I’ll Be Small for Christmas

Children today are raised with dreams of greatness. Cultural affirmations of our limitless potential, well-intentioned, have not produced a generation of over-achievers, but have indeed brought forth hordes of great dreams. This is nothing new in American culture. We are the world’s longest sustained pep-talk. Ronald Reagan loved to quote the 1945 Johnny Mercer hit:

You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between

We sing the songs of progress in the gospel of an ever-improving world. Today, this is the purpose that motivates almost every undertaking, both public and private. However, the cult of progress is the repudiation of grace.

Of course, the world of progress and pep-talks seems quite innocent, and may even be credited with inspiring innovation and effort. At its heart, it is rooted in the Christian faith, though in a heretical iteration that came about in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was timed with the great American drive to the West. Together, they created what is today the largest engine of modern culture and the most dominant civilization in the history of the world.

“Progress,” as a word with its present meaning, only goes back to the 19th century. It describes a sort of eschatology, the Christian doctrine of the end of all things. Traditionally, Christianity has espoused that at the end of time, Christ will return and reveal the fullness of the Kingdom of God. Mystically, the Church also affirmed that this Kingdom-which-is-to-come is somehow already present in the sacramental life of the Church. The 19th century notion, however, was that the Kingdom was something given to humanity to build. Guided by the blueprint of justice described in the Scriptures, it was for us to bring forth the Kingdom in this world as we eliminated poverty and injustice. Beyond all theory, the American Christians of the 19th century not only embraced this new idea, they believed they could already see it happening. “From sea to shining sea,” God’s grace was increasingly manifest in the unfolding destiny of the American century.

This initially Christian belief has long since shed its outward religious trappings and assumed the shape of modern secularism. However, we should not underestimate the religious nature of modernity. No religion has ever felt more certain of its correctness nor its applicability for all people everywhere and at all times than the adherents and practitioners of modern progress. Indeed, that progress assumes that all religions everywhere should quietly agree to find their place in the roll call of those who place their shoulder to the wheel in the building of a better world. Within the rules of secular progress, there is room for all.

The adherents of modernity not only feel certain of the correctness of their worldview; they believe that it should be utterly obvious to any reasonable person. Resistance is reactionary, the product of ignorance or evil intent. But from within classical Christianity, this is pure heresy, and perhaps the most dangerous threat that humanity has ever faced.

No one can argue with doing good things and helping people (and I certainly won’t try). But placing the good we do (or attempt to do) into the context of progress or making the world a “better place” is a serious distortion, one that is actually a distraction from our lives.

There are habits of the heart worth pondering in this context. The train of thought geared towards progress and the greatness of our achievements is rooted in discursive reasoning’s efforts to judge, weigh, measure and compare. It becomes a habit that blinds us to many things. Of note, the faculty that judges, weighs, measures and compares is not the same faculty that sees beauty. It is the faculty of utility, made for tools.

This faculty of the heart that sees beauty is also the faculty that sees the small things and the things that “do not signify.” It is not a practical place nor given to usefulness. The Fathers describe it as the nous, and often simply call it the heart. It is that place through which we have communion with God. It is, interestingly, also the place that recognizes Him in the “least of these my brethren.” It is that place which sees personhood in its proper form, in its utter uniqueness and never as “one of many.”

It is worth considering that our real day is almost completely populated with “small things.” Very few of us act on a global stage, or even a stage much greater than a handful of people and things. Our interactions are often repeated many times over, breeding a sort of familiarity that can numb our attention. We are enculturated into the world of “important” things. We read about important things of the past (and call it history); we are exposed to “important” things throughout the day (and call it news). We learn to have very strong opinions about things of which we know little and about people we have never met.

We have imbibed an ethic of the important – a form of valuing sentiment above all else. We are frequently told in various and sundry ways that if we care about certain things, if we like certain people and dislike others, if we understand certain facts – we are good persons. And we are good because we are part of the greater force that is making the world a better place. All of this is largely make-believe, a by-product of the false religion of modernity. For many people, it has even become the content of their Christianity.

The commandments of Christ always point towards the particular and the small. It is not that the aggregate, the “larger picture,” has no standing, but that we do not live in the “larger picture.” That picture is the product of modern practices of surveys, measurements, forecasts and statistics. The assumptions behind that practice are not those of the Christian faith. They offer (or pretend to offer) a “God’s eye-view” of the world and suggest that we can manage the world towards a desired end. It is little wonder that the contemporary world is increasingly “watched.” At present, nearly 1,100 active satellites are monitoring the earth (floating in a sea of over 500,000 bits of man-made debris). CCTV has become increasingly ubiquitous in major cities of the world. Pretty much every action made on your computer is noted and logged. All of this is a drive towards Man/Godhood.

The drive of God Himself, however, is towards the small and the particular, the “insignificant” and the forgotten. In the incarnate work of Christ, God enters our world in weakness and in a constant action of self-emptying. He identifies people by name and engages them as persons. Obviously, Christ could have raised a finger and healed every ailment in Israel in a single moment. He doesn’t. That fact alone should give us pause – for it is the very thing that we would consider “important” (it is also the sort of thing that constituted the Three Temptations in the Wilderness). Everyone would be healed, but no one would be saved. Those healed would only become sick and die later. This is also the reason that we cannot speak in universal terms about salvation. For though Christ has acted on behalf of all and for all, that action can only be manifested and realized in unique and particular ways by each.

This Divine “drive” is also the proper direction for our own lives. Our proper attention is towards the small, the immediate, the particular, and the present. Saying this creates an anxiety for many, a fear that not paying attention to the greater and the “important” will somehow make things worse. We can be sure that our attention does not make things better in the aggregate, while, most assuredly ignoring the particular things at hand is a true failure. Our spiritual life depends on the concrete and the particular – it is there that the heart is engaged and encounters God. In the “greater” matters, our sentiments are engaged rather than our hearts. You cannot love “world peace,” or “social justice.” These are vagaries that allow us to ignore peace with those around us and justice to those at hand. God does not want “noble” souls – He wants real souls, doing real things, loving real people, dying real deaths.

Follow the path of Christ and become small for Christmas.

Fr. Thomas Hopko, in one of his 55 maxims, said: “Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.”

Indeed.

Readers will note that this version represents a serious editing of the article as posted earlier today. I apologize. Somehow, the rought draft got published rather than the final. 

 

75 comments:

  1. There is great truth in this Father. The greatest system devised by man to make this world a Utopia turned into the bloodiest repression of mankind in history. As our political storms increase and the rhetoric is ratcheted up, I find myself seeking the small and the peace of heart that brings. Thank you for putting this in perspective.

  2. A wonderful message, Father. Many thanks.

    I do have one question (“in 27 different parts”–please forgive the Rodney Dangerfield joke). How is God’s focus on the particular different from societies focus (or perhaps “glorification”) on the individual?

    I often think of the foundation of the Body of Christ as the family–and even if one comes alone, they are never not a member of the family of God. So, if the Church deals in family, and even makes decisions in a conciliar manner, how does that relate to the particularity of God?

  3. There is so much you have begun in this post.

    The Progessive era is beautifully summed up in the song “From a Distance”. It is an allusion that we live in a small world. Because we can span, both really and virtually,large distances in short times we have indeed distorted our perspective. We can deeply emote for those far away and ignore our brother in front of us.

    ‘Small is Beautiful’. (which is by the way a book that speaks against large scale economics as a cure for what ails us.)

    ‘The bones that be humbled, they shall rejoice—a heart that is broken and humbled God will not despise” Ps 50

    Christian progress is downward and inward (smallness) before we can move outward. This is, as you so well point out, the opposite of the modern infatuation with ‘progress’.

  4. The last three posts really have increased my understanding of “the one story universe” and how to approach to my life.

  5. Byron,
    An “individual” is a “particular” but considered apart from its communion (which is its true existence). God treats the particular (rather than the general) because only the particular is real – but that reality is also in communion. God enters into our real humanity by becoming “a” man (St. Theodore the Studite emphasizes this, btw). But in becoming “a” man, He becomes man-in-perfect-communion with God and in perfect communion with all else. “Even the wind and the sea obey Him.”

  6. Interesting that we are to make the world better by being smaller. I never put that one together, but you are absolutely right.

    You mention Woodstock; I remember Woodstock as an event that occurred during my eight years of active duty in the USAF (1956-1964). As a member of the military, I was somewhat ignorant about life, not a Christian, and quick to jump on the bandwagon of those around me. For example, Woodstock was a hippy event, and at that point in time the hippy folks were causing problems for those of us who were defending our country (lol) against the evil communists who were capable of causing a domino action in the countries of Southeast Asia if Vietnam fell into their hands. Thus, this concept was justification for the evil warfare that my nation was committing against the people in that area of Asia. At the same time, my son-in-law (not then) was assigned in Vietnam (Special Operations) to take young Asian men into the jungle and teach them how to kill and destroy; he would return from these trips into the jungle dripping in Agent Orange that our military was using in an attempt to destroy jungle foliage.

