Again – The Sin of Democracy

my-way-no-way-300x225In light of the present discussion of reading the Bible, I offer this reprint. Our modern age has drunk the kool-aid of philosophical democracy (the autonomous authority of the individual) to the dregs and seeks to use the Bible to underwrite the project. A book that could not have been owned by an individual prior to the printing press in the 15th century (by reason of cost) cannot be used philosophically to support the autonomy of the individual right and competency to read and interpret. With the sole exception of Philemon, the letters of the New Testament are not written to individuals (Timothy and Titus receive letters only by virtue of their position as leaders of a community). They are letters to the Church and the individual is not a Church. The practice of the reading of Scripture for nearly 1400 years was largely that of listening to its being read within the assembly of the Church – and this continued for quite some time even after the printing press’ advent. The doctrine of “soul competency” is a modern invention, contrary to the New Testament itself and the practice of primitive and early Christianity. The Kingdom of God is not a democracy. Every pretender to its throne is a usurper.

“Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!” (Mat 8:8-10 NKJ)

+++

Jesus’ encounter with the Roman Centurion 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 “everyman 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.

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. 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, etc. Apparently, intelligence, talent, beauty, 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.

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.

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 – the spirit of the age.

 

Comments

  1. George says

    I was a school teacher for many years and left when I was no longer the authority in the classroom. The student was.

    I am better and worse than everybody else at something.

  2. Robert says

    Please keep preaching this message Father. There’s at least an intuitive understanding of this among many Orthodox (and other traditionalist) people, but the lack of a clearly stated (or lived) alternative leaves many to wander down very dark paths.

  3. Boyd says

    Would be interested in hearing your take on the impact that empire and Greek thinking had on Christianity.

    Here are a couple of interesting perspectives from Richard Rohr.

  4. fatherstephen says

    Boyd, Rohr has his own modernist agenda. The history of Christianity under the Empire is not one of radical change altering it in significant ways from its previous life. Indeed, the Empire was, as often as not, a problem for the Church as it was a help. And the Church extended outside of the Empire – in Armenia, Georgia, Persia, Egypt and Ethiopia. Rohr is simply off base. It’s a typical historical mistake and one repeated by Protestant critics since the Reformation. It was convenient for Rohr’s argument.

    As for Greek thinking – it’s not so much the thought as the vocabulary. But the fathers, particularly the Cappadocians, were scholars of the first degree, having studied in the best schools. They took words and concepts and altered meanings where needed – as well as altering concepts. It is rather to be thought of Christianity being “translated” into Hellenistic culture than of being “Hellenized.” And again, we have plenty of “non-Greek” Christianity with which to compare it. Orthodoxy was never coterminous with the Empire – it always exceeded in every way. It’s resistance, for example, to the pressures to create or acknowledge some kind of “Holy War” is an extremely good case. If it is as Rohr said, the Church would have created some sort of reward for killing in the name of the Emprire (much like the West did in its Crusades). This was always contrary to the canons and was never changed and remains unchanged.

  5. Jeff says

    That larger Christian Tradition had its historical limitations too, or set of negotiations to wade thru, I won’t opine , but the ‘ Mystical as Political’ gets deeply into this, ….( don’t wanna ruin your read of it),

  6. fatherstephen says

    Jeff,
    I look forward to reading it. Of course, Papanikolaou acknowledges that he’s doing something new – and the democracy for which he will argue is not grounded in the assumptions of modernity. I have seen his treatment of the language of the “West,” and look forward to this expansion.

    Orthodoxy, particularly in Russia, is feeling its way forward in this. I will be interested in seeing how his work is received there.

  7. Jeff says

    Unfortunately , Russia seems stuck on a romantic Imperial / Church Symphonia, with no vision outside of ROC in political theology …, they can’t lead here , they need fear, …, but where did these Forham thinkers come from?, what a joy to read their works.,,,,, they don’t have that self – narrative broken wing thing….vis-a-vis self definition/ demonization of everything western., …..so Irenic , but original , ….., ,

  8. fatherstephen says

    Jeff,
    Russia is too complex to describe as simply as you have here. The most comprehensive statement on the Church and Society has come from Moscow. Moscow has a growing number of scholars and extremely competent leaders in some positions (cf. Met. Hilarion Alfeyev). I would refrain from making sweeping comments about its situation. The currents in the Fordham scholars are at work elsewhere in Orthodoxy.

