Leaving the Secular Life


The default position of America is secular protestantism.

I say this is the default position and mean by it – that without effort and care – we all find ourselves thinking and acting out of a secular protestant mindset. Of course, I need to offer a definition for my terms. By secular protestantism (and I mean no insult to Protestants by the term) I mean a generalized belief in God – but a God who is removed from the world (hence the term secular). Secularism is not the belief that there is no God – but the belief that God belongs to a religious sphere and the rest of the world is neutral in some independent sense. I add the term “protestantism” to it, because, generally, our culture gives lip-service to protestant foundations, and because Protestant Churches generally understand themselves as relatively human organizations, the true Church being something in the mind of God. (I will grant exceptions to my definition and understanding).

With such a mindset, of course, whatever religious sense one has is generally a matter of effort, organization, control, marketing – in short – religious life is no different from every other aspect of life. It is separated and defined only by its purpose. Such religion is, of course, not Christianity at all, even though it may strive to do good secular work for Christ. True Christianity is a life lived in union with Christ and all that we do that has value is what we do in union with Him.

It is in reflecting on this that I ponder many conversations I hear (or overhear). Many times I hear myself or others expressing dismay or anxiety over a situation, or plotting to achieve one goal or another. The frightening dynamic in many of these conversations – let alone the actions that flow from them – is the dynamic of secularism. We live as though there were no God, or as if the God Who Exists is not able to act within our world. Having decided what is in God’s best interest, or the interest of the faith, we design our efforts (perhaps even thinking to please Him).

But God does not seek to be pleased by actions taken in separation from Him. It is union with God that saves us (and this alone). Neither can we undertake any activity that has a saving character except that activity be taken in union with Christ.

Why should we love our enemies and pray for them? Because there is little else you can do for them that is in union with Christ. You cannot seek vengeance in union with Christ. You cannot even seek to “fix” other people in union with Christ. The action of Christ is always respectful of our freedom and always acts in love. Action in union with Christ cannot have some other character.

Actions such as kindness and mercy, patience and love are easily lived in union with Christ. But our secular mindset rarely sees such actions as useful.

I read the following statement in the counsels of the contemporary Elder, Porphyrios of Kavsokalyvia:

Our love in Christ must reach all places, even to the hippies in Matala [in Crete]. I very much wanted to go there, not to preach to them or to condemn them, but to live with them, without sin of course, and leave the love of Christ to speak of itself, which transfigures life (from Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit).

Such a statement is a world away from our secular mindset. The Church is either the Mystical Body of Christ or it is nothing at all. And if it is the Mystical Body of Christ in this world, then its life will be lived and governed in no way different from the life of Christ considered in any other manner. Thus, the way of the Cross is always the way of life. Laying down our lives for one another and for the world is simply how we are to live. It is not an extraordinary act – it is a normative act.

Doubtless our culture and its mindset will be what they are. But in its midst we should live “without sin” and let the love of Christ speak of itself (if the love of Christ isn’t speaking of itself, then our own words about the love of Christ will be hollow and meaningless) – and this transfigures life. This is not a plan or a roadmap for the transformation of our culture. God alone knows such things. But it is a roadmap for obeying the admonition of the Apostle:

“…be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Romans 12:2).


  1. Fr. Stephen,

    Could you write something for us on the Orthodox position on homosexuality. In reading this post, I think I have an idea of what ultimatley we as Orthodox can do: live in Christ and love in Christ, without preaching, without condemning. But, what happens, as it is happing in our socity that the Scriptures themselves are used to legitimize, not just homosexual behavior, but bisexuality, transgenderism and….well, I tremble at what is next. The reason I am bringing this up is because I am currently taking a graduate class in education and anthropology at SMU, a more “open-minded” institution here in Dallas. The prof is also a theologian who teaches at the school of theology. The class’ topic is: creating a school environment where all families are included, respected and valued. I get that, and see the truth, need and virtue in that. Its simply recognizing the divine image of God in each individual, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation.
    I guess that same mentality should be with us at all times, right? The issue I’m having with the prof is that he is using scripture to teach us homosexuality is not prohibited by God. His reasoning (“higher level criticism) is that the levitical law was “situational”, and that if we are going to condemn homosexuality, we should all line up to get stoned to death for eating shellfish. According to that line of reasoning one can rationalize all sorts of sexual behavior.
    The issue can get much more comlicated, but I’ll leave it at that.