    Woodstock was thought of by us in the military as a negative event, an event attended by a bunch of trouble makers who belonged in jail for daring to be different and not agreeing with our brainwashed opinions. My own opinion of Woodstock was somewhat modified by hearing the voice of Joan Baez singing a protest song; she was one of the hippies who dared to demonstrate against the military draft in Oakland and paid the price; but the beauty of her voice and her words caused me to stop and begin to think as I listened to her protest songs. I was starting to grow up and learning to think, but it took me many years to realize what a beautiful person she was inwardly (her outward beauty was there too) and that she had as much right to her opinion as I did to mine. And, now many years later, I find myself agreeing with her position then (too late).

    About five years ago, I wrote an article about her and in my research efforts ran into something that I did not know. Her belief structure was based upon her family’s Quaker background with their belief in peace instead of war being a large part of that background. She practiced what she believed and was arrested for standing outside that Oakland military recruiting office with a sign while her husband was put in jail for burning draft cards. My article can be found at: http://hubpages.com/entertainment/Woodstock-and-the-voice-of-Joan-Baez

    My whole attitude has changed and now I believe that I would burn my draft card too if I had one, but I enlisted and was not drafted. That brings me to my main concern at this point in my life, living the life IN Christ on a constant basis. Recently I decided that I needed to reread the whole bible again because as I age, I am starting to forget what and where the scriptures that I know are located; I can quote many of them, but cannot remember where they are located. So, I started with the four gospels and got throught them pretty well until I got into Saint John. My progress slowed and then I read even more slowly as I read Chapters 13 through 17. Oops, I better read them again I thought and this morning I decided to read them a third time. I was particularly struck this morning with the passage in 17:19 where Jesus says, “And on behalf of them (the disciples) I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.” And, He goes on to say (verse 20), “And I do not make request for these only, but also for those who shall believe on Me through their word;”. This passage gave me pause, but I found that Saint John Chrysostom said that Jesus was saying (to the Father), I offer to Thee a sacrifice (Himself) and that the Apostles would become similar sanctified sacrifices as they offer themselves and cause change in those who would believe through their words and sacrifices.

    The history of the world is centered on those who bring about change by being large, emperors and kings and even barbarian rulers who destroyed various civilizations, etc; but the death of a seemingly unimportant man on a cross in a small segment of the vast Roman empire was a seemingly small and unimportant event, but that event changed the world. And, His death on that cross brought about changes in the course of mankind because His followers were willing to also become sacrifices.

    To me that is the epitome of “smallness”, changing the world through sacrifice (of oneself). That is why I brought up Joan Baez; I may not agree fully with her Quaker faith, but I have to agree with her desire to change the world by being small; her willingness to offer up herself in a small way to change the world.

  7. Should “about” in this sentence be “above”? Or am I reading it wrongly?

    “We have imbibed an ethic of the important – a form of valuing sentiment about all else.”

  8. Father Stephen,
    One of Martin Luther King’s favorite songs was, Then my Living Shall not be in Vain. It emphasized the particular.
    If I can help somebody as I pass along,
    If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
    If I can show somebody, that he’s travelin’ wrong, then my living shall not be in vain.
    Someone else once reminded us, “Do the thing at hand.” Almost always this thing at hand is small, i.e., a cup of cold water given in His name.
    Have a blessed Nativity, Father! What a blessing you are to me and my wife.

  9. Many thanks for that explanation, Father! That is one thing that has always confused me; I appreciate the clarity of your answer. Glory to God!

  10. The myth of progress as a driving mythology of culture took hold in the latter part of the 19th century. It was tied into the industrial revolution, the philosophy of Darwinists, Imperial Europe, even Freud and Marx and Nietzsche.

    Many other writings and movements. Of course it has roots that go back much further. Karl Popper saw it as far back as Epicurus.

    The great American historian, Henry Adams wrote about it quite a bit. His book of essays, “The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma” is quite interesting in that regard especially “The Law of Phase as Applied to History”.

    The ideological movements of the 20th century that cause such horror: Communism, Fascism, Wilsonianism, the Secular Progressive and the Conservative movement, all the …isms are concerned with the great things. When a idea or set if ideas become a movement or an …ism they lose their truth and become pernicious destructive lies. Ugliness. There are unfortunately religious versions of the same thing.

    They are each in their own way a revolt against God and the communion we have with Him and through Him, each other.

    We end up chasing “out there” when the reality is “closer than hands and feet” or greets you each morning when you wake up or when youcome into work.

  11. Yes, because they breed fear and shame and self-righteousness at the same time as they promise everything and make achievement of the promise impossible as each person is rendered impotent.

    I would go so far as to say if we embrace any of these ideologies, we embrace death. Even without embracing them it is a battle, the battle, not against flesh and blood for that is one of the many lies ideologies foster.

  12. Perhaps the best statement on the purpose and effect of ideologies I have ever read is in the Afterword by Michael Crichton to his book “State of Fear”. The book itself is a rather pedestrian scientific action-adventure story but the Afterword is incredible.

    Reading it several years ago really helped me see modernity in a clearer way and it proved to be a real stepping stone to healing in my life.

  13. Thank you very much, Fr. Stephen. I didn’t begin to understand any of the ideas in this post until relatively recently and I still have a very poor handle on that maxim, although it’s become one of the themes in my stories.

  14. **(Please forgive the political tone of this comment, but a Crucified God is a political God even if His politics differ from mine or yours)**
    Fr., I agree that we would do better to focus more and more on the small and near at hand, as well that most of what passes for “news” these days is pure (often constructed) illusion. I recall your past statement that “making the world a better place is deeply arrogant speech from the unrighteous”. I can’t help but feel, however, that jettisoning the “bigger” issues of things like “social justice” plays right into the hands of those in power (be they the neoliberal corporatists that are leaving this January, or the neo-fascists that will replace them). We’re talking about groups that have wreaked havoc and show every sign that they will continue to wreak even greater havoc around the world and to our environment. I have no delusions that we can defeat their efforts. It would take nothing short of a miracle (one that would need take the form of mass movements in **hopefully peaceful** revolt).
    There’s a decent chance that the 21st century will be civilization’s last, and I realize that the Church’s first priority is not to ensure the survival of civilization or even the species, but I resent the type of sentiments that seem to suggest (feel free to correct me here) that anytime people try to stave off these kinds of catastrophes they’re subscribing to one utopian ideology or another. I mean, can you really tell me that if everyone just dropped concern for these “bigger” and “important” issues that we would be better off? I’m sorry, but this smacks, to me, of the bourgeois neutrality that power has ever relied on to get away with their sins. Noam Chomsky, like him or not, hit it on the head when he said, “If you abandon the political arena, somebody is going to be there. Corporations aren’t going to go home and join the PTA. They are going to run things.”Are not Christians called to, as Maria Skobtsova once said, “fight against exploitation, injustice, want, lawlessness”? If so, is not a greater concern for the big and important issues not called for?

  15. Eli,
    Maria Skobtsova lived what she said, precisely in the small and local – and she died for it. I really do think that the “big and important” issues are abstractions for the most part and distractions from true justice that lies at hand. The notion of the nation-state and the more recent ideas of economics, sociology, etc., are genuine abstractions that are themselves used against attention to reality. No matter what goes on, we have to live and we only live in the particular. None of us lives in general. We have unjust laws because we have unjust people. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s the neo-con corporate globalists, etc., or someone else, their injustice is not in the aggregate – it’s in the local. It is not 20% who lose their jobs – it’s real, particular people who do. The thinking in the abstract is precisely what allows people to justify their unjust actions – always acting “for the greater good” – which usually means for their own greater profit.

    I think that we should live in such a way that the powers that be would prefer us dead. That would be a proper political life for a Christian. But that is not because we talk a lot and march a lot but because we actually do the gospel. Long before MLK and the great movements of the 60’s, there were quiet people, black and white, who were dying, losing their jobs, etc., for living justly. I knew a number of them. It must be understood that the world is sustained by grace and not by politics. Politics did not bring down the Soviet Union (we really didn’t see it coming). God brought it down. The prayers of the faithful and the blood of the martyrs brought it down. Solzhenitsyn acted justly and wrote that people should “not lie.” That collapse is the single greatest positive event in the 20th century. And it wasn’t politics.

    No. I stand by what I’ve written.

  16. Eli,

    While I agree that politics can’t be abandoned, the problem is that there are politics within our own home, own church, own place of business. We as human beings are simply finite and limited in every aspect.

    If on the one hand your heart draws you to a cause, consult God and your spiritual advisers and then engage it with a full understanding that a) you may have to pass up the rest of the causes asking for your help and b) you will be in communion with this cause and will therefore be shaped by it in a way that there is no reversal.

