Dust of the Earth

“You are dust, and to dust you shall return…” (Gen. 3:18)

Human beings have a fundamental bond with the planet on which we live – we are made of its stuff. We are not made of Mars dirt, or Moon dust, Jupiter gas, or Saturn rings. We are made of earth dust – we always have been and always will be. This is not accidental nor incidental – it is foundational. We are earth dust that reasons and speaks. Not only is this true for this earthly life (earthly!), it is, according to the Scriptures, true of our eternal existence with Christ. The earth dust that was the earthly flesh of Christ is now (somehow) the transfigured, resurrected earth dust that is eternally seated at the right hand of the Father.

I often think that we pay too little attention to our dust-bodies. Our science fictions seems to imagine us darting around to planets all over the galaxy,  moving our brains from one vessel to another, or simply parking our sentience in some updated version of a laptop computer (or my phone). We call our latest ditherings with electricity and silicon “artificial intelligence,” which represents a serious failure to understand or respect the wonder of our own minds.

We live in an utterly unique biome. Our world is more than dirt. It is also wonderfully teeming with life – viruses, bacteria, fungi, animals and plants of innumerable variety. And many of these things live inside us and make our life possible. We have more bacteria in our body than we do cells. Some of those bacteria play a role in generating things such as seratonin and other essential chemicals. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and our life is utterly enmeshed with the life of other planetary creatures. We eat them (plants, animals), we breathe them, they participate in our thoughts (see the seratonin reference). More than dust, we are Earth that reasons and speaks.

Someone asked me recently, “Will there be bacteria in heaven?” It made me suspect that our vision is often less than cosmic – that is – it’s too small. St. Paul writes:

For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly but because of God who subjected it—in hopethat the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” (Rom. 8:19–23)

Christ came not just to save sinners, but to save the whole of creation. When we speak of a “new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1), we should think, “the whole of creation.” We’re not just in this for ourselves.

C.S. Lewis once observed:

“That is why I often find myself at such cross-purposes with the modern world: I have been a converted Pagan living among apostate Puritans.”

The “apostate Puritans” he had in mind are the citizens of modernity who have so divorced themselves from creation and one another that they wonder if creation would have any place in heaven. The Puritans who gave birth to such a mindset were already jettisoning sacraments and any number of other material aspects of God’s good creation from their own religious imagination. Orthodox Christians are not anti-materialist. Indeed, we may be among the few true materialists in the modern world.

Christ’s ministry among us was thoroughly engaged with the material world. He healed with spit and mud, and bathing in water. His feeding of the 5,000 was not anti-material nor ignorant of their hunger. It wonderfully expanded the reality of five loaves and two fish such that created limits shared in the abundance of heaven itself.

Lewis’ “Pagan” reference was an acknowledgement of his imagination filled with stories and myths of gods that inhabited trees and rivers, springs and seasons. Indeed, the Paganism he had in mind was deeply intertwined with all created things. The Christianity that came to his native islands (he was actually Northern Irish and later studied and lived in England) from the Apostolic times, was in no way scandalized by the religious place of nature in those cultures. One need only read St. Patrick’s Breastplate to hear how seamlessly Christianity gathered up nature as well:

…I arise today, through
The strength of heaven,
The light of the sun,
The radiance of the moon,
The splendor of fire,
The speed of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of the sea,
The stability of the earth,
The firmness of rock.
I arise today, through
God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me…

I smile when I see books describing “Celtic spirituality,” knowing that it is nothing more than Orthodox Christianity as expressed among a particular people – nothing more, nothing less.

All of this, however, is difficult for modernity’s “Puritan” offspring. In their efforts to purge the world of every vestige of Catholicism, they helped initiate a secularized Christianity, devoid of mystery and sacrament (except as a mental exercise). The charge of “superstition” helped sweep away the wonder of Christianity’s original vision of creation. Of course, modernity has replaced all of this today with the “settled science” of climatology as electric cars and the like promise the world a new salvation.

My first book, Everywhere Present, sought to reintroduce readers to the “one-storey universe,” a world in which even the bacteria have a divine purpose and destiny. It was a delightful proposition put to me by my editor in Russia, when the book was published in translation, that we add a chapter with a Russian translation of St. Patrick’s breastplate. It now feels like a missing chapter in the English version. There is, I think, a missing chapter in much of our Christian faith in our present time. We have lost so much.

Have you ever pondered the bacteria that inhabited the gut of the God/Man? I confess that haven’t either. We creatures of dust, friends and fellows of flora and fauna, need to reclaim the wholeness of our faith. Modern Puritans all the world over are hungry for the faith they once condemned. They have set various forms of madness in its place. Sanity is rare – but it only comes with wholeness.

A version of the Jesus Prayer that I learned in the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex goes:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us and on Thy whole world.”

It groans. Can you hear it?

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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Comments

75 responses to “Dust of the Earth”

  1. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    This is great, Father! I would love to read a whole commentary by you (maybe even a book?) on St Patrick’s breastplate. Perhaps not coincidentally, I just received from a hospital complex of a doctor who treated me a while back a survey regarding their research on how closely intertwined our environment is with our health and development in all dimensions — it really is remarkable. (Of course, I’m afraid this is not a sacrament outlook with them, but it does affirm what you are saying, and has to give us pause regarding also how “fallenness” may affect it all too.)

