The Bonds of Humanity

scissorhands1If I’ve learned anything over nearly 35 years of ordained ministry, it’s that modern people come and go. I have seen conversions of many sorts over the years (including converts to Anglicanism when I served in that Church). I have seen de-conversions or other forms of “leaving.” I have watched divorces take place and allegiances shift and change.

In our modern culture, there is nothing new in any of this – except the pace at which it occurs. Stability is not a modern virtue.

I have noted previously that modern relationships are largely conceived in terms of “contract.” They are based on mutual agreement with shared expectations and assumptions. We also seem to feel that all contracts are negotiable and that no contract is forever. Contracts are essentially psychological – they are maintained so long as we “like” them and are abandoned when that ceases to be the case.

As such, stability is generally rare, and is shaky even then. I spent some time a couple of years ago with a woman who had worked in the American Post Office for her career life. The stories of abuse that she related were eye-opening. Anyone who has worked in retail or public service (ask anyone who has worked in a Call Center) and they will tell you just how thin the contractual relationship is in our world. It is a very thin tissue that tears easily.

Older societies tended to create bonds of blood and geography. Kinship brings a certain natural bond, and if reinforced by culture, can be extremely strong. Geography has something of the same character, with ethnic (near-blood) and cultural ties reinforcing the bond.

The modern world has worked hard to overcome these bonds of nature. Multiculturalism is a synonym for the absence of kinship and geography. The makers of public opinion have worked hard to turn this feature of modernity into a virtue. Blood and ethnic bonds are sometimes labeled as racist or nationalist.

In lands where immigration has long been a national feature (America, Canada, Australia, etc.) the minimizing of natural bonds seems, well, natural. The same process in Europe, where family and nationality are more deeply rooted (reinforced by language and ethnicity), occasionally meets with resistance.

Christianity is perhaps the first voice to have spoken about the transcendence of blood and ethnicity (even gender).

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:27-29 NKJ)

And Christ Himself:

“If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. (Luk 14:26 NKJ)

Such verses are easily given a false understanding and are easily elevated in modern culture (the Galatians passage has almost become a slogan of contemporary Christianity). But the meaning of such statements in the context of relatively stable blood and ethnic geography is quite different than in the contractual multiculturalism of modernity.

There may be neither slave nor free, but in our culture economic status and condition are perhaps the strongest cultural markers. Very few Churches transcend economic barriers. Nor is there any transcendence required for something that doesn’t exist (the extended family).

Christ did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). Neither is it proper to say that He came to abolish kinship, family, blood ties, nationality, ethnicity, geography, nor gender. Rather He came to fulfill them.

Christ did not come to abolish these things because human beings do not exist in their proper fulness apart from them. Their fulfillment, however, is another matter. Contractual existence is not the fulfillment of our humanity and its true life – but its abolition.

Thus the Christian struggle is how to rightly appropriate (fulfill) our gender, our ethos, our nationality, our family and blood ties, etc. Our family was not given to us as a curse or genetic predestination to be overcome. Simon bar Jonah does not overthrow his father, Jonah. But as Peter he becomes the fulfillment of his father Jonah in a manner that he himself could not have foreseen.

Because we only live a short time, some seven or eight decades, we are able to maintain many fictions. For the emptiness of the modern man is fortunately cut short by his death. And this is a mercy of God. And the emptiness is not cumulative. One generation does not begin its own pursuit of emptiness (the modern Dream) at the same point of emptiness where its predecessor left off. Again, this is a mercy of God.

But there is a trajectory that can be discerned, a reading of a collective ethos that reveals the true nature of our emptiness. Suicide rates, birth rates, addictions and the like are all manifestations of a modern despair. We are empowered to reinvent ourselves according to the modern imagination, but the further this imagination strays from the fulfillment of gender, ethos, nationality, family, blood, etc. the greater the emptiness that accompanies it.

The way of transcendence is not above our lives, but within their depths. The way of ascension is the way of humility. Christ not only became flesh, but became man. He not only became man, He became a man. As a man, He became a Jew. He not only became a Jew, but a Galilean from Nazareth.

And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name… (Phi 2:8-9)

And in His self-emptying, Christ fulfilled what it is to be a  Nazarene and a Galilean. The meaning and purpose of the Jews became wondrously apparent. And He revealed that a man was meant to sit at the right hand of the Father, the fulfillment of Adam.

This is the path of being truly human.