    If on the other hand you are looking at Christians as a force and think that we need to be “managing” the world and all its issues – in order to “make the world a better place” and build the Kingdom of God here on earth, you will be frustrated no matter what you do. It’s not our job to clean this world up and hand it back to God. It’s our job, both as individuals and groups, to be good stewards of whatever He puts in our path and submit everything back to Him.

    We are His servants, nothing more. We need to drink this in, especially here in North America, because we’ve imbibed the God complex way too much for way too long. And it’s riddling us with doubt and despair every time we fail. We’re trying to walk in shoes that are way too big for us.

  17. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
    The courage to change the things I can,
    And the wisdom to know the difference.

    Eli – There is deep wisdom in that prayer, because it focuses on the particular. I can only change things that are immediately at hand. For example, I cannot stop climate change, but I can choose to ride my bike or take the bus instead of driving to work.

    By the way, there is another version of the serenity prayer that is even closer to the truth.

    God grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change,
    The courage to change the people I can,
    And the wisdom to know that person is me.

    Even then, it is really only God who can change me, so I really have a lot to let go of.

  18. I absolutely LOVE this Father… Thank you!

    Within the story of the birth of Christ, I love how the Theotokos makes herself beautifully small in Luke 2:19: “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” She asked for no acknowledgement, and simply treasured the gift she had received. Through her humility, her heart encountered God — something so terrible, and yet indescribably beautiful.

  19. Eli, I can only repent for myself. The only politics involved there is my own pride and my shame. I have to negotiate with them or defeat them in battle.

    The politics of which you speak is for those who seek power. Lust of power is one of the sins we are called to repent from each Lent.

  20. There have been saints in the political realm, but not many. Most were already in that arena and God used them in a special way. The way of holiness is dominated by those who bloom in place.

    If we allow political change or any other good cause to become the biggest stone in our jar of life, other more important ones get crowded out. Choosing the culture of the Church to be the biggest stone in my jar has been most helpful in my life.

  21. Deacon James,
    Delightfully to the point! Regardless of our individual position, the use of our more ‘broad and general’ concerns and our alertness to ‘worldwide affairs’ as a champion for the inactivation of our more ‘personal and specific’ self-reproach and spiritual vigilance is a continually deployed arrow in our adversary’s quiver and therefore requires our constant attention.
    May God give us discernment in everything!

  22. I have a hard time completely accepting the premise that the expansion of the Kingdom of God on earth in more than a purely private, spiritual, or sub-culture arena is that new. The 19th century iteration certainly is different a few respects, but the quote below almost sounds like it describes the Byzantine Empire or the Papal Expansions of the 11th and 12th centuries:

    “The 19th century notion, however, was that the Kingdom was something given to humanity to build. Guided by the blueprint of justice described in the Scriptures, it was for us to bring forth the Kingdom in this world as we eliminated poverty and injustice. Beyond all theory, the American Christians of the 19th century not only embraced this new idea, they believed they could already see it happening. “From sea to shining sea,” God’s grace was increasingly manifest in the unfolding destiny of the American century.”

    The union of the state and the Church as well as the Christianizing of much of the known world was most certainly in the eyes of the Byzantines a realizing of the Kingdom of God on earth. The Christian Roman Empire was a grand effort in creating a more just and holy society. I would recommend Rev. John McGuckin’s recent work “The Ascent of Christian Law” which lays out nicely the project of building a Christian society.

    The troparion of the Cross, which has historically been used by Orthodox monarchies as a sort of national anthem, literally says: nikas tois basileusi kata barbaron doroumenos”, which translates to “grant victory to the Emperor over the barbarians We’ve white washed it a bit by translating it “faithful over adversaries.” As we know it goes on to ask God to preserve the “politeuma” which we usually translate commonwealth, but which literally means government or state. I think this is a good example that similar religious thinking that we ascribe to 19th century America has a very firm place within our tradition. Not that I am advocating either side, merely pointing out that we are more like those we criticize than we might think. And that a concern for national problems and large scale victories or successes or progress is part of our faith as well.

    To say that big problems, national or global issues, are pure distraction is I believe going to far. I don’t think it can be backed up by our tradition. Are they a danger of becoming distractions from the works of justice right next to us? Of course. Is it a good reminder and for many of us a better allocation of our energies to preoccupy ourselves with local issues of our communities or among neighbors and family? Yes. Is smallness, obscurity, little acts of mercy often overlooked or minimized for their spiritual potential. Yes.

    “In the incarnate work of Christ, God enters our world in weakness and in a constant action of self-emptying.” Very true for Christmas. The small, weak child of little notice (though noticed by some) turns out to be God himself. Yet that small child was planted in the ground like a mustard seed and grew to become “the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” And look what transpired from that small Divine seed: the conquering of an Empire. Like the Mustard Seed analogy that of the Leven shows us that the Kingdom of God starts out small and is found in the overlooked places, but if noticed and used rightly becomes something big, something everywhere, effecting the whole world. I would suggest that the Kingdom of God is not solely smallness and obscurity, but that it is also such things, and in fact starts out this way.

    “We can be sure that our attention does not make things better in the aggregate, while, most assuredly ignoring the particular things at hand is a true failure.” I don’t think it is fair to pit these two against each other. They are not mutually exclusive. The first part that “our attention does not make things better in the aggregate” is just not true. Maybe not us individually (because we hardly, if ever, can do anything completely on our own) but together we can do good and beautiful things. Or maybe you have spiritual things in mind when you say this, not material betterment, but I would guess not, since that would be subscribing to a two-story universe. All things are spiritual, right? Or more specifically any effort to alleviate the suffering of others, any work of compassion, any putting the needs of others above our own is a spiritual endeavor whether on a big scale or small is a crucifixion of ourselves; a worthy offering.

    The past few hundred years have been amazing success and betterment after another. Just take medicine for example. Or take the astounding improvements in reducing poverty (more specifically hunger) in the past few decades. I think we should be careful of saying that collective effort to solve big and complex problems is not possible or that it hasn’t happened, because it has. It happens all the time.

    I think we have a tendency as Orthodox to let older times get away with murder, so to speak, and yet judge harshly our own times or those more recent. We should judge all times fairly. Consider what western nations have done in the past 20 years to protect children from abuse, especially sexual. This problem has been left unaddressed, ignored, and brushed under the carpet for millennium. Only recently are we noticing the abuse that has been going on all around us, working to prevent it, and seriously dealing with the predators who commit such actions (who are usually family or close family friends). Have there been great failures of recent history? Of course. Yet, I don’t subscribe to the notion that things are getting worse or better morally. We are just swapping virtues and vices with each generation. We have new problems, and new victories.

    “You cannot love “world peace,” or “social justice.” These are vagaries that allow us to ignore peace with those around us and justice to those at hand.” Again I think you are creating a dichotomy that is not necessary. Can a concern for social justice or world peace become a vagary or can we, as I heard it said once, “Love humanity but hate people”. For some reason I think I heard that from Father Roman of blessed memory. This is a real problem and does happen, but that doesn’t make systemic or global concerns illegitimate just as someone who is a Christian but misbehaves discredits the whole of Christianity. Those aid works who are at the front lines of the war in Syria or the Doctor’s without boarders, are all men and women compelled by a desire for world peace and social justice. That drive, that concern, has put them face to face to the warm flesh and beating hearts of other human beings, very different from them, and unable to pay them back with anything more than a thank you. Saying it is all vagary and distraction is unfair to the many men and women who have committed their lives to social work, non-profit careers, foreign aid work, and charitable causes. They are helping the stranger, the foreigner, without waiting for them to come to them, but rather seeking them out. Must we all follow such a path? No. Must we all focus only on the things immediately around us? No. There are many vocations in the Christian life. Small is one of them and so are others.

    With all that said I don’t think it diminishes you primary point of turning our attention to the small and seemingly insignificant opportunities to encounter the Divine and show love to our fellow man, and the danger of sacrificing the small for the grand. A very appropriate message for Christmas and one we can easily forget.

  23. Fr. Matthew,
    I think it can easily become problematic for those of us in the modern world to describe the Byzantine project in terms drawn from our own experience. The ethos of 19th century American kingdom building is utterly different than that of the Byzantines. Absent from the latter is the notion of progress. If anything, there is a sacramental sense of disrupting and unseating the powers of this world. There was never(!) a conquering drive in Byzantium as an effort to spread the gospel. It simply never happened. Missionary work was not the work of the sword. Alliances, work such as that of Cyril and Methodius, etc., were not supported by military effort. Were the American-like kingdom-building ethos present, it would surely have driven the same madness that has driven America into an Imperial power. I can get very technical and drag out numerous sources and references for the specific mixing of American and Protestant interests being mixed as part of American expansionism – in Central and South America, in Africa and elsewhere. The same was true of Great Britain. The colonialism of the modern West was simply not present in Byzantium.

