Orthodoxy Versus Christian Materialism

bapOver the years I find myself coming back to a number of ideas within the modern world that differ markedly from Orthodox thought. These are ideas that are imbedded so deep within our culture that they seem self-evident to most people. Many Orthodox believers hold to one or more of them, distorting their understanding of the faith. This article is an effort to create a list and address each one. If it succeeds I will use it as a touchstone in future work. I have left off the specific issues of the Modern Project, which forms a subset of these ideas. Perhaps they will be added in a later version. 

The ideas:

1. Things are self-existent. They require nothing outside of themselves to exist.

2. Relationships are psychological.

3. Meaning is only a thought.

4. Time is a chain of cause-and-effect. The Cause cannot come after its effect.

5. Good and bad only describe behavior.

1. A Self Existent Collection of Things

This idea is similar to the understanding of the universe held by strict Materialists. A strict Materialist thinks that there is nothing other than material (or material as energy). He assumes that there is no God and that the only relationship things have to each other are those relationships described within the confines of physics. Any description of a non-material relationship is either “mumbo-jumbo” or merely and idea (see numbers 2 and 3).

For Christians (should I call them Christian Materialists) who hold to this understanding of the world, there is no denying that God exists. But God exists outside of and removed from the material order. He may intervene in the material order, but only by interrupting its Laws and Principles (cf. “miracle”).

The Sacraments are deeply problematic in this world view. If water is water, how can it be something else (in Baptism)? If wine is wine and bread is bread, how can it be something else (in the Eucharist)? Any language of “real presence” is inherently troubling. For an “extra-material” reality is either psychological (see number 2) or merely imputed (see number 3).

In very common extensions of this materialist Christianity, the sacraments are bracketed as miraculous exceptions. Things are just things, unless the Church and Scripture (or some accepted authority) says they are something else. But these instances of miraculous exceptions are not seen as in any way pointing to a different understanding of the world. The Eucharist therefore says nothing about bread and wine – only about this bread and this wine. Baptism says nothing about water, only about this water. But the sacramental teaching of the Church is strictly confined to the liturgical walls of the Church and have nothing to say about the nature of things.

(The Orthodox Response) Everywhere Present, Filling All Things

In the classical Christian worldview, everything that exists does so because it was ultimately brought into being “out of nothing” (ex nihilo). It does not have self-existence, but is maintained in existence purely by the gift of God who alone has true, self-existent being. Existence is a gift, sustained by the goodness of God. Even those things that are described as “evil” (such as Satan) are sustained in their existence by the goodness of God. Not only is everything created and sustained by God, but everything has within it a logos, its reason, meaning and purpose. And this logos is directly related to the Logos, the eternal Son of the Father, through whom all things were created. Thus there is an inner relationship between everything that exists and God.

More than this, the world as it exists is more than material (including the logoi of things). The world is an “icon” (in the words of St. Maximus and St. Ambrose). Everything reflects greater, more eternal realities. Those realities (certainly through the logoi of things) play a role in how things are.

Because the logoi of all things have their ground and origin in the Logos, we can say that the universe has a Christ-shape. We can even say that it has the shape of the Crucified Christ. And so New Testament writers can say that the “Lamb was slain before the Foundation of the World.”

The sacraments are more than accidental intrusions in an otherwise stable, self-existent reality. The universe was created to be sacramental. “The whole creation is a sacrament,” in the words of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. That bread and wine become the Body of Christ does not violate the nature and character of bread and wine. They were created for this purpose. And so we can see bread tending towards the Eucharist even before the Eucharist (in the Manna for example, and the Show Bread in the Temple, etc.). The many “types” of the Cross in the Old Testament demonstrate that creation was always tending towards the Cross. The Cross is written in the logoi of things.The fathers not only affirm this, but speak of “natural contemplation” by which is meant the godly consideration and meditation on the logoi of all creation.

This same reality is behind the Orthodox understanding of Icons and symbols. Orthodoxy is not interested in “invented” symbols, as in “let’s let this stand for that.” It discerns symbols – relationships that are true and real in which one thing indwells or coinheres in another.

2. Relationships Are Psychological

A tree and a rock can have no relationship because they have no psyche. If a tree and a rock have a relationship, it’s only because an individual psyche feels that they do. Equally, the connection between people (or between a person and God) refers only to how they feel about each other, or perhaps about a genetic similarity they might share, or common membership in an organization. But a relationship is therefore fragile (as fragile as a feeling) and temporary (out of mind, out of existence – “Now you’re just somebody that I used to know”).

Similar to the psychological relationship is the contractual relationship. This describes modern “marriages” – people who have agreed to certain responsibilities and mutual arrangements. But the contract is essentially psychological – it lasts as long as we feel it does – then we can tear up the contract.

This strongly colors the content of the modern phrase “a relationship with Jesus Christ.” This phrase refers only to a psychological event. A person “accepts” (chooses, feels, etc.) Jesus Christ “as Lord and Savior.” They may indeed “feel” something. What is established is now a psychological bond (or even a religious contract) that is described as “being saved” or “born again.” But its reality is essentially psychological.

(The Orthodox Response) Relationships are Ontological

Classical Christianity views relationships as rooted in actual being and existence, i.e. ontology. Relationship with God (not psychology) is the ground and cause of our being. It is more accurate to say that something is a relationship than to say that it has a relationship. This goes back to the fact that we are not self-existing.

In Trinitarian theology an example can be found within the Trinity itself. God exists as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These three Persons reveal in their very names that their relationship is at the ground of their existence. The Father cannot be “Father” except as the “Father of.” “Son” is a relational name – it does not stand alone. The same is true of Spirit (though this is not so clear in English). Spirit, however, is “breath.” It must be breathed. The Father begets, the Son is begotten and the Spirit Proceeds. In the very core of our understanding of the revealed God we find relationship. There is no “God” behind the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We know no other God.

By the same token, everything that exists is created, i.e. it exists as the work of the Creator. And it exists as it is sustained in its existence by the very root and ground of our being. Relationship is a matter of being – it is ontological.

