Here in 21st century America, the only truly unforgivable sin — in many cases, the only sin — is having the wrong opinion.
One of the deep cultural wounds inflicted by a certain stream of theology from the Protestant Reformation is the notion that faith is about adhering to a list of correct beliefs, and for some, this is what “orthodoxy” means. Thus, “heresy” is not what it was historically — drawing people away into schism by measns of false teaching — but rather is merely suspiciously having a wrong opinion.
But for the historic Christian — and most especially for the Orthodox Christian — holding to a list of correct beliefs without actual obedience to God’s commandments is in fact the “faith” of demons (James 2:19). Historic Christianity places its emphasis on what one does far more than what one says or thinks.
This sense that correct opinions being what makes a person authentic and true is enabled by so much of our life now being led not in the 3D world where suffering and death happen, where compassion and love also happen, and where the ordinary work of being human happens, but in the “virtual” world where everything is image and word detached from their solid realities. It is a place where propaganda is felt far more real than persecution and indeed where wrong opinion is the real persecution and every kind of sin. Thus, “feeling safe” is about being safe from words, not being safe from attacks on one’s body and livelihood.
It is therefore possible for men to strut about online with an ideology about “manliness” who have never been husbands or fathers nor suffered for anything, or for some to scream about racism who have never sacrificed nor suffered because of who they are, or for others to deify imagined cultures and peoples whose actual members would find laughable the simulacrum “nations” that the hobbifying devotees romanticize in fantasies, or for idealogues to demand recognition for mental and emotional constructs of gender who have never sought to see if words might refer to something with objective reality that goes beyond opinion and sentiment.
It is a type of puritanism often referred to as being “woke,” in which what one says or thinks is the only thing truly real and the canon by which all men and women must be measured.
Of course, this usage is not how these words were intended when adopted — woke was meant to be about having “woken up” to the realities of injustice, while puritan was about purifying the Church of England of Roman Catholic practices. But now these words have come to be used otherwise and associated with the practice of forceful purgation of all that is offensive, particularly in terms of what George Orwell memorably referred to as thoughtcrime.
I understand why our culture in general has fallen into this pattern of mobbing thoughtcrime, given American origins in religious puritanism and the strange transitional place we are now in, between culture-wide stories, having lost the plot, the sense that we all belong to something bigger than ourselves. But it makes no sense for Christians to be taken in by this pattern. Yet we often are.
Christians should see that modern puritanical wokeness has utterly inverted the Lord’s parable of the two sons:
“What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.” (Matt. 21:28-32)
In this parable, one son says the right thing but does the wrong thing, and the other says the wrong thing but does the right thing. In the context of modern woke puritanism, the son who says the right thing but is not obedient is actually in the right here. Why? Because he has expressed the right opinion. It does not matter what he does, only what he says. The son who is obedient even while saying the wrong thing is the one lauded by Christ, yet in the context of modern puritan wokeness, what matters is not what he does but what he says.
Thus, one could be the world’s greatest philanthropist, indeed a saint who labors long and even suffers martyrdom, but yet lack the world’s one thing needful, which is to hold the right opinions.
Similarly, one can see woke puritanism as a demonstration of this prophecy from Isaiah:
And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.”
Ah, you who hide deep from the Lord your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?” You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”? (Isaiah 29:13-16)
Thus, woke puritanism flows directly out of the notion of faith that comes from a certain stream of Protestantism, and one is justified by what one agrees to (an inversion of James 2:17-26). Faith and works are sundered, and while we might expect that works flow from proper “faith,” in today’s public square, the true “work” is to say the right things. Honor your god with your lips, even if your actual deeds are dark and you have your own ideas for what it means to be good and true that are not what the Maker said.
This also is why it is necessary to “cancel” not only those who might once have said the wrong thing, but even those about whom it is rumored they said the wrong thing. They do not have to have been demonstrated to have said or done any evil thing. All that is necessary is that they are on the wrong “team.” That is enough to have all evil opinions ascribed to them. One may therefore construct simulated mannequins to be “canceled” — resulting in real-world consequences for virtual-world imaginings.
Now, it is probably easy to see how the “other side” practices this kind of thing, “canceling” those with whom they disagree (or imagine they disagree). But the reality is that this is endemic now to public discourse everywhere, both “liberal” and “conservative.” Liberals witch-hunt for racists, while conservatives witch-hunt for traitors.
And because no actual evidence is required that someone truly treats other people badly, only that they seem to have said something bad or that they are associated with such a person, then conspiracy-theory thinking may more easily prevail. In that pseudo-logic, everything becomes evidence even if it’s actually evidence to the contrary. Because even the appearance of being faithful and true really means someone is hiding something.
Assuming bad faith and guilt-by-association are simply how business must be done now, because we cannot risk that someone with an uncomfortable opinion be able to operate in our space — even if he never actually does anything bad to us. The mere possible existence of his differing opinion is an offense, a deep wound. So we virtue-signal to our “team,” and we mock the other “team” to try to keep ourselves “safe.”
Conservatives rightly abhor modern left-wing woke virtue-signaling and cancel culture, yet many are just as woke and canceling when it comes to their own preferred set of opinions. Likewise liberals reject the hatred of modern right-wing puritanism yet are just as filled with hatred against those who don’t hate the right things in the right way. I don’t say this to make this a “both sides” thing, but rather to point out how easily our whole culture falls into thinking that true virtue may be judged according to one’s opinions. Most of us are woke puritans / puritanically woke now.
Yet if we are Christians, we know that Christ will judge every man according to his works — that means what he does. It will not matter if we believe and say that abortion is wrong (which it is), that same-sex “marriage” is wrong (which it is), that sexism is wrong (which it is), or that racism is wrong (which it is), if we do not care for those who are cast down, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, be father and mother to the orphan, protect the widow, strengthen marriages, or sacrifice for our wives and husbands and children and neighbors.