  2. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    This is an unusual yet much needed discussion. Thank you Father!

  3. Margaret Avatar
    Margaret

    WOW and thank you, Fr. Stephen! Glory to God for ALL Things!

  4. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dino,
    Yes – it’s a bit odd, I think, but all of this has been in my mind and heart lately. I have particularly been meditating on the fullness of our communion (koinonia) with Christ (and He with us) and all that it means. When St. Paul writes that God is “gathering together all things together in Christ Jesus,” I think we fail to think as fully as we should.

    All things are given to us for communion with Him.

    As to the uniqueness of life on this planet – I think I’ve been set off frequently lately by various speculations in popular thought (and the news) that imagine us in a sort of Star Trek mode galloping all over the galaxy, from planet to planet. In point of fact, we uniquely exist on this planet, and likely cannot truly exist on any other. It’s not just oxygen and such that we need, but we need the whole planet (and all of its biome). This is our home and (as the New Earth) will always be our home – though I have no idea how to think of a New Heaven and a New Earth.

    All of it also rattles around in me as something for which we should be profoundly thankful – giving voice to every creature under heaven.

    So, I think I was in a poetic mood in this article’s writing.

  5. christa Avatar
    christa

    YAAAY! YES!

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The difficulty is that the “problem” and the majority of solutions are all ideological. Ideology no matter the stated intent is lies trying to cover both the nature of the problem and true solutions.

    The only real solution I have ever found is a deep repentance for my narcissism and greed.

  7. Brandi Avatar

    Fr., from one poetic soul to another: Your words are my heart-speak, and though I am not trained clergy, my whole life and being in faith yearns for a “yes” to your question about will there by bacteria in heaven. (And the ladybug I moved this afternoon and the old flowers that bloomed in my grandma’s courtyard and the birds we buried as children… All because they are God’s love). I do not know how we will see these things again, as you say, but I know God loves His creation so much, and He teaches us how to love His creation (if we will just listen), and He has redeemed/is redeeming it all so maybe, somehow, when all things are revealed, maybe, somehow, we’ll see everything rooted in that original love, as it really is, again? (This is a combined question, hope, and prayer.)

    It’s also about the double-joy of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, too, isn’t it? He took on the dust He made through His own hands and redeemed that very dust, to use just one very small example. Nothing is lost. Reminds me of Spencer:

    “For whatsoever from one place doth fall,
    Is with the tide unto an other brought:
    For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought.”

  8. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Father, Brandi,
    I am grateful for your words here and welcome the way they resonate as deeply traditional, even though they challenge assumptions (which are flaunted as traditional and yet are not necessarily part of Holy Tradition at all) .

  9. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    What came to me as I read this article is:

    “Matter matters!”

    Would I be wrong in saying that Christianity is probably one of the few religions (or maybe even the only religion?) that places an emphasis on both the spiritual and the physical? My sister-in-law was raised Christian Science. For them, the physical world is an illusion as is human suffering. I think the same may hold true for most strands of Buddhism, though I would need to check again.

  10. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dino, thank you. I appreciate the affirmation. May God give us a glorious Pascha this year!

  11. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    I suspect you’re right. Of course, many Christians fail to engage with the reality and implications of the resurrection and can be as “non-material” as anyone. This is especially true in the “puritanized” non-sacramentality of modern Christianity.

  12. Ook Avatar
    Ook

    Father,
    Your mention of the dust of earth brought back youthful memories of my time as an intern at the local planetarium, where I had a standard spiel about how the sun and planets formed from a cloud of gas and dust from a collapsed nebula, how most of the elements (except H and He) were formed inside stars, and ending with…dramatic pause…”so we are…stardust…”
    Apologies to Joni.

  13. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Fr. Stephen.

  14. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Father
    I also see here the connection with your ” All Dogs Go to Heaven”

  15. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dino,
    Yes. I can see that. Of course, all of creation has been made “subject to futility” – which describes the work of death and decay, etc. My assumption is that in the New Creation, the resurrection is the example. Creation is set free from its futility, death is no more. We will no longer be subject to corruption, etc. If someone were to ask me about “bacteria in heaven” – I have no idea what their life or purpose would be – but not what it is now…

    On a lighter note, CS Lewis was once asked if there would be mosquitos in heaven. He said, “I could imagine a place as a heaven for mosquitos and a hell for men.” I don’t think I would ponder in that direction. 🙂

  16. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    If someone were to ask me about “bacteria in heaven” – I have no idea what their life or purpose would be – but not what it is now…

    Father, I remember a comment you once made that even something like Cancer may be redeemed (changed to its proper biological purpose) in the New Heaven/Earth. It really opened my thinking on this subject. I’m very happy for this post!

    Concerning Protestant thinking, I have at times mentioned to some Protestant friends that all of Creation will be renewed in the New Earth, not just mankind. That statement generally produces thoughtful contemplation, and often silence, in them. I’ve found it a good way to end a discussion that is leaning into argument!

  17. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Byron,
    One of my favorite and most insightful quotes from Fr. Alexander Schmemann is that, in the sacraments, a thing is not made to be “something else” but is revealed to be what it “truly is.” And of course – “what it truly is” is a means of communion with God – in a very profound and substantial way.

    When we “eat His flesh and drink His blood,” we “digest” God. It is not a non-material experience (as if we were somehow “extracting” the spiritual from the material). We eat and drink God – which also reveals what eating and drinking really are.

