The Madness of Democracy – A Spiritual Disease

Dostoevsky’s The Demons tells the story of a revolution within the context of a small village and a handful of personalities. The strange mix of philosophy and neurosis, crowd psychology and fashionable disdain for tradition all come together in the madness of a bloodbath. It is a 19th century Helter Skelter that presciently predicted the century to come. Our own version of the same sickness plays out with less bloodshed though with similar passion. This article attempts to describe that passion. I have termed it the “sin of democracy,” the notion that the universe is devoid of hierarchy and that all things, ourselves included, are rightly described as equal. This is the fourth appearance [with editing] of this article which indicates that my mind is frequently drawn back to its observations. It bears repeating.


Jesus’ encounter with the Roman Centurion (Matt. 8:5-13) is one of the least modern experiences in all of Scripture. Of all the stories in the New Testament, this one would be the most difficult to repeat in our culture. In our world, we ourselves are our only authority – we are neither over anyone else nor subject to any. We are filled with the spirit of democracy, and, as such, despise the Kingdom of God.

The world of kings and rulers began to collapse at the very time that nation-states began their rise. In 1534, Henry VIII of England repudiated any authority greater than himself with regard to the Church of England. A little over a century later, Parliament followed his example and overthrew the King himself and beheaded him. The same fate met the king of France 150 years later. The march of modern progress has meant death to tyrants.

Except that it has not. When Henry refused to recognize the Pope’s authority, he made himself a “Pope.” With every advance and repudiation of authority, authority itself does not disappear – it simply becomes more universalized. Today, in contemporary Christianity, it is said that “every man is a Pope.” Whereas a few generations ago, people asserted that the Bible alone had authority, today, that, too, has been overthrown. Each person is his own authority. And I will add, that if every person is his own authority, then there is no authority.

This is perhaps stated in an extreme way. We do have bosses in the work place, teachers in the classroom and other authorities. But as anyone in “authority” can confirm, such positions are under increasing pressure and scrutiny. They often have authority, only because they have coercive power. Authority that rests naturally with a person or position has virtually disappeared from our world.

I am fully sympathetic with the political place of democracy. It evolved as a means of addressing tyranny – though it is often quite ineffective in confronting modern leaders who tyrannize in the name of democracy (or the tyrannies of various “democracies” as they vanquish their foes at the ballot box). But I offer no political suggestions in this article and have no interest in a conversation on the topic.

I am, however, deeply interested in the spiritual disease that accompanies the interiorizing of the democratic project. We have not only structured our political world in a “democratic” manner, we have spiritualized the concept and made of it a description for how the world truly is and how it should be. The assumptions of democracy have become the assumptions of modern morality and the matrix of our worldview. It is this interiorization of democracy that makes the Centurion impossible in our time.

People of the modern world have a sense of inherent equality, and often resent any assertion of authority. Of course, equality is true in a certain manner, and utterly false in another. It is true that all people have equal worth – no one life is more valuable than another. But by almost any other measure, we are not equal, because we are not commensurate. I am of equal worth, but I am not as smart as another. I am of equal worth but I am not as talented, or handsome, or wealthy, skilled, or wise, etc. Apparently, intelligence, talent, beauty, skill, wealth and the like are not the proper standards of comparison when we speak of equality. But our interior sense of equality often makes us assert equality where none exists.

This is particularly true in the spiritual life. I am sometimes told, “I do not need to confess my sins to a priest. I can pray directly to God.” A young man said this to me recently and added, “The Bible says we should only confess to God.” I pointed out to him that he was actually incorrect, that in its only mention of confession, the Bible says we should confess our sins “to one another.” He was surprised and dismayed.

The Scriptures also speak of elders and leaders and obedience and respect and many other things that have no place within the spirit of democracy. The young man’s mistake was to think that the Bible affirmed his democratic world-view. But the Scriptures belong to the world of the Roman Centurion.

Much of what today passes for Protestantism is nothing of the sort. Rather, it is a thinly veiled cloak for the democratic spirit at “prayer.”  “Salvation by grace through faith” is a slogan for individualism, a Christianity “by right.” There are no works, no requirements, only a “grace-filled” entitlement. For the ultimate form of democracy is the person who needs no one else: no Church, no priest, no sacrament, only the God of my understanding who saves me by grace and guarantees that I can do it alone.

Our outward forms of Christianity are morphing as quickly as the market can imagine them. Even the “New Atheist” Sunday meetings differ little from many Christian gatherings. God Himself may not be necessary to the spirituality of our democracy. Where does God fit in a world of equals?

The classical world of Orthodox Christianity is profoundly undemocratic. It holds that the universe and everything that exists is hierarchical. This teaching is not an artifact of an older patriarchy (a typical democratic critique), but an essential part of the Christian gospel. For if Jesus is Lord, then the universe has a Lord. Democratic spirituality distrusts all hierarchy – anything that challenges the myth of equality is experienced as a threat. “Jesus never said anything about…”

The veneration of saints, the honoring of icons and relics, the place held by the Mother of God are deeply offensive to modern democracy. The complaints heard by those who reject such things are quite telling. It is rarely the classical protest of true iconoclasts that are heard. Rather, it is the modern declaration, “I don’t need anyone between myself and God.” It is the universal access to God, without interference, without mediation, without hierarchy, without sacrament, ultimately without any need for others that is offended by the hierarchical shape of classical Christianity.

A spiritual life without canon, without custom, without tradition, without rules, is the ultimate democratic freedom. But it unleashes the tyranny of the individual imagination. For with no mediating tradition, the modern believer is subject only to his own whim. The effect is to have no Lord but the God of his own imagination. Even his appeal to Scripture is without effect – for it is his own interpretation that has mastery over the word of God. If we will have no hierarchy, we will not have Christ as Lord. We cannot invent our own model of the universe and demand that God conform.

I should add, parenthetically, that, despite our democratic sentiments, the universe is inherently hierarchical. We can imagine ourselve as utterly individualized and autonomous, without the need for others, but this is make-believe. If we throw off the true structures and hierarchies of God’s creation, we will only discover other masters who are demonic in character. The “gods” of our own making are never less than madness itself.

It is a great spiritual accomplishment to not be “conformed to this world.” The ideas and assumptions of modern consumer democracies permeate almost every aspect of our culture. They become an unavoidable part of our inner landscape. Only by examining such assumptions in the light of the larger Christian tradition can we hope to remain faithful to Christ in the truth. Those who insist on the absence of spiritual authority, or demand that nothing mediate grace will discover that their lives serve the most cruel master of all – the spirit of the age.


Photo: Detail from Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, ca. 1500

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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114 responses to “The Madness of Democracy – A Spiritual Disease”

  1. Byron Avatar

    We can imagine ourselve as utterly individualized and autonomous, with the need for others, but this is make-believe.

    I believe this should say “without the need for others”?

    One of my favorite posts of yours, Father. It is difficult to communicate this to others in a non-confrontational manner.

  2. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Thanks for the head’s up! Gremlins crept into my fingers…

  3. Charles “Lou” Weissing Avatar
    Charles “Lou” Weissing

    You start with the major opus of Dostoyevsky in The Devils and end near the minor tome of Lewis in That Hideous Strength.

    How CAN we see God “Till We Have Faces?”

  4. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I was blessed to have a Dad from a previous generation than most my age–I was born just after his 47th birthday. My mother was not much younger. As a result, hierarchy was in our home not only as an assumption but because of their professions. My Dad was a director of public health, my mother a student, a practitioner of Martha Graham and her dance technique and a teacher.
    They each saw a cosmic order with ‘God’ at the heart of it. Though neither understood the course both my brother and I took toward classical (Orthodox) Christianity. Despite the reality that it is clearly the fulfilment of what they demonstrated.

  5. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much for this article Fr. Stephen.

    A question from my wife:

    “If you talk about “natural authority” then I assume that you mean that this person has certain personal traits that make him be in a position that he can tell other people what to do.” Is that what you are saying?

  6. Matthew Avatar

    I´m wondering what it would have been like if 1st century Judea had been a democracy similar to most modern western democracies? Not trying AT ALL to have a political conversation, but as I ponder the words of this article this is the first question that popped up in my head.