  1. my family is faithful one was baptised orthodox my youngst daughter believes in my faith above all others but she was once gay and does yet realize that God honors her faithfull giving shes manges HEB and gives food to the poor, she also cares for any needs I have that I can not afford, Bless her Lord her love is great, she begged me to never leave my orthodox church Mary

  2. Father, I appreciate what you are saying about the modern isolation and loss of the fullness of family or clan identity. But just because the modern project of individualism and of smaller’compressed’ family units can be isolating and unhealthy does not mean that they must be so, or that the ” old fashioned ‘extended family or clan
    was, or is today ,necessarily a better or healthier place to live. Indeed , we see the results of the family or clan taking precedence over the individual members in such atrocities as honor killings, even in the West. The burning to death of brides, all in arranged marriages and some very young, over dowry disputes is still going on in India today. Female infanticide has now largely been replaced with aborting of females, so that thee are millions of fewer females than males in some traditional societies. Women are not educated or free to have lives outside of the family. Many are being kidnapped and forced into marriage.

    Indeed today in traditional Muslim and ultra conservative Jewish families as well as some Protestant fringe groups, women have no choice but to have as many babies as they physically can. I can’t help but to think that to be raised as one of 9 or 12 children with an exhausted mother ,can not be very fulfilling even with grandparents and aunts and uncles around.

    Christ had ,as we see in the Gospel reading lately, about 120 followers ,some of them women. These had all deserted the traditional way of life to be with him. Peter had a wife ,didn’t he? And even if he was widowed, it would have been his responsibility to care for his mother in law.
    One of the things that is disturbing in the Bible is that daughters are ‘given’ in marriage, just as so many are today around the world. That is the way of traditional families structure where the individual is subject to the will of the family.
    The other aspect of loyalty to clan ( or race, or nationality,) is that it has resulted in feuds and wars and discrimination and oppression all through the ages. I heard of a family in eastern Europe who can not leave their house or they will be killed by members of another family because of a feud that has been going on for decades. There is no way to deal with this in a civilized manner , even in this century!

    As someone who grew up far away from my extended family ,I often imaged and longed for the comfort of having them around me. I did’t meet any of them until I was almost an adult. So ,yes, I could dream of a time and place where a big happy family was the norm. But was it? Or was it more often ,as today in some societies, a place of domestic violence and suppression of aspirations and freedom? I think suicide,drugs and alcohol use, child abuse, and other violence , mental illness and dysfunction must be pretty common in these families. Is this what Christ wanted for us?

    SO, yes, our society has lost some of the notion of big happy families or clans. but we have also gained the freedom to make our own clans of church or work or charity organizations or political causes or any shared interests, rather like the disciples of Christ did.

  3. Paula,
    The dark examples of sin within the natural bonds (family, ethnic, etc.) are certainly true and poignant, and not without parallel in our own modern culture. Sin is pervasive. But I am not writing here about better ways to improve society. Christ did not come to improve the world but to save it – He came to make us gods.

    In thinking theologically about this I am turning us back to what we are, naturally, and suggesting that Christ has come to redeem and transform our true humanity. The Scriptures tell us of murder as the first sin between brothers. It does not tell us of how wonderful it is to be brothers. Jacob and Esau, Joseph and the eleven, were not very successful either. And yet, it is into this that Christ is born. And His “brother” James becomes the bishop of Jerusalem, as did his “brother” Simeon after James. And Mary, the Mother of God, is highly exalted.

    People will no doubt do what they always have, work at surviving. Some survival strategies are more successful than others. But what you have described is a “first world” solution, things that are possible in a modern economy. But our economy is full of false choices as I have described. They are not solutions but examples of extreme survival. The failures of our culture are often ameliorated by our ability to house the aging in loneliness and place our children in the care of others.

    We are not truly individuals, but were created in the reality of our human bonds. Genuine salvation will reach us even in those places. Cain and Able are not the image of salvation. Mary, James and Simeon would be the more apt example.

  4. Paula Hughes there are abuses of every system due to our abuse of free will, yet the modern destruction of traditional family values has done more collective harm than good. Your question Or was it more often ,as today in some societies, a place of domestic violence and suppression of aspirations and freedom? implies that there was really more abused than folks want to contemplate and that today’s consumer attitude is preferable, for it allows more freedom. If I am wrong about what you are trying to say then could you please clarify your statement.

  5. We are called to worship Christ in community. We are called to our humanity through interrelationships with our Lord and in the synergy of male and female.

