Many Orthodox writers have spoken about the nature of the secular world, the defining form of modernity. I take here an opportunity to make a small comparison between the secular man and the Christian.
The secular man may believe that there is a God, but he also believes that the situation and outcome of the world are dependent upon the actions of human beings.
The Christian man believes that there is a God, and that all things are in His hands.
The secular man believes in Progress. Life changes, and with good human direction, it changes for the better. Every new discovery stands on the shoulders of every previous discovery. In this way, life improves and always improves for the better.
The Christian man believes that whatever man does may change his circumstances, but does not change man. A modern man is in no way superior to those who came before him. Goodness is not a result of progress.
The secular man believes in the power of human beings. Reason, applied reasonably to any situation, will yield a better outcome.
The Christian man believes in God, but he doubts the goodness of man. Human solutions are always questionable and capable of failure.
The secular man believes, ultimately, in the smooth path of progress. Even though there may be set-backs along the way, he believes that pursuing the path of progress will ultimately yield a better world – even a near perfect world.
Because the Christian man believes in God, he trusts that the outcome of history belongs to God and not to man. Thus, even the good things done by man are judged by a good God whose goal for us is always beyond anything we could ask or think.
The secular man, despite various failures, always believes that the next good is only another plan away. Compromise, negotiation, and a willingness to change will finally solve all problems.
The Christian understands the sinfulness of humanity. He knows that without God things will always fail and dissipate. Only through trust and obedience to God can the human situation improve – and such improvement always comes as a miracle from God.
The secular man does not believe in his own fallibility. He does not learn from history, but yearns repeatedly for a success where none has come before. What success he has known (in medical treatment of disease, etc.) is quickly translated into political terms. What is wrong politically can be eradicated as easily as malaria.
The Christian man knows that problems do not lie so much in the world as within himself. Unless man is changed by a good God, there will be a very limited goodness in the world. The secular man knows how to cure malaria, but he cannot manage to actually share that goodness with the world. The world (the third world) dies as it has always died. The secular man is powerless because he lacks true goodness.
The Christian man is largely marginalized in our modern world. He is considered an artifact of the past. However he is not a religious artifact – the truth he knows is eternal and is as applicable to the ills of the world as any part of the truth of God.
It is for this generation to understand what it means to be a Christian man and not to compromise with the secular man. God is good and wills good for all people. He is not a utilitarian, wishing the greatest good for the greatest number, but willing good for each and every soul.
May Christians be visible everywhere, and everywhere loyal to the Kingdom of God.
Agree with every single word.
Only that you didn:t mention how can a christian man live in a secular world.
You just poured oil in my fire, F. Stephen 🙂
I am not sure that you described the secular man accurately. According to your description, the secular man was far too Christian, and the description applies to many Christians, and not just Christians living in a secularist society, but those living in any age. The secular man you described believed in goodness, you see, and I’m not sure that all secular men do.
Steve, perhaps goodness is the last remaining ember of a once Chrisitan past on which the secular man has turned his back–a fleeting reductionistic memory of what might have been once before he forgot the necessity of salvation and who brought it. Unfortunately, without the breath of the Spirit to fan the flames of the ember, the coals grow cold and the darkness of nihilism overtakes our hardended hearts.
As Fr. Stephan has pointed out in other posts, the secular state is temporary. We cannot hold for long against the deep darkness without accepting the love of Christ.
May the Holy Spirit come and inflame all of our hearts with His love, truth and presence.
All states are temporary, and all states are secular. As Christians, if we are involved in any way in politics or government, the most we can hope for is that the state might in some way be a reflection of the heavenly kingdom, and the perfect righteousness and justice of the Reign of God. There is an ikon on my post at Notes from underground: Mere Ideology: The politicisation of C.S. Lewis that illustrates this, but it is an ideal that can only partly be realised in this age (“secular” means “pertaining to this age”) and will only be fully realised in the life og the age to come.
But secular man is more inclined to believe in hedonism than in progress.
Steve, I suspect the secular man’s seeming “too Christian” was intentional. Fr. Stephen has, before, referred to “secular Protestantism” (also, see his writing about the one-story vs two-story universes), and, indeed, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in For the Life of the World makes the point that secularism may be very religious.
It is sadly true that, for many Christians of all stripes, their mindset may often be more accurately described as “secular Christianity” (and, I suspect, even many of us Western converts into Orthodox have to grapple with the secularist mindset we were raised with).
Very good comparison between the Secular and the Christian. The question however is how we got there? How come that man has become so blind an cannot see the obvious. I thought a lot about this and the conclusion I arrived at is that is a loss of identity, both at the level of the individual and at the level of the society, world etc. Because of this confusion man ceases to realize his godly origin and operates accordingly, creating around him a society that is as godless as he has become.