  7. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    There’s a natural authority (wisdom, discretion, etc.) that people rightly look towards as having a certain form of authority. There’s all kinds of legitimate (legal) authorities, as well as illegitimate (coercive, etc.) authorities. I don’t know if I would say, “in a position that he can tell other people what to do…” I would say, in a position and with the accompanying character that others are comfortable and secure in following their lead.

    Most of the human authority that we encounter these days is fairly distorted. And authority has always had a history of abuse associated with it (just think of all the bad kings in Israel).

    Nevertheless, think of the natural law, the cosmic order, etc., all of which makes life possible. We live on a planet that is quite unique and singular for the life that dwells here. We will not be jumping from planet to planet – that’s just television and modernity gone wild.

    But, when we ignore the natural order, the natural law, etc., or play fast-and-loose with our bodies and their inherent limitations, etc., we make ourselves crazy and the world more dangerous. Modernity (and its democratic spirit) does not like any restraint. We imagine the most extreme forms of freedom as the gateway to happiness. But it doesn’t work like that.

    There is a spirituality that has due regard for structures, for order, for tradition, for nature, etc. It requires balance, discretion, discernment, and restraint. It’s not about living in a rigid society or under a military type order. But – without such a regard, we become unable to live together. If you had a classroom full of students with no regard for authority (of a teacher), you’d have a madhouse and no education would take place. I’ve heard stories that say we’re already there in many places (in the US).

    But, if we do not embrace healthy restraints, then we’ll finally get unhealthy tyranny. It happens repeatedly in history.

    So, I don’t mean to tiptoe around the question – but it takes a lot of nuance.

  8. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I have no idea about what “might have been.”

    But, as to the present – we do not have democracies (at least in the US). We have very corrupt leaders who are people of bad character (on the whole), who are mostly concerned with power and wealth. Our democratic institutions are “window dressing” for the real show which is kept pretty much hidden. I’m not espousing a conspiracy theory – I’m simply saying that very rich people and “elite” institutions are where the governing power rests at present. However, we are fed a constant diet of democratic theory which is married to modern consumerist cultures. We are the Roman mobs, kept at bay by bread and circuses.

    The Church’s task is to be the Church. We will not change the world. But, we can live as the Church in the world. As a believer, I find it important to discern and have regard for the various structures of the world, and of the Kingdom of God. I very much appreciate the transparency of Orthodoxy about the role of tradition, the canons, etc. Those who say, “Only the Bible,” are playing a very opaque game in which they ignore what is really going on, and, as often as not, are simply acting as the agents of the culture.

    That Orthodoxy “rubs the wrong way” in this culture points to what I believe is an older sanity. I’ll say more along and along.

  9. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks again Fr. Stephen.

    How can I know I can trust my priest or bishop in terms of authority and position? Because the Holy Spirit gave them that authority?

  10. Matthew Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen.

  11. Matthew Avatar

    Fr. Stephen said:

    “Those who say, “Only the Bible,” are playing a very opaque game in which they ignore what is really going on, and, as often as not, are simply acting as the agents of the culture. That Orthodoxy “rubs the wrong way” in this culture points to what I believe is an older sanity.”


  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, as difficult as it is, it is the position that carries the authority, not the person.

    The priest who Baptized me and my family 37 years ago had a difficult time. He left his wife and infant daughter and ran off to San Francisco several years later. That does not mean I question my Baptism, the Absolution from Confession, etc.

    My family and I ended up transferring to another Orthodox parish. That was
    in 1993. Our current priest arrived the same year. He and his Khoury have raised a beautiful family who have begun families of their own in other communities

  13. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    If your priest/bishop is saying and doing things that are consistent with Holy Tradition then their authority is easier to trust. The more it deviates from that – the more problematic. If it gets very personal and specific, then more questions arise. On the whole, I would never be very personal and specific with someone (as their priest) unless and until we had some time to build a trusting relationship. And, even then, I’d be careful.

    If a priest is acting in a manner that is highly charismatic (claiming special gifts or insights), then there’s more reason to question. The priesthood is a sacrament – it’s authority is primarily in being what a priest has always been – and not a guru or special conduit to the Almighty.

  14. Ook Avatar

    “But as anyone in “authority” can confirm, such positions are under increasing pressure and scrutiny.”
    I’m recently retired from management of an international team, and one of my biggest challenges was trying to convince my direct reports that it was okay to scrutinize my decisions. And the Americans were probably the most conformist of my group, happily spending the majority of their waking hours in a highly structured, undemocratic, corporate setting, largely because their work defined their entire existence, more than consumer choices. When you meet someone at a party, the first question is always “what do you do”, and your answer will determine the relationship moving forward.
    If this willingness to accept hierarchy doesn’t extend to the spiritual life, saying it’s due to consumerism doesn’t address why consumerism doesn’t rule the majority of our waking hours.

    “Authority that rests naturally with a person or position has virtually disappeared from our world.”
    The Aristotelian view of the eternal triangular flow of autocracy/aristocracy, democracy, and oligarchy has kings emerging from the oligarchs because they have that they coercive power to do so, not because of any natural authority.

  15. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    A great treatise put together by Brooks Adams and Henry Adams, et. al. came to mind after about 50 years. “The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma”
    It could be subtitled: Why the Adams family is too good to be elected to the Presidency now.

    Written in the very early 20th Century it covers, in a secular way, many of the same problems as Fr. Stephen does. A fascinating chapter: The Law of Phase as Applied to History.

    There were a number of attempts during the end of the 19th century to make history “scientific”.

    The writing is quite good and fun to read even if the thesis is a bit strange. Main point is that real democracy should have a place for the natural hierarchy but such a place is being denied and the energy of the Democratic ideal is being subject to entropy. It shares some ideas in common with the “Great Man” Theory of history but is focused only on the U.S.

  16. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Interesting observations. Thanks. It raises lots of questions for me – but I hardly know where to begin.

    What I find difficult to express in these thoughts is that “hierarchy” and “authority” (as I have them in mind) are not necessarily verticle. You are describing a situation of international business – which raises many other questions as well. It is certainly true that the use of power easily becomes abusive – authority becomes tyranny again and again. And, as I noted in the article, democracy has (classically) been a means of reigning in such abuse. It’s certainly to be preferred to revolutions.

    But, it’s a very long conversation –

  17. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Some thoughts and questions, Ook:

    1) If you made it clear to your direct reports that it was okay to scrutinize your decisions, yet they did not, does this evidence respect for your hierarchical authority? I think it doesn’t. Rather, I suspect they were more worried about your (coercive) power of being able to fire them or otherwise hinder their opportunities for advancement in the organization and limit their financial rewards. Genuine respect for your authority would mean they assumed that your senior position meant that you should be listened to when you asked for feedback because such behavior was better for the good of the organization (and you were the better judge of that than they were). Instead, they substituted their own judgment for yours and (probably) what they thought was more personally prudent for themselves than what might have been more helpful to you (and, therefore, the organization–under the assumption that your senior position implies superior organizational vision).

    2) What about the other direction? How would you characterize your authority relationship with those above you? That might help get a clearer perspective of the entire picture. Sometimes employees can seem to a supervisor one way, whereas among themselves they see the relationship differently–and will communicate it much more openly!

    3) If you consider that many people’s work is primarily driven by the need to earn money, then the notion that the time and effort they spend at work is completely separate from their consumerism breaks down.

  18. Matthew Avatar

    2 Things:

    Ook said:

    “When you meet someone at a party, the first question is always “what do you do”, and your answer will determine the relationship moving forward.”

    So true. I hate being asked this question since I have never had “success” in the vocational world. I also don´t like the question very much because it only highlights the shallowness of the culture I live in … a culture that determines people´s worth by what they can contribute to the machine.

    Fr. Stephen …

    Having thought about it some more, I must say that when I was in those “Bible alone” heavily individual Christian circles, I still had respect for authority. I was taught it from a very young age and the churches I was a part of stressed (in their own unhealthy way) submission to spiritual and church authority.