    The natural is corrupted by sin. I have found my extended family in my parish home.

    My wife works in a family buisiness and has folks all over and yet there is little peace and a great deal of dissension there. A great deal of joy amongst our brothers and sisters in Christ.

  6. Michael,
    The communities of the modern world are known as “affiliations.” They are made up mostly of people we like (philos). Doubtless they have a kind of happiness that can be far more difficult in groups that are not “affiliations.”

    But that difficulty is simply a manifestation of sin. It is a sin that is easily overlooked if we can go somewhere to get away from it (which modern economies often provide). But out of sight out of mind does not heal anything. It just makes for easier affiliation.

    I look around my parish and think what it would be like were it even remotely natural – i.e. if the families in a four to six block radius attended it. The Baptist Church I attended as a child was a far more natural community. I hated some of the people in it, no doubt. And there were many dark, unexplored corners. But I think of it from time to time. It bordered an area where at least one side of my family had lived for many generations.

    Exile is easier. But Christ did not stay in Egypt. He went back to Nazareth. It doesn’t mean that we have to go back to Nazareth. Some of us are doing very well in Egypt. But the principle remains.

  7. I often think of becoming some kind of formal “inquirer” with the Orthodox Church, but I’ve never even visited one service precisely because if I were to become Orthodox, it would be yet another (and there have been so many) thing that separates me from the culture of my birth family and my extended family, not to mention my step children and what on earth would my husband think and … Fa. Stephen, I often also think of how crazy it is that I am so fond of your blog — it seems that a LOT of Orthodoxy is just an echo of the thoughts of my heart — but if I were to become Orthodox, just for starters: where and when is the gospel music? Is bluegrass gospel even allowed? I know some of the lyrics wouldn’t fit Orthodox theology, but not all of them … ?

  8. Kathy,
    Yes. Becoming Orthodox involved some initial distance. But some of my family followed. Strangely, people almost never say this about becoming Presbyterian when the rest of the family is Baptist. 🙂

    I also have thought of it as returning to the culture (relgiously) of my ancestors. As someone who is 100 percent British (English, Scot, Welsh, Irish, etc.), Orthodoxy is the form Christianity had when it came ashore in England (not to mention the earlier Celtic Orthodox who were quite “Eastern” in most things). When Augustine of Canterbury came as a missionary to England (sent by St. Gregory of Rome), he came ashore, we are told (in the Ven. Bede’s history) “carrying a cross of silver and a portrait of Christ on a board.” Icons! So, I’ve come home.

    What seems like our “culture” is a Protestantism invented on the American frontier (Evangelicalism). My ancestors had to renounce their slave culture in order to be Christians in that same century. It happens.

    I like gospel (and play it occasionally on the piano). My family and I sometimes sing such things. I play guitar and banjo. Bluegrass is wonderful. But when we gather in the Church it is to praise God and not entertain men. So we sing. There have already been some small experiments of writing Orthodox Church music with an ear to America. I tone a certain “tonus Americanus” hymn that reflects Aaron Copeland. I personally would like to adapt some shape note music to use in the Church. It would fit quite nicely. There is nothing in particular to prevent such cultural adaptations, and they will come.

    In the meantime, the culture of the fulness of the Christian faith is worth a generation or two’s displacement, I suspect. My earliest ancestors had to give up worshipping trees and getting naked and painting themselves blue in order to attack other people. But they managed. 🙂

  9. Thank you, Father.

    I, and my people since before the Revolution, are from East Tenn. I live in Knoxville. So as far as I can see, if I do formally “inquire” it will be, it appears, at St. Anne or St. George. Please pray for me. I pray for you because I just like your writing so well.

  10. Fr. Stephen,

    You continue to amaze me with your articles. In this case I marvel at how many people think like Paula Hughes. Two huge things butt heads here in this post. On the one side we have a widely and doggedly disseminated teaching of the Modern Project which says that individuality and choice are to be worshiped above all else. On the other hand we have the truth that God created us to be in families and communities and to be in union with all.

    Two extreme things about human beings are their adaptability and their forgetfulness. Here in North America it hasn’t taken that many generations for us to get used to being alone (as long as we have money) and to come to view any relationships besides the contractual ones as being confining, abusive and a cause for legal action.

    I find myself swimming in the waters of individualism and choice, the stuff getting into every crevice of my being – and at the same time marveling that this notion of blood ties and family still rings so true with me.

