Why How You Feel Is Not All That Valuable

We live in a culture of strong feelings. How we “feel” about something is generally taken to mean “what I believe.” This is not at all the case. Most people have a set of feelings or sentiments that largely serve the purpose of supporting the story they tell themselves about who they are. “I am a person who cares about animals.” It does not actually pierce through to the level of describing character. It would be more accurate to say, “I am the kind of person who is defined by a set of feelings.” For the feelings themselves, our sentiments, quite often do not rise to the level of action, nor constitute a way of living. The actual character of a person would be best observed by watching them for a few weeks and studying their actions (not listening to their words). How we feel and how we live are frequently not the same thing at all.

Sentiment is a function of the passions, and rather shallow passions, at that. It is a disposition towards pleasure. A sentiment that says, “I think human suffering is terrible,” is generally a sentiment that will avoid confronting the nature of suffering and its true depths. If you’re decently middle-class, you can afford to avoid encounters with many forms of suffering. You can filter your friends-list in a manner to see and hear what you find pleasant and agreeable.

In a culture driven by consumption, sentiment is a disposition nurtured and manipulated by those who seek to sell us things. They do not sell sentiment. Rather, they use sentiment to sell products. Sentiment is far more malleable than deeply held beliefs, or a true way of life. The “way of life” of most Americans is indistinguishable, regardless of their sentiments. You can visit all of the homes in a neighborhood and have no idea of the sentiments of its citizens, other than the stray bumper sticker or two, or perhaps a gun rack in a truck. But the actual life-ways of our citizens are a rather narrow range of behaviors.

Sentimentality is a secular practice in which secular people convince themselves that their lives matter.

Doing some research for this article, I ran across an interesting quote from Stanley Hauerwas:

“I had a colleague at the University of Notre Dame who taught Judaica. He was Jewish and always said that any religion that does not tell you what to do with your genitals and pots and pans cannot be interesting. That is exactly true. In the church we tell you what you can and cannot do with your genitals. They are not your own. They are not private. That means that you cannot commit adultery. If you do, you are no longer a member of “us.” Of course pots and pans are equally important…”

I would expand on this and say that the Church has much to say about our whole body (as well as pots and pans).

This quote points to an example that exposes the emptiness of sentimentality. Secularized Christians (as well as secularized Jews) have a distinct sense that their bodies are their own, and that their moral life is governed by how they themselves believe and feel and not by what a religious institution (for so they would call it) tells them.

Over the years of working with converts to Orthodoxy, I have occasionally found people who hesitated to become Orthodox “because it is so hard.” What that means, generally, is that Orthodox Christianity asks for things beyond the sentiments of secularism. The sentiments of secularism suggest to us that we are free to believe anything we like, so long as that belief can be practiced in private and makes few demands on others. Most of this is to say that your belief is fine, so long as it is nothing more than belief.

When I first ran across this sort of objection to Orthodoxy, I thought that people were looking at the full monastic regimen of fasting and such and that it seemed beyond their reach. My first reaction was to point out that the actual ascetical practice in the parish is less demanding, but that the books (and calendars) tend to describe the maximum. Over time, I’ve learned that this is not really the issue. The greater issue is that Orthodoxy (rightly taught) demands a non-secular way of life. It is intentionally inconvenient. I would say that it should even be publicly embarrassing from time to time.

Secularism has taught us to think as individualized agents. And so, when questions of right and wrong arise, secularity leaves us cut adrift in a sea of feelings. I frequently hear things such as, “It’s complicated,” generally meaning, “I have conflicted feelings about this matter.” Its natural for a human being to have conflicted feelings, for feelings are mostly the result of the disordered passions to which we are enthralled. We feel sorry for someone; but we are also a little afraid; we are drawn towards helping them; but we do not want to create a scene. We think babies are wonderful; but a young mother’s difficult circumstances demand compassion. On and on the passions rage. Each feeling is real, but in no way are sentiments the proper ground for making decisions, much less governing a society and doing justice. The reign of sentimentality is the reason behind the dominance of public shaming as an attempted moral practice.

The moral philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre (Whose Justice, Which Rationality), famously described the contradictions within modern American thought. Examining a number of major Supreme Court decisions he noted numerous contradictory philosophical positions even within a single paragraph. We cannot think; we feel and our sentiments learn to make thinking noises. The result is a complicated confusion.

But, in truth, love is not complicated. Sometimes it is fierce or bitter, it understands sorrow and endures pain. Love does not waver in the face of sentiment. Sentiment is complicated because it is a mass of passions, not a single thing.

Aristotle was among the earliest philosophers to describe the ethical life. His approach was not to ask about the nature of right and wrong. Instead, his questions were about the character of a good person. The truly good person he deemed a “great soul.” A great-souled person acts rightly because of the rightness of his character. Thus, morality is a matter of virtue and its acquisition. In this, Aristotle and Orthodoxy agree.

A person who is governed by the passions (sentiments) will ultimately not be a reliable moral agent, for they do not have the virtue of a great soul. To nurture a soul in sentimentality is to destroy its character. A culture dominated by sentiment rather than virtue cannot rightly govern itself nor be trusted in its interactions with others. This is the culture we live in. It also explains why the choices presented to us are uniformly bad. In a land of sentiment, a land without virtue, there are only moral agents without character. Nothing good will come of them.

These observations are not light things, but they are generally certain. The Christian faith offers us clear guidance in the nature of right and wrong. More importantly, it offers the means of becoming the kind of person who can actually do the right thing. The acquisition of virtue is a primary goal of the Orthodox life – to become like Christ in all things. He is the true image of the great-soul.

Our faith has much to say about what we do with our bodies, and even, in a sense, what we do with our pots and pans. Those instructions are not rules given to crush us. They are tools given for the acquisition of virtue. Virtue asks the question of character. What kind of person does the right thing? Those who are governed by sentiment, driven by the passions nurtured in the bosom of a consumerist culture will never become people of virtue.

Feelings are interesting. They come and they go like the small pleasures of life. In the end, they don’t matter much unless they are allowed to matter much. Then they matter because they destroy us and make us into slaves.

God wants more for us.

 

114 comments:

  1. Thank you for a wonderful post, Father! This reminds me of Smerdyakov in the Brothers Karamazov. I can’t remember the exact quote, but at some point he is described as “sentimental and mean.” For me, this was revealing. One can be both; what is more, sentimentality and meanness may even be two sides to the same coin? Thank you again for an illuminating post.

  2. “I would say that it should even be publicly embarrassing from time to time.”

    How are we Orthodox doing, by this measure? Most everyone I know fits in (that is, to public secular culture) quite well. “We don’t want to be anti-{fill_in_the_blank}, we need to build bridges, speak to the culture, serve the culture by being its conscious, blah blah…” they say. It’s all a big sentimental confusion just as you say Father.

  3. I was under the impression that emotions/feelings are “good” pre-fall, however, they are disordered now due to the fall. Sentimentality seems to be a life governed by the “virtue of passions” rather than “The Virtue of Christ-Crucified” (the latter being True Virtue in Aquisition of The Holy Spirit).

    It sounds like you are speaking about “unhealthy emotion” here by using the word sentimentality (which is another word for acting out of the passions).

    So, is there a “healthy emotion” as opposed to “unhealthy emotion”?

  4. Very insightful post Father with much to consider. I have come to see the “rules” we live by not as rules but as guides to right and proper relationship between people. When we “break a rule” we tend to injure others and ourselves and ruin relationships. I heard it described once that adultery is between murder and theft in the Ten Commandments because it is really some of both. Murder, because it kills relationship and theft because the adulterer is taking what does not belong to them.

  5. No words, Fr. Stephen. How you manage to make sense of the tangled psyche of us humans, and lead us in the way we should go frankly blows my mind! Thank you is not enough.

  6. I can’t help but think of numerous stories I’ve read of saints who were incredibly harsh with themselves, yet fully compassionate and forgiving (or so it sometimes seems portrayed as so) with those whom they counseled.

    The Church tells me same sex “marriage” is wrong. I accept this. Yet if I go to a wedding of a same sex couple who are family members out of love for the family am I behaving wrong?

    This might be an oversimplification of the depth of this article but these are the kinds of thoughts I think when I read this. It seems this is a mine field we all negotiate daily in our lifetimes. Or maybe I’m missing the point entirely.

  7. Adam,
    “Emotions” is a quite modern term, invented in the 18th -19th century in the Scottish Enlightenment. It replaced terms such as “affections,” “passions,” etc. Most people really have almost no idea of how to think about emotions. Shame, which I written a lot about, is described as the “master emotion,” by clinical researchers. The experiences we describe emotions are a complex of neuro-biological reactions that are combined with a complex of memories and such to create what we call an emotion. That being the case, many times, what we feel has as much to do with how we have felt about things about which the experience reminds us, whether this is legitimate or not. Shame is deeply dominant and frequently un-noticed and not understood.