It will not matter if we believe and say that false doctrine is wrong (which it is) or that true worship is right (which it is), if we do not practice prayer and worship with faithfulness and personal sacrifice in obedience to the commandments of God, if we do not obey the true doctrine that tells us how to live toward our fellow persons for whom Christ died just as much as He did for us — and while we were all sinners, at that (Rom. 5:8).
Christ said that if we love Him, we will keep His commandments. This is everywhere in Scripture (Ex. 20:6; Deut. 5:10, 7:9, 11:1, 11:13; Josh. 22:5; Neh. 1:5; Dan. 9:4; John 14:15, 14:21, 15:10; 1 John 5:2-3; 2 John 1:6). Too often in our day, we think that we can claim to love Christ while hating our brothers because, after all, we have agreed with the right list of things to agree with. But that’s a big lie (1 John 4:20).
But every man will be judged according to his works (Rev. 20:12-13). One can affirm and believe and say all the right things, sign statements and pledges and petitions, share articles and viral videos and memes, and even do it all intelligently and entertainingly and even wittily, yet still be cast from the presence of the Lord as one whom He never knew.
That does not mean that the words we say don’t matter. We will also be judged by every idle word that we speak (Matt. 12:34-37), but this is not about simply saying the right things. If we say good, correct things, but do not also do what is good, then our words will actually condemn us (Matt. 12:37). Saying correct words that we do not prove with good works makes those good words into idle, careless words and therefore they are condemnatory for us.
Although our modern form of it stems from the faith/works distortion from the 16th century, the desire to be right with our words and to catch others in their words while ignoring the necessity for true faithfulness is age-old. St. Maximos, for instance, warns his own readers not to use his work to find fault in him but rather to build their own faithfulness:
Perhaps it might happen that something useful to the soul will be revealed out of [these chapters]. This will happen completely from God’s grace to the one who reads with an uncomplicated mind, with the fear of God, and with love. But if someone reads this or any other book whatever not for the sake of spiritual profit but to hunt for phrases to reproach the author so that he might then set himself up in his own opinion as wiser than he, such a person will never receive any profit of any kind. – St. Maximos the Confessor, 400 Chapters on Love
St. Gregory Palamas saw this in his time, too:
“Every word,” it is said, “argues with some other word.” But what word can argue with life? We think that it is impossible to know yourself by methods of distinction, argument and analysis unless you free your nous from pride and evil by laborious repentance and active asceticism. Someone who has not worked on his nous by these means will not even know his own poverty in his domain of knowledge. – St. Gregory Palamas, The Triads, Book I
We see here the basis for the practice of quote-mining the Fathers or the Scripture in order to be seen as correct oneself or to correct and condemn others. But as St. Gregory says, unless someone is freeing himself of pride and evil through repentance, he will not even know what he doesn’t know. And if you’re weaponizing the words of holy people against other people, it’s pretty clear that you haven’t freed yourself of pride and evil.
The truth about faithfulness is that it’s about what you do. And if what you do doesn’t line up with the commandments of Christ, then you’re not Christ’s servant. You’re serving another master.
May God help us to true devotion, to be proved through struggle and love, to be shown good and faithful through our loyalty in worship, in repentance, in self-sacrifice, in humility, in almsgiving, in fasting and in prayer.
Because in the end, what the faithful welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven will hear is not “Well said, thou good and faithful servant,” but rather “Well done.”
Dear Father Andrew. Perhaps it maybe helpful to state what is meant when you say, “is wrong (which it is).” Is it “wrong” in the same way it is “wrong” not to have more than one coat in my closet, or even to have one coat? Most people do not believe in the “Christian” God. So their definition of wrong is probably different than what you are stating in this article. Torturing an animal or even an insect is wrong, but according to what? (e.g., Hebrews scriptures; the human conscious; Second Law of Thermodynamics (which is under suspicion anyway). I have many biases based on where I was born, my nationality, my gender. My biased opinions probably seem “wrong” to may other people born in a different country, in a different century and of a different “race.” For example, can I really be unbiased when it comes to discussing modern day US policy towards Turkey? Most likely not. Does that make all my opinions about modern Turkey wrong? I am not sure; they are probably not all factually incorrect, but still somewhat biased.
I’m speaking to Christians here.
Great post. It reminded me I meed to go ahead and follow up with the local homeless shelter to see what I can contribute.
Thank you Father,
When you write ” the notion of faith that comes from a certain stream of Protestantism, and one is justified by what one agrees to”, are you referring to sola fide? Would you not say that even the Puritans would believe, as Luther did, that they “are justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone,” which I would interpret to mean good works must follow faith?
I am not referring to sola fide by itself, but rather to the reception of it in certain quarters of Protestantism in which salvation is had by accepting certain beliefs. This is part of our general cultural soup and not tied to one religious group or another.
My reference to Puritanism is not about Puritans’ beliefs about sola fide, but rather their quest for purifying the community of everything they find offensive.
There something called the four spiritual laws or four spiritual truths that one had to ascribe to in order to be saved. Is that what you are referring to?
That is one iteration of this idea but by no means the only version.
Thank you Father, for your clarifications!
Very well said.
Thank you for writing this. One of the difficulties I’ve encountered on my way into the Church has been this underlying, hangover of a protestant/puritanical framework in convert culture. I hate sitting around talking about “how right” we are. I want to have my citizenship in heaven; therefore, living by heaven’s statutes.
I’m glad to see a reality check that those of us who identify with conservatism are just as guilty of this phenomenon as those we accuse.
I’m thinking of the distinction Fr. John Strickland makes when I say that both the conservative agenda and liberal agenda are utopian agendas..
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