    Obviously, as I noted in the article, I do not disparage doing good works – even large good works. However, the mentality of making a better world is simply part of modern mythology – not a part of the received tradition of the Church – and – as I have pointed out in this and other articles – is part and parcel of our modern delusion. It is, in fact, often the grounds for doing great evil.

    It is perhaps true that many who volunteer for dangerous and difficult duties (such as doctors without borders) have some sort of commitment to social justice, etc. That is actually only saying that they are modern people. I do not expect those enthralled to modernity to have any other reasons to put forward. I said in the article that the notions of progress, etc., have certainly inspired people to various actions.

    However, we do not and cannot make the world a better place. That is not the narrative of the gospel, nor the goal of the Christian faith. It is a modern delusion that is part of a utilitarian philosophy – not Christian theology (except in a heretical form).

    Nothing in what I have said suggests that anyone should not do dangerous or extreme service to others. Doctors without borders, for example, does a marvelous work. They, however, do not change the world. They save some lives – and that is good. Interestingly, the people dropping the bombs that create the injured dying children are the ones who are committed to changing the world. And it is ever so.

    Stanley Hauerwas has famously said that as soon as a Christian agrees to take responsibility for the outcome of history – he has agreed to do violence.

    The responsibility for the outcome of history is not only in God’s hands – the end of history has already been fulfilled in the Pascha of Christ. It is not ours. We are given sufficient commandments. Deciding what the outcome of history is – is not one of them. Hauerwas correctly observes that taking such responsibility is, in fact, idolatry.

    Tragically, America set about to build the kingdom of God. In the course of that delusion, it practiced genocide, and has mistaken mere prosperity has blessing. Along with other (now) secular states, it is slowly choking the faith of Christians out of existence.

    In the name of that Kingdom of constant improvement – we have aborted 60 million babies and are quickly spreading the gospel of euthanasia. Modernity is a moral failure and our “blessed” nation is among is greatest leaders.

    I am an intentional critic of modernity and think that the ideas that constitute that false faith are probably the greatest danger the Church has ever faced. What I have written is of a piece with the observations of Solzhenitsyn and certain harmonizes with Dostoevsky. It is, I think, a faithful application of our Orthodox faith to the false claims of our culture.

    But it is not the larger culture that concerns me. Nothing I do or say will have an effect on that larger culture. I will not change the world, nor am I responsible for its outcome. But, as a priest, I am deeply concerned with the souls of the Orthodox faithful – and increased understanding and discernment of the world to which they are all too often conformed. The Orthodox faith is utterly incompatible with the 19th century notions of modernity as well as their present iterations. But they are part of the very water we drink and the air we breathe.

    If I draw the lines sharply, it is so what is in front of us may actually be seen. If I draw them too starkly, then I’ll gladly be corrected. However, in my experience of writing and speaking on this topic for some good length of time, I have not found it to be too stark at all. Perhaps it is even understated.

    Forgive me.

    I deeply admire all those who serve others – particularly in dangerous places. But everything they do – is small – as it is for me and you. I served 2 years as a hospice chaplain in Appalachia. You do them one life at a time. And it’s not ultimately the abstractions or even noble sentiments that get you through it. You have to find God in the very particular moments of your service in order to survive. I’ve been a priest for 36 years now – buried many hundreds of people – confessed thousands. It’s always the particular that matters. The other stuff is mostly for discussions over beer with the boys. When service and life get real – God has to get real as well.

    It is said among American soldiers that no one lays his life down for his country. You die for the guy next to you in the foxhole. That is where we truly live. Abstractions are dissolved very quickly in reality. That is certainly my experience. I might add that failure to learn that is a great source for clergy burnout. I’ve seen that more than once. Love of Church, or the Orthodox faith, or even God in a vague sense will not sustain long-term pastoral life. All of it, God included, must be found in the most ordinary, dismal and misbehaving things and people that present themselves to us. And in particular, it is most sweet.

  24. Fr. Stephen, boy can I see the truth of your comment on clergy burn out.

    Surely parishes have to be some of the most unruly children ever. Even the best ones seem to lurch and moan their way forward in the big things. But it is in the everyday mundane things that God is found.

    There was, several years ago, a man of my parish who was widely known as a disagreeable man, unpleasant. I encountered him near the end of his life, he barked at me when I asked him to move his car prior to our Big Dinner.

    The next day, not even knowing my name, he sought me our before Liturgy to apologize. Following the commands of Scripture.

    It remains to this day one of the most moving and memorable Christian acts I have ever experienced.

  25. Father Stephen,

    When you mentioned the fall of the Soviet Union, which you say is the single most positive event of the 20th century, you left out a contributing cause which was very “utopian”, the Soviet nuclear disarmament movement. I submit that that is an example of a “larger” “progressive” cause that, as you said, had a tremendously positive result. I have also always been struck by the petition of the Our Father, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. No, I don’t believe this will be achieved by our efforts, but it seems to me that that is what we are called to strive for. Some Christian writer whose name I have forgotten, likening Christians to colonists exiled from their homeland, said something like, “True colonists will want to make their colony as much like their homeland as they can.” Joseph

  26. This is a very interesting and provocative discussion to which I can relate on many levels.

    I used to engage in considerable social activism in my younger years. I took part in peaceful actions and protests on my own city’s streets as well as at the Pentagon and the United Nations.

    While doing this, my “day job” was working at an inner city community mental health center. I was engaged in trying to bring about large scale change as well as trying to touch the lives of suffering individuals.

    However, the direction of my life shifted so that my energies increasingly went to the individual. Why? Because I came to believe that it is in the hearts of individuals that all meaningful change occurs.

    And generally that change does not come about because of persuasive argument but because whatever we do, we do with love through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I am blessed to be able to do this in my work as a psychologist, but my own heart has been touched by the man who serviced my furnace or the woman who mopped the floors at my workplace just as truly.

    When hearts “go bad”, it is most often because they have been hurt. Anger festers over real or perceived wrongs. A perfect breeding ground for the suggestions of our adversary. And evil gains a foothold.

    The most dangerous person engaged in evil is the one who is certain he/she is right and good, justified by “faith” in the higher principle that justifies the means. The means can include anything – killing, torture and so on.

    My own relationship to societal evil has become increasingly spiritual. I pray. But still I wonder – is that enough?

    I fear that moving too exclusively in the direction of the “small” may become an excuse to avoid a greater responsibility. This greater responsibility is not the modernist notion of building the kingdom on earth nor is it misplaced trust in political solutions.

    Rather, it is awareness of being part of a community and that what hurts another also hurts me. While I cannot stop all pain nor should I try, neither should I be indifferent. Whether it involves an unjust law in my own country or a tyrant in another land, suffering anywhere in the Body belongs to us all.

    What I actually DO in response requires a careful discernment process, as someone else mentioned.

    However, one trend that disturbs me greatly, to be blunt, is when people of faith become activists over the evil of abortion but would not think of doing the same over other evils – war, the death penalty, racism and countless others. (In fact, they may even support them.)

    This disturbs me not because I support abortion (I do not), but because it gives the appearance to people both inside and outside of the faith that Christians are inconsistent. This inconsistency leads the way to doubts about whether love for all is truly the heart of Christianity – or God forbid, some less worthy motive.

    Forgive me if my bluntness offends – I intend no offense but rather a challenge to the thinking of us all, myself most certainly included. It is not easy to discern what we are to do in the face of large scale evil. We cannot accept it but how do we best fight?

  27. Mary, consistency cannot be forced either and it is fraught with difficulties in itself.

    There is a big difference between abortion and the death penalty for instance. One is the unjust taking of an innocent human life. The other is the state exercising it’s legitimate authority, perhaps unjustly, perhaps incorrectly.

    The anti-death penalty movie, Dead Man Walking convinced me at the time that the death penalty was a means for some to come to repentance and strengthened my theoretical support of the death penalty.

    Now I have come to believe that while the State has the authority to, under the law, take the lives of those who murder, it ought not.

    Our system of justice is simply too flawed. But it is not about the act itself it is the inequities and fundamental injustice that surround the act.

    If we had a proper state-church synergy, there would be qualified monastics, or lay folk who would act as healers of the soul in assisting murders to reach the point of confession. Every murderer would be required to submit to an assessment period with such a person. There would be a minimum time period. The family of the slain person would also have the same.

    However there those who are so consumed by evil that they will not humble themselves and ask for forgiveness or come to forgiveness. At times because evil is too entrenched.

    What of those? How to address that horror consistently? That is the conundrum for me. What place is there for retributive justice under the aegis of the state exercising it’s proper authority to restrain and punish?

    How does one apply your principle of consistency in such circumstances? How does the “Seamless Garment” fit. Surely it is not, one size, cut and color fits all is it?