    Were we actually healthy, we would not only think rightly about things, but would feel rightly about things as well. In fact, we often do neither one. But our culture has uncoupled emotions and made them things in themselves that seem to have an independent value. “I feel” is thus taken to be a significant statement, no matter how disordered it might be. It might, in fact, have no more significance than saying, “I have a cramp in my leg.”

  8. Robert,
    I think these kinds of conflicts will present themselves more and more. Would you tag along with a family member while they robbed a bank? It’s very stressful. Pain and love are not mutually exclusive – except in a secularized culture. I don’t think any same-sex couples would want to attend a ceremony where one of their kinsfolk was being inducted into the Nazi party. They are probably more committed to a quasi-religious point of view than the average Christian is to their Christianity.

  9. Christopher,
    These will always be the sorts of things spoken when one is, in fact, a secularist. That’s what we need to hear it as, both in ourselves and elsewhere.

    One of the things I appreciate in Hauerwas’ conversations is his observation that modern Christianity is so insipid that it cannot even produce interesting atheists.

  10. Thank you Father Stephen. This topic presses upon me and I appreciate that you address it. Forgive me, for I have not taken the time to do much reflection, as I have trouble understanding the problem with sentiment in and of itself, even after reading your post. I do understand how it can be misplaced and misused. So I ask:
    Is it emotion driven by the passions that results in sentimentality?
    Is all sentiment unwanted? Is it a result of the Fall? If it is then Christ could not have had any sentimental feelings, correct?
    Similarly, is there such a thing as healthy sentiment?

  11. Paula AZ,
    We all have “emotions, feelings, etc.” They are all over the map. To a large extent, they are shaped through memory and experience and triggered by any number of things – the single most common and dominant trigger is shame – called the “master emotion” by clinical theorists. For example, when we are angry, most of the time it has, in fact, been trigger by a shaming experience – often the shame goes unnoticed and unattended because we find shame to be so painful that we morph it into anger or sadness. The emotions are signals – that tell us something about how we are reacting. Sometimes that can be a very important signal. For example, if you feel uncomfortable or unsafe with someone, you should never ignore it! But, it is not infallible nor is it the proper ground for making important ethical decisions in our lives.

    For one, emotions change constantly. They are reactions.

    Our emotions are as disordered and likely to problems as the rest of our lives. I would say that Christ certainly had emotions – we see them. He wept, for example. But Christ emotions are without sin – he felt the right thing at the right moment for the right reason. Our emotions are as much in need of healing as anything else in our lives.

    Sentimentality is a way of life in which how we feel about things is a primary guide. Indeed, emotions tend to be prior to reason. People today frequently adopt positions that sound like reason but are acutally only based on a set of feelings. Most of those feelings are, in fact, governed by shame.

    Belonging, for example, is driven largely by shame. We do not want to feel excluded. We are therefore predisposed to “get our minds right” so that we can feel ok. We do not want to suffer pain if at all possible.

    I could well imagine such a thing as healthy sentiment – but, even then, it would not be a proper basis for life. Our feelings, emotions, etc., are driven primarily by the passions – by our desire for pleasure and fear of pain. It can lead us to do terrible things. It is also easily manipulated by others – particularly those who control what we see and hear all day long. We live in a culture that spends billions of dollars in an effort to make us feel something so that we will react by choosing and buying what they desire. Billions of dollars.

    Think about it. Google and Facebook, 2 of the largest companies in the world today, only make money by getting us to buy something. Neither of them is designed to make us carefully think about anything. They exist to sell us stuff. In that, they are dangerous. They exist to disorder our feelings. And, it’s not just them. It’s the way our culture works. Everywhere.

    It makes us into less of a human being than God intends.

    I want healthy feelings. And that is part of the whole life that we live in the Church. The transformation into the image of Christ includes that. It’s a day at a time. A little fasting, a little prayer, a little self-denial, extending myself in love with a bit of sacrifice, self-examination and a bit of repentance, spending some time with other souls who are struggling towards health and listening to them. All of this is a road towards health in Christ. It’s a road, though, and has lots of potholes and bumps. We can’t do it alone.

    In AA there is a saying. “God can make you sober. But first, He’ll make you miserable.” That’s probably true about the whole of our Christian life. That’s why AA is not a lone-ranger enterprise. There needs to be others who have gotten past the misery to help those who are just starting. It’s no different in our Christian walk.

  12. Father,

    Thank you for continuously challenging us. I really need to read Alasdair MacIntyre .

    I really need to retire so I can read all that I need to read.

  13. Paula I appreciate your questions. I’m still processing Frs words also. They deserve deeper understanding that you’re drawing out. At this point of processing I interpret that it is possible to observe our sentiment without becoming engulfed. Like observing that I have a cramp in my leg. The cramp is there and if it causes pain we observe pain but not become obsessive with it. Fr Stephen is showing and promoting how to live a life ‘in silence’ of ‘being still’ of reaching contentment without complacency or ambivalence. A very ‘narrow path indeed.

  14. Secularism encourages me to do what makes ME feel good; while Christianity encourages me to do what makes YOU feel good. Thus, Secularism encourages the development of the passions; while Christianity encourages the development of the virtues. Secularism does not require action; while Christianity demands action. No, Orthodoxy is not easy!

  15. Father,
    Thanks ever so much for your in depth response. I think it is difficult for me to assess the extent of the problem objectively because I myself am sentimental and emotional. It’s like fish not realizing they exist in the water. At least I am beginning to realize I am “in the water”. Thank you for reminding us the transformation is one day at a time and to continue to follow Christ…praying, fasting, alms, give of yourself to others who are suffering, etc.
    Dee…thank you too for the analogy of the leg cramp and pointing to Father’s words on stillness.
    Now I shall go back to processing these nuggets…. 🙂

  16. Esmee and Father,

    The thing is is that the “other” it’s just a sentimental as I am (in our culture and in our churches). Therefore doing what it takes to make them feel good is just as problematic as attending to my own passions.

  17. Father,

    How (or would you?) contrast the acquisition of the Holy Spirit and the acquisition of virtue? I’ve wrestled at times with some of what you’ve written in terms of ‘un-morality’, ‘progress’, and not making the world a better place etc. Not from a place of disagreement, just in trying to understand how it translates into a lived life.
    On the face of it this article (which convicts me deeply!) could be read more along the lines of moral improvement but I suspect, considering your other offerings, that this would be a misunderstanding on my part. Can you elaborate?

  18. Andrew,
    I could see someone reading “acquisition of virtue” as “moral improvement,” and I would not debate it. I think, however, that moral improvement is a way of thinking that leads us in a wrong direction. What is the character of virtue? It would, at its depths, include the ability to bear a little shame. It would be a deepening of our understanding of our weakness and failure rather than of our improvement. This seems to be what we see in the saints’ lives. But, again, the acquisition of virtue could be understood as a life of improvement – deeply steeped in irony and paradox.

  19. Christopher – Christ commanded us to love our neighbor… that is what I meant. I am not saying, for example, that if my neighbor wants to go to a bar and get drunk to drown their misery that I should assist in that endeavor. However, If my neighbor is hungry and I have food, then I am commanded to feed him, etc.

  20. Robert and all,
    I should clarify, lest I needlessly offend: The use of bank robbers and Nazis is not such a good example in my earlier answer. I was trying to find an example of something we could all agree was bad – not to compare a same-sex couple to a Nazi or a bank robber.

    What I think is this – and I’ve had this situation arise in the lives of friends and others. You do the best you can, and know that there’s not much of a way of doing it right. If you go, you have to be aware of the faults involved and pray for God’s help. If you don’t go, you have to be aware of the faults involved and ask for God’s help.

    I think that in this life we often find ourselves in very ambiguous situations in which we can only ask for God’s help. Asking for God’s help – and the emptiness within us that brings forth that cry – is the one good thing in such settings.

  21. Esmee and Father,

    I understand but the problem still remains. In a culture where sentimentality is the norm and virtue is little understood, why is it we believe we can love the other free from our sentimentality and lack of virtue? For example look at Roberts dilemma. When sentimentality rules all and empathy becomes the primary and really only virtue, then loving the neighbor in a Christian manner becomes very difficult.

  22. Yes Father…contentment. Giving thanks for all things. While giving of ourselves, accepting, whether in grief or in joy, the incidences in our lives and in the world.

    “Sentimentality is a way of life in which how we feel about things is a primary guide. Indeed, emotions tend to be prior to reason.”
    Phrases of this kind I need to keep close to me. I pray they give me pause when I “react”, that I may stop and think, yes, reason, about the subject at hand. In doing so it works to set aside the emotion.
    I think as we are on this journey in life, as we remain ever mindful of God, worship at the ever blessed Divine Liturgy, honor Him by doing thing things Christ calls us to do (indeed, commands) like pray, fast, charity, repent, we may not experience an absence of the passions, and we may struggle to do all these things faithfully, but if we can be content even knowing that we repeatedly fail (this is a hard one), nevertheless with a heart toward God it would be a most welcome peace.

