A Parable of A Kingdom

blow1There was a wicked kingdom in which there lived a large number of slaves. The kingdom fought wars, built cities and was extremely successful in growing its economy. Its achievements were the envy of all the other kingdoms. The slaves did well, too. They were not given low jobs or manual labor. Instead, they were “helping” slaves. Their task was to help the people of the Kingdom get by. If life in the kingdom became empty and meaningless, the slaves would cheer the people up and help them continue with their lives. When people began to doubt that the kingdom served a good purpose, the slaves would reassure them that together, they would make the kingdom better. One day, a terrible calamity occurred and the kingdom perished. Very few people survived. “What was it all for?” the survivors asked. “Nothing,” the slaves replied. And in that day, the slaves became free.

No one has written more insightfully nor critically about secularism than the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann. His classic book, For the Life of the World, is not only a primer on the meaning of the sacramental life, but primarily, a full-blown confrontation with the great heresy of secularism. Secularism is not the rejection of God, but the assertion that the world exists apart from God and that our task is to do the best we can in this world. Fr. Alexander suggests that the Church in the modern world has largely surrendered to secularism. “The Church’s surrender,” he says, “consists not in giving up creeds, traditions, symbols and customs…but in accepting the very function of religion in terms of promoting the secular value of help, be it help in character building, peace of mind, or assurance of eternal salvation.”

He is not alone in this observation. The Protestant theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, says much the same thing:

…the political task of Christians is to be the church rather than to transform the world. One reason why it is not enough to say that our first task is to make the world better is that we Christians have no other means of accurately understanding the world and rightly interpreting the world except by way of the church. Big words like “peace” and “justice,” slogans the church adopts under the presumption that, even if people do not know what “Jesus Christ is Lord” means, they will know what peace and justice means, are words awaiting content. The church really does not know what these words mean apart from the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. After all, Pilate permitted the killing of Jesus in order to secure both peace and justice (Roman style) in Judea. It is Jesus’ story that gives content to our faith, judges any institutional embodiment of our faith, and teaches us to be suspicious of any political slogan that does not need God to make itself credible.

The extent to which we have all been secularized is easily measured by just how strange these statements by great theologians sound. The Church has surrendered because it promotes the value of “helping?” The Church does not exist in order to make the world a better place? These have been common themes in my writing (and I easily acknowledge my indebtedness). But when I have said, “We will not make the world a better place,” my articles are met with a torrent of dismay. I offer here more of the same.

Hauerwas makes the clear point that the word “better” has no meaning apart from the story of Jesus, or certainly no meaning that Christians should agree to. Schmemann goes so far as to call the Church’s agreement to “help” the world (however the world wants to define that help) as surrender.

So what are we to do? First, we must recognize that the world is under judgment. As it exists unto itself, it is meaningless and without value. It measures itself by GDP and slogans of equality and freedom. And yet the GDP is but a measure of meaningless consumption and equality and freedom only mean equally free to amuse ourselves to death with whatever pleasure we might choose.

One of the “helps” the surrendered Church provides to our culture is courage in the face of death. The cultural Church reminds people that death is not the end of things, but only the beginning of something newer and greater. Death as an enemy is no longer preached. Instead, death is natural, a part of life, and though we mourn someone’s passing, we “celebrate their life” and pretend that nothing tragic has occurred. We will remember them.

When the disciples saw Jesus on the Road to Emmaus and recognized Him in the breaking of the bread, they did not say to each other, “Wow! There really is a life after death!” This is not the meaning of Christ’s resurrection. The Resurrection is not proof of your life after death, but the showing forth that Christ Himself alone is Life.

The death of Christ does not reveal death as a passage. It reveals death as an enemy, something to be destroyed. All of our life that lies under the power of death comes under the same judgment. And this judgment isn’t bitterness – it is freedom. Emptiness is revealed to be emptiness. The vanity of empires is revealed to be just that. We do not exist to serve the masters of this world, but to serve the only Master and Lord, and to reign with Him.

Outside of the Church, the truth of this is likely to be rejected. The world is willing to accept Christ so long as He is willing to be a place-holder for some other worldly-defined value. Jesus stands for peace. Jesus stands for love. Jesus stands for forgiveness. But only peace, love and forgiveness as the world gives. And those are hollow and self-serving.

Schmemann is known as a champion of the sacramental character of this world. This does not mean that he was devoted to the Eucharist as a special place of piety, an island of grace in the midst of the world. That would be surrender. He declares that the world is sacrament – that sacraments reveal the truth of things.

The Eucharist is not an island of grace – it is the revelation of Christ in the world. Bread and Wine become what they are meant to be – and we ourselves – when we rightly enter into the feast – become what we are meant to be.

There are no values apart from Christ. He is our sole value. He alone is “worthy.” In Christ, all things find their fulfillment and the truth of their existence. Apart from Him, everything is nothing.

Recognizing that everything is nothing, the slaves can become free, and sing the praise of the only worthy One, before whom all kingdoms will fall.

 

 

 

 

 

76 comments:

  1. I enjoyed this article. Thank you, Fr Stephen. The Church is terribly misunderstood by many Christians, especially Protestants (including myself when I was one — and I am still learning). We as Christians should be so deeply involved in the life, heart, and mind of the Church that it instinctively causes us to see and evaluate all things through her. Only then can we see how empty the slogans of the world are, even when they hijack terminology that has its source in the divine.

