Utopia, Progress, and the Kingdom of God

Near the dawn of the modern period (1500’s), the Reformation set in motion a world of ideas. If the old world of Medieval Catholicism was to be discarded (reformed), what should take its place? The earliest answers were largely those allowed and dictated by the various political states of Europe: Lutheranism, Anglicanism, Calvinism, etc. On the whole, this was a moderate answer. But change is heady stuff – once it’s begun, how do you stop? By the 1600’s new answers began to appear. In England especially, reform led to experimentation, and experimentation gave way to Civil War. At the same time, England was exporting its religious combatants to America – a place that would become the incubator for every imaginable religious experiment.

It is striking to me that a number of those experiments were utopian in nature. The question became not how to create a better world, but how to create a perfect world. When the Great Awakening (1740’s) swept through New England, the quiet Calvinists villages of the region erupted into an amazing number of extremes. There were claims by some of the newly-awakened that they had reached a state of sinlessness. A few even declared that they would never die. Groups like the Shakers and others experimented with a variety of communal forms that today are largely known only to specialists in American religious history.

But the fervor of that religious revival, mimicked by the Second Great Awakening in the 19th century (which gave us Adventists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and a host of new denominations), never disappeared. What began as a religious phenomenon quickly became a political pheonomenon (religion and politics in America have had a long, troubled marriage). The utopian dreams of one century became the political dreams of another. What today can be described as “modernity,” is nothing more than a secularized version of those dreams. The perfect world dreamed of by some, has become the better world of today’s political parties.

Christian evangelism first taught advertising how to sell a product. Advertising is now its own secular evangelism in which its believers are called “consumers.” If the world is to become a better place – it will be because we bought it.

These dynamics are easy to see within our cultural mix. They hang over us, particularly in the meta-world of the powers-that-be. However, they are not the stuff of our daily lives (for which we should be grateful). We still move from task to task each day, with human interactions (for good or bad) creating the landscape of our lives. We are never any closer to a perfect world (much less a better world) for the simple fact that the human interactions around us are as flawed as ever. The adoption of the latest utopian-designed, non-oppressive beliefs by a jerk never result in anything other than a jerk with some new ideas (to put it crudely). And none of that alters the bumps and bruises of our day-to-day tasks. Indeed, it often only complicates matters further.

There is a manufacturing company that I pass by on a regular basis. For some strange reason, it has an electronic sign on the street where messages can be regularly posted. Sometimes the messages can be quite practical, telling passers-by what the pay would be for a starting position: “now hiring.” However, most days, the sign proclaims that we are now in a special month – set aside for the one or another perceived minority group. We are closing in on utopia a month at a time. What I’ve learned by watching the sign over the past couple of years is that there is a zealot somewhere in the HR department who is in charge of the sign. It also sends signals (for some) that becoming part of such a workplace may come with extra problems beyond the day-to-day tasks with which we all must struggle. The Soviet utopian project was famous for its slogans.

It’s in light of our daily lives that I repeatedly suggest that there is no such thing as progress. The landscape changes. The advance in technology now enables me to sit on hold for an hour, waiting for a human voice, while holding enormously sophisticated (and expensive) device in my palm. It does not change the boredom of that hour, bring meaning to my existence, nor make the world a better place.

Nor should we mistake technological “progress” with the Kingdom of God. If the few social successes (end of slavery, etc.) of the past few centuries constitute moments in the Kingdom of God, then I am severely disappointed.

I do not find such interests (or lofty schemes) within the gospel record of Christ. There are miracles aplenty. However, those miracles are very much of the day-to-day variety. A woman with an issue of blood is healed. A woman bowed for 18 years by some crippling disease is loosed. A paralytic is made to walk. A leper is cleansed. A couples’ daughter is raised from the dead. A request to make a brother (or sister) abide by a better set of rules is refused (“make my brother divide the inheritance”…”make my sister help me with the housework”). And on the stories go – each one quite specific. None of those who are touched by such miracles enter a utopia, nor do all of their miracles add up to such a sum.

There were other miracles of note. A man who made a very good living by cheating and defrauding the citizens of Jericho had a life-changing dinner invitation. He went from tax-collector to Son of Abraham in a short matter of time, distributing half of his wealth to the poor and restoring four-fold any damages he had done to others. In that encounter, I see the Kingdom of God.

Christ taught that the “Kingdom of God is within you” (Lk. 17:20). What we see in the stories of these individual encounters, is the Kingdom of God unfolding within the lives of people around Jesus. We have a more long-range image of that process in the lives of a few of His disciples and apostles. What we also see in the rear-view mirror that is history, is the long, tortuous tale of the Church, the single work that Christ gave to the world. It is a tortuous tale because it is unavoidably the aggregate of individual lives stretched over day-to-day experience. It is as wonderful as the life of a saint, and as shameful as the life of apostates, or those, who in the name of Christ, become the sponsors of great evil. That same tale is living its way out in each of our lives in the present moment.

Progress is a sales slogan. Politics is a sales slogan that takes your money and buys guns.

I am a child of the 60’s. Born in 1953, I was nurtured on the same slogans as the whole of my generation. I shared many of their dreams and sang the songs. A life-changing event occurred in my 15th year. Somehow, I stumbled on a book of essays by Leo Tolstoy. I never became a Tolstoyan – but I was deeply impacted by his treatment of the Sermon on the Mount. It was the first time I had encountered anything that made me want to read the Scriptures – much less with the idea that they could actually be pondered and practiced. Any number of Christ’s sayings in those two chapters seem extreme or beyond our abilities. Nevertheless, they formed a picture of the Kingdom of God. It created a hunger in me that has persisted through the years.

Seek first the Kingdom…the rest will follow…without slogans or vain imaginings. It is within you.

 

Photo: Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

 

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

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



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123 responses to “Utopia, Progress, and the Kingdom of God”

  1. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I must admit that I have been slow to get on the “no progress” train. I think my take is that the dream of progress is the best people can do. Unfortunately, like everything else, we turn it into a Gulag. No one even stops to ask ‘What is progress?’, ‘What does that look like?’ That makes it sufficiently ambiguous that it can mean whatever we want it to mean and that is a real problem. At the end of the day, you are right. In the hands of the mob progress becomes one more guillotine in history.

    I am reminded of one of the final scenes in the dystopian superhero movie Watchmen. One of the characters, Jon Osterman (Dr. Manhattan) is a godlike figure that can manipulate matter: Turn bullets into soap bubbles, etc. The smartest man in the world (Adrian Veidt) has come up with a plan that will not only save humanity from destroying itself, but will usher in a new global utopia. It unfortunately, but very pragmatically, requires targeted use of nuclear weapons and the deaths of 250 million people. The character Rorschach protests and says to Dr. Manhattan, “If you’d cared from the start, none of this would’ve happened.” And Dr. Manhattan replies, “I can change almost anything… but I can’t change human nature.” And therein lies the rub.

    We don’t need one more false god.

  2. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Father Stephen,

    Having recently listened to several recordings by Jim Jones (of Jonestown infamy) and thinking how similar his rhetorical presentation was to many others’ preaching of a distorted message of God’s kingdom, I was bound to click on the related article to your current post “Religion as Neurotic Delusion.” That article begins with a quotation from the Father Schmemann’s journals I have as my lunchtime reading:

    “As the sacrament is impossible without bread, wine and water, so religion requires peace, true daily peace. Without it, religion quickly becomes a neurosis, a self-deception, a delusion.”

