The Despair of Modernity – It Might Not Be All Bad

It is a commonplace in the Fathers to describe despair or sadness as the result of failing to get what we want. It sounds quite simple, but it cuts to the very heart of our sadness. There is a melancholy of our age that is born from the expectations of modernity. The mantra of progress and our belief that no matter the problems confronting us, there is always a solution, are an ideal breeding ground for modern despair.

My experience within social media is that any observed problem within our culture that is presented will attract an immediate flood of proposed solutions. The belief in the solvability of all things is a foundation of the modern world. We are nurtured with an expectation of progress and solutions. When this turns out not to be the case, despair is a natural result.

That same despair is a primary engine for modern anger. We want solutions. We believe that solutions are possible. When solutions fail to be enacted, we get angry. We blame. The world becomes divided into those who, like ourselves, advocate the right solutions, and those who are standing in the way of that progress we believe is always possible.

“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” – Bumper Sticker from the 60’s

But, of course, modernity is a false dream. It does not solve problems, on the whole. We chip away at one thing and another and marvel at our technological toys. People still die – all of them. People still suffer, it’s an inevitable part of life in this world. There are vast dislocations and injustices that are as much a product of modernity as they are of their own intractability. The narrative we are taught to believe, viz. progress and solvability, is simply not true. It is only “true enough” in very isolated examples to keep us believing that it can be true always and everywhere.

The Christian teachings on the spiritual life do not teach us how to live a life based on false narratives. To make the gospel “work” in the modern world, the gospel must be changed. But, of course, that means choosing to believe that Jesus didn’t know what He was talking about, or that He was limited by His culture…. “We now know better.” This is heresy, but it is probably the most commonly practiced heresy of our time.

The general means of practicing this “new” gospel is to isolate preferred quotes and systematize a new paradigm. To a certain extent, this took place in the Reformation and has been a constant drive within a Protestantism that morphs to fit the culture (often justified by “evangelizing the culture”). This is not a practice restricted to Protestantism. In a variety of forms, all Christians in the modern world engage in this restructuring of the gospel.

The assumptions of modernity are not a product of the century we live in (they are not ideas that “evolved”). They are specific assumptions put forward by a particular philosophy at a particular time and have been adopted and employed to such an extent that they now seem like “common sense.” They simply become part of our worldview. As such, they are a lens through which we read the Scriptures and become an unconscious filter. We take what seems helpful, and ignore those things that do not. But the “helpful” that we unconsciously intend, is “help me live in a modern way, in a modern world, towards a modern salvation.”

I think we are often disappointed that God refuses to behave as the god of modernity. The extremes of the “prosperity” preachers are only the most egregious examples of modernity’s god. There are others, more subtle. For example, we expect God to cooperate with our political projects (both Left and Right). As the problem-solvers of progress, we assume that God is interested in the same goals as we. He is not.

There are times in our lives when the modern project seems like pristine prophecy. Its promise of a better world feels as though it is being fulfilled before our eyes. People are occasionally nostalgic for one period or another when they think this was true. When these times change and become times of frustration, we begin to wonder why God allows such evil to exist. We do not realize that we are asking why it is that God refuses to go along with the modern project.

Some of the assumptions of the modern world include God’s “place” within it. The modern ideal of a “better world” is not built on communion with God. Indeed, it revels in its own independence. God has been demoted to the patron saint of lost causes: “All we can do is pray.” The ideal in the modern life is self-sufficiency. We want enough for now (at least) and a good nest-egg for the rest. To a certain extent, we pray, “O God, help me not to need you.”

However, we serve a good God who loves mankind, and He understands our unrecognized need for failure. He is at “cross-purposes” with the modern project, working towards our complete transformation in Him rather than a better world. For all the prayers of all humanity through all the ages, His answer was going to the Cross. He is waiting there to meet us.

Photo by ruedi häberli on Unsplash

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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136 responses to “The Despair of Modernity – It Might Not Be All Bad”

  1. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Ah, Father–always refreshing. I have been immersed in different ideas of progress, growth and fulfilment all of my life.
    First through my parents with my Dad holding to the fairly standard view that you relate here, but tempered by his growing up as a dry land farmer in South East New Mexico.
    My mother was more creative, getting a lot of here view from the pseudo-Greek of Martha Graham. Life and history were a dynamic spiral. Increasing and fluctuating energy, often of Divine origin, was the nature of things.
    My quest went on through my study of history and my acceptance of a “New Age” Christianity before coming to the Church and beginning to learn of The Cross, Forgiveness and Repentance.
    History, studied carefully, does not support progress as it is commonly accepted. Indeed there are some 19th and early 20th century historians who openly questioned it, but never fully enough.
    I have come to the point where only Matthew 4:16 makes sense: “Repent, the the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
    May our Lord’s Mercy guide and protect each of us.

  2. Robert Inglis Avatar
    Robert Inglis

    I would just make a small comment and say that your font choice for the article could be better. Just a suggestion!

  3. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Robert,
    Thanks for the feedback. The construction of the blog (post Ancient Faith) has been much slower and more fitful than I had hoped. AF used it’s own template, so I could not simply migrate the former settings to a new site. Instead, we’ve had to use a WordPress template and begin refining it. My IT person/designer is getting married very shortly and is juggling a lot of things…thus (in my patience), we’re getting by as best we can. We still have not completed the migration of subscriptions, for example.

    We hope (within the next month) to look around for a template that we like better and begin to tweak it.

    For myself, I cannot say that I see how this present font differs from what was used before. Do you have any suggestions? I prefer a font that has serif’s (as the present one) rather than the san-serif options. What do you find problematic at present?

  4. Michael Moniz Avatar
    Michael Moniz

    I must say, with tears in my eyes, this post describes my walk thus far with my faith. I feel like God, not unlike a magic genie, is there to grant my wishes if I just pray harder. The orientation has been wrong. Thanks Fr. Stephen.

  5. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Michael,
    We live, we learn, we grow. I’ll be 70 in a couple of weeks. Some things have taken me years…some, I’m still working on. While the vast majority of things I haven’t even seen.

  6. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Two of my favorite quotes from Phil. Vol 1: “Sin itself drives us towards God, once we repent and have become aware of its burden, foul stench and lunacy,” and then this “To aspire to what is ugly rather than to what is beautiful, to what is ignoble rather than to what is noble, is sheer lunacy.” Modernity has lead us into the foul stench and lunacy of the Dead Marshes.

  7. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    (I think the font itself is fine and also prefer serif fonts. The font size on individual entries, however, could be bumped up a point or two to match the size on the home page. Besides looking larger, it would make the width of the text hold fewer words. Because books–and phones–are narrower than screens, they can have smaller fonts without the eyes having to travel so much left to right, but on a computer screen that long line width makes it easy for the eyes to lose their place in sweeping back and forth on finely spaced lines. Only offered as a suggestion, since you asked, Father Stephen. It’s not a big deal in my opinion. 🙂

    On topic, in Father Schmemann’s journals I read a passage criticizing the Church’s complete resistance of modernity. As I’ve been reading the book on my lunch at work, I don’t have it with me and don’t want to try to paraphrase from memory the passage because of perhaps overstating it or otherwise mischaracterizing the specifics of his criticism.

    In general, Father Stephen, what do you understand to be Father Schmemann’s critique of the Church’s being “in the (modern) world but not of the (modern) world”–and is there a difference between his thinking and yours?

  8. Beniy Waisanen Avatar
    Beniy Waisanen

    Thank you Father Stephen!
    I just have to ask if you are in any way alluding to “Cross Purposes” by George MacDonald. I need to reread, but maybe that little story is making the same point as you are above.
    One way or the other, thank you for your words.
    Beniy

  9. Carlos Taliaferro Avatar
    Carlos Taliaferro

    Dear Father Stephen,

    I concur, for the most part, with the pathologies you describe that arise from a life lived in modernity, but I have a few reservations, somewhat rough around the edges, that I would like to offer and solicit your thoughts on them.

    The first- is antiquity the benchmark against which we should measure our worldview? Is it normative? Now, I don’t think that you’re advocating that- principally because I can’t imagine that you would think that such an endeavour is even possible to undertake. Nevertheless, it seems that the prescription to the problems that beset us in modernity belongs entirely to the antique or mediaeval world. I can anticipate that you might respond that these prescriptions are timeless, and I would agree, but as someone deeply enmeshed in modernity, the project of overcoming my modern self reads something like “get rid of your modern filter and stop being a modern”. I hope that makes sense? Let me put it this way- as a modern, I can’t seem to transcend my modernity and participate meaningfully in say, salvation, the mysteries, or the life of the Church, as one might have experienced them in antiquity or the middle ages.

    Second- a possibly erroneous assertion- modernity could not have been grown in any other soil than that of Christendom. Again, that could be very wrong, but the point I want to make about that assertion is that it doesn’t seem self-evident that modernity is a condition that has prevailed because the Western Church was wicked and has received its just desserts. I find that logic problematic for a host of reasons. Rather – I’m certainly going out on a limb here- could modernity be God’s providence? I like to imagine that all catastrophes, suffering, and chastisements are God’s mercies seen obliquely and that being the case, could modernity be a sign of God’s love and faithfulness to His Church? Am I permitted to believe that living in modernity is a gift in spite of the vices that it cultivates? Has modernity bequeathed to us any timeless virtues, or is it an age entirely bereft of goodness awaiting our exodus?

    I can’t imagine that modernity is all wicked, and I truly believe that we have a vocation in it that goes beyond ushering us through it. On the one hand, Father, you have been very wise in showing us what we ought to reject from it, but I would like to know if you have any thoughts about what the Lord could be revealing to us- about Himself or ourselves- through the experience of modernity?

    Forgive me! I’m sure this reads as rambling, but I don’t suppose I’ll get any clarity unless I ask!

    Your blessing!

  10. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    There seems to be a distinction in the font size between my iPhone and PC computer. However, my computer is set at 125% (for my poor eyes).

    Before, I had my iPhone set at a specific magnification with the previous website. However, there looks to be a reset of some sort on my phone when it comes to reading the recent articles and comments on my phone. The font looks very fine. I’ve done something on my phone to improve the size for reading with my eyesight (even with reading glasses). I like the serifs too.

