A Better World is Within You

“We must eliminate poverty, oppression, racism…”

How is it possible to disagree with the demand for justice? Who would not agree to end all suffering? How can we not commit our lives to bringing about a better world?

The desire for justice and an end to suffering are deeply seductive in our modern world. Being told that these are false desires flies in the face of almost everything that characterizes our present culture. On their surface, these desires seem deeply religious. But as religions go, they are married more to hell than to heaven. And, just to keep my readers a little off-balance, I will start by thinking of this from a Buddhist perspective.

An easy summary of the teachings of the Buddha is to say that he offered a way to escape the world of suffering. It is possible to critique his method and his conclusions. But, prior to the modern period, no one would have criticized his observations regarding suffering in this world.

Siddhārtha Gautama lived some centuries before Christ. Disease and death were unavoidable, medical help of but little benefit. A large part of any population would not live to see adulthood. His story was that his parents sheltered him from all this. His spiritual journey began when he left that safety and first encountered old age, suffering and death. His experience posed the essential religious question: what of suffering?

It can be said that every religion in the world addresses the problem of suffering. They vary in their accounts of suffering’s origin and of the means of addressing it. But all recognize that the problem of suffering is at the very core of human existence. The Modern Project can itself be seen as a religious response to the problem of suffering. However, in a strange twist of Christian eschatology, modernity assumes that suffering, sorrow and injustice can be ended. And, if those things cannot be utterly obliterated, then the world is still rightly engaged in the ever-increasing pursuit of that goal.

A common point in any endeavor is that the first 90-95 percent of a project is the most easily accomplished. The last 5 percent or so, the completion that encompasses perfection, is the most pernicious and persistent. I have friends in Rotary International. One of them was the primary leader in Rotary’s efforts to eradicate polio. I recall the incredible efforts in my childhood that removed polio from the list of American dangers. The same work has successfully reduced its existence to only three countries. And yet, year by year, it persists. Completion is a very difficult thing.

Eliminating a disease is but a little thing. There are no vaccines against racism and poverty, no medicines that protect us from anger and greed. Indeed, even our drive against disease has sometimes resulted in new and unforeseen disease. Current studies suggest that our overly antiseptic world is producing allergies and other intractable problems. We may need dirt more than we know.

Christianity does not envision a world without suffering and injustice, except as a final gift from God in the Eschaton. God has not created an evil world, but neither has He removed evil from the world or destroyed disease. Christ tramples down Death by death, but does not thereby exempt His followers from enduring the same: we’re all going to die. His invitation to take up the Cross is a blank invitation to share in His sufferings.

I have written before about the deception of “building a better world.” Perhaps it would be proper to say that it’s fine to work for a “slightly better world,” or “improvements.” This is similar to saying that a glass of wine a day is good for your health. However, it doesn’t take much more than that to harm your health. The drive for improvement is itself fraught with problems.

Justice is an insatiable goal. Nothing can ever be fair enough, equal enough, right enough. Real or imagined, injustice remains and will remain until God alone makes it otherwise. In the modern world, the pendulum swings. Revolutions destroy empires and eradicate oppressors, always replacing them with new empires and new faces of oppression. Every swing of the pendulum seems to leave justice at a remove.

Christ said, “The Kingdom of God does not come with observation…. the Kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21). It is only with the apprehension of the inner Kingdom that human beings can be made to understand just how difficult the Kingdom’s coming truly is. If I can’t bring forth the Kingdom within my own heart, surely I shouldn’t imagine that by some act of force or law I could bring it forth within the larger world.

All of this being true, the virtues required for life in this world are not a passion for justice and zeal for a better world. Patient endurance and the ability to bear suffering are of much greater use. For the Church, an abiding question must be, “How do we become the kind of community that can support people in the sufferings of their lives?” This is not an acquiescence to suffering. It is the sober recognition that the limits of our power to remake the world require us to learn how to live in the world. Our hope is in the Kingdom of God, whose coming is sheer gift and wonder.

 

53 comments:

  1. Fr.,

    I am afraid to stop striving for a better world. I feel as if I can’t work with all these amazing tools at our disposal to help end people’s suffering, then what good is any of it? What good am I to people if the only thing i can do is maybe slightly ameliorate their discomfort?

    I don’t want to accept this broken world, and then at worst I blame God for leaving us here to suffer surrounded by enemies.

    I don’t understand our continued suffering, or our answer to it, beyond just accepting “God’s plan/will/time.”

    I cognitively understand that I am disordered in this, but I don’t know how to reconcile my heart to God in peace over these things.