  23. Andrew
    There is a certain tragedy and suffering in the discovery and acceptance of our sinfulness, weakness, vulnerability and shame; however, it is upon that foundation of such suffering that our eternal transformation can become irrevocable. I guess that is called true improvement.
    I think most of it is reactive work since even the ‘active work’ (like fasting, praying etc) generates a resistance to which we can always react one way or another way.
    (The willful ‘resistance’ to our abandonment to thoughts and sentiments called vigilance or NEPSIS is mostly a reactive work although there’s clearly an active part in turning towards the Lord. )
    Trusting in God’s providence is similar – that nothing bad is permitted unless good can come out of it somehow sometime… : most of the work happens when the bad befalls us and we try to react in accordance with the trustful thoughts we had been actively cultivating beforehand.
    Just thinking out loud and somewhat impetuously Father, please correct me here.
    This is another outstanding article.

  24. Thank you, Father, for clarifying your remarks to Robert about same-sex unions. In situations like this, I often pray “Lord, have mercy.”

  25. Christopher – As I understand it, love is not a “feeling,” but rather an action. Christ tells us that if we feed the hungry, visit the prisoners, care for the sick, etc. that we are not only loving our neighbors, but we are loving Christ Himself because we are doing what He has commanded us to do. How we feel about the other person is not really part of the equation. Hopefully, through the practice of the commandments, real agape love will grow in our hearts, but it’s not a pre-requisite to taking the action of helping our neighbors.

  26. Father,

    Thank you for your clarification. I certainly didn’t take it the way you suspected some may. Your additional comments we most helpful though and I’m very glad you made them.

  27. Father Stephen,
    Many questions arouse from the careful observation of the theme of sentimentality. I would take the liberty of asking and if some of the questions or none of them make sense they just don’t deserve the answer and I guess will fill the basket of sentimentality. So, let’s start☺️
    Do you refer to sentiments in the context Christ refers to the state of being lukewarm-neither hot or cold-…?
    Because you mentioned that the driven by sentiments simply refuse orthodox life,as Orthodoxy itself is an avantgarde and asks for a constant change.There is no place for a lukewarm sentimentality in this case, but rather,maybe, what the Elders refer to: a mind descending into the heart.Something like :a thinking heart , emotional reasoning or reasonable emotions. Sentimentality is not a desirable state that brings you closer to Christ,that’s for sure,but instead of it,do you think Fr.Stephen that all those emotions can be purified and converted exactly in this way,through the Living Faith and Prayer, with mind in heart?
    Do you think that maybe when people discover this they can be fulfilled exactly with the proper feeling they had, instead of just being neutral, lukewarm and not knowing that they lack the real joy of life?
    And my last question,would you put on the totally opposite side those that just rely on there reason, i. e. learned folks who think wisdom comes from the books only?
    In this sense I came up with another subject of interest(especially in sth. I am directly involved in- education),if those learned folks rely on their academic intelligence only, what kind of importance would you give to emotional intelligence?
    Is that the desirable field of importance to be developed?
    I am asking you this,because as a teacher primarily devoted to fully acceptance of a real orthodox life (who btw lives in a secularized world), I often find myself explaining the life in/with Christ in the terms of developing emotional intelligence as more important that the development of the academic one. Can these directions live someone astray?
    I sense that emotional and maybe social intelligence won’t surely cover the theme of leading a life in Christ, but for someone or for somewhere where you are not allowed to say it openly, isn’t this a good direction,for a start? A direction that would at least avoid the development of sentimentality, as a state that presents only the passionate, unaware” I “to the world, a pity to waste moments of lifetime in that way .
    Thank you again Father for the inspirational thoughts coming from the heart, clearly-words that developed and ripped through a suffering faith in love being strong enough to cut sentiments before they appear as the true “salt” of the world does.

  28. I was listening on You Tube over the weekend to Jordon Peterson. He has read both Aristotle and Solzhenitsyn and they have influenced his approach to the world. He is adament that one tell the truth and avoid ideology and developing a strong character is critical in being able to deal with the inevitable tradgedy of life.

    He is not a Christian and is a bit bemused that he has a lot of Christians who like him. His commentary would have more substance and hope if he were, but I find what he says and how he says it — boldly without sentiment or hate–refreshing. He stands out because he is actually non-ideological most of the time (although people try to force him into an ideological niche). He thinks logically from known and examined premises and actually seems to listen to those who disagree. He should not be exceptional but he is because of the debased environment of modernity.

    The imposition of fame and it’s temptations may bring him down but I pray not.

  29. Esmee,

    I suppose I don’t see it in exactly the same way you do. For example, *how* do we feed the hungry, visit and comfort the sick and those in prisons? In our western churches, to say nothing of the wider secular society, there are those who believe we can and should do these very commandments in a technocratic way – setting up welfare states/economies such that all are fed, everyone who is sick has “access to healthcare”, and those in prison are “rehabilitated”. This is just one example.

    Secularism, sentimentality – these things are not “out there” (i.e. in society, in other churches, etc.) but are part of our very selves. The sentimentality that Father’s essay is talking about is deep in our souls. Sentimentality is not a “feeling” as such, but a whole way of “being” (ontology) and thus is the filter *through which* we then see, understand, and interpret the commandments of our Lord.

    First Things has a difficult but worthwhile meditation on this subject by Patricia Snow, titled “Empathy is not Charity”

  30. Michael,
    I think what I have seen/heard of J Peterson is a little reminiscent of the Centurion, he might have a thirst for integrity that can only protect and bless him.

  31. Christopher & Esmée
    Although I see the issue with sentimentality you are bringing attention to [Christopher] and believe Nepsis is the answer, also, I think in one sense there’s a angle to it all that’s simple at least: that when we live the ‘ecclesial life’ we become transformed into ecclesial beings. So that to the degree that we live God’s commandments, they come to have an ontological consequence upon our being.
    So, the transformation of even that part of us we call feelings and sentiments (into identical ones as what Christ had) follows. Perhaps it is one of the latter things that occur to us as a ‘firm and permanent transformation’ (as opposed to the “invitational” Grace-filled forestaste of the honey-moon spiritual period), but nonetheless, it does occur.

  32. Christopher – I very much appreciate your concern. My difficulty is not with strangers (feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, etc.). That is relatively easy. The problem is with family. I have family members who identify as Christian and are very sentimental about it. I struggle to lovingly interact with these folks. We use the same words, such as Jesus, cross and love, but not in the same way. It is hard to be honest and kind at the same time, when honesty about my Orthodox views can easily cause hurt and anger. I have actually suffered angry responses to things innocently said, because it was thought that I was attacking some sentimental belief. It’s hard.

  33. Blagica,
    I think the imagery of emotional intelligence is useful. I sometimes say that the Orthodox life has a purpose in making us more truly human.

    Sentimentality is something of a phrase used in American theological discussions to describe a system in which how people feel about something is taken as the thing that matters most. One well-known theologian at Yale described this as “emotive-expressivism.” For example, someone who held an emotive-expressivist viewpoint would say that 2 different religions really said the same thing because they were talking about similar feelings. Such an assessment would be completely dismissing everything concrete either religion said. There have been many Christian missionary efforts that have done just this. It could be heard in this phrase, “Don’t all religions really believe the same thing?” That would only be true if everything were reduced to some common set of feelings.

    In the history of theology, this valuation of the feelings was first proposed by Schleiermacher. He is often called the “Father of Liberal Theology.” It is a dominant part of American culture, accepted by most without any knowledge that they are accepting a particular philosophical position. It was an attempt to make doctrine itself of no value or interest: all that mattered were religious sentiments.

    Time has shown this, I think, to be bankrupt. People think of themselves as kind and good because they have certain “kind” and “good” sentiments, even when their actions are neither kind nor good. As such, we have groups of people willing to attack and villify others in the name of kindness and goodness.

    The Christian faith is, properly, rooted in something much deeper – it is rooted in fact and reality – not simply in thoughts and feelings about reality. The Orthodox Tradition has a very profound understanding of the fullness of what it means to be human. Parts of the Tradition can be usefully expressed with more recent language, such as the workings of neurobiology or such. There is no contradiction. But the liberal project of which Schleiermacher was a major force, has actually attenuated what it means to be human – so much so that it is willing to make-up whole new ways of being human, with no grounding in reality, simply because it suits modern sentiments (just to use one example). l

    As I said at the end of the article, “God wants more for us than that.”

  34. Christopher – As Fr. Stephen reminds us over and over, the fulfilling the commandments is not meant to be carried out as part of the Modern Project…i.e. through political or technocratic avenues in an effort to achieve “progress.” Rather, they are simply meant to be practiced by us as individuals in our daily lives. Christ has not commanded us to improve society by changing the system; He has only asked us to help our neighbors to the best of our ability in a very personal way.