    What I have embraced now, as I come closer to Orthodoxy, is what I perceive to be the correct and genuine hierarchy and authority structure as opposed to the mere imitation or the clearly false structures.

  19. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    These are interesting thoughts and questions about democracy, authority, and hierarchy. Also interesting is that in a few of the academic environments that I’ve been in the past, the hierarchy of the academic institution (a secular institution) seems to be as monarchal as the old feudal system—it seems to be a hangover that wasn’t questioned. Now that I’m in an institution that has Indigenous structural ambitions (Alaska Native and American Indian), there is the occasional upset about the lack of subordination. I believe, as Father says, these things are a lot more nuanced than we realize.

  20. Holly Avatar

    In church this past Sunday my attention was drawn to a father and his young son. The son had begun to wander off, and so the father got down on his knee and beckoned the little boy to come to him. The boy took one step toward his father and then darted off in the opposite direction.

    I keep thinking about this moment, because the father smiled, but did not run after his son. The parishioners all “let” the boy wander around the church without chasing after him or chastising him. The boy wandered back to his father after a few minutes, without any disturbance.

    I’ve witnessed the same scenario in stores or on the streets or even other churches, and there was almost always fear in the face of the parent or recrimination given to the child for not “obeying”.

    One might say there is “more freedom” in the outside world, but the reality is that with that “freedom” also comes danger. It warmed my heart to see that little boy learning in such a safe and loving place. As I understand it, that safe place is there because of the authority/structure/tradition of the church, for which I am immensely grateful.

  21. Matthew Avatar

    Would it be correct to say that the Church at its best is the very best example of hierarchy and authority done correctly?

  22. Jack Elliott Avatar
    Jack Elliott

    The modern idea of the autonomous individual is an illusion that continues to exist because it effectively destroys the basis of self-reflectiveness through fomenting the ideal and the illusion that people should be effectively free of their social milieu. Repudiating traditional social hierarchies, they are unable to see the hierarchies that emerge based on the whims of the mob to fill the ensuing vacuum .

  23. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I would say as you say “at it’s best”. I’ll leave the rest in silence and love.

  24. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen’s point about the not only the need for the authority but even how much it is built in to the fabric of the universe is well taken. It also telling how when this point is brought up, you don’t have to wait long for there to be objections. As the article pointed out, we are extremely gun shy of submitting to ANYONE even the slightest little bit.

    Perhaps – beyond the strong propaganda campaign – one of the biggest reasons we have such a hard time trusting authority is that we see so few good examples of it in action. But they are out there. Holly’s story is one. The father of the Prodigal is another. By all counts Fr. Stephen served his parishioners very well.

    I suspect this is another case of finding what you look for. If you think any kind of hierarchy is from the devil, then you are always vigilant with an intent to squash it – and you see only bad examples, even when they aren’t really there.

    A good authority isn’t worried about their authority but rather about taking care of those given to them. Thus why the little boy’s father did not become cross, why the Prodigal was received back so joyfully, and so on.

  25. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    All of creation is hierarchical in its nature. It’s corruption was part of the Fall and remains in need of healing as each of us does. Yet without hierarchy there is chaos i.e. no creation.

    Repentance and humility and obedience to God are the keys to working within a hierarchy especially for those at the higher levels.

  26. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Ideally, yes, and in reality, quite rarely. Human beings…

  27. Byron Avatar

    How can I know I can trust my priest or bishop in terms of authority and position? Because the Holy Spirit gave them that authority?

    Late to this conversation but I wanted to comment on this statement by Matthew. I’ve always answered this question by saying that the authority of a Priest is not a secular type of authority. It is an authority based in love–the same as the authority of the Church and, indeed, of Christ (the head of the Church). The Priest speaks in love to his parishioners; they acknowledge his authority, and obey it, out of love. If the Priest ever speaks without love, the parishioner(s) have the authority to rightly deny his request.

    Another thought. I don’t remember who it was but one Priest, upon being told he should be made Bishop, replied “but then who will I serve?”. Authority based in love has a foundation of (humility and) service.

  28. Ook Avatar

    Thank you, Father, Mark Spurlock, and Matthew.

    @Mark, indeed, at first I thought it would be a matter of gaining the trust of my direct reports and for some people it worked but for others, the attitude was very deeply embedded. As far as my own relations with superiors, I found that I could get away with saying all sorts of things, as long as my ideas were correctly framed. But that’s a different topic. 🙂

  29. Lynda O Avatar
    Lynda O

    Charles “Lou” Weissing:

    Agree, a great observation about this post, and especially the reference to “Till We Have Faces.” Have you been listening to the Mythgard Academy’s series on it (as I have)? The latest lessons (in the final scenes of the book) are really bringing that point home: we cannot see God “till that word can be dug out of us,” that which is at the very core of our self– “Till We Have Faces.”

  30. Carlos Taliaferro Avatar
    Carlos Taliaferro

    Dear Father Stephen,

    To be fair, even our Lord marveled at the centurion’s faith, so perhaps we aren’t that different from the ancient Judaean everyman.

    I can’t imagine that anyone born in this country after the second world war doesn’t have a democratic soul; the ethos permeates our entire cultural fabric. Though I assent to the teachings of the Church, I’m certain my soul remains firmly democratic; that the democratic disposition goes deeper than merely believing and practicing the right things. There are some bits that are ineradicable.

    You mentioned that the Scriptures belong to the world of the Roman centurion, but if that’s the case, how can we – the inhabitants of the democratic age – possibly relate to the Scriptures? How can we commune with the Church or the saints? For it seems that we’re infected with a spirit that taints all of our endeavours; i.e. even our movement toward the Church and toward conforming ourselves to the cosmic hierarchy has at its source a democratic motive. Are we out of God’s reach by having been born in a democratic age? Is salvation premised on our becoming premodern? What would that even look like?

  31. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks Fr. Stephen.

    It occurred to me today …

    Jesus was not born into democracy. It appears that the new heaven and earth will not be a democracy. Much of the world doesn´t live under democratic rule. The Church isn´t a democracy. The family I grew up in was certainly no democracy. As Fr. Stephen pointed out in an earlier post, American democracy is a lot of window dressing.

    All that said, I don´t want to live under tyrannical rule. Didn´t someone say “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”?

  32. Matthew Avatar

    Carlos said:

    “but if that’s the case, how can we – the inhabitants of the democratic age – possibly relate to the Scriptures? How can we commune with the Church or the saints? For it seems that we’re infected with a spirit that taints all of our endeavours;”

    These are great questions that pose great challenges.

  33. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Wonderful questions!

    The “world of the Centurion” and the “world of the New Testament” – surely differed from the one in which we inhabit today – though it resembles it in many ways. Indeed, the modern world in which we live is itself a product of the “Christianized” culture that grew out of the New Testament. Our democratic assumptions would have been impossible without the New Testament. So, we’re not so alien that we cannot understand the other. It is of use to us, however, to ponder various aspects made known to us in the Scriptures and the Tradition so that we can, in some measure, “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed…” (Romans 12)

    I do not mean to have painted a black and white dichotomy. Instead, I’m trying to “tease out” an aspect revealed in the Centurion at which even Christ marveled. Our democratic sensibilities have within them a notion of the equality of all (which I wrote was true in one sense and wrong in another). We are equal, but not commensurate. We are not interchangeable. We are not autonomous centers of self-acutalization – i.e we are not our own creators.

    I think we rightly hate tyranny – and sometimes we fail to hate it enough!

    In my writing of this piece (and it’s a theme I’ve treated a number of times), I have in mind the “passion” of democracy – it’s false place and false instincts within our lives. Some of worst examples of this are our modern attempts to re-invent what it means to be human, rather than to discover and fulfill what has been revealed to us. The assumption that anything that I have not personally chosen through my own free-will is a constraint and the enemy of my fulfillment would be the extreme form of what I have in mind. Current popular culture exalts an utterly unfettered notion of freedom and frequently makes insane decisions on that basis.