  2. Just yesterday I was speaking with my son who is floundering–torn between what he is seeing in the secular world’s pointlessness and the faint light he is beginning to see of the Kingdom. At this point in his life he’s trying to find a career path and is now very confused. I suggested that he consider “helping” professions of some sort to have a sense of purposefulness. Was that terribly off-base? At least on the surface it seems more in line with the Kingdom than with promoting more carrots for more carrot-followers…(he had been interested in marketing).

  3. A wonderful and powerful post. Please keep proclaiming this gospel. I need the disruptive force of the sacramental imagination. BTW, what page was Schmemann, and what is the source for Hauerwas?

  4. Thank you for your words. As a former Mennonite, I was saturated with the championing of “peace and justice”, and was even told at one point that “buying a fair trade rug is the same thing as sharing the gospel with someone”. What. I am glad for your clear insights here, and am blessed by them.

  5. Schmemann – I’ve got the “page” reference as a Kindle source. It’s in the chapter “Trampling Down Death by Death.” Hauerwas quote is taken from Resident Aliens – chapter 2, I think.

  6. GF,
    This article on vocations shares the same viewpoint as the present article. You might find it a helpful reflection. The essential answer is “do good work that is honest,” but don’t look for you life’s meaning in your work. Christ is the meaning of life. Work is work – it’s for feeding and housing your family and for having enough to share with others. Nothing more. Nothing less.

  7. My daughter and I have been talking about just this very subject a great deal lately. Thank you for this posting, and all that I have read.

  8. Fr., that was a great comment about work. How we need to hear that and our young people need to hear it and hear it often. You quoted two great books. Thank you for your words.

  9. I have a tough time understanding this.

    If the Orthodox are asked “Does God care about the alleviation of suffering in the world?” – what would the answer be? As a vocation dedicated to alleviating suffering (in its variety of forms) could be considered “secular” and not distinctively orthodox, is it therefore inherently worthless – even idolatrous?

    Ultimately, I’m confused as to whether the sacramental view here further divides sacred and secular (which IS the practical impact IMO) or instead does away with the division.

  10. Mike,

    In sacramental view of things, there’s no such thing as “the secular” (secular in contradistinction to the sacramental). All things are God’s, all things are holy, all things are sacramental. In other words, there’s no division. The dividing of things is a hallmark of the secular worldview.

    A vocation dedicated to alleviating suffering then is a most holy vocation.

  11. Robert,

    You said: A vocation dedicated to alleviating suffering then is a most holy vocation.

    Would this be considered “helping” in the way that the term is used in this post? Making the world a “better place”? Would the alleviation of suffering be considered “progress”?

  12. Mike,

    As a holy vocation it is a herald of the Kingdom of Heaven, a breaking through of the end of time.

    Progress, betterment etc. such words are not fitting to describe this new reality. a reality which is far beyond comparison to anything we know now.

    This is why Jesus didn’t tell Nicodemus to become a better man.

  13. Mike,

    The ‘world’ that some think can be made a better place is a kingdom of darkness that cannot help but be a compromise with death, no matter how much it may try to be otherwise. We cannot ‘improve’ the world, but we can love persons created in God’s image.

    We cannot, for example, eliminate poverty, but we can love and help a poor person. We cannot eliminate injustice, but we can be just toward our neighbor. We cannot eliminate suffering, but we can relieve the suffering of our neighbor.

    This, I believe, is the difference between the fantasy of making the world a better place and doing the good works to which we are called. The one is real, personal, and concrete. The other is a temptation that can only lead to violence. We cannot love ‘humanity’. We can only love persons. Humanity exists only in our imagination and has no existence apart from real, concrete human persons.

  14. Mike H,
    “Alleviating suffering” is a deeply misleading concept. If the goal is to alleviate suffering, you’ll inevitably decide to kill in order to bring about such an end – that’s according to Stanley Hauerwas. Not all suffering needs to be alleviated. And it’s an insufficient “good” in order to guide people. Almost all of the worst regimes in history committed their atrocities in the name of some alleviation.

    As Christians we serve Christ and His Kingdom. Mother Theresa is a perfect (truly) example. She did not have a goal of alleviating suffering in Calcutta or improving Calcutta. She served the poorest of the poor. And that’s what she did. One person at a time. She said that the sisters needed to learn to “pray the work.” “We do it to Jesus, for Jesus and with Jesus.” And she said that the work would be impossible in any other way.

    I once had lunch with a Jesuit who had lived in Calcutta and he railed against Mother Theresa because she did not use the “power” she had. He said she could have used her power to make huge changes for the poor (etc.). I think that he was a secularist (and did not know it). Even a atheist Communist could have agreed with him. But he and I were eating an expensive lunch in Chicago, while (at that time) Mother Theresa was alive in Calcutta, picking dying people up off the street, one at a time. In her, the Kingdom of God was come.

    The other doesn’t need a God. And, Hauerwas says, if something doesn’t require God, then there’s a problem.

    In truth, Christians virtually invented compassion. Orphanages, hospitals, hospices, and on and on and on are almost a unique work of classical Christians. But during all of that classical (pre-modern) period, no one ever, ever though about making the world a better place. The poor and sick were served because Christ is in the poor and sick.

    If they are served for some lesser good (like a better world), the next thing you’ll want to do is figure out how to have fewer of them. Then you’ll abort the babies of the poor in order to alleviate suffering (or some other scheme). In the most “advanced” countries, euthanasia and abortion reign. It is the capstone of secularism.

    All of this is a profoundly important point. If this doesn’t make sense yet, don’t leave it alone. This is worth figuring out until the coin drops, for it is at the heart of the faith.