3. Meaning Is Only A Thought

When we ask, “What does it mean?” We intend to say, “What do you think it means?” For meaning only refers to what someone thinks. As such, meaning is extremely fluid, never fixed. Beauty is “in the eye of the beholder.” This is an obvious corollary of the first point – things are just things. The medieval philosophy of Nominalism held that there were no ideas or forms external (or internal) to material reality other than those that are posited within the human mind. To a large extent, this philosophy gradually replaced earlier models and helped create the modern mind. Every person born into the modern world, barring highly unusual circumstances, is a Nominalist.

(The Orthodox Response) Meaning is not a thought

The classical Christian model sees meaning as real and generally permanent. It is discerned rather than assigned. Meaning is referential (it has a reference outside itself) and is grounded in eternal relationships and meanings. Christ is the Logos (John 1:1). One translation of Logos is meaning. He is the ultimate meaning of all things (For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things” Rom 11:36).

Even our thoughts have substance beyond our own heads. This is never clearly defined within Orthodox writings, but is commonly discussed. In general, everything is understood to have participation and coinherence within its existence. The perception of the truth also has an element of participation in the truth. By the same token, delusion has something of a participation in non-being (sin). There are many layers and levels within this reality. However, within the New Testament, particularly within the gospel of John, knowledge is far more than a mere idea within the mind. To know is to participate. Thus eternal life can be described as “knowing God” (Jn. 17:3).

4. Time As Cause And Effect

Deeply connected to materialist Christianity is a “materialist” understanding of time. In the modern understanding, time is simply a description of the chain of cause and effect – the past being a collection of causes, the present being the result of those causes, and the future being the results that have not yet happened (and therefore do not yet exist). With a materialist notion of cause and effect, history (with a solid/fixed existence) becomes of supreme importance. Christianity as a “historical” religion, becomes a description of Divine causes and effects. The linear character of time takes on a controlling character. Thus historical (solid/fixed) events such as the Creation of Man, the Fall, Noah’s Ark, the Red Sea, etc., have their historical character as their prime importance. The story of the universe is a story that takes place entirely within a materialist system of cause and effect. Sin is a historical problem requiring a historical solution. And because of the fixed nature of time/cause/effect, each historical event presupposes and requires the same character of its causes. Thus if the historical character of Adam and Eve are questioned, then the historical character of all subsequent events are challenged as well. The Fall becomes the cause of the Cross.

(The Orthodox Response) Time is not Time-Bound

Among the least appreciated aspects of classical Christian thought is its treatment of time. It is an understanding that is necessitated by the treatment of time within the Scriptures themselves and not by some alien metaphysic. It is Christ Himself who most reveals time in its proper perspective. He is both Beginning and the End (Rev. 1:8). This is not at all the same thing as saying that He will be both at the beginning and at the end. He is the Beginning and the End. This makes Him both Cause and Goal.

It is not at all uncommon in the fathers for the end of something to be seen as its cause.  Things are frequently viewed as teleological in their existence, that is, their truth and reason (logos) are revealed in what they will be. To a certain extent we see this in plants and animals. The “end” is already fully present within their DNA. But this can easily be seen as a cause (past tense) within history effecting an outcome (future). But within classical Christian thought, that which shall be is directly effecting that which was and is. A cause can easily be seen as subsequent to an event.

In Ephesians St. Paul says:

[God has] made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth– in Him. (Eph 1:9-10)

This end is already the purpose of all things and describes the movement and direction of all creation. For this is an equally important understanding of creation – all things are in motion – not just physical motion – but ontological motion – movement in their being. God calls all things into existence (being), and properly they move towards well-being. Their goal is eternal being. This is the proper nature of all things. Sin is the movement away from this path, a missing-the-mark (hamartia).

There are a number of events within history that have a character that transcends history. The Lord’s Pascha (His Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection) is rightly said to be before all things and at the end of all things, as well as specifically present at a moment in history. The Eucharist is the Lord’s Pascha (“His death ‘til He comes”) made present. The universe is most properly seen and understood through a theological rather than a historical lens.

5. Good and Bad Only Describe Behavior

The materialist version of Christianity is highly moralistic. It is greatly concerned with behavior, with right and wrong, but defines those only as behaviors. Nothing is good or bad in itself – only choices and behaviors. This requires that God be conceived as the enforcer of morality, rewarding good behavior and punishing bad. Behavior at the most can form and shape habits, but it has no other effect (other than direct action on other objects). Morality is the behavior of individual, self-existing beings, upholding or breaking contracts (with other human beings or God). This thinking about good and bad behavior is shared by both so-called liberal and conservative believers. They differ about what is moral, but not the nature of morality itself. Both have a list of those who should be rewarded and a list of those who should be punished. Their arguments are simply discussions between lawyers.

(The Orthodox Response) Good and Bad are Ontological

Good and bad are not categories that are external to us – but are very much a part of our being and existence. We are created for union with God, Who is the ultimate and true Good. Movement away from that union is the meaning of the word “bad.” This is sin and it is death. God is the ground of our being – to move away from God is to move towards non-existence. It is this movement that is described as bad.

The actions in our lives that are the fruit of such a movement are the actions that are categorized as “sins.” But they are not sins because they are legal violations of an extrinsic norm. They are sins because they are manifestations of Sin itself – the movement away from God.

We are never able to make ourselves not exist. Existence is the gift of God and is not within our power to end. Our rejection of God and of our proper end is not an acceptance of non-existence. It is a movement away from the goodness of being, a distortion of its truth and the substitution for delusional forms of existence.

The Orthodox View of the World

As noted earlier, there are certainly Orthodox whose ideas differ little from this “materialist” Christianity. Their sacramental view is just as external as other materialists, their understanding of relationships just as psychological. They defend the Orthodox “meaning” but see this as simply correct thought. They can be highly moralistic and deeply committed to God as the cosmic enforcer. Many are as defensive of the historically fixed version of reality as any materialist. Strengthening all of this is the historical security of the One true historical Church with the addition of infallible councils, and infallible fathers in addition to an infallible Scripture. In a world of historical cause and effect as the bedrock of reality, infallibility is an essential element. One misstep, and all bets are off.

