Hubert Parry (orchestration by Elgar). At least, that’s how my sources have it. cf.

    Jerusalem is one of the patriotic hymns sung at the closing of that event – Holst, when performed, is, I think, earlier.

    Also this:

    And, forgive me for being so pedantic!

  23. M E Emberson Avatar
    M E Emberson

    Sorry wrong hymn tune. The Planets by Holst was another hymn sung by the Proms audience. Not suitable for Americans 🙂

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    M E,
    America cannot be accused of having good taste.

  25. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr. Freeman,

    Thank you, looking it up in a second.

  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I tend to take a very long view og God’s Providence in my own life principally because of my own density.
    I am almost 75 now and when I sit down in prayer and contemplation I realize that even when I thought Divine Providence was active in a manner I could receive it, I tended to micromanage it. Still, it tends to overcome all that anyway.

    Now I think Providence has brought strongly to mind Matthew 4:17: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”

    Since it is a command of our Lord, I am moved to practice it. If I do not, there is no Providence, only a somewhat narcissistic pleasure of fake holiness which I have experienced far to often.

    Even with just my toes in the water, trying to practice repentance tends to be somewhat self-correcting.

    It is one of the reasons I visit the community here frequently. It helps keep my arrogance in check. Thank all here for that and forgive me when it leaks over anyway.

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The arrogance of which I speak is the manifestation of the world, the flesh and the devil in my thinking (for give me.)

    I want to share a quote from Fr. Seraphim Rose in his paperback “Nihilism: The Root of Revolution of the Modern Age”. Copywrite 1994. P38.
    I was drawn to this originally because of my on study of Nietzsche in college in 1970.

    Where the Christian asks the ultimate
    meaning of everything and is not content
    until he sees that it is founded on God and
    His will, the realist likewise questions
    everything, but only to abolish all
    suggestions of or aspiration to anything
    higher, and to reduce and simplify it into
    terms of the most obvious and “basic”
    explanation. Where the Christian sees God
    in everything, the Realist sees only “race”
    or “sex” or “the mode of production” ”

    Almost 30 years later the ” basic” list had expanded to include ” gender”.

    Such thinking as the world thinks is infectious. In the Church it leads to heresy and apostasy at best. God forgive us all.

    So, I find, providentially, that I must monitor both how I think and why I think certain things. It is easy to fall into the traps the world sets for us. I find that frequent repentance and participation in communities such as this and more privately with others who seek Christ as their Lord and Master is most helpful.

    Thank you one and all.

  28. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    I thought that “Jerusalem” was played at QE2’s funeral, but it seems I was mistaken; it was Prince Phillip’s:

  29. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, in your reply to Matthew at 10:28 you say on closing : “Were we to submit to Providence, we would be embracing the goodness of God….”
    .. and more. That and the rest following is stunningly anti-modern. In light of my own subsequent comment on repentance I am hit by the thought that God is good, that is why in Genesis on the 7th day, as He is resting He pronounces everything “good”. Because it is a perfect reflection of Him who is perfectly Good.

    Repentance is, in part, a recognition of thr reality that God alone is perfectly and fully Good BUT But evil is still around so we, out of our own imperfect will, choose to go against Providence and choose death/evil rejecting the fullness of Providence everywhere present filling all things.

    Forgive me but I cannot escape the cognitive dissonance I see in that scenario. Goodness everywhere, filling all things YET somehow evil still has an existence of its own and we choose that.
    Spiritually, that somehow evil is not a “created thing” exactly. An apology for dualism writing itself. Where am I going wrong.

    My experience of evil is that as real as it serms, it does not have genuine substance. By choosing evil we bring it into a powerful but deeply tenuous existence easily (it seems) wiped away by the other side of Providence: God’s essence is so nothing but good. I maintain it in my life simply by belief that it is real ontologically in my heart and so has power, i.e. Evil is a concoction of my own rebellion. So when I take Mt 4:17 seriously and am obedient to it, Evil has no more substance and power.

    There must be something I am missing. Does the residue of evil persist long enough even after I repent either in my own heart of in the other human hearts long enough for me to take it up again.
    Still seems I am missing something crucial as to why evil persists or am misunderstanding the tie between my fallen flesh(including DNA) and spirit and the endurance of evil in my heart.