    Making the font bold might help. But as far as I know, that can be achieved on our devices.

    Just my 2 cents worth.

  11. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    So should we not then, as Christians, in the name of our Lord, think positively (even in a dying world) and fight for social justice? I find your view, in part at least, very pessimistic. It seems similar to the no social justice doomsday preachers of my fundamentalist past.

    On the other hand, you are hitting the nail on the head regarding modernity. It commits the original sin of self sufficiency. I see it all the time in my unbelieving and very secular family. The tide of modernity and secularism is creating huge waves which are crashing against the Church. What we can feel and touch and study in a test tube is the mantra of the day as the only true reality. There doesn´t seem to be a world beyond this world for many of my neighbors, and if there is such a world they are not moving toward Christ and the Church to find it. They are moving toward eastern religions.

  12. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Beniy,
    I’m not familiar with MacDonald’s “Cross Purposes.”

  13. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Mark,
    Schmemann died in 1983 – which means his experience of modernity and ours is significant. For example, Schmemann is pre-internet. He doesn’t write much (that I’ve ever seen) on “modernity,” per se, but has much to say about “secularism” – which he described as the greatest heresy of our time. Inasmuch as secularism is one of several major hallmarks of modernity – (along with radical individualism, the notion of progress, and consumerism) I think he would be sympathetic to how I treat the topic. Mind you, there have been critics of modernity since the late 19th century (Chesterton, Belloc, Lewis, Tolkien, and many more).

    I find it completely shocking that when I was in seminary, not a single professor ever discussed the topic of modernity or even suggested that it was something to think about – which meant that, in the arena of important public ideas – they were ignoring one of the most important streams of our time. In truth, they were liberals who were quite happy with the cultural impetus. It was studying under Stanley Hauerwas that first introduced me to the topic in a serious and critical way – and directed me to a whole range of thinkers of whom I was not aware.

    Of all the dominant forces of modernity – I have come to think that consumerism is the most potent and dangerous – particularly as it is coupled with the technology of the internet. Modernity has largely mastered the techniques of manipulating the passions – reducing us to something less than fully human. Well, I’ve written much on it.

    As to Schmemann’s thoughts on the Church in the modern world – I’m not sure what he would have been reacting to in his journal passage on that.

    It is not technology that is an issue – but the philosoph(ies) that guide our self-understanding of the world.

  14. Nathan Fischer Avatar
    Nathan Fischer

    Matthew,

    I’m not one to normally comment on things, but I feel strong kinship with your comment, so I thought I might reply. If anything I say is unhelpful, please forgive.

    I spent many years of my adult life thus far (I’m nearly 40) engaged in the cause of social justice. I was raised to view the world in the “opposite” way (politically speaking), and I had too many encounters with the poor and impoverished in my years after college to accept that view of the world anymore. So I tried to throw myself, as much as I could, into various causes. I also did not a little trumpeting on the internet (never useful, and I don’t advise it).

    I think the key is: “People still die – all of them.” And as Father once wrote in another comment, “The dead stand before Christ.” It is simply not true that a poor and impoverished person is suffering more than someone who is cold-hearted toward that person. The poor person’s suffering is more obvious to us. But both will stand before Christ, and one may be vindicated.

    What Father has helped me see, through his writings, is that only the cross can gather up everyone everywhere. Only a willingness to forgive all, love all, serve all, die for all, can actually be worth anything enduring. That’s an “equality” that no social justice movement can produce – it can only come to us as a gift from above, and we find it only in the Kingdom of God. It’s an “equality” that overcomes, in the end, every form of inequality that is called for by our various economic and political ideologies.

    These things are still a struggle for me. I “trend” toward the social justice side of things (by habit, at the very least). But remembering daily what it will mean to stand before Christ in His Kingdom helps to give a perspective that no cause or movement on earth can compare to.

    I should add: it is not perspective that induces ambivalence. I’m going to stand *with everyone* before Christ. How can I be ambivalent about them and how they live? But that ambivalence is overcome by striving to “do the next good thing.” Not by trying to “fix a problem with society” but by loving the very real human beings I encounter on a daily basis. They are my encounter with God in this life, as Christ says in the Gospel. If I approach that encounter through the medium of ideology or social movement, then I fail to see them properly. Only when I approach them in love, as images of God, can I see them as real human beings.

    To put it another way: if we strive for social justice, we shall have neither social justice nor Christ. But if we strive for Christ, then we may have both. Part of being a modern person is that we prefer the most “efficient” path from A to Z. We want the straight line from one point to another. It is very difficult to say, “I will give up what I want, even something that I can acknowledge as a good, for the sake of Christ. And I will leave it in His hands what to do with it.” But I have come to believe that it is necessary. My desire for social justice never produced social justice. But my desire for Christ may mean I see the Kingdom of God.

    I would also add that upon adopting this mentality and trying to live my life in this way, I have a measure of peace with people I never could have peace with before. And what I’ve found is that they also do good, serve their neighbor, love their enemies, feed the hungry, clothe the poor, etc. Once we cut through all the political and ideological and social cruft, and we roll up our sleeves and get to work, very quickly none of that other stuff matters. And when the other stuff gets brought up, it’s getting easier to laugh at it, shrug it off, and keep doing what matters: the next good thing, loving my neighbor in ways I actually can.

    Anyway, just some thoughts from a recovering social justice warrior (and I do not use the phrase pejoratively, but with all love).

  15. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Carlos,
    Modernity, as I use the term, is not a period of time, but a set of ideas: secularism, progress, radical individualism and autonomy, consumerism. So, it’s not our technology that makes us “modern” – it’s how we think about technology and use it that is problematic. It is certainly the case that modernity is a Christian invention – largely an unintended consequence of the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution. Each of its component parts is, to my mind, something of a “distorted” idea – not an “evil” idea.

    God is always at work in all things for our salvation. Thus, putting the three young men in the fiery furnace (and evil deed if ever there was one) was, nonetheless, something from which He worked good. That is the nature of Providence. It says much about God, but pretty much nothing about burning people in furnaces. The same is true with the key elements of modernity. God uses all things – but His use does not make them good.

    The thrust of history, according to the Scriptures, is not a continual improving movement towards a better world. It is, instead, a movement towards greater evil and rebellion. That is part of the teaching of Christ, affirmed by the Apostles. Christ warns that, in the End, if the days were not “shortened” (meaning time being finally brought to an end), no one would be able to keep faith. The hope of Christians is not in an improving world, but in the good Providence of God despite the world.

    Again, there’s nothing “evil,” per se, in our technology. It is in the use of our technology. What I think is revealed to us in all of this is the utter faithfulness of God, despite everything we put in His path. He does not abandon us.

    You ask: “Has modernity bequeathed to us any timeless virtues, or is it an age entirely bereft of goodness awaiting our exodus?”

    Modernity is not an age. It is a set of ideas that are dominating our age – and the ideas are killing us.

    One bit of good news in that is that people generally have to live, from moment to moment, in the midst of reality rather than in the realm of modernity’s ideas. Much of our day is similar to the days of everyone who has ever lived. The technology has changed – but I still have to eat, sleep, relate to others, etc. Those things tend to ground us. The more divorced we become from reality (which technology can make possible) the more likely we are to get into trouble.

    There is nothing “antique” or “medieval” in the teachings and commandments of Christ. They are, indeed, timeless. I think that one danger of our modern world is the false notion that we are actually wiser than all generations who have gone before (part of the false consciousness and narrative of “progress”). In the name of that false wisdom (“science now knows”) we justify all kinds of insane projects.

    I hope these thoughts are of use.

  16. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    I advocate that we should keep the commandments of Christ – bodly, and pretty literally. I do not tell people not to vote – though I think voting will achieve very little – the critical decisions of our time are not being decided by democracy – they are being decided by wealth and such.

    As to “fighting for social justice” – I’m quite leery about things that describe themselves in that way. They mostly make us feel better about ourselves. Indeed, those who define “social justice” are often far from “just” themselves. Much of it is wrapped up in half-baked Marxist notions that, historically, have proven themselves to be authors of even greater misery.

    To follow the commandments of Christ – again, boldly and pretty literally, puts you in the midst of God’s justice. The Church, rightly, is a “little leaven that leavens the whole lump.”

    I have written frequently that we are not in charge of the outcome of history. “Management” is among the great myths of the modern mind. Humility is the path of Christ.

  17. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Nathan,
    Thank you for those thoughts. As an aside, I often think that a good dose of Dostoevsky is good for the soul (his novel, The Demons, is quite instructive). He was sentenced to death for his membership in an early socialist conspiracy group – then his sentence was commuted to imprisonment in Siberia for a number of years. He finally came to embrace his Orthodox faith and to re-think much of the “social justice” of his socialist past. He certainly never changed his views towards the poor or the oppressed. However, he came to see through many of the ideas that surrounded the calls for justice and accurately predicted (in a prescient manner) much of the evil that they would produce in the 20th century. I think he had profound insight into the “soul” of modernity. Of course, all of that is buried in the material of 19th century Russian novels – which can be an impossible read for some.

    A thought: how can any of us make the world a good place when we cannot make ourselves into good people?

    Keep the commandments of Christ. Do the next good thing.

  18. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Father Stephen,

    Thank you for your response. Generally, I don’t see much divergence between the two of you, and your point about the Father Schmemann’s not being around for the Internet is apt. The accelerating changes since 1983 keep even those of us living through them off-stride

    One passage in particular, however (which I’ll just have to look up when I have the book back in my hands) I had difficulty reconciling and would love to able to ask him to expound upon. Discussing with you seemed to be the next best option!

    This from a First Things review by Richard John Neuhaus of the book is close to the passage I am trying to recall:

    [quote]
    To change the atmosphere of Orthodoxy, one has to learn to look at oneself in perspective, to repent, and if needed, to accept change, conversion. In historic Orthodoxy, there is a total absence of criteria for self-criticism. Orthodoxy defined itself: against heresies, against the West, the East, the Turks, etc. Orthodoxy became woven with complexes of self-affirmation, an exaggerated triumphalism: To acknowledge errors is to destroy the foundations of true faith.
    [end quote]

    One could substitute “modernity” for any of those other ideas that Orthodoxy defined itself against. To be sure, Father Schmemann did not resolve the problem of being in the world while not of the world satisfactorily even for himself. Many of his journal entries are about the struggle.