But these are all assumptions of what I am here naming “Materialist Christianity.” For though, unlike pure Materialism, it accepts the existence of God, He is only present as the One who intervenes in the fixed cause and effect of the material universe. He is the God who acts in history. They are not the assumptions of classical Orthodoxy. And though every document of classical Orthodoxy does not take time to differentiate itself from this worldview (an impossibility since this worldview is a modern invention), it nevertheless undergirds the patristic treatment of the Christian faith. This is particularly true of the Scriptures themselves where very non-historical forces are frequently evident. The major theological fathers, Irenaeus, Athanasius, the Cappadocians, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Theodore the Studite, as well as the Hesychastic fathers such as St. Gregory Palamas, hold to assumptions about the world and its relation to God that are radically different from modern materialist Christianity.

Today the classical Christian view of the world is a distinct minority understanding living within the dominant modern culture. It’s language and grammar live on within the liturgical life of Orthodox Christianity, as well as its larger devotional and theological life. Classical Christianity lives beside a dominant culture where the majority of Christians subscribe to the worldview that I’ve here described as “materialist” Christianity. I see no intention on the part of materialist Christians to be particularly materialist. Most would probably be offended to hear themselves described as such. However, I cannot find a more accurate word.

Orthodoxy has lived both as a dominant culture and for many centuries as an oppressed minority under the Islamic yoke in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. It has continued to struggle from underneath that yoke as well as from the modern scourge of Communism. Today it faces its largest challenge in the distortions of materialist thought (both Christian and atheist).

Coming to understand the true and proper shape of Orthodox thought is an essential part of accepting and maintaining the faith. There will doubtless be some struggles within Orthodoxy itself as some mistakenly defend materialist ideas as “traditional.” I have seen this on a number of occasions. In time, a reading of the fathers as well as a proper hearing of the liturgical experience begin to make the Classical view more understandable, even spiritually self-evident. That process is a part of the acquisition of an Orthodox mind. May God grant it to us all!

 

 

Comments

  1. David says

    For someone like me who is trying to get more into the Orthodox mindset (and to pin down false assumptions that plague much of American Christianity), this post is very helpful! Even before we begin to interpret Scripture, we have assumptions about being, meaning, time, and morality that shape how we do so. Thanks for clearly contrasting them.

  2. Jeremy Lourie says

    Thank you for the article. I have been formally part of the Holy Orthodox Christian Church for some years now. However, I still find myself outside of Orthodoxy (e.g. right belief) far to often than to accommodate my pride. I am – I pray – still being converted to Christ.
    I did wonder if numbering the headings for each topic and the Orthodox response to each with the topic numbers, or putting the responses in sequence directly after each topic would make for easier reading and reference.
    Thanks again.

  3. Michael Bauman says

    This is a good check list for confession I think, not necessarily the sacramental form with the priest but the more general understanding of living a life of repentance. The ontological reality of creation is the cornerstone of salvation is it not?

    But I must stay, while I am sure I have been effected by Nominalism, I did have the exceptional gift of being raised by parents who were thoroughly ontological in their approach. That is one reason that the Orthodox Church has always made such sense to me. Even without Jesus Christ they saw and understood that God was in His creation and all created things are connected to one another through Him. This was modeled for me, taught and proclaimed almost incessantly as I was growing up. Little wonder my disaffection with the modern world. The Church is the fulfillment of the wisdom my parents intuited.

    The ontological understanding is the root of honest compassion and forgiveness as well. Here is a little snippet from Richard Wurmbrand that makes that point I think talking about an Orthodox priest he met in the camps:

    Everybody confessed to him — I confessed to him, too, and I remember that as I confessed to him, and the more I told him sins, the more beautiful and loving became his face. I feared in the beginning that when he heard about such things he would loathe me. But the more I said bad things about myself, the more he sat near to me. And in the end he said, “Son, you really have committed plenty of sins, but I can tell you one thing. Despite all of these sins, God still loves you and forgives you. Remember that He has given His Son to die for you, and try one day a little bit, and another day a little bit, just to improve your character so it should be pleasant to God.”

    My experiences with this priest were among the most beautiful encounters of my life. He is no longer on this earth. He was an example of what real Orthodoxy is all about.

  4. fatherstephen says

    Jeremy,
    I wondered the same thing. I would like to hear from others on that editing possibility. It will be a permanent part of the Pages section, and, later, in my next book, so I really appreciate the feedback. Thoughts from others?

  5. Michael Bauman says

    Father, I think that grouping the materialist assumption together with the Orthodox approach for the same point would be quite helpful–sort of catechesis like. Following on the pattern of Jesus when He asked the disciples: “Who do they say I am” followed by “Whom do you say I am”.

    I think it would also be helpful to consider an additional point: the nature of human beings. Although it is implied in the other points, it might be good to make it a specific one.

    Of course you realize it would be possible to write at least one book on each point but it would be really good to have them altogether. It is deep and fertile soil to work in.

  6. dino says

    If it is any help, I find the numbering somewhat helpful. Even more helpful -to my mind- is having each point, from both perspectives, next to each other: the ‘materialist’ against the ‘classical’ understanding of each point right next to each other…

  7. fatherstephen says

    Thank you. I’ve been struggling for months to find a word to describe what I’m now labeling Christian Materialism. For the longest time in my mind I simply described it as “flat” and “linear.” I knew what I meant, but I don’t think those terms would have been useful for others. Recently reading Hart’s book on the Experience of God (in which he tackles Atheist Materialism) made me realize that the universe of the false view I was trying to describe was pretty much the same (with a second-storey, of course). I will appreciate a feedback from others on this term Christian Materialism. Does it seem to capture what I’m describing? Can you think of a better term?

  8. Sara says

    Ditto to Dino’s comment. The way you have organized this was very helpful and clear to me as I read along. I really appreciated having each point include both the “materialist” view and the Orthodox view.

  9. Robert says

    Fr Stephen,

    I would find “Christian Naturalism” more accurate and descriptive rather than “Christian Materialism”. Of course another descriptive would be “Christian Physicalism.” Perhaps it is all too abstract and nuanced. The need remains for a whole lot of explaining of what is meant by any of these terms. Does labeling help in this instance? Not sure.