  2. This post reminds me of a Merton quote: “What is the relation of [contemplation] to action? Simply this. He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity, and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas. There is nothing more tragic in the modern world than the misuse of power and action.”

  3. Thank you Father. I have grown tired of the justice demands that substitute for real metanoia and the self-wrangling (if I may put it that way) that a walk with Christ seems to bring up whether we like it or not, especially when we don’t. I do think there is a deeper sense of justice in the truth of compassion; that is, in the personal. Do we care who’s hurt in our midst? Can we at least look at them and address them? I don’t think justice is covered by “even” or “fair” (and that goes back to your post on debts). But there is a way to give love that does so much. Even in studies of the homeless, many have said that the best gift is to speak to someone, to treat them with the respect of what it means to be a human being. I think the story of Lazarus and the rich man is really there — including the gulf that becomes very real which we may someday not be able to cross.

  4. I believe we were tasked with making disciples, not fixing the world. Yes, the making of Disciples does change the world for the better but I am quick to remember that all the Utopian, fix the world schemes invented by man have always resulted in far worse suffering than existed before. That does not mean that we should not help others and resist injustice but we certainly cannot fix the all of it. Your post is a very good reminder for us not to fall into the Social Gospel heresy and remember what the Lord actually commanded us to do.

  5. This is a mystery:

    If I try to make the world a better place, I will largely create institutions and programs and systems that will eliminate suffering in all its forms – and I will largely fail. If I get to know the people around me and in the process provide them with whatever good things they need that I have, I will incidentally relieve suffering and make the world a better place.

    If I try to gain the world I will lose even my own soul. If I give even my soul to Christ as unworthy and defer to Him in all things, I might even gain the world.

  6. Thank you , Father! Whenever I write something, I always tell myself, “I am my own worst editor!” It is almost always true. LoL!

    P.S. – first line; second-to-last paragraph: “comeac”. 🙂

  7. PN,

    “…blame God for leaving us here to suffer surrounded by enemies.”

    For whatever it’s worth, that’s pretty much the first 2/3 of the psalm Christ quotes from the cross in a nutshell.

    As for slightly ameliorating someone’s discomfort… so they can focus their thoughts on something other than their own pain, to think and do things, forgive others, pray and seek their own salvation, know that someone has gone and helped ameliorate their discomfort and seek to pay that forward,… that all seems genuinely good. If anything, it seems even more worthwhile than merely to “end people’s suffering” (which specific phrasing frankly triggers all sorts of horrible images of improvised euthanasia in my mind).

    Fr. Stephen,

    How does one go about distinguishing endurance from acquiescence and aim for the former while avoiding the latter?

  8. I recently read a short article that excoriated Mother Teresa for her abject failure to end suffering. That made her evil by that author’s lights.

    Remember, justice is of the law and by the law we are all condemned.

    Mercy is much more difficult and, appatently, requires the shedding of our own blood for the sake of others.

    Somehow justice always demands the shedding of someone else’s blood. Eventually it ends up with one person in a dark room with a gun and nowhere else to point it but at one’s own head. Nietzche would have us believe the illusion that the man standing alone in victory with his sword dripping with human blood is the Pinnacle of Humanity. The Ubermensch.

    Instead it is the God-man on the Cross seemingly defeated and ashamed who is really victorious pouring out His life-giving blood into the earth and into each of our hearts.

    Such is the data of history which we routinely ignore. I simply do not have the stomach for justice. Too many people get killed.

    Lord forgive me, a sinner.

  9. PN,

    You can use the amazing tools of this world to address the suffering of others, but you are not responsible for “ending” it. You ask, “What good am I to people if the only thing i can do is maybe slightly ameliorate their discomfort?”. Your GOOD to others is in slightly ameliorating their discomfort. Many people do not even experience this. And it doesn’t take much to do it either. Just talking to someone with dignity, reminding them they are human, if even for just a few minutes, may not seem like much in the grand scheme. But to that person specifically, especially if they struggle with loneliness, it may mean the whole world.

    And you can use those minutes to shine with Christ’s light, to remind them that the world is more than despair and they can be more than just a victim of it. There is something of an urban legend about a man that wanted to kill himself by jumping off the Golden Gate bridge. He walked there and resolved that if just one person smiled at him, he would live another day. He may still suffer in his depression, but a simple smile, a recognition of his existence, of his value, would literally save his life.

    For myself, I don’t enjoy suffering in any way, but I see it as an opportunity to glorify the Living God. It is easy to say “God is good” when you have everything you want. But when you struggle and remain faithful, when you see past the temporal, immediate obstructions of inner peace, and see the love and glory of Christ manifest in the heart of people, however small and covered up it may be, then you do move closer to God. The Martyrs are venerated, not because they eradicated Polio, but because in the face of the most gruesome and prolonged suffering, they praised God and defended the Faith. So maybe the reason we suffer is to strengthen our Faith and love and “draw near”. I am sure that our muscles ask why they suffer anytime we go to the gym. But how else could we lift one another up?