    Hi Carlos–

    I didn’t find your comment rambling, probably because it addresses some of the same things I often try to come to grips with.

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, is not “modernity” just the world neatly packaged for our consumption? Such a package even includes “waring” against other parts of the package. It is all part of the tribulation we face in body, mind and soul. All is overcome in Christ is it not?

    Nathan, I am 75 and was received into the Church 37 years ago. It is a constant unfolding of the beauty of what is real in the middle of the darkness in my heart–all by the Grace of Christ.
    I can only war against my own passions through repentance.

    I drive to work every day through the “homeless” corridor in my town. I lived through “the 60’s” with Viet Nam and Civil Rights.

    The only fruit I have seen from “social justice” is anguish, disruption, hatred and death.

    Only through repentance have I seen anything or anyone actually change. That is just the beginning however: announced by John, the Baptist and confirmed by our Lord as He began His work in the body.
    The Gospel of Matthew records it.

    After 37 years, I am just beginning. “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”

  20. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Hello Fr. Stephen and Carlos.

    I am far from a Marxist or a liberal non-believing social justice warrior. I believe in and follow Jesus Christ. As such, I believe the prayer that he taught us which in part says “your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” literally. The future kingdom of no tears and suffering, where everyone will have enough to eat, where there will be no war, no racism, no hatred, etc. where God will be all in all should by a Christian´s witness and work, as much as is possible, be brought into this world right now. This doesn´t mean in pursuit of these works that the Church should neglect a person´s salvation or theosis. It doesn´t mean the Church must lose its primary focus on the Gospel of the cross and repentance. It doesn´t mean forgetting about the sacraments and the liturgy. It does mean, though, that if the Church is not fully engaged in loving one´s neighbor in a practical sense as well as in spiritual reality, then the Church … IMO … is not fully living up to its high calling. Finally, I know a lot of people who say that the Church must preach only cross and repentance and that only a repentant heart in Christ will create the fertile ground for justice. That said, there are also many Christians claiming their hearts have been changed by Jesus Christ, but there still is so little practical justice being done on their parts. I love my neighbor by sharing with them the truth that the purpose of life is communion with God in and through Jesus Christ. I love my neighbor by pointing him or her to the cross and to the Church. I love my neighbor, also though, by making their world a better place that reflects what Jesus Christ´s kingdom actually looks like. A real kingdom that I am looking very forward to inhabiting.

    The liberal Protestants are doing it (social justice). The Roman Catholics are doing it. Some evangelicals are doing it, even my secular neighbors are doing it, but where I live I don´t see the Orthodox doing much beyond the Divine Liturgy. I make this criticism with love, please understand that. I love Orthodoxy, but I am not blind to what I see as some of its shortcomings.

  21. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I meant and “Nathan”. Sorry Carlos! 🙂

  22. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Sorry. Having lived and worked within liberal protestantism for a number of years – most of what I saw was lip-service and virtue signaling. Much of it has to do with the fact that liberal protestantism is wealthy. Do not expect great good works from those who have wealth. Apart from Utah (where Mormons are required to give 10 percent of their money to their church), the highest per capita charitable giving in the US is in Mississippi, the poorest state in the Union (at least this was the case a few years back). Generosity is most common among the poor.

    I disagree with your take on the Lord’s Prayer. There is nothing that teaches us that we should be “bringing the Kingdom” into this world. It is not even possible. The Kingdom of God is God’s own gift and is a “supernatural” reality. It is coming into the world whether we want it or not – and is already among us. We will, no doubt, be judged by it.

    I suggest this article of mine – it clarifies what I’m thinking.

  23. Nathan Fischer Avatar
    Nathan Fischer

    > Finally, I know a lot of people who say that the Church must preach only cross and repentance and that only a repentant heart in Christ will create the fertile ground for justice. That said, there are also many Christians claiming their hearts have been changed by Jesus Christ, but there still is so little practical justice being done on their parts.

    Matthew, a word of caution here. We are often completely blind to what is going on inside a person’s heart. We don’t know what they struggled with prior to the change they’re referring to, nor do we know how that change is being fulfilled in them. Likely, they don’t even entirely know themselves. I certainly don’t know very well what’s happening inside me. We may also be judging them for something they’re doing, yet we cannot see (“Do not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing”). Many people have done good in secret and the truth of that goodness was only revealed later in life.

    Best to assume the best of them. Whatever is going on in the secret places of their heart, our task, as I understand it, is to very simply see Christ in them. If there is some deficiency in them that can be healed by the giving of alms, then Christ will work that in them, as well. Judging them or exhorting them to engage in social justice isn’t the way.

    For myself, I have come to know so many deficiencies within my own self that need to be healed, it’s staggering. As Father said, “How can any of us make the world a good place when we cannot make ourselves into good people?” If I am not good, any reshaping I do of the world will lead to catastrophic ends, no matter my intent. Right now, in our world, we are no doubt witnessing the large scale and destructive effects of “bad people” trying to “do good.” Only One is good. It is a hard thing to accept.

    I empathize with your struggle, though. It’s a difficult one. God be with you.

  24. Nathan Fischer Avatar
    Nathan Fischer

    Thank you, Father, for your kind words. I have not read very much by Dostoevsky. I have been meaning to change that for some time. Perhaps now is the time…

  25. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    My son is at his first academic conference and sent me a picture of the beautiful fireplace he was reading by last night. I’m pretty happy to recognize the page of the book as from Crime and Punishment 🙂

  26. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thanks for the link. I agree with much of what you say about modernity. I even agree with what you are saying about the kingdom being God´s own gift and that it is coming into the world whether we want it to or not – that it is, even, already among us.

    Where it is among us, then, I would expect that supernatural kingdom to be absolutely filled with practical works of justice as well as repentance and forgiveness.

    We will, no doubt, be judged by this kingdom. We will, no doubt, also be saved by this kingdom. Finally, no doubt will the universe be a better place because of this kingdom.

  27. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Hello Nathan.

    I can make the world a better place as a person who is everyday, by the grace of God, becoming a better person. I thought there was no place in Orthodoxy for total depravity thinking??

  28. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I would also add that what happened in Russia as a result of intellectual ideas about justice and equality run amok is a very far cry from social justice that is absolutely anchored in the cross of Jesus Christ and his Church. To compare the two is almost laughable.

  29. Drewster2000 Avatar
    Drewster2000

    Fr. Stephen,

    I agree with Mark about upping the font size a point or two.

    But mostly I just wanted to congratulate you for embracing the change from one blog platform to another. Being flexible and able to adapt to new changes is one of the biggest weaknesses of older people. You’ve shown great patience and the ability to learn and grow. I admire and commend you for this. Not that we should keep changing for change’s sake, but that human beings are ever changing and begin to die when they get too crusty to do so at any point.

  30. Nathan Fischer Avatar
    Nathan Fischer

    Matthew, if I indicated a view rooted in total depravity, please forgive me. I definitely did not intend that. I used to believe in such things. It is a horrendous doctrine and it did great damage to me. Christ is the truth of all of us.

  31. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Becoming more saintly, I should have said, Nathan.

  32. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks for the clarification Nathan.

  33. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I think the view that people who believe in the notion that they are the ones to ‘bring on’ the “Kingdom of Heaven” has had an important place in the history and operationalization of the Protestant Reformation. Consequently, it’s gotten a lot of press and philosophical momentum in Protestant Churches throughout US history, which in turn laid down such ethos in the US culture (even to sanction the works of its military). It’s “baked in the cake”. That was their anthem and their self-perceptions when settlers wanted to think they had established ‘the New Jerusalem’. Their self-perception of their self-righteousness also justified their killing of the ‘heathens’ who already lived on the lands they wanted.

    Regarding what Father said about humility and the Kingdom of God, I encourage a rereading of Christ’s words in Matthew 18:1-3, 19:13-15, Luke 17:20-21

  34. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I apologize. My last comment seems garbled in the first sentence. The first sentence should start with, “I think the view held among people…”

    I’m very tired and haven’t slept much over the past week.

  35. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Just an FYI: As a chemist I try to do my part to help raise awareness of the proliferation of microplastics around the globe in natural water streams and oceans. As I do this, I do not encourage action other than awareness and the suggestion to drink filtered water. The earth and people need less plastic for sure. But what kind of cleanup can we do? The proliferation has been massive. Various groups are trying to clean up the plastics. Yet more goes into the environment and into people and animals. Some are advocating going to aluminum water bottles. Such solutions will have their own detrimental effects. What would the world look like if we each lived more simply with less trash, processed foods, less use of vehicles, simple natural furniture, less paint and plastic coatings, etc.

    I probably sound like I belong in the Amish community. Please forgive my idle-talk ramblings.

  36. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Having spent a fair amount of my life among liberal Protestants, I do not think the comparison with the Marxists of 19th century Russia to be far-fetched. You’ve not been the target of their pogroms against those who might disagree with them.

    On the other hand, as I advocate and teach that we should obey the commandments of Christ – how would I disparage that we do good to others in the world – as unto Christ Himself? However, in the history of Christian thought, what you’re terming “social justice” came in with a bang in the 19th century through the teaching of various theologians (Walter Rauschenbusch is considered the most definitive). It changed the doctrine of Christian eschatology into a this-world phenomenon that was equated with doing social good. In point of fact, it dove-tailed very well with a Church that was losing any faith in the supernatural, miracles, etc. Indeed, there is no need for God in a gospel of social justice – noting that many of the social justice movements these days see traditional Christianity as an enemy. Sad, but true.

    But, we will not make “this world” a better place – ever. The Scriptures are clear that this world will perish:

    “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.” (2 Peter 3:10)

    We are promised a “new heaven and a new earth.” That will indeed be “better” but not by way of improvement. That new heaven and new earth are already being manifested in various ways and places. The lives of the saints, for example, is one manifestation – as are the sacraments. In each life, the Kingdom of God made manifest within us as we walk in union with Christ (in which we keep His commandments). But these are not things that “add up.” They are not cumulative. They are real and true – and will outlast the “fire” that consumes this world. But, on the whole, they are hidden and humble, for such is the work of Christ.