    Within the New Testament itself, there are clear references to authority, to tradition (positive), to obedience, etc., such that even the most anti-traditional Christian groups still recognize some place for such things. It is interesting to me that the single most divisive aspect within the Christian thought-world is the understanding(s) of ecclesiology. It is Christianity-as-Church that is the great stumbling block. Protestantism, for example, is not a single thing, but has been multiple since its inception, never having successfully come to grips with the stumbling block of the Church – which is the locus of life, teaching, tradition, etc. It continues to smash itself against this rock as it splinters ever more towards a sort of ecclesiological chaos.

    Historically, it has always been a great trial for Orthodoxy, perhaps more today than ever. And though we presently have a major example of broken communion among us – we have not, as a consequence, renounced that ecclesiology of the One Church. Generally, I think, we recognize that, by God’s grace, it will be overcome – must be overcome. And we feel ourselves forward, with a tortured patience.

    Our choices are not radical individualized democracy versus rigid tyranny. It is a patient life in which we learn to discern the patterns of healthy authority and proper obedience along with true freedom in Christ.

    All of this is a description of love. Love “does not seek its own” etc. St. Paul’s 1Cor. 13 is a description of the Church’s inner life and the true path of Christ in our midst. It’s rather sad that it has come to be associated with romantic love in our culture.

    I think, however, of marriage and the family, St. John Chrysostom’s example of the “little church.” It only exists in a healthy form through love. We feel our way forward not by ideology, nor unfettered freedom – but by each seeking the good of the other and all that St. Paul describes in his passage on love.

    I hope all of that is helpful.

  34. Janine Avatar

    Hi Father et al,

    Sorry I have not read through all the comments. But I am very happy for this posting because it touches on something I have been thinking a lot about myself.

    The date of Greece’s National Day is March 25th, the date of the Feast of the Annunciation. It is the day on which the revolution against the Ottomans is commemorated, which was as hard fought and chaotic a revolution as any you can read about (and encompassed decades in various places), and it was a revolution for the freedom to practice (Orthodox) Christianity as much as anything else. This is very important in what we might call the “iconographic” imagination of the whole of the country and its history. A prominent icon in the Metropolitan Cathedral in Athens (and also at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem) is one of the Theotokos called Panagia (“All Holy” – a title for the Theotokos) Eleutherotria, meaning “She who makes free” or “Liberator” (in feminine form). “Eleutheria” means freedom in Greek, and the motto of the revolution (and now the country) was, similarly to Patrick Henry’s statement in the US, “Freedom or death.” I think this is very important because the powerful understanding is, it seems to me, that Mary’s “Yes” to the Annunciation is the ultimate declaration of freedom.

    Quite simply, as I think Father indicates in the article, Mary’s “Yes” was a “Yes” to where God asked her soul to go. Therefore, it is the true human freedom of the most existential kind. It did not matter what obstacles would stand in the way: social shame, and the suffering that would come — both immediate and in the future — exile to Egypt, and the suffering of her Son, and persecution of the Church. Her “Yes” declared her ultimate absolute freedom. And the Cross tells us the same story.

    If we think about the practices of the Church, they are all designed for this kind of liberation or freedom. This is not the freedom to pursue our fantasies, but a different freedom — the freedom of the soul to pursue its best and highest good in the true reality. We practice fasting and learn that we are not bound by impulses and compulsions. We go to confession to be unburdened of things that stand in the way of a deeper communion with God and community, and the freedom to follow where it is God asks us to go, and “who” God asks us to become.

    When we look at the saints we see so often this same kind of existential freedom at work, despite hardships, struggle, martyrdom.

    Anyway, my two cents. My husband and I sponsored a large fresco icon of Panagia Eleutherotria recently at a Church we support; it went in the corner where confessions are heard for a reason.

  35. Janine Avatar

    PS when I hear the stories of early martyrs like Perpetua or St. Barbara, for example, so often they are young women who say “No” the pressures of the society and family only because they say “Yes” to the Lord. These declarations that the soul has a right to its freedom seem to me simply outstanding in a world dominated by coercion and material power. The same is true of the soldier martyrs and those like the centurion, or even Nicodemus the Pharisee. There is a declaration of a greater “Yes” that is the true existential freedom. Or so it seems to me, of course. Correction or addition invited here.

  36. Andrew Avatar

    I’ve noticed for many of us who do recognize the importance of hierarchy and authority, there’s still a ‘democratic’ underbelly to it. Yes, authority is important, but on my terms. I’ll decide when and to whom I will submit. But in reading the lives of the Saints, there are numerous instances of submission by monks to terrible abbots/abbesses or spiritual fathers, by wives to ungodly husbands, children to abusive parents, citizens to godless rulers etc. The line of disobedience was only drawn at a command or instruction that would be a sin. There’s an uncomfortable amount that can come before reaching that point! And yet, I feel it within myself, the caution, the felt need to scrutinize and authority before I submit. I must “protect” myself. Then you have St. Paul saying to submit to the ruling authorities at a time when they were anything but friendly to Christianity (to put it mildly). I felt the struggle during Covid. How far? How much obedience. It isn’t always clear.

  37. Janine Avatar

    Andrew, you remind me that St Paul told us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling! But we so often forget these aren’t just intellectual choices, but depend upon prayer and the state of our prayer life, individual and corporate too.

    I have just begun taking a class on the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles of St Paul. In our Introduction we were taught that Tarsus, in which Saul grew up (possibly until adolescence) was a model of fairly decet tolerance for Jews at that time, as the Jewish community had supported Caesar and so were subsequently left with relative freedom to practice their religion. So that created a model of possibilities for a religious minority within a social order. But obviously later conditions in Jerusalem and harsh conditions later on for the Church presented new problems.

  38. Andrew Avatar


    Agreed, prayer is critical. The decisions we make on these fronts have wide ranging consequences not only for ourselves, but our families, loved ones and communities.

    While I attended Bible school many years ago, I’d love to take some more classes. I’ve forgotten the vast majority of what I learned during that time! That’s an interesting tidbit about Tarsus that I wasn’t aware of. Interestingly, St. Paul’s instruction to “submit to the governing authorities” was written to the Romans, where at the time, Nero was the emperor as I understand it. Talk about a tough needle to thread in terms of how submission works itself out in that scenario!

  39. Matthew Avatar

    Fr. Stephen said:

    “Our democratic assumptions would have been impossible without the New Testament.”

    Can we unpack this a little? It seems to me that the French Revolution with all its “Egalite´, Liberte`, Fraternite`!” (which eventually lead those who didn´t agree with the revolutionaries going to the guillotine!) was not grounded at all in the New Testament. Thomas Jefferson went through the Bible with scissors and most of the American founding fathers were more European enlightenment thinkers than New Testament Christians. Ancient Greek democracy has nothing to do with the New Testament and I highly doubt the Swiss would cite the New Testament as the model for their system of direct democracy.

    All that to ask … is democracy really a Christian idea?

  40. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    The notions of equality and human dignity are deeply rooted in the New Testament. Inasmuch as democracy required such ideas, it can be said to have been impossible without the New Testament. That is not at all the same thing as crediting the New Testament with the French Revolution, or later (even our present) notions. It’s simply the foundation of Western civilization. Tom Holland has done a good job (Dominion) of pointing out that we are not founded on classical pagan ideas – but firmly on Judaeo-Christian ideas. Nevertheless, when those ideas seek to uncouple themselves from their foundations (as in modern notions of democracy), then they become rather crazy. GK Chesterton described modernity as a place where “the virtues have run wild.”

    Democracy is not really a “Christian” idea. In poin of fact – it’s mostly a British idea – and even then – rather slow and grudgingly. Even in the US, our constitution was very skeptical and concerned about pure democracy and put in place many things to prevent it from happening. Thus, we have modern folks who have drunk so deeply at the wells of modern democratic notions that they despise the electoral college which prevents pure democracy from taking over everything.

    Eventually, I suspect, the pure democracy advocates will will out for a time, finally filling the cup they have set out to drink. It will be another example of trampling down boundaries and traditions in order to impose an unfettered will on the world. It will mean more tyranny.