    Can you help,?

    Merry Christmas for He is born of the flesh. Thus the necessity for the Cross and death of His Body. Still missing something.

  30. Simon Avatar

    I have wondered about that same. However, there are people that have endured tremendous evil, lost the ones they love, and spent decades struggling to sort all that out. Yet they speak with certainty of God’s goodness and his providence. I’ve met Jews who are survivors of the camps who spoke of God’s goodness. How can they do that? In my understanding it is an ontological affirmation that emerges from the growth of the soul. Seeing God’s providence in the worst of times isn’t a uniquely Orthodox experience. It is like the ‘Sun that shines on the good and the bad.’ Suffering–or some kind of cross–is necessary for catalyzing Christlikeness and in which providence creates a metamorphosis of evil from nothingness to substance. Not that I know that I that to be true, but it seems to be so.

    I’m curious what Fr. Stephen’s thoughts are as well.

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Michael, Simon,
    I’ll start with the “ontology” of our situation and the world.

    The goodness of God, everywhere present, filling all things, sustaining us, is a given. Our very existence is an abiding act of His goodness. “Evil” is always a parasite – it has no existence of its own. Even our own sin is like a parasite within us – it never constitutes our being.

    Nevertheless: evil, including our own sin, has an effect (just like any parasite). Our own repentance, turning away from evil and toward God, is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t immediately remove the damage that has been done. It might well have begun that process, though sometimes our own sense of it may be very slight or nothing at all.

    The images that I find most useful in thinking about this are physical/medical rather than anything else. It’s not surprising that thinking ontologically about this should be best expressed in those terms. Everything about us is mirrored in the body, I think.

    When the body is invaded by a disease (or some cells “go rogue”), it begins to fight back. Often the fighting back is the thing that makes us feel lousy (like a fever and body aches). So, an act of goodness and health can be experienced as misery.

    It’s also the case that our repentance is less than “adequate,” or, that it’s good as far as it goes, but that it does not yet go as far as it might. The truth is that the healing of deep damage in our lives is a long slow thing. The layers of the personality (or what we experience as our personality) are complex. They represent something like a labyrinth. We make our way forward with patience.

    It’s also the case that our healing – the theosis of our lives – is in the hands of God rather than in the hands of our own repentance.

    I’ve known of a case of a “besetting sin” in an individual that, struggle as they might, just persists. I’ve long thought that it could be possible that God allows this to persist for the sake of the individual’s humility. There are other, mostly unidentified tendencies that would carry them much further away from the truth were that persistent sin to simply disappear. That is such a delicate matter though – that it can hardly be spoken. Who knows the mind of God in such a matter? But if such were to be the case – the goodness of God – working always towards our healing and salvation – is not sustaining the persistent sin – but is dealing with it in its own time in the constellation of the healing of the whole person.

    Such matters are quite individual and it’s impossible to generalize.

  32. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    A Hieromonk friend of mine recently told me this:
    “Repentance takes much more energy than did the behaviour being repented.”
    Your description, Father combined with the other make sense to me in a new way: Especially besetting sins. Besetting sins keep me going back to Confession. Sometimes when there, I offer up the besetting — sometimes I do not–I am led. But, sometimes I don’t because I am ashamed that it is still there. Then it become a secret supplication of my heart as I kneel in contrition.

    Then there is the question of evil per se. Certainly the Bible Account can be read as if Evil pre-exits the Creation. But then we are back to dualism.
    The ontology of evil can get foggy for me. Especially the evil in my heart. Sometimes it seems solid and deep, other times just a thin shell penetrated easily by God’s Grace as more of who I am is revealed. Others hide and pop out just as they seem gone.
    There is no time I am without sin, but God’s Grace is always sufficient if I ask. Sometimes I think of God as too polite.

  33. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    I prefer that analogy of the body’s own cells’ “going rogue,” as this comports with the notion of the fallen angels and rebellion, plus it posits a closed system, rather than the existence of an agent external to creation–a system intended and designed so marvelously that is all the more tragic when its wondrous order breaks down from within.