    To add to the list of ideas, I would definitely add the notion of the (implied) impersonal nature of the universe. If there’s no such thing as “soul” and “spirit” (but only complex but ultimately random collections of atoms) we cannot speak of the existence of persons (as we know persons to be) nor, for the Christian Naturalist, of the Creator as a Person. Brute and impersonal force – rather than Person – is the underlying principle of reality, history, meaning.

  10. Evpraxia Wehlitz says

    Thank You for this excellent article. I struggle with materialism daily on many levels.

    In Christ,
    Evpraxia

  11. John B says

    Fr. Stephen, are you sure this is a modern invention? Is it possible the seeds of this began with Ambrose & Augustine?

    If you can show a reasonable “path” that this way of thinking took, and where it began and how it developed, it might be even more convincing (it is already excellent of course.) But the one weak pillar is that the “modern view” is presented as having no distinct origin, like we are blaming some nondescript modernity (and modernity is always relative.)

    By the way, I have a typesetting concern — this blog never lists the Author with each Article. Those of us who are familiar with the blog know it’s you, but for someone who browses a single article, it’s not clear who wrote it.

  12. Dino says

    I cannot think of a better term Father, even though “Christian materialism” has been used with a positive sense by some writers (Fr. Nikolaos Ludovikos) to denote Christianity’s taking up and sanctifying matter as well as spirit.
    Christian “rationalism” (in the Nominalist sense) and “secularism” are aspects of it too…
    The historicalisation of the eschata of “Christian materialism” (as opposed to the eschatologicalisation of history of “classical Christianity”) also leads me to think of “historicism” as a possible term, but none of these ism’s are as wide an umbrella term as materialism…

  13. MrsMutton says

    No, “Christian Materialism” works just fine as a descriptor for me. I understood right away what kind of thought pattern was being addressed. “Christian Naturalism” would have given me a different impression altogether – more of a Nature-as-God perspective, rather than what is actually addressed in this excellent post.

  14. says

    (to be the voice of dissent) I liked it before you divided it into points. The orthodox ideas are so interconnected it helped to read them together, after reading all the materialism points first. [e.g. the Eucharist example in point 1 also illustrates point 3 and 4 (and maybe 2?) and that could be lost when organized under point 1.]

    However you organize it, this is immensely helpful! You discuss or allude to these ideas often, and I’ve always wished you could spell it out for me.

  15. Michael Bauman says

    John B. The origin of any idea is quite difficult to pin down. It is all rather arbitrary. One might make the case that Christian materialism began with Arius for instance or Nestorius.

    It is present in all times an ages an off-shoot of what St. Paul warns in Romans 1: worshiping the created thing more than the creator.

    It certainly begins to take a more specific form late Middle ages, the Reformation and the Enlightenment (all rather oxymoronic names IMO)

    Certainly it is crystal clear in Descartes’ dictum: “I think therefore I am.” Of course a much better dictum: “God loves me therefore I am.”

    As Father points out, the way of thinking is so endemic to our time and culture it is impossible to escape it. I’m not sure it matters where it began as that, after all, is simply a linear approach is it not. It is in the fallen human consciousness a fruit of the delusional promise that we can be like God without God.

  16. fatherstephen says

    John B,
    The problems of overdoing the “origins” argument is the tendency to “read back.” It’s certainly the case that virtually no idea really springs into existence from nowhere. Thus if we look to its origins we’ll always find some precedence. But it’s also true that at an earlier time, the same root ideas could have been far more easily corrected and conjoined with something and been more benign. I think that the “West” bashing that we Orthodox do (myself included), sometimes bashes too much, making every early possible precedence (Augustine, et al) guilty of the whole, when he is a saint of the Church.

    The separation of Latin Christianity from the rest impoverished it, though much of it remained. I think that certain ideas, already present in some form, took on a very malignant form (from this perspective) around the time of the Reformation. They received a political will that translated them into the role of cultural dominance, without which they would have on been part of a more salutary conversation.

    In this article, I’m more interested in the ideas themselves, particularly as they present themselves on the popular cultural level. Almost no one has read William of Ockham these days or any other Nominalist thinker – but they are still Nominalists.

    Most people have never read Marx, but have many false Marxist ideas within their thinking. The Pope’s recent kind remarks about Communists and Christianity was simply naive, filled with popular mistakes about economics. But if every sermon I preached had the potential for headlines, I would be thought the most stupid heretical man in Christendom.

    I will also add, that our “Western” penchant always runs towards history (“Where did it go wrong?”). And it’s more complex than that. These ideas ultimately came from the Pit whither they would lead us all.

  17. Michelle says

    I’m glad you used the term “Christian Materialism.” I can’t think of a better term, it really helped me understand what you were getting at. Also, I appreciated the way it’s organized with the numbering :)

  18. Kathy B says

    I agree with John B.. The origin of this thinking is Satan himself. Perhaps it should be called “Post-Christian Materialism”.
    As an Orthodox convert, the first thing I realized was that my worldview would have to change.This article pinpoints some of the specifics.I probably can’t say it well, but it isn’t just how I think about things–it is the interface between my interior world and my exterior world–between the reality of the Kingdom of God and the physical world– I may know alot about the church and about the history of the church-I may follow the practices of the church- but I don’t see the world, God and spirituality the way the church does.It is hard to define exactly how so, but I can perceive it mostly in the prayers and the writings of the fathers. It is a slow process but I am changing.I am constantly challenged with being remade. That is what it feels like.

  19. kLutz says

    As I am barely becoming acquainted with Orthodoxy as I follow the Masters footsteps, I am in much accord with what has been written here! Western man is severely isolated by a whole string of incisions – body from soul, one from mankind, life from God – that the ‘ontological’ perspective presents such a much more cohesive, unified view which swells rapturously within my being. Thank you, Stephen, for your clarity.

    P.S. I found this format of grouping the paradigms distinctly quite easy to comprehend and led easily to your conclusions. This may get more convoluted when jumping back and forth between them. If there were any more points numbering them (or some such) would ease referring back and forth, but since we each have five digits this was not burdensome here.