    I highly recommend Hauerwas’ Resident Aliens. He speaks about things in a very non-Orthodox way, but he’s got a lot right. Schmemann speaks about it in an Orthodox way – I recommend his For the Life of the World.

    And read more of my articles. Try “We Will Not Make the World a Better Place” and some of the other articles on the “Modern Project.”

  15. I reflected on this article and the comments this morning and wanted to share a couple of thoughts. I think the secular vs. sacred worldviews are frequently approached as a philosophical outlook that one must learn. In other words, if we want to have a sacramental understanding of the world, then we need to adopt a new philosophical system.

    Feel free to correct me if you feel I’m wrong, Fr. Stephen, but it seems to me that secularism isn’t the problem. Secularism is a symptom of people who have become passionately attached to the world, but don’t want to let go of their eternal safety blanket. So, they unsuccessfully attempt to hold to both. Therefore, addressing secularism is addressing the symptom. The true problem is the passions that are in the hearts of everyone of us. Should we – through the grace of God in the mysteries of the Church and living a virtuous life – attain purification and rid ourselves of passionate attachments to the world, then it seems to me the symptom of secularism with die with the passions. Purification is, of course, not attained overnight. But it is the path to Christ that the Church has given us.

    St. Justin Popovich writes:
    “He who believes in Christ, with his whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, experiences the greatest reality of all the Divine and human testimonies about Jesus as God and the only Savior of man. This reality becomes a pan-reality in his soul; he lives through it, thinks through it, and feels through it. All of his thoughts combine into one overall thought; all of his feelings combine into one overall feeling.

    “Contained in this pan-thought and pan-feeling is that Christ is my Lord, my God, my Savior, my paradise, my life, my truth, my love, my joy, my eternity, my all, and my everything in the world.”

    Of course, St. Justin defines faith and belief in God as a life of prayer, asceticism, partaking of the holy Mysteries, and virtue. But it seems to me that he’s saying that if we have true faith/belief, then all of these other things will fall into place as Christ becomes our everything. As he writes in another place, “But until the soul becomes intoxicated with faith in God, until it comes to feel faith’s power, it can neither be healed of the passions nor overcome the material world.” In summary, secularism is not the problem, it is our passionate attachment to the world that needs to be addressed.

  16. Fr Freeman,

    Does this mean that people should not try to “do good” as best they can? The poster that commented about the “fair trade rug” struck something close to my nerves (I’m not a purist about it, but I hate to be told that that stuff doesn’t matter). Life amelioration is a bit of a pastime for me, and a way to be occupied. While my family’s original attitude to my beginning to pray regularly was something like “well, if it makes him feel better”, and that aggravated me, I admit I have a soft spot for the idea that my worship does repay me with blessings that keep the doctor and the psychiatrist away. In fact, it does. But I also know that true wisdom is this: Christ will not end my suffering in this life, but he greatly gives meaning to it.

  17. Father (and others),

    To me, it’s still a matter of semantics and circular language. The terms “better world” or “new reality” can both be used to describe the disappearance of something old for something new. One word doesn’t have to be “sacred” while the other is “secular”. What’s a “better” world? One in which the goodness and substance of the Kingdom of God are made present. What is a “more excellent” way in 1 Cor 12/13? The way of love. This doesn’t have to become a self-improvement project. No need throw out the language of “better” or “help” to make that point.

    Robert earlier called the alleviation of suffering as “a most holy vocation” because it is a “herald of the Kingdom of Heaven”. I’m reading in your comments that you see things much differently. I get that it’s not black and white – that “pain avoidance” isn’t the HIGHEST good. But while the alleviation of suffering may not be “the highest good”, it is nevertheless good in many many many cases, unless one believes that suffering is inherently good and directly willed by God. The question of boundaries is separate. I’m perfectly fine describing a “better” world as one where there is less suffering, because I believe such a world is consistent with the substance of the kingdom of God.

    You don’t like the term “alleviating suffering” for slippery slope reasons. I don’t wish to go down this road – but couldn’t one then argue that providing any health care that alleviates suffering AT ALL is a slippery slope to euthanasia and abortion? So I’ll stick with the example that you give – that of Mother Theresa not “alleviating suffering” but rather “serving the poor”. I’m fine using the word “helping” and “better world” to describe such “serving the poor”. And I cannot see how alleviating the poverty of actual people is not an essential part of “serving the poor”. Less starving people is more consistent with the Kingdom of God than is merely “being with” the hungry with no intent to alleviate it.

    So I can affirm with Hauerwas that the cross defines words like love, justice, goodness, etc (though even Christians still disagree radically on the meaning of these terms). Ultimately though, my concern is that in the battle with secularism the baby is being throwing out with the bathwater. Rather than argue that “helping the world” is a sort of unchristian “bowing to secularism” because it isn’t distinctive enough (since anybody can do it), I think it makes more sense to affirm that “helping” my neighbor is an objectively good thing to do even if there is disagreement on the foundations that it make it so.

  18. Mike,
    I understand your point. I think the article is understandable as are the points that Fr. Alexander Schmemann makes and Hauerwas makes. The problem of semantics and circular language is that such problems end up not saying anything. I think, however, that you are not understanding the point or the thrust of the critique that Hauerwas or Fr. A make (or myself).

    “Good thing” is not something that can be agreed on while maintaining a disagreement about the foundations that make it so.

  19. Andrew,
    We “do good.” But there is no generic meaning to that term. It either has meaning in terms of the Kingdom of God, or something else. For Christians, God is the only good. There is no “secular good.”