As Christians it is particularly this genuine identity that we want to recover through our union with Christ. Paradoxically by uniting ourselves with God we discover again who we are. Zizoulas, I think, once said and this applies perfectly here: “Personhood means otherness, difference, but not in isolation, because the full meaning of personhood is found in the communion of persons”
So we can only find who we are when we reflect ourselves in the others and especially in Christ, our archetype.
I wrote the other day a little blurb about it on my blog. You can find it here. http://dialogues.stjohndfw.info Curious what you think.
It seems to me that the secular man described here is the result of heresy. As such it requires that which it denies (Christianity) in order to exist. The further secular man drifts from Christianity, the less he will be able to hold onto the bits of it he likes (such as goodness for example) and the less there is to sustain the whole ridiculous project.
Problematic for us is that since it is rooted in a heresy, namely that we are in charge and God is not, we must deal with it as a heresy rather than as an external enemy. It is an infection in the Church and so must we respond as to an illness, diligently and repentantly rooting it out in our own hearts that we might return to rest in Christ our true God. I’ve heard it said that all the heresies that sparked Ecumenical councils were some kind of attack on the Incarnation. Secularism is certainly such an attack, going beyond denying the Incarnation to the point of saying we don’t even need the Incarnation.
In its manic bumbling toward the next ‘great plan’ it has another hallmark, rejecting stillness. I read in a posting of yours Father Stephen, that “Rejection of Hesychasm is the root of all heresy”. Not that being still is all there is to Hesychasm but these things are linked somehow and we ought to pay attention lest we fall into the excitability of progressivism.
Fr. Stephen, thank you for this instructive post. I have pondered long on what you have called the “myth of the secular.” I have arrived at a working definition that secularism is the belief that there is anything in Creation that does not exist to reveal God. Put another way, it is the belief that something exists that has no nature, something that men can use however they will without either contributing to or hindering their own salvation. The most grievous expression of this myth is men who believe that they themselves do not exist to bear the likeness of God, that they themselves have no nature, that they can make of themselves (or their fellows!) whatever they will.
This, I think, is what C.S. Lewis, ever critical of the myth of Progress, was after in his book “The Abolition of Man.” When man undertakes to remake himself according to his own will, he abolishes his own humanity.
I am struck by the comments about a “Christian past.” Most humans are, as they have always been, secular (using Fr. Stephen’s definition of that word). True, there was a period during which Europe claimed to be Christian, but it was a very secularized Christianity.
I do not think that humanity has “lost” its “Christian past,” becaue I don’t think it ever had one.
Ernie, if you mean that society as a whole has never been dedicated to salvation, asceticism, worship,etc. in a fully Chrisitan manner, you are correct. It is a mistake however to not understand how big a difference the Christian faith and the presence of Christ in the Church and in Her members has had on western society and culture in a positive way.
There is a clear bright line between cultures that, to whatever degree, have a significant Christian element and those that do not.
Is it memory of a “Christian past” that secular man has forgotten, making him “secular”, or is it something far deeper than that that he has forgotten.
My memory not being what it once was (no numour intended) I cannot remember the source (was it St Nicholai of Zicha in one of his homilies?), but perhaps what secular man has lost is the memory of Paradise, i.e., the haunting sense that there is something else, something more to life, that I’m missing, something terribly important and actually life-transforming. The memory of Paradise is what lies behind the important questions of life, those modern man says don’t matter anymore and which modern education does not prepare us to grapple with: Is there meaning to life? Is there more to reality than what we see and touch?
As long as there is but the tiniest memory of Paradise in our lives we will seek God – the “something more” for which our hearts yearn. But when that memory is extinguished, like a smouldering wick put out, there is truly nothing left to strive for.
There is no Christian past in the sense that we are with Christ right now or we are not at all. To the extent that we enter into communion with Him, all we do has meaning.
He is not far off yet in our arrogance we tend to assume He is.
We can accept the nihilist darkness that opens into the fires of hell; the grey captivity of Plato’s cave or the struggle of working to be in our Lord’s Kingdom. To paraphrase Hamlet, memory makes cowards of us all.
I think this is a great comparison/reflection. One other point that I’m sure is obvious to all, is that the secular view is rampant in most of Protestantism and even Roman Catholicism (to an extent). While both of those groups acknowledge that God is our only hope, there is a tendency to politicize issues, especially in America.
One other thing I have noticed is the secular view that is the springboard of the Emerging Church Movement. One author in particular, a woman named Phyllis Tickle, believes that the Church is a group that is constantly improving and evolving. She says that about every 500 years or so, the Church has a “rummage sale”. By this she means that “rigid structures” are broken out of, a group breaks away from the original “structure”, and “progresses” in it’s understanding of Christ. The original structure is forced to improve in some way, but by and large remains stagnant. So, like the secularist believes of society as a whole, this author believes that Christians today are far superior in their understanding of Christ than those that preceded them.