    When it comes to your critique of the “demonization” of everything Western, you should read more of Papanikolaou. He puts that in a context that is enlightening. It even makes it clear that it has been “necessary.” Time will tell whether his work is timely or not.

    Much of that timeliness will depend on other things in the world. The increasing secularization of the modern powers makes “radical Orthodoxy” pretty much the only option for a time.

  9. Paula Hughes says

    Charles Taylor in his splendid book “A Secular Age ‘ has explored and articulated how we moved from an age where virtually everyone believed in God to the present day where very few really believe. He also wrote ‘ Sources of he Self’ which explored the development of ‘self image’ and how we came to understand our roles and individuality, in the modern world.
    I find it hard to subscribe to the idea of the “Divine Right ” of leaders. The ruthless and cruel leaders who won and kept power by any means were surely not vetted by God. And many people were severely oppressed by the structure of state/church synergy. Should people ,who are equal in the sight of God, endure any whim or brutality of an authority? Luther thought so apparently.
    My husband ,who is an atheist of sorts, says that Henry VIII at least saved England from oppressive rule of the Catholic Church which controlled peoples’ very lives in Ireland, France ,Italy and Spain and Quebec et al, and not in a benevolent fashion, either.
    Maybe in the end, it is somewhat simplistic to come down on one side or another of the divine authority of leaders of all stripes vs democratic license of individuality? Charles Taylor wrote hundreds of pages on such ideas.

  10. Jeff says

    Everything I’ve read from Orthodox readings of Augustine, O. Readings of Aquinas, O. Constructions of the west ( and many ind. works of Authors of the contributors in that book…..), a lot of A. Papinikalaou works …, a lot of the authors seem not to like these caricatures of identity vis a vis the west , ( eg, A. Pap, debunked Yanarres view that Augustine didn’t believe in deification , he called it untrue), they make it very clear that this pattern blinds true scholarship and ‘ creates’ a false hysterical self identity , ( the above compililations don’t suffer this way),

  11. Michael Bauman says

    The nature and composition of the current mass mind is such that “everybody knows” democracy is better. We all are trained to believe this is so.

    As a result any discussion that it might not be so is difficult to even get started.

    We must be careful not to conflate a certain type of political ideology with the ontological reality of which Fr Stephen speaks.

    Creation is hierarchal. We are hierarchial beings not in terms of our value but in terms of our authority.

    In our falleness we usually wrongly equate power with authority. They are not the same.

    Authority is born of love, mercy and communion. Power is just power. It is seldom used wisely for long as Tolkien points out in The Lord of the Rings.

  12. fatherstephen says

    Jeff,
    My preference is not to bash the “West” though it’s sometimes the only word at hand. And I think it’s a mistake to follow Romanides lead and look for all of the historical precursors of modernity. St. Augustine is an Orthodox saint and not the progenitor of modernity. I think the issue is not “the West” but “modernity,” specifically secular modernity. Fr. A. Schmemann said that secularism is the great heresy of our age. He was right. There are things that contributed to the rise of secular modernity – and they were in the West – but modernity was not a forgone conclusion or the necessary outcome of the West. The collapse of Christendom in the West, with the Reformation, etc., certainly contributed. But in the East, wherever the Church fails, it is modernity that sweeps in. The single greatest challenge in Orthodox lands today is modernity. It has devastated Greece. Russia will either meet the challenge or modernity will win for quite some time to come.

    I will read Papanikolaou with interest – I am doubtful that there can be any rapprochement with modernity. With technology, yes. But modernity is inherently heretic and antithetical to the Christian gospel. It believes in a dead world and an absent God.