  10. PN,

    Eliminating the sufferings of others sounds like a noble goal, which is what makes it both dangerous and deceptive. The emancipation proclamation would be a good example of this. It was and is a good thing that legal slavery ended, abolitionists had fought for a noble cause, but the results do not suggest a better world. On the heels of the emancipation proclamation came Jim Crow, KKK, lynchings, segregation, etc. A noble cause lead to some not so noble results. (While the Northern States which formerly had slaves have had these problems, they are not as much a part of those States as they are part of the South. The differences in how slavery ended, gradually versus suddenly, may be to blame.)

    At the judgement, we shall not hear: “You solved world hunger, You eliminated disease, etc.”, or the opposite. What we shall hear is: “You fed me”, a simple gift of bread or a piece of fruit; “You gave me a drink”, a simple cup of water; “You took me in”, a simple gift of hospitality; “You visited me”, a simple gift of remembrance. These are, or seem to be, lesser goods, but they are just as necessary, if not more, than the greater good.

    We moderns tend to think things will be better if we could just snap our fingers and eliminate suffering. But we can’t, and that’s probably most merciful. As Dostoyevsky wrote: “On our earth we can only love with suffering and through suffering. We cannot love otherwise and we know no other sort of love.” The total elimination of suffering before the time when all things are gathered together in one — into the One-Who-Suffered-For-All — may well have some unintended consequences.

    Doing that which is small and at hand is sufficient enough, I think. “Saving the world” is not something with which we need to preoccupy ourselves. It is enough to do the small thing, and to give thanks always unto Christ, Who meets us in our sufferings.

  11. would you agree that the modern obsession for a better world is itself the cause of many cases of depression in many parts of the industrialized/post-industrialized world? Most of the upcoming generation has this idea drilled into them that they need to be “world changers” or my favorite one “be somebody”, that when they fall short of this expectation they become depressed.

  12. “Most of the upcoming generation has this idea drilled into them that they need to be “world changers” or my favorite one “be somebody”, that when they fall short of this expectation they become depressed.”

    This comment reminds me of my favorite stretch of highway in my county. Roads named after people almost always have surnames, particularly of prominent people/families. This stretch of highway, however, has connecting roads with first names: Jimmy, Clark, Donna, Dorcas. It is as if someone decided against saying “the so-and-so’s are/were a prominent family.” in favor of saying “Jimmy existed.” There’s, for me, something almost joyous in that.

    I suspect that if, instead of focusing on some harebrained “save the world” project, we lived in affirmation of the dignity gifted to the people around us (those who are immediate, primarily) with their existence, then, perhaps, things may be just a little bit brighter, if only for a little while. Whereas, if we try to make a difference on a large scale, we’re more likely to increase the darkness, unless God intervenes.

  13. Much to reflect on here.

    While I may well be called upon to accept my own suffering at times, I am not called upon to accept the suffering of others. This steps dangerously close to indifference.

    On the other other hand, if I think I can end the suffering of others, I have imagined myself a god. This steps dangerously close to the worst kind of pride.

    So what other options are there?

    To work and pray for the faith and humility to become an instrument in God’s hand, trusting that He alone knows what is best. To strive to be loving and compassionate to all people, while praying for the wisdom to know how to translate this into action at any given moment.

    God may bring healing of mind, body or soul through me. Or He may use me to be present to someone in their suffering while allowing it to continue. I can never know which it will be – or when or why.

    Where it becomes even more complex is on the societal level. While I do not believe that any political party or government agency is going to end suffering, I can reasonably see (or foresee) that certain actions do (or will) increase the suffering of the most vulnerable.

    All of the above still apply. But when and how much civic involvement is appropriate is still an open question for me. It is too easy to become caught up in the passions that accompany political action. Those who have different ideas become the enemy who doesn’t care about the plight of the suffering…etc.

    But I don’t think that the solution to this can/should be saying nothing – ever. Rather I must be incredibly mindful of what I am thinking, saying, doing anytime I step out of the private realm and into the public. Can I say what needs to be said with complete love and compassion for all involved, even those whom I believe to be seriously misguided?

    If not, I have not truly given myself over to be an instrument in God’s hands – for He loves all, even the most selfish and sinful among us.

    Perhaps I should remain silent until I have prayed deeply and consciously given over to God what I am to say or do next in a given situation. And say such prayer alone and away from the fervent urgings and protests of others who might stir my passions more than my faith.