  20. Devin says

    Such an excellent and helpful post Father. Thank you sincerely for this. I found it very clear where I sometimes struggle to wrap my mind around an Orthodox world view. Similar to Jeremy’s sentiment above, while officially Orthodox I’m still very much in need of the renewing of my mind. I still hold so many modern shaped presuppositions and ideas. I’ll definitely be reading this multiple times and sharing it with others.

  21. Justin Edge says

    Fr Stephen:
    I’ve always called it “Modified Deism” because it is essentially Deist with the exception that it allows God to externally intervene once in awhile (“miracles”).
    I have always avoided using the term “Christian” to describe anything not so (like “Christian Deism” or “Christian Materialism”); however, I suppose it can’t be avoided. If I was forced into using the term Christian to refer to things that aren’t, I would specify (as in “Quasi-Christian Deism” or “Pseudo-Christian Materialism”).

    All that said, at the end of the day I’d have to cast my vote for the term you’ve coined, “Christian Materialism.” I can’t think of any superior term.

  22. Matt says

    I remember a few months ago, Father, in some comments thread I asked you, convinced that I was a nominalist, if it was possible to be an Orthodox Christian while retaining such a worldview. I recall (I don’t remember which article it was a comment to) your response was something like ~I don’t know if a realist position is necessary for the faith, but I know I am one, and it makes sense to approach it this way~.

    I suppose this comment is a good place to thank you not only for this article which gives articulation and voice to the problem, but also for having previously let me down very, very gently in response to that prior comment and leading only by example, and not posting this article until now, lest I might have run away from the faith screaming. :)

    (Also chalk up one more vote for “Christian Materialism” – it’s shocking enough to grab attention, but once you start to explain what the word means here it’s apparent that it does not overstep its bounds and assert anything not actually present, while “Christian Nominalism” is too easy to confuse with being a “nominal Christian” which is a whole different, if frequently comorbid, problem)

  23. says

    Excellent presentation of a real challenge we face as Orthodox Christians in contemporary society, with which many of us struggle. I long to dwell more in the “classical” mindset and yet, like others who have commented, I all-too-often find myself a product of the cultural mindset in which I grew up.

    Since it seems to me that it is more a case of authentic, Scriptural-Patristic Christianity being modified by an alien materialism (since Christianity has not seriously modified materialism beyond the status of an “add-on,” I might bounce the term “Materialist Christianity” around in my head.

    Thank you for all you share via your blog!

  24. Fr.Joseph ROCOR says

    Dear Father,
    Christ is in our midst!
    Thank you for this wonderful article.In holy orthodoxy we are in the process of constant learning. It is not miraculous but it takes years to become a real orthodox.Your article helped the orthodox believers to discover their existence in this materialistic world. In the present situation of world the holy orthodoxy helping the faithful to be humble, patient, loving, caring, steadfast, determined and ready for humble submission in all circumstances.
    Yours in Christ Jesus.
    Fr.Joseph
    Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in Pakistan

  25. says

    The “Christian materialism” points remind me somewhat of Joseph Priestley’s ideas. Perhaps “Christian atomic determinism” would be an alternative name?

  26. Dino says

    ‘Materialist Christianity’ (instead of “Christian materialism”) as opposed to ‘Authentic’ or ‘Classical’ Christianity is also interestingly nuanced…

    Alternating terms (eg: misunderstood, misconceived, misread Christianity) with the main choice is also a possible option in a book perhpas?

  27. Panayiota Vaporis says

    The term “Christian Materialism” is perfect. It reflects and defines the wide range of beliefs and ideas in our culture (ones that allow and open the way to individual interpretation of our existence.)
    My husband and I thank God for the blessings of this blog, your book and God willing your next book.

  28. JWM says

    There is a troubling subcurrent in these comments about whether we are “sufficiently Orthodox” in our world view. This is especially prevalent in my fellow members of ROCOR. We are Orthodox Christians in the United States. We are not 19th century Russian peasants. We are going to interact with American intellectual and cultural trends. It does not take years to develope some special Orthodox “mind”. I’m afraid this leads to a sort of Calvinist view of who truely is in the church and who is not. By the way, I am a third generation cradle Orthodox.

  29. Margaret says

    Thank you for this, Fr. Stephen! It is such a blessing! Glory to God for all things!

  30. Michael says

    Father,

    May I make a suggestion for your site? It’s very clear that the meaning of words as they are used in our culture have either lost their true meaning or have taken on completely new meanings. What do you think of a glossary page on your site? A place where people who are unfamiliar with the Orthodox meaning of words could refer to get better understanding of the words? Words like: sacrament, ordinary, Logos, etc.

    Thank you very much for everything you share! God has truly blessed you with words!

    Michael

  31. Ann K says

    Thank you for this post! For what it’s worth, number four is what opened my eyes to Orthodoxy after five decades as a Protestant.

  32. Ann K says

    This would be an important and greatly appreciated book, if you would want to take the time to elaborate on these concepts.

  33. Ann K says

    Father, I posted too soon and now see that you are planning a book. Thank you!

    I am a professional writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience.
    If you would like “another set of eyes” on your manuscript for line editing and proofreading purposes, I would be honored to offer my services free of charge. akellett(at)mac(dot)com

  34. Robert says

    JWM – troubling indeed, and I am glad you pointed it out.

    In my estimation it is a misguided and disguised attempt to established conformity of thought and practice along some pre-established and unquestionable norms.

    You may be cradle, but the West has gotten your best. :)

  35. Michael Bauman says

    JWM: Father Stephen is in no way suggesting that we become 19th century peasants. That is often a straw man in many arguments, just a mistaken one here.

    I was received into the Church 27 years ago and so was my infant son. There is a distinct difference between us in the way in which we understand. He grew up in the Church serving in the altar. He takes things for granted that I still have to ferret out and work to comprehend–and I study.

    For someone who has not grown up in the Church it does take time. The first roughly 13 years I spent in cleaning out a slew of heretical ideas and beliefs that I had held prior to coming to the Church. I can mark certain points along the way when I said, “Oh, that’s what it means.” I share those things with my son and he rather incredulously says something like, “You didn’t know that?” The last one of that sort was only a couple of years ago.