    Small wonder that a trademark of cults is to keep their followers sleep deprived, or that modern mass movements are characterized by “agitation.”

    “No justice, no peace” is a succinct slogan, but how rarely forfeiting the latter achieves the former!

  3. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    FWIW, simply listen to who uses the “progress” mantra and consider why. I’m not opposed to technology, per se, just advertising slogans for the various master pretenders.

    You’re right. When everything is said and done – we’re all still stuck with human nature – or just our humanity (which is not such a bad thing). I think this is a saving feature of our lives – we’re all too busy just trying to cope with reality to do the really terrible damage that utopia-building is capable of. And, if we’re truly blessed, at some point we discover that the Kingdom of God is found precisely in the reality we’re saddled with.

  4. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Mark,
    Mass movements prey on the young – the slogans require a sort of innocence on the part of their believers.

    I once told a group of college students who were agitating about sex: “You can’t know anything about sex at your age. You need to have been married for ten years and to have buried a child to know anything about sex.” I could expand on that some other time.

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I was in San Francisco at the time of Jim Jones and myself a member of a “New Age” group. A group that, by Grace, became Orthodox after its founder died. Some went on with the occult, new age, teachings but the majority of us became Orthodox: Antiochian, Bulgarian and OCA.
    The only observable difference I have ever seen is that the group I was in taught two things that utopian groups never do: the Kingdom of God is within, observable and real; sin is real and repentance is the cure. Plus it had a rudimentary sacramental approach to life and worship.

    To be Christian requires repentance. Jesus initial call, following John, the Baptist is recorded in Mt 4:17: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

    To me, “at hand”, means closer than hands and feet. Repentance seems to be the only path through the inner wilderness to the sea with Jesus.

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The wonderful scholar/historian, J. B. Bury wrote a wonderful book: “The Idea of Progress”. I read it decades ago and it changed my perspective significantly. Good read.

  7. Preston Avatar
    Preston

    I’d be curious, Father, to hear your opinion of Tolstoy now with the benefit of hindsight. His embrace of non-violence, there are a lot of people in the Anabaptist world who try to claim him as “one of our own.” But I find this rather confusing given the fact that he apparently rejected the Trinity, miracles, and even baptism… What would you say is the “real story?”

  8. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thank you Father 🙂

  9. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Preston,
    Tolstoy is an interesting old bird. He was, no doubt, a heretic (with lots of odd ideas). However, if you will, he was a Russian Orthodox heretic. I think that it is not possible to really understand him without understanding both the depth of his Russian cultural identity as well as his Orthodox background. He would have been hard to duplicate elsewhere. It is quite interesting to note that he apparently was the source of Ghandi’s non-violence. There’s a considerable literary correspondence between them that is worth reading.

    He was not like the Western protestants with their utopian ideas. He was Russian, in the sense that he was quite serious enough to actually put his beliefs into practice. There are varying accounts about whether he might have been reconciled to the Church before his death. I rather pray that he was.

    I am grateful to him in that he introduced me to reading the Sermon on the Mount and taking it seriously. A very holy Coptic monk once wrote that if we would take any single commandment of Christ and pursue it with all our heart – we would find the Kingdom of God to have opened for us. I think I first saw a glimpse of that in Tolstoy.

    It was some 6 or 7 years later before I read my first Russian theology (Vladimir Lossky). I found that heart to be present, not only in him, but in the spiritual fathers I began to discover. In seminary, I first picked up the Desert Fathers – a whole community who embraced the totality of the gospel!

    I still believe that this is the “heart” of Orthodoxy – to pursue the Kingdom with every fiber of your being.

  10. Gigi Murphy Avatar
    Gigi Murphy

    THANK YOu!

  11. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Ok … here it goes …

    My wife and I were discussing once again the role the church should play in environmental activism. My main point was that the church´s function is to mediate and proclaim salvation to the world not to reduce CO2 emissions. My wife´s opinion is that creation belongs to God and as such where his creation is being destroyed the church needs to step in and help. She believes that environmental destruction wreaks havoc on many people in the word, especially people living in the global south, thus creating massive injustice. Should the church not in the name of Christ attempt to address this injustice she asks. Is the church only in the business of mediating salvation and spiritual transformation (e.g. teaching people to pray all day) rather than also being actively involved in the real problems the world is facing? I said to her that for me I want to concentrate on my own spiritual transformation so that I can live out the commands of Christ in the way that I should; that there are enough secular people working on the problem and that my efforts need to be focused elsewhere. She responded by saying we need everyone, including the church, to be on board with the environmental program because the problem is so big and so critical. That´s basically where the conversation ended. Can one be a Christian and an environmental activist? How does one flesh out one´s calling in life and how does one actively live out that calling as a Christian? Big questions I know. My wife believes it is her Christian faith that is influencing her passion for environmental activism. I´m not sure what to say or think really, though I think I track with Fr. Stephen´s thesis a bit more now than I did a few months ago.

  12. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Michael said:

    “The wonderful scholar/historian, J. B. Bury wrote a wonderful book: “The Idea of Progress”. I read it decades ago and it changed my perspective significantly. Good read.”

    Can you offer up a quick summary and the main thesis Michael? I simply don´t have time to read the book right now, but am greatly interested in its main points.

    🙂

  13. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    First, you’re wife should read a few news clippings about the “Green Patriarch,” Pat. Bartholomew of Constantinople. He’s famously strong about environmental issues, fwiw.

    However, I’ll be more down-to-earth and straightforward in my thoughts on this. Since your wife has not likely visited the third world and witnessed the destruction being wrought, it is safe to assume that what she knows, she knows through reading and listening to news/opinion pieces. For me, that is already problematic in that news/opinion in our world today is deeply and intentionally slanted. That being the case, we do well to ask: cui bono. “Who stands to gain?”

    It strikes me as interesting that the strongest support for “green” policies comes from the same sectors of society that in earlier times were strikingly Marxist – which is ironic given that Marxist countries were among the worst polluters of the planet (and still are in China). The policies advocated for a greener world are invariably statist and authoritarian. Sometimes they’re almost comical. The net result of electric vehicles is quite debateable – it often fails to discuss the damage to the environment done by battery technology/disposal/mining, etc. In a complex world, we are mostly offered simplistic solutions which, oddly enough, are making a handful of people rich – and are making a lot of people (especially among the youth) nearly insane with fear and anxiety. I, for one, think that the Church should not be contributing to the climate crisis of fear and anxiety – that pollution causes lots of deaths as well.

    Christ said, “Be as wise as serpents and as meek as doves.” Your wife is, doubtless, quite sincere when she says that her Christian faith influences her passion for environmental activism. The question of cui bono is quite difficult to ask and is not something any of us can force on someone. It is quite proper to care about creation – I daresay no other theological approach has been as historically concerned with creation as Orthodoxy. The sacramental understanding is inherently concerned with the environment.

    However, Christians should be wary of their associations. The political associations often involved in various social movements entail being “unequally yoked,” or simply serving as a foot soldier in the armies of various earthly masters.