    Of course all of our actions and inactions are done in the midst of such difficult questions especially in an ideological world where even the act of taking out the trash or going to the toilet can become the moment for a “great cause” to be exercised; a “world changing event”

    If I do not do these things “properly” I must be forced to; either coerced by law or shame while deep sexual perversions and abortion are OK. All in the cause if changing the world and making a difference.

    If one enters the larger field of battle, it must be done in prayer and fasting asking always for the guidance and intercession of the Theotokos. If it is done out of our own will to be “right” nothing good will come if it.

    That is what I have gleaned from Father Stephen’s discussions on this topic over the years.

    Submit yourselves all ye nations, for God is with us! Christ is Born!

  28. Joseph
    I am not so sure that the Soviet desire to participate in Nuclear Disarmament was motivated by much beyond economic factors. Having spent the better part of my 20+ years in the USAF involved with either being an aircrew member sitting alert or a War Plans Officer planning for either offense or defense, I have a pretty good idea of the size of the arsenals of Strategic and Tactical nuclear weapons had grown to on both sides.
    Nuclear weaponry is expense to obtain and expensive to maintain. Because of their nature, very special and very expensive maintenance procedures have to be followed on a regular basis. I know we had far more weapons than we could ever need and the sheer cost was hurting us. It was really hurting the Soviet Union because they had a poorer economy and they had a very large arsenal as well.
    One also has to consider the cost of obtaining, maintaining and employing the delivery systems. Both sides had many missiles, missile launching submarines and bombers and fighters dedicated to the Nuclear mission. When one can no longer afford the budget to sustain all this, it makes great economic sense to cut the excess.
    I do agree that the US was motivated in part by altruistic thinking, especially in follow on agreements where we have cut much more deeply, but I am not sure the Soviets were ever “Utopian” in their motivation

  29. Joseph,

    Just some thoughts…

    It is interesting to take a prayer asking God that His will be done on earth, and make it into something that we should try to make true. I think it misses the point of the prayer. The will of God can only be done by the true transformation of human hearts. Too often in the modern world we seem to aim towards making people act as if their hearts were changed even if they aren’t. Christ said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” And that is where the daily grind of our salvation is found. He does not say, “If you love me, make others obey my commandments.” This we cannot do.

    We can, however, make laws that are just (on some level). Indeed, for a lawmaker to create an unjust law is a great sin (there are many such laws). But just laws cannot make a people be just, nor can they effect one way or another anything about the will of God being done on earth.

    The Kingdom is not of this world. When the Kingdom comes – the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, the dead are raised. Anything less than that is not yet the kingdom. In the Eucharist, bread and wine become the Body and Blood of God – that is the Kingdom come.

    Because, in Christ, the Kingdom of God has come, Christians are commanded to live in accordance with that reality. This puts us in strange, contradictory, situations. We need do no violence, because we’re not trying to control the outcome of history. And this puts many Christians in a panic, because they think that if they don’t do the violence bad things will happen. That’s true. But even an atheist would agree to do violence in order to achieve some desired good. Only a Christian who believes in the resurrection could entrust Himself (and the world) to the emptiness and weakness of the Cross. But that is the right path. Christ did not say, “Change the world.” He said, “Die!”

  30. Mary,
    What I see most commonly – are Christians who have lined up with correct opinions. They oppose abortion, etc., injustice wherever, the death penalty, whatever. But these are just ideas, slogans, allegiances of the vague sort. When we die, we will be asked nothing about our opinions. God could care less.

    Those who did not feed Christ, visit Christ, etc., were all probably completely in favor of it. Indeed, they didn’t argue that they thought it was a wrong idea. They simply did nothing.

    But a single cup of water given – that will not lose its reward. We must live small because we cannot live large. We can only think large, and have opinions about the large. The large is the delusion of modernity. If all means of global watching (tv, news, etc.) disappeared – our lives would not change at all other than having less to discuss and argue about at the water cooler (and distract ourselves about while staring at our phones and ignoring everything else).

    To the daily life, there is only small. There is no large.

    Even for the person in power. No one makes “global” decisions. The decisions are small. The consequences might be great…but the decisions are small. When we avoid the small, we use the great to deceive ourselves and delude ourselves – for, since the great is always somewhere else, it is easily subjected to the imagination and becomes mostly what we want it to be. Only the small judges us and reveals the truth of our existence.

    God became “a man.” Not MAN.

    I like, however, your bringing up our solidarity with everyone. The truth of the “whole Adam” is indeed important. But that truth must begin in the small. “My brother is my life,” must be known and lived before we dare say, “All of humanity is my life.” The latter can easily be an abstraction when it is intended to be the most profound, mystical truth of our existence.

  31. Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for your comment. Michael too. I am not in disagreement with what you have written (who am I to have opinions?), only raising questions that sometimes plague me.

    To illustrate my concern a bit further, I will cite something “small” that is also far-reaching (and is real). Where I live, if a woman becomes homeless and needs to enter a shelter, she first has to go through 2 weeks at “central intake”. Here, she is given a place to stay for the night – but during the day she is turned out to do whatever, only able to come back in the evening. Our winters can be harsh. Anything she has owned cannot be safely stored for her. Only after two weeks of this can she be placed in a shelter where she will have a personal place to “live” while she works out the problems that made her homeless. This is large (and a societal sin).

    In the last couple of years, I have known women and worked with them closely as they were facing eviction or foreclosure and they had no personal or family resources that could stop it. I can and do work on the small level to help the woman I am encountering, to help her get her needs met in the most safe and dignified manner possible. This is “small”.

    But can I stop there? What about the other women – of which there are many? Do I have a responsibility to try to change this societal sin (as I have dubbed it) for their sake?

    There are many other similar examples I could cite and, of course, I could not take them all on. But this illustrates the dilemma of which I write. Can I be comfortable helping the one or two while knowing that I have left the others behind?

    The answer, of course, is that I cannot be comfortable. But the Holy Spirit must guide me in what to do in such situations – not my own “opinions” or those of political movements (that may simultaneously include views inconsistent with my faith).

  32. What a needful discussion. One of my most difficult struggles in my Christian life has been extricating my vision of life that I received during the deep indoctrination of my youth. The sources were well meaning, varied, and deeply committed. My parents (agnostic and athiest), my private and public school education, my introduction to the Christian Faith through strict Calvinism, and the everpresent showering by the media with the bombs of medernity’s vision.

    As an Orthodox Christian the struggles continue. Modernity is very beguiling. From the Renaissance, to the American and French experiments, to the Russian and Eastern European (maybe even Ethiopian) dives into communism millions have succumbed to the siren song. The current penchant to include the whole globe in this world view reveals the degree of commitment that modernity demands.

    As I look at the 2 ft ornamented tree in this room and plan to pray vespers this evening the siren song fades.

    May our bishops be lashed to the mast of the Ship of the Church as she voyages in the storm of this world with Her keel in the waters of Eternity.

    Whew! That is my story and by the Grace of God I’m stickin’ to it.

  33. Mary,
    It’s actually worse than that. What you describe as a “societal” sin is actually a personal sin. We do not take the homeless into our homes (we fear them, etc.). And so we pawn them off on “society.” Our social problem – but their cold nights. The greater problem is that we have institutionalized our charity – so it becomes a “problem.” Then we discuss the problems and what can be done about it, etc.

    I work a lot among addicts (most of whom are quite poor). It is not in the least unusual for a recovering addict to take in someone else from the street. Indeed, the poor are constantly doing this sort of thing. The problem is that most of us are not poor and cannot therefore afford the dangers and inconvenience that actual small charity involves. Instead, we organize ourselves so our money can shield us from the dangers of charity. If you are cold and hungry and need help – do not go into an affluent neighborhood. They’ll call the cops. Go into the ghetto. Someone will take you in and give you a meal. That’s America.

  34. Of course you are right here, Fr. Stephen. I have seen the same.

    We could also say that racism can only be resolved if everyone accepts those of other races as they would accept Christ. And this is very true.

    But if there are laws that are racist (e.g. when it was illegal for an African American to go to the same school, use the same restroom or marry the person they love regardless of their race), does the Christian never try to directly challenge or change the law? I am referring to laws that have been changed in the US, of course, but how did they get changed? I could say to the person of color, come use my restroom – but that would not change life for the vast numbers of people who suffered under the law.

    I am not intending to be argumentative but rather clarify. Are you suggesting that the Christian never work toward civic change? I agree that it is not our focus – as though we believe we can bring about the kingdom through such actions. But should the Christian never protest, never involve themselves in political discourse or challenge anything in the public domain?

    Again, I struggle with this myself. I do not believe that politic “solutions” are ever really solutions. Only Christianity is. But if the Christian is silent while brothers and sisters suffer, what does that communicate? I am often at a loss with this.