    Dino – I agree that this is fundamentally simple. We humans are really good at making things complicated and difficult!

  35. Father Stephen,
    Thank you for the effort and willingness to be there to : explain, clarify, share views.Being an example of the love in practise,not just “come and go” rootless sentiments.
    I guess, planting the deep roots is
    the first step to the “more” he wants for us being the place where the foundation for the Person to God’s Image is laid.
    There is something else I would like to share. I watched your video where you talk about- Running on empty in the abundant life,
    (https://youtu.be/ylvY2U6CwRo).
    It is very interesting that I have come across lexical phenomenon to verify that even the pronunciation and writing of the words when they are meaningfully connected is nearly the same or derive from one another in all the languages. Ex. In this sense:compare – whole -all of, entire with- hole- empty space and there we have Holy. In the Macedonian lang. the same appears with PRAZEN -meaning empty and PRAZNIK-meaning holiday or PRAZNUVA- meaning celebrate.
    As a philologist this is important to me because it is a proof for the importance of the theme you talked about,exactly the case the theme of your recent articles about words- revealing not manipulating. So, through the centuries words which express similar or the same topic have a connected origin being alike in sound or writing. The main point is that- the emptiness of the self is crucial and the bases for the abundant life,promised to those who love Christ. Now ,again, easily connected to the current theme, in that continuous emptiness there is no place for sentimentality, but the foundations are laid for the “more” he wants for us- the abundant life.

  36. Father,
    I imagine where you live you have a large contingent of families who are home schooling. Are you aware of any home schooling curriculum that would integrate and teach the world view that you explain in your writings? Have you ever thought of creating or contributing to such a curriculum?
    If someone wanted to go to a college where this world view is the basis of the curriculum, is there such a place?
    Thanks for your thoughts
    E. C. Scrubb

  37. Father Stephen,
    I thank you for your deep insight on shame. I don’t see much written about it, but I hope one day you will write a book about the effects of shame so we can truly comprehend its destruction among other things.
    Thank you for all you do for us…as your guidance and encouragement is much needed.

  38. “I feel” is thus taken to be a significant statement, no matter how disordered it might be. It might, in fact, have no more significance than saying, “I have a cramp in my leg.”

    Classic Fr. Stephen. Another one for the quote wall.

  39. Thank you father for this enlightening article.

    I wanted to ask if apathy is what we are trying to achieve? Not the same as being unemotional, just not ruled by our emotions maybe?

    Also on another note re: the same sex marriage. Awhile ago I was invited to a civil marriage. It also happened to be my child’s godfather.Not same sex, just a civil marriage. From the beginning I had reservations about attending and decided to consult my spiritual father who gave me the right response. To attend would be akin to a death, and I would be a witness to this, he told me, you would be witnessing something that is not marriage, and leads to death (spiritually) and your attendance means, in a way, that you agree. Not attending is love, but in a secular world this would be regarded as offensive, and that I wouldn’t be able to
    put my differences aside out of love. Not attending is not emotionally charged, it is a stance of life, that I choose life and love over death.

  40. Wonderful piece.
    I agree with the critiques of secularism and consumerism and I do in fact see how we treat religion as another product that we buy based on personal inclinations and preferences. Every Western city is a marketplace of “churches”.
    However, take someone like myself. Raised in a secular family I had no religious formation at all, in any tradition. As an adult I found a need and desire to know God. Ever since then I’ve bounced around between Catholic and Protestant churches, certainly I was participating in the consumerism of religion. But what else can someone like me do? Yes I can stop bouncing around as I have in the past but wherever I land it will be a result of the same process. I will choose a church that “works for me” [however that gets defined, whatever criteria is used] or whatever but it’s not like I can go back to my family’s traditional faith, they don’t have one, never did.
    So I must choose while recognizing there is something deeply flawed about the whole idea of “choosing” a religion to follow.

  41. Kevin,
    It’s a bit of a conundrum. There is, I think, a difference in having to choose and making consumption a matter of lifestyle. When you go to the grocery store, you have to pick what brand of bread you buy as well. What we can try to do is, as we are able, settle and begin working on a steady life in Christ. You nor I created the insanity in which we live. We can recognize it for what it is and work at living in a different manner. God is merciful.

    Frankly, it’s among the many reasons why I think Orthodox folks who go around attacking Christians who are not Orthodox are deeply out-of-line. There is a place for serious theological engagement – but most such conversations are little more than a sort of tribalistic consumerism itself. I would to God that all Christians, all people, were Orthodox. Then we would all be in the same mess together! Do your best.

  42. Schleiermacher is in the background, even foreground, of many a sermon I point to right here at Ancient Faith (not that I am going to do that 😉 ). Such a homiletic “style” is popular, because it fits in with what North Americans and Christians in western (i.e. non Orthodox) are used to and even expect. Someone might say “but wait, did not St. John Chrysostom himself preach in a way that *connects* the Gospel with the individual and their particular life and circumstances?” St. John however never attenuated (or left out altogether) the ‘skandalon’, the apocalyptic, and the Judgement of the Gospel. St. John did not assume a Cartesian anthropology nor a two story metaphysic. Dino, yes the ‘ecclesial life’ , but how do we get (live that) that in secular society and with secular people – people who are secularized first and come to Orthodoxy with a presupposed secular faith or secularized Christianity? So far we have mostly managed a somewhat haphazard mash up. Only a handful of exceptional men such as Fr. Schemman, Fr. Florovsky, and Fr. Matthew Baker have spoken directly and prophetically about this new situation, of Orthodoxy IN Secularism.

  43. Evangelia,
    There is “apatheia” the technical term for freedom from the slavery of the passions. It does not, however, mean freedom from emotions. A goal, even of psychology, is to have a well-ordered emotional life – to not be neurotic or whatever. The “science” of the Church’s spiritual life is itself born of many centuries experience. I find contemporary science to be helpful and informative – particularly when it is giving information about how the body works and not just making up new theories.

    As to attendance at events. We live in an odd world.

  44. Christopher,
    I cannot rank with such notable figures as you mention, but I do make an effort to contribute to the conversation. 🙂

    As to Schleiermacher, secularism, sentimentality, etc., I think it is the case that clergy are under-educated in this topic. Most will not be familiar with Schleiermacher. Our Orthodox seminaries do not, at present, offer any training in the history of non-Orthodox thought, much less a critique of the culture. There are priests who indeed pick up bits of it here and there – I learned much of what I know from my studies with Hauerwas, as well as having actually been trained in contemporary Western theology. Again, I think you are correct in your observation – but way ahead of the curve in what seems a bit of a condemnation. There is ignorance – but not willful ignorance. Those are very different things.

  45. Father,
    The way I’ve been thinking about it has been causing me all kinds of stress.
    I was baptized Roman Catholic when I was 30, I found a home among the traditionalists, going to a Latin mass at a parish that all but ignored Vatican II and it’s deformations. For a variety of reasons I ended up drifting into a Presbyterian church where I stayed for many years.
    Early last year I decided I should go back to the RCC. Within weeks of doing that the newest round of sexual abuse claims hit the media and the Church has responded in absolutely the worst possible way. I became ashamed to even name myself as catholic out loud. That and all the reasons I left the RCC the first time were still unchanged in that parish. I have a friend that is part of an Eastern rite Catholic church [byzantine-rutherian]. I thought that gave me some acceptable distance from the utter filth of Rome and the rampant modernism of almost all RCC parishes. The “bunker” mentality bothers me and I see it both at my old trad Roman parish and this eastern one I’ve been going to inconsistently for a few months.
    I had never considered orthodoxy before because it just is so alien to an American, even though we have several orthodox parishes here in Indy. I have this vision of walking into an orthodox parish and i’m the only one that speaks English and they are just not real happy to see this stupid American intruding into their thing.

  46. Father,

    Your contribution is very important! Your exactly right about what is and is not taught in our contemporary english speaking seminaries. For more evidence, look at the programs and focus (such as it is – these are academics after all 😉 ) of our contemporary theological societies (e.g. the recent one in Romania). Do I condemn it? I suppose I do! It simply is not good enough. Who sends their army into battle without basic provisions and without having scouted the enemy?!? What’s the point of creating and financing a grand Germanic pedagogical infrastructure/method and everything it entails (i.e. the modern academic “seminary”) if your not going to learn from and apply its very strengths (such as the history of ideas, the lay of the religious/cultural landscape, real peer reviewed research, etc.)?

    Too top down? What about the evidence of the parish – its history and life in America. How is it doing, and is it able to pass on the faith, or even just be faithful in our time and place? In some places it seems quite vibrant, but then there are the “museums” as well.

    Sin done willfully or in ignorance is still sin. Forgiveness is the response. At this point however, I think we are running out of excuses for the sheer naivete that is the status quo. As I have said before, Orthodoxy’s encounter with modernity is new, about a 100 years old. However, at 100 one would hope to see a bit more wisdom and understanding, and something more than a mere beginning of an awareness.