    Long ago I read “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” which I recall answered the question of “Why (bad things happen to good people)?” from a Jewish Rabbi’s perspective. The author (Harold Kushner) proposed that God’s creation is more the maximizing of good than the minimizing of evil. That, too, fits with the metaphor in that most of what we perceive as unfortunate about our body is of a necessity for some other nifty feature.

    Ivan in “The Brothers Karamazov” rejects this explanation, saying the suffering of one innocent child is not worth all creation and eternal happiness. Ursula LeGuin bases her short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” on Ivan’s rejection, which might be seen as rebellion and pride in that Ivan supposes his sense of injustice and outrage is greater than God’s, whereas the Christian answer would be–I think–that God suffers right along with the child, and the goodness that causes Ivan’s distress comes from God.

    A New Testament support for this perspective on evil that occurs to me is the parable of the tares: the evil weeds are tolerated until the harvest because to remove them would damage and uproot the wheat. That is, evil is tolerated for a time so that the maximum good can result.

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The ontology of evil (it’s non-existence and its parasite status) is part of the Tradition. It’s particularly strong in Dionysius the Areopagite, but is already there in St. Gregory the Theologian, as well as others.

    God did not create evil. It has no “existence” or “being.” It is always a perversion or misdirection and acts like a parasite. The wheat and the tares is a good parable for this, as you note. Where did the tares come from? An “enemy sowed them.” The origin of the darkened will in the fallen angels is not fully explained to us. For that matter, the precise nature and character of the angelic beings (and other celestials) is largely hidden.

  35. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Thank you for this elaboration on Providence, sin and evil, and the nature of repentance. Your description of the process has provided a healing insight into my impatience with my own soul’s slow healing. Again your insight into besetting sin is particularly helpful.

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think we have become somewhat accustomed to the results of psychological therapy and medication – in which results can seem much more speedy. The right medication and the right brain can go from depression to normal in a few days or weeks. That’s comporable to healing a cut on a finger – somewhat typical medically.

    “Spiritual medicine” is ever so much slower. Let’s take St. Peter as an example. He seems to have been “good enough,” as disciples go. He was a bit headstrong – but nothing in his behavior prior to Holy Week would seem to suggest that he would deny Christ when put under pressure. Indeed, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he cut off the High Priest’s servant’s ear. So he was no coward. (It’s actually a bold move when you’re surrounded by armed guards and you’re pretty much the only guy on your side with a sword – and you’re just a fisherman, not a soldier). Christ, though, saw something lurking within the deep heart of Peter – and He meant for it to be exposed and to be healed.

    Interestingly, we see no long discussion between Peter and Christ after the resurrection – only Christ’s question, “Simon Peter, do you love me?” and the commandment, “Feed my sheep.”

    I suspect Peter knew the meaning of all that far beyond anything the rest of us can see.

    In truth, we rarely know ourselves so well that we can accurately judge the true heart. It’s a mystery, hidden from us, until Christ choose to reveal it to us. The mystery of the self is wonderful beyond all imagining – we are terrible judges.

  37. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The post and discussion here have induced me to reactivate my “history” mind. The nature of the “Gospel of progress” dependent on a incorrect understanding of the nature of God and man and how we fit together. It can get quite complex and calculating even approaching heresy at times.

    However, the essence if the Gospel of Progress (in both macro and micro forms) is
    that we humans control God. There is no need for Providence or providence is re-defined as man’s will for God rather that the other way around.
    Considered backwardly, the spiritual virtues of thanksgiving, humility, obedience and contrition are void.
    Now, false fronts are set up to mimick the true spiritual virtues but they become a self-defeating construct of darkness. My will before God’s will. Which means that Jesus Christ was born in vain.

    Sometimes the true proclamation of Christmas: “Christ is born, Glorify Him” becomes in one’s heart: “Christ is born! Crucify Him.”

    One can see the beginnings in the writings of the American historian, Carl Becker. His work was the leading edge in the middle 20th century. In some ways he defined the doctrine of Progress historically speaking.

    The words used are often the same as a good basic true Christian understanding but the whole orientation is different. The historical approach becomes more and more Nihilistic.

    Lord have mercy!.