    There have been increasing tensions across the Western world between urban culture and rural culture. Urban culture is more ideological and divorced from the constraints of nature. Rural culture is more conservative and married to the land. I have no idea how all of that plays out. I watched an excellent documentary recently that pointed out that the temperature rise that many fret about is primarily a phenomenon of cities rather than rural areas. The temperature differential can be as much as 10-15 degrees C or more. Of course, the fact that we cannot eat without the land and its people is completely lost on many urbanites. Pure democracy, however, will favor the crowded over the less populated – cities over farms, etc.

    Rambling on…

  41. Matthew Avatar

    Fr. Stephen said:

    “Eventually, I suspect, the pure democracy advocates will will out for a time, finally filling the cup they have set out to drink. It will be another example of trampling down boundaries and traditions in order to impose an unfettered will on the world. It will mean more tyranny.”

    I fear mob rule when I listen to advocates of pure democracy. I also fear, though, that any form of government or economic system that humans are supposed to define, develop and enact will always be … well … a rather fallen mechanism.

    Thanks so much for your thoughts Fr. Stephen. I should have recalled Holland´s thoughts before I posted :-)! Dominion is a really good book.

  42. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I probably agree with Tolkien when it comes to thoughts of governments and such. But, in a culture that has turned “making the world into a better place” a daily mantra – the growth of unfettered government is inevitable…until it makes the world such a bad place that someone tears it down.

  43. Matthew Avatar

    Can you tell me, in short Fr. Stephen, what Tolkien thought about government? I did a quick Google search, but I did not find anything “kurzgesagt” …. (short said :-):-))

  44. Matthew Avatar

    Fr. Stephen said:

    “But, in a culture that has turned “making the world into a better place” a daily mantra – the growth of unfettered government is inevitable…until it makes the world such a bad place that someone tears it down.”

    Agreed, but in the west we had massive problems when the church was in control trying to “make the world into a better place”. It seems the east has avoided many of the pitfalls of the church in the west … a church that was so bad (at times) that it needed secularism to attempt to tear it down and save it from itself. I have no easy answers Fr. Stephen … sometimes it all seems so hopeless … but then Pascha!

  45. Janine Avatar


    I studied English at university. In one of my 18th century literature classes, we read “Pamela” by Samuel Richardson. It was about a young 15 year old woman who was in service (part of the servant staff) to a family of the landowning aristocracy. After her kind mistress dies, the young lord of the manor was constantly chasing after her, and trying to molest her and steal her virtue, so to speak. There were several attempts at rape and by collaboration with other servants. This book was originally serialized in England. In the end, she resists completely and defends her virtue due to her faith, with the culmination that eventually he so admires her in her suffering that he marries her. It’s written as a series of letters to her parents.

    Now this was back in the 1970s, and I doubt if you had to be there to understand the ridicule this book engendered. Even in its time it was ridiculed (Henry Fielding wrote a satire called “Shamela” in response.) But in England, as it was serialized, it became a social cause. The chapters were read aloud to groups of people, etc. When she was married to the young lord (I can’t remember his exact title), church bells were rung in England. It really doesn’t take a genius to put together stories of the early female martyrs and their resistance to giving themselves up to marriage rather than following their Christian faith, and the burgeoning democracies (and frankly, upward mobility) of Western Europe at the time. The point which shouldn’t be lost on anyone is the assertion that she had a right to this choice, despite her social status and his, and the ultimate authority of God (see Christ’s questioning on “authority” during Holy Week) gives that right. She’s not part of his property. The real revolution here was that this young woman would not agree to be subjected to his coercion despite her class status and his class status. I don’t think the story exists without the background of Christianity and those early martyrs, whether or not people are or were fully aware of it. (I am pretty certain Protestantism had something to do with the book’s original popularity in England.)

    The concept of class status is telling as this book could only be published in other European countries if her class status was changed to originate as impoverished aristocracy in the first place. Anyway I write this only to note how this is linked to both faith and democratic ideals, including the concept of upward mobility and class status.

  46. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    “My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning the abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) — or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inaminate real of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could go back to personal names, it would do a lot of good.

    Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so to refer to people … The most improper job of any many, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity…”

    – J.R.R. Tolkien, letter to his son, 1943 (from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien).

    I don’t take this as a statement of serious political science, but I readily understand its sentiments. It needs a pint and a full pipe.

  47. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew, Pascha is the answer to it all.

  48. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Repentance is the way of Life. Even in the Church it is tough to see the links with Jesus and others but repentance is also a path toward community.

  49. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much Fr. Stephen.

    Hello Janine. Brilliantly written comment, but I´m afraid I still don´t understand.

  50. Matthew Avatar

    Tolkien … wow … strong words. I had no idea.

  51. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Tolkein: think of the Shire. That’s his ideal. There is also Gondor…but he’d clearly prefer the Shire. It’s also true of Gandalf, who, for some odd reason I’ve always associated with Tolkien himself. Gandalf prefers the Shire and for reasons he can hardly state.

    Lewis has something of the same thing about him. Think of the NICE in That Hideous Strength. Lewis has pretty much zero good to say about the bureaucracy and inner workings of the university system. Any fears he might have harbored (and he himself was deeply mistreated by the powers-that-be at Oxford – because of his outspoken Christianity and his literary success) have long since proven to be well-founded. Few institutions have become as corrupted as the University systems in many places.

    As to Tolkien’s Anarchism. Bad people require strong governing – because they are bad and dangerous. Good people require minimal governing. So, I tend to read Tolkien as saying that he’d prefer to live among good people. Perhaps nothing more than that…but who wouldn’t prefer such an existence?

  52. Janine Avatar

    Matthew I’m sorry you don’t understand. But, unfortunately I don’t really know what you don’t understand, so can’t venture anything helpful. 🙂 God bless.

  53. Matthew Avatar

    Fr. Stephen said:

    “Bad people require strong governing – because they are bad and dangerous. Good people require minimal governing. So, I tend to read Tolkien as saying that he’d prefer to live among good people. Perhaps nothing more than that…but who wouldn’t prefer such an existence?”

    I suppose the good people lived in the Shire, and that is why Gandalf wanted to live there? I know I would prefer such an existence Fr. Stephen. I long for a time when the snow and frost of Narnia will finally and forever melt away …

  54. Carolyn Avatar

    In my area(Smoky Mtns) we have friends who seem to subscribe to this notion that they are enough within themselves. They are their own prophet, priest and parishioner…a church of one where they decide the character of God and how he moves and acts.

  55. Matthew Avatar

    Hello again Janine. I guess what I don´t understand is how the story of the main character in “Pamela” connects with Christian martyrdom and English democratic principles. ? 🙂

  56. Janine Avatar

    Well, Matthew, I’ll attempt this question:

    Does it ring true to you that democratic principles are undergirded by a basic belief that a person has a right to do what is best for the soul? Especially to follow God’s will for them?

  57. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    I think the most clever kind of theft is to make a victim think they are ‘getting’ something as they give away something of much greater worth.

    The Pamela book description is really interesting and I did not know it. Some musicians and actresses now speak about being seduced by older men in the industry, or treated violently by them, and that theft I think involves making the young woman feel like an equal, like an adult, that promiscuity is maturity when really it is theft. I noticed in Les Mis on TV how Felix seduces Fantine by a horrible inversion, saying he is suffering and asking if she will have mercy on him.

    I have wondered how the Israelites demanded a king when God wanted to be their King. It seems like in America this is our way to demand visible leadership

    The democracy veneer in America currently also has a strange ‘Money is speech’ underpinning, from a Supreme Court ruling I don’t understand. That seems to imply very aggressively that some people don’t have worth and are not worth listening too. I see so much theft in broad daylight among people of over these past years

    I think within hierarchy as God intended there is a theme, not the prestige of those higher in the hierarchy, but Salvation expressed through service to others, not to ‘lord’ it over them and also not to consider entitlement to Heaven

    Perhaps in America the theft is ‘you get to vote’ which is exchanged for ‘you get a paper thin version of reality with absolutely no depth’

  58. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Thank you…very penetrating thoughts. Unsuprisingly, the “hierarchy” established by God is paradoxical. The “greatest must be the least and the servant of all.” It tells me, that the structures, the true structures upon which the universe is founded, are, in fact, the structures of love itself. Our public life frequently uses the language of such (“public servant”) but does something else entirely.

