The True Culture War

everywherepresentThe cultural landscape of the modern world is continuing to shift and change. Opinions that were but shortly ago in the minority have moved into the majority and the political world is quickly realigning itself. Positions that were once traditionally Christian with wide public support or acquiescence are being marginalized. In various places Christians find themselves to be objects of scorn – even disgust. I think that we are headed into some fairly dark days. But I do not think that such things are the true “culture wars” of our times. The ebb and flow of culture, like the rising and fall of nations and empires, are in the hands of God. Christians are called to be salt and light in the world – but we are called to be such, precisely because the world needs salt and light (sometimes more, sometimes less). But the great culture war is raging within the Christian heart.

I have written, and published, about the false structures of a “two-storey” universe. It is an image I use to think about the effects of living within a secularized culture and the temptations of a secularized Christianity. But all of the structures of a two-storey world exist in the imaginations of modern believers. God is everywhere present or He is nowhere at all.

Secularism is an intellectual construct. It has its own history – dating largely to the centuries of the early Reformation. Its assumptions are that the universe exists in a “neutral” zone. Things are just things with no particular religious significance in themselves. Religion is a matter of personal belief, but not a description of the material order.

Along with this comes a secularization of the sacraments. The significance of the Bread and Wine in the Eucharist is “spiritual,” affecting no material change in the Bread and Wine (note that the word “spiritual” is coming to mean “not having to do with everyday things”). “Freedom of religion” means “freedom of belief” since religion is simply a matter of belief (i.e. it’s intellectual).

Life lived in the “neutral zone” comes to be seen and understood as “normal life.” Today it even becomes synonymous with the “real world.” Religious practices that are publicly displayed tend to jar the neutrality of the real world. The sensibilities of the mainstream are often offended by such uninvited and unwelcome intrusions. The public square is not a religious square.

These two-storey assumptions are increasingly becoming the objects of legislation or public policy. Thus, a creche has no place in the public square or the Ten Commandments in a courthouse. But this is not the location of the culture war.

It is the fact that we ourselves increasingly feel that these things have no place in the public square. The sensibilities of believers have long been the objects of secularizing efforst. Secularism was invented in order to pacify believers (literally). The Thirty Years War in the first half of the 17th century, pitted Protestant against Catholic across the heart of Western Europe as the Holy Roman Empire came to an end and religious factions and various princes vied for power. It was hugely devastating.

The sensibilities of the 18th century and the Enlightenment were shaped to a large extent by this turmoil. The sense that religious thought was the source of interminable conflict was difficult to gainsay. Kant and other significant thinkers of the 18th century offered alternatives to a religiously shaped world. Kant wrote Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, a book whose title says it all. John Lennon echoed the sentiment when he Imagined “no religion, too.”

Nearly four hundred years have heard the preaching of a secular gospel. Stanley Hauerwas at Duke notes that one of the great achievements of the modern secular nation states was their ability to get Protestants to kill Protestants and Catholics to kill Catholics. Wars did not cease – the only change was their justification. Modern secularists are shocked at the religious nature of the Islamist challenge, as though an outright grab for territory or control of the oil market would be more acceptable. The Thirty Years War has never been repeated. Kant, and associates, were successful. Rationalism and secularism, however, have not solved the origins of war itself.

The culture war that rages within the believer is born of a double loyalty. How can Jesus be Lord of all and yet be Lord of nothing in the world around us? Some solve the contradiction by postponing Christ’s Lordship to the future. He will be Lord when He gets back. There are a variety of arrangements on this theme, but it is perhaps the dominant solution to the two-storey problem.

In the last few decades, as the gentleman’s agreement that kept nominal religious allegiance unchallenged in popular culture has broken down, religious figures have urged a frontal assault. In the ballot box and in legislatures (and frequently in some pulpits) efforts to regain a political majority have pushed the stakes in the culture wars to new highs. The result has probably been a backlash that has only hastened the marginalization of religion.

But those strategies and assaults have yet to address the heart of the problem – the heart – for it is within what the Fathers call the heart that the true war is being waged. To a large extent, Christianity has lost the war, for it has largely lost the heart and any memory of what it ever meant.

The heart is not the seat of emotions and feelings in the writings of the Fathers. Instead, it is the organ of spiritual perception, that inmost place where we encounter God and know the truth (not think the truth). The heart dwells in the present and does not judge or compare (these are faculties of the mind). But creation as a one-storey universe is entered into and known primarily as a perception. If we have lost the ability to perceive, we have spiritually lost our way.

Statements such as “all of creation is a sacrament,” makes little sense to the rational mind. “Do you mean that we should think differently about things?” And the answer is, “I mean you can’t think about sacraments at all (except as abstractions). A sacrament is a means of knowing rather than something to be known.