    (Forgive my “stream of consciousness” ramblings here. Sorting my thoughts out as I go. I certainly do not know answers.)

  14. mary benton, one neither stands aside and observes the suffering of others nor stands aside and wants to end all suffering nor mount campaigns to end the suffering of some at the expense of others. One does the best one can to share the suffering of others and bear ones own.

    Jesus Christ entered into all of our suffering as He wept outside Lazurus’ tomb, in the Garden and on the Cross. He does not stand aside now. He bears our burden with us as Simon, the Cyrene help bear His. That is why we partake of His broken Body and Blood. (Leavened bread made with love)

    That we do is more important than seeking to do it correctly. The more we do as gift and offering in thanksgiving the easier it will be to discern rightly. The monent to give is often sprung upon us. It appears that Simon just “happened” to be in the crowd when Jesus was on His way to Golgotha. Simon responded. The rich man did not respond yet he saw Lazurrus at his gate daily. The rich man took counsel.

    I think there is a bit of sacramental mystery to it all if we give God glory and allow Him to give the increase.

    God forgives.

  15. I recall the incredible efforts in my childhood that removed polio from the list of American dangers.

    Me too. I remember going from injections to the sugar cubes–and thought that a wonderful improvement!

    Something I learned in my college Parasitology course was that polio has always been around, but it was the flush toilet that caused the epidemic in the 20th century. Once children were no longer coming in contact with their own waste the result was considerably less parasitism, but also no active immunity to polio.

    Law of unintended consequences…

  16. I think that it is worth underscoring the idea that efforts to create a well-ordered outer-world are futile without a efforts to create a well-ordered inner-world. If the inner world is ordered by the Kingdom of God, then of necessity the ordering of the outer world will follow. I am not saying one must absolutely precede the other or that it is even possible. As Jesus says “You always have the poor with you.” But certainly attempts at the first apart from the attempts at the latter are futile.

  17. If covfefe had some reaching for their dictionaries, may comeac have us reach for our bibles 😀.
    Thanks to Fr Stephen and the thoughtful commentors here.

  18. At a certain point in modern history – perhaps identifiable with the early Whigs in England, the movement from inner transformation to social transformation began to take shape. The earlier efforts of the Puritans and a few others presaged this change. The first great, and largely successful effort of the Whigs (which were strongly allied with the Evangelical, Low Church side of the Church of England) was the abolition of slavery. Women’s suffrage followed it but was much later in succeeding. A rather disastrous effort, however, was the movement for prohibition of alcohol. When it succeeded in America, its collateral damage was far worse than the problem it sought to cure – much like today’s misguided “War on Drugs.”

    It is worth research and reading and examing early primary documents surrounding these various movements. Their religious fervor and assurance that these changes would usher in a new world are astounding – particularly now that we have the perspective of hindsight. Of course, these movements were minor when compared to the more radical vision of the Marxists. Their “better world” included the slaughter of many millions and a very sad, failed experiment.

    Today’s angry rhetoric surrounding race, gender, etc., is a direct heir of these movements, with much less connection to reality or more grounding in mere ideology. The success of the abolition of slavery, and women’s suffrage are frequently trotted out as examples and a proper paradigm for social action. It is a very antiseptic reading of the history of the various social change movements. You have 20 tests in the course of a semester. You got an A on two of them. The other 18 ranged from D’s to F’s. You only talk about the two and proclaim yourself an academic success. We need to read much, much more history.

  19. ‘Perhaps I should remain silent until I have prayed deeply and consciously given over to God what I am to say or do next in a given situation. And say such prayer alone and away from the fervent urgings and protests of others who might stir my passions more than my faith – Mary Benton’

    Mary, your ramblings struck home with me…I am a ‘recovering’ Social Work Administrator who spent much of work life acting with very little praying. My passions get stirred easily by the emotional pleas of almost anyone I am in contact with – and I have spent a great deal of my life attempting to please man as a result of not being in communion with God. Thank you for your thoughts.

  20. Fr Stephen,
    In your writings I really enjoy your humor and your insights. In this post and commentary thread I’ve read through the comments rather quickly so I might have missed it, but little is said directly on the picture you have paired with your commentary. I find that your picture choices always illumines more layers to the insights. It has got me thinking and reflecting.