  59. Janine Avatar


    It’s interesting also for a couple of historical reasons. First, it’s considered to be the first novel, introducing the world to the form. Second, the reason that happened in that particular time frame is because of the advent of the industrial revolution, capitalism, and upward mobility: for perhaps the first time in history more than a handful of people had “free time” (particularly women). I mention these things only because we are talking about the development of democracies and modern (at least Western) life.

    Your insights are true as Father said, and I think it’s right that the novel reminds people of the “Me, too” movements. A lot of people feel that it is women who have truly lost out in the unfolding of modern “liberation” movements, for all kinds of reasons and from different perspectives. In that context, I think it’s worth putting in a plug again for the Theotokos as model for real liberation and freedom.

    Just as an aside on the topic you mentioned, there’s an interesting story of a woman who as a teenager was a sort of victim of the “liberation” counterculture movements her parents (esp father) favored. Her name is Dianne Lake. She wound up as part of the Manson family. She tells a powerful story about the type of seduction related to what you said. It is the classic story of evil, really.

    Of course I agree with Father about the true hierarchy; it is paradoxical. So often real obedience to God turns out to be “for many” as Christ said.

  60. Matthew Avatar

    Janine asked:

    “Does it ring true to you that democratic principles are undergirded by a basic belief that a person has a right to do what is best for the soul? Especially to follow God’s will for them?”

    Yes and yes, but I don´t think one can fully, rightly, and completely do these things unless one is really trying to be in union with God.

  61. Matthew Avatar

    Janine said:

    “A lot of people feel that it is women who have truly lost out in the unfolding of modern “liberation” movements, for all kinds of reasons and from different perspectives.”


  62. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Mary Harrington, and English writer, has spoken and written very articulately about pro’s and con’s with feminism.

  63. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, “a lot of people feel women have truly lost our…”

    My mother was a “liberated woman” long before any body knew the term. Her mother was the first woman to graduate from the University of Iowa med school. Among other things, she was required to sit outside the class room and had to take Gross Anatomy by herself in the morgue at night. Partnership is an important part of the corpse dissection normally. My mother was a member of Martha Graham’s company and also taught the unique and wonderful ‘Graham Technique’ that revolutionized dance performance around the world.

    My mother married my Dad and gave birth to my brother without giving up her teaching career. She built a family and a career in the first half of the 20th century. She also led her boys to the realization of the importance of God and following Him. (My brother is an Orthodox priest and my niece is married to a seminary graduate and a Deacon)

    Unfortunately, the Joy and creativity (amidst struggle and sorrow) , became ideological commodities (political and social) in the “Women’s Movement”.

    Once a social movement becomes ideological — the human truth tends to vanish and simply ‘believing correctly’ is enough even in the midst of deep hypocrisy making actual achievement of little importance.

    In the process being an actual human woman gets lost in the shuffle and often genuine faith in God is ridiculed.

  64. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much Fr. Stephen and Michael.

  65. Janine Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, thanks for that video interview of Mary Harrington. I look forward to viewing it. I quite like her writing and I think she is very thoughtful and compassionate and down to earth.

    Michael, your writing about your mother is always interesting. She always sounds like a deep and accomplished person I would love to have met.

    Matthew, those are some good responses to your question. There are a lot of ways to answer but one thing to think about is what liberation itself means. At its core, it would mean “authenticity” for a person. And there, right away, we come to Orthodox theology, in that we’d have to ask what “true self” is. How do we find it? Who can give this to us? Does it depend upon our fantasies about ourselves or something else? Do we need a yardstick? Even more importantly, it seems to me, is that we need to understand our capacities for growth, expansion, change. We might start out in one place, but the incredibly adaptive and creative capacities that we have are actually unpredictable — and then we come to the life of the Spirit. So that’s one place where images of what liberation mean can be limiting and cut off from the true reality of personhood.

    On a concrete level, I can give a couple of examples from what’s called “second wave” feminism. Betty Friedan wrote a book that in some ways defined mid-20th century feminism called “The Feminine Mystique.” It described an unhappiness with traditional roles as housewives (it was first published in the early 1960s) and it focused on education and work. But in later interviews, Friedan herself stated that her ideas had to be adapted in some way, as her own daughter found fulfillment in being a wife and mother as her preference in life. That’s one small story, but I think Mary Harrington’s focus on the reality and effect of assumptions and policies is very important.

    Another couple of small examples: When I was at university in the 1970s there was a notion that traditional sexuality was simply oppressive, and biology didn’t matter in that sense — everything was political. So every women, if truly liberated, would have relations only with other women, regardless of their own biological impulses or preferences. What does such a notion do to authenticity or personhood — or even relationships for that matter? Where does love come into it?

    One effect of Title IX (federal law which sought to end sex discrimination in education) at my university was to integrate swimming pools whereas prior there was a women’s gym with a great pool. But this put an end, for me, to the easygoing focus on my health by swimming where there were no considerations of competition for how one looked in a bathing suit (we were all issued regulation suits before the change) and ushered in problems of men competing with me in the pool lane or being there for a kind of peep show. Equality on those terms was not advantageous to the women at the pool, and actually defeated the purpose of the place. Many of us felt the same way but no one wanted to hear it.

    We could talk about transgenderism which is another outgrowth of sexual liberation movements (which I personally don’t think is well-understood) and the worrying problem of what some call the erasure of women: the effects of biological males in women’s prisons, for example; or in women’s sports for another.

    I think Mary Harrington brings a lot of focus on the problems of class which are not very well considered in terms of outcome. For example, the poor really depend upon family in ways that people with more means do not necessarily need simply for survival. These are just a handful of answers to the question.

    BTW regarding democracy and Christianity — the question was how does Christianity underpin the development of democracy, and not whether or not it’s done “perfectly.” In the United States, for example, there’s a clear sense that the people who first started coming as colonists did so as religious outcasts. Whether one agrees with their particular beliefs as correct or not, that is a part of the cultural history of the development of democracies — and certainly our overriding story and icon of Christianity as the One most innocent crucified plays a role in our sense of why democracy with its attendant understanding of basic rights is important and from a spiritual/religious perspective.

    These answers are a little disjointed, and I’m afraid long-winded anyway, but I hope they give some response. I do not want to delve totally into politics here. Father, please feel free not to publish if this comment goes too far in that direction.

  66. Janine Avatar

    PS At this late date, I can’t remember if the interview I heard with Friedan was about a daughter-in-law or a daughter, but I digress!

  67. Barbara Buckham Avatar
    Barbara Buckham

    I agree that the idea of absolute autonomy/and individualism is a spiritual disease. But I wonder what model of a civil society, under law, would you put in its place? Authoritarianism can also be a curse; not sure that was the plan. Power does seem to pollute, at least that’s what we witness on the global stage. God gave the government its own, limited authority to “do justice”. The early Christians were persecuted on political grounds, not religious, as they would not bow the knee to Caesar as GOD. The empire didn’t care who they worshipped as long as they gave homage to Caesar as the central diety. There are voices now that want to “christianize” society by political force, or an authoritarian ruler. We must be very careful what kind of hierarchy we are endorsing.

  68. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Janine, I am sure you and my mother would have hit it off. She was an amazing lady.

  69. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so much Janine.

  70. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I’ve noted in the article that I have no particular interest in political discussion. In many ways, our political life is among the most diseased part of our culture – just trying to maintain a spirit of peace is a deep struggle.

    I share your concern about those who imagine a Christian solution to political problems. They would likely do damage to both their religion and their politics. People feel desperate and embattled – and tend towards dark thoughts when in that state.

    For myself, I believe that, above all else, we need a firm confidence in the providence of God – regardless of our circumstances.

    My thoughts on our false notions of individualism and our relationships with others – are directed towards guarding the heart that we might live in union with Christ anad wisely in the world.