    One of my younger children told me that she thought I was a cynic. I responded that I was not a cynic – but simply old. I have yet to hear much truth come out of the mouth of a politician, and even less out of a journalist. They are not the sort who should stir our passions – they are not motivated by good. That leaves us with a path of our own making. So, a question would be – how do we rightly relate to the creation. What does that look like for a believer? How do we do that without just becoming pawns in the game of global government?

  14. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    What are we going to do with those batteries when they can’t be recharged anymore? Can you imagine in 20 years having to find some place to stick millions of toxic batteries that are no longer rechargeable?

  15. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Fr. Stephen. Who then do we trust for our information? As citizens who are blessed to live in a free society we need to be rightly informed so we can effectively participate in the societal process. I am with you re: the politicians, but the journalists too? I cannot imagine all journalists are motivated by lying and the almighty dollar/euro/peso/etc. I think a lot of journalists are simply trying to get at the truth while being non-biased or neutral, though I know this is a very difficult ship to navigate. If it is all so messy, if we cannot trust any informer, if we don´t try and make the world a better place … then what do we do? … yes, I know, follow the commands of Christ you will say … but what does that look like practically and isn´t that also changing the world in some sense?

  16. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    It’s easy to forget that journalists work for corporations and those corporations have editorial/reporting policies. Independent journalism is hard to find, but it’s there. I do not say don’t trust any informer – but question them – don’t take such stuff for granted.

    As to changing the world – quit doing that math equation. Only God knows the answer.

    But – if we live, following the commandments of Christ (and the creation is our “neighbor” as well), let God do the math. The politics of modernity are relentless – because it’s a religion. It doesn’t care if you’re a Christian, so long as you’re motivated to get on board the train.

    In what ways has your wife made a difference in the climate? Just curious.

  17. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Since the east didn´t have a Reformation like the west, how has it dealt with both societal and scientific progress outside the realm of the Church and its teachings?

    If you ask a lot of secular, modern Europeans they will tell you how thankful they are that the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and secularism lifted Western Europe out of the dark ages of religion and religious wars.

    It seems the east has largely avoided the land mines of the west. Why and how?

  18. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Well … she gets crazy when I want to eat chocolate that is not fair trade!

  19. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    And she would prefer that we use paper straws I think. She also, for a time, washed clothes with ivy instead of laundry soap.

  20. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Matthew,

    Like Father Stephen, I immediately thought of Patriarch Bartholomew, whom I have referenced in discussions with my daughter–an animal lover, environmental alarmist, and long-time catechumen.

    Some of your follow-up post, I think, revisits questions we already discussed in regard to war and peace and social justice. (Having worked as a journalist for several years and in mass media for more years than that, my experience is…the motivations of journalists are as varied as any other human beings in any other profession. Moreover, that world has been under tremendous disruptive change for decades that is currently exponentially worse.)

    Besides what Father Stephen has already said, I will add that it may only be the Church (and Christianity) that feels charged to answer your wife on the personal level. That she expects to receive an answer to her concern, that her opinion matters, it is because Christian ideas have inculcated over the centuries that change occurs from within the individual human heart. In other words, the environmentalist is by definition concerned about the environment, not about your wife. Laws and regulations to govern the masses are the answer–in your wife’s words, “we need everyone, including the church, to be on board with the environmental program because the problem is so big and so critical.”

    What is “the environmental program,” so that I can concern myself with it? What is the First Principle that will allow me to decide whether a given environmental action is good or bad?

    If, as a Christian, I instead say environmental degradation is a consequence of humans’ viewing God’s creation in a distorted, sinful way, then I can treat this evil at its root cause and in the particular (and at the same time work at all the other evils in the world). For this reason, the Christian cannot ignore your wife’s question provided the laws are “right,” because the Christian understands that compelling obedience through force is not sufficient to address the root problem. The Christian sees your wife’s immortal soul as every bit as important as the environmental program.

    (Example: If good nutrition is our goal, we can’t pass one global policy to solve it both in the US and Africa. Instead, a nutritionist would realize each person’s nutritional deficiencies are different, and only working with and feeding the individual does nutrition get “solved.”)

    Orthodoxy teaches us to view–not just ourselves or even other people–but all of creation as holy. It is not to be made slave to our will and exploited, but to be taken care of and treasured in and of itself, rather than viewed only through what it can do for me, its utility.

    A healthy attitude toward the environment can flow from this first principle–the same first principle that tells the Christian to listen actively to your wife’s question because she, too, is part of the holy creation. Most ideologies and -isms, however, start by putting the cart before the horse and view the problem in terms of symptoms.

    If curing symptoms is the only goal, it becomes easy enough to kill the patient. (I do not exaggerate, as some in the environmental movement favor human extinction.)

  21. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I just talked to Cordelia (my wife :-)). She wants practical ways she can help with the environmental problem as a Christian; how can I love creation as my neighbor rightly and effectively without getting on board with the modern experiment she asks. She wants to know how her secondary life should look as she concentrates on her primary life … a life with Christ.

    Thanks Mark as always.

  22. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Matthew,

    I compost. When I can use a clothesline, I prefer it to the dryer. But your wife will have to figure out in her unique situation which specifics are available to her. Fundamentally, not believing that “the one who dies with the most toys” is the key. Reduce, reuse, recycle…in that order.

    My daughter buys almost all her clothes from thrift stores, and lately I’ve begun to imitate her (although for men it does seem to be more of a challenge simply to find the bargains she gets). My daughter’s grandmother has always lived frugally from habits acquired in childhood, regardless of the circumstances she achieved in adulthood. After a meal, she carefully puts away all the leftovers, so that food is never wasted. She and granddad keep driving vehicles with 150,000 miles on them.

    As Americans, most (not all) of us need only remember how much more we have than the great majority of people who have ever lived. And then consider whether all that abundance is necessary. Not only does a simpler lifestyle free up both money and time and reduce our personal stress, it means we can more easily help others. A side effect is it benefits the environment.

    Cordelia is a nice name 🙂

  23. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    It means “little heart” in Latin 🙂

  24. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Isn´t the global environmental problem so big that it needs solutions wrought on a large scale … more than me placing an insect hotel in my garden?

  25. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, the idea that something is “so big” that it can only be met with a “big” response is part of the problem.

    Question: “Can a technological problem be met with a technological solution?” OR
    Does the problem only get bigger?

    As impotent as it sounds the real answer lies in each person’s heart. Therefore, repentance is the key. The specifics of that are impossible to describe for certain, but each of us can start right now.

    Mt 4:17

  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The environmental dislocation is due to the fall BTW that is why only personal repentance (not big programs) will reap any benefit. Healing of the rift between by participating in the Incarnation is the way.

  27. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Well, you asked for practical ways that Cordelia could help, Matthew.

    Most big problems, like environmental degradation, are the sum of many smaller problems. (An asteroid hurtling toward the Earth would be an example of a problem that only a large-scale solution can solve.) In the case of the environment, the individual more likely can address the small, near problem and thereby help solve the big problem. I’m reminded of Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer.

    One can always help by not contributing to it. But the mote in someone else’s eye is always more alluring than addressing our own sins.

    In short, I agree with Michael.

  28. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I appreciate as always all the reponses. Very challenging indeed.