    Paula mentioned Charles Taylor – I think his works as magisterial. Their not “anti-Western” but are deeply, deeply cognizant of the problems in the modern project. Taylor is a Catholic thinker, and among the best. I suppose that makes him “Western.” I’m Western, born and bred.

  13. Jeff says

    Thnx Father Stephen, I never mean to be oppositional , this forum is educational , and I appreciate it., ( compared to the trolling on Facebook), I would not shy away from modernity , ( it’s the old Peter Berger line, entrench or mature), Orthodoxy has within it’s divine – human communion a unique strength for the future , it’s just being cracked open , I feel now , not so much the ‘ we are what the west is not stuff’, ( that’s a side show ), …., I’m Ukrainian and was lucky enough to have and live a full life with Orthodox and U.G., Catholics , and Roman…., in the same family , there was no discord …., it’s written on my heart, …., so the militancy stuff scares me.,

  14. fatherstephen says

    Probably the best summary of my thought is within my book. And it is secularism (“the two-storey universe”) that I engage there – in general – I think it presents a great challenge to Christianity of all forms.

  15. Christopher says

    Father Stephen – regarding confessing our sins to one another don’t forget about the authority Jesus gave his apostles to either forgive or not forgive sins. I came from a Protestant background and it was truly the mind set of “just Jesus and me.” However, it was in this mindset that I almost completely lost my faith as I eventually could not reconcile it in my mind and spirit. Something was not right. By God’s grace I eventually made my way into a Church of communion, sacraments, and orthodoxy.

    As always I greatly enjoy your postings. They are always thought provoking and provide clarity to those things I struggle to articulate or express.

    Thank you.

  16. Joseph Jude says

    Again thanks for getting to get us to think Father!
    Every man becomes his own pope; so true! Why even practice a faith if you can pick and choose, ” Well, the Bible says.” That thinking leads to atheism because why should I follow something if I myself construct it in my mind with no input? The church is more then my own personal relationship with Jesus; if a personal relationship was all that was needed, it would be a scary place to be. Our minds change constantly and so would our relationship and understanding of Jesus. There is an objective truth, and the loss of this has lead to subjective experience being the only sole answer. So sad that most Americans have little to no knowledge of history.

  17. Gregory Manning says

    Curious that “Those who insist on the absence of spiritual authority” will turn around and agree that the lawyer who attempts to defend himself in court has a fool for a client! Even the psycho-therapist knows better than to attempt being his own therapist. Surely objectivity is a crucial component of spiritual authority and is (or should be)as valuable to the Christian sojourner as it is to the lawyer or therapist.

  18. says

    Paula, probably the simplest way to answer your historical dilemmas is to refer you to David Bentley Hart’s book “Atheist Delusions.” The delusions he refers to in the title are apparently all the things we think we know about Christian history in this atheist age.

    As for the “divine right” of kings, that doctrine was not a characteristic of Christian kingdoms. Kings became absolute when they were “absolved” of their personal obligation to the law. This was a literal concrete process that happened beginning in the so-called Enlightenment era. In order to defend this astonishing development, the divine right of kings was preached. Previously, God’s authority was thought to limit kings, not make them absolute.

    If you think about it, your complaint is self-contradictory. You complain that kings had too much power, but then you feel you ought to be glad that a king took away all the power of the only institution that would otherwise have limited his right to do the wicked things he did.

    Just sayin’.

  19. TimOfTheNorth says

    How should we understand the Jews of Berea, who were acclaimed for “searching the scriptures” to determine whether the apostles’ words were indeed true? My evangelical background would interpret this to mean that the believers (individually and in community) were testing the “words of men” against the Scriptures because those Scriptures are the “norming norm.” We’d say “That’s just what we’re doing today!” What would the All Saints Orthodox Church of Berea have been doing? How does that differ from what the First Bible Church of Berea was doing? (And, yes, I know that the Jews of Berea were the Orthodox church of Berea, because the Orthodox church is *the* church. But humor me for a minute…)

  20. says

    Tim, perhaps instead of man VS. God, this was a search to see whether the apostles were men OF God like the earlier prophets. Were they standing in the stream of holy tradition, or shreiking in the wilderness of self-will and delusion?