  35. Father Stephen,

    I appreciate your words in your response to Fr. Matthew and Mary. “Taking charge” of the apparent outcome of history is, indeed, a kind of delusional, utilitarian idolatry, while working out our salvation in fear and trembling is what the Lord awaits from us.
    It is also, paradoxically, the most efficacious way to impact this world’s universal fate.
    St Isaac the Syrian hits the bull’s-eye when he scandalously stresses that one who weeps over his own sins in stillness is supremely greater than one who returns thousands to the worship of God…(!)

    The notion of ‘the whole of Adam’ is also, undeniably not some conceptual abstraction of the mind but a revelation of the Holy Spirit in the heart of a specific person.
    The good will of God – done by the true transformation of human hearts – might often be externally expressed in this world, but undeviatingly through its local, “de-centralized” expression rather than any global, “centralized” policy, since the exercise of one’s freedom is required for it.

    Larger groups that recruit in order to offer aid, [Fr Matthew mentioned Syria] easily play into the hands of ominous, corporate, centralized motives, while independent individuals and de-centralized, local aid has a far better chance at authenticity.

    The ‘progress myth’ also, unquestionably does not stand, when spiritually scrutinized. If anything, if we were to somehow trace the global direction of the world’s history, what we will see is that grave sins –that have perhaps ‘…always been present’– are increasingly not being recognized as sin by people who are baptized, identifying as Christians; isn’t this the perfect definition of apostasy?

  36. Mary,
    Saint Paisios was clear that there is a time and place for public protest and a time and place for personal weeping. He did both. However, if you were to calculate the time offered to the two, you would probably get less than 10% of the first and 90% of the second in his life…

  37. Dino,
    A good model to follow. Thanks for reminding me of the wisdom of St. Paisios who has been a good friend to me.

  38. Mary,
    I think there is a place for civil disobedience – as well as positive lobbying. Of this there is no doubt. In our modern world, however, this model has turned Christians into political activists in a manner that draws them into the maze of global/national delusion. Everything imaginable that can possibly portray itself as belonging to this justice/injustice model begs our attention. It has become something of a new passion – a madness that has swept our nation into a terrible state of anger (on almost every side). We need some strong medicine to get free of the delusion.

    How did American law get changed? As a native Southerner who grew up in Southern Churches and saw Jim Crow laws up close – I’ll assure you of one thing. The racist laws that gripped our nation were supported by Christian Churches. They were notably opposed by the Catholic Church and the Orthodox. At the end, liberal Protestants came along with very little very late. But by then you almost had the idea that those laws had been the idea of a wicked, anti-Christian state. Racism was preached in the pulpit of my local Baptist Church. It was taught to me as a child in Summer Church camp. It was treated as a matter of doctrine in some Southern denominations – such that one prominent Presbyterian group even denied that blacks had souls. Those laws were evil because the people believed in evil things…including members of my own family…including myself until sometime in my teen years.

    It was the preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr., that ultimately made the difference. He was right. Dead right. His words, like those of a prophet, pricked the consciences of many, many Southern white Christians. The laws needed to change – but the people weren’t changed by the laws. It was the gospel. King, of course, championed civil disobedience and he was right. There was a point in time that it was almost a sin not to participate in his civil disobedience. Christian uprisings are known throughout history – mostly for the good.

    I regularly participate in pro-life efforts of varying sorts and have throughout my priesthood. But the most essential work remains on the small details to which I can turn my hand.

  39. Just a small comment on combining the two actions (large and small). Our parish helps the local Catholic maternity home in Central Texas (Annunciation) in a small way. For the first time last January we joined other Orthodox in front of the Capitol and sang Orthodox hymns as the March for Life marched past. It was the proclamation of beauty and love as a “protest” of a different sort. ..

  40. Father,

    “But just laws cannot make a people be just, nor can they effect one way or another anything about the will of God being done on earth.” Father, I must respectfully but quite strenuously disagree with this statement, especially the second clause. Just laws do not *magically* make people just, but they serve an *educative* and *supportive* function. They foster righteousness in well-disposed souls, and show up unrighteousness in others. A just law, a just leader, a wise teacher, a good priest, good parents, all these are, in a sense, the presence of Christ on earth, and a foretaste of the Kingdom of God. Of course Grace can penetrate into the most degenerate of situations and through Grace an individual soul can attain to salvation in such situations, and, yes, it is a greater holiness for an individual to be faithful in the face of persecution and hostility, but I don’t see that there is scriptural or patristic support for a view that we should be positive or indifferent to societal depravity for the reason that it produces martyrs. I would maintain that it is still part of God’s will that earthly laws, customs, interactions, etc. be *transformed*, through the efforts of human beings, where possible. That is my view, anyway. Joseph

  41. Joseph,
    I stand corrected. I think that you have a strong point. People do have a tendency to conform to laws (good and bad). I think of the abortion laws. Opinion, and behavior, changed for the worse, slowly, after 1973. No doubt, if the laws change, it will make an impact, slowly, over time. I do not in the least want to suggest any kind of indifference towards societal depravity.

    One patristic treatment of culture sees it as the “garments of skin” that God provided Adam and Eve. It is not the same thing as the Kingdom, but it has a salutary effect, a protecting effect. Exposing children to evil influences is a terrible thing.

    I should have written more clearly and reflected more carefully. Thank you for a good word – well said.

  42. “We have imbibed an ethic of the important – a form of valuing sentiment above all else. We are frequently told in various and sundry ways that if we care about certain things, if we like certain people and dislike others, if we understand certain facts – we are good persons. And we are good because we are part of the greater force that is making the world a better place.”

    This has been something I’ve struggled with. As I’ve grown in faith, it feels that I am almost involved in an exercise of de-programming myself of this worldview, though previously I did not consciously recognize what the target of my struggle was. Eventually, it dawned on me that I was holding onto an array of connected things — being an ‘enlightened liberal’, holding the right views, understanding the right things, having a culturally-acceptable faith that was really just weak and hidden — that was keeping me from a fuller faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ. Simply recognizing the target of my struggle seems to have been a major part of the battle itself.

    There is something really insidious about the false religion of modernity, though. It infects the mind with ideas that seem aimed at destroying what it means to be human, cutting off our ability to commune. This in turn cuts us off from God, from our fellow man, and from nature. That is my experience, at least.

  43. Carl L. Your summary is correct. The Good News is that it need not rule. God has already overcome it.

    The struggle indeed lies mostly in recognizing that.

    Thank you for your post. Merry Christmas.

  44. Joseph,

    A few additional thoughts. Some of our thoughts about laws, etc., are rooted in the consciousness begotten of the modern nation state and the myths of democracy. One of those myths is that power is derived from the consent of the governed. The reality is that the authority of the government is from God and is ultimately answerable to Him, regardless of the theories it might invoke to justify itself.

    The modern nation state as a concept is somewhat problematic in Christian terms. It is not an issue that I have any particular expertise in. It was a major point of discussion when I was in grad school – but not so much in the theological circles of my conversation. It’s on my bucket list of things to attend to. Mostly, I have it filed under things that are “problematic” and not to be taken for granted without a very critical review.

    We certainly have some input on laws – though not nearly as much as we imagine (or are told). Of course, the power of the state always rests in its willingness to do violence (“it does not bear the sword in vain”).

    Here’s a conundrum: lets say a majority of the people support and unjust law (eg. pro-abortion legislation). As such, the democratic state can claim that these laws are “legitimate.” A Christian must resist such evil, which can become quite difficult. This is complicated even more when the democratic state claims to be “secular.” There is, in fact, no such thing as “secular,” nothing that truly operates on its own without reference to God. The secular state is as much under the judgment of God as a state that claims to be Christian.

    Let’s imagine for a moment that we’re living in a monarchy, and the monarchy institutes an evil law. How do Christians resist it? What does a Christian do in a monarchy that differs from what we should do under a democracy?

    The ultimate power of a Christian, it seems to me, rests not in our willingness to do violence, but in our willingness to be martyred.

  45. “The ultimate power of a Christian rests not in our willingness to do violence, but in our willingness to be martyred…”

    Perfectly sumed up!

  46. The power of the Cross is it not. The ultimate good that counters evil.

    Still the state has legitimate authority to restrain and punish.

    The authority in some sense remains even if unjust and/or evil in application.

  47. Michael,
    I think I’m going to set myself the task of tracking down Hauerwas’ thinking on the nation state this coming year. It is not his conclusions that interest me – it’s his analysis. Since the nation state post-dates most of the body of the fathers’ works – you gotta do what you gotta do.

  48. I have read a lot about it over the years. I am certainly neither an expert nor a scholar, more an interested amateur. It was part of my intellectual journey to the Church so once I got here, I kind of dropped it.

    One conclusion I remember coming to early on, long before I was really Christian, was that monarchy seemed to be a natural form of government. Of course there are many nuances but it just seemed to fit.