  29. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    If all of you are correct (Fr. Stephen, Mark, and Michael) and this is what I begin explaining to my secular friends (as well as Christians who have bought into the mordern experiment) they will no doubt think the Church is and still continues to be a part of the problem rather than the solution. I guess that is to be expected though. May the Holy Spirit reveal to them a different way. May the Holy Spirit reveal a different way to me! That said, this just came to me now:

    In Germany, a quiet Church stood by as horror reigned over Das Vaterland during a time we are all familiar with. Isn´t this a case where the Church should have been more apart of changing the world?

  30. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Also … repentance is absolutely key. Agreed. However, I repented years ago, accepted Jesus Christ as my Saviour and then was handed a lot of theological junk that didn´t inspire me to love the environment (at a heart level). It didn´t inspire me a lot of good really. It just evoked fear and made me a religious zealot! Repentance is key … right repentance is far better though.

  31. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew,
    There is the institutional church and the Church filled with the Holy Spirit and the Life of God. I have experienced and been a part of both in my 37 years as a member. I am just beginning to learn repentance–but there seems to be a lot of help.
    Repentance, Grace and Mercy are necessary for the Holy Spirit to manifest.

    It is counter intuitive to personally repent for what seems to be the problems of others. Yet, it seems to “work” if that is the correct word.

  32. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, I am sure you know that repentance is not “one and done” it is a life long commitment to acknowledging my separation from the living Jesus Christ and seeking deeper and deeper union with Him. It is not a panacea for changing the world or anybody else but oneself. That is why The Jesus Prayer is …have mercy on ME, a sinner.

  33. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    To quote Father Schmemann:

    To answer this question, be it only in a most general way, we must begin with something quite forgotten and certainly out of fashion today: the fundamentally personal character of Christianity. One of the greatest dangers of modern secularism is the reduction of man, of his life and his religion to history and sociology….

    It is at this point that one must forcefully state that Christianity deals not with “cultures”, “societies”, and “ages”, and even not with “people”—but it is based on a concept which precisely is not reducible to history and sociology. This does not mean that Christianity is limited to personal or individual salvation. On the contrary, its scope is indeed cosmical and catholic, it embraces in its vision the whole creation and the totality of life, it has always been preached and believed as the salvation of the world. It means only that the salvation of the world is announced and, in a sense, entrusted to each person, is made a personal vocation and responsibility and ultimately depends on each person. In the Christian teaching man is always a person and thus not only a “microcosm” reflecting the whole world, but also a unique bearer of its destiny and a potential “king of creation.” The whole world is given—in a unique way—to each person and thus in each person it is “saved” or “perishes.” …

    To remember this personal character of Christian faith is very appropriate when one discusses the situation of the Church in any’ “society”, “culture” or “age”, its relationship to any “way of life”. For the whole Orthodox tradition takes two radically different views on what is “possible” and “impossible” for Christianity depending on whether it considers a person or the impersonal entities such as “society” and “culture” which it includes in the general concept of “this world.” However strong and overwhelming the modern emphasis on the “social” orientation of Christianity, no one can deny that in regard to “this world” Christianity is basically “pessimistic.” … Yet Orthodoxy is basically optimistic about the possibilities of a person. What is impossible for “this world” is possible for the one who believes in Christ.

    [End quote]

    The ultimate value of a doctrine is whether it is true or not, regardless of whether it helps with any perceived world problem. Is the Hippocratic Oath of the medical profession “first, do no harm” a bad principle because it did not prevent a Dr. Mengele? That’s not what it claims to do.

    Neither does Orthodoxy.

  34. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    When I was a catechumen, I had similar concerns. And they were very important to me. Furthermore, the world’s state in all its realms still upsets me greatly. I know some people from communities that are severely impacted by climate change. The thing that bothered me most was hearing Orthodox denying the impacts of climate change and the anthropogenic causes of it. Most of the reasons they would deny it came from the internet rather than from working in the various sciences involved in observing the effects and following back to causes and to the future with potential effects. I was very flustered at times when such discussions of denial occurred on this blog.

    However, I vouch for what Father says. Others have used the Church for political causes, which has made it do what it should not do as an organization: be the arm of politics, secular politics, which has no interest in the commandments of Christ.

    Why is such responsiveness to political issues a concern? Because it makes it vulnerable to the whims of those in power who do not concern themselves with the commandments of Christ (notwithstanding the talk, it’s the walk that is real).

    Each of us does what we can. I bet your wife, who uses ivy for soap and paper straws, still has lots of plastic surrounding her. Does she use a computer or a mobile phone? What is in them? She cannot avoid it unless you live in a log cabin or in a temperate climate without electricity.

    On plastics: there is so much in the world that microplastics have become an issue in drinking water–everywhere. According to some studies, they are now accumulating in our flesh. Should we be worried about that? Should we ask the Church to do something about that? If the Church makes a statement, would it not be just another ‘head’ talking about it?

    Someone representing local environmental public health asked me to help our situation locally by setting up a lab to quantify microplastics in our local drinking water. Because I was asked for help, I’m now involved with that concern locally. Walking out into the streets with a picket sign on this issue will not help. Action is needed, and I’m working on it now. We need to cut down on plastic use. But I’m having a hard time doing that in my personal life. I see it everywhere. We hope to build better filtration systems.

    So, I pray about these and the coming impacts of climate change. I do what I can right where I am. I pray and go to Church for my soul and the souls of others who are contributors to the problem that impacts so many people.

  35. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Michael.

  36. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    And everyone else! 🙂

  37. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Several things to consider:
    1. During the period of the Reformation, Enlightenment, etc., Orthodoxy was primarily under the boot of a hostile religious government (the Turkish Empire). We were in survival mode. Russia, with its vast distances, etc., had its own internal issues (including lots of wars and invasions).
    2. Orthodoxy is not centralized, and the possibility of gathering in any sort of true Synod (like an Ecumenical Council) was not possible. There were some local councils to deal with various things – primarily theological issues.
    3. To this day, there is only a modest amount of dealing with world issues, per se. We don’t pronounce on everything that comes along. Most of that is left to local applications.
    4. It’s funny to think of Europeans being happy about how things have gone. Stanley Hauerwas, American theologian, once said that the genius of secularization was not that it got Catholics and Protestants to quit killing each other – but that it got Catholics killing Catholics and Protestants killing Protestants (mostly in the name of the State). The two largest wars in modernity (WWI and WW2) were secular wars. But, that doesn’t keep the popular narratives of the bad-old-days of religion from being trotted out regularly as secular modernity continues to congratulate itself in spite of everything.
    5. The East has avoided many things because we were weak, disorganized, and poor. All of those things are the antithesis of the modern virtues – but were championed in the New Testament. I think it is the blessing of God.

  38. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    It’s an interesting question. Mark, I really appreciate the practical examples. In truth, our American cities are designed to require a maximum use of automobiles, etc. They were designed like energy was unlimited and pollution a non-issue. And they are ugly.

    I like “living locally.” I do as much of my shopping and business in my town and to know my neighbors. I spend a lot of time walking in some of our local nature reserves…and have a sense of my relationship with the trees (My wife loves trees). My wife works for a small science firm that studies environmental risks (nuclear, chemical). So, our consciousness is pretty “high” on these things.