    This picture shows a sculpted relief (I’m not familiar with it) of a family in a great dash (or even run) to ‘something’, carrying family in tow and pushing/pulling an overflowing shopping cart. I will name characteristics of this (our) culture that this picture shows me: cultural/economic avidity, self-perceived entitlement, speed, overconsumption, an overdrive pursuit of ‘something’ or ‘everything’. The children are clinging not capable of walking alongside their parents in pace. I’m familiar with what this sculpture reveals. I’ve had to deal with it, one way or another and the veritable undertow of it throughout my life. This way of life has a ‘built-in’ kind of suffering, because there is never enough, of whatever is in that shopping cart, and the next ‘needful item’ is always a distance away that one must compete, and race against neighbor, to beat them to it.

    This image and my associations with it I pair with your words. This is not something that you mention directly, but I think is there underneath your words, that the drive for ‘fixing’ injustices, in this culture, might be related an ideology of how to get a shopping cart for ‘everybody’, so that nobody is left out of this big race and competition. Everybody ought to have an opportunity to have overflowing shopping cart–to be able to afford and not afford (when getting into debt is so easily facilitated) stuff derived from manufactured “need”. The “must haves”.

    Ending suffering, the suffering that our overconsumption likely causes, not just in our sphere or our country but across the globe, might mean simply ditching the overflowing shopping cart and living ‘small’. How does one ditch the competitive mindset? The very heart of that involves comparing oneself, what one has, to that of others and that too requires a pattern of judgement. Relinquishing this ‘mindset’ in this culture seems to be considered ‘radical’ and even antisocial.

    Indeed the Kingdom, if it is to come into our hearts, would look like something quite different from this sculpture. If it were possible to observe it.

    Last, the very permanence of sculpture and the presentation of this theme in sculpture is also illuminating.

  21. I feel like this topic is very big and nuanced, and it is very tempting to declare for/against one side or the other and fall into a false dichotomy trap.

    St. Telemachus’ stand in the Colosseum indicates to me that there is a way to engage the injustices in the world in a right manner. As do the efforts of Abp. Iakovos and the Civil Rights Movement in the US.

    I think it’s easy to lose sight of God if we get impassioned about our efforts to help, but I don’t think that means we necessarily should remove ourselves from all such efforts as if those efforts are innately disordered/sinful/prideful, when they are not.

    As always, God first in all things, and action in the love for Him and others as we love ourselves.

    Forgive me, a sinner. Just my thoughts as I navigate this world.

  22. Dee brought to my mind the telephone. When I was a young boy in the early 50’s we had a party line phone, I think four families on the same line. Sometimes Mabel would talk too doggone long and made it difficult to use even when really needed. As late as 1978 our phone bill was $3.75 a month! She mentioned how wants become needs and when we don’t have a perceived need met, we “suffer.” Cell phones are now such a need that the government will supply one. Even the internet is now seen as a right and no one should have to suffer without it. When I talk to my grandkids about my boyhood phone I really sound like a dinosaur to them, I’m sure! 🙂 However, just this one example illuminates how some of our suffering is manufactured by our constant desire for more. Dee, yes, to go against the grain of this “need” for constantly more may seem antisocial to some. The last few months I’ve watched many Utube videos on my phone of people who have become real minimalists living out of their van, small RV or even car, by choice. They know that the “American Dream” had become a nightmare for them. From their vantage point, they have opted out the best they can. Well, I’ve rambled on enough. And yes, my cell bill is a far cry from $3.75!

  23. The art work belongs to a style called heroic realism, typical in the Soviet Union. It is humorously entitled “heroic consumerism”. I used it for its irony. A culture utterly bound by consumerism imagines it will create a better world. In the children you should see nothing more than the crying , screaming children in the grocery store as an exhausted mother just tries to buy some things…

  24. PN,

    I would classify St. Telemachus’s actions as “small and at hand” as there’s no intimation of his intention to do anything beyond stopping that one fight.

    On the other hand, the Civil Rights Marches (of that era) were a large thing, the success of which came about by the Grace of God. Our efforts could have easily lead the movement astray.

    We certainly ought to confront the injustices we face, as the Lord said to Isaiah:

    Cease from your evils. Learn to do good. Seek judgement and redeem the wronged. Defend the orphan and justify the widow.

    We shouldn’t be apathetic to injustice, (Doing nothing is technically impossible. We can either ignore it, or stand still in the face of it; but we can not “do nothing”.), the problem is when we, with our “fix-it” mentality, turn these things into idols.

    We cannot fix things, at least, not on a large scale. We are not called to. Whatever good we may bring about today may disappear tomorrow. We’d do better to leave the projects to the SJW’s and focus on our faithfulness to Christ.

    Faithfulness to Christ, particularly in the small and at hand — those things we usually consider to be of little importance — seems to be the right manner to engage the topic.

  25. I appreciate all the responses, thank you. I’ve read them all, I just have nothing further to add at this time.

    Let us go with God in His mercy.