    Thank you.

  71. Janine Avatar

    Matthew (sorry I duplicated this comment by accidentally posting on Father’s next article!) You’re so welcome — I hope it was fruitful for you and thank you for the questions, listening, and good conversation! God bless

  72. Matthew Avatar

    Janine: 🙂

  73. Matthew Avatar

    Fr. Stephen said:

    “For myself, I believe that, above all else, we need a firm confidence in the providence of God – regardless of our circumstances.”

    Thanks for this.

  74. Matthew Avatar

    Fr. Stephen said:

    “My thoughts on our false notions of individualism and our relationships with others – are directed towards guarding the heart that we might live in union with Christ anad wisely in the world.”

    Individualism. Self. For “me”. Authority. Obedience. SOOO many false notions of the aforementioned exist in our western culture.

    On Easter Sunday for western Christians in Germany, it´s not unusual to go out to eat with family. We did this yesterday and my 20 something German/British niece came along. She was raised in a secular family with few (if any) limits placed on her personal freedom. Our table conversation came around to an old German song. It was assumed everyone in the family knew this song. When my niece said she didn´t know the song, my brother-in-law said something like “You don´t know this song? One must know this song! If one doesn´t know this song, they have a “bildungslücke” (which Google translates as “educational gap”)! My niece, who is normally very quiet and non-confrontational, immediately said rather strongly:

    “Why MUST one know this song??”

    Now I am aware that my brother-in-law made it seem like knowing this particular song (or not knowing it) was a matter of morality or something. He grew up in a family that was all about “one does this … one doesn´t do that … etc.” It´s probably the reason his sister (my niece´s mother) was determined to raise her daughter in a state of complete freedom and individuality. All that said, back to my 20 something niece´s statement:

    “Why MUST one know this song??”

    Sitting right next to her at the table, I couldn´t help but immediately think … man … this is the spirit we are dealing with in our culture today. Her statement, to me at least, seemed indicative of what many people think: I don´t have to “MUST” anything! I don´t have to be obedient to what my family or anyone tells me. There is no authority but me and what I want or don´t want as a matter of my individual volition. To heck with religious and cultural tradition and ritual. I am the captain of my ship, the CEO of my life!

    This kind of thinking, which in the case of my niece is (I think) birthed out of a childhood spent being told you can do anything you want to do … no rules … no borders … just don´t hurt anyone else … makes asking people to be obedient to God and in service to others a difficult (if not impossible) proposition.

  75. Matthew Avatar

    My niece actually asked a question. She didn´t technically and/or grammatically make a statement … but I interpreted her question as her making a much larger philosophical and social statement.


  76. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock


    You said your niece is normally quiet and non-confrontational. What do you think, then, caused this out-of-character behavior for her?

    I think it is pretty common for young people (of any generation) to question why something has always been done the way it has been and to be skeptical of an answer that relies on “because tradition.” In fact, this seems largely a normal relationship with the young and the old in that it gives the older generation a chance to pass onto the younger generation knowledge and experience. That is, the *why* is an important tradition to pass on as well–not just the “what.”

    If I had to guess (having been at many family gatherings myself), young people are compelled to engage in a lot of traditions that they don’t see the point of (yet), though they may well miss some when they are old, and those traditions–and the people who preserved them–are no longer around.

    (Of course, not everything needs to stay the same forever either! A young person’s question may help the older person see the tradition anew and consider whether it is worth keeping. More positively, the older person may refresh a fading memory of why the tradition ought be observed. )

    Calling the song a “bildungslücke” in such a situation (in which many traditions were already being observed) may have been her opportunity to express a question when she had many questions about all the traditions being observed (especially, if, as you say, her mother has raised her in a nontraditional way).

    Did anyone answer her?

  77. Matthew Avatar

    Mark … the conversation flowed into another unrelated topic almost instantly after she asked her question. Too much philosophy for a calm and relaxed Easter lunch I assume :-)!

    I hear what you are saying Mark, and I think your comment pushes me to think … well … maybe some rituals, ideas, traditions, even “must know” knowledge need to be brought into question – OR – that maybe my niece´s question was not how I interpreted it … it may have simply been an honest probing question without an underlying motivation.

    That said, I know that her mother (a pediatrician and family expert) said to us that children should be raised with few, if any, limitations on their individual freedom. The only time they should be told “to do” anything is when they are in grave danger or their personal security is at stake.

    I have real problems with this philosophy of child rearing, but then again I am just another religious nut who doesn´t have a degree in pediatrics! 🙂 Honestly, though, this philosophy does nothing but promote a selfish society and sets up our youth for massive failure (IMO).

  78. Matthew Avatar

    Mark said and asked:

    “You said your niece is normally quiet and non-confrontational. What do you think, then, caused this out-of-character behavior for her?”

    I think she didn´t want to be TOLD she has to do or “MUST” anything. As such, she expressed herself strongly in the form of a question.

  79. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    It’s quite possible for Christians to simply be “traditionalist,” and there are those who see Orthodoxy as supportive of that position. This is a distortion of holy Tradition itself. The Orthodox do not do things simply because they have always been done (in fact, things do change, some things disappear, etc.). Tradition (as in “what’s always been done”) is not what Orthodox teaches. “Tradition” as in, “What has been handed down to us from Christ through the Apostles” is, in fact, what we treasure.

    The point is to know God as He has revealed Himself to us in Christ. That knowledge is frequently mediated to us in the things we do and say and sing (Liturgy, especially). But if we neglect the point of the Liturgy simply for the sake of doing the same things, then we’ll have missed everything.

    It brings us back to the heart – to love itself.

  80. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    One of the great failures of individualism is its forgetfulness of our need to live in a culture. Building a culture that is healthy and not toxic, etc., is a very difficult thing. I tend towards a sort of Burkean conservatism – an assumption that we should be careful about change in light of the law of unintended consequences. Much of our modern world is just such a consequence.

  81. Matthew Avatar

    Fr. Stephen said:

    “The point is to know God as He has revealed Himself to us in Christ. That knowledge is frequently mediated to us in the things we do and say and sing (Liturgy, especially). But if we neglect the point of the Liturgy simply for the sake of doing the same things, then we’ll have missed everything.”

    I suppose this is what some Protestants and others, wrongly, think about Orthodoxy. Some of them view what the Orthodox do as being “religious” and “empty” and “repetitive” in need of “Reformation”, but in thinking that they (IMO) lose the full revelation of Jesus Christ. For so long I didn´t know this.

  82. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, in any presentation that requires a script there comes a moment when one has to go with the spirit rather than the letter of the script.
    Conversely, the idea that it is possible to “just wing it” and have high quality is just as bad.

    The best stage director I ever worked with had one direction: “Play the intention!”

    She also required memorization of the script

  83. Matthew Avatar

    Fr. Stephen said:

    “One of the great failures of individualism is its forgetfulness of our need to live in a culture. Building a culture that is healthy and not toxic, etc., is a very difficult thing. I tend towards a sort of Burkean conservatism – an assumption that we should be careful about change in light of the law of unintended consequences. Much of our modern world is just such a consequence.”

    Agreed. I said to my wife today that I am amazed that we in the west have been able for so long (since the end of WWII probably) to live with one another and to function rather effectively as a free society even though there are so many competing personal opinions and interests floating around. There is no longer any real sense of something that holds the culture together with tradition and ritual. It all seems so random. That said, how can so many self-absorbed people live together in relative harmony?

  84. Matthew Avatar

    Is there hierarchy in the universe? If yes, what is the evidence of this?

  85. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks Mark, Fr. Stephen, and Michael.

  86. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    First, you have to define what is meant by “hierarchy.” St. Dionysius the Areopagite coined the word back in the 5th century or so. What he meant by it was very much its literal meaning: “holy order.” In practice and in his writings, hierarchy refered pretty much to the “order” of the Divine Liturgy. It’s only much later that the word was adapted to describe a vertical chain-of-command, etc.

    But, is there an order in the universe? Of course there is. Call it “laws,” or whatever. The universe is not chaos.