  20. Mike,

    I’m not sure I can offer anything but a oblique viewpoint that puts suffering into a different light. The Christian life seeks to alleviate suffering that is empty, vain and sometimes self indulgent with redemptive suffering. The issue is the manner in which suffering is perceived and lived – a way which either deepens one’s suffering as a man struggling against quicksand, or Redemptive suffering which seeks to suffer without sin and with thanksgiving, for the sake of others… Empty suffering often leads to sin and self absorption….redemptive suffering the way of the cross in which our suffering itself is transfigured. I would highly suggest some immersion and prayer in / about the suffering servant of Isaiah 52 & 53 and watching this fantastic interview with Metropolitan Bloom of blessed memory on suffering. Suffering (1973)” (video). https://youtu.be/l2OtD5OkHHo?t=1113

    Nikolai Velimirović. “Only the foolish think that suffering is evil. A sensible man knows that suffering is not evil but only the manifestation of evil and healing from evil. Only sin in a man is a real evil, and there is no evil outside sin. Everything else that men generally call evil is not, but is a bitter medicine to heal from evil. The sicker the man, the more bitter the medicine that the doctor prescribes for him. At times, even, it seems to a sick man that the medicine is worse and more bitter than the sickness itself! And so it seems at times to the sinner: the suffering is harder and more bitter than the sin committed. But this is only an illusion – a very strong self-delusion. There is no suffering in the world that could be anywhere near as hard and destructive as sin is. All the suffering borne by men and nations is none other than the abundant healing that eternal Mercy offers to men and nations to save them from eternal death. Every sin, however small, would inevitably bring death if Mercy were not to allow suffering in order to sober men up from the inebriation of sin; for the healing that comes through suffering is brought about by the grace-filled power of the Holy and Life-giving Spirit.”

    In this way, suffering can be seen as the God of light redeeming even that which might be seen as unnatural and inconsistent with His will for humanity, by saving men through suffering and weakness, not in spite of it. There seems to be a dramatic claim of God upon even the works of the Devil which – in the end – disarm that deadly serpent from the power of death and corruption which he holds over creation. God “tramples down death by death,” (suffering by suffering) and redeems His creation by making the very suffering which the devil intends to destroy communion with God, become the very mode through which communion with God can rightly be achieved. When suffering is faced in the manner of the suffering servant, one is participating in the very selfless “image and likeness” (the divine nature) of God, and the one who once a slave and “humbles” himself/herself is transformed through enduring suffering righteously into the very calling he/she has had in God from the very beginning of creation; Christlikeness.

    Even suffering and death, though neither God’s doing, nor His will, is reclaimed by God as salvific, and thus the power of sin and Satan brought to naught, to the everlasting blessing of His creation. The wedge once used to divide humanity from God is transformed into the redemptive ascesis of Christlikeness. The suffering servant becomes the snake lifted up by Moses in the desert and “the great lawgiver (who) rendered the…serpents powerless by the image of a serpent.” (Saint Gregory of Nyssa).

    From a standpoint of alleviating suffering, we generally do not understand suffering rightly, and we seek to ameliorate ANY suffering by undercutting the physiological source or suffering which we bifurcate from the sin which has caused suffering in the first place. When we do this, the true suffering of sin, the source of all corruption and suffering is covered up, ignored, and suffering becomes simply a physiological ill to be avoided at all costs – and in this mindset suffering has no redeeming aspects, and God becomes its author. But God has given us the gift of being saved by grace through the very tragedy of sin by being transfigured in suffering, which strips sin and suffering of any power whatsoever…and allows us to bear our crosses as Christ did. The right way to alleviate suffering is actually to suffer WITH others in love and unity, sharing in common both material gifts and redemptive suffering. What we do generally is avoid solidarity in suffering and throw resources at things which never allows suffering to be touched by grace in a way the transforms us or others. There is a difference between giving someone $10 on the street, and bringing them into your home for a meal, looking into their eyes, and pouring out on them the gifts given to you equally. How often do we seek to do that?

  21. Fr. Stephen, thanks again for this post.

    Would it be right to add “morality” to the list of secular values that the surrendered church substitutes for Christ?

  22. I’d like to clarify, I only brought up general “suffering” because I thought it personal enough that it could be viewed in a less abstract way – the suffering of children or parents can do that. I’m not primarily interested in explanations of how I can have a “redemptive” headache or my grandmother could have redemptive pancreatic cancer. Yes, I hope all suffering is redemptive. But if it is then it’s largely hidden from my eyes. Alleviating suffering and redeeming it aren’t necessarily opposed to one another.

    The Brothers Karamazov comes up frequently on this blog. The character of Ivan plays a key role in DB Hart’s exploration of theodicy in the “The Doors of The Sea”, and Hart observes that the force of Ivan’s argument – his rage against explanation – “is a profoundly and almost prophetically Christian argument.” In regards to some of the secular responses to the variety of “Christian” theological musings on the Indonesian tsunami, Hart says “For the secret irony pervading these arguments is that they would never have occurred to consciences that had not in some profound way been shaped by the moral universe of a Christian culture.”

    Father, I thought that you alluded to as much when you said earlier that “Christians virtually invented compassion”. There are many who understand the language of compassion, recognizing that it is good, but don’t speak the language of orthodox (or any) theology (yet). And yet the Christian narrative has formed something of “compassion” in human consciences – even if it isn’t well understood. So I think “good thing” can be agreed upon at certain points. That’s no small thing. I certainly don’t confuse “helping” or “making the world a better place” with eschatological fulfillment, but neither will I ever view the variety of things of “compassion” or “helping” as a battleground to which the church wrongly “surrenders”. Just seems like a misguided battle to me.