The Incarnation of Christ is viewed by many Christians as a visit – God became man – died on the Cross to save us – and now He’s gone. For them, the Incarnation establishes nothing of a relationship between God and matter. The womb of the Virgin was but a temporary shelter, later to receive other children conceived in the manner of any woman. The fact that Christ is bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh means nothing – for it is not the flesh of Christ that saves. The saving action of Christ is a transaction accomplished off-stage on an altar in heaven.

This is not a caricature. For the ever-virginity of Mary is rejected by modernist Christianity as a pious fiction (and as idolatry by others). Atonement theories popularized since the Reformation concentrate on the abstractions of the Father’s wrath and the debt paid by Christ. The blood of Christ is poured out on a heavenly altar, the Cross being but an instrument of death. It is perhaps fitting that the “tomb” that General Gordan declared to be Christ’s tomb (in the 19th century) – today known as the Garden Tomb – is over a thousand years too old to be true. But the fiction is better than the fact, because the fiction looks like the Tomb that Gordon (and his coreligionists imagined). Besides, the other one had an Orthodox-Catholic Church built over it and had been turned into a shrine with oil lamps and candles!

The path to a one-storey universe lies directly through the heart. It is not a path to a mental fiction, but a discipline and gift whereby we see the truth of things. God is everywhere present and filling all things. The Incarnation has revealed all of creation to be a sacrament, a means of communion and participation in Christ, for He has Himself entered into communion and participation with creation. The efforts to exile the Incarnate God from our world, whether the public square, or a loaf of bread, are futile in the long run. For it is indeed a culture war, but it was won long ago. The heart perceives the truth of this and wonders at the goodness of God in the land of the living.

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Dominic Albanese says

    Hey Fr Steven if you are going to post an add for a book or like that please make it so the text is not covered up. This blog is my main connection to the life of the Church as I have not found a parish since I moved to Florida. St James is OCA but all the people are 88 or older, I miss Fr Matthew and the Church in Oregon, but I pray and keep the best times I can but I need the Glory to God for food. thank you Dominic

  2. says

    I agree. We have missed the heart, as defined by the Church fathers in all of our politics. The lack of heavy political involvement is one of the things that attracted me to the Orthodox Church. I think American Christians have put so much emphasis on politics that they have displayed Christianity as nothing but a legalistic set of do’s and don’ts. They are essentially trying to force non-Christians to live like Christians, which can be hard enough even when you’ve been baptized and illuminated.

    Trying to change the nation through legislation is a hopeless endeavor. Only Christ can change someone’s heart; the American government just can’t compete with the power of God.

    On a side note, do you have a good blog or resource that discusses the purpose of Christ’s death on the cross, especially in relation to forgiveness of sin? I ask because as you mentioned above, the Orthodox do not teach that Christ was appeasing a wrathful God or legal obligations. Also, I had a friend ask me about it over the weekend and I gave a pitiful answer to the Orthodox view on atonement.

  3. Susi says

    Father, bless.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book and have suggested it to many of my friends, including inquirers and those whose curiosity has been raised. Most of them read the blog. Thank you for this message and for the gentle tap upon the shoulder.

  4. Dino says

    I loved this Father! A most significant point in this ‘war’ is that “it has already been won”, by Christ. All we have to do is realise this in every aspect of our being – starting from discovering Him inside our heart. The minute we find Him in our Heart we have transformed the entire cosmos… Ascetical struggle is necessary indeed, but, that struggle is brimming with joy and freedom.
    Let me attempt a metaphor:
    If someone informed a (previously despondent) warrior of a guaranteed and total certainty of winning in the coming battle, and that all that is needed is to carry on training as he does, wouldn’t his training become joyous and voluntary?

  5. James, the Brother says

    Dominic–four questions..
    1. Do you think you might be able to help those 88 yr. old parishioners?

    2. Do you think you might be able to learn something from those 88 yr. old parishioners?

    3. Are questions 1 and 2 inherently connected?

    4. Do the folks in Oregon miss you?

  6. Dominic Albanese says

    the answer to the two questions is yes. I think the folks in Oregon miss me I was the groundskeeper for twenty years/ and wile open to other cultures I am not ready to get Russian or Greek. Also in the little church here in Pt St Lucie it seems like a lot of mail order brides, I am not judging, I just see what I see. I am a recovering addict with about twenty eight years sober and before that I was a criminal and a pretty violent guy. Four tours in Vietnam did not make me an addict but it did not help. I am pretty private and live a very quiet life. I just find some of the Ortodox churches are a bit too ethnic and I am not ready to worship the Cazr or the sell outs. I have two degrees in history so I do know fact from fiction. But thanks for the questions always good to hear from others

  7. Dante Aligheri says

    Beautiful post, Father.

    By the way, this post got me thinking about something. I understand that in the Orthodox thesis the Creation has one storey – that is, Heaven is the complete relation to God as Hell – complete relation, opposite result – and Earth also are. The saints and angels exist coterminously with us.