Many who have broken away from the “Organized Church” display nothing more than a brazen secular view that pays lip service to worshipping the Living God. Virtue and holiness are nothing more than what is in the eye of the beholder.
That is why I am glad for this slow process of being prepared to enter the Church. It has been a real revelation to see what a grip secular thought has on my mind and soul. The slow pace of the healing process is well worth the wait though.
Fr. Stephen — didn’t this picture head an earlier post of your’s called The Geography of Hell? Apart from being ever so slightly vertigineux it seems to be asking the question “which way is up”? — but without being able to give a satisfactory answer. There’s a real message in that — thank you!
Interestingly, I know Phyllis Tickle, through a mutual friend (we met probably 15 years ago). The myth of progress covers a multitude of sins, and provides cover for many nefarious undertakings. It is an inherent part of secularism and is therefore rampant throughout our culture. Liberal Christianity has a very strong myth of progress which sees Christian history as an almost Marxist development – with an ever-expanding litany of new-found freedoms. With such a world-view there can never be right or wrong, other than the rejection of the world-view. Orthodoxy is one of the few remaining communities of faith to reject progress as a idea.
Thank You, Father, for this post.
This was a great help to me as I know many good Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians who solidly self-identify as “Progressive” and are always citing Scripture and The Fathers to justify their political activism. They constantly speak of “the rich” as an abstract enemy and their reasoning is always geared toward effecting some sort of “equality of outcomes”.
Someone has recently said that Marxism borrowed directly from the Bible minus God and it seems as though some believe that by adding God back to the Marxist philosophy somehow makes it thoroughly consistent with Scripture and Orthodox Catholic teaching.
I am so saddened by this as I can see minds being overthrown by it.
It is not just a political thing although it manifests most predominently in the political sphere.
But there is something sinister in it and those who have been overcome by it tend to dismiss others with a contrary view as being somehow intellectually deficient.
All I can do is pray for the Light of Christ to disperse this darkness.
It is remarkable that most Indian Hindus of all classes including the lower, despite the precariousness of life and the difficulty of conditions they face, have no fear of death or feel the need to change things “for the better”in the western manner.
There are many accounts from the colonial era that bring the natives in sharp contrast to the technologically advanced and materially privileged but always fearful, anxious and unhappy westerners.
“Orthodoxy is one of the few remaining communities of faith to reject progress as an idea.”
Forgive me, Father Stephen, but yes, while there is a secular notion of progress, is there not also an Orthodox Christian idea of progress? For example, what does Acts 15 represent if not progress? What about the fact that we no longer execute people by crucifixion, if we execute them at all, or the fact that Christianity as a whole now rejects slavery? What about the fact that we no longer conduct fights to the death between gladiators in the coliseum for the public’s amusement? Do none of these things reflect progress?
What about on a personal level? A man goes from being a brigand to becoming a monk and martyr, a Saint. Is there no progress there?
The secret of the spiritual path is to leave behind while the secret of self-development to pile up. If anything they are two processes that move fundamentally away from each other. The one rejects firmly all conceptualising while the other accepts willingly all conceptualising.
The spiritual path is not so much about learning but about unlearning. Not in seeing more things or seeing new things, but in seeing the same things differently.
Just another Sinner,
The ‘progress’ of which Fr. Stephan speaks is the idea that we are in control of our destiny; that we will always find newer and better ways to do things and make more money. In one sense, the fact that the whole world economy is structured around debt is because of the secular faith that that things will keep getting better. It is all about going forward, going up, achieving, etc. As Yannis says, piling up. It will crash, it has crashed, it will always crash, yet the myth is more powerful than the reality. We leave working for our salvation and work for emphemeral goods, giving up our birth-right for a mass of pottage.
It is an idea with no real substance but that still holds sway over people’s minds and hearts and shuts out God. Time is never seen as ending, it just goes on and on. Matter is self-organizing and evolving and we are along for the ride. The personal and the particular vanish into a meaningless mega-process where personal life and death simply don’t matter.
Spiritual progress involves a continual and deepening recognition of our own personal sinfulness while at the same time accepting God’s grace. It is about ‘going down’. Time is not eternal, it will end. It ends first in our death. Our ‘progress’ is unique, intimate, small and personal. Paradoxically in the process each person becomes of infinite value because of God and His grace.
I’m am rather certain that Abba Moses would say that he progressed not at all from thief and murderer to one we recognize as a saint. He merely submitted himself to God’s grace and love. If he ever once had taken his life back into his own hands, he would likely have done the same things as before.