    Now that I have two young daughters I see not only the lack of support that one would expect to be the fruit of such experience and wisdom, I have good reason (my conscious is clear) to ask these hard questions. Yes, it is mostly on me and my wife, but…

  47. Christopher I sincerely appreciate your comments, particularly the reference to the inevitable ‘mashup’.

    And yet I have hope Fr Stephen is correct, that with prayer, practice, and God willing, His grace and guidance we might find our way, the narrow path of Christ. The Church is a hospitable if it maintains the life of the Holy Spirit. But I don’t think anyone here is saying it’s perfect or the teachings to which we attempt to follow is easy. Unless of course I’m mistaken.

    Our wills are indeed broken—St Paul also speaks to this. I hope we aren’t trying to say that we can better his life in Christ. Or alternatively, the fact that we cannot do better than St Paul means we’re heading into abject failure, with no hope in God’s mercy?

    I agree with David W (who also appreciates your point) the way is indeed hard. And Dino also points to what likely is a life long pursuit of this very gradual and sometimes faltering maturation process in faith (—my understanding of his use of the word Nepsis).

  48. Also I’m in no position to be able to critique the Orthodox seminaries, Christopher. Your knowledge of theology and philosophy is far beyond my own, and I don’t question your critique for what it might need. I, for one, am quite reliant on Fr Stephen’s knowledge of theology and resources. His very singularity and the others you mention does seem to suggest we need more help of a kind that might yet be apparent in American Orthodox seminaries.

    But to be honest, I know of at least one Orthodox priest (keeping to Frs rules not mentioning names) who despite a proverbial ‘stellar’ education, has a most unfortunate personality. Without the Holy Spirit such a good education provided very little but an edge to trump critique.

    Btw if Fr Stephen had such personality I would most definitely not be here.

  49. Christopher,
    When we are given a chance and someone seems to want to open their eyes, when they seem disposed to questioning the fallaciousness of secularity, we can indeed help and open them to the delusion of this world. If we are competent to do this we can help through it, (through words) – only when a word is fitting of course. But then again we really need to be clear, prepared, discerning, communicable, charming and loving to put to words what we also –hopefully– live out. Words become quite cheap when there is no ascetical reserve behind them. I was reminded of this multifaceted need in verbal communication (especially needed by those who have positions that bring many such chances their way) when having a conversation with an environmentalist (who is vehemently atheistic but has some admirable integrity about him and is in a position of teaching/influencing many people) two days ago.
    During the conversation, (in the context of environmentalism and ecology), my mention of the truth that any “going against nature” (not respecting it’s ‘logos’ as we would say) “inevitably has dreadful consequences on everything”, had them in instant agreement… Such people might even see it such a notion [“going against nature”] as ‘a sin’ (though through secular eyes) and a hubris, one carrying greater gravity and influence than most sins; however, on the other hand, the minute you mention the same consequences (of going against nature) in the context of (to use another example from the conversation) gender, they suddenly take on a completely different mindset –as if becoming another person, reiterating words of others that also talk just like that, losing their previous personality, and practically demonstrating a possession by some ideological conditioning. They obviously fail to see that it is but the same notion (“a going against nature”), and cannot perceive the double standards in this modern combination of nominalist subjective ethics.
    But the additional thing I was reminded of is the need for preparation and competence to have such a conversation well..

    The Christian in the secular setup is –in a sense- worse off than the three youths in the fiery furnace. They were “sprinting the final straight” whereas we have to resist an incessant oxidization while running a protracted marathon where the finishing line is nowhere in sight.
    But saying this, instantly points us to the key: bringing to mind at every chance we get, the finishing line: remembrance of death. This gives us great spiritual might!

    The fact that modernity/secularisation is dominated by a forgetfulness of death, is connected to its obsession with the importance of sentiment. The value it assigns to sentiment makes individuals unable to calmly and trustfully deal with the conditions of existence we have been given –which include the blessing of a death that leads to eternal life.
    He who accepts the tragedies of existence and still struggles towards virtue, in the image of Christ, is the one who becomes holy. It has always been like this, and this has always been considered praiseworthy – and is becoming increasingly more so, (even if the debunking of its praiseworthiness is incessantly promoted – as we have been warned that it will be by so many prophecies regarding the increasing apostasy of history). Living like that always has benign cosmic repercussions though, just as an individual living badly affects far more than they might know, so too, and far more, does the opposite do.
    So, that blessed ‘selfishness’ (sorry about using this word) of looking after our own selves’ struggle to conform to Christ, and not the lack of struggle of others, is a very big part of what is genuinely practical solution to this very real problem you describe.

  50. Did God not give us our wide range of emotion? Seems to me the people who are capable of being totally emotionless are usually sociopaths. One of the main thing I struggle with within Orthodoxy is how incredible cold and insensitive so many of the church members are, especially if they are also politically conservative. All the hateful memes and hurtful comments they have toward anyone who is different than themselves or those who can’t or won’t conform to the narrow minded opinions some of them have. I’ve sat in many a coffee hour and heard one judgemental, dismissive, mocking and just outright cruel comment after another but seldom if ever do they speak of praying for those whom they see as “enemies.” And if you as another Orthodox Christian dare to disagree they’ll write you off as “not” Orthodox. Been around this 9 years and I’m weary of it.

  51. Wavering,
    What you describe is sad and shows a lack of spiritual maturity. It is all too commonplace, I am afraid. Sometimes its endemic in a parish and is not being checked by the priest. Sometimes the priest himself may be a leader in this.

    If you’ve been following the comments, you should note that I’ve tried to be clear that emotions are a gift of God. Their difficulty is only in being disordered and our lives become disordered with them when they dominate in an improper fashion. The very behaviors you describe are themselves largely driven by unrecognized shame. It’s a very dark thing.

    It would indeed be sick to be emotionless. But you yourself are describing what happens when the emotions are disordered. People behave very badly.

  52. Wavering,
    I have no idea where you live. Could be that you worship in a church that is the only one (Orthodox) within 100 miles or more.
    With what you describe, I think that I would only go to liturgy and skip coffee hour. The congregation must be fairly small if you cannot find even one other with whom you can identify. I know what you are describing. I have felt the same at times from others. Well, my
    friend, I will be praying for you and that you do not give up the Pearl of Great Price because you’ve experienced certain boars/boors. Do pray, not only for yourself, but for them as well.

  53. Kevin,
    I’m sympathetic toward your experiences. I had a real heavy-duty axe to grind against all Protestant churches that was related to my history (long story). As a result I considered all of Christianity to be a form of deep sickness that plagued humanity. When I had a dying friend who revealed he had been molested by a Roman Catholic priest, my heart just broke. The irony at that time was that my studies in physics, gave me a growing awareness that the existence of the Resurrection was truth. –Talk about a sorrowful conundrum!! I couldn’t bring myself to tell my friend at the time that I was in the process of converting to Christianity (I didn’t know at the time where or how, anyway). Rather I did tell him that I completely believed in God’s love and that he was about to enter a glorious eternal life.

    When I first came to my parish home (an Orthodox Church), I was still very wary of Protestants such that coming into a parish with so many converts from Protestantism, I was a little frightened. Eventually I have come to deeply appreciate these circumstances as God’s Providence, His way to heal my soul.

  54. Kevin, I have visited only one Orthodox Church in Indianapolis (our son lives there), and it is delightful: Sts. Constantine and Helena Romanian. English-speaking. Dynamic. Friendly. Involved in the community and the world (met a group from there helping with Project Mexico one summer).

  55. Kevin Joe Vail,

    I have been paying attention to the scandals in the Roman Church. I tend to think that the “bunkering” you describe is simply a response by a people who are under attack from without and within (Rome is both vague and contradictory on even their own doctrine, in my opinion). It is, sadly, a normal human response to very uncertain and ugly times.

    I have also noted that the attacks they suffer (not the sexual abuse cases; the attacks to conform to secular ideology) will come to the Orthodox Church as well, in time. In many ways, Orthodoxy is already under attack. It is just the nature of the culture. And I think we will see much of the same response if our Bishops and Priests do not stand strong and lead us.

  56. “In many ways, Orthodoxy is already under attack. It is just the nature of the culture. And I think we will see much of the same response if our Bishops and Priests do not stand strong and lead us.”

    This is surely true. Regretfully, there are those among our leaders who are swayed by secular and political attachments, so much so that they have lost sight of our mission, or rather, commission. We all suffer under these same temptations. “The nature of our culture” is at enmity with our true nature. It is at enmity with Truth.