    I am very wary about the global solutions, precisely because they are about overweening government power – which is incredibly corrupt. After WWI, the Western powers met and drew up new boundaries for countries, etc. Much of that arrogance resulted in the fact that we’ve pretty much been in a single continuous war across the planet – most of which was hatched in the Treaty of Versailles (including WW2). We are notoriously bad, even evil, when it comes to global solutions.

  39. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Global is one way to think of the problem – and it is loved by governments. But the real solutions are quite local. The danger in “global” is that no human being lives as a global – we live in the micro. And so, we have to do the difficult work of doing solutions that take serious account of the local effects. Without abundant energy, economies do not grow. Industrialization, for all of its weaknesses, has also brought more people out of poverty than anything else. It’s part of the equation. The world needs dignified work – not handouts.

    We also could do with a whole lot less alarmism. It’s very dangerous. It produces tyrants. A green tyrant is as bad as a Nazi in the long run, because that’s the nature of tyranny.

  40. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Some parts of the Church were quite vocal during that terrible period. Karl Barth comes to mind, as well as any number of Christian martyrs of the period. It wasn’t Christianity that brought the Nazis to power – Hitler was a secularist/pagan who preached a secular pagan Germany. The problem with the Church was that had grown unused to resisting the culture.

    So, here I am, preaching a form of cultural-resistance. If there is another great tyranny coming – it will likely be green in its rhetoric. That religion has already had more than a generation nurtured in Western schools. But, the Church will continue to be blamed for all kinds of ills – for the simple reason that “our adversay, the devil, goes about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour…” He hates the Church. Secretly, he hates the planet as well.

    The Church has very little social influence anywhere these days. We are a minority pretty much everywhere. But minorities are the most convenient targets.

  41. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dee,
    Alaska (where you now live) is, in many places, on the cutting edge of climate change – and I know that the local elders are rightly concerned (I’ve had a number of conversations with Alaskan priests, etc.). I worry about the plastic problem, and very much about the poisoning of our food system that has become rampant. Such conversations seem commonplace to me in my parish – the concerns are shared by many. We have a small community in our Church that are now a farming community – doing responsible things, supplying responsible foods, etc. It’s encouraging, even though it’s small and local.

    Things will get much worse before they get better. May God give us the grace that is required.

  42. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Father Stephen,

    Computers and AI are kicking the remaining self-limiting guardrails aside. The capacity for evil and incompetence of a few corrupt individuals has expanded far beyond where it was even at the end of WWII.

    Nuclear weapons are the most obvious, but we have all kinds of ways of making irrevocable global mistakes nowadays. And as you say, it looks to get worse.

  43. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Maybe that HR manager at the factory had us (the Church) in mind when he or she programmed that digital sign? 🙂

  44. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I cannot but believe that the intercessions of St. Olga of Alaska are helpful in these matters

  45. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    I resembles the digital sign outside the local Unitarian Universalist Church (which is sort of the Democratic Party at prayer) more than anything.

  46. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Is the church only in the business of mediating salvation and spiritual transformation (e.g. teaching people to pray all day) rather than also being actively involved in the real problems the world is facing?

    I find this statement (if it is, indeed, a quote from your wife) very worrying. Especially the phrase, “actively involved in the real problems the world is facing”. It fairly screams that living the Christian life (following the commandments of Christ–e.g. praying all day) is irrelevant when “real problems” come about.

    It’s worth asking though, what would the world look like if we stopped what we do so often (as impossible as that is) and learned to pray, etc. as Christ taught? Father has, many times, noted that Christians do not “do nothing” in keeping the commandments of Christ. Indeed, we do the most important things, small as they seem. Just an observation.

    I don’t want to downplay the environmental issues or contradict the more “practical” advice that has been given by others. But that statement leaped off the page at me when I read it.

    The problem with the Church was that had grown unused to resisting the culture.

    I think another problem is that the way that the Church resists the culture is not the way the culture tends to work. I am reminded of the village of Le Chambon in France, WW2. The pastor didn’t set up an underground resistance group or network of any kind (as the world would encourage). He simply preached nonviolence and resistance against evil. But he preached it in a way that our culture ignores in its desire and worship of power and control.

    …In attacking evil, we must cherish the preciousness of all human life. Our obligation to diminish the evil in the world must begin at home; we must not do evil, must not ourselves do harm. To be against evil is to be against the destruction of human life and against the passions that motivate that destruction…. Work and look for ways, for opportunities, to make little moves against destructiveness. The sermons did not tell what those moves should be; they said only that an imitator of Christ must somehow make such moves when the occasion arises.

    There’s no blueprint for overcoming anything there–just opportunity, centered in the heart. We work on our own hearts and the demons tremble. I think that is a good way–a practical way–to consider things.

  47. Katie Prothro Avatar
    Katie Prothro

    It’s Native American month by the way. Next time I pass that sign I will think of you! Also, I thoroughly enjoyed this article!

  48. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Fr. Stephen,

    What I meant was that you mentioned the church being a persecuted minority. That was what my comment about the digital sign was referring to.

    Also … I thought you didn´t like to talk politics on the blog. 🙂 🙂

  49. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    There’s no blueprint for overcoming anything there–just opportunity, centered in the heart. We work on our own hearts and the demons tremble. I think that is a good way–a practical way–to consider things.

    I agree, Byron. The future is so hard to see, especially now, with so many variables leading us to destruction. Whatever we do to fix a situation is often the next serious problem. As St Sophrony said, the forces and struggles at play in the world have their parallel in our hearts. But at least we can attend to our hearts. That is where the real struggle lies. Whatever small, seemingly insignificant acts that come from love may yield greater impacts than we will ever know.

  50. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Father,
    The stories of the impacts of climate change that I hear from the elders who live in rural areas near me are so heart-rending. So many things going on at once. Shoring up a sinking home is one of many onslaughts. The exponential speed at which these things are happening outstrips our capacities to respond and mitigate. But we keep trying and praying.

    As you say: Things will get much worse before they get better. May God give us the grace that is required.
    Amen!

  51. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Correction and for clarity: the rate of change (involving climate change effects) over time is exponential–just in case someone wants to catch me on that statement on “speed”.

  52. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    By the way, Father, that’s a fantastic picture (of your grandson?).

  53. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    In general, I do not like to talk politics – other than to express my general dismay and to note its delusions.

  54. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dee,
    Nope – it’s a picture borrowed from “Unsplash” which provides non-copyright material for free use.

  55. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Dee said:

    “Whatever small, seemingly insignificant acts that come from love may yield greater impacts than we will ever know.”

    Couldn´t agree more.

  56. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Dee,
    Thanks for sharing your perspective on the impacts of climate change where you are. Especially as a Orthodox scientist, you make a sober contribution to the discussion of creation care. And what you say resonates with what I’ve seen. Our family watches a lot nature documentaries. Ice caps are melting rapidly; deserts are expanding; extinction threatens various species. And yet many species are adapting in amazing ways. I must admit I’m torn between optimism and pessimism concerning the human ability to do so. With the exponential growth in human population, we will either evolve or perish. The ancient maxim seems to stand: we must die (to selfishness) before we die.

  57. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    If we believe the evidence for a universe that has been expanding for roughly 13.8 billion years, then any grand talk of human “progress” is a bit hubristic anyway. Perspective makes all the difference: if the universal timeline was the length of a calendar year, the dinosaurs would go extinct on December 30th and human history would comprise about the last 5 minutes before New Year’s Day. It’s quite humbling, really.