    It is difficult for someone who has grown up in the Church with a substantial legacy of Orthodox belief (for which I am grateful) to appreciate the toxic but strong hold heterodox and secular belief has on someone else’s mind and heart. The most common response from a life-long Orthodox to some of the questions and beliefs from outside the Church is “Where do they come up with this stuff!”

    These things can linger for a long time even if they are sub-rosa.

    Their are people in my parish who can trace their Orthodox heritage back to the time of the Apostles and one of the earliest diocese in the Church, the diocese of Houran in southern Syria (once again under siege by those who would destroy the Church).

    That does not make them ‘better’ Orthodox, but it does give them a perspective that is wholly different than the average person just coming into the Church. They are rooted in a way that I will never be. I value that highly.

    The whole thrust of Fr. Stephen’s writing is that we are all sinners and that each of us can be more wholly in the Kingdom than we are right now by His grace. He has written frequently against the judgmental legalism to which you object (inside and outside the Church).

    However, the toxic mind that is the world lays claim to all of us. The classic antidotes for the toxicity the Church has always used: Prayer, worship, almsgiving, fasting, repentance and forgiveness have not changed, God’s call to holiness and community has not changed but the environment in which they are preformed has. That is what Fr. Stephen, IMO, is addressing.

    How are we, as Orthodox in the west in the 21st century to use the tools and weapons of the Church?

    That is my perception.

  36. Michael Bauman says

    Oh, by the way, AXIOS and many years to Archbishop Joseph of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America, Metropolitan elect.

  37. Dino says

    The inevitable cross-fertilization and outside influences are so far reaching – and have been for decades, centuries even – that even cradle Orthodox Athonite monks are often found sufferning from them. Sometimes an americal agnostic who has become Orthodox along the way displays greater authenticity…! Even though that’s not the norm.

  38. Michael Bauman says

    Dino, the mind of the world is part of our bodies; our mind/heart; our way of thinking; our culture and inescapable.

    Those who come to the Church later in life (oh how I dislike the terms “convert” and “cradle”–talk about classes of Orthodox) as you note sometimes see the challenges that need to be overcome more clearly than those who have a more substantial legacy in the Church.

    Still, there is a grace I have seen, even if that grace is covered over and encrusted, in the folks whose families have long been Orthodox. I learn from that frequently.

  39. Michael Bauman says

    JWM. There is the chance that what Fr. teaches might lead us in the direction, perhaps, of the 19th century miracle-working Russian saints. Not that I will ever be obedient enough or single-minded enough to get there but even a step in that direction is good don’t you think?

  40. Karen says

    My observation is the “Orthodox mind” is also the “mind of Christ” of which the Scripture speaks (1 Corinthians 2). When St. Paul says that “we have the mind of Christ,” he is speaking it seems to me of the Church as a whole as the Body of Christ and repository of the Holy Spirit in His fullness. It is the essential task of each of us members of Christ’s Body to allow that Mind to be formed in us whether we have grown up in the Church or entered it later in life. Outside the Church, we are all alike swimming in a worldly sea of ideas and passions totally contrary to this, as Fr. Stephen describes in this post. Our purification, illumination, and theosis is a matter of constant struggle–whether we have been Orthodox long or for only a little while. Acquiring the mind of Christ or the Orthodox mind is synonymous with maturing in the faith, acquisition of the Holy Spirit, etc., and it is not the acquisition of an external ethnic form! The writing of Mother Maria Skobtsova on the forms of piety that characterized Orthodoxy in her day (and the temptations accompanying these) shows that in varying forms this externalization and materialization of the faith is not simply a convert (or even completely modern?) phenomenon, but is symptomatic of the ever-present danger of the delusions of judging things according only to the flesh and according to the “basic principles” of a blinded world and not according to Christ (1 Corinthians 5:16; Colossians 2:8, 20). Mother Maria’s piece is long, but well worth the read.

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/224807896/Maria-Skobtsova-Types-of-Religious-Lives

  41. fatherstephen says

    JWM,
    I noted that there are indeed many Orthodox who hold to a form of Christian “Materialism” as I’ve defined it here. Interestingly, they are almost always strongly conservative. The “manual” tradition, which held sway in 19th century Russia was exported (often within your own jurisdiction) and was rather strongly constructed in the manner I have here characterized. As I noted, it often produces an extremely strong rigidity because of its perception of cause and effect and similar things. It also appeals to certain personalities that can dominate within a sub-culture (and American Orthodox has a number of sub-cultures).

    I am pleased that there has been a restoration of communion in the past number of years – I think it will be healthier for all.

    It would be possible to abuse what I’ve observed here and try to create a “true Orthodoxy.” But rather than react against a global possibility, I think it would be more to the point to address the individual observations.

    If Orthodoxy doesn’t actually represent a different mindset or way of seeing things, then I think denominationalism will have done its worse – changing the classical mind of Orthodoxy into just another interesting and conservative version of everything else. For me, that would mean the death of the Church.

  42. says

    Father,

    Very briefly you brought up some intriguing thoughts on infallibility. Could you say more on that?

    RVW

  43. mary benton says

    Truly an excellent article, Fr. Stephen. You have given me much to think about. I may need to read this several more times. Thank you for all of the work you put into your posts.

    (I like the organization that the article currently has, with the Orthodox response following each idea numbered. Easy to read and follow. I also think that the term “Christian materialist” says it quite well.)

  44. Dino says

    Father,

    But rather than react against a global possibility, I think it would be more to the point to address the individual observations.

    reminded me of on e extra little point that -possibly- differentiates the ‘materialist Christian’ from the authentic ‘classical Christian’?:
    The materialist has an active interest in changing others, an interest in increasing the numbers of the so-called faithful (irrespective of their fervour), an interest in externals, those of his and of others. The authentic believer on the other hand has always demonstrated an all-consuming interest in “internals”, his ‘purification-illumination-theosis’ journey and that of others (which he knows is affected through that journey of his own). His help is always directed towards individual Persons rather than faceless crowds.
    The notion seems like a corollary of a more than one of your insightful points.