    On the profound level of marriage – human beings are “bone of bone” and “flesh of flesh” with each other, and God has so created us that this union is a true flesh and blood union (in the sexual union). We are not just “in a relationship.” That is the deepest example given to us. But, when we break bread together and share in a common meal, there is also a union of sorts that takes place. We have a “common life.” All of this is raised to the highest level when our final union is described as a “marriage feast.” Behold the Bridegroom comes!

    The loss of the true sacramental in most of Protestant experience is probably the most radical of all shifts that came about in the Reformation. It causes the entire world to change its appearance. And, in that Protestant experience has been married to modernity (unintended consequence), it has come to dominate the world of modern culture.

    I think that conversations about the final renewal of creation in the Eschaton is a possible doorway for speaking about creation in a more classical manner.

  18. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Father your last comment reminds me that I have also read that in a marriage, husband and wife even wind up sharing the internal microbiome that medicine finds is responsible for far more things that we knew (for example, serotonin levels in the brain). It seems to me that our ancient ancestors had all these secrets and wisdom known and given to them — and gives so much more meaning to the Eucharist too.

  19. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Janine,
    I think our ancient ancestors “knew” things in a manner that differs from our modern knowing. We know by science – we read an article – they knew by observing how they lived. Often they called these by names that seem mythological or superstitious to us. But our modern language (our biomes and chemicals, etc.) are often spoken in a way that prevents us from seeing the lively mythology and spiritual reality that inhere in all things. We should know, from our sacramental experience, that something being “physical” is not a contradiction to it being spiritual. Physics and metaphysics are not really so distinct as we imagine.

  20. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    I believe there are remnants in the discipline of chemistry that have retained a bit of the ancient understanding of nature. A student commented on using the word “species” in chemistry, which she first learned to use in biology. She asked me why the verbiage is used in chemistry. I answered, “Because historically, chemists have a way of thinking about the behavior of molecules to be like that of animals.” I don’t think she was convinced.

    Indeed the entire creation groans as it waits for the return of the King.

  21. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Dee, I love that, thanks as always

  22. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dee,
    If they knew of chemistry’s roots in alchemy – they would be even more surprised!

  23. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Father,
    Yes that is so true! That’s a beautiful, perfect way to put it. I haven’t read a huge amount, but what I read of the Fathers affirms this all the time. And for those like Saints Gregory of Nyssa, Nazianzinus, Basil — they were far more educated, it seems to me, that moderns can understand, even in sciences etc. The flower of classical learning who dedicated themselves to the Church, the most outstanding students of their time

  24. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Thank you, Janine!

  25. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Peace and grace Dee!

  26. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Indeed, Father, I should introduce that topic into my teaching—lest it be forgotten!

  27. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    My latest commute listen is St. Augustine’s “Confessions,” Janine. These folks were indeed the most learned people of their day.

    Coincidentally, per the recent eclipse, St. Augustine moved away from Manichaeism (in part) because science could predict celestial events like eclipses, whereas Manichaeists made erroneous claims and predictions. St. Augustine describes developing a relationship with a highly regarded and influential Manichaeist who, to St. Augustine’s disappointment, has very little of the intellectual breadth to which he, St. Augustine, had been exposed.

    If anyone needs convincing that the people of 400 A.D. were *not* all anti-intellectual, superstitious brutes, read them in their own words. They were grappling with the same profound questions we do.

  28. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    I suppose to explain myself a bit better I would like to say that it seems to me that our ancestors at the very least intuited these patterns from what they inherited and certain through spiritual experience and lived faith. And they continue to be affirmed even in modern science. I don’t want to say they were purely abstract either because that just doesn’t cover this understanding of the world in some very pragmatic and true sense.

  29. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thank you Mark, so true! I am wondering if we can learn a lesson from the false predictions of the Manichaeists too!

  30. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    This is a wonderful conversation! Father, thank you for your reply; it is beautiful.

    I’ll add that I IM’d you an article on FB, Father. It is interesting as it dovetails into this conversation–but is from a distinctly secular viewpoint. What I perceive as a lack of fullness (resulting in confusion and frustration) in the article is very different from the fullness of the conversation here!

  31. juliania Avatar
    juliania

    Thank you for this lovely reflection, Father Stephen. My earliest memory, which was before I was walking so very early, is that during the war, the second great one, my grandmother was looking after me in New Zealand. She was raised in a native family and the memory is of her carrying me through a turnstile into the ‘bush’ which was a little mossy clearing among native trees, setting me down under one and going away. The bell bird was singing. That’s all I remember – not her coming back, just that precious few moments on my own. I think it must have been a special sort of dedication; I have loved that memory.

  32. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Mark said:

    “If anyone needs convincing that the people of 400 A.D. were *not* all anti-intellectual, superstitious brutes, read them in their own words. They were grappling with the same profound questions we do.”

    Very interesting Mark. I agree with your thoughts, though I am wondering if the questions are generally the same, what is it that is really different today than in, say, 400 A.D.? Science and technology?

  33. Kevin Avatar
    Kevin

    Father, I was tracking with you until your quip about the “settled science” of climatology. Maybe you can unpack that for me. Most climatologists that I’ve read would never contend that the science of climate change is “settled,” other than to say that climate change is real. Like most good scientists, they are constantly revising their understanding of climate change as new information becomes available, especially as climate change accelerates faster than current models predicted. Your comment also appears to posit an either/or that I don’t think really exists. A Christian can desire to care for God’s creation and mitigate the suffering of the poor, who will bear the brunt of climate change in the short term, without thinking that their efforts, motivated by love of neighbor, have anything to do with a human being’s salvation. It’s not a zero sum game. Have I misunderstood you?