    Apologies if I’m misunderstanding this.

  23. Mike H,
    The tricky part, I suppose, is that secularism is indeed a Christian heresy. Schmemann says that there would be no secularism had it not been for Christianity – but it is not a natural outgrowth. The nature of a heresy is that is perceives many things that are true but perceives them in such a way that they are no longer true. Secularism uses much of the classical Christian language, “compassion,” “hope,” etc. But it means something quite antithetical by them. Again, the example that almost all “therapeutic” murders that take place in secular culture, i.e. abortion and euthanasia, take place in the name of compassion. Most of contemporary Christianity has been co-opted by secular thought – and Orthodoxy is not immune to it. There are plenty of Orthodox who thing our job is to pitch in and help make this a better world. They forget that the Bolsheviks used this as a slogan while they shot our priests and monastics. It’s like the Nazi song, “The morning will come when the world will be ours, tomorrow belongs to me!”

    Certain parts of Western Christianity lost their way and unwittingly invented secularism. Schmemann in fact says that if the purpose of religion is to “help” people (in the worldly sense), then secularism is superior to Christianity. And most contemporary Christians rush to prove that their existence is justified in a secular manner – to prove they are worthy.

  24. Fr Freeman,

    Yes indeed, I have struggled long and fiercely, wittingly or unwittingly, against the foreign ideal of “tikkun olam.” The Free Software movement and Amnesty International were two sorry examples in college of me trying to be involved a humanistic project that anyone was supposed to find agreeable (whilst curiously, few even dared to care). Taken to the opposite extreme you abuse your own bodily integrity, which is also not right.

    As Christopher Tolkien has recently said in response to the Hobbit movies: his father’s legacy (which you would think is impervious to such a twisting) has been devoured by its popularity and thoroughly absorbed into the absurdity of our time. Meanwhile all the crypto-pagans (“geeks”) have much more interest in the more thoroughly diabolical forms of entertainment like comics, Star Wars, and Game of Thrones, than they ever could in Frodo and the sword he is not even, technically, supposed to be unsheathing there. The market is sort of like the ego of society: reductionist and generally resistant to Grace.

  25. You know, one of the most difficult and horrid parts of my entire childhood was being hit by a ton of bricks by the realization that the meliorist-democratic values drummed into us in public school and made to seem cool on TV, and the Christianity they didn’t dare mention there, were two very different things and that I’d have to choose between them. Yikes.

  26. I am finding this article difficult to understand in practice. What then is my purpose in my vocation as a teacher? We have discussions all the time about how to make our school better and instruction better and the like. Is there worth in striving to make our work better? What is my goal as a Christian living in a secular work place? Should I not help? Does my role change if I acquire a sacramental world view?

    And just a note…the question was posed in a teacher training “what makes you go to work every day?” I said its my job and I need to feed my family. Others thought my response was glib and funny. I was actually serious. I suppose people wanted me to say something like “to make the world a better place” or “to make a difference”. Maybe I am simply becoming old and jaded.

  27. Fr. Freeman, I can remember conversations years ago with other evangelicals saying that Christianity has only one thing to offer to the world, and that’s new life in Christ. We said this because we knew that secular social agencies and government programs could far outstrip what churches were doing as far as feeding and housing the poor, etc. But saying this there were and still are homes for needy pregnant women, downtown missions feeding and sheltering families, church run thrift stores, etc. The motivation for much of this was not on trying to make a better world but remembering Christ’s words in Matthew 25…in that whatever you’ve done to the least of these my brethren you’ve done to me.

  28. ajt,
    Well, at first, dropping the paradigm of progress and a better world leaves us feeling empty. It has so filled our minds and our mission that we have a hard time imagining life without it. But teachers need to teach. It is a good work. Sometimes it is astounding. First and foremost, the sacramental worldview teaches us to give thanks always and for all things. Every work is a Divine Liturgy – an offering to God. “And whatsoever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him.” (Col 3:17)

    We are not called to make the world a better place. That is something that is entirely in the hands of the Lord. Man is not in the world management business. The nature of making the world a better place is inherently a utilitarian argument (“greatest good for the greatest number”). This philosophy is inimical to the Christian faith and has been the justifier of almost all modern evils. We do what we do for the love of God and the love of others for His sake. Pure and simple. The outcome of history belongs solely to God. To think otherwise tempts us to idolatry.

    I think it’s not wrong to say (if true), “I go to work every day because I love my students and I love what I do.” And it’s good that it pays the rent.

    Strangely, the “better world” stuff is actually whispered by the devil. It tempts people ultimately to make compromises, to tell lies, and finally to kill. It is the stuff that the temptations in the wilderness were made of. Christ Himself refused. How can we dare not?

    You and I will not know in our lifetime whether we “made a difference.” It is simply not something for us to judge. It is for us to be faithful and keep the commandments. Believe me (having been on the other side of this at one time), it is a temptation to lose your soul. Nothing less.

  29. Dean,
    It’s right for us to keep the commandments. We serve others in obedience to Christ. But Christ is not commanding us to do this in order to underwrite the projects of the secular state or of Modernity. We do what is right in obedience to Christ.