  26. PN,
    A difficulty in this sort of topic, is the few moments of success: ending slavery; women’s vote; civil rights march. It tends to overlook much and ignore the vast sadness that the drive for a better world has created. Ending slavery was not a drive for a better world – it was an effort to end a bad world. Civil rights (I lived through that period and saw it up close) were important, but they were born in a thousand-thousand unrecorded moments of simple decency. The larger powers – those who pass laws and such – do so for many reasons. LBJ who shepherded the legislation through Congress, was a much a racist as his whole Southern wing of the Democratic party was at the time. But he had his own reasons – they had little to do with Civil Rights or respect of any sort. It did not change his use of the FBI against Dr. King, etc.

    It is naive, in the extreme, to fantasize about what the Civil Rights movement achieved. All of the good that has been accomplished has happened in human hearts. King’s preaching, and a growing public shaming of blatant racism went a long way. But the darkness of the human heart has remained and changed its attention. The world is temporarily better. But the world is only as “good” as the people in it. And the battle that remains in every human heart is unchanged. I see anger, hatred, prejudice, willingness to overlook daily evil as prevalent now as ever. It doesn’t mean that we do nothing – far from it. But it means that we need to learn where the true enemy is and deal with that. The Kingdom will only come in the human heart, short of the End of the Age.

  27. I think it’s worth distinguishing between a “better” world which derives from “better” people and a more behaved world derived from a system of reinforcements. I can discipline my dog to behave “better,” but at the end of the day he will still roll on a dead squirrel if given the chance. So, I do believe that where we can support actions that will create a more just and equitable society that we should do so. But, I’m under no illusions about what is really happening: We are exerting one kind of pressure to counteract another kind of pressure. And if we are not careful we end up corrupting our actions to make a better world with passions which only exacerbates the root of the problem.

  28. David,
    My own take is that the entire notion of the “better world” is both misleading and distracting. In the name of all kinds of projects (such as the War on Drugs), we engage in actions thinking only of some idealized goal, ignoring the constant, daily damage being done. Utilitarianism is among the most dangerous concepts that I know. The “ends justifies the means” and the end is purely imaginary. Terrible.

  29. Fr,

    I understand and I agree. Don’t read too much into my use of the words “better world.” I’m not using it in the sense of a modern or post-modern project.

    What I think I am attempting to do is make explicit what I think is implicit in the Orthodox understanding of human nature. What is the best kind of world that one might expect (logically possible) apart from any inner realization of the Kingdom? My understanding is that the most we could hope for is a world of well-behaved animals– that’s at best. I don’t want a world of well-behaved animals. Not that people are animals, but more more often times than not they act like animals and not well-behaved animals either. However, on the other hand, what kind of world could we expect if EVERYONE experienced an inner realization of the Kingdom? Would that not be a better world? I understand that no where does Jesus indicate that the Gospel will ever be that successful–not at all. However, what I am attempting to underscore is the idea that if you really want to make a difference. Do the hard work of presenting your interior world to God for healing. Don’t invest in projects that amount to nothing more than behavior modification.

    Granted that is probably a trivial distinction, but there it is.

  30. Fr.,

    Thank you. Yes, I can understand this, and I think I by and large agree. It all begins within in order for anything good to ever come outside, and that by the grace of God. We shouldn’t overlook the “small” things right in front of us while chasing a fantasy.

    I just want to remain cautious to not fall into a kind of fatalistic trap wherein we stop applying our God given abilities in the world that we have, even to big efforts and dreams.

    A person could work their entire professional life to developing a nutrient rich strain of rice that can grow in arid climates in order to feed the hungry and the poor. He may not succeed, but perhaps another person down the line will, benefiting from that research and effort. I want to maintain that this effort can be a good, noble and worthwhile one, despite the fact that evil persists in the world and in the human heart.

    It seems all we really can do is try. I’m not sure that just because mistakes are made, that that should detract from “successes,” complex affairs though they are. People, relationships, are always complex and nuanced. What more can we do than to seek God and His Kingdom first, try, stumble, get up, learn, repeat?

    I think I understand your point, and I don’t mean to belabor the issue. Perhaps I just need to talk it through to prevent oscillating to extremes.

    Thank you for your patience.

  31. Just as aside there is an expression in the Daodejing that may fit this discussion: Do that which can only be done by doing nothing .