  34. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Kevin,
    My use of the quotes in the “settled science” indicates my skepticism about such notions. As you say, it’s not settled. In many cases, it’s not even science. The infusion of politics and money into the entire discussion has made the entire topic to be both problematic and less than trustworthy for many (myself included).

    I suspect that, whatever happens with climate related efforts, the poor will end up on the short end of the stick. As always.

  35. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    In 400AD they didn’t have plastic, which we have and which despite its many uses may end up seriously harmful. Apparently in the form of microplastics it is everywhere, atmosphere, water cycles, ocean, drinking water, animals, and us. We’re just learning now about this unfortunate reality.

    Technology delivers goods but often not what we expect them to be in the long run. However as such, technology as human-made has a relationship with us both good and not so good—and the complexity of that relationship hasn’t changed, I suspect.

  36. Kevin Avatar
    Kevin

    Thanks Father. I see our skeptometers are calibrated differently, but we’re agreed on the plight of the poor.

  37. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Matthew,

    How I would summarize it is we have more accurate answers to many of the “what” and “how” questions, but we do our ancestors like St. Augustine a disservice to think they were not asking the same profound “why” questions as we.

    For example, what is truth? What are good and evil? How does my life have any meaning?

    It is accurate, I suspect, that those in hard, primitive circumstances can have less time for contemplation of philosophy than those with the leisure to do so. Even so, we–with all our conveniences–can choose instead to distract ourselves from or deaden ourselves to philosophy and thus live lives as unexamined as a marionette’s.

  38. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Kevin,
    I suspect that my skepticism is driven largely by the fact that the answer to climate warming seems to consistently be larger government with greater control. I believe that government in the modern world is incredibly corrupt (pretty much irredeemably so) and ineffectively clumsy and stupid about almost anything it attempts to do. My wife works in a small science firm (here in Oak Ridge, TN, a center of science) and I’ve been made very aware of the corruption of science in the belly of the beast through government-controlled funding and editorial control of publication, etc. I would like to see far more debate and less consensus (and less declaration of consensus and demonization of dissent). But, I’m part of the Vietnam generation who imbibed an abiding memory of corruption at the highest levels – none of which has changed as far as I can see (cf. perpetual wars, etc.).

    We do agree on the plight of the poor.

  39. Bonnie Ivey Avatar
    Bonnie Ivey

    St. John Chrysostom wrote a commentary on Romans 8:19-21, and other scriptural verses, describing the troubled creation as a worn old garment. He then turns to scriptures about creation’s ultimate renewal. He describes mankind as the nurse who cares for the little son of a king. When that son comes into his father’s power, she enjoys all good things with him. “Just as when the son is to appear at his new position of glory, even the servants are provided with a brighter garment – even so will God also clothe the creatures with incorruption for the glorious liberty of the children.” C.S. Lewis wrote on this in “The Last Battle”.

  40. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Agreed Mark. Thanks so much.

  41. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Dee.

  42. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Kevin said:

    “A Christian can desire to care for God’s creation and mitigate the suffering of the poor, who will bear the brunt of climate change in the short term, without thinking that their efforts, motivated by love of neighbor, have anything to do with a human being’s salvation. It’s not a zero sum game. ”

    Fr. Stephen said:

    “I suspect that my skepticism is driven largely by the fact that the answer to climate warming seems to consistently be larger government with greater control. I believe that government in the modern world is incredibly corrupt (pretty much irredeemably so) and ineffectively clumsy and stupid about almost anything it attempts to do. My wife works in a small science firm (here in Oak Ridge, TN, a center of science) and I’ve been made very aware of the corruption of science in the belly of the beast through government-controlled funding and editorial control of publication, etc.”

    I am a little confused here. I would agree that the government is probably irredeemably corrupt and that it will probably make a mess out of climate policy. That said, one doesn´t need to be a scientist, or a politician, to see the huge weather issues we are having globally which affect the poor substantially.

    I think we should follow the commands of Christ to love our neighbor, especially the poor and the marginalized and the most vulnerable. Maybe that means we have to drastically change our consumption habits so that those in the Global South (for example) will suffer less? Maybe that means I need to be “greener”? I don´t need the government to tell me to do this and I don´t think the church needs to become the EPA. I think Christ is concerned with how we treat the least of them. It is Him I want to listen to …. even about things concerning the environment.

    In terms of “settled science”, I too sometimes have my doubts, but I am not a scientist nor a politician … I can only trust God that the consensus (for now at least) is correct.

  43. Kevin Avatar
    Kevin

    Thanks again, Father. That makes things clearer. Having worked as a private attorney in an area of practice that requires constant interaction with one particular federal agency, I am sympathetic to some of what you write. I can attest that the incompetent and corrupt have a home in government! But I also know many folks within government who are gifted public servants who want to do the right thing, even when bureaucracy makes the right thing nearly impossible. They often get lumped in with the massa damnata, which is a shame. I wonder if you’ve read The Fifth Risk–gives some insight into the critical need for expertise within government and the ways politicians and their appointees can screw it all up. It paints a somewhat less bleak picture of government than you hold; some of the humans really are trying to do good and some other humans are determined to thwart them – song as old as time. Anyways, thanks again for the explanation.