  30. Fr. Freeman,

    Not sure I understand what you are saying in the article… If I’m getting there, I would put it this way:

    True love is personal, delivered face-to-face, man-to-man. True love cannot be delivered via some generalized system (as in utopian schemes to improve the world). Systematized “love” is actually self serving–serving an ideal of a world created by man.

    Is that getting to what you are saying here?

    My “mission” as a Christian is to help the person in front of me, to sacrifice myself for him (Him). Missions that work to develop circumstances that reduce the need for my sacrifice cannot be holy.

  31. Mike H,

    I appreciate your questions about alleviating suffering (even though I realize this is just the area you chose as your example). AJ had some good thoughts in response. Partly to think it through myself, I’d like to add another point. I hope it helps you as well.

    The real question is not about whether or not to alleviate suffering, but whether we’re trying to do that as God or as man. If we are trying to “make the world a better place” then we’ve put on the God hat – which is too big and will only cause us to fall and fail.

    So we necessarily have to take the perspective that I as just one person will never make the world a better place. It’s not my job. We have to take it down to the personal level, as in I am just one person dealing with one other person. In that context I will do my best to alleviate suffering wherever I see it.

    BUT…..this calls for discernment. Band aids don’t fix everything. Detox centers don’t fix everything. Quadruple bypass operations don’t fix everything. When the person on the street approaches me, what does he really need – within the bounds of what I’m able to provide for him? When my wife or children show signs of suffering, what do they really need? In dealing with my kids sometimes I find that what they say they need to alleviate their suffering is either just wishful thinking or ignorance on their part.

    My brother is an ER doctor and at least half the people he sees every shift are suffering from self-inflicted injuries in one way or another. As he grows in his career one of the things he is finding is a need for discernment. Obviously he has responsibilities according to hospital policy but part of his job is also assessment: read discernment. The alcoholic would like another drink, but what is it that he really needs?

    As I get older I find more and more that this kind of helping the poor is intensive and and there is less of me to go around. I can easily spoon out portions to LOTS of people at a soup kitchen, but to truly alleviate suffering requires me as a person dealing with one other person at a deeper level in order to get closer to the actual source of the pain. And it requires me to stop playing God as it becomes abundantly clear that all my efforts may not even make the world of that one person a better place.

    It’s not fatalism or apathy. It’s allowing myself to be humbled and accept my limitations as a fallen human being. I can’t – but He can – so I’ll let Him……while I reach out and do what I can for that one person in front of me right now.

  32. Mike,

    As to “help” – there is of course a good and holy type of help, indeed we are commanded to offer such to the needy, the sick, the destitute etc. And the Good Samaritan indeed alleviated suffering, bettered the victim’s circumstance, improved the neighborhood, and so forth and so on.

    But such is not the type of help is addressed here – the type of help which serves merely to enable a secular cause, the evil kingdom of the parable. This type of help is an end in itself, and does not look beyond towards the Kingdom of Heaven – indeed it negates the need for God. And so we come to secularism: the assertion that the world exists apart from God.

    As to the “secularism” – the *secular* in contrast to that which is holy or that which has been set apart for service to God, such is not completely without merit. Even in Byzantium the emperor’s function was not confused with that of the bishop (not to say abuses didn’t occur). But secularism, as defined above, such is radically incompatible with Christianity.

  33. Going back to an earlier conversation it would seem to me that the sacramental vision is real while the secular is nominal.

    Sacrament is only realized in the knowledge that without God I am nothing and all my goodness a foul and pestilent vapor.

    The sacrament of marriage for instance has nothing to do with living happily ever after, making me complete or happy, fulfilled or having my needs taken care of. It is simply about one thing: offering your self, your spouse and your children to God knowing that you are the least asking nothing for yourself.

  34. Truly wonderful Father. The metaphor of the slave becoming free is perfectly understood in the “post ante” of Christ’s words in John 10:34, at the coming of the transcendence of a Pascha not yet known. Indeed, what is a slave but a person who is not yet “fully” human.

  35. You and Schmemann are truly swimming upstream on this Father (in Orthodoxy). I can not tell you how many times I have heard (or read) preached, in the name of Christ and His Church, a secularized concern or “compassion” for the poor, for “peace”, for “the environment”, or any other specific pet concern. I understand the temptation, as I succumb to it myself all too often. It is in the end so shallow and dead itself.

    In fact, I have to confess I have sort of had to ‘make peace’ with this aspect of english language/in the west “Orthodoxy”…

  36. Christopher,
    I have no doubt that most Orthodox living in the West would consider themselves on board with building a better world. The tentacles of the Modern Project reach deep into the mind. I consider Schmemann a prophet.

  37. Christopher,

    In case you haven’t read it – EP Bartholomew quite powerfully presents a sacramental, “one-storey” (i.e. non-secular) worldview of concern for the environment, the poor, and peace in his “Encountering the Mystery”. A very worthwhile read.

  38. Father,

    I know I’m probably herding elephants through a minefield here, but in light of all this can’t-make-world-better talk, but given the need nonetheless to address the suffering of our fellow human beings, is there any place for Christian advocacy for a social safety net provided by the state?* Or would we be stuck with only secular arguments?

    Or, for that matter, using the long arm of the law to prohibit any particular thing that is antithetical to the gospel but not particularly harmful to the state’s economic or military-industrial power (e.g., abortion, slavery, spousal rape, bestiality)?