    The drive towards a better world, which sounds attractive and even as though it were Christian, has been a very dangerous thing over the past 150 or more years, sponsoring untold evil. It’s the wrong slogan. Keep the commandments of Christ and let God do the math.

    You suggest “it is almost laughable” to compare the two. You’ve never had to sit through a class taught by a self-professed Marxist theologian. It’s no laughing matter. They’ll kill you in the name of Christ.

  37. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Forgive me if I have been too forceful in making my points – your point on the failures of Orthodox Christianity are not wrong. It has been the case that, outside of their native homelands, the Orthodox have been strangers to power and wealth, often taking quite menial jobs in the early years of their migration. It certainly inhibited their abilities to form a solid practice of charitable work. In the United States, for example, up until about the 1970’s, Greek and Arab Christians were considered to be part of inferior races and were blocked in their participation in many mainstream events. At the same time, the precursors of today’s OCA were largely miners and steel-workers. If you want to find their social work, look to the unions.

    The mainline Protestant Churches who developed charitable efforts were, in fact, wealthy property owners. A majority of US Presidents, for example, have been Episcopalians (though I think George Bush was the last of them). Such social histories are much more complex than it might seem.

    However, to judge the Orthodox properly, one has to also look at their homelands. There, they have always been deeply active in promoting social welfare in a variety of efforts – bearing in mind that in many of those lands they were long under the domination of the Ottoman Empire and persecuted, while others endured the yoke of Communism. Again, it is difficult to compare the life and works of the Orthodox to the Churches of the West. The histories are quite different and the situations are far more complex than we often realize.

    Nonetheless, forgive me if I’ve given offense.

  38. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Drewster,
    Thanks for the encouraging words.

  39. Dean Avatar
    Dean

    Fr. Stephen,
    As I’ve said before, your comments to others sometimes speak to me more than the article itself. Thanks!

  40. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    When I was received by the Church, Antiochian, there was still an active memory of how the grandparents were spit on in the streets of Wichita and could only own property west of the river because when Wichita was founded the west side was where the whore houses and saloons were. Restaurants were the only business they could enter

    Still, we do have a number of charitable outlets here that includes a pregnancy center that supports pregnant women who might otherwise have an abortion.

  41. Luke Nieuwsma Avatar
    Luke Nieuwsma

    In other words… we need more monasteries in this country.

  42. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Indeed Luke!

  43. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    No cause for alarm Fr. Stephen. I thank you for your concern. I actually agree with you regarding liberal Protestantism and its idea of social justice. I have to deal with the state church where I live and its absolute denial of most everything true about Jesus Christ and his Church. They do nothing but question the resurrection (for example) while promoting social justice causes because Jesus, in their mind, was such a great social activist. I am well aware of the great damage higher critical liberal theology is doing to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It´s a big reason why I have little use for the state church where I live and why, among other reasons, I am drawn to the Orthodox Church.

    All that said, even though the things of this earth in the end will burn up, I still think good works of social justice need to be done before that burning occurs. The verse you quote possibly needs a further fleshing out I think. Can you speak more about the context? I simply cannot believe that verse alone is teaching us that we shouldn´t do acts of justice. It would seem inconsistent with the love of God and the life, teachings and commands of Jesus Christ.

    What kind of world would we have if works of social justice were anchored in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church … a place where the miraculous happens … a place where the supernatural occurs … a place that is not linked to Marxist ideology or liberal Protestant´s watered down theology and spirituality … a place where Christ in His fullness resides?

    I absolutely get your larger points about the problems of modernity and I agree with most of them. I think where we differ is on this topic of social justice … and that is O.K. 🙂 It´s not official Church teaching … is it?

    Oh and yes … I greatly appreciate your explanation about Orthodox churches in America and their difficult history as it relates to social engagement. Peace to you Fr. Stephen.

  44. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    This may be helpful. I need to read it in its entirety:

    https://www.goarch.org/social-ethos

  45. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    It’s ok to disagree with me – but I’ll continue to make the same points (most likely). The context for the verse I quoted (2 Peter 3:10) is as follows:

    “Beloved, I now write to you this second epistle (in both of which I stir up your pure minds by way of reminder),that you may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior,knowing this first: that scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts,and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation.”For this they willfully forget: that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of water and in the water,by which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water.But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word, are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.
    But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.

    But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness,looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat?Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” (2 Peter 3:1–13)

    It’s clear that its context is the Apostolic teaching on the end of things. It’s consistent with other Apostolic warnings:

    “But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come:For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy,unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good,traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God,having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!” (2 Timothy 3:1–6)

    The point of my citing these passages is simply that the Christian vision of the “end” of things is not one of a world that has been getting better and better. We are not progressing towards the Kingdom of God. Rather, the Kingdom of God is already among us. What the world will do is not according to the Kingdom, but according to what St. Paul called the “mystery of iniquity.”

    But none of that should change how we carry out the commandments of Christ. We love our enemies, do good to the poor. Feed the hungry, etc. We do those things because Christ has taught us to do them. I believe it is unwise to do these things with the naive (secularized) belief that we will “make the world to be a better place.” The philosophy behind “make the world better” is, ultimately, Utilitarianism. (the greatest good for the greatest number) It consistently leads to trouble and delusions – that is my opinion. It invites us into strange alliances and (often) makes us into the pawns of alien powers.

    That said, there should be no slackening of obedience with Christ’s commandments. Indeed, if the days are going to get worse (as the Apostolic teachings say), then we should work all the harder.

    The fantasy of modern social justice (which seems to be stated in generalized terms rather than personal terms) is that by correcting “systemic” injustice, we’ll make the world a better place. It draws us into the political sphere and its false promises (again, that’s my opinion). But, if fixing the “systemic injustices” were an actual cure, it is quite odd that Christ never spoke about it.

    I use the example of slavery. It is wrong. It is bad – inherently. St. Gregory of Nyssa is the earliest writer to condemn it:

    It is a great good thing that slavery was abolished. It existed in various forms over the course of times. But ending slavery did not establish social justice. It has been followed by many other forms of economic oppression. Eliminating evil is like playing “whack-a-mole.” Attack it one place, it pops up in another. Why? Because people do bad things in order to gain power over other people.

    This should not stop our efforts to keep the commandments of Christ. It should, however, make us sober in how we speak and judge our own efforts. I believe that there is a great temptation to “manage history” (again, my opinion). Ultimately, managing history forces us to do violence in order to achieve such a thing – and that is against the teaching of Christ.

    So, I believe that while we are in this world, we should do good (defined as keeping the commandments of Christ). We do good in union with Christ. But we should be sober about our actions and not get drawn into false beliefs regarding how effective we might be. For me, this is simply a wise teaching about how to be in the world but not of the world.

    “Be wise as serpents but as harmless as doves.”

    Hang in there.

  46. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I cannot thank you enough, Fr. Stephen, for the comprehensive responses you have offered up. Keeping the commandments of Christ as opposed to making the world a better place through social justice initiatives — even if connected to the Church?? More to think about. More to think about.

  47. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Adding a point for your pondering:

    No one spoke about “making the world a better place” through social justice until the mid-19th century. It’s not taught in the Scriptures, nor can it be found in the Tradition. Much of it is an off-shoot of Protestant thought, birthed in their various notions of remaking the world through “reformation.” Early Protestantism was replete with utopian efforts – all of which failed – many of which ended in disaster and weirdness.

    However, following the commandments of Christ is taught throughout the Scriptures and the Tradition. I think that the distinction that I’ve made between these two approaches to doing good is important and significant. Anytime I find an idea that had its birth in our modern period – I ask serious questions about it – because the heart of modernity is heretical in its ideologies. I don’t trust it.

    Changing the world begets pride, arrogance, and envy. Obeying the commandments of Christ begets humility, mercy, and compassion. It might seem a subtle distinction – but I see pride, arrogance and envy to be rampant in our world today. Few people are angrier than those who are “changing the world.”

  48. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Hello Ft. Stephen. I will be away for one week beginning tomorrow. I will respond ehen I return.

  49. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    when

  50. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    From what I’ve gathered from my conversations with Protestants and Catholics who are dedicated to the theological social justice belief system is the implicit understanding that asking for God’s help in prayer is not very effective (toward what we want)–and there is a copout. Although they do not want to say such explicitly, and maybe they don’t want to believe that but appear to do so despite themselves. Such thinking often comes out in their behavior, a compulsion to be ‘saviors’. And perhaps taking on that role in their minds might help relieve some guilt (coming from the original sin?) they may feel.

    Furthermore, there is an implicit understanding that heaven is remote from Earth. Therefore, Christ’s rectifying justice will only be applied at the end times, when all things ‘burn away.’

    However, as I understand it among the Orthodox, the Kingdom of God has come and is already tabernacled among us. And we are not the progenitors of this movement of the Kingdom of God (ie, the ‘saviors’) here to enable it; Christ is. And we witness its movement into our hearts.

    St Sophrony says so much about the importance of prayer, affirming it has tangible and immediate consequences that we may or may not see. He claims that the Holy Spirit, bringing just one person’s mind into that person’s heart in prayer, that is, in union with Christ, with God the Father, and God of All, has consequences that impact the entirety of the human race, and in fact, in all things. Not in abstract ways but substantively, physically, physiologically, mentally, biologically, Earthly, and Heavenly.

    We are like the blind men in the Gospel of Mathew, asking the Lord to let them see. (Matthew 20:30-34) Why this story in the Gospel? I believe St Matthew’s Gospel reveals to us what we all want to see, feel, and know the Person Who is Substantive, hard as Rock, to feel the imprints, to see and believe.

    I have more to tell, and I will describe it in detail;
    For I am filled like a full moon.
    So hear me, O holy sons,
    And bud forth like a rose
    Springing up by a running stream.
    Like frankincense, emit a sweet fragrance,
    And blossom forth like a lily.
    Send forth a fragrance and sing a hymn of praise.
    Bless the Lord in all His works;
    Ascribe majesty to His name
    And give thanks to Him in praise,
    With songs on your lips and with lyres;
    And thus you will say in thanksgiving,
    All things are the works of the Lord, for they are exceedingly good.
    And every command shall be in His appointed time”.
    No one can say, “What is this? Why is that?”
    For every question will be answered in His appointed time.