  44. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Kevin,
    I do not doubt that most people want to do good – I readily agree. It is probably at the level of policy (political appointees and upper echelon) where corruption and incompetence is most common. The surest way for science to become untrustworthy is for its lively debate, etc., to be interfered with. We saw it (in hindsight) with the pandemic – where untold damage was done to the public trust. I literally have a problem viz. climate information in which I don’t know whom to believe. However, when I see a political class across the globe with a proven track record of immoral actions and decisions tell me that the planet is facing an “existential crisis” and that the solution is to give them more power and more money – I simply don’t believe them, or am disinclined to believe them…because they lie (and worse) on a regular basis.

    However – none of that changes proper and good stewardship regarding the world in which we live. I fully support that and would urge anyone to live responsibly and pay attention to local sources, etc. The ascetical disciplines of the Orthodox faith have always pointed us in this direction.

    I should also add that I do not favor one political party over another. I have no hidden agenda in sharing my thoughts. The last time I was in poll booth (last month or so), I think I wound up voting for only one person in one race (a local one), and left the others blank. The “lesser of two evils is still evil…”

    I’ve said more on this that I normally do. Please forgive me for any offense.

    Back to my statement in the article itself – I had in mind those for whom climate has become a religion – it is one of several that modernity has set in place. We should be properly good stewards of the world – but must do so now while avoiding yet another form of religious madness. It’s hard to be Orthodox in a world of Puritans.

  45. Kevin Avatar
    Kevin

    Father, thank you once again. I should say that in the last few months I have been watching your YT videos — from years ago and more recently — as I decide whether to convert to Orthodoxy and have benefitted immensely from your wisdom and good humor. Some of Internet Orthodoxy is toxic and, frankly, frightening; but there are priests who are genuinely joyful and inspiring. You’re one of the good ‘uns! Your relationship with politics, however, has puzzled me. I know you’ve written about this elsewhere, and I should do my homework before plying you with more questions. (My decision about conversion, by the way, doesn’t hinge on your answers to these questions! I’m just genuinely curious.) Maybe my wife and I can head up to Oak Ridge this summer, and we can have a chat, and all will be made clear! You have caused me no offense at all. Quite the contrary. What a gift to me that you’ve taken the time to help me better understand your thinking on these matters. Many blessings.

  46. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Kevin,
    Glad you’re finding the Youtube things to be of use and interesting. And I appreciate your questions (including being puzzled about my occasional political comments). I think I can clarify in pretty short order.

    By nature, I’m probably a “Burkean Conservative,” meaning, I think that change is always tricky – particularly because of the law of unintended consequences. Left alone, people tend to make the best of things. Constant change tends to create more problems than it solves. That’s my “nature” when I think of such things. There is no political party that represents that.

    But – for the large part – most of what I’ve said (out loud) viz. what we would take as the political sphere is simply part of a strong critique of “modernity” (not the period of time in which we live, but the philosophy espoused most dominantly in the time during which we live). It is married to a notion of progress, of secularism (the world is self-defining, etc.), and of human agency above all else. It has various mantras such as, “Making the world a better place.” I think this latter phrase is rather idolatrous.

    But – even deeper than this – I have observed that modern American politics is dominantly based on the manipulation of the passions (anger, envy, etc.), and that those who care deeply about them tend to be enthralled by the passions. Many people think they have no choice in this – that it is their duty to be involved, etc. I would observe that the devil doesn’t care how we vote so long as we hate and fear one another. For myself, the only way I have found to avoid that trap is to give myself (and anyone else) permission to not participate, or participate as little as necessary.

    This is only possible if it is the case that God Himself is in charge of the outcome of history (and this I believe). The “End” of history is nothing other than the death and resurrection of Christ.

    Imagine that you were living in a Communist country (where they had elections as well). Only, there are two Communist parties. Party A and Party B. Who do you vote for? Does it matter? I think we have two parties, neither of whom seem to nominate anyone I would care to even watch my grandchildren, much less run my country. Does it matter? What recourse do we have? etc. I simply think that there’s lots of fallacies underpining most of our civic theory. We do not, for example, have three functioning branches of government. The republic is failing.

    What I believe most deeply, is that God is in charge and cares for us. I leave history in His hands. What there is for me and other believers is to obey the commandments of Christ, as fully, completely, and vigorously as possible and live as rightly with others as is possible.

    But – I’m probably an outlier within American Orthodoxy on this. I have no way of knowing. There is, happily, almost no discussion of politics that seems to come up when I’m with large gatherings of clergy in the OCA. That encourages me. I know of Republican and Democrat clergy – but they seem to keep it to themselves.

    I agree with you about some segments of internet Orthodoxy – the toxicity scares me – and I believe those segments to be delusional on the whole. The passions that they engender are a dead give away.

    If I had a mantra about all of this it would be: “be sober and watchful, guard your heart, and do not be a slave to your passions.”

    Also, I’d welcome you to visit in Oak Ridge this summer – good conversation is always a joy!