  32. But the darkness of the human heart has remained and changed its attention.

    In a discussion some time ago (back when Michael Vick was being attacked for killing dogs), I noted in one forum that the issue was not whether it was “just a dog” that was killed (as many people tended to argue). The issue was the attitude that viewed other life as nothing more than entertainment for “my” benefit; it exists for me and is disposible if I deemed it so. It used to be “just a negro”, “just a chinaman”, or “just a woman”. That attitude has not changed nor has it been lessened within society; it has simply been redirected to more socially acceptable victims.

    I was reading DB Hart’s book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, last night and he goes to great pains to describe how the Christian revolution, as it came about, turned the world on its head. We are now in the process of turning it back over into paganism and the mindset of “tolerance” it embodied, if we have not fully done so already. The damage of such an attitude is rarely realized until far too late. The small actions of the heart that exemplify the Kingdom will not stop the damage done by Society, but they may yet preserve a remnant of Truth. What God does with that remnant is up to Him. It will be enough, I’m sure.

  33. PN,

    Show me someone who’s “out to change the world” and almost without exception, that person is a total jerk to people they come into contact with on an individual basis and that person ignores the individual plight of folks that they have regular contact with.
    Fr. Stephen is dead on. Somewhere along the line modernity told us that we ought to “change the world.” The truth of the matter is that we’re to love God and love others. In the everyday normal course of our lives, we are presented with countless opportunities to love, care for, be patient with, be kind to, be gentle to (among many more things) others.

  34. Fr Stephen: I’d tweak your analogy to include a relevant observation: It’s as if we got D’s and F’s on 30 tests, and then picked 2 tests which we claim A+’s on to defend Modern Project Theory, but then when it comes time to implement that theory, we are told that the same 2 tests are F-‘s and the greatest evils which need to be corrected by Modernism. In other words, when it comes to, for example, racism and sexism, we are told (in defense of Modernism) “Look how much things have changed!” But then when Modernism is being applied to the modern moment, we are told of the same sexism and racism: “Look how nothing has changed!”

  35. I am so thankful for this post. On Monday I started the Multicultural Education course for my very social justice-y Master’s in Education program… I still struggle with trying to characterize how many aspects of social justice and the expectation of “equality” are off-base. The concerns are all centered around money and power, even when it comes to inequality in education. Seems to me that the underlying drive of the ideology is envy and spitefulness. And an entitlement driven by the idea of “rights” whereby not everyone receives what is “due” to them. I try to remember that our lives are more than material… and that God’s justice is not man’s justice. Everyone having everything provided for them and never feeling any discomfort is not justice. It messes with my head though. So these blog posts and my own efforts at musing about how the ideology is off-base are tools to keep from being de-railed and distracted by this stuff.

    David, I think your well-behaved animals example is spot on and quite helpful.

  36. The concerns are all centered around money and power, even when it comes to inequality in education.

    One of the aspects of modernity is that it views and approaches everything in economic terms. It’s goals are, generally speaking, always built around what are considered controllable economic models. At its core, it is a utilitarian model and this is a huge reason for the inhumanity of it and for its hatred for Christianity.

  37. This post and the comments following has been very disturbing to me. I understand that the line between good and evil does not run between nations, political parties or “social movements.” The line runs through every human heart and who but God can change the human heart?

    I also understand that poverty, oppression and racism are caused by the evils that lie in out hearts and that, as a result, poverty, oppression and racism will not end until the Second Coming.

    Nevertheless, I am going to continue, along with different social movements, to fight against poverty, oppression, racism, and similar evils. I refuse to sit on my comfortable, middle class, suburban, American butt and do nothing while women across the world are denied an education and used as sex slaves and weapons of war. People are starving and I am going to continue to support efforts to feed them. I am opposed to the continuing, intentional, and knowing indifference that is going to force my children to live with global warming. I am going to continue to support efforts to allow everyone the ability to vote and I am going to continue to work for the just treatment of immigrants, be they legal or illegal.

    Am I going to save the world? Are the “social movements” i mentioned going to save the world. Of course not! But we are going to continue to try to do what we can to better the lives of those who suffer from poverty, oppression and racism.

    I know that Jesus said that the poor will always be with us and I am sure he was right. I am still going to support the movement to find permanent, supportive housing for street people. We might not save the world, but the guy who now has decent, safe and secure housing is still glad that we made the effort. And he looks like Jesus to me. Matt. 25:32 – 45

  38. learningtobestill2016, the post and comments not anti-action. The form of the action is the issue. The shape of God’s work is cruciform; self-emptying. Do what you can. The more personal and relational one can work, the better.

  39. Learningtobestill,
    You infer that I (or someone who says what I have said) am doing nothing to make such changes. It’s not only not true – it’s terribly mistaken. Most people who “continue to work for, etc.” mostly mean that they have a presence on social media and think that the political party they belong to is making a difference. I am an old man. I do not believe the rhetoric of politicians – they do little or nothing.