  58. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Someone I work with has said several times that there are simply too many humans on earth and that this exponential population growth will destroy us all.

    I countered by saying that I believe there are enough resources on earth for all the humans that are here and are to come. The real problem is selfishness and corruption. I added that people have to simply be willing to live with less so that others can have more. People have to think more about others.

    He said something like “Who would be willing to do that?” It´s interesting that he didn´t argue against my selfishness and corruption claim, but rather simply admitted that for him the moral problem was almost impossible to overcome.

    I guess it is a heart issue after all, though I am not completely against programs that try to socially engineer things in order to attempt to mitigate the fallout from a sick heart. There is a social program in my city here in Germany that is for people who are psychologically ill. These folks can work for a reduced wage in a number of departments within the project; the kitchen, the laundry, etc. though most of the clients are also being supported financially by the government. They also receive counseling if the want it as well as practical help and advice. The program offers them much needed structure and a genuine sense of worth. Though the program is not dealing with any of them or their ills from a religious perspective, I think the program is still very valuable to both the clients and our city.

    Yes … a change of heart is what is most critical/essential and I pray for all of them that they come to Christ and his Church for that necessary transformation, but until that happens I am grateful that such a program exists for them. Our city is a better and safer place because of it.

  59. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Owen,
    Sometimes, I am so close to despair. I struggle against its overtaking my heart, and keep working and praying. An important lesson from the saints and the scriptures is to trust in the workings of the Lord’s grace in all of this. I keep asking for the love of Christ to enter my heart and that I do His will.

  60. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Matthew,
    I agree with a both/ and approach. We pray, speak to others, and encourage moral transformation. We cannot legally enforce transformation, but laws and programs that protect people from selfish actions are still good. Whatever our efforts, I don’t think Christ promises either that humans will perpetually survive on this earth or else totally perish. For me, religion initiates us into a perspective of an incorruptible rightness and ground of being we call God, a perspective nourished by that mystical taproot to which we all have access: the kingdom of God is inside you. Christ came to reveal that death is destroyed. For those with eyes to see, biological birth and death are never ultimate. Realizing this perspective in the short time between biological birth and death, Jesus says, is hard, and there are few who find it.

  61. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    Your discussion with your friend may help to raise awareness. Typically, as far as I know, it is the way one lives, one’s life’s example, and the peace of Christ in the heart that creates the most influence.

    It is ironic that a few people around me think I’m “as cool as a cucumber” when difficult events arise (I need to be discrete here). If they only knew what was going on in my head and heart! But what little I’m able to receive Christ in my heart seems to be enough (the proverbial mustard seed) to have a positive effect on a few people around me.

    I admire the program you describe to help others in your area. It is good to hear about it and inspirational about what might be done on a local level.

    Christ is among us!

  62. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    British Historian, Tom Holland, has an interesting book, Dominion, in which he argues that Christianity is not only the basis of Western Culture, but that it’s very good that this is true (though he is not a believer). That Western governments often do good or decent things is part of that heritage – as are concepts such as human rights. The State has, in many ways, replaced the Church – in the legacy of post-Christendom. The State (such as it was) in the Middle Ages did many decent things – often in concert with the Church. It’s a peculiar relationship these days.

  63. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    This is a true story.

    I was watching MSNBC with my wife and the anchor is talking about global share of CO2 emissions. And the anchor shows a chart with the estimated share of CO2 emissions that countries have generated going back as far as 1800. I had to pause the program to point out to my wife a glaring fact that the anchor was completely ignoring. Today, the US share of global CO2 emissions is only an estimated 13.49%. China, India, and the EU are contributing nearly 50%. Furthermore (I know this is going to be hard to believe), according to this chart, the share of CO2 emissions by the US today is equal to the estimated share of the US in 1863. As late as 1945 the US share was 55.54%. I believe this is true because the subtle but obvious anti-American intonation completely ignored those glaring facts.

    I managed to find the source of the chart from a dashboard here: https://ourworldindata.org/co2-emissions

  64. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Owen said:

    “Christ came to reveal that death is destroyed. For those with eyes to see, biological birth and death are never ultimate. Realizing this perspective in the short time between biological birth and death, Jesus says, is hard, and there are few who find it.”

    So well said Owen. Agreed. Thank you.

    Dee: I really admire the program as well.

    Fr. Stephen: I read Dominion and really enjoyed it, though I thought Holland was an Anglican believer?? I know a lot of what I am living in and around in Germany (and Western Europe for that matter) has been greatly influenced by Christendom. Now that Christendom here is dying (or is dead?) it is hard to say what it is going to look like in a generation or more on our continent. I have said before that when secularists here say things like “We can do everything that is loving and right and true and beautiful without the Church” what they really mean is we are going to keep borrowing from the bank of our Chrisitan heritage even if we don´t admit such. My question is … what happens when the well (or bank) runs dry? Dark times ahead?

  65. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Fr. Stephen,

    It´s interesting to note that in the U.S. there exists (on paper at least) a separation of church and state and I don´t think in the history of the U.S. there has ever been a state church. Nevertheless, it appears that church and state are really well mixed in America.

    In Germany there is a state church and there are even powerful political parties with religious names (Christian Democratic Union), but the Church has almost no influence in public affairs here anymore. Most people are not (yet) hostile toward the Church, but many are simply indifferent toward the Church and its teachings.

    How much, do you think, the Church should be in concert and partnership with the state? I tend to think that when the two get together it can only mean BIG problems for everyone. I am not trying to pull you into a political discussion, but the church/state theme is a big one for me, especially as I consider Orthodoxy and what seems to be a long history of nationalism (for better or for worse) in her midst.

  66. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    These are good questions – and not necessarily political. First, the notion of “state” is something of a modern idea. So – bear that in mind.

    My late Archbishop (Dmitri of Dalls), whom many of us believe to be a saint, once said to me when I asked him about the state-church thing across Orthodox history, “On the whole, we’ve never seen it to work out well.” That might upset some devotees of Byzantium, etc. But, I think it’s true.

    Also, note, that, when the Church has ever been the “state church,” the idea did not come from the Church but from the State. So, it really has more to do with how the State seeks to deal with the Church than anything else. I think it creates enormous temptations.

    It’s ironic that places like Germany and England that have official “state churches” have, mostly, dying Churches, while, in the U.S., Church is sort of a free-enterprise thing. We’ve got plenty of problems here, though.

    Orthodoxy is not married to the notion of a “national” Church – but tends to recognize and organize itself along human lines, which often means that there are common cultural links – that sometimes parallel the lines of nations. My jurisdiction, the OCA, interestingly, includes the US, Canada, and Mexico. The whole jurisdictional mess is, largely, a 20th century phenomenon, born of the vast diaspora of Orthodox people and the upheavals of wars and revolutions. We work at surviving. BTW, nationalism is pretty much a modern phenomenon, not part of Orthodoxy’s ancient heritage.

  67. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, this statement: “We can do everything that is loving and right and true and beautiful without the Church” has so many wrong assumptions it is breathtaking.
    1. ‘Loving’, ‘right’ and ‘true’ are moral ideas rather than intra-relational states of being;
    2. To maintain right being requires prayer, fasting and almsgiving both personally and on a corporate basis.
    3. Even “the Church” is not just an idea, but a living entity.
    Otherwise all one has left is “the world, the flesh and the devil”

    Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh!

