Over 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.
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!