    How many houses have you built? I have participated in a number of Habitat projects. If you keep the commandments of Christ, you will do good things. If you get caught up in the various social movements of our world – you will be used. And not necessarily by the Kingdom of God. I’m not at all certain what you mean by “support the movement.” For most, it’s a pretty vacuous thing. Sorry.

  40. learning, what Fr. Is saying is not quietism although it can seem that way. It is, in fact, just the opposite. It goes to show you how far our culture is from reality and truth.

    The guiding spirit of the modern culture, including the social justice myth is the will to power. Nihilism pure and simple.

    Of course it is possible to take what Fr. says and make it an excuse to be a fatalist. That is wrong use of what he says.

  41. Thank you for your comments, Fr Stephen. And thank you Michael and Byron. I will continue to ponder and pray on this. It appears I am missing a distinction that is too subtle for me to detect. God bless the houses you have built, those that live in them, and you, Father.

  42. Learning,
    It is good to be zealous for good works, and I would not dare discourage you. The most difficult thing to ponder is, “How do we change human hearts?” For if hearts are not changed, nothing is done. Most of our movements are guided by wonderful and ideal goals. But they often fail to consider the means – and frequently trade one injustice for another. As agonizing as it is – we are left with the human heart. I believe in God who has given us the Kingdom, heart by heart. I have more often found the Kingdom in the hearts of those suffering injustice than elsewhere. God has not abandoned them. Many, on the other hand, who have benefitted greatly from injustice, have abandoned God.

    I would not make any man rich if I had it in my power – for fear of doing him great harm. I do not wish to make any man poor – though I fear less for his soul.

  43. Fr,

    I have an odd reflection to share here, but I think it is related.

    First, recently I have been fighting to keep my mother out of homeless shelters and off the streets. As one attempt to save her from herself has failed I thought about this post. One of the reasons is that as much as I would love to help her have a better life… the truth is…I am making things worse for her. My intentions are good, but there is always some unintended consequence. Also, there are the expectations that I have for what a better life looks like for her. And ultimately those expectations that I have been working so hard to realize have made matters worse. I’m not saying not to help family. I’m saying that without wisdom and discernment of true needs…it will unravel. As an example, after having eloped from or having been discharged from several facilities, her social worker finally found an assisted living facility that would take her. I made a deal with her that if she could stay there 6 months and behave herself that I would get her an apartment in a senior living community and that I would furnish it all for her. She literally was bounced from that facility in a matter of hours. I was devastated. The admin there told me that they all they could legally do now was either drop her off at a public place like McDonald’s or take her to the women’s homeless shelter. I rented a motel room for her to keep her out of the shelter. Long story short…she’s back in the behavioral health unit at the hospital. I don’t know that I will ever speak with her again .

    Second, as I lay prostrated before my home altar I don’t know that I have prayed as hard or with as much emotion as I did that night. As I prayed the words “O Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace. Help me in all things to rely upon Your holy will. In every hour of the day reveal Your will to me. Bless my dealings with all who surround me. Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with tranquility of soul and with firm conviction that Your will governs all. In all my deeds and words guide my thoughts and feelings. In unforseen events let me not forget that all are sent by You. Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others. Give me strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring. Direct my will, teach me to pray. Pray You Yourself in me. Amen.” I felt an overwhelming sense of sorrow for things that I had said and done: My anger, my impatience, my sense of having caused my mother sorrow for how I had spoken to her. I have prayed this prayer every day for MONTHS. Day after day, week after week…and I failed it. I failed my prayers. Yet, I don’t know that I have ever prayed so fervently and remorsefully.

    All of this reminded me of the parable of the leaven: “Another parable He spoke to them: The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened.” The mortal circumstances of our lives become the means of salvation.

  44. David – Please allow me to share something I learned in Al-Anon (my youngest son is an addict and an alcoholic): I did not cause this, I cannot cure this, I cannot control this. I struggled for over 12 years to cure, or at least control, my son’s diseases. All it caused was pain, frustration and torment, for him, for me and for the rest of the family. I finally came to understand that I was, in Al-Anon and AA terms, trying to be his Higher Power. Eventually, I quit trying to be his Higher Power and turned him over to himself and the God of his own understanding. There was no immediate relief. In fact, there was a lot of pain. But over time, the pain lessened and the anguish and frustration went away. He and I now have a very special, very close relationship. Not so long ago, he thanked me for finally respecting him enough to allow him to run his own life.

    Turning him over to God is the hardest thing I ever had to do. I think God for giving me the strength and courage to do it, because it may be the best thing I have ever done.

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