    Wisdom of Sirach 40:12-16

    (italic emphasis is my input)

    Father, please forgive me if my words are unhelpful.

  51. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Apologies, it’s Wisdom of Sirach 39:12-16

  52. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dee,
    Thank you!

  53. Nathan Fischer Avatar
    Nathan Fischer

    Father, your point about modernity being largely a Protestant creation was incredibly helpful to me in removing myself from various political causes and efforts. Leaving those behind was also critical in further shedding my former Protestant way of thinking about the world, the Church, society, etc.

    I don’t think until I made that leap I could begin to understand how the Church is the fullness even of those things I desired out of those various causes. It’s become easier to see now that what our world truly desires is Christ and His Church. So many of these causes are not evil through and through – they are rather disordered causes (almost like the passions being disordered desires). The Church orders all the good things in a right manner. That I fail to live up to that good is a failure on my part, not on the part of Christ and His Church. Chasing after another cause won’t solve that problem.

    To use a crass analogy: it’s sort of like all the dieting programs out there. I’ve flitted between a fair number of them myself. They always seem to leave something wanting. But maybe I don’t need a dieting program if I’m focused on Christ and His commandments, on a right relationship with the food He blesses us with, on fasting, etc. This doesn’t turn the Church’s prescriptions into a dieting program. It just might make them completely unnecessary.

    So many of our social, economic, and political programs strike me as being in the same category. There is a fullness to Orthodoxy that seems to provide a middle way, avoiding extremes and the need for these programs and projects. It is a blessedly simple way.

  54. Maggie G. Avatar
    Maggie G.

    Unless I’m reading you all wrong, Fr. Stephen, you seem to pretty much disagree with N. T. Wright’s take on the Kingdom, or I’m reading him all wrong — or both. Always possible. 🙂

    Wright has a new book coming out tomorrow titled “Into the Heart of Romans: A Deep Dive into Paul’s Greatest Letter” discussing this. (You can get a free PDF of the first chapter from his publisher: https://zondervanacademic.com/leads/into-the-heart-of-romans). Couple of excerpts from that chapter:

    “God has promised in scripture (not least in Isaiah and the Psalms) to put the whole world right. Through the gospel (the events concerning Jesus, and their announcement in the power of the holy spirit) he puts humans right – so that they can be part of his putting-right project for the world. God always intended to work in his world through his image-bearing creatures, and this now comes into clear focus. …”

    “Humans were made to be God’s agents within his world; that is part of what it means to be made in God’s image. Until humans can take up this role, the world will remain unredeemed. Thus, the resurrection of God’s people is what the whole world is waiting for (8.19–21). We are saved, not from the world but for the world. This human vocation – to be the renewed people of God, through whom creation will be given its long-awaited freedom – has already become a reality through the work of the Messiah and the spirit.”

    I think you’ve mentioned Wright before, not sure in what context. Anyway, would love to know what you think of his interpretation.

  55. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I was blessed today to spend isolated from much of mofernity (spelling intentional) by giving tours of our Holy Cathedral. I spent the afternoon gazing upon our icons and telling non-Orthodox about the icons and the life of the Church. Several knew the Bible much better than me.
    It is a great joy.

  56. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Maggie,
    Yes, I disagree with Wright profoundly on the nature of the Kingdom and our role in its coming. His interpretation of Paul (I’ve seen it in lectures and elsewhere) seems to me to be a sort of re-reading that makes the Apostle into an advocate of the liberal social project that has been the darling of dying churches for better than a century. It is a substitution of rhetoric for reality.

    We are not improving the world (that’s a very white, first-world reading). It’s ironic to have this take on St. Paul at the time that Western civilization stands on a precipice of collapse, led there, largely, by those who would like for Wright to be correct.

    There is nothing in Romans 8 that suggests anything other than a sudden, cataclysmic revelation of the “Sons of God,” at the end of time. There is nothing in the passage that suggests a gradualism, progressivism, or any such thing. We are not “now” being resurrected. Resurrection is real – not a metaphor. We are dying – sin is death – and we live in cultures that largely survive through murder (on various levels). Prosperity in the first world depends on a great deal of hidden violence. It’s pretty much the opposite of what Wright seems to think.

    For me, Wright’s present work is a far-cry from his earlier work in which he was a strong advocate defending the historical resurrection of Christ (it was in that battle that he became a favorite for many conservatives). But this latest stuff is mostly an advocacy for the same liberal progressivism that has infected mainline Protestantism for generations. It’s couched in very traditional terms – but it’s still the same thing.

    I’ve had conversations with a couple of Orthodox thinkers who support NT’s latest reading. I think it is both wrong, and a departure from Tradition.

    I’m quite literal when it comes to resurrection-talk. It’s not a metaphor. The transformation that will take place in creation (described in Romans 8) is a transformation that is unlike anything we’ve ever seen – with the sole exception of the resurrected Christ. Indeed, it’s wonder is beyond all possible imagining.

    I would say that we see in the lives of a few saints, certain hints of such things. But they are only the barest of hints – shadows, at best.

    NT says we have a “vocation” to be renewed and to renew creation. Yes, and no. Yes, a vocation to be renewed (as in Romans 12:1), but not a vocation to be progressively more and more resurrected. We live in union with Christ – and we grow in that. There might be subtle relations with creation that flow from that…but not some sort of cumulative effect of the Church in the world. The Scriptures (and we cannot separate one part from the whole) do not describe our future in such a manner. Instead, we are promised persecution and told that the world will become increasingly wicked. This is said repeatedly, and by St. Paul, as well. Before the end, it will be hard to find any faith at all. Of this, we have been warned.

    I would suggest, based on present-day observations, that many of those who will champion the growth of wickedness will do so in the name of a progressive, modernist ideology. At the present time, it is darned near impossible to be a traditional conservative believer within formal Anglicanism (not the various break-away groups). The persecution of good men and women in that context has grown year-by-year.

    My own heart grieves to say such things. It brings me no joy. But while I have the ability to speak and write, I will oppose what I believe to be a false gospel.

    Forgive me if I given any offense or scandal.

  57. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Maggie,
    For what it’s worth, remember that Christ is also speaking through the Prophets in the Old Testament:

    Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and they who dwell in it will die in like manner; but my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will not fail.

    Isaiah 51:6

    Both heaven and earth will fall away. There is no mention of making things better for the earth. There is no evolution of earth into a sort of ‘heaven’. All of creation will pass both heaven and earth.

    But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells.

    II Peter 3:10-13

    My interpretation: We hasten the eschaton (the burning up, the end of all things as we know them) by being good! We will not make the earth a better place through our ‘good works’. It is God who makes the new earth.

    I dislike sounding so ominous, like a Bible-thumping, fire-and-brimstone preacher. But the thought that we can make the earth a better place is indeed a fantasy and a hubris. As Father says well: “We are not improving the world (it’s a very white, first-world reading)”.

    Our hope in our humility is Christ, the Lord and God of all.

    Please forgive me. The projects of Western religion have been the bane of my family. I shudder when I hear the call for the building of such projects among the Orthodox.

  58. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Western Christianity has long abandoned the ascetic tradition and replaced it with worldly therapeutic methods and social concerns; the fruits of which are now abundant.

  59. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    In all of the burning of the old so that the new heaven and new earth and our new hearts can be revealed it is His unfathomable Mercy that sustains us all. A Mercy that comes through the Cross and our embracing the Cross through deep repentance. Even that on a human level barely scratches the surface and I often betray my Lord by listening to my Body and my thoughts. Yet His Mercy never fails for He has overcome the world and death is trampled under His feet. Yet each of us are called to “die daily” and the rest described in 1 Cor. 15.

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

  60. Regis Primo Avatar
    Regis Primo

    God bless you, Father Stephen. I am a brazilian roman catholic who flirted with agnosticism, but rediscovered Christ through the beauty of the Melkite Church’s Byzantine Divine Liturgy. Thank you for your teachings. May God grant me the grace of constant repentance and transform my heart into a meek and humble heart.

  61. juliania Avatar
    juliania

    Thank you so much, Father Stephen, for the link you give to the slavery homily by Saint Gregory of Nyssa. So much we are burdened by when we think of ‘modernity’ is bound up in the concept of slavery. I have a personal peeve about what I consider a crucial difference between the philosophy of Plato and that of Aristotle- that the former takes a slave as an example of inherent intelligence, while the latter thinks that some men are naturally born as slaves. That puts Aristotle in a dimmer light for me than is Plato, both having extraordinary minds.
    What a site you have, to be visited by many, and be able to discover links such as this! It’s like going out into the desert- and there she is, Saint Mary of Egypt!
    Thank you again, very much.

  62. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Regis and Juliania,
    God’s grace is indeed beyond words, may we praise Him!
    We are indeed in the desert, but as you say Juliania, there we will meet Christ with St Mary of Egypt.

    Regis,
    May our Lord continue to bless your journey to Him!

    I don’t know if you’re still in Brazil, but if so, you might also visit the Orthodox Church in Sao Paulo, Catedral Metropolitana Ortodoxa:

    https://www.catedralortodoxa.com/a-catedral
    Blessings!

  63. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Words from St Sophrony, which I believe continue the thoughts Father Stephen writes:

    “Man’s state of dependence on the material world stands in contrast to his moral and spiritual attributes. By the powers of created reasoning, people achieve the partial liberation from the influences of this world which we envisage as materialistic culture. But however great the success in this field, nonetheless, the ultimate form of servitude–mortality–remains unconquered. In this world everything is imprinted with the seal of corruption. No scientific or cultural progress removes from us the chains of enslavement to death, nor can it, therefore, satisfy the quests of our spirit, created in the image of God.
    Our ultimate goal is immortality in the bosom of the Godhead. It is realised in no other way than by keeping of the commandments of the Gospel.

    I shall add the greatest of these commandments is the love of God, manifested in the love of one’s enemies.