  47. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Kevin, about 16 years ago politics hit home one Sunday in the Lutheran Church right across the street from my parish. One of the Lutheran congregants was a well known abortion doctor here in Wichita. As he and his wife were leaving the service a Evangelical man approached and shot the doctor dead. Passions ruled. The end result has been much greater acceptance of abortion in Wichita than before. If one objects to abortion at all the extremist tag is applied.
    We have The Treehouse which supports single mothers to have and raise their children.

    If you want a different perspective on politics, I recommend the monograph by Henry Adams: “The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma” His father was Francis Adams Ambassador to England during the Civil War, his grandfather, John Quincy Adams 6th President, his great grandfather John Adams, 2nd President. Writing in the second half of the 19th century, Henry saw and chronicled the difficulty with participatory government on a large scale.

  48. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Michael, Kevin,
    Abortion is a good example of the law of unintended consequences. For years, conservative voters championed pro-life candidates, and a pro-life Supreme Court. It finally happened, and the result has been many lost elections and loss of power. You cannot simply change a law (through a Supreme Court decision) if you haven’t changed the minds of the people it governs. The result is a backlash.

    There is nothing inherently good about democracy itself – if the “demos” of a nation are not themselves a good and moral people. We’re not a really “bad” people, but we’ve got some serious problems and have a government that pretty much reflects those problems.

    There is no “political” vision in the gospel. The Church has flourished under every form of government, surviving serious persecution, etc. Indeed, the most deadly form of culture surrounding the Church is an affluent secularism. It empties churches. It is the task of the Church to be the Church, in all places at all times. That is our life.

  49. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, at my parish we have quite a few wealthy folk who have jobs that are often secular in nature such as lawyers, accountants and doctors yet we also seem to have a reasonable honest piety from the same folk.

  50. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Michael,
    Of course. I’m describing a collective effect rather than an individual effect. Collectively, the decline of religion in affluent secular cultures has long been noted. Christ Himself had specific warnings viz. Mammon.

    But, properly speaking, no job is “secular” in nature – “secular” is a misunderstanding of any and every thing.

  51. Kevin Avatar
    Kevin

    Michael: Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll take a look.

  52. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Kevin,
    There are indeed Orthodox cranks and worse some are clergy. This too disturbed me when I was considering converting to Christianity through the Orthodox Church. I stuck with the Orthodox Church, not because it was ‘better’ in some moral sense. It is not a perfect church. But importantly, and I emphasize this without apologetics, it is The Church that Christ established. I suspect the more reading you do the more you will realize this . There is no good reason to join The Church, other than for its right worship and salvific relationship in Christ.

    I’m a chemist in academia in Alaska, a place that is one of the hardest hit due to climate change. Much of my research activity is involved with observing and attempting to communicate what is happening. I’m even involved with local attempts to mitigate these impacts locally, directly.

    I prefer to work under political radar if possible. And yet this is a small state in population, what one does here has a way of getting noticed in particular spheres.

    I offer this information to elaborate on the topic of the relationship between an Orthodox Christian and how one might interact with large issues close to home.

    Last, whether or not what I think is of use,, I agree with Father Stephen’s outlook on these matters.

  53. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father it was that I detected a slight hint of economic determinism

  54. Kevin Avatar
    Kevin

    Dee
    Thanks for the encouragement. I’ve been Eastern in my thinking and theology for some time without knowing it. It’s the leave-taking that will be hard.

    I agree local work is essential, but I’ve seen how national policy can hurt or harm, and I’m not indifferent to who might do more harm than good. In any event, this convo has given me much food for thought.

  55. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Kevin,
    I am also not indifferent to what our national policy does to vulnerable people. However, I can get very discouraged sometimes because it seems that any large-scale political action that I would consider helpful is inevitably sidelined. My way to deal with that is to focus on what is immediately at hand. Last but not least, I ask those who appear to me most affected by these events, those who are close to me in the nearest communities, what they want. And I listen to them and do my best to help. That and a lot of prayer to the Theotokos and to Christ.

    As for events taking place far from where I live, I see that what I do here (not referring to political interactions/persuasions), remembrance of God, and doing my utmost to follow His commandments also help there. But understanding what I mean requires more immersion in the ethos of the Orthodox mindset. In this culture, we are taught that such an approach is ineffective, placing political action as the sphere of ‘real’ endeavor.

    Please forgive me. I’m hoping that I don’t offend. I’m glad you’re here and offering your thoughts. They are most welcome.

  56. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Please let me clarify, by “this culture” I’m referring to the culture of the U.S.

  57. Kevin Avatar
    Kevin

    Thanks, Dee. And apologies for my “indifferent to policy” comment which, as I reread it, seems to be a bit holier-than-thou. That was not my intention.

    I agree with your approach on local matters. Your post raises more questions for me about national law and policy, but I think it’s best to leave that for another day.

    Thanks so much for your care for me.

  58. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Kevin, Dee,
    Dee’s example (Alaska) is one of those places where climate change is quite clear (and will likely become devastating for many). What is not clear to me (as in the science) is the exact nature of the cause as well as whether it can be stopped or reversed. Human beings, in the brief period of which we’ve been able to trace, have chased around the planet either following or fleeing climate change. It was likely an earlier climate period that allowed a land bridge from Asia to America to be crossable. There may have been climate events that drove us out of Africa originally (if that theory is correct).