    The nation-state crystalized out of the religious wars of Europe. There is nothing either natural or inevitable about it. Combined with economic theories based on scarcity creating and sustaining enmity it can be quite nasty.

    It is deeply problematic for Orthodox Christians. In certain forms it might even be considered heretical. I certainly think that might be the case with the “secular state”. It is, at the least, idolatry.

    It is a tough study and requires a great deal of translation into a Christian understanding of people, authority, justice and power. Especially if you start with an hypothesis contra nation-state.

    If you think it could help I’d be glad to offer you some resources on the nuance side of the equation. Works I found important but not directly so. They pointed me in a certain direction because of what they revealed of the nature of nation-states. Pretty personal so they might be distractions for you.

    As an Anglo-phile the study of the kingship of Henry II is a good place to look.

    May God guide you and enlighten you. A through Christian exposition is needed as an antidote to the ideological/nihilist understanding of polity that dominates.

  49. Father, Thank you for your kind words. I, in turn, must examine whether I do not give more importance than I should to political and legal developments. I think that I do. May God have mercy on me for my idolatry. I need to consider your words. Joseph

  50. Joseph,
    A lot of my thought, admittedly, has been influenced by Hauerwas (I studied under him) – in terms of reflecting on modern culture.

    Much of what we think of in terms of our relationship to the nation-state as a citizen is predicated only on very recent European/American experience, and rather limited at that. I’m cautious to derive a theological narrative based on those assumptions – something feels not right in it – and with the suspicion that we’re being co-opted into agreeing to do something that we don’t really want to do.

    Hauerwas is exceedingly not Church/State oriented (with a hefty bit of Mennonite thought mixed in). There is a sense that as citizens of a so-called democratic regime, we are inherently coopted into wars, whether we agree to them or not. What Christians do with war is certainly debateable – but it is very questionable that we must fight in them as a matter of duty or something owed to the state. There’s a lot of tricky thinking involved in all of this – or so I have found.

  51. “Yet, I don’t subscribe to the notion that things are getting worse or better morally. ”

    Fr. Matthew, this statement you made is completely indefensible. I’m struggling to understand how one can live in modern day America and not see how worse morally we’re getting, seemingly with each passing day.
    You also mentioned the progress we’ve made in the last 20 years on freeing children from sexual abuse. I’m not sure if that’s true or not. Let’s say for the sake of argument the point is true. There’s certainly an odd juxtaposition then (to put it nicely) that we’re “freeing” children from that, at the same time that we’re exposing them to rampant pornography and our schools and society are encouraging children….yes children….to undergo “gender reassignment”.

  52. Alan, One can say as Fr. Matthew did that we are not getting better or worse morally and still recognize the decline in objective moral behavior.

    Our culture dies bit create immorality. It certainly has allowed much more immoral behavior, often by saying the behavior is not immoral. That is the problem with morals as a way evaluating goodness. Among many problems what are we to do with Proverbs 23:7 “as he thinketh in his heart, so is he…”

    I can be an outwardly moral man and not inherit the Kingdom. Scripture is repeat with such examples.

    I know for a fact that I am capable of committing the most immoral acts imaginable. I don’t. My immorality is not deeply evil.

    However, in the dark parts of my heart lurks evil of the most heinous kind. So, I confess. Gradually, by God’s grace, my heart is changed.

    I am not as inclined to evil as I once was, but, as an addict I must never think the seduction of evil is wholly gone.

    My morality has changed not a whit.

  53. I must add, my lovely wife does not believe me when I say such things. The main reason is because she is much purer in heart than I.

    What we see as a decline in morality could easily be the darkness in my heart being revealed as part of the preparation for the coming of our Lord.

    “If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it is not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.”

    May our good Lord have mercy on us for He is good and the only lover of mankind.

  54. Thank you for your comments Michael, I appreciate them.

    Fr, thank you for this post and for your comments especially. I found many nuggets of pure gold in your comments on this post.

    Dino, once again, this article and comments remind me of an outstanding comment you made a year or so back, for which I am forever grateful: “As Orthodox, we’re hesychasts, not activists.”

  55. small, suffering, poor, displaced–for Christmas!

    The 2016 Nativity Letter of His Beatitude Patriarch John X

    “We are in great need of meditating over Christmas. The Divine Baby has come to share with us the hardships of his creatures. He came poor invading the whole world in the tidings of his love. He was displaced like most of our beloved brothers.

    On the day of His advent, angels expected good tidings and peace; they chanted as well, and said: “Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, and joy among people”. Many people read these words and think that the peace of the whole creation is restricted to enjoying security, prosperity and easiness in life.

    At the time of temptation, many people would ask and wonder, where is your peace Jesus in the events of our world? The answer will come right away from the Gospel itself. The peace of the whole creation, and the peace of the human spirit are called to blossom and grow in the human souls that accept the words of God; otherwise how shall we understand and be aware of the fact that the birth of Christ has planted peace in the souls and in the earth, whereas Rachel wept and mourned over thousands of children in Bethlehem who were murdered when Jesus was born and became as blossoms to the Christian martyria all over the world?”

    http://www.antiochian.org/2016-nativity-letter-his-beatitude-patriarch-john-x

  56. As essentially a political science major in college, my senior thesis dealt a lot with nationalism, national narratives, and political legitimacy. If your study, Father, takes you into researching political science’s perspectives on these issues, there is a lot of good material out there. It was really interesting for me, but did open up a lot of questions. (My thesis was on how national history curriculum in Egypt and Syria portrayed religious minorities– mostly Christians– and the political ends involved.) As you stated in a previous article, Father, there is a lot of selective storytelling that goes into creating a national narrative that will provide the state with political legitimacy. I found it fascinating, which, for better or for worse, fed an interest in dissecting propaganda. But it also gave me a heightened sensitivity to the role of state-mandated/sponsored social studies curriculum. It is one factor as to why I wouldn’t feel comfortable teaching social studies in public high schools.

    And whoever mentioned the state and the use of force: in political science/sociology, the monopoly in the legitimate use or authorization of force is a defining feature of the modern state. (Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation”) Just look up “state monopoly on violence” for more. So I am interested, Father, in your statement that Christians don’t necessarily have a duty to go to war on behalf of the state. This seems to be something you are still just pondering, so I’m not asking to push the issue.

    As for monarchy/authoritarianism vs. democracy: Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith drew no distinction between democratic and autocratic leaders, assuming that either will do whatever it takes to take/stay in power, the only difference being the number of supporters they need to do so. They’re making no value claims either way, rather claiming a moral equivalency between the two. We definitely do not need to be confined to that kind of nihilism. The most problematic aspect, I think, and the one that played a large part in undermining my faith in the social sciences as sciences, is the idea of the “rational actor” that is central to their theory. The hope in the social sciences is, I think, that if we can assume that humans are “rational,” meaning that they know what they want and act in a manner that they think will achieve those ends, we can isolate their irrationalities and create a basis for the study of them and their activities as a science. But humans aren’t rational.

  57. Forgive me for the foray into political science. Maybe my background has something to do with my confusion about the following matter…
    Returning to the topic of just laws that Joseph and Father Stephen were discussing. It seems to me that because of the size of our enterprises even outside of the political arena (businesses, nonprofits, schools, etc.), we are also applying a sort of soft lawmaking to these entities– policies. I recognize that, just like laws, they are necessary to formulate to provide order and consistency to an organization. But, just like laws, following policy does not necessarily make you righteous. The one example could be a banker vetting people for loans at a national bank franchise, like Bank of america or Wells Fargo. Say a financially impoverished young woman comes in who needs a housing loan. She has struggled financially or personally through no fault of her own and has children who will suffer if they do not get the loan needed to secure housing. The woman has either little to no financial record or one deemed unreliable by the bank’s standards. If she was only given the chance, she could prove herself. The banker must follow company policy based on the bare numbers and deny her the loan. S/he has done nothing morally “wrong” by following the policy, but because the policy exists, s/he has potentially missed an opportunity for mercy that may have existed if the present system of large corporate banks with blanket policies did not exist, of which she is just a cog in the machine. In this scenario, the banker is not dealing with their own money, and so is not able to make an exception on the behalf of this young lady. That is an important and reasonable factor in the hypothetical example. But under different circumstances, a smaller bank where the banker could exercise more individual discretion, giving personal loans, whatever, there would be more opportunity for acts of mercy and righteousness.