  64. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    There is one reason why all human projects fail and it is this: We understand freedom in terms of defiance. I would quote it at length, but I will leave it to the reader to note that Dostoevsky in Notes from the Underground discusses this at some length. This is the story of the Garden. Even if the way to a painless existence were bequeathed to us someone somewhere at sometime would say, “We are being kept like lab rats! We aren’t lab rats! We are human beings!” Then the chaos of mass defiance would be unleashed in the name of asserting our humanity.

    Really, if you think about it, that is the story of Cool Hand Luke. It’s in the towering figure of Dragline saying “Stay down, Luke.” It’s Captain’s tirade “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. Some men, you just can’t reach. So you get what we had here last week — which is the way he wants it. Well, he gets it.” This will always be the leaven that ferments the lump of good intentions. Even if we succeeded in creating the dreamt of utopia someone somewhere at sometime would burn it down just to watch it burn. In all likelihood that someone would be me and I would be thinking to myself, “I am liberating the masses from the chains of an appeased limbic system.”

    A kid’s book that does a good job of looking at this is The Giver.

  65. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The worldly mind thinks of freedom as defiance and self-determination. That is the lie. Obedience to Jesus Christ is the key to freedom even if that obedience is messy.

    When my late wife and I came to the Church it was because we were being obedient to the neo-Gnostic group of which we were apart. The leaders had begun to see the Truth in the Church and repent in what had been taught. As they did–the direction to seek the an Orthodox Church nearby was quite clear because that was the full way to have union with Christ we wanted. Repentance was key and still is. A central truth I saw as my wife lay dying with our Orthodox priest and two Chanters sang the hymns for her repose.

    I have some former Protestant friends who are now Orthodox and they occasionally revel in the idea that they are Orthodox because they protested the untruths of Protestantism.

    Quite a disconnect for me sometimes

  66. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Father Stephen,

    This is a good chunk of the passage from Father Schmemann’s journal (January 19, 1974):

    [quote]

    Any change of circumstances in this world causes a negative reaction, a denial of change, reducing it to evil, temptation, demonic pressure. This reaction is not due to loyalty, faith, or dogma–which remain unchanging amidst the changes. Actually, the Orthodox world has ceased to be overly interested in dogmas, in the content of faith. It is rather the denial of change as a category of life. A new situation is bad, because it is new. This a priori denial does not allow an understanding of change, to evaluate the context of the faith, to “meet” it realistically. Leave and deny, not understand. Since the Orthodox world was and is inevitably and even radically changing, we have to recognize, as the first symptom of the crisis, a deep schizophrenia which has slowly penetrated the Orthodox mentality: life in an unreal, nonexisting world, firmly affirmed as real and existing. Orthodox consciousness did not notice the fall of Byzantium, Peter the Great’s reforms, the Revolution; it did not notice the revolution of the mind, of science, of lifestyles, forms of life…In brief, it did not notice history. [snip] This struggle with history, which inevitably follows its course, comes from an inability to come to terms with the basic Christian antinomy: “in this world, but not of this world” and to understand that the Orthodox world is of us this world.

    [end quote]

    Do you find his criticism’s accurate? If so, how ought the Church be doing more to “meet” change?

  67. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mark, I would have said yes before my experience over the weekend giving tours of our Cathedral. Really looking at the icons we have and how much depth they have. Especially talking with devout RC’s and various Protestants listening to their reactions.

    My heart was profoundly impacted to the point that I now consider Fr. Schmemann’s (memory eternal) comments lacking the depth of understanding I normally expect from him.

  68. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Mark,
    I think it’s possible to make to much of these private musings of Fr. Schememann. During his time at St. Vladimir’s, there were, here and there, discussion of various liturgical changes (quite small in most instances). There was also “push-back” in which any idea of change was resisted as though it was a betrayal of the heart of Orthodoxy itself. To a great extent, these are pretty much moot points at this time. When he was writing – a large portion of Orthodoxy was under the Communist yoke. In Russian terms, there was certainly still a very painful remembrance of the failed efforts of the “Living Church” movement that was fostered by the Bolsheviks that advocated very major changes (such as married bishops). He would not have been supportive at all of that movement – but there was certainly a very strong reactive memory among Russian churchmen that would have been quite alarmed at any discussion of change.

    As to your question – I think the Church is “adapting” in a variety of ways in order to meet the changes of our world. A difficulty at present is that the world’s “changes” have moved into a radical form: biological sciences have become the unchecked agents of deeply immoral practices; cybernetics is dangerously approaching a marriage with transhumanism; the world economy is far more dominated by a very few people of less than trustworthy character. As dangerous as the world might have felt during the Cold War, it is far more dangerous today in many, many respects. It has quickly made many thoughts of the 70’s and 80’s (such as in the Journals) to be out-of-date and no longer germane.

    Orthodoxy is in a very different setting today. I know that we would love to have the thoughts and guidance of Fr. Alexander for many more years. As it is, providence alone guides our path. God is unfolding His work regardless of our reactions.

  69. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Hi Michael,

    I don’t want my excerpt to give you too much heartburn about Father Schmemann. He many times writes about how when he is with “conservatives”–I use that word for brevity, but it fails to express the desired nuance–he feels he is of the “progressives” (same), and when he is with progressives he feels of the conservatives. The reason I chose that passage is precisely because of not being able to perceive what Father Schmemann meant (in more concrete, actionable terms) and not being able to ask him for clarification. Most of the time, his essential view is the same as Father Stephen’s.

    A better way of describing this two-horned dilemma than those politically charged terms might be his later description of either failing to love the world as God does (“God so loved the world”), or, alternatively, loving the world more so than loving God (the social-justice dead end of trying to make the world a better place).

    Incidentally, I’ve heard and read that the Revelation criticism of the Church of Ephesus was because its many works took the place of this first love of God.

    Of course this all echoes Christ’s two commandments to love God and love our neighbor…but loving God was the *great* commandment. Yet, if we do not do the second, can we be said to do the first?

    Father Stephen,

    I agree with everything you wrote in response to my question and which could be summarized under a heading of “human capabilities–including to do irreparable harm in concert or by the actions of a few–are greater than ever.”

    As an individual, I have faith that God apportions to me and my life a just measure (what I’m to do). Moreover, an advantage of Orthodoxy over my former Protestantism is leaving Church governance (what the Church is to do) to the priests and other hierarchy. When two highly respected priests with views that largely overlap do seem (possibly) to diverge, I like to make sure I’m not missing a subtlety 🙂

  70. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Mark,
    My one time to meet Fr. Alexander in person was when I was a seminarian. One of my professors (Anglican) was very active in the dialogs with the Orthodox. He took me with him to a meeting in Chicago where I heard Fr. Alexander give a paper and was able to meet him afterwards. The same professor also had Met. Kallistos Ware as a guest speaker at our seminary – he was just Fr. Kallistos then – not yet having been made a bishop.

    Fr. Alexander had a profound spiritual life and it’s very evident in his journal writings. But, as private notes, it’s not always clear what he is getting at – and I know that our experiences are separated by some decades (and much else).

    His discussion of secularism in his book, For the Life of the World, has been something of a guidepost for me and is probably the area where I feel the most in common with him. I think it is sadly neglected by many. My writings on modernity are, among other things, an effort to raise our awareness of the distinctions and warnings that he raises. My own book, Everywhere Present, I take to be little more than an expansion of his thought on that topic.

    I would probably be in agreement with him about the Church and change (if it was fully explicated). Change is always present. It is the cult of change that marks modernity, in which it imagines itself to be managing the future and enabling a “better world.”

  71. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mark, as I indicated earlier, I did not come to the Church for doctrine or dogma (although some have been pleasant surprises). I came for three reasons: the Person of Jesus Christ, the Person of Mary and the Sacraments.
    The first time I set foot in an Orthodox Parish, Jesus and Mary greeted me with open arms through the icon More Spacious Than the Heavens. Not long after, it was abundantly clear that real Sacrament was there too. The real presence of saints is a bonus.

    My late wife and I looked several places without finding who and what we sought. The Church has never failed me in that, although some of the people have and do have I.

    The official doctrine and downs are frequently murky but the Sacraments and the real presence of Jesus, Mary and the saints, (largely through icons) is usually quite clear.

    There are those who object to an experiential approach as mine because it is felt too subjective and more subject to the passions. In my 37 years in the Church, I have found the opposite is more the case.

    Certainly, my sinfulness interferes but the Sacrament of Penance and the Practice of the Jesus Prayer (under guidance) works to remove the interference.

    The people who came with me to contemplate the beauty and testimony of the icons we have at the Cathedral saw the wonder and life and many experienced moments of transformative Grace. Even while still disagreeing with the Orthodox doctrine and dogma.It was not simply emotion but a deep devotion the Jesus Christ coming forth. His love and Mercy palpably in their hearts.

    There was not the slightest consideration of “conservative” or “liberal” those creations of the evil one to keep us in darkness.

    You have an open invitation to come to Wichita and see for your self. It is quite astounding.

  72. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    On Father Schmemann’s words, Mark asks about:

    Since I don’t know the context, I’m not sure, but I speculate that this might have to do with his involvement with shedding the Western yoke (Western Captivity) on Russian Orthodoxy. He was Russian, and he was at the forefront of such changes, encouraging a kind of movement or project if you will of reform in Russian Orthodoxy away from the Western influences it had had. Perhaps in these words, he’s sounding ‘pro-change’ specifically in reference to the encouragement he was trying to operationalize, of reorienting Russian Orthodoxy back to its Eastern roots/traditions. If this is correct, in his journal writing he sounds like he is reacting to those who may have grown accustomed to their ‘Western captivity’, and who also resisted the ‘throwing off the yoke’ he encourages.

    Nowadays, Russian Orthodoxy has grown through this stage (as a result of expatriates from Russia) reclaiming its Eastern traditions after having left Russia during the era of the Soviet Union.

    This is just my ignorant take. But I hope (intend) that it’s similar to what Father Stephen is saying.

    I have avoided reading his journals, quite frankly. Not for any particular reason but that I sure wouldn’t want my journals read–I’m too much of a sinner and ashamed! –Too private– but our Lord sees, nevertheless.

  73. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I´m still a little lost. Forgive me.

    Wasn´t the movement to banish slavery a thoroughly Christian endeavor (think William Wilberforce)?