    “This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

  68. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I have a question. I have always wondered what people mean by ‘the road is narrow and few find it.’ It isn’t clear to me what Jesus meant when he said it. I think we have implicit assumptions about what we think we know about the few that find the ever elusive narrow road. They attend liturgy, they fast, they give alms, they repent, they go to confession, they say the Jesus prayer, etc. But, maybe being a good father or a good mother or a good grandparent is enough. Isn’t there real ascetic effort in terms of suppressing the passions in having a family? Isn’t there an asceticism in being a good parent? I am not poo-pooing the formula: Every cake needs a recipe. And I need the formula and the community the formula helps create. But, let’s face it. A lot of the discussions surrounding salvation assume that the people on the narrow road are Orthodox in one form or another and those assumptions are made apparent by the repetition of the formula. Has God made the Way so difficult to find that only a few would find it? I am not arguing for universalism. Maybe the road is narrow and hard to find because we assume too much?

  69. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simonk,
    I suppose people mean lots of things when they quote Christ’s words on the Narrow Way. I assume that the Narrow Way ultimately describes union with Christ. God has not made the way difficult. That is our own creation. I don’t think Christ was casting a moral judgment when He said that there were “few” that find it. I think it’s an observation on the human condition.

  70. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    I wouldn’t imagine that Christ would make it a moral judgement –but we might. I think a lot about the thief hanging next to Jesus. Where was his lifetime of ascetic labor? How many times did he go to confession? What the recipe for his cake? I’m not assuming about what I think I might know. It just seems to me that if the road is hard to find, maybe it’s because we assume we know what the road looks like.

  71. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    First, you’re ignoring the idea that the thief had a back-story. How long and difficult was that story that made his way to his cross? What we have in the gospel account is something that speaks to the mercy and grace of God and His generosity.

    The ascetic labors of the Church are nowhere described as the “narrow way.” They might be tools for some on their narrow way. But the narrow way itself is the encounter with Christ and our acceptance of Him. I kind of think that you’ve set up a straw man to argue with. I get your point – there is no mechanical technique for salvation. I agree. I don’t think Orthodoxy teaches otherwise.

  72. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    My two cents on the narrow way: maybe we see it most clearly in the story of the prodigal son. One son took the really right way; one took the really wrong way. It’s counterintuitive (especially to our sense of progress!), but the way up really is the way down. The gospels (as well as the world’s mythology) are filled with this pattern.

  73. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    My point really isn’t taking issue with ‘technique.’ Oddly enough, when given the chance we frequently, persistently, inevitably say technique-ish things, almost as if its obligatory. You’re right, though, I don’t know what the thief’s path was or how it might have prepared him for accepting Christ.

    Are we saying that if the narrow road is an encounter with Christ? If so, then is it possible to never encounter Christ? Can we encounter Christ without ever recognizing it? Will every person be given a chance to encounter Christ one way or the other? If so, how will they know? Is that the point? That every person has an encounter with Christ, but few will be prepared by their life’s circumstances to recognize it? All I am saying is that the idea that this ‘road that is hard to find’ isn’t straightforward to me, and neither are techniques.

    I apologize for muddying the waters. Feel free to delete this mess.

  74. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Just to clarify what I mean by “pattern,” it’s that ego death that occurs through the way of poverty. The lost son experienced this and found his true identity in the home of the Father.

  75. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Fr. Stephen for your church/state response. My thoughts are now wandering to what little I understand about czarist Russia. Was that time period not an example of church/state relations within Orthodoxy? Did this relationship in any way cause the Russian revolution?

  76. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I hear you Michael, but it seems almost hopeless sometimes to try and share our shared viewpoint with those who do not believe. The waves of atheism and secularism are so strong in our world, especially where I live in eastern Germany.

    My nephew who is now a teenager is being raised by atheist parents. In the former German Democratic Republic (GDR East Germany) it wasn´t uncommon for people to have a “Jugendfeier” (youth celebration?) instead of a typical religious confirmation. That is what my nephew celebrated last summer since his mother comes from Dresden. The boyfriend of his mother gave a speech where he said to the young people present that they could be true, good, and beautiful people without any kind of religious underpinnings. I think most of the people in attendance were in agreement.

    We then had the opportunity to write something to our nephew on a small piece of paper and hang it on a tree or bush in the garden where we were celebrating. I normally keep very quiet about my faith since I know what I am truly fighting against (though the family knows what my wife and I believe). I felt lead to write something like the following:

    “I hope you someday encounter what truth, goodness and beauty really are and what lies behind them.”

    I have never asked Henry (my nephew) if he read the note that I hung on that tree branch. He seemed much more interested in the presents and money that he received on his celebratory day!

  77. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    You should dig deeper into Russian history. Tsar Peter the Great abolished the Patriarchate, reducing the Bishop of Moscow to the status of Metropolitan, and generally made the Church subservient to the State – governed by a department of government. The Church had very little “authority” in Russia, other than to manage its own life as well as possible under the circumstances. Oddly, the Patriarchate was not restored until the revolution, when, of course, it had to give attention to mere survival.

    So, in answer to your question, no. I do not think so. It had no actual power, and frequently little influence on the affairs of state. Of course, it was an easy target of the Bolsheviks and suffered tremendously at their hands.

  78. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    I liked your note to your nephew. It is Christianity that taught the West to desire truth, goodness, and beauty. Without that underpinning, however, they have a way of getting lost – even Christians have a way of forgetting them.

  79. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Simon,
    I had a few more thoughts on this passage:

    “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the way that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

    It helps me to keep in mind the broader themes of Matthew’s Gospel. It’s a very Jewish text, first of all. He speaks their grammar, in other words, drawing heavily on the Hebrew Bible. He also stresses that the nation is in deep trouble. Their destruction is imminent. Like the prophets in the Old Testament, Jesus frames this temporal destruction eschatologically, as the coming of God in cosmic conflagration. Matthew 24 basically conflates Jerusalem’s destruction with the end of the world.

    Bringing these insights to the Sermon on the Mount, we see the same eschatological focus. The sermon climaxes with a plea to build upon the rock in order to endure the coming storm, i.e. the temporal judgment of God upon the nation. I think Jesus’ words about entering life or facing destruction make the best sense in this framework: he’s not talking about “going to heaven” when we die but about opening the eyes of our heart, now, to see the kingdom of God is in our midst, a reality that transcends national identity or the destruction thereof. It seems that “few found it” in that generation. I don’t think “life after death” is what the passage is about.

  80. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Fr. Stephen. See … I told you I knew very little about Russian history! 🙂

    In reference to truth, goodness, and beauty: I think every person has these things in them somewhere since they carry the image of God with them wherever they go. They even have the ability to tap into these things and also the ability to seek these things and even experience these things. That said, without faith I guess truth, goodness, and beauty cannot be experienced to the fullest that God desires for all humanity. Am I on the right track?

  81. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    And who taught the east Fr. Stephen?

  82. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    @Owen:

    Are we to understand that Matthew 24 is talking about BOTH 70AD and the end of the world?

  83. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    The Church began in the East. The East taught the West. That’s history.

  84. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Ah ha! Thanks Fr. Stephen!