  2. Theophan–

    How does your professor explain Romans 1:27-28? Homosexual acts are clearly an “error” according to St. Paul. I am certainly no wise Biblical scholar, but I can’t see any way around that.

  3. How we live and interpret the Scriptures is an Orthodox event. Changing the Scriptures is never an act of kindness. The truth is there, and Romans as well as all of Orthodox tradition is clear on the nature of sexual relationships.

    Nevertheless, none of that precludes kindness on our part and considering ourselves to be lower than others around us. It’s one thing to leave others alone and let Christ “preach” and something else to preach a false gospel in the name of a mistaken interpretation of Scripture.

    Mostly the Scriptures and the American Constitution are not the same document.

  4. “Laying down our lives for one another and for the world is simply how we are to live. It is not an extraordinary act – it is a normative act.”

    Thank you for that bit of wisdom, Father Stephen, that is something we need to be reminded of often.

  5. I would change one thing about your heading: America’s default religion is the seculkar version of non-sacramental / confessional protestantism – ie modern evangelicalism. This was aptly illustrated by a recent comment on Intermonk’s website, where he asked about the SBC practice of occasional celebration of the Eucharist. Very few of the answers even touched the Bible or the Church, and eventually it seem to come down to “style”. Now the secular version of that is America’s default religion – at least in my view as a non-American, but greatly influenced by religious debates and happenings in that country.

    Of course, the religion of choice at the time of the forming of the Union seems to have been as much Deism as anything else.

  6. Theophan,

    You might try following the link to Titusonenine. It’s on the homepage of this blog under Anglican links. Once there, put “shellfish argument” into the search box.

    I hesitate to send you there, because it’s only more historical-critical argumentation. At least, you can see a historical-critical counter argument. But, these things can go on forever. My scholar trumps your scholar… I think they actually can lead one away from the Truth.

    Fr. Stephen is pointing you to a better way. The Scriptures can only be fully understood in the Church, by the Church, and through the Church. Outside of the Church the Scriptures are open to any number of misunderstandings.

  7. The Skylding,

    Yes. My intention was to use a generic term that carried the history of our cultural attitude. Obviously secular buddhism would be silly because it’s not American history. Nor would secular catholicism. Even the founding deists were “protestant” deists – their deism would not have been possible outside a protestant context.

    Protestantism is not inherently secular, though Protestantism is a large part of the culture of the West that created secularism. Perhaps you would call it a cultural heresy, though most Protestants don’t describe it as such.

    But it is such a huge cultural force (and believe me it is held by mainline Protestants as much as by evangelicals) that today I would say there is such a thing as cultural protestant Orthodoxy (many Orthodox parishes operate in such a manner). I have heard of a parish, for instance, having someone to come talk about prayer during the first week of Lent, rather than having the parish pray the Great Canon of St. Andrew. I do not understand this, except that “program” is the great secular substitute for prayer.

  8. “True Christianity is a life lived in union with Christ and all that we do that has value is what we do in union with Him…”


    “We live as though there were no God, or as if the God Who Exists is not able to act within our world….”

    This is wise advice indeed for someone like myself, who is all too easily drawn into whatever “crisis of the day” happens to be dominating the news.

    Thanks, Fr. Stephen.

  9. FatherStephen,

    But it is still a uniquely American invention that spilled over to the rest of the world. In Africa, I remember, conservative protestant preachers ometimes preached and warned against “American inventions / fashions” in the church. Maybe a bit unfairly, but that is what it was seen as. It could have arisen out of the American genius for activity, commented on by many authors, from Dickens to Chesterton. Also with the strong philosophies of pragmatism and “common sense”.

    Others have written on the large affect the, for lack of a better term, “baptisitc” theology had on other (American) theologies. Some have commented that for instance the PCA is but a baptist church with wet babies! Same for some LCMS congregations. No offense to any Baptists reading this, but those pragmatic / common sense / ceaseless activity philosophies have played a role in this. It seems to be common for non-Protestants to view Protestantism as the evangelical church down the road, or as the liberal, God-is-irrelevant-lets-have-social-program church at the other end of town. Unfortunately, this has become largely true.

    But there are still those among us who read and value the Fathers, strive for catholicity, and hold the Sacraments in high regard.