  21. TimOfTheNorth says

    AR, I think I agree with what you are saying. My point is that any thoughtful evangelical would say the same thing. We determine whether someone is a “man of God”, whether they are “standing in the stream of holy tradition” , by searching the scriptures just as the Bereans did. Was there something fundamentally different about what the Bereans did then from what a “Bible church” does today? Granting that the Bereans were likely not infected by the democratic, individualistic spirit that affects us today, how was their searching of the scriptures different? What would it look like to stumble upon a group of Bereans meeting today?

  22. Michael Bauman says

    Tim you hit upon your own answer. The Bereans were doing it within the Apostolic Tradition which is something quite different than the Protestant ethos. It is quite likely that the Scriptures they were searching were what we call the Old Testament which as Jesus taught revealed Him.

  23. fatherstephen says

    Tim,
    A group of 1st century Jews in a Hellenistic synagogue, would not see the Scriptures in a way that in slightly resembled modern evangelicals. Most modern evangelicals are so enmeshed in popular culture and its winds and streams, that they are almost completely unaware and uncritical of their own assumptions, worldview, etc. They generally have no knowledge of evangelical history and where it came from, much less the history and thought of Christianity outside of evangelicalism (which is the dominant, majority form). First century Jews would have assumptions about the nature of a sacred text that look almost nothing like those of a modern reader.

    They would not be Nominalists (all evangelicals that I know are indeed Nominalists). They would not think the meaning of the text is obvious. They would easily be interested in allegorical readings. They would not have a forensic worldview nor would they have a worldview formed by modern historical assumptions. In short, they would be more like the Apostles who in no way resemble modern evangelical readers of Scripture. Orthodoxy is not a later evolution of Christianity, a distortion of the Apostolic witness – it is the Apostolic witness.

  24. says

    Tim, while I’m sure you’ll find more value in what is said by Fr. Stephen or Michael, I’ll just clarify my own statement a little more.

    Most evangelicals are afraid of tradition (at least in my experience) so they would not think of the O.T. scriptures as part of a sacred tradition. They would instead look at it as an inerrant message direct from God to them, personally – a message that containes everything they need to arrive at the correct theological conclusions when processed through the correct hermaneutic process. They would look at it, not as a witness to the truth but as the only possible source of truth.

    I’m sure the Beareans assumed that the O.T. scriptures would give them the key to recognize the Christ. What this key consisted of, I’m not sure I completely understand myself. Probably something spiritual. Maybe we can guess that they wanted to see whether they found the same Person in both places – in the testimony of the scriptures and in the testimony of the apostles.

    But, if one of them had somehow approached the search with present-day assumptions about the sacred text, I don’t think they would have concluded that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. After all, the Old Testament doesn’t say so. The Old Testament says to worship God only, and that God is only One. How could the God of the Old Testament have a son? An evangelically-minded Berean would have had to wait a few centuries for the New Testament scriptures to be written and canonized, and then (assuming he could conveniently ignore the authority of the Church that curated the new scriptures) he could have assented to Christ.

    Like you, I don’t think these differences are easily apparent on the surface. They mean more when you dig in. And then later, you have to revise your understanding anyway. Conversion is one of the most stressful things I have ever gone through. Change is hard, and confusing.

  25. says

    I’ll clarify a little further: for the Isrealites, the relationship with God had been founded on family, tribe, and nation – for God’s covenant was with mankind as familial units. This was closely related to the idea that the scriptures are the literature of a sacred tradition, in which God had been present as a shepherd, bridegroom, father, and King. You can see this in the fact that the Bereans did this study and conversion largely as a group. I think that would be very hard to pull off in an individualistic mileu although you do see whole congregations converting to Orthodoxy occasionally. I don’t think the evangelical mindset would have allowed for that, given their common reaction to the idea of baptizing infants.