    *(which, if not actual welfare, would include at least roads and schools and courts and police for those who lack the power and infrastructure to enjoy such things privately)

  39. From Schmemann’s For the Life of the World (1973):

    “But it is here we reach the heart of the matter. For Christianity help is not the criterion. Truth is the criterion. The purpose of Christianity is not to help people by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death in order that people may be saved by this Truth. Salvation, however is not only not identical with help, but is, in fact, opposed to it. Christianity quarrels with religion and secularism not because they offer ‘insufficient help,’ but precisely because they ‘suffice,’ because they satisfy the needs of men.” p99.

    “A sacrament therefore is not a ‘miracle’ by which God breaks, so to speak, the ‘laws of nature,’ but the manifestation of the ultimate Truth about the world and life, man and nature, the Truth which is Christ. And healing is a sacrament because its purpose or end is not health as such, the restoration of physical health, but the entrance of man into the life of the Kingdom, into the ‘joy and peace’ of the Holy Spirit. In Christ everything in this world, and this means health and disease, joy and suffering, has become an ascension to, and entrance into this new life, its expectation and anticipation.” pp 102-103.

    …I have been reading and re-reading this book for months. I can’t put it aside for more than a few days. I could continue to quote him, but I would copy the entire book!

    Regarding making the world a better place, I have read others (and I believe I have read Fr Stephen) remarking that the way of the cross is seeming defeat. I can only imagine that on the first Holy Saturday it looked to the first followers like God had been beaten; Christ was in the tomb. It seems to me that working to make the world a “better place” is to reject the way of defeat until Christ comes again and makes all things new. My struggle is with how to be Salt and Light while defeat roles around me and over me…to not be overwhelmed by fatalism; rather to live into that which I am becoming.

  40. Matt,
    God has ordained the State for the suppression of evil (to limit evil). Laws that limit evil are an essential God-given role of the State. But it is the claim to a Divine Power (to make a better world) that has led the State into great error. In the name of improvement it justifies much wickedness. Ask an American on the street how many Iraqi civilians have died in the last two decades. He won’t know because he has not been told. Dylan said, “For you don’t count the dead when God’s on your side.” Or, when the State has become its own justification.

    I believe there is indeed a proper place for a social safety net. May God have mercy on those who have denied necessities to their neighbor.

  41. Mike B,
    Now I would recommend reading Archimandrite Zacharias (interpreter of the Elder Sophrony). Start perhaps with the Enlargement of the Heart. It opens up the way of the Cross.

  42. Christopher,
    I have sometimes thought that “the world is a sacrament” is treated more like a slogan for going green, than for treating creation as a true mystery and sacrament. After a fashion, I think of creation as an “allegory,” in a very strong sense.

  43. Christopher,

    Fr. Farley’s review would be laughable if its assessment wasn’t so dead-wrong and misleading.

    Read EP book for yourself, don’t depend on a sophomoric review riddled with uncritical misreadings (“Never once … did he say that Jesus Christ was Lord and God”; misrepresenting the EP’s pluralism, etc.). Fr. Farley fundamentally misunderstands key points causing him to ridiculously accuse the EP of “willful ignorance of what the Koran actually says”. Anyways, I won’t belabor the point. It’s a textbook case of reading one’s own preconceived assumptions into a text, if I have ever seen one.

  44. Matt,

    I was reflecting on your question of whether there can be a kind of co-support or co-operation even though the reasoning/motivation comes from completely different understandings of the God, the world, and man. My first thought was “of course there can be, and is”, but then I thought about your list of specifics:

    1. abortion: widely accepted/practiced because it benefits the states “economic or military-industrial power”, that is secularism

    2) slavery: not accepted, though I think it has to be admitted not on the basis of an Christian anthropology (though the abolition movement originally was based on this), but rather now on secular understanding of “rights” and organic “pain-pleasure”, and of course economics (slavery is bad for a consumer economy)

    3) spousal rape: the anthropology is different, but here there is perhaps the strongest correlation.

    4) bestiality: there is no common ground, and in twenty years (give or take) the supreme court will rule for the “right to marry” animals (and for polygamy, etc.) based on (using Justice Kennedy’s language) “…the right to define one’s own concept of existence…”. Here is probably the most obvious example of the intended/unintended consequences of nominalism, though it is just as powerful (if not as obvious) in your entire list.

    4.) ‘roads and schools and courts and police’: at first past these might appear beyond criticism, but look at how the schools are the foundation for the indoctrination of children into secularism, consumerism, and the sexual revolution. The courts and police are there largely to protect the marketplace, and roads are designed to get you to the marketplace

    When I consider “the poor”, the modern secular state supports them when it is helpful (usually with promises just before an election), and allows them to die when not. Take Obamacare for example (I work in medicine). It has been implemented in my state, and “the poor” have been thrown under the bus. They used to have a state medicaid system that was flawed, but in fact worked for most of them. Now they have expensive “insurance” (which actually approaches my plan in price – and I buy the best and most expensive there is), that denies denies and denies. They have “access” to a doctor (after a long wait period), but the doctor can’t actually prescribe anything helpful (it’s not on the formulary, the procedure is not covered, etc. etc.). My wife’s “charity” write off’s have significantly increased since the destruction of medicaid in our state, despite these patients having “insurance”. Does the secular/ideological media report these facts? Nope. Does the AARP crowd understand that this is going to happen to their medicare (it is already happening – we are well past the beginning of the beginning)? Not a clue. In 5, 10, 15 years when they have a stroke/hip break/fill-in-the-blank, instead of going to rehab and getting mobile and living another 5 or 10 years, they will be sent to a SNF facility and die within the year. The state will save a little bit of money (though not much – in many cases none), and the secularist will say that “they would not have wanted to live *that way* anyways”, and it’s better for the environment to have less people.