    So if we cannot change the world for the better, then should we do nothing? No attempt at prison reform? No attempts to reduce nuclear arsenals? No attempts to eliminate racism? No trying to improve the natural environment? Should we just simply let everything go to hell in a handbasket until Jesus Christ returns?

    Or … does the Church follow the commands of Christ (which are not understood as social justice) while the secular world keeps on chugging along with its social justice activism? While I believe the modern project is fraught with problems, and while I agree that the Church´s work should be focused on calling people to repentance and offering them forgiveness (as well as administering the sacraments), I simply cannot live out my Christian witness in practical ways by sitting around and doing nothing to help others and our society as a whole in the name of Jesus Christ.

  74. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    I’m surprised you’re reading into this conversation the advocacy to do nothing.

  75. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    Just an aside. I work with some Indigenous peoples who, by Western standards live a very hard life. However, they are very tired of Western ‘do-gooders’ forcing upon their people their Western Christian agenda of what they think they need or want, which in the past required forcing their children to go to Christian boarding schools far from their families. I would give you more concrete examples. But the key here I believe is what you’re hearing and not hearing in this conversation.

  76. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Father Stephen,

    I first began reading Father Schmemann because of your post last month(“Mary and the Secret Joy of the Church”) that quoted him. I intend to read “For the Life of the World” at some point–it goes without saying that I’ve read both of your books 🙂 Several versions of a recording of him are on YouTube, drawn (it seems) from “For the Life of the World,” that apply to this discussion.

    Dee,

    While I’m not certain what Father Schmemann is advocating for as a response, I am more certain of the problem he’s describing, and it is much broader and of longer history than a reaction to the West. It is that the Church (he believes) has lost joy in Creation. Conservatives insist the world is irredeemably evil, and we ought not to take joy in worldly, fallen things. Progressives say the world is redeemable, but as long as there is suffering we cannot be joyful, so first we must set the world right. The Gospel of Christ, however, is to rejoice in the love of God.

    In my individual human heart, I am (at least at times) able to understand how relying on God allows that to work in my life–how the two “love” commandments complement one another. Father Schmemann (as a priest), however, is concerned in his journal with answering the question of “What must be done?” for the Church, rather than solely for the individual Christian.

    I agree with you, by the way, that sometimes it feels like an invasion of privacy to hold a person’s inner thoughts up to such intense scrutiny. Nevertheless, I always like reading such accounts because of feeling as though I come to know the person more. We have talked before on this blog about the importance of the *particular*. The particulars of personal accounts are, in my opinion, how we form true connections with other people.

  77. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    @Dee:

    If I have interpreted what is being said here incorrectly, then I am open to correction. That said, it seems the majority opinion here is clear: The modern idea of “making the world a better place” is a misguided idea if not an altogether dangerous idea. Social justice activists are Marxists. We cannot do good when we are so bad, etc., etc.

    What should I be taking from this conversation, Dee of St. Herman, if I am incorrect in my interpretation of what is being stated in the comments?

  78. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Matthew,

    I think this is the key:

    “I simply cannot live out my Christian witness in practical ways by sitting around and doing nothing to help others and our society as a whole in the name of Jesus Christ.”

    I would not for a moment say you should do nothing (Matthew 25:31-40). Christians are commanded to help others.

    “Society as a whole” is a trickier proposition. If a Christian is living for God, I believe enough need will present itself so that the Christian will never lack for opportunity to witness as you describe.

    Once we begin to look at what others are doing and try to influence or correct them, then the opportunity for division and controversy arises. Orthodox Christians instead look to the Church to provide the “aggregate” answers, and, as I alluded above, I’m relieved to have to worry less about that now than when I was a Protestant.

    It likely depends on one’s personality, but in my experience a good supervisor truly does serve more than command. (Cf. Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.) In short, I don’t envy those who take on the office of priest.

  79. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    “Making” the world a better place is indeed misguided. Please note the emphasis.

  80. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Let me back up a step or two to explain why I see “making the world a better place” to be a misguided way of describing our obedience to the commandments of Christ. The primary problem has to do with violence. Modernity is a deeply violent set of ideas – America, its great champion, routinely invades places all around the globe to make the world better. Our media regularly downplay or ignore the cost in civilian lives and infrastructure and describes things instead in political or military terms. Out of over 200 years of its history, America has only had 17 years in which it was not at war. And I only use this as an example.

    At the root of this violence (and there are many non-military forms of violence) is the mistaken belief that we are in charge of the outcome of history. We “make” the world to be a better place even if we have to bomb it into its betterment. It is the arrogance of our mistaken notions of human capability and our willful ignorance of human cruelty that set this as problematic for the Christian life.

    It’s not “Marxism,” per se, that’s the problem. It’s the violence of Marxism that is a problem. But, truth told, we have no non-violent political parties.

    Christ has not blessed us to do violence in order to improve the world…also…it doesn’t work. Violence begats violence which begats violence. It just does. I will acknowledge that there are cases in which violence might seem impossible to avoid (someone’s attacking a child, etc.). But, we’re way past that.

    Christ commandments clearly teach us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give to the poor, visit the sick, care for the prisoners, etc. “Inasmuch as do it unto the least of these…you do it unto Me.” So…we do those things and other things like that. However, we are not taught to practice a moral calculus in which we measure our good, or the “betterment” of the world. Here’s a practical example.

    A beggar on the street asks me for money. The “betterment” mindset wants to know what he’s going to do with the money and will likely withhold assistance if the beggar is going to misuse the money. He wants to control the beggar. I think the teaching of Christ is that we give to the beggar. I should not seek to control the beggar (it’s a subtle form of violence) in order to make him a “better man.”

    The “better man” philosophy is, essentially, fascist or something like it. We should take care in our obedience to the commandments of Christ not to make Christ an ally of alien philosophies and practices. We cannot justify violent actions (of the many sorts) through arguing that they’re for the “greater good.” That thinking has a long dark, modern history. So, I raise my meager voice against that sort of thinking and, as a priest of Christ, warn that it easily leads to delusion and sin. And that’s a difficult voice to hear because it is easily mistaken for arguing against doing good.

    I am not arguing against doing good. I am arguing that the good we do should be that which is blessed by Christ and not that which is dictated by the various political groups seeking to make the world be better.

    But, of course, the Church has no set condemnations of political involvements. I’m just the voice of an old priest with a blog.

  81. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    Take this for what it’s worth. My understanding of Orthodoxy leads me to say that we are microcosms of the created macrocosmic order. The implication is that whatever is true of us is true for all things, and so to the extent that we move from being to well-being to eternal well-being then that also becomes true for the created order. The tricky part about “making the world a better place” is the how. How are you going to do that? Will it require committing evil in the name of a greater good? What would that do to one’s soul? What would that do to the soul of others? We are free to do whatever good we want to do. But, how do you define “good”? That’s another tricky word. I don’t think that it is safe to assume that knowing what is good is obvious at all. We are free to do whatever good we want to do. But, we should be aware that there is a real possibility that we might make things worse simply because the human condition is more complicated than we can know.

  82. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    While I can do nothing about the violence people do, even when it is done to me in the name of making the parish better as has happened…I can repent of the deep anger, fear and destruction in my own heart. Then, who knows what will happen??? The love and Mercy of Jesus Christ to me and those around me?

    Forgive me, a sinner

  83. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Oh: forgiveness and mercy are not known by dogma nor doctrine. They are gifts from the Grace of our Lord through the intercession of the Theotokos. Certainly to rightly approach our Lord one must have a penitent heart and mind.

  84. Santosh John Samuel Avatar
    Santosh John Samuel

    Excellent as always Father.
    And really what a relief that God will not bow down to us or anyone else or to modernity or to any other philosophy.
    Remember our priest who said during the Sunday sermon that God could only be “defeated” through a genuine broken heart (Ps. 51: 16,17). He said God simply had to act when confronted with tears of a repentant man.

  85. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Dee of St Herman, Mark, and Fr. Stephen. It is starting to make more sense now.

    I thought about some things today after having thought a lot about the responses you have offered up. One example I can think of is that of electric auto technology. We want so desperately to eliminate the use of fossil fuels that we (in the west at least) greatly promote this technology because we think it will “do good” for the environment and for society. That said, it seems that in our desire to “do good” we actually do harm. Men and even children have to crawl into deeps mines in Africa in order to retrieve the raw materials needed to produce the electric batteries that allow us to drive our Teslas around the city. The “greater good” appears not to be so great after all. It seems our information is so limited that even when we think we are doing good, it can also be a form of evil and injustice. Maybe it´s not so easy to solve the world´s problems the modern way?

    Another example is what is happening in the Middle East. What Hamas did to the Israelis and others is terribly unspeakable! That said, it could be that Israel, in retaliation, bombed a hospital in Gaza (not all the facts are in yet) which killed hundreds of people. If the Israelis are guilty of this, such is an example, I think, of violence begetting violence. I am also rather certain that there are some (if not many) in Israel who think such loss of life is justified in the name of fighting terror for the greater good. This kind of thinking should create problems for Christians of all stripes.

    In conclusion, I suppose at the end of the day I, as a Christian, must help feed the hungry while my secular friends can continue doing the work of creating solutions to solve the world´s hunger problem. This is at least how I am beginning to understand things based on what I am reading in this comment section.

  86. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    @Simon:

    Very helpful comment. Thanks so much.

  87. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    It’s very important to remember throughout this discussion that I have emphasized that we should keep the commandments of Christ. We “do good” because it is good. That, strangely, is a different thing than “doing good in order to make the world be a better place.” On the surface, on any given day, they might involve doing the same thing. But the train of thought that seeks to “make the world be a better place” is based on a deception and something that cannot be known and is profoundly subject to manipulation and propaganda. You’ve given some good examples.