    Of course the O.T. scriptures do prophecy the new covenant, engraved on the heart, not on tablets of stone (national law and national treasure.) Christianity is undoubtedly meant to be more personal than Judaism, and I think it’s worth thinking about how much of our modern freedom is a development from that fact, and how much is a perversion of that fact.

  26. TimOfTheNorth says

    Thank you, all, for your responses to my query. It seems that I have unwittingly demonstrated the point at hand: one cannot even interpret and apply a seemingly transparent phrase like “search the scriptures” outside of the mind of the Church. Even as I assent to the reasonableness of such a position, I struggle to accept it fully. While I desire to be shaped and taught by Christ in His Church, I find I also want to hold on to the “escape hatch” of personal interpretive authority just in case I find myself in over my head. It is terrifying to let go of this. “This is a hard saying. Who can accept it?” Please pray for me.

  27. Michael Bauman says

    Tim, it is a struggle for all of us raised in the egalitarian milieu. But we are to be conformed to the mind of Christ, which is the mind of the Church. It is quite easy to look at all of the human sinful actions within the Church and turn away, but if there were not sin in the Church, she would not be doing her job.

    Obedience is the only way our soul is free. One of my first encounters with that came early on during my entry into the Church. There were passages of Scripture that I had struggled with for years. I asked my priest (who as it later turned out had a host of his own problems) and he gave me the wisdom of the Church on those passages (not his own interpretation). All of a sudden, it was as if a weight had been taken off my shoulders and scales removed from my eyes. His answers just seemed ‘right’.

    The Church constantly searches the Scriptures as local communities and as the whole body. We can trust that.

    Read the Scriptures, let them do their work. The Holy Spirit does not always work in strictly rational ways.

  28. George Engelhard says

    I have had an interesting facebook conversation with a Christian pacifist. He was very good at quoting the fathers and Jesus saying that because Jesus said do no evil and put Jesus ahead of your children, it was wrong to use aggression against someone who was attacking his child. Father with your permission I would like to copy some of the things you have said here and send them to him.

  29. says

    Tim, from my point of view, being part of the church in no wise limits your freedom and responsibility to read the scriptures and reason about them in your own mind. I think the way it works, is like any tradition (something that people in America don’t really understand.)

    First you stand on the shoulders of giants. Then you go beyond them. First you stand in the stream of tradition. Then you move forward and become the next part of the stream of tradition. First you internalize the authority. Then you exercise the authority.

    It’s not as simple as “Don’t try to figure it out for yourself.” That would be dehumanizing. I’m sorry if I seemed to imply that. “What the fathers say” does not replace “what the Bible says” as an ultimate inerrant authoritative replacement for our freedom. Each of us has something to bring. The trick is to “have the same mind” all together and that comes from love first. And it takes sifting and pondering to find our way into that, when we are aware that our own mind and everyone else’s is partly stained and stunted.

    I love James 3:17 in this regard. (Here it is from the Amplified Bible.)

    But the wisdom from above is first of all pure (undefiled); then it is peace-loving, courteous (considerate, gentle). [It is willing to] yield to reason, full of compassion and good fruits; it is wholehearted and straightforward, impartial and unfeigned (free from doubts, wavering, and insincerity).

    Frankly, “the fathers” said a lot of things that don’t line up with that. The Spirit in you witnesses, also.

    So wisdom isn’t just correct reasoning – it’s a qualitative virtue that we can acquire. Seeking to acquire that wisdom from above we must search the scriptures and the other treasuries of the tradition of faith, whatever they may be. We must be receptive and try to apsorb and act on what we find – without giving up our “best judgment” about what is good and acceptable, and what is problematic.

    I think your example is not really an illustration of “I can’t think without the Church to help me – ” I think it’s an example of how our brain gets locked into habitual interpretations. In itself, that’s not a bad thing. It makes reasoning faster. Part of the stress of conversion is going back and unlearning all those “givens.” Eventually you learn a new set of givens and you feel competent again. :) Having help is nice, and not to be ashamed of. We all went through it.