“No one will know what you’re doing.”
I recently took an evening for a movie – a fairly rare undertaking. The movie was Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, which depicts the story of a Catholic man and his family who refused to take an oath of loyalty to Hitler during World War II. He dies a martyr. The story is based in truth. Living in a small valley in the mountains of Austria, his life was already a hidden thing. When his refusal to cooperate with the demands of the State come to light, he begins to hear the mantra, “No one will know what you’re doing.” He hears it from neighbors, from the Church, from family, ultimately from the authorities themselves. It is the most quintessentially modern sentiment within the movie. That he acts as though this does not matter reveals him to be among the most Christian characters ever portrayed on screen.
What matters in your life?
“Make a difference.”
“Make your life count.”
“This is worthwhile.”
A long litany of slogans enforce the notion that “changing” things, even in the slightest way, is how a life should be measured. It is the very essence of the lie that is modernity. We simply are not in charge of history. Even those who imagine themselves (or whom we imagine) to be the great influencers of current events are not in charge of history. Hitler and Mussolini were not in charge of history. Churchill and FDR were not in charge of history. No one holding political office (nor all of them together) is in charge of history.
God alone is in charge of history.
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin,yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:25–30)
Such a declaration (in my experience) immediately produces a “push-back,” in which people question whether I think our decisions and actions matter. I would readily agree that our decisions and actions matter, but not for the reasons modernity tells us. What matters is how we respond to God and to His commandments (which are a verbal icon of God). The world is not a neutral zone, a secular setting in which human action is the defining and determining reality. We are not meant to create the world, but to live in it.
Certain aspects of this distinction will seem to many to be a matter of semantics. We do indeed make decisions, and our decisions have consequences. However, when this is our primary way of framing our actions a subtle distortion sets in that leads us to idolatrous and disastrous results.
The modern world is dominated by the cult of politics. There is no better way to describe how we imagine things to work. Regardless of our protests to the contrary, contemporary people believe in a secular world – a world that operates according to its own laws and principles (cause and effect) – and where those with power are those who are able to “make things happen.” Power is understood to be identical with coercion (or the “authority” to coerce) and wealth (the ability to pay people to do your bidding). The apex of this power is identified with governments. As such, we understand “politics” to be the primary means of controlling and shaping the world. This is life as cult. We are told (and agree) that the thing we call “government” controls and shapes the world, and that it is its legitimate role. Every protest to the contrary is met either with perhaps two verses of Scripture (if you’re a Christian) or dismissal as some sort of nut (perhaps an Amish nut of sorts).
Much of this cult has been created in the crucible of modernity itself. At its heart, modernity (and all of its political forms) teaches that the shaping and control of history is the proper role of government. It is the agent of change. If anyone resists this claim or refuses to participate, then they are charged with failing to take up their responsibilities. It is a cult that demands our participation (the very nature of a cult).
Malick’s film concludes with a quote from George Elliot’s Middlemarch:
“..for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
I would go further than Elliot. The hidden life is the only true life, and what is deemed “historic” is little more than propaganda. The propaganda does not serve the moment-by-moment reality that each of us necessarily inhabits. Rather, it serves to empower those who most want to do violence without the distraction of a conscience.
Years ago, in a conversation with my older brother, the topic of monks and hermits came up. My brother agreed that he much admired their sacrifice and devotion, but added the modern concern. “Who knows that they’re there?” My response at the time was, “The devil knows and he trembles.”
But even this seems too much of a nod to “history.” Our existence does not need to be justified or measured by its struggles. Our life is a gift and is meant to be lived. The living is meant to be an experience of divine fullness, found in every moment without ceasing.
Our lives are not truly “hidden.” Rather, they are seen by God. The great irony within the film, just as in every modern life, is that the protagonist lives with the awareness that he is seen by God. It is only in ignoring that reality that modernity can act out its pretense of importance.
The cult of politics is Adam’s lie to Eve that, with her help, they can fix the world and build their own paradise. Who needs God, anyway.
Strong medicine, eloquently presented. Thank you Fr. Stephen.
Thank you, Father. I needed these words this morning
Thank you Fr. Stephen. Food for thought. I wonder if the “institutional Church” has often fallen under the description of a cult. It seems that Christ and the Gospel have often been replaced by people worship, customs, nationalism, social events, fund raisers and so on. Where is Christ? Only in the ritual which is, for many, a duty or a social gathering, or (forgive me) just a theater? “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” St John 4:23-24 NKJV)
There are doubtless many distractions in our lives as Christians – as well as thoughts and attitudes of heart that are destructive of our communion with God. However, such things have been there since the beginning, it seems. The first recorded dust-up in the Book of Acts seems to have had some ethnic-related tensions (the neglect of widows seemed to be the neglect of the Greek-speaking widows). The letters of the New Testament give plenty of examples of other distractions.
But this same distracted Church is still spoken of by St. Paul as the “Pillar and Ground of Truth.” I don’t think I would ever describe the Church’s sacramental life as “the ritual” – implying that it is anything less than the fullness promised to us. Nor is it theater. Our hearts, in their darkness, might try to reduce the Liturgy to a ritual or theater – but that is a comment on our heart – not the Church.
God give us grace! He is so utterly present with us and we are so deeply hidden within Him.