    Modernity is rooted in secularism – the belief that God is “absent” or that we can live as though He were absent. It also has the notion that the world can and should be managed. Suspiciously, we should note that in the world’s “management” of itself, a smaller and smaller group of people seem to amass more and more money (and, suspiciously, are the ones who manage the information telling us about the good things we should do). They (someone) largely convinced the world that abortion was a good thing, that religion is fanaticism, that gender is fluid, that we are facing an “existential crisis” with the climate, (and those are only some of the most recent messages). These messages have not been shared as information – but have been valorized as “moral” sentiments…meaning that those who do not agree are to be judged as evil persons. Roman emperors once convinced people that Christians were atheists and that we were cannibals and deserved to die…and many of us endured martyrdom. History is replete with these lies – and, on occasion, a secularized Church became a participant in some of the lies.

    The evil one is the “father of lies” (according to Christ) and a “murderer from the beginning.” We are in a great spiritual war and have been for 2,000 years. The commandments of Christ is our daily marching order. We do good – the good taught to us by Christ. There were Christian martyrs who resisted the Nazi efforts against the Jews – by keeping the commandments of Christ and “taking in the stranger” – or, as in the case of St. Dmitri of Paris, providing false baptism certificates and such to deceive the Nazis (for which he was martyred).

    In doing good – be practical, be local, be personal. It’s not that we do not care for the world – but we do so wise as a serpent and meek as a dove. God give us grace…and wisdom.

  88. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Matthew,

    To add to what Father Stephen said, you use a very apt example of what I perceive as the distinction. In your own life, when you are hungry, you address your hunger by trying to find something to eat. You recognize, however, that your hunger problem cannot be solved; you accept that trying to figure out a way to never be hungry again is futile. Recurrent hunger is a condition of your existence.

    On the level of society, there is less acceptance of that truth. The Christian realizes that (as Jesus said) the poor will be with you always. Charity will always be needed (and, therefore, possible). How could we ever “solve world hunger”–particularly if individuals are allowed any freedom to determine their own lives whatsoever?

    An omnipotent God presumably could solve world hunger, if that was His will (such as was done in the desert for the Children of Israel).

    I cannot help being reminded by this analogy of Christ with the Samaritan woman at the well: “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

    We demonstrate our love for our neighbor in material ways, and that can be through cooperative action, of course, to accomplish more than we can as individuals. But I believe more actual love is present in the particular of buying a tank of gas for someone to get home to his family than, say, a gala to raise hunger awareness–certainly more than in supporting flash mobs’ looting grocery stores.

  89. Shawn Avatar
    Shawn

    Thank you for this thread, and for helping me to see modernity more clearly. I admit that it’s hard to sort out as a modern American, but I truly have appreciated the perspectives shared here.
    As an evangelical protestant, I often hear admonitions to use my influence for Christ. Many I know have started organizations with the aim to influence business leaders who then can influence those they work with, multiplying the effect of Christ, or furthering the kingdom (I know this kingdom verbiage is misguided…we don’t further it). Of course, evangelicals are very skilled at pulling off large gatherings and sharing a gospel message with hundreds, if not thousands, at a time to “maximize the impact”. For example, tonight in my hometown, FCA is facilitating a Fields of Faith event which will draw in a huge amount of high schoolers.
    As I learn from Father Stephen and others on this blog, I find that I struggle with how to take the notions behind what I mentioned above. It seems we value the big and impactful over the small and quiet. Are we missing it completely, or are we just off the mark a bit? I can see good in this approach, but also see some modern underpinnings which may be misguided. Could you speak to this and perhaps help guide me in how I can relate?

  90. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Shawn,
    Evangelical Protestantism has had a large “political” footprint for a long time – sometimes it’s hard to tell the two apart. At the same time, it’s footprint has, in many ways, alienated many from the Christian faith (but that usually doesn’t get measured). There’s not a lot of accountability within its movements.

    Orthodoxy sees “evangelism” as the same thing as a parish church – that is – it is a full integration into the sacramental life and communion of the local parish that places us in the arena of salvation (which is always ongoing).

    It is interesting, and a terrible statistic, that, in America, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, and Orthodox Christians, have abortions at about the same or similar rate as non-believers. Whatever it is we have been doing – we are not a great moral force in our culture.

  91. Shawn Avatar
    Shawn

    Thank you for the response. I have a lot to unravel with all this. As I think about this more, I wonder if some of this approach (the events, the big, the influential, the large scale) is a means of distraction or something to hide behind? If we can focus on an event, a speaker, building a platform, then we don’t have to deal with what’s right in front of us – our family members, neighbors, strangers we meet in everyday life. Not to mention our own sin! We don’t have to feel the weight of the world’s brokenness and our struggles when we can chart increasing church attendance trends, number of events or crowd sizes. It seems that growth = good and other similar notions keep us happy, but I can’t help but see the emptiness behind it at times.

  92. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Shawn,
    Among those who comment on this blog, I have little in my heart to support the theology and organizational behavior of Protestantism. Perhaps one might say I am anti-Protestantism (not anti Protestants) more than most here.

    Nevertheless I hope you have patience and an open heart since this as an Orthodox blog has little to say about the churches of other confessions.

    Please stay with us! I’m grateful for your questions. They help to bring illumination to us all.

  93. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    Yes your auto example really works well!
    And as Father says, we are indeed called by Christ to follow His commandments as that path is revealed to us each day. How does Love reveal itself in my actions in this situation (name the circumstances) on this occasion? It is always close in and face to face, not some hypothetical or abstract agenda devised by someone else.

  94. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Fr. Stephen,
    I can’t see how expecting a beggar to spend money on food instead of perhaps spending it on drugs, alcohol, etc, is a subtle form of violence, or has the intention of trying to control or make them a better person.

    You may not agree with me, but if someone says they’re hungry I would offer to buy them a meal of their choice. In some instances the person(s) have declined the offer. For the obvious reasons.

  95. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks again Dee of St Herman, Mark, and Fr. Stephen. Your comments have been more than helpful.

    Fr. Stephen, if I may, you said the following:

    “They (someone) largely convinced the world that abortion was a good thing, that religion is fanaticism, that gender is fluid, that we are facing an “existential crisis” with the climate, (and those are only some of the most recent messages). These messages have not been shared as information – but have been valorized as “moral” sentiments…meaning that those who do not agree are to be judged as evil persons.”

    Doesn´t the Church do this, but only in the reverse?

  96. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Hello Shawn.

    For most of my believing life I have been part of the Protestant evangelical movement — especially the American brand. For more than 10 years now, though, I have been moving away from that tribe because of many of the points you cite in your post. I have many problems with the theological paradigm(s) of this movement as well as with its heavy political involvement.

    I could say so much about what you posted. I was thinking a lot about your post yesterday. The bigger = good or better issue you mentioned really resonated with me. I wonder, though, at those rallys, those revivals, those outreaches, those open-air Gospel events (of which I was a part of both as a participant and in leadership), how much long-term follow-up is really done with those who accept Christ? Where did they end up? How did they spiritually develop? Etc.

    Years ago as a fundamentalist Protestant evangelical I shared what I then understood the Gospel to be with a colleague. He accepted Christ. Then months later I heard from his cousin who is a believer that my colleague said to his wife “Matthew was sharing crazy things about God with me”. His cousin reported to me that he only said “yes” to satisfy me. I believe this happened with other people I evangelized as well. Though these were not “circus tent” events, my thoughts do lead me to my final points:

    While I believe there should be some sort of entry point into a life with Christ for people, I´m not certain the evangelical Protestant “circus tent” method is the most effective or even the most real or even the most transforming point of entry. Finally, even if people do genuinely accept Christ in such a forum, I pray they don´t remain stuck where they are — both spiritually and theologically. Our life of faith is very much a journey … a journey that I hope brings people from a place of weak and infantile beginnings to a more mature, though equally childlike but strong adulthood.

    I hope all that makes some sense Shawn. God bless you.

  97. Nikolaos Avatar
    Nikolaos

    Fr Stephen

    A beggar on the street asks me for money. The “betterment” mindset wants to know what he’s going to do with the money and will likely withhold assistance if the beggar is going to misuse the money. He wants to control the beggar. I think the teaching of Christ is that we give to the beggar. I should not seek to control the beggar (it’s a subtle form of violence) in order to make him a “better man.”

    I am not sure your example of how we should approach the beggar is entirely correct. Perhaps we should apply some discernment.

    If the money is used to buy drugs that result in death, are we not an accomplice ?

    What I have learned in the years of my obedience to Elder Grigorios is to always obtain a blessing prior to an act of charity. The Monastery of Docheiariou in Mt Athos has many spiritual children in cities in Greece, checking carefully the families that the Monastery decides to help, to make sure help goes to those who need it.

    I always get a blessing before proceeding with alms giving. But then I think this is why you said further down in your comment :

    I am not arguing against doing good. I am arguing that the good we do should be that which is blessed by Christ…..

    and the only way I know Christ blesses my action, is if my spiritual father gives the blessing.

  98. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    About the beggar example:

    For so many years I supported the “they´ll buy drugs or alcohol” argument or the “they are simply taking advantage of you” argument. As such, I very often would not give a beggar on the street any money.

    Years later, I thought … well … doesn´t Jesus say give to everyone who asks? Jesus didn´t teach us to first evaluate who was worthy of the giving and who was not before extending generosity. Jesus didn´t say beware of the beggar´s real intentions. Also, didn´t Jesus give completely of himself for all of us without stating who is worthy and who is unworthy of his great sacrifice? As such, the way I began to handle the beggar situation did indeed change.

    Then a non-believing colleague said to me one day as we discussed the matter:

    “We should give the beggar the money they are asking for. If not, they`ll simply commit a crime or something in order to get the money they need for whatever they are trying to obtain.”

    This comment also made me think more about my initial feelings about beggars and the giving of money.

  99. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    Matthew,
    I’m not advocating not giving to beggars. That’s entirely up to the individual. From a personal perspective I came to the conclusion that, if someone says they’re hungry offer them food.
    I stopped giving money to certain people. Why?
    Having seen the mess and misery of the drug trade where I grew up, I could no longer add to it, in good conscience. Death from overdose, amputation of limbs and murders. Greed, violence and misery.
    As regards to a wider view, the heroin and cocaine trade on an international level, in the countries of origin the greed, violence and misery is greater.
    I can do nothing about it and my lack of contribution will change nothing. All I can do is refuse to add to it.

  100. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Andrew. Those are points I hadn`t thought of. So complicated really. Black and white answers are so inappropriate I think.

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…


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