    Maybe the Protestants absorbed the secular gene so-to-speak because of the independant nature of many protestant churches – independant from both each other, and from the past. As such, they were prime targets for secularization, both conscious and unconscious. This has however spread to the Church of Rome, and by your account above, to Orthodoxy as well. In this age the church is often no longer the prophetic voice to the world, but the world has become the prophetic voice to the church. God grant that we all repent, Protestant, Roman and Orthodox.

  10. The Scylding,

    If I push the question into the history of Western thought, it tends to go to certain Reformation ideas, that, by the law of unintended consequences, gave us secularism. For one, it is certainly true that every day is holy. But in much of the Reformation, most holy days were abolished under this rule. The unintended consequences were that if all days are holy, then none are holy. The same consequence followed from the radical interpretation of the priesthood of all believers. Almost no Protestant has any notion of priesthood, because everybody is a priest – thus no one is a priest. Christ priestly ministry disappears because priestly doesn’t mean anything.

    England, prior to Henry VIII, had over 50 feast days a year in which people did no work. Most of those were abolished. The result, of course, was greater productivity (part of the myth of the protestant work ethic) and prosperity, but life begins to exist for work, not work existing for God.

    Though America has a default position of secular protestantism, Europe is largely secular as well for varying reasons. American has its own style of secularism. But in many places where secularism is not the case, and the Church is not actually the source of this secularism, it is because the culture has a left over animist basis over which Christianity has been placed. Haiti is a good example. It’s not secularized, neither is its default position Christian, but rather Voodoo.

    When an American has a bad day he is likely not to believe in God. If a Haitian has a bad day, his faith in the God of the Christians may weaken, but not in Voodoo (I know I’m making a generalization – please forgive me).

    The phenomenon of secularism has grown to a dominant point in our Western world. It threatens the Muslim world as we are now seeing.

    The answer is not to be found in political solutions but in Christians who will leave their secularism behind and seek to live in union with Christ at all times and places. Only such lives will be redemptive to the world. Without such lives, we simply become the world, waiting for a redemption we have turned out back on.

  11. The answer is not to be found in political solutions but in Christians who will leave their secularism behind and seek to live in union with Christ at all times and places. Only such lives will be redemptive to the world. Without such lives, we simply become the world, waiting for a redemption we have turned out back on.

    The phrase in bold is in my opinion the point on which the relationship of Protestantism to culture hangs. Important to the Protestant Reformation was the idea that each individual must be the embodiment of Scripture – just as Christ was the embodiment of Scripture. I think it is fair to say that when Christ was crucified so were the Scriptures. The embodiment of Scripture is also the basis for the Protestant view of the priesthood of the believer.

    The problem is when I as a Protestant fails in this dimension and responsibility. This tension on a cultural level has been explored in various degrees by people like Francis Schaeffer and even Jaroslav Pelikan.

  12. BV,

    I think I might disagree with your take on the idea of the Reformation. Most reformers whom I have read treated justification and righteousness as quite extrinsic, imputed only in a sense which was true before God, but not in a more mystical sense in which each person was the embodiment of anything. Protestantism had philosophical roots in the Via Moderna, the nominalist school of philosophy which would not have done much with embodiment.

    It is the destruction of relationship as a mystical union that creates secularism. Each thing is a thing in itself (ultimately including God). Thus everything becomes discreet and individual, the word relationship, even the word communion, becoming weakened. Thus Koinonia (Communion) is rendered “fellowship” in the King James Bible. Which by the time several centuries have passed now means little more than a coffee hour.

    I would probably discuss the relationship between Christ and the Scriptures differently. Christ is God incarnate – and the Scriptures – whatever they are – are not on a par with God. Though the Orthodox venerate the Gospels (first of all, secondly the cross, according to the canons), we do not hold them in such a manner that Christ would be called their embodiment. He is revealed in them and is their interpretation, but Christ as Word of the Father is before ever the Scripture was.

  13. I’m not sure that I’m entirely comfortable with the easy way in which some Orthodox lump secularism together with Protestantism. I get the feeling that such a juxtaposition is meant as a judgement, rather than as a realistic description.

    Orthodox may arguably state that Protestants are only nominally Christian, but that’s a whole lot different than stating that they are secularists. Avowed secularists, such as atheists, don’t enjoy especially enthusiastic welcomes in Protestant circles. Ironically, Protestant America is designated as a secularist hotspot but consistently enjoys higher church attendance than other countries.