  45. guy says

    Father,

    About terminology–it might depend upon to whom you want your terms to appeal. As far as academic metaphysics are concerned, from what i’ve read, “materialism” is a dated term and not used much any more. In more recent literature (the past 20-30yrs), “naturalism” and “physicalism” are far more frequently used.

  46. EPG says

    “Certainly it is crystal clear in Descartes’ dictum: “I think therefore I am.” Of course a much better dictum: “God loves me therefore I am.” ”

    I wonder if Descartes’ statement gets a bad rap in Orthodox circles (I have seen it fairly harshly criticized in other threads on this blog). If I recall correctly, it was the beginning of an epistemological inquiry, not a conclusion, and certainly not an ontological or metaphysical statement.

  47. fatherstephen says

    EPG,
    It’s certainly not just here that Cartesian philosophy gets a bad rap. I think the critique of Descartes is on pretty solid, even widely accepted grounds.

  48. says

    I think materialism is a good all encompassing word, to descibe all the ideological movements that have existed since the time of Cain, who turned away from God. Materialism existed in the Greek philosophers discourses on the nature of man and of nature, and the conversation has continued, and its main points sincerely in my view has never changed. Only they have tried to create new meanings and tried to create new words to give an illusion of ideological progress. You might have a glossary with a section called materialism. also I too distinguish between Christianity and Pseudo – Christianity, however…when speaking to others I tend to not stress the point because people become offended. I just describe Orthodoxy. and the best way im learning to describe Orthodoxy is to live it. Thanks so much for this article. And that is a ascetic struggle within itself.

  49. Christopher says

    “Every person born into the modern world, barring highly unusual circumstances, is a Nominalist. “

    Father,

    While I would not want to disagree too much, I wonder if this is not overstated a bit. Even as a young Unitarian, I would find the occasional person who was not a nominalist. I would say that many many pious people of classical/traditional Christianity (of all flavors) are instinctively not nominalist, even if they tend to use the concepts and language (due to the cultural soup in which they swim).

    Also, have you ever had the occasion to read C.S. Lewis’ “Abolition of Man”? He speaks to much of what you are writing of here.

    “To a certain extent we see this in plants and animals. The “end” is already fully present within their DNA. “

    I wonder if Father or someone wants to speak to this. It seems to me (especially in light of the whole of Father’s essay here) if the modern conception of DNA is not overstated. Even on a materialistic level, is DNA really this influential?

    “Even our thoughts have substance beyond our own heads. “

    This brings to mind Elder Thaddeus (As well as Elder Paios and Saint Porphyrios):

    http://orthodoxruminations.wordpress.com/2013/07/16/our-thoughts-determine-our-lives-or-the-power-of-our-thoughts/

  50. Michael Bauman says

    Whether or not DeCartes meant it as an ontological statement it has become one but how is any statement that is ontological in form “I am” not ontological. Even as an hypothesis it is upside down and backwards.

  51. fatherstephen says

    Christopher,
    I’ve been doing ministry now for 34 years. I think I’ll stand by my observation on born Nominalists. I highly doubt the others. And certainly would be stunned to find someone who was “instinctively” non Nominalist.

  52. Michael Bauman says

    Father, have you ever thought about doing an article or even a book about how to approach and participate in the sacrament of confession in one storey, non-legalistic manner?

    How does one confess ontologically? It is so easy to just ‘make a list’ like Santa Claus of the naughty things and stop their.

  53. Johnny Cassian says

    Best of many magnificent posts of late. Very thankful for your consistent and persistent call to remember who we are when we call ourselves Orthodox. A suggestion on the term “Christian Materialism” (which is solid already of course)… Enlightenment Christianity perhaps? Or ironically, “unenlightened Christianity”. Not sure, but as a history guy I just can’t get away from the notion that the “Enlightenment” stands as the greatest most profound heretical challenge to classical Christian theology of the last two millennium. It is literally the negation of Truth. It is the father of our modern psychosis and the purveyor of dehumanizing loneliness. Blame this “lig” (ligament as the Romans used to describe all forms of belief) for the sadness and nihilism of our youth. (Whew, I really got off the road there with that rant… Forgive me).

  54. Michael Bauman says

    The trouble with using the term enlightenment is that the term is considered positive by most.

  55. fatherstephen says

    Michael,
    I have not (book length). But I thought I recently did something in an article…I’ll have to check. The pastoral relationship can be so individualized (properly so), that I’ve always been hesitant to presume to teach something that each priest might need to teach on his own…and then it’s a very individualized thing again. I “coach” (to use a contemporary term) those whose confessions I hear, when I think they would be helped by the coaching (theological, psychological, etc.). But many times I sit and listen quietly (even most of the time) and let it be. If anything, we almost think too much about our confessions. We’re an extremely neurotic culture – full of shame (not guilt but shame) and spiritual uncertainty.

  56. Christopher says

    “And certainly would be stunned to find someone who was “instinctively” non Nominalist. “

    Your right! Poor word choice. I was trying to express whatever was allowing these folks to go against the zeitgeist…

    “Every person born into the modern world, barring highly unusual circumstances, is a Nominalist….I’ve been doing ministry now for 34 years. I think I’ll stand by my observation on born Nominalists.”

    Interesting, my experience (25 years of observant adulthood ;) has not been quite as dire. I have been pleasantly surprised when encountering realists in the most unexpected places (academia, work, family, etc.). These certainly are the exceptions however and not the rule. I would judge these folks to have only broken the mold in this point however and maybe #2. Your #’s 1, 4, and 5 seem almost inviolable…

  57. Michael Bauman says

    Father, maybe a book would be too long on the mystery of confession. I see that point but I would think there might be some general guidelines to point in the direction of an ontological confession rather than simply a moral or behavioral or psychological one although they seem to inter-relate.

    Perhaps it is like a mineshaft: surface to subsurface to core?

  58. says

    Fr,

    Thank you again. With more than 60 years of wrong understandings, this article helps me to tear down the stranglehold of misguided instruction. I have already read this post 3 times, and I know that I will be reading again. I live life differently because I am different. One by one the stack of dominoes of false thinking continue to fall. I thank God for His restoring gift of salvation in His Son. I am such a babe in understanding. Your writings help me very much.