    I can understand why “nepsis”, watchfulness, is of necessity and at the same time a challenge. The cares of the world are a great temptation. Difficulties within the Church are inevitable. This is age-old warfare.
    Christ tells us not to fear. He, as the Physician, heals. He enables us to persevere. He gives us grace to forgive and repent. He gives us the Holy Spirit as our Protector. He gives us His Mother, the Saints, the Holy Angels who intercede for us. He gives us the sacraments as evidence of His uniting heaven and earth, which enables us to overcome, as He has overcome. This is His gift to the world…that in unity, as the Church, mankind may be one with God. We are called to love God and love others. That includes our brothers and sisters.
    I think of St. Paul’s words in Acts 27 for those in fear and despair:
    ” And as the sailors were seeking to escape from the ship, when they had let down the skiff into the sea, under pretense of putting out anchors from the prow, Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the skiff and let it fall off.”
    I liken this ship to the Ark, an image of the Church. It is a battered ship in need of repair and it is indeed being repaired, hiddenly, much the same as our personal transformation. Though it may not be evident, in faith we know the Master is at work.
    So we stay on-board, despite the troubles of the Church. If there is overarching concern that some clergy have gone astray (not to mention the laity as well), remember there are twice, three, four times as many who have not.
    Nevertheless, in all things we give thanks. We love, though brokenly. We forgive, 70 X 7.
    Glory to God.
    Christ is Risen!

  57. Byron and Paula,
    I came across some really nice words that seem to tie what you are both saying (about difficult times in the Church)…

    I really like Dino’s comparison (that is how my own life truly feels sometimes!) how in our lives “we have to resist an incessant oxidization while running a protracted marathon where the finishing line is nowhere in sight…” 🙂

    “—Above all, we must firmly understand that the fate of the Orthodox Church is in the hands of its Creator and Head—our Lord Jesus Christ. And only in His hands, not in the hands of politicians or the powers of this world, and not in our hands. People can only be tools, instruments in the implementation of God’s providence for the Church. That which He wants will come to pass. That which He doesn’t want will not happen. And our task, the task of the faithful, is to become obedient tools in the hands of God. We have to seek His will and live according to it, even if it seems difficult or dangerous. We must remember that if we serve God, then not a single hair falls from our head without His will and His attention to this hair.

    The Lord knows every one of us personally. The thoughts and heart of every man are in His palm. Therefore, if any of us are to be tested in our faith, then it’s to the exact measure that the Lord sends us: the measure of strength and talents of each man. If the Lord sees in someone the strength to endure prison, He can send it for a great crown in eternity. And if someone has barely enough strength to even watch what they are trying to do with the Church—this podvig of sorrow will be enough for him. And for it, the believer will receive a crown of faithfulness and glory in due time. The Lord is love and wisdom. If He is for us, then who is against us?”

    by Archbishop Theodosy (Snigiryov) of Boyarka (article from http://orthochristian.com)

  58. Dino,

    Yes, remembrance of death. Keeping this remembrance at bay is central to the whole modern world. Yet, to be perfectly honest I question the individualism, the seemingly “heroic” asceticism of your post. In America, things are *thin* for many of us (not all). As Father has explained before, we don’t really have “spiritual fathers” and the normative enculturalization of traditional Orthodox Christianity into almost every aspect of life does not exist. This has the practical effect of isolation on a deep spiritual level. We can bear this a little bit and we do, but I think also we can be honest about the state of our life raft (i.e our communion, our community, or friends). That said, I hear what you are saying and will meditate upon it.

    Byron,

    Our leadership (lay and clergy) our in the same gulag of secularism as the rest of us, and barring a few exceptions, are just as perplexed.

  59. Thank you for the quote, Agata.
    I like the way the Archbishop ends with speaking about how God sends us trials according to measure…”And if someone has barely enough strength to even watch what they are trying to do with the Church—this podvig of sorrow will be enough for him.” How mindful in His care for us. He will crush us (I think of a winepress) no more than we can handle, to bring forth that new wine. Our God, He is good!

    On a similar note: interesting word, podvig. Had to look that one up. Patriarch Krill describes it in a piece from the same website as the quote you provided: http://orthochristian.com/106048.html
    I am trying to find a word in English that would be close to podvig. The only word I could think of is “hero”. But it does not capture the essence of podvig.
    Surely the Russian people know more about suffering than Americans. As a culture, we do not know how to suffer gracefully. (I even admitted to thanking God for the chairs/pews in Church) I am sure this has bearing on how we endure the difficulties of the Orthodox Church here in America and how we think about our brothers and sisters abroad who are in some hard trials. The Patriarch said podvig is a means for coming closer to God. It is an intentional act “because the denial of your own ego is the path to God.” I think we have a lot to learn from those in other lands.

  60. Christopher,
    “the same gulag of secularism.”
    It is very important, deeply important, to remember that a One-Storey Universe – the sacramental world – is not in our minds. It’s the truth of reality. A congregation could have a thoroughly secular mind, and yet the Liturgy is as much the Kingdom of God as it is on Mt. Athos itself. That one perceives it is a gift of God – a great gift. That anyone in our secularized culture is able to perceive it to any extent is already a miracle, a testament to the reality itself. Were the secular account of reality true, no one would ever see past it. But some do.

    It is foremost of great importance to rejoice in the fact that witnesses remain among us. God is with us. The truth of the Kingdom of God is, again, not an idea. It is a reality that actually rests in every human heart because it is the reality according to which we were created. And so, we see this strange phenomenon, again and again, that someone who would be otherwise clueless about the language and history and metaphysics, etc., simply encountering the truth of the Kingdom of God and cannot explain how it answers the deepest cry of their heart.

    I’ve said before that gravity wins. Always. It is because we bear witness to reality itself that we ought never to lose heart. We should encourage one another. The fact that many remain blind and deaf is not the important thing. It is that any can see and hear that matters. That is what is real. The blindness and deafness are not real. They are temporary delusions – efforts of a wingless bird to fly. Gravity wins.

  61. Paula,
    My understanding of the word “podvig” is simply “our trying” to follow what the Church calls us to, our personal effort, regardless of how others behave in this “gulag of secularism” (what an expression Christopher!)
    God knows what we are capable of and will ask us to give account accordingly.
    Maybe Father will have a better explanation.

  62. I come from a denomination that puts great faith in “prophecy” and “end time events”. Much of it is really unimportant if you are focused properly. However, I have found the following quote interesting. Probably because it has nothing to do with plagues, trumpets, multi-headed beasts, dragons or whores of Babylon, but everything to do with the struggles Christians will face as the earth falters forward to its own destruction.

    From the De Vitis Patrum, Book VI

    Some of the holy fathers of Scete while making predictions about future generations began by asking, “What exactly have we done?”
    Someone called Cyrion, a man of great repute, replied, “We have not kept the commandments of God.”
    The others asked, “What about those who shall come after us? How shall they do?”
    And he replied, “They shall only achieve half of what we have done.”
    They asked, “What about those who will come after them? How shall they do?”
    He replied, “That last generation shall do nothing of what we have done. But I foresee great temptations for them, and those who are able to persevere in that time will be much greater than either us or our fathers.”

  63. Christian,
    Yes, there’s always a need for caution against “heroism and individualism”.
    Michael mentioned Jordan Peterson earlier, and how “the imposition of fame and its temptations may bring him down but I pray not.” I instantly thought that Peterson’s reverse-engineering of Christian beliefs (while remaining agnostic) is a little like St Paul’s: “When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them” (Romans 2:14-15).
    The point I’d like to make is that the danger of falling from pride and individualism –this notion is a most pervasive warnings in the patristic tradition – is far less of a problem in our times than others: the greatest problem is distraction and spiritual apathy.
    So, yes, there’s always a need for caution against “heroism and individualism” in personal asceticism, especially in our contemporary context, but, this caveat which is not dissimilar to traditional warnings against pride/delusion regarding such heroic endeavours mustn’t be yet another dissuasion or a justification for discouragement and indolence.
    With guidance, we are safe. With a referential spiritual life we are protected.
    It is generally the enemy, as they say in Athos, “from the left” (forgetfulness, distraction, spiritual lethargy, despondency and pleasure-seeking) that thwarts our asceticism rather than “from the right” (immoderation, recalcitrance, pride).

  64. Matthew – I literally just read that quote yesterday in Brianchaninov’s The Arena (Chapter 31, p. 103) and also found it (along with the rest of the chapter) quite interesting and thought-provoking.

  65. Father,

    Point taken. I know I don’t communicate this well and rhetorically I come across as centered in idealization, but I really am concerned with the *reality* of all this. The secularized, Cartesian Self IS idealization – a life lived falsely in a fantasy.

    Dino,

    Point taken.

    On a tangent, Jordan Peterson has had a certain impact among many here in American Orthodox circles. Some have grappled with the meaning of, I will call it the “Jordan Peterson phenomena” for the sake of brevity. I think your right to refer this to St. Paul here. JP as an “ism” is really nothing more or less than this.

  66. Christopher
    Regarding figures like JPeterson, (jungian platonists essentially I perceive), despite the philosophocal inconsistencies involved in their worldview, I think that (due to our times being what they are) , they are worth more praise than criticism from us Orthodox even if both are justified.