    Your post has opened my eyes to this great contradiction in a way I’d never seen it before. Thanks again for your work among us.

  11. “Haven’t you seen the VitaGel and NutriPellet commercials? People in traditional societies that eat animals and vegetables suffer from all sorts of problems! Diseases, food poisoning, not to mention choking on bones and seeds and the like. You can’t really be suggesting we go back to that?”

    Horror stories about the past or about non-western societies, while not entirely fabricated, are never-the-less just the marketing of Modernity, and should be treated with caution.

  12. Your blessing, Father.
    I know a spiritual article is true when it hurts a little, it upsets a sinful comfort or passion inside of me. The emptiness you describe is present in a life away from my roots and it manifests itself when I am reunited with my childhood friends and my family.

    As a financial immigrant I often feel I was “born in the wrong place”. This is probably an illusion. To quote the story of the monk who was about to set off to yet another monastery having found it difficult to coexist with his brothers: he saw a demon getting ready to “go wherever you go”. I carry my misery wherever I go, just as holy people carry their holiness with them.

    The St John the Baptist monastery in Essex which you visited recently feels closer to home than my birthplace Athens. And yet, I suspect this too is an illusion, a fallacy. Isn’t it the devil’s work to make us hate everything and everywhere we go? Perhaps the truth is that we are not meant to have any roots on Earth at all. If we have a memory of Heaven, we are destined to live there and the decades here are only a passage. Does it matter where we live?

    Are you suggesting that as part of our struggle it would be preferable to also remain stable in our communities? I often wonder if moving is a sign of avoiding trials (unemployment, persecution or other). There is no place without struggle in the spiritual sense. In short, if people stayed where they were born, would the world produce more saints?

    Thank you, Father.

  13. Thomas,
    There is no one action that is the “right” thing. But our constant movement often produces great collateral damage (of which we are often not aware). Those who can bear the trial of stability (and it is often a very great trial), are like good farmers who till and fertilize the earth and transform the world. Others travel far looking for greener fields and find them, but discover that they miss so much else.

    Here in Appalachia, many had to leave farms and homes in order to eat and survive. No one can fault survival. But they have often settled in strange lands, with communities of affinity (at best). The deepest social problems in America have to do with single-parenting, the absence of fathers, and the poverty it often brings (these are the largest causes or predictors of poverty). In the best cases, there is some form of extended family to help with children. In the worst cases – well – thank God for the exceptions to this!

    I find it deeply disturbing that without any thought, we have unleashed an economy that prefers to move workers around. The empty cities of the Rust Belt are a testament. We can blame this or that (unions, bosses, etc.) but the people who have no say are the ones whose families are displaced and destroyed.

    This was a minor problem in the 50’s and 60’s. It is a massive problem today. The failure in the present economy has actually slowed the process down – but it’s only a hiccup.

    More to the common point – can we bear stability even in our new homes? Can we bear the stability of our parishes and the trials they present? Can we bear the stability of our marriages? Etc.

  14. I pray frequently to St Symeon, the Stylite whose icon graces the rear of our sanctuary for strength just to stand and not move.

  15. Michael,
    I have never thought about St. Symeon with regard to stability – though he is truly obvious. I often think on the phrase, “Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”

    My first parish (Anglican) was 1 year. The second, 7 years. The third. 1 year. Then 2 years as an assistant. Then 9 years (in my last Anglican). I have been in the same place now for 16 years – while living in the same community and the same house as I had for the previous 9, giving me 25 years here in Oak Ridge. Myself and the hospital chaplain are the two “senior” clergymen in town, having both been here about the same length of time.

    I think about things differently. For example, my house. I plan to die here (much later on). But it makes me take care of things. I fix it up and improve it. I’ve even begun to think about what will need to be done for handicap access.

    I’m thinking the same way about this body of mine. It’s also a “fixer-upper.” But I’m working much harder at taking care of it than I did when I was young. 🙂

    Relationships, too. There are many things I loathe about social media. However, the contact I have managed to reestablish with many friends more than compensates.

    What I cannot understand is why all of my friends look so old.

  16. Ah, yes Fr. Stephen. I understand you well. I cannot claim any spiritual insight in praying to St. Symeon. He and St. Daniel grace the back wall of the sanctuary of my parish because there are arches and pillars there. Icons of Stylites were the only ones that fit. It is quite a display we have of constancy on that wall though: St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Symeon, St. Daniel and St. Raphael of Brooklyn.

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