    We live on a planet on which the climate is unstable over the long haul, and this has been true long before human beings could have had much effect. It’s just the nature of things. What is not the case, however, is that human beings can hold the planet in a more-or-less static ideal form such as we have enjoyed for a fairly short period of time. We simply don’t know – and the climate models (something our world’s fastest, etc. computer here in Oak Ridge does a lot of work on) – are inconclusive at best.

    Likely (as is the case in Alaska), change will come regardless and we will have to adapt. That adaptation will be most difficult for the poor, as always. It is also something that is being underdiscussed – we only seem to speak in a manner that assumes that we can “fix” all of this.

    But, the gospel is quite clear on the Christian response (particularly regarding the poor) including in our prayers and in our embracing of God’s providence in all things (including that He brings good even out of evil actions).

    May He give us grace to meet each day.

  59. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Two unrelated issues:

    First, what you share Fr. Stephen about climate change and the inconclusiveness of the science about what causes it makes me confused. Whom shall I trust? I´m not expert on these matters and the general scientific consensus seems to be that we humans are causing the problems. Dee?

    Second, Dee said:

    “But importantly, and I emphasize this without apologetics, it is The Church that Christ established”.

    I believe this to be true in reference to Protestant churches, but what about the Roman Catholic Church? Don´t the Orthodox and the Catholics recognize each other´s sacraments? Aren´t the Orthodox and the Catholics supposed to be the two lungs of the breathing Church?

    If it´s not appropriate to try an unpack this stuff here in the comment section of this particular article … no problem. I would appreciate, though, suggestions for articles I should read that offer clarification. Thanks so much.

  60. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    My opinion is that human activity is tied to climate change. However for us to control what happens is difficult. With only the grace of God might such things be mitigated with any amount of positive effects. I look for help in Indigenous Knowledge, in prayer in Christ, and in science to understand and grasp these events and to navigate the challenges.

    Again our models have been conservative but in some areas the warming is faster than model predictions and in other areas cold and snow. Our models to predict future events are limited.

    Matthew, the western Church (Rome) and Eastern Church (now Orthodox) were once one Church— you undoubtedly know this. Since the schism of 1040, Rome is no longer part of the Eastern Church, and Orthodoxy remains the Body of Christ. I have no axe to grind because I have family whom I love who are Roman Catholics. However in my humble opinion for what it’s worth, the two lung description is wishful thinking among the RC. I don’t think as an Orthodox person I would agree. There is only one Church, one Body, one Bride of Christ. Please forgive me I know how this sounds— biased, prejudiced. But this is the teaching I have received and from my reading, I believe it is true. I beg your forgiveness if I offend.

  61. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Dee. No offense taken. We are just discussing things here, I hope, in a peaceful manner.

    The eastern/western church dynamic is important to me right now since my wife is not open to Orthodoxy, but to Roman Catholicism.

    About climate change …

    I agree with you, and as such, I think we need to change our ways — especially for the good of the most vulnerable. Should the government be involved in pushing us toward change via legislation? I am still torn about this, but I agree with Fr. Stephen when it comes to the corruption and incompetence of governments all over the world. I also lasting agree change needs to begin in the heart.

  62. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    In the most common thought within Orthodoxy, the Roman Catholic Church is described as in “schism” (the same is true of the Oriental Orthodox). There’s not a thorough theological treatment of the precise meaning and consequence of schism. It’s something that the Church prays to be healed (as in the Liturgy of St. Basil). The sacraments within a schismatic setting are not “recognized as valid” if we are speaking correctly. They are treated generously through economia (a sort of pastoral allowance). This is clear in the Canons of St. Basil and elsewhere. The point of such treatment is to make the path to healing and restoration easier – i.e. it’s pastoral. There are some who advocate an extreme strictness in such things – but they do not represent the mind of the Church across the centuries.

    A sort of last word on the climate stuff. I don’t doubt that we’re in a period of change and that it is likely made worse by human contribution. It seems to be worst at the poles. We have not nearly enough information for our modeling to be accurate – they are educated guesses, at best, just now. But we have very greedy, corrupt and incompetent governments (pretty much the case throughout human history). My private concern is simply that those corrupt institutions will use a problem/crisis as an excuse to do their usual greedy thing, accompanied by massive propaganda. That’s pretty normal. What matters to me is to guard the heart – to “remain calm and carry on” in the face of the passions and live responsibly. I’m not a prophet. But I think things will likely get worse (in the climate and much worse in how we handle it). Then, the pendulum will swing in reaction and some sort of new stasis will obtain for a while. That’s the general pattern of history. It’s the story of the abuse of power.

    Glory to God for all things!

  63. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Dee and Fr. Stephen.

    Fr. Stephen … I think I am in near total agreement with you about governments. This is a big change for me since for the longest time I thought … man … if we just get the “right” people elected (in the west) then everything will be O.K. around the globe. Well … ever since that cold November night in Berlin in 1989 it doesn´t seem like the “right” people have gotten elected nor have the “right” people brought the world order into an all out democratic vortex.

    “Remain calm and carry on” … keep the commands of Christ … live responsibly … let the Church be the Church doing what the Church should be doing … etc. All good advice that I discovered here on “Glory to God For All Things”. Thank you everyone.

  64. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    I remember that night in 1989 (it was my birthday). I had great hopes as well. Over time I came to see that Solzhenitsyn’s take on the West was correct. I think he was surprised by its corruption and spiritual emptiness.