  38. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    In the history realm the doctrine of progress is Hegelian in nature. Impersonal processes at work in and around us driving us to a “better” future. ,(Gross over simplification but I am still resurrecting it a bit) I have long known it to a lie but it is deep in our cultural, political and religious landscape. Unfortunately as innocuous as it seems the doctrine has largely gotten its energy from the foreign wars we have been in and continue to be in from our involvement in the French & Indiana war in 1754 and continuing to now. There is a internal logic that leads to the justification for use of atomic weapons.
    I find it easy to discount it and try to ignore it but this conversation is joining with others to make me pay attention.
    Some US historians I can specifically point to and more seem to be coming back.
    Carl Becker, Henry Adams. Of course Fredrick Jackson Turner, Francis Parkman, James Parkman et al.
    More modern writers tend to be quite political like Arthur Schlesinger, a hack for John Kennedy. The best contemporary historian is Robert Remeni.

    In the course of reading the literature one can begin to track the destruction of genuine Providence and its remolding as Progress. Even into the General Electric days “Progress is our most important product” sponsoring Death Valley Days and other frontier mythology.

    H. B. Bury’s work, the Idea of Progress covers a lot of the territory.

    Father Stephen is on solid ground historically as well as theological.
    There is some more modern works debunking progress but largely replacing it with man the ecological villain. Have to review some others I found

  39. Janine Avatar

    Father, your reply to Michael and Simon (January 3, 2023 at 9:25 am) is remarkable. There is so much in it, and written with such clarity!

    I believe I have observed that the “bigger” the change, the longer it takes, corresponding to the greatness of the sin. It seems this is the subtle way God (or God’s energy) works. This healing/metanoia can also be a process of healing from sin done to us, not just by us. It still requires healing and transformation/metanoia even if it’s not our sin. At least it seems so from my experience.

  40. Byron Avatar

    Forgive me, but please add Theodore Arrington to your prayers. He fell asleep in the Lord on New Year’s Day. May God hold him close, forgive all his sins, and grant him salvation.

  41. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Byron,
    May the Lord Jesus Christ keep and hold Theodore close in paradise. Memory eternal Theodore Arrington.

  42. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr. Freeman,

    Two times the power surged, and I lost an hour of writing, maybe Providence?

    This turned mini-essay length, and I’m sorry for that, I plan to send it to some software people/gamers I know. JP got me thinking about play.

    Progress in the non-Christian sense is the advancement of science/technology/placating death and death-fears by governments and/or marketers to distribute/sell enough “happiness”/security such that people are distracted sufficiently enough from fear of death to be manageable – all the while making the most fearful very wealthy, empowering the powerful by the abdication of our freedoms according to their definitions of altruism. These become the new myth makers and authoritarians. Stories told in this world will be fairy-tale-candy, and those who warn of a coming dystopia/Sci-Fi-Horror will be persecuted as hateful spreaders of disinformation. (Never saw pro-pagan in propaganda until just now. Pro-Pagan-da: strategic dissemination of actual disinformation relating to knowledge of death by Satan and his servants.)

    Progress in the Christian sense, and the word is problematic, I get it now, is really stepping into perichoresis and procession (going around, self-giving, leaving room for, taking turns with…). Freed from slavery to fear, because of the Resurrection of Christ, the Christian can participate in Trinitarian Play with the Game Designer. I’ve thought a lot lately following JP that play is the marker of a healthy person/relationship. I think he’s just describing perichoresis, which is often described as a dance, but dance is just one form of play (Freud fails by reducing all play in one sense to dance, my observation or lack thereof). Refusing to participate, or to follow the parameters of the game/play, is effectively forfeiture unless you ask for reentry and agree to play accordingly, and are readmitted/get to play again: are given another/an extra life. Not playing well/refusing to play fairly with others/Others, results in games like Solitaire, which will lead to self-inflicted solitary confinement/exile if this is the only game you play. You will be narcissistically selfish. Interestingly, the video games with the most addictive potential, and have been partially blamed for violence, are single player games. Solo behaviors, or replicating yourself in another, is the logic for why many sins are sins. Initially, when you repent, when you become Player One of the multi-player game, and accept the life you’ve been given, you do so realizing that God is greater than the board/world on/in which the game is played. The board/world is not ultimate.