We still have gladitorial games, they are just not quite as obviously bloody (although the UFC is actually pretty close), but the carnage is still there in broken lives and bodies. The impetus is still there within our hearts, it is just sublimated a little.
Slavery is still around and, in fact, not widely condemned. It is mostly ignored. Bought anything made in China lately? Are you certain that it was not produced by slaves, perhaps Christian ones imprisoned for their faith? Are we not enslaving ourselves to all sorts of ideologies so that we can have a ‘better life’? One of the reaons we don’t execute criminals any more is because we simply lack the will to acknowledge or inforce any sense of right and wrong.
Certainly, Christ in the Church and in her members has ameliorated some of the things you mention, but, in most cases the underlying passions have simply found new avenues for their expression.
I would answer your questions with a resounding no. There is no progress.
As far as Acts 15, we still face the same legalism, pride and contention which the council addressed. If fact, a case could be made that it has gotten worse–become more prevasive. We still argue over how to receive converts and what they should be subject to as they enter the Church, as times placing heavy burdens on them which are not born by those already received. No real progress.
IMO we should not look for any progress or expect any. We should look for the return of our Lord. As Hamlet said, “If it be now, it is not to come; if it is not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.”
In my opinion, there is “progress”, social, political, scientific etc – its just not the point, what really matters.
The human idea of betterness is by default based on self preservation and security first and once these are secured, on doing/obtaining as many possible things that one desires or has in him/her to do. It should also be said that these are not triffling matters at all from a human perspective and that this perspective is relevant to all.
In that basis, hardships and pain – both mental and physical – are by default to be avoided – it could not be otherwise, nobody can say that he enjoys them as they happen simply because its the way of things or because he knows that its the way of things. But here’s the catch: anything of worth is actually learned through hardship and pain. Sin is also a great teacher – perhaps the greatest. It is just incredible how these things are intertwined and how “even the wisest cannot see all ends”, to quote Tolkien.
Usually major religious institutions (i am talking of the dimension of the church as a human organisation here, i know that it has others more deep), have to (and do well) to contribute to dualistic, politically minded efforts for charity, education, orphanages, human rigths, against or pro certain laws, campaign against unjust wars, ecological issues etc.
There is nothing wrong with any of this, and its actually all very important in its own way. What is wrong in my perception is to think that these are the major goals and objects of the spiritual path both individually and collectively. The Church functions primarily to preserve and transmit saving teachings and sacraments – not for doing politics – although it will inevitably do that too, and as long as it does not degrade it into a political institution, that’s ok.
Some of those things were never part of the Christian faith – gladiators, etc. A sinner goes from glory to glory, but inwardly seems to become more deeply aware of his own sinfulness. Progress is not a part of the Church’s imagery – it’s a modern image and not necessary to be imported into the faith which was able to articulate itself for many centuries without this myth.
Father, thank you for this post. I struggle with my faith or rather I struggle with my secular mindset, trying to incorporate God and his Truth in my life. I believe it to be true that all is in deed in God’s hands. Yet, I find myself often thinking and doing things as if I believe quite the opposite, namely that success will come from my efforts alone. I’ll try to bear your words in mind more consciously and pray to God to do his work whichever way he pleases.
There is a question, however, that comes to mind with regard to this topic. If God is the sole promotor, actor, agent of action in his creation – why should man bother with anything at all? Please forgive my “heretical” and provocative tone, I just seek an explanation from those wiser than me.
Its actually a really good question and not “heretical” at all.
There can be no doubt that man should act, and in particular act whagt he has it in himself to be. The answer, for me, lies in the manner and spirit of action.
For people who believe in themselves (the temporal self or ego), action is something that is aiming at accomplishing something for themselves.
People who understand that they are not separate from the whole (ie other people and the world) and who understand that what they call me is a given, data (latin for given), action is done directed to the whole; the aim is integration rather than separation.
People who believe in themselves are constantly frustrated with the world, with others and with themselves – they want everything in a different way that would suit them more, and they cannot find peace; all is competition and in opposition.
On the other hand, people who see themselves in others, who find themself in others, who have relationships with themselves, others and nature and not one sided pillaging and exploitation, are always receptive and in good spirits. They can improve faster and more, because they can see the merrit of criticism; they can accomplish more, because they are never stressed for not losing what they accomplish, since they do as an offering and in sharing.
The first kind of people propagates division in the world – the second unity. Ever been in a team with a very egotistical person? Reflect back on the experience and see that they constantly try to use the group to express themselves. A man of the path on the other hand would merge fully himself with the group. The first person creates tension in a noisy fashion, while the second eases it in a silent fashion.
Believe it or not, the spiritual path is at the core of every competitive art; from music, to painting, to fighting, to lovemaking. It is the key that separates the good from the sublime.