  67. Dino,
    Thank you as always for your comments. I am a fairly recent convert, and will put in an oar about the danger from the right. It is a very real temptation as a US convert to hew too far right, to the point of judging others by our perception of their struggle (or our judgement that they don’t struggle…). Not many are in danger of the hyper-ascetic effort that may be a greater risk for young Athonites (I think of Elder Joseph telling the young Fr Efrem “next time don’t sleep on rocks, okay?”), but if I see the danger on the left as excusing myself, I see the opposite as accusing others, whether by ostentatious ascetic feats or Facebook slander. The dangers are in our hearts, the culture is the arena in which we meet them. Yes, the arena is a mess, not clean sand like in Rome, and yes, we are conditioned by the arena and do not achieve to the measure of our fathers (spoken first by the patriarch Jacob, and not by despondent modern Orthodox, by the way). But Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Thanks for the encouragement to nepsis and praxis!
    In Christ,
    Mark

  68. Mark
    Regarding accusing others I would also say that it needs to take precedence as the first and foremost thing we guard against.

  69. Fr Stephen, I’m sorry, I believe I might need your help here. I’m not sure I understood what Dino said to Christopher.

    Here’s what I read from you and take great solace in:
    Fr Stephen writes:

    I’ve said before that gravity wins. Always. It is because we bear witness to reality itself that we ought never to lose heart. We should encourage one another. The fact that many remain blind and deaf is not the important thing. It is that any can see and hear that matters. That is what is real. The blindness and deafness are not real. They are temporary delusions – efforts of a wingless bird to fly. Gravity wins.

    And Christopher writes: “JP as an “ism” is really nothing more or less than this”.

    I sincerely desire to follow the Orthodox Way and yet I don’t agree with Dino’s assessment that the sins of the world reside “more on the left” with the list of the “left associated” tendencies. To the best of my knowledge this isn’t true. Furthermore, such speech appears to me as form of pigeon-holing and a participation in the divisiveness that most of us appear to be engaged in, here in the US.

    Please forgive me. I don’t want to get into politics. And yet this appears to me to be what the undercurrent is in Dino’s comment, including these words: “worth more praise than criticism” in connection to the “JP phenomenon” Christopher mentions.

    Do I miss-read these statements in your comment and in Christopher’s, as in agreement and a counterpoint to Dino’s words?

    Fr Stephen, please help correct my understanding if I misunderstand the meanings in Dino’s comments.

  70. Dee,
    “on the left” is a purely Patristic expression that has nothing to do with the “political left”.
    There’s a notion that we have demons attacking us obviously (“from the left” – as in “do bad”) and demon’s deviously attacking us “from the right” (again not “the political right”). This would typically mean suggestions towards excess, or towards the seemingly good, as in: “fast more than your guide has said” etc (in order of course to deceive us.
    Is that clear?

  71. Dee,
    Yes, I see the confusion. Dino is referring to a common Athonite trope that speaks of us as being attacked on the left side and on the right. On the left side by the “lazy” sins, and on the right side by the too zealous sins. Neither reference has in mind the words Left and Right as used in political speech. Indeed, that political speech only dates back to Revolutionary France, whereas the Athonite aphorism is much, much older.

  72. I think I read once from C.S. Lewis…The devil doesn’t care which side of the horse we fall from (left or right) as long as we fall.

  73. Thanks that helps Dino!
    But the next part about the “JP” phenomenon still throws me. Christopher’s point that it is more of an “ism” seems more to be in the vein of birds without wings (as I read Fr Stephen) rather than something “worthy of praise”.

    How is the ‘”Jp” phenomenon’, worthy praise?

  74. Dee,
    I can’t speak for Dino on JP. I would think that some of his critiques, when they are spot on, are worthy of praise. When they’re not spot on, they’re worthy of blame. What I think is the case is that he is a voice saying some things with an articulation and understanding that has been all too absent. I think he is insufficient, precisely because he is not grounded in the Christian tradition. I am not a fan of his – thought I’m not an opponent either. Jonathan Pageau, who writes a bit and is a wonderful artist and iconographer (carved), is a friend of JP’s. We’ve talked a bit about him. He’s had opportunity to share the faith with JP, and you can hear some mention of that in JP’s kind remarks regarding Orthodoxy.

    We live in a world that is tortured intellectually.

  75. Also, Dean I wish to add that your statement seems to be most true to me as well. That it doesn’t matter to the devil which way we fall, so long as we fall.

    I’m still not sure that our inclination to sin is on the left side, using the Athonite meanings… Hubris seems to be a major problem in this nation. Fr Stephen frequently writes about the problems stemming from shame. It seems the most common behavior to counter shame is to go to an extreme of behavior that in appearances seem righteous.

  76. Thank you so much for your explanation Fr Stephen. I haven’t read his material.
    I have enough on my plate as it is.

  77. Father,
    I like your expression “tortured intellectually”, but Clark Carlton has an even better expression (how I miss his commentaries!).
    Since you know Clark, I wonder if you have an idea? 🙂
    I heard it once in his recorded talk (it “slipped” in a conversation with his audience), but unfortunately, even if it is most perfectly fitting to describe today’s depraved and gone-crazy world, I cannot say it here without being offensive… 😉

    There is such peace, joy and safety in what Dino called above “protection in our referential spiritual life” in the Church.

  78. “How is the ‘”Jp” phenomenon’, worthy praise? ”

    Perhaps it’s because he’s seemingly the only public voice speaking out against the total insanity that has overtaken the western world.

  79. Alan,
    I agree. He’s, at least, one of the few voices to get traction and garner a sizable audience. For one, he’s such a surprise for the Left. He’s reasonable and controlled when they go at him tooth and nail.

  80. From what I’ve seen of him, Jordan Peterson is kind of an “anti-Patristic”–not “anti” as in against, but as in inverted. If he used the Scriptures to analyze our psychology instead of using our psychology to analyze the Scriptures, he could be Orthodox.

  81. Kevin,
    What I’ve seen is someone who sees that traditional values and human relationships and such make sense. But he’s trying to argue for them on the basis of science, psychology, etc. Normally, that would be a fairly solid sort of argument – it’s only questionable now because of the abuse of science – or of a pseudo-science by many in academics. Those traditional values and human relationships can certainly be supported from the Scriptures the Fathers, etc. The tradition agrees with reality.

    When you don’t believe in God – or you can’t quite find yourself able to make that “leap,” there can still be a need for a transcendtal something-or-other. I’ve seen a number of people use Depth Psychology as a means for “feeling after” some sort of Transcendental. It’s also a bit flimsy – but the effort makes sense.

    I’ve said to a couple of people that I would enjoy a conversation with Peterson if the opportunity ever arose. Never know.

  82. Agata, Thank you for referencing Dino’s words in an earlier post. They are indeed beautiful.

    Alan, I appreciate your point, but not so much from engaging in the media. It’s just not my thing despite my regularity here. I expose my ignorance on the topic of Peterson, since I don’t engage in the media.

    Last but not least thank you Paula for that link.

    Here’s a point that Fr Stephen makes that I sincerely appreciate in it:

    “Classical Christianity is inherently traditional in its orientation. It prefers to treat the things in our lives that are received as the gifts of a good God. Even within the tragedies of our existence, the hand of God is seen hidden, working good in spite of things. This is not the same thing as acquiescing to evil, though Christ Himself says, “Do not resist evil.” It is, instead, a perception that the self-emptying of the Cross overcomes all things and is the true medicine of immortality.”

  83. Dee,
    Indeed (regarding Father’s words you quote), it is all about Christ’s self-emptying, His suffering and death is that which gives Life. It is to be baptized into death (of self) and to be born again into everlasting life. It is the sacramental life of humility. This is true power…humility, not coercion. It is so upside-down, so against worldly standards, the drive to “save our life”, happiness…all that. How can denying oneself result in happiness?! The world can reject this as nonsense, which they have. They can take it a step further and use enforcement, coercion, which they have. But like Father’s analogy, reality (the Kingdom) is not an idea, as if by a change of mind it goes away. You can will it away all you want, others can even enforce laws to that effect, but as sure as gravity, the Kingdom, by the power and authority of God Himself, remains. It is here, now…and forever.
    He calls the world to follow Him, to learn from Him what this unfallen suffering means. St. Paul says it well:
    ” We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”
    God is with us through every moment of our life’s journey. May He give us the grace to suffer unfallingly. Without words to explain, it is this which brings joy. May He give us the grace to persevere.

  84. Dee,
    I appreciate your comment to me. Over time, I have learnt that if anything Dino says seem contrary to what I think, it means I need to examine my presumption and understanding.
    His knowledge of the the Faith is rooted much deeper than my own will ever be.

    But I’m glad you asked the question about “left and right”, it was a good refresher to hear about their spiritual meaning.