    But you also see that the board/world has been tampered with, has gone wrong, and no matter how you fight, how many times you replay, you die each turn. You either think the game was always this way (Paganism/Atheism/Determinism – and only the enlightened escape) or believe what the Game Designer/Christ has revealed over and over in the game, that the game is/has become partly defective. And then you realize that life is more than “surviving the game”, or escaping the game, that in fact, there is no way to survive or escape the game as it is now. But there is a way to play/Live with/in the Designer and His Family, and He will release a final patch/Grand Final Update soon. The Old Software, and its Hacker, will be legacy, and actually leave no legacy. It will receive no new updates though there will be people who prefer it. You would also see, if you could look at the firmware/software update history by the Designer, it’s rather endless. At one time, you could only see v1.0 and hope for v.2.0. In between, Providence was releasing updates/push backs against the rogue programmer. Eventually, this makes way for seeing the world as Sacramental/Mysterious. You can play, work, find novelty/discovery and offer back to God/share what He has given because you know He ultimately is the Source of your provision. Sacrifice is in one sense just sharing according to the rules with Someone who doesn’t need anything. Sacrifice for others is possible because you know you’ll get another life, eventually you’ll never run out of lives. Creation then takes on a different meaning than pure utility. Creation, when taken back from the Hacker, becomes a playground for holy play: perichoresis, and board expansions: new characters, new geography, added to the multiplayer play. You return to this child state, of play, of sharing, believing your Father will take care of you, and that the world created for you is very good, but not it isolated from the Designer/Creator/Christ. The world isolated from Him, is the Rogue world. It feels like the Rogue world is running the show sometimes, and the feeling is often overwhelming, and the struggle will be not to defect back to it, to not return to play the legacy game that is passing away. If we stay in the game, the playfulness of the Trinity becomes ours, and we play forever. Play has never seemed more serious to me. The deepest form of play is worship. The desire of Christ to play, the invitation to play, is in His Face which is already shining on us who eagerly await its appearing.

    Hebrews 2:8b Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. 9 But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

    And then the rest of Hebrews…

  43. Janine Avatar

    Father, please also accept my gratitude for your reply to Dee at January 3, 2023 at 2:04 pm. This is so helpful and also affirming.

    Thanks to all for this conversation.

    Prayers of peace for Theodore Arrington and those who love him. Memory eternal. As it may be of interest to some, in the Armenian Apostolic tradition, it’s said: May God illumine his soul. (literally “light”-en, to fill with light)

    Matthew Lyon, interesting post!

    I don’t want to drag politics into the conversation, but at this stage with new reports about government (and maybe plural “governments”) involvement in social media, we may want to consider what control of information means for all of this and especially for our faith. I’d of course welcome ideas about this in light of “progress” myths and especially Father’s take on it, if you so choose to comment, Fr. Stephen. I worry /ponder about this in terms of just speaking the gospel as this blog does.

  44. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Janine, politics is always present and in itself is neutral. What is problematic are the ideological myths we humans tend to form as we seek power and authority over our own lives and the lives of others to control the formation and activity of communities.

    It is intriguing to me that as our conversation continues, the most comfortable basis we each have for structuring relationship and communicating (necessary for real participation in community) has come forward in each of us. An exciting occurrence because it demonstrates our trust for one another in a profound manner.

    We each came/are coming to God from different places both the flavor of our sins and the essence of our spirits and experience are unique. However, not so unique that the Holy Spirit cannot use them to bring us closer to God and each other through the gifts of our leader on the endeavor, Fr. Stephen.

    God is gracious beyond imaging.

    In fàntasy and adventure stories frequently there is a common invocation given when people/friends separate and go their own way or embark on a different task but still want to acknowledge shared experience of value.

    A few come to mind: “Live long and prosper” ; “May the Force be with you”; “It is a good day to die”; etc.
    I thank each of you for your insights, trust and courage in sharing here.
    May the mercy of our Lord be in your heart!

  45. Janine Avatar

    Thank you, Michael Bauman! I very much appreciate your thoughts on communion and community – especially trust (faith).

  46. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    “ It is ironic that Blake lived in a culture that had intentionally destroyed all of its monasteries, murdering many of its monks. And then it wondered where Jerusalem had gone.”

    Amen to that.

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