    As much as I would like for their to be point’s of co-operation and co-support with the modern secular state, there is actually very little…

  45. Father would you check why my comments sometimes publish and other times they are not. Been trying unsuccesfully to reply to Christopher 2 days in a row.

  46. Robert, forgvie me, but I suspect you’re spinning things now. Simple question. Is Father Farley correct, or incorrect when he writes that the EP never once mentions that Jesus Christ is Lord and God and that we must turn to Him in repentance? That would seem to be a simple question to answer. Thank you.

  47. Alan,
    In fairness (and as a criticism of Farley’s review), it’s possible to write a book of theology and not specifically say that. A bishop has to confess and confirm the whole faith or he cannot be a bishop. It can be a cheap shot to go after “what he did not say.” Not saying and denying are two different things. Was there somewhere he should have said it, but didn’t?

  48. Father,

    I have to admit, I’m a bit taken aback by your question to me. Nonetheless, I will answer it. Yes, in a 304 page book with the subtitle “Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today”, I would certainly expect the EP to somehwere mention that Jesus Christ is Lord and that we must turn to Him in repentance. But, I guess that’s just me.

  49. Father Stephen and Robert,

    Forgive me, I’m not trying to be difficult. I will refrain from further commenting on this matter and of course will accept what you say Fr. Stephen.

  50. Fr, I’m sorry. To clarify, I did reply to your comment to me, but apparently that comment got hung up in the filter I guess. Then, I wrote the above comment where I said I would refrain from further comment. As it turned out, my second comment posted immediately, while my first one went to the filter (probably better that it did). So, if my first comment comes through the filter, it will look like I commented, after saying to you that I would refrain from futher comment. But, that’s not the case.

  51. Far from being “sophmoric”, Father’s Lawrence’s book review is a study (masters level?) in generous understatement. If I were to write a review of the book, I would be much more blunt. “the Green book” indeed.

    I skimmed it, reading probably a 1/3 closely. What’s the point of doing more? It rarely rises above the level of those blue “Coexist” (with symbology from “world religion” being the letters) bumper stickers you see everywhere. Much of it is so secular it’s banal. Sentences such as “Our goal….is to promote a peaceful resolution of disagreement about how to live in this world, about how to share and use the resources of our planet” belong in Webster’s dictionary under “Secularism; examples there of:”.

    It’s all “ok” however, because it was ghost written…………surely………probably………has to be…….

  52. Alan,
    I haven’t read it. The EP doesn’t tend to be on my reading list. But I know a number of priests who read it and liked it. I think it’s also possible to read him and hear some tell-tale echoes of the Green Political agenda or other things that would create discomfort for some. And that might be legitimate. I’ve learned over the years, however, that Christians in other parts of the world who have never encountered the kinds of questions generated in our Protestant culture, fail to mention things that would seem obvious to us. For example, is there no mention of repentance? at all? Is there mention of Baptism (which involves both repentance and acceptance of Christ as Lord)? I mean to be generous.

  53. I refrain from criticizing hierarchs as a matter of policy on the blog. I know Fr. Farley and have great regard for him and his work. I’m not always happy with things from Constantinople. We live in strange times, and I’ll say no more.

  54. Christopher,

    A good deal of what you mention was in the back of my mind as well when I was posting my comment. Glad to know we’re on the same page about this (though I might contend that there are quite a few industries where slavery – including slavery in all but name and law (and thus responsibility for one’s own property) – provides crucial cheap labour necessary for the production levels we see now).

    I did not know that Obamacare has been so dysfunctional – from the horror stories I’ve been reading (speaking as a Canadian) one would think literally anything would be preferable to the pre-Obamacare US system (even, say, regressing to Stone Age medical technology and infrastructure just so people wouldn’t have a false hope or be morally obliged to actions that simultaneously save and ruin their lives). This seems to be more of the same, with some babies thrown out with the bathwater.

  55. Christopher,

    What is the point of doing more than skimming 1/3 of the EP’s book, you ask?

    The point is to listen.

    To avoid misunderstanding what this Orthodox hierarch has to say.
    To keep oneself from mindlessly reacting to hot-button trigger words.

    It’s a good book for what it is, and for those who will take the time. The EP makes a strong case for living in our world as one-story universe – or to use his words, as “the whole world in Christ, who ‘gathers up all things in Him, thinks in Heaven and on earth.'” p. 71

  56. Alan,

    I think that you are mistaken to think that evangelism (e.g. converting the lost, calling sinners to repentance, and so forth) is the intent of Encountering the Mystery. It is not. It is rather how Bp. Kallistos Ware explains it: the EP “concentrates upon the themes that are closest to his heart…he speaks with a voice that is gentle yet firm, humble yet authoritative. Above all, his standpoint is compassionate and pastoral.”

    Listen closely, and you will discover the EP makes it very clear who is Lord and what turning to Him requires of sinners.

  57. Robert,

    Respectfully, you might want to make a study of what secularism *is*. In music, a performance (or piece of gear such as a speaker) is said to be “forward” or “bright”, or conversely”laid back”. Is an instrument/voice “in your face”, or is it subtle, and in the background. The secularism in this work is as forward, bright, “row A” as they come. If you can’t hear it, well. Hint: it’s not about “misunderstanding” a few words or phrases, or differences of opinion about practical politics, or what is or is not “science”, or who is or is not “poor”, etc. It is much more fundamental than all that.

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