  85. Agata & Dee,
    If such a thing were true, that: “if anything I say seems contrary to what one thinks, it means they need to examine their presumption and understanding.” I’d be infallible! That cannot be…!
    Perhaps to the degree that I reiterate what has been traditioned down to me/us from any saints and elders I was fortunate to meet, there might be a high chance that those insights could be more useful than they seem at first and my clumsy wording might be detracting from something more profound than what comes across… Nothing guarantees any such words are that discerningly/ fittingly said though!

  86. Dee, just to be clear, I do not consider myself a fan (or a critic) of JP. Due to what I’ve learned in large part from Fr. Stephen, I attempt to eschew most media (BTW…..very difficult to do when all of your family and friends aren’t attempting this). I only know of him due to what my friends tell me about him. He came to speak in the city in which I live. My friends invited me to go with them. I declined. An expensive ticket to hear a non-Christian speak on our secular culture certainly isn’t my thing. Part of me is troubled by the fact that as a non-Orthodox, he seems to have a large number of O folks following him. But at the same time, I get why that is. All the best to you.

  87. Christopher, I love your term “the gulag of secularism.” It perfectly sums up what we’re facing these days.

    Let me know if you have that trademarked. Otherwise, I’m going to start using it. 🙂

  88. Perhaps being in the “gulag of secularism ” is not all bad. After all it was in the gulag that Solzhenitsyn came back to Orthodoxy and to faith. This secular crucible may be for the salvation of multitudes.

  89. Paula, Agata, Dino and Alan,
    Thank you all for your kind and helpful words and for your patience.

  90. “This secular crucible may be for the salvation of multitudes.”

    There is still a bit of sanity hidden in the American psyche. This week’s idiotic performance by Virginia’s governor and a couple of legislators regarding 3rd trimester abortions still touched a nerve. Things like that wake a few more people up to the absurdity of our culture. We have no-kill animal shelters and abortion clinics. That’s just weird.

  91. Alan, I can not now recall where I picked that quip up, but I think it may be Fr. Stephen’s. Also, I am of a mind that there are many Orthodox folks following JP because he speaks to (and uses relevant/current language, ideas, etc.) an aspect of our life and reality that Orthodoxy as practiced here in these western lands is not very good at speaking to. This comes back to Schemman’s insight into this large but too little recognized problem of how to BE Orthodox in this (to Orthodoxy and its collection of traditions, culture, answers to questions, etc.) “new” situation of secularism. It’s the same reason why Dreher is followed, or C.S. Lewis is still so *relevant* to our present reality and dilemmas. Like Father said upstream, they don’t teach to this in our seminary’s. Agree or disagree with any of these particular men’s frame of reference, diagnosis, and prescriptions, the fact is they are addressing a need that for most of us traditional Christians, is strongly felt if poorly understood…

  92. Christopher,
    I believe we are *being* Orthodox. I mean, it is that simple.
    I honestly do not know what it is you expect. I do not understand what it is you see so differently in the Orthodox people you observe. Like me. Besides being sentimental and all the other things…I am as Orthodox as the next person.
    I am sorry. I do not understand.

  93. Paula,

    There is an Orthodox priest named Michael Oleksa who has a handful of youtube videos, some of them quite short. He speaks to what a culture is and how it is relevant (and even “first”), in the context of communication and his specific circumstances – but in my opinion he might be a lever which you can use to get at this.

  94. Christopher,
    If it would help me understand your part of the conversation here, I will most gladly watch those videos.
    Sincere thanks.

  95. Paula,
    I’m not sure I can contribute much to this conversation between you and Christopher.

    But I will mention this: Fr Michael Oleksa has written a book that provides a history of Christian missionary work in Alaska, which is also helpful to anyone who might wonder why I might have had a big ‘axe’ to grind against non-Orthodox “Christian” ‘evangelical’ work and/or activism. He presents some of this history in this book. And it might help facilitate an understanding of my aversion to conversations among the Orthodox, when they turn to discussions of mission work or political ‘activism’. When such conversations mirror this form of non-Orthodox “Christian” rhetoric, I’m inclined to push back. The history provided in this book provides some explanation why I react this way. The legacy of that unfortunate ‘work’ in the name of “Christianity” and the impact it had in the Alaska Native communities and elsewhere in the US continues to haunt my soul and others I know.

    His book is: “Orthodox Alaska: A theology of mission. I recommend it.

  96. Dee…yes, I am very interested. Having been in an evangelical church for 12 years I would like to know what it is like to be a recipient of the “witnessing”, specifically from a Native American standpoint, that is, a culture within a culture. And since the book you recommend is written by the same Priest who Christopher referenced, I believe it will help me better understand (among other things) not only your (and the Native American/Alaskan) experience with this missionary work (vs the Orthodox approach), but also what Christopher is saying in his discussion here.
    Thank you.

  97. Christopher,

    Thanks for your comments to me, much appreciated. As I said to Dee earlier, I am not a critic of JP (yes, I also said I’m not a fan). That simply means what it says. I’m neutral about him. But I do get your point about what O folks seem to follow him, CS Lewis and others. Good point. Thanks.

    Dee and Christopher, thanks for the mention on Fr Michael O. I’ll definitely check out his work.

  98. Dee, I have had that book on my shelf for some time (the history of Orthodox Alaska rather fascinates me; the first book on Orthodoxy I read was on a parish there) and began reading it tonight. So far, it is a bit dry but full of good information.

  99. Byron,
    It’s been awhile since I read it. When I first started my catechism I was experiencing a lot of emotional stuff regarding even being in a church. I loved the Liturgy but I felt isolated and uncomfortable–again this is not a reflection of the people in the parish —I had a lot of conflict for which I’m grateful to have had a parish priest who had God’s grace and suggested I read it.

  100. Well, I’m only a chapter in, Dee! I don’t think it would be fair of me to judge the book. I was only making an observation on how the information is presented. It is very interesting though…. 🙂

  101. Father, I’m jumping in off topic. Have been reading posts and listening to podcasts. Have only recently started to learn about the Orthodox Church. My concern is “emptying myself” so that God can fill the void that I avoid with distractions, habits, passions– Communion with God by letting my false self die. My personality ( your discussion about the personality as surface and communion with God is on a deeper level-soul- if I understood correctly–and that the personality is not the major concern but something more real) is described as OCPD meaning I am rule bound, very controlling, etc. Not to be confused with the more common behavior problem of OCD–this is a personality style. It has been defined as trying to find “a safe passage through life”. Usually associated with having gone thru major trauma when a child. Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder is also described as never being “off”–always on guard. Now to my question. I take a small dosage of Zoloft and Ultram (botched hip repair). When I get off them for a time, I find my self feeling lost, unattached, empty. After reading some of your related posts, I think maybe I should endure the feelings so as to “empty myself” but I give into the pain and restart the meds. Reading about your description of life on a psychological level, I can look at it as one would any medication. Any guidance will be appreciated. Thanks, Dennis

  102. Dennis,
    Getting through the day can be hard enough when you’re living with something like OCPD. If the medication is helpful – then take it, by all means. Things are hard enough without making them harder. Self-emptying is often best practiced by giving thanks to God and by working at serving others. When I serve someone else – I am emptying myself – without having to focus on my “self-emptying.”

  103. Father,
    Dennis’ comment reminded me of a fairly discerning counsel (that applies across the board). It is an advise that is close to what the main article describes: in a nutshell it is the classic thing: ‘to shift one’s noetic focus away from the self’. The key is that it can only be practically done in ‘concentric circles’: to begin with we only manage to “shift the focus away, not from ourselves and unto Christ, but, merely away from heeding ourselves trying (and often failing) to shift of the focus away”. Every individual has different capabilities of getting to the more “central circles”. Re-centering one’s being and noetic focus to Christ is ultimately the work of God.
    God – attracted by our efforts that drag us away-from-self-centredness (and our joyful rather than resentful bouncing back into efforts with every failure), even if we only manage to relax away from the self and into thanksgiving on the peripheries of our thoughts, finalises what no man can and gifts us what we couldn’t have achieved as pure gift in response.
    I first heard this in Simonpetra and found it most pragmatic and quite profound, but it is convoluted to communicate to others. Those who have struggled ascetically with thoughts, instantly get it, and even realise they knew it already (but such counsels are most valuable when formulated from one’s Spiritual Father).
    The key thing that I mean i.e.: “applied in concentric circles of “reverse self absorption or self-monitoring” is this: we try to pay our own thoughts-on-things and sentiments-on-things no heed, while only (mostly) managing to pay our own thoughts-on-afforementioned-thoughts and sentiments-on-afforementioned-sentiments no heed, [all this in a kind of manner that contains ease and trust and thanksgiving in the face of stress].

  104. Dino – I think this is why I find reading the services to be most helpful to me when I’m struggling with negative thoughts – which are, indeed, always self-centered. I must, of necessity, focus on the words and this, in turn, forces my attention away from myself and on onto Christ, His Mother, and the Saints.

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