    However, where exactly did the body of Jesus go? And, for that matter the bodies of Enoch, Elijah, and Mary after her Dormition?

    I’ve heard that St. Thomas Aquinas took the position that in some sense their resurrected bodies exist “outside” – or on its flipside – the cosmos so that they are present to every inch of it just as one dimension of space (or a brane in string theory) is coterminous. Conversely, Heaven and Earth will be entirely visibly and evidently meshed at the End as they are in the Liturgy today.

    I also – as far as I understand – heard that Origen believed Jesus’ resurrected body became an extraordinarily subtle form of matter when passing into the fiery Empyrean as if He filled the whole cosmos. Of course, I’ve also heard he believed the resurrected body would be spherical, too.

    Thank you.

  8. Christopher Pittman says

    Fr. Stephen, have you read The Unintended Reformation by Brad Gregory? You touch on similar themes here that Gregory does in his book. Gregory is Catholic, and I’ve often thought I’d like to see an Orthodox review of his book.

  9. says

    Fr. Stephen;

    Thank you for another well-written & insightful article. I too lament the politicizing & patriotizing of Western Christianity as well as the Western Christianizing of politics & patriotism. I thought this to be merely anecdotal until I ran across several studies & surveys this past week that drew the same conclusions. This is ironic as disdain for Orthodoxy by some is due to its historic ties with governmental politics early in Church history.

    The Literal Presence & the ever-virginity of the Theotokos are the most hotly argued topics I have encountered with the heterodox. We seldom get past these 2 topics to deal with atonement theories. When I mention creation as sacrament, I usually get blank stares…no concept whatsoever once they are convinced that I’m not talking about Pantheism.

    Well said about the true culture war being within the heart. Western Christianity has already lost this war; perhaps EO can pick up the pieces & bridge the gap of the heart. Orthodoxy has certainly transformed my broken & damaged heart. Yes, Christianity needs to regain its place within the public square of the heart first before it will ever regain its place in the public square on Main street.

    It is perhaps fitting that the “tomb” that General Gordan declared to be Christ’s tomb (in the 19th century) – today known as the Garden Tomb – is over a thousand years too old to be true. But the fiction is better than the fact, because the fiction looks like the Tomb that Gordon (and his coreligionists imagined). Besides, the other one had an Orthodox-Catholic Church built over it and had been turned into a shrine with oil lamps and candles!

    Oh, those pesky Orthodox-Catholics! This has been my chuckle for the day ;-) Sweet!

  10. Dante Aligheri says

    How I would love for there to be Orthodox-Catholics! May God speed that day in His time!

  11. Matthew says

    Fr. Stephen,

    I have found your blog several times over the years and thank you for the insight you offer with each post.

    I am curious to hear your answers to the questions posted by Jeremy and Dante above, as I have those same questions. I grew up in North Carolina, and like most folks that grew up in a Christian home in the south, attended a Protestant church (Baptist) and still attend a Baptist church, although it does not openly proclaim its denomination. However, I have always struggled with the Protestant faith and went through a time of atheism during my teens and twenties before finally returning to a faith in God, but I still struggle with the Protestant view of…almost everything. This is why I have found your blog off and on over the years, but I am hoping to stick to it this time and read every day, as well as begin reading books on the Orthodox faith to gain a better understanding.

    Again, thank you for the insight you provide and I look forward to daily reading and becoming a member of the community of commentors, if only one completely lost.

  12. says

    Fr Stephen,

    Thank you very much for your excellent overview of where secularism comes from and what helped form its various doctrines. Your analysis that it has devalued the status of the heart as opposed to the mind is insightful. That is why faithists can now be ignored as mental dinosaurs who have not kept up with the new faith of scientism.

    Dominic: I was deeply moved by your posts. I hope we can converse because your experiences are very interesting.

    Jeremy: “the Orthodox do not teach that Christ was appeasing a wrathful God or legal obligations.” I too would appreciate Fr Stephen’s reply.

    DanteAligheri: Thank you for fascinating posts. Hope to read more on the topics you write on.

  13. Michael Bauman says

    As Fr. Stephen has noted the Church is one alredy. Anyone who wishes to submit to the Truth revealed in the Church and live a life of prayer, fasting, worhip, almsgiving and repentance can be a part of her. There is nothing keeping anyone from joining her.

    The question is: who is the schismatic, Rome or we Orthodox? That is the question each person must answer for himself because it is not a matter of putting two parts back together in some sort of Frankensteinen re-animation of something that was dead and broken. It is a matter of recognizing the truth and repenting for past errors and sins and binding oneself to the Truth, not compromising for the sake of appearance.

    Unity only occurs in Christ, it is not created by we creatures. The more Chrisitan we become, the more unified we will be.