    So in our society that has hedged itself in with law/policies, its no wonder that people are constantly looking to change laws and policies to make them more just. If we are supposed to just follow the policy in so many arenas, no one wants to feel that they are enacting policies that are wrong/harmful. We’ve exported our ethic making to policy makers. As you said, Father, those who make the laws/policies/decisions are still making small decisions, even if they have a larger impact. In that way, it seems that laws/policies can still be good and stem from the spiritual good/generosity of the police maker, i.e., if s/he sets a policy in place to provide employees with good life/work balance and generous time off benefits. But that generosity of spirit does not make the HR Director in charge of enacting the policy generous- s/he is just following protocol. So how are we to pursue righteousness in an environment where we are just expected to follow protocol? The HR director was more a natural example. The HR Director’s spirit of generosity will be determined by how well they follow those protocols. But what about when we are called upon to enact policies harmful to others? Does the banker participate in sin by taking part in denying the young woman the loan she needs and leaving them destitute? In another scenario, a public school teacher who affirmed to his/her students that homosexuality is not wrong would partake in sin, even if the school/district was the one who instituted the policy. But would simply conceding, according to school policy, that people have different opinions/not voicing an opinion at all, if called upon to do so, be partaking in sin? The public school system pretends to be neutral regarding morality/religion as a public institution, which one individual cannot/should not try to change. But the courts also have chosen to view public school teachers as governmental employees/representatives, and so pass down to them these policies of moral “neutrality” and secularism. As upholders of these policies, which are often formulated out of necessity and compromise, do teachers in any way participate in the sins of the formulators?

    Oh my. I am so wordy. As clearly as I’ve tried to articulate my question and thoughts, I’m still it’s still all a jumbled mess. Forgive me for dumping this on all of you. This is something that’s been swirling around in my head for a long time, though I haven’t had to deal with them too much in my work life– so far.

  58. ELM,
    There are interesting assumptions on the part of modern nation states. One is the concept of secularism. There really is no such thing as secularism from a Christian perspective. Everything belongs to God – including the State. The State derives its power from God and is answerable to Him. That thought once upon a time placed limits on warfare. There were clear moral demands. Today, only treaties limit warfare, and they are notoriously useless.

    It is easy to understand how the secular state came into existence. For years, America was a secular state in name only, focusing primarily on the promotion of a Protestant consensus. But the State as a “neutral zone” is not workable in the long run. (It has been failing increasingly over the past number of decades.) The modern state is born out of the consequences of the Reformation and the dissolution of the Medieval Synthesis. America’s founding fathers imagined a successful secular state – and coasting on the cultural consensus that preceded it, managed to maintain such an illusion for an extended period.

    You cannot have a secular anything, in the long run, because there real isn’t any such thing as secularity. It’s an imaginary term that finally reveals itself to be anti-God. It can only maintain its “no-Go-zone” by attacking God Himself when push comes to shove.

    We have created a state on the notion that as long as people agree about economics and such, then they can successfully live together, ignoring all of their religious differences, etc. This is true only so long as they agree to hold their religious beliefs in a private manner, excluding them from their public life. That was essentially a Protestant notion – religion as the assent to certain notions. It is anti-sacramental.

    Needed, I think, is a much larger, more detail account of religious rights and the commitment of the state to faith in the One God. It can then practice tolerance. Mostly, the current ideas of the nation state are simply flawed, as we are daily discovering.

  59. So in our society that has hedged itself in with law/policies, its no wonder that people are constantly looking to change laws and policies to make them more just.

    I think that most people are not interested in laws that are “more just” as much as in laws that reflect themselves. People see justice in their own views and, to use the word generally, complete heresy in any views that oppose them. This is played out consistently in our own land (I am in the U.S.) and is only getting worse. We have enshrined Law as our god and consider the social violence done in its name as “justifiable” for the greater good. I think it is a great sin, deeply rooted in the individualism of our time. Just my thoughts.

  60. Justice has no meaning absent God other than “might makes right”. It is the vision of Nihilism.

  61. Fr. Stephen,

    I have been reflecting on your response and went back and read some of your previous posts on secularism, which were very helpful. My central dilemma remains, but I think reading your reflections on the matter has helped me to shift my focus towards lifting the scales of secularism covering my own eyes, and then addressing the reality around me (the political/cultural push to remove religion from public life).

    “The question that has importance is the encounter between religious practice and secular culture.” *from your post “Do Something”*

    During my study abroad (studying politics in the Middle East) and very shortly after my decision to pursue union with the Orthodox Church, I began sensing the false consciousness of modernity among my classmates that you’ve described so many times in your blog. This was a crucial period for me in turning from the career/life path I had laid out for myself in light of what I was learning in Orthodoxy and in light of what I was seeing in my classmates. Much like a poster, John from Romania, on your article “A Path Beyond Secularism”, I turned from a path that would have led to overworking myself and being hyper-politically aware and up-to-date in order to make it in D.C. and in order to “make a difference.” I found that in pursuing that path, I had given up some of the values I held dear pro to college and which informed my choice to even go to a Christian college at all.
    So I’ve been searching for a new direction ever since. My question about the public school teacher was really about me. Despite previous resolutions to never approach public education, I found that public schools are really the only place for someone to teach English as a Second Language full-time in this country. The thought terrifies me though because of how political the whole public education endeavor is, and of all the regulations placed on teachers, particularly the enforced “secularity.” I have previously considered whether it would ever be a sin to omit crossing yourself because of the particular social circumstances you are in. During my time in the Middle East, I felt that omitting to cross myself would constitute a denial of Christ. I was mostly surrounded by Muslims and secular Americans, so there was initially a fear to publicly represent Christ in that way. The thought of not being able to cross myself while on the job in a public school hurts and confuses me. I certainly wouldn’t be looking to proselytize students. Its the fear of coercion into hiding my faith and developing a double mind as to when I can display my faith and when I cannot.
    Today, the priest at the parish nearest me mentioned that St. Basil the Great’s grandparents lived in the forests of Pontus for 7 years in order to avoid “an occasion to either renounce Christ or die.” I felt like that was speaking to me because I partly wonder if working under such conditions (hiding my faith in practice in accordance with laws regulating religion in the public schools) would on many occasions lead to a refutal of Christ. On the other hand, I wonder if I’m just avoiding confrontation by attempting to steer clear of situations where my practice and witness to the faith would conflict with the circumstances around me– which is hypocrisy because I had no such qualms about returning to live as a religious minority in the Middle East again. But maintaining a Christian witness under Muslim rule is a much clearer issue to me than doing so under the attempted secularity of American public life. I struggle with the seeming futility of choosing a path where I could be disciplined and fired after only a short time for following the prodding of my heart and crossing myself or saying who knows what in the moment, vs. my seeming need to keep myself from such conflicting situations.

  62. Forgive me for my wordiness again. This is something I’ve been pondering for several weeks now as I am at a crunch point of deciding which way to go. Its been very distressing for me at times.

  63. ELM, you are facing the dilemma of our age I think and not just theoretically.

    May God guide you and strengthen you.

  64. ELM,
    We go into the situations where we see Christ going and we trust in Him. Perhaps crossing yourself would get you into trouble, and perhaps it’s trouble that Christ means for you. We are in a time when there will be conflict. For many in the past few years, it has meant death in horrible fashion. For us, we risk problems, maybe even running afoul of Human Resources. But we’re going to be of little worth if we turn away from trouble. So we live. We serve Christ, and don’t worry too much about the consequences. We have a God. We’ll be fine.

  65. Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you so much. That is more the direction I was leaning recently, and the stance I took in following a pull to return to Jordan recently. I went knowing that there would be some dangers involved in going (which sadly may have increased since I left a few short months ago).
    Being a neophyte while studying in the Middle East was a very unique experience. Many of the things from that time left a huge impression on me. This was just before ISIS exploded into Iraq and the world scene. It wasn’t *so* dangerous for us being in Amman, but because of proximity to Syria and visiting Israel/Palestine, I did have moments where I confronted the idea that I COULD die. Possibly even for being a Christian. One evening the priest at the Orthodox Cathedral mentioned to be thankful for even the ability to go to Church freely, considering what was happening to our Christian brothers and sisters to the north in Syria and Iraq. “You never know, it could happen here next…” he said. So I had some very clear moments of seeing what the cost of following Christ could be and of relinquishing my fear. It was very freeing. I saw what an obstacle fear is. Sadly, I have obviously lost that since. But I have been searching for it.
    The situation of Christians in the Middle East is very near and dear to my heart now. I know some of them. Most Holy Mother, protect us all!

  66. ELM,
    May our Lord give you discernment and courage in everything. There are times when we are called to proclaim our faith and times when our strength is vanishing, and we can then only act like the Crypto-Christians who would secretly cross themselves with minor movement or who would do their prostrations locked in toilets. These things have always been happening everywhere. But the one thing we mustn’t do is concentrate and ponder on any specific moments of our weakness with guilt, instead, we ought to continually cultivate our sacrificial ‘fire’, to help the Spirit’s spark as much as we can, so that one day God strengthens us enough to imitate His true followers, the martyrs… We have them as our constant inspiration, one we continually renew and replenish internally, they are our joy.

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