  59. David Brent says

    After reading your article, I came away with two major points. 1) Orthodoxy is fully grounded in the Logos, and 2) Most Christians have adopted a faith system that does not fully integrate the Logos(though they don’t realize it). The Logos is limited.

    These Christians are looking through distorted lenses. Their vision is impaired and distorted. They are blinded from seeing how the Logos touches everything (the five ideas).

    I’m trying to find an expression that conveys this. Everything I come up with is too wordy.

  60. Drewster2000 says

    Fr. Stephen,

    Input on your article…

    1. The first 3 points seem to be sub-points of a larger one, something like, “Once God is removed, everything only has meaning or existence either contained within itself or within a human mind.”

    The Orthodox response being, “Without God, there is no existence or meaning. With God, all has existence and meaning – and is related to the world around it.” Or something like that.

    2. These concepts go off the mental map of the Christian Materialist, so associations would be helpful; analogies or examples we can already know of in the material world.

    For instance, I can take the bad vs. good idea and talk about how we keep 2 year-olds from touching the stove NOT because they’ll get punished if they do, but because it is harmful to their life. Sin isn’t about being wrong but about being a step towards self-destruction.

    I would really like that kind of link for your idea on time not being just cause-and-effect. I’ve believed it the way you’ve stated it ever since I learned about Orthodoxy, but I still have no framework for pressing it out. Is it possible someone can show me something in the natural world that works this way?

    I believe so, and I believe this because the world is “Christ-shaped” as you said. Everything has the Master Artist’s signature on it, but those who think in a “flat” or “linear” fashion could use a little more help making connection to the 3rd dimension.

    3. Confession: I suggested it as a blog post topic awhile back and you complied, but as you can see here with Michael B., the topic just keeps coming back. People of all stripes are generally at a loss to know how to confess these days. So though you’ve discussed it before, please put it on your back burner. In this area we seem to be largely sheep without a shepherd.

    These are comments with intent to be helpful. I of course really appreciated the article.

  61. Nathan Rinne says

    Father,

    It is Nathan Rinne again, one of your serious Lutheran readers who has interacted with you off and on over the years.

    Much of what you have written I can say “Amen” to. Most all of it in fact. A few things I do have questions about though:

    “The medieval philosophy of Nominalism held that there were no ideas or forms external (or internal) to material reality other than those that are posited within the human mind. To a large extent, this philosophy gradually replaced earlier models and helped create the modern mind. Every person born into the modern world, barring highly unusual circumstances, is a Nominalist.”

    How can this be? Does it not make more sense to think that children are not Nominalist, but rather assume that meanings are something intrinsic to the things they experience, and others experience with them? I would think so.

    Further, you talk about history having a solid/fixed existence with the future having yet to occur within this Christian materialism. Someone like Luther, and C.S. Lewis after him, thought of all moments in time occurring simultaneously to God, such that past, present and future were all present to Him.

    Now, I to believe, as Revelation says (now I have heard that this is not a favorite book of the Orthodox), that the Lamb is slain from the foundation of the world, but I see that in the context of what I just wrote above about time (and I agree with you about the end being seen as the cause of something – teleology). Still, when you say that “Sin is a historical problem requiring a historical solution”, is this not, from our perspective, something that seems to be very true? A simple reading of the account in Genesis 1-3 would seem to suggest this, would it not? Is there not some sense in which innocence was lost? Do they not realize they are naked? Do they not run? Does not “everything change” in some mysterious sense here? You speak of us misunderstanding the Fathers today, seeing them through the lens of this materialist Christianity (the “alien metaphysic” as you say). Do not some of the Fathers speak in this way though?

    +Nathan

  62. fatherstephen says

    My statement of “born Nominalists” is somewhat rhetorical. It is simply a way of saying that our materialist culture permeates everybody’s thoughts and perceptions.

    The fathers speak in many ways, some more simply than others. Some like St. Maximus become quite “mystical” in their treatment of things. Lewis was absolutely not a Christian materialist. He was a decided “Realist” like the rest of the Inklings. I think it is part of his appeal.

    A simple reading of the Genesis account would yield a lot of straight-forward conclusions about cause and effect, “everything changing,” etc. It’s why it probably shouldn’t be read simply. And you correct that there are fathers who speak in this way. I would speak in that way in certain contexts.

    But the Genesis account is not a simple account and there are many things within it that signal this. It is layered and complex and sometimes begs questions (that call us beyond the simple). I sometimes think that the “simple” approach to Genesis forgets to stay with the text and reads an imaginary construction of the text that ignores the signals to abandon the simple.

    “In the Beginning.” Sounds simple. St. John did not think so. Many fathers immediately noted that Christ Himself is the “Beginning.” I could go on and on and never leave the first verse.

  63. Nathan Rinne says

    Father,

    Thank you for the reply. Again, I want to be child-like, not childish. What concerns me is that for many, Gods’ word seems to be merely something like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar – the main intention not being to convey real history that speaks to us and forms us now, but rather to simply speak to us and form us now…

    Now, now, now.

    But look at Jesus… he never gives any indication that He took the events of the OT as anything other than things that really happened. What do we do when the True Myth Incarnate gives us such impressions… and then tells us to to believe like children?

    For it seems to me, there is a ruthless logic here. There are these genealogies that connect Adam with Christ after all… Why stop with Genesis and Adam as being mythological so as to just be for the now, now, now – at the expense of words acknowledging that it also has to do with the real past?

    Must these be set against one another? Is the realism you speak of – and which I hold to as well – against this?

    I also ask you to please, if you can make the time, to check out this: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/geneveith/2014/05/natural-law-vs-nominalism/

    Thank you Father. Again, really appreciated your posts on the “long defeat”. Spot on.

    No more from me today.

    +Nathan

  64. Michael Bauman says

    “In the Beginning.” Sounds simple. St. John did not think so. Many fathers immediately noted that Christ Himself is the “Beginning.” I could go on and on and never leave the first verse.

    Goes to show that the assumptions one brings to any material tends to direct the conclusions one makes.

    If Christ Himself is ‘the Beginning’ what does it mean that Creation is ‘in’ Him?