    One of the more interesting books I’ve read in the past several years was The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity, by Eugene McCarraher. I had already had many of the same thoughts – but his work described it in a thorough and brilliant manner. It’s not about the “system.” It’s very much about the heart and mind of modernity itself – it functions in the manner of a religion. Modernity believes in the human use of power. Money is power. We believe in money – just as we believe in ourselves.

    Money is able to do many things – just as modernity itself has been able to do some amazing things. But, it’s unsufficient. Like all insufficiencies (such as vitamin-deficit, etc.) it takes time for the damage to show up. And when the damage does manage to show up, it’s systemic. And, similarly, we tend to waste time chasing individual problems that are themselves systemic symptoms.

    So, the world is something of a sick system – and won’t be healed by simply doing more of the same. Indeed, it’s quite possible that it won’t be healed at all on a macro-scale. So, it remains for us to learn how to live – in Christ – and to be part of a place that teaches and nurtures us in that life (the Church). But as for the dreams and fears of modernity itself – for me, it’s like living in a place surrounded by a false religion. That probably goes far in explaining much of my thought on social stuff.

  65. Kevin Avatar
    Kevin

    One more question. Why does the OCA encourage political involvement (e.g. March for Life in DC) on one issue but not other political issues (e.g. assault weapons ban)? If Stanley is right and the first task of the church is to be the church, seems like the OCA as an institution conceives of political involvement regarding abortion as a proper task of the church. But doesn’t that give the lie to the narrative that the church stays out of politics, when clearly it does not? Hope this makes sense.

  66. Kevin Avatar
    Kevin

    Father. I just saw your comment about Enchantments of Mammon. Just began reading it yesterday! That old democratic socialist David Bentley Hart also loved the book and interviewed McCarraher on the youtube somewhere. Looking forward to it.

  67. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Kevin,
    Good question. On the other hand, other than stating the Church’s teaching, and having annual prayers for the nation viz. the problem of abortion, the OCA issues no statements regarding whom anyone should vote for or what kinds of laws we should pass. It has not ever said anything about the Constitution in this matter, etc. So, it “demonstrates” regarding an important moral matter – but does not do so in order to bring political pressure – it does so to pray.

    Archbishop Iakovos famously marched with MLK in Selma (and they were pictured together on the cover of Life Magazine at the time). But, again, there were no political directives issued.

    Our common life in a culture is inhabited by the Church. It’s inevitable that things will overlap. Politically, Orthodox in America are all over the map with a very checkered history, and with a fairly low-profile on the whole.

    But – who put forward the narrative that the Church stays out of politics? That I personally try to stay out of politics is just that – me – and what I think is wise and spiritually of benefit. On some things, I’m probably an outlier.

  68. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    McCarraher is a Catholic (don’t know how much he practices) and does seem to be a bit of a socialist. I am uncomfortable with a fair amount of DBH’s stuff – a bit too strident for me, fwiw. But, I hope you enjoy the book. It became tedious about 3/4 of the way through.

  69. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    November 9th Father Stephen? Do I have that correct?

    The book sounds interesting Fr. Stephen. Thanks so much for the suggestion.

    It is indeed the “we believe” in money and ourselves and progress and technology and science and the use of power that is the heart of the problem. Learning to live like Christ and to be part of the place that nurtures us in that life (the Church) seems so right to me where I find myself on my journey currently.

    Would it be safe to say, Fr. Stephen, that Solzhenitsyn has had a big effect on your thinking?

    Thanks so much Fr. Stephen. You are doing a very good work here. You and all the other contributors as well!

  70. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    “If we could only live in the Shire like the Hobbits in the Shire … if only …”

  71. Kevin Avatar
    Kevin

    I take your point, but when you participate in a March whose explicit goal is to change federal law regarding abortion, I’d reasonably believe you support the aims of the march, even if you issue no position papers or policy statements. How could it be otherwise? But you’re right, no one said the Orthodox church should stay out of politics.

    Thanks, Father.

  72. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Kevin,
    Perhaps. People do, indeed, draw their own conclusions. However, I have understood the march to have been to publicly proclaim that life begins at conception and should be treated as such (which has been the Orthodox teaching throughout its history). One of the petitions prayed on the Sunday of the Sanctity of Life says:
    —Again we pray that You will banish all evil from our hearts and wickedness from our laws, enabling us to be servants of Your holy will and performers of Your love.

    I will say that as a former Episcopalian, whose former Church pretty much declared just the opposite, I take great encouragement from the leadership of the OCA’s Metropolitan and the proclamation of the Church’s teaching. The “banishing all evil from our hearts” will clearly have to precede banishing anything from our laws.

    Essentially, I think the Church is free in its actions – understanding that those actions can sometimes get us in great trouble. Our actions are not geared to get a particular result (they’re not politcal in that sense). However, the gospel must be proclaimed, “in season and out of season.”

  73. Kevin Avatar
    Kevin

    This is lovely, Father. While I’m eager for action to produce good results, I need to reflect on your words. Thanks so much.

  74. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Regarding “green” policies and the discussion here, I want to add that nothing polltes more han warfare, weapons, and to that we add the ecological effect of blowing up a giant pipeline. I don’t want to tread over the “politics” linr. But in terms of our faith let us at least note the glaring oversight, conflict, and frankly hypocrisy involved. If this is too political Father, please feel free to delete

  75. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Sorry for typos. Meant to say nothing pollutes more than warfare, etc , and don’t want to tread over the “politics” line

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