  14. As I’ve been running this thought in my head, my only conclusion is that outside of Orthodoxy, all you have is a vicious hermeneutic circle. Scripture is judged by faulty human minds and every one interpret it as they wish, some with more success or orthodoxy than others. When the mind is set as the sole arbiter of truth, then what we are left with is, “my truth” and “your truth”. If we don’t have anything with which to break this circle, then we are truly lost. However, I believe in Orthodoxy, we do not have to guess as to what message of the Scripture is, since the Fathers had direct knowledge, direct contact with God. They broke through the abyss, or God broke in our abyss, and revealed Himself to these holy fathers and mothers. In the end, the question is not which interpretation is right, but which tradition are you going to follow, which authority are you going to trust? Over-educated Phds? or the humble Seraphim, Antony, John (of shanghai), etc., etc., That’s what settles it for me. I’m going to trust the Fathers. Out side of that all we have is faulty human logic.

  15. Visibilium,

    I am using the term secularism in a way that would only marginally include Atheists, and I am using protestantism in a way that would include even most of Orthodoxy in America (I can’t speak about Orthodoxy elsewhere based on experience). I’m using terms to describe our American culture. Church attendance is suspiciously high in America – in ways that probably reflect something about religion as culture and culture as religion rather than the level of piety in America. For instance, in various surveys it has been noted that evangelical teens do not differ from non-evangelical teens in behavior (drugs, sex, etc.). It’s a problem that deeply concerns leaders within the evangelical world and they are taking it quite seriously, to their credit.

    The same thing can be said about most teens (Orthodox, Catholic, etc.) in American culture. Our culture is a place where it is quite possible to be active in Church and yet be almost completely secular in behavior.

    If I use the term protestant in the description of this phenomenon, it’s largely because it was their culture to start with. Everyone else is a newbie. 🙂 I used to be a WASP. We owned the joint.

  16. “When the mind is set as the sole arbiter of truth, then what we are left with is, “my truth” and “your truth”.

    “…In the end, the question is not which interpretation is right, but which tradition are you going to follow, which authority are you going to trust?”


    I think you are spot on. It’s utimately private judgement vs. the Tradition of the Church: Scripture, Fathers, Saints, Martyrs, Councils… In what, or whom do I put my trust? The Church, or some professor form Duke, or Yale?

    For a more philosophical explanation of the choice, try reading “After Virtue”, by Alasdair MacIntyre.

  17. Protestantism had philosophical roots in the Via Moderna, the nominalist school of philosophy which would not have done much with embodiment. I agree that Protestantism had it’s philosophical roots in the Via Moderna, but as a reaction against it.

    Quoting Alister McGrath: The theological exploitation of the difference between the inherent and the imposed value of coins thus served to get the theologians of the via moderna out of a potentially awkward situation, even if it did not satisfy their more severe critics, such as Martin Luther.

    In this quote, McGrath is exploring a specific example of the via moderna, hence the reference to coins, but the quote would imply that Luther was critical of this movement.

    As to the question of nominalism and embodiment: I’m not sure how you connect the rejection of universals to the inability of someone to embody a concept or discipline. If you could clarify this for me, it would be helpful. I don’t mean this sarcastically as I don’t know how to make the connection that you appear to be doing.

    I don’t mean to start an argument either and I hope I don’t come across as combative.


  18. BV,

    Forgive. I think it’s the term embodiment that has thrown me. That the Reformers would want to see Christians act in accordance with Scripture, yes. But the term embody, carries a mystical, or at least it can, meaning that I generally find lacking in the Reform. Luther, I’ve let stand by himself, since there are many things true of Luther that are not true of the Reform in general. Lutheranism quickly went its own direction.

    My connection of the two is not so much on the quesion of universals, as it is on Nominalisms understanding of the discreet character of reality (a chair is a chair and not an particular instance of a universal chair). Embodiment in the strong sense would mean not simply showing forth these principles in my actions, but to somehow have taken the reality into myself and given it expression. This is a stronger mystical meaning, that just is not part of historic protestantism in my reading.

    But I’ll stand corrected if need be. I’m not certain that moderns today mean quite the mystical embodiment that I would argue for, but instead mean something weaker by the term. But its America, it’s hard to know what people mean.

  19. I’m glad we settled that. That was the easy part. The hard part is obedience. May the Lord grant us all the humility to not just agree with the fathers, but to follow them in the humble path of the Lord.

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