    Is there a hierarchy among human beings? I would say that the true hierarchy (order) is defined and discovered by love. So, Christ tells His disciples that the greatest must be the servant of all…so that flips our understanding of hierarchy up-side down.

    There are hierarchies of power (verticality) that can be quite oppressive and virtually demonic. I think that power hierarchies are a great temptation and can be found in many places.

    There is an “order” that love reveals. For example, in a marriage. We don’t impose (if we’re healthy) orderings on those we love, forcing them to conform to a system of rules that is external to them. Instead, love takes account of the unique needs, etc., of the other and takes care to relate on that basis. My wife does not expect me to do certain things because I’m really bad at them (like planning). We used to go round-and-round in our early years over things like vacations because we were both trying to assert our own desires. Over time, to use this example, we can to appreciate what each of us needed and planned and decided accordingly. 48 years of marriage and I can’t imagine ever ignoring such things again.

    Sometimes the ordering of things (hierarchies) is hard to describe or define because they are intuited more than they are rationally described.

    I hope all of that is of use.

  87. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks so very much Fr. Stephen. Hierarchy is on my mind because our Baptist church is going to be hosting a seminar on “religion without hierarchy” soon. Very Protestant evangelical thinking, but I think it may be misguided.

  88. Janine Avatar

    Matthew et al,

    Sometimes I try to answer those questions with a matter-of-fact answer that takes the question seriously. Of course, that’s not going to work if someone just wants to oppose. But with my nieces and nephews, taking them seriously and being really patient seems to be the only answer. Like honestly explaining why I think someone *must* know or learn X. At this late stage I am only just learning what patience is and how incredibly much I need it 😉

  89. Byron Avatar


    This quote came to my mind when I read your niece’s question:

    One man was asked, “What do you gain by praying to God?”
    The man replied, “Nothing, but let me tell you what I lost: anger, ego, greed, depression, insecurity, and fear of death.”
    Sometimes the answer to our prayers is not gaining, but losing–which ultimately is the gain.

    I tend to think that the focus of the question, “Why MUST I…?” can be misplaced. We regularly note that the practices of the Church are for our salvation. But do any of us practice all of them in our lives? The Church does not stand over us and say “You MUST” but she does point out that these things are beneficial. I think this may be considered an example of the difference in the freedoms of the world (which are often coercive in nature) and the freedom in Christ (which is always rooted in love). It may also be helpful as a guide to how one may act in such a situation. Just my far-too-philosophical thoughts.

  90. Alan Avatar

    “But, if we do not embrace healthy restraints, then we’ll finally get unhealthy tyranny. It happens repeatedly in history.”

    So very true Father!
    Thanks for sharing this great post again.

  91. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames


    I work part time as a substitute teacher, upper grades, and I always take my guitar with me and sing to the students – lots of folk songs, both American and European – things that will not be on their play lists. I’ve been doing this for going on 7 years (Covid time excepted). Where appropriate, I’ve always invited the students to sing along. The students have taken me up on that invitation exactly twice in all that time. (Of course, I often hear students singing along with the popular music that comes out of their phones…) What that says to me is that we’re losing our culture; one of the commonalities of people groups is that they sing the same songs over at least a few generations. Your niece is not “required” to know that song, no; but not knowing it isn’t about an educational gap, but rather about something of the deep stuff that make her “German”. It’s interesting that nowadays, such a concept is anathema among “enlightened” people.

    Jonathan Pageau has some great stuff on hierarchy – much more as Fr Stephen has described it. Ultimately, it is a sort of circle dance of Love – of appropriately emptying oneself and raising the Other.


  92. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, I see hierarchy expressed in the Periodic Table of Elólements and the quantum order it expresses.

  93. Matthew Avatar

    Hello Dana, Janine, Byron and Michael!

    Dana: You said: “What that says to me is that we’re losing our culture; one of the commonalities of people groups is that they sing the same songs over at least a few generations. Your niece is not “required” to know that song, no; but not knowing it isn’t about an educational gap, but rather about something of the deep stuff that make her “German”. It’s interesting that nowadays, such a concept is anathema among “enlightened” people.”

    I think this is a brilliant insight really! It might very well be that bildungslücke has the kind of meaning you suggest … not simply an educational gap, but something much deeper from a social and cultural perspective. I agree so much with Fr. Stephen … we don´t live as autonomous self-serving units. We live as part of a culture which teaches us essential things through tradition, ritual, etc. IMO we are losing our culture in the west and it is being taken over by something altogether different. In Germany if you say anything that defends the need to protect culture in many “enlightened” circles you will be labeled a nationalist in the negative sense of the word. Thanks also for sharing the story about your substitute teaching work. I really enjoyed that!

    Janine: I suppose I should learn not to normally assume the negative when I hear such questions (like the one my niece asked). She might have really wanted to know something; it may have been an honest question! I probably should have pressed her a little more for clarification.

    Byron: I love the quote! Thanks so much for sharing.

    Michael: I had no idea there is a hierarchy of order in the Periodic Table of the Elements.

  94. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Michael is correct that there is indeed order in atoms of elements. It is also interesting that the human mind can detect such order and build periodic tables to represent it. I believe that indicates that the human mind already has an ‘imprint’ of such order to be able to see it. Sometimes the imprint is developed over years of experience before the human mind finds a way to express it. When the human mind does express it in words or another form, there again is yet another type of order in words or another construct. I can’t help but believe that such an imprint is an action of Providence, teaching us and showing us His order in an iconic fashion.

    Back to your niece’s question, I sometimes frame a question in response to a question minimally to ensure I understand the question in the first place.

  95. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    CS Lewis’s essay “On Christianity and Culture” is not (in my opinion) one of his easier works to understand or summarize because he makes some complex and subtle distinctions. I think it’s very pertinent, however, for this discussion and would recommend it to those who have not read it.

    In brief, we have to be careful to distinguish between what is a moral and necessary good (such as Father Stephen’s “What has been handed down to us from Christ through the Apostles”) and what might be good “taste” (e.g., a particular song versus some other song).

    Otherwise, I think Lewis expresses a proper Christian attitude toward culture better than I can, particularly in a comment of reasonable length!

    Also, I agree with Father Stephen about Burkean conservatism: A conservative “conserves” (that is, tries to preserve that which is worth preserving). A conservative is not a reactionary but is always careful about change and guided by the principle that traditions arise for reasons*. Ignoring those reasons leads to unintended consequences.

    *Which is why those who wish to preserve traditions ought to understand the reasons for them.

  96. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Mark, et al
    It occurred to me that one of the inherent positions of Orthodoxy (especially as regards the place of “tradition”) is that it “listens.” We do not discern by speaking – we discern by listening. “Culture” (or certain elements of it) has a way of “remembering.” But we have to listen carefully to find out what it is remembering. Sometimes, it is a remembered pain. Sometimes it is a remembered joy. Sometimes, it is the reflection of the great “circle dance” of creation itself.

    The energy of the Reformation that flowed into the birth of the modern project too easily assumed that what had gone before was corrupt (and secretly Catholic) and needed to be swept away in order to make room for the wonders of the new age that was being birthed. Fortunately, human beings are inherently conservative (believe it or not) and were slower in their sweeping than might have been possible – saving the world from a quick disaster. But the disaster has been ever so slowly slouching towards Bethlehem to be born…

  97. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Father Stephen,

    “We do not discern by speaking – we discern by listening.”

    I very much agree. You have referenced love several times in your comments, and love is why this is so. It is occasionally possible to speak and write with love, to make another person feel loved through our words, but most of the time we fall into thinking only about making ourselves understood. We become frustrated and perhaps even angry when others don’t get our point or disagree with us. But attentive listening almost always facilitates love.

    I’ve mentioned before how much I appreciate at Lent the inclusion of St. Ephrem’s prayer because of knowing that “idle talk” (loving my own words and taking pride in them) is a personal temptation.

  98. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The question remains: “To Whom (What) do I listen?

  99. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    We could listen to anyone and anything. It’s what we do with what we hear that matters.

  100. Matthew Avatar

    What should I listen to in our modern culture?

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