  85. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    I would agree. Truth, goodness, and beauty, however, are not “free-floating,” self-defining ideas. In Western countries (as in “modernity”), we have these ideas as an inheritance from our Christian past (as you’ve noted) and they still carry much of the patina of that history. GK Chesterton wrote:

    The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.

    I would also suggest Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue.

    The truth, goodness, and beauty within us – is an echo of eternity – a witness that we are created in the image of God. But we often lack the virtue to pursue them – and we lack the knowledge to understand that they are witnesses to Christ – who is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

  86. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    So … some lack the virtue to pursue; some lack the knowledge to understand.

    Is the Gospel, then, the virtue and knowledge that humans need to be rightly aligned with truth, goodness, and beauty?

    I would say yes. Would you?

  87. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    🙂

  88. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Matthew,
    I read Matt 24 to be a description of 70AD *as* the end of the world. This is Jesus speaking in the tradition of Hebrew prophets, using cosmic imagery for local events.

  89. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I think I would agree Owen. Thanks.

  90. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Owen,
    On the narrow way:
    In prayer, a Biblical passage was opened to me that revealed an additional depth to the narrow way. Mark 2:1-12. My struggles involve keeping my heart open and receptive to Christ’s love (to love others the way He does) and maintaining my focus on Him.

    For the paralytic (my paralytic heart), the way to Christ (communion) was blocked. Those who carried him in the passage (spiritual fathers, friends, saints, the Church) brought him to the roof, an unlikely and seeming closed area to reach Christ (my troubled heart). They made a hole (narrow way) to lower him down (the way down is the way up–humility and seeing Christ in the depths of one’s soul). Christ says, “Your sins are forgiven” (releasing the clutches of the adversary). The paralytic is no longer paralyzed but can walk; the heart is released to be in communion with Christ.

  91. Eliza Avatar
    Eliza

    Hello. I am a several years lurker here. I think that I have commented a time or two, but it has been a while.

    This blog is sort of like a church to me, but I am invisible and everyone here is too. But at least the regular commenters have a voice and you seem to know each other, in a way.

    I believe that I find truth here and I wish I could find this in my real and present life.

    I can find nowhere to belong and I hate that, yet clearly a part of me wants the “no one in a nowhere” dynamic, or I would do something to change it – after decades of seeking and “trying” different churches. I have attended a Greek Orthodox Church in my area, 3 times. I want to go back, but I feel out of place. I feel out of place everywhere. Even here, I am uncomfortable to speak. So, I will step out of the shadows and retreat away again, like I always do, everywhere.

    I am too old for such immaturity, 56. I’ve raised a child and we are close. I’ve had close friends, but the closest is a retreater like myself, so sometimes we don’t talk for a while.

    What I see after decades of chasing this or that is that God gave us Utopia, and we humans have set upon its destruction ever since. I see the wonder of life everywhere, but also such vast destruction of life via every human-induced means imaginable and I feel wretchedly hopeless. I claim to be a conservationist while every day I awaken to my own part in the destruction. I’ve come to view automobiles and highways as sinful because of
    God’s created earth and life that are annihilated so we can travel about. I put as many miles on a car as anyone. Plastic is a topic that makes me desperate when I contemplate it – which is every day. I could go on and on.

    So many things make me feel deep sadness and I fear for my child in this world. I don’t want to pass this desperation to her, but I want her to be prepared that the world as we know it will probably become much scarier.

    I believe our only hope is in a merciful Creator and I take seriously Jesus’ instruction to pray “ Thy kingdom come.” It is the only hope.

    I believe that I am at core Orthodox, or I could be deluded. But why I don’t once and for all shake up my life and the routine and take the plunge?

    It’s a cycle of hope followed by hopelessness.

    Anyway, I am thankful for this blog Fr. Stephen and I very much appreciate all of the commenters and identify with a few of them.

  92. Sophia Avatar
    Sophia

    Bless, Father.

    I would like to know how ten years of marriage and burying a child can help one understand sex.

  93. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Dee,
    Thank you for sharing that. What a rich narrative visualization. I especially like, “they made a hole.” It reminds me of “my brother is my life.” Not only are all the scriptures utterly interconnected – as shown by your spiritual reading – but so are all human lives, and indeed all life (if sometimes secretly), in communion with Jesus Christ.

  94. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dee,
    I like this!

  95. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Eliza,
    Good to hear from you. You’ll be in my prayers.

  96. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Sophia,
    It’s a sort of pithy statement, and, in its original context, I meant it to shake people up a bit. But, I’ll explain.

    Sex (particularly to a college audience) is too easily removed from its real context. Sex is certainly pleasurable…but it’s purpose is about making babies. It rightly “binds” a couple together, which is necessary as the two of them raise the offspring of their sexual union.

    But, modern sex, is often removed from procreation and just becomes entertainment. It divorces us from the reality of our actions.

    I used the example of 10 years of marriage – in that – you’re not just having one-night stands, but you’re sticking around and living with the consequences of the realtionship. Working through it. Loving. Forgiving. etc. I added the shocking notion of burying a child to underscore the great risk involved in having children. You bring a child into the world and it becomes a tremendous emotional risk. We care for them (and find the possibility of their death to be unbearable). But such things happen.

    So, in a sense, when we have a sexual relationship (which should only be in marriage), we stand at the edge of all of those consequences. It’s not just about a few minutes pleasure – but is about the whole burden (and joy) of creating a family and enduring all that it demands. That’s part of what it means to be human. To just be driven by pleasure is to be less than human.

    So, that’s a short explanation. I hope it makes sense.

  97. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Hi Eliza,

    I think it is easy for “retreaters” to believe that few others are like themselves, which contributes to the sense of isolation, but we are, in fact, very common. More extroverted personalities are naturally more easy to notice. Much of what you’ve written is familiar to me (although I am able to be more extroverted with the written word because of the greater confidence and control I have in this medium).

    Besides finding kindred spirits in many ways at this site, I appreciate Father Stephen’s moderation of it. So much of the Internet is all heat and no light.

    What I would say to you is to keep working at relationships with other people, even in the smallest ways. We do not all need to be extroverts, by any means, but it is good to see past the silos of our earthen jars and discover the treasures each of us contains. It may require something external to “shake up your life and routine”–it did for me–but regardless, the habits of 56 years exert a strong pull.

    When someone dies, I suspect we seldom regret what we did for the person, the time we spent with them, but only that we did not do more. What has helped me (and it’s a tremendous continual struggle for me, so I am not at all saying it will be like flipping a switch) is trying to see others properly, rather than the way our distorted eyesight presents them to us. Only by seeing others as they truly are do they become our neighbors and can we learn to love them as Christ commands. What we love we do not fear.

    Like you, I have always seemed Orthodox at the core, whether I knew it or not. Perhaps in Romans 7:15-20 St. Paul is expressing the same feeling as yours.

    Thank you for your comment.

  98. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    I agree Mark. The comments I find here are uplifting and helpful as well as challenging. The internet can be such a negative and downright dangerous place (especially in comment sections). I´m so glad this blog and its comments haven´t fallen into those traps.

  99. Sophia Avatar
    Sophia

    Thank you Father. It does make sense. I just wanted to see if we were on the same page. Or maybe I was looking for that one pithy comment that would ease my emotional burden. Your prayers.

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