    The object is to seek the truth above all else and embody it to the best of our ability relying on the grace of God to make up our ineveitable short comings.

    Politics is not a separate sphere. It cannot be avoided because it is essentially people getting together to decide how to organized themselves, to articulate what is acceptable and what is unacceptable behavior (even thought) in a the society. It is a natural and necessary expression of our human need and call to form community. That’s why the Church, too, has politics. Politics is not evil, only the manner in which polticis is pursued is subject to evil (and virtue).

    The Incarnational reality of the Church makes it impossible to be uninvolved. The Incarnational reality of the Church means that all is subject to transformation and, indeed, we are required to offer up all of our humanity to God–especially our will to rule and control.

    The question, once again, do we seek to mirror the truth concerning who we are as human beings including our interrelationship with the Holy Trinity or do we prefer a lie, an ideology that replaces God and demands obedience in a manner that God never does?

    Persecution results when a lie is believed by enough people so that it becomes the organizing principal of the society. Once that happens, anything God must be cast out and those who follow Him tampled into dust.

    When that happens (as it is now), we have shown our love for the created thing more than our love of the creator. We bow down before idols in the shape of created things, even worhiping our own image, our own form, our own (spiritual)ideas and our own pleasure to the exclusion of all else.

    It is as simple and as difficult as choosing Life or death; the seductive nihlist vision of comfort, pleasure and power or the acesis that leads to salvation.

    That is the war. It will and it has taken political form. To deny that and retreat into a quietistic cocoon will not solve anything. However, living a simple, prayerful, prophetic life, serving others out of love of Christ without rancor or fear is what we are called to. Small actions and deep prayer are an amazing withness.

    In this country, persecution will be our salvation because it will allow us to see with great clarity what and who we love–God or mammon. Then our Lord will manifest real unity.

    May our Lord bless us with His rich and great mercy so that we have the strength to endure the fatigue of the coming day and all that it shall bring.

  14. says

    Fr Stephen,

    Thank you very much for your excellent overview of where secularism comes from and what helped form its various doctrines. Your analysis that it has devalued the status of the heart as opposed to the mind is insightful. That is why faithists can now be ignored as mental dinosaurs who have not kept up with the new faith of scientism.

  15. Dante Aligheri says

    I agree. Neither Rome nor Constantinople and the Orthodox Churches will compromise for the Truth. Both Churches know the Church is already one and catholic – in that sense, complete in itself. Quite frankly, that’s the way it should be because they would not be desiring Truth, and the only way for reunification should be for the sake of Truth and not a “quick fix.”

    Still, one can hope.

  16. Syrian Fire says

    Fr. Stephen,

    I was wondering if you are familiar with the “radical orthodoxy” movement in theology (headed by Jon Milbank and Kathy Pickingstock among others) that has essentially kicked the legs out from under a secular narrative at the same time that the secular narrative has complete dominance in the public square? Not that what usually makes it to the public square is particularly coherent, sustainable, or even based on thinking things through carefully.

  17. fatherstephen says

    Syrianfire,
    I’ve skimmed through some of Milbanks, enough to see what we was up to. I’ve not paid them much attention. I’ve been asked before if I was familiar with them because some of my cultural critique seems similar (for some). It’s probably because I studied at Duke under Stanley Hauerwas – who is older and better than Milbank (from what I know). Hauerwas is a bit of a post-modernist, by way of K. Barth.

    What I learned from him was not theology, but apologetics, i.e. how to approach modernity in a manner that gets attention and says something worth hearing. His critique of modernism was devastating. So, I’ve borrowed some “methodology” for the sake of writing and framing some thoughts – but I always thought (including back then), that what he lacked was Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy doesn’t ultimately have to think too much to critique modernity because it’s pre-modern.

    Enough time has passed – nearly 25 years – since I was with Hauerwas – that I generally do what I do on my own. Mostly I read the Fathers, and good, contemporary Orthodox writers and theologians. I rarely read non-Orthodox any more – other than social commentary. I like articles in First Things, for example.

  18. TLO says

    If there was a larger number of “Christians” who lived the life you describe, I highly doubt that there would be anything (secularism or anything else) that could marginalize the church.

    Then again, I highly doubt that in any age the true church has been anywhere near a majority of the population.

  19. Susi says

    It was my arduous study of apologetics, via Ravi Zacharias and Biola University, that played a major role in leading me to the Orthodox Church. For that, I am most thankful. The majority of that knowledge now gathers dust in my brain, since the Orthodox mindset and approach trumps both sides of common debate; which is often two sides of the same coin. Still, I remain appreciative of what I learned while in the midst. If, for no other reason, than that it assists me in understanding the thought process of the people with whom I come into contact, properly frame my points…and to address them with love and respect. Orthodoxy is sanity in the midst of insanity. My mind is finally at peace and my heart rejoices.