Fr. Stephen, you say at the end of your comment here above: “God give us grace! He is so utterly present with us and we are so deeply hidden within Him.”
And I say: AMEN!
It is sadly ironic that we continue to believe we can fix the world when we cannot even fix ourselves. Thank you for another powerful essay on this topic.
I pondered one question that I did not include in the post. If managing and changing the world is not the proper role of government, then what is? I pondered this because modernity has deeply accustomed us to thinking in these terms.
There are proper roles for governance in our lives, and they are due our respect. In St. Basil’s Liturgy, the priest prays:
Many countries (those that we consider not too very important) live within these restraints. There is a desire to take care of the necessities and to do those things that provide for the “domestic tranquility.” Our modern drive asks very different questions. Our own country has maintained (post Cold War) a war-footing, and a largely constant group of wars, pouring trillions of dollars into these efforts while neglected very basic infrastructure. We have become a very distorted nation and economy (and much of the world has been caught up in this as well).
I’m not offering political commentary – “how to fix” things. Our “fixing” is part of our problem. I am not concerned with what others are going to do with this (that’s a trap). I mean to be sharing a different (and Christian) way of thinking. The world is crazy. We don’t have to be.
Father, bless. God is King, is He not? Not in theory but in fact. It seems that the goal of the world and it’s Prince is to convince us that this most fundamental of all facts is not true. It was the goal of the Caesars and the goal of the Enlightenment meant. It seems to me that Modernity is but the latest iteration of the lie of the serpent in Eden.
People should think carefully about this: the power to shape the outcome of history is way more power than we should ever want in the hands of the State. There’s no way such a thing would turn out well.
Fortunately, the State doesn’t have and cannot have such power. Only God does. More than a few States have found their way to the dustbin of history. Ignoring God is a pretty sure path to such a destination.
“Thank you, Father. I needed these words this morning”
That’s a thought that comes to me after nearly every new post 🙂
This one was particularly well-aimed for me, though, as I struggle with the modernity thing…
This may be one of my favorite posts by you Father. Very subtle and powerful! Besides, I’m a Malick and Eliot fan. Can’t wait to see the film.
RE: the quote from St. Basil’s liturgy about government. Last year my husband spoke at a gathering of Christians at the March for Life in Jan. The night before that we had dinner with some people and the former AG Jeff Sessions was there. He was agitated at the demands that Christians were always making on people in power in the government, making them sound flighty and totally unrealistic. I asked him what he wanted the role of Christians to be. He stammered and then my husband responded with virtually the same as the quote from the liturgy, adding, working for the common good. Sessions was surprised at this (Sessions is a lifelong UMC member) and seemed to think that was reasonable. He wasn’t quite so ballistic after that.
RE: The comment.. “He is so utterly present with us.” I do not always live with this consciousness. I volunteer as a parenting teacher at our local pregnancy center which is pro-life. I teach one on one classes. In one class the client was really opening up with her struggles to decide what to do about her PTSD husband. She was considering a divorce. She is a Christian so I felt free to really explore her feelings deeper. After a while, I told her that there were 3 persons in that room listening to her concerns, her, me, and God. She looked at me, totally startled at that idea. I told her that God was also listening and watching everything at home and knew of her and her husbands struggles. After we probed that idea for a while, we prayed together and she left with a new outlook on her relationship – just by acknowledging that God is there with her. It was a profound new idea to her and her reaction has made me more aware that God is watching, listening, seeing how we will react to things. It has made me more aware of the Lenten prayer….”take from me the spirit of…..idle talk”. God is utterly with us. I also really like the comment of the government being a cult demanding participation. A lot to think about here! Thank you.
This is a fantastic piece of writing on a fantastic film. Thank you.
We have all been given a garden to tend. Mostly, our gardens are small. We perversely ignore the boundaries and try to tell others how to tend theirs, repeating the lies we have been told. We listen to others about how best to tend ours, often ignoring Who gave us the garden in the first place. Modernity posits the world is our garden. I reckon a Saint is one who tends their garden so be given a very small garden is a great blessing.
Father, when you say that “the state doesn’t have… power, only God does” — how do we then go about understanding the grave atrocities of mankind? Surely we have power; we have used to it to slaughter billions. If God instead wields that power, then is it He who has done the slaughtering? What is the meaning of that kind of action in history?
The State certainly has the “power” to do good or evil – but there are limits. Let’s use Hitler’s Germany as an example (I’ve studied that war more than any other). There are any number of strange, unexpected things on which victory turned. It was not an inevitable matter. The fall of the Soviet Union turned out to be quite a surprise (even to American intelligence). Had Hitler won – he would have done even more evil – but he would not control history. Evil has its limits – throughout history.
One of the limits is built in – people die. Things break. We make mistakes.
The significqnt note within this verse is that God puts a limit on our striving. There’s also this:
These limits play out in various ways – but the utopian dreams and plans of modernity (including its evil dictators) come to nothing. They certainly do evil for a time – but they come to nothing.
Don’t trust princes – they are just mortal men. They cannot save. They cannot control history or determine its outcomes. They will die and their plans will amount to nothing.
I have not said that the State has no power – but it does not have the power to determine the outcome of history. The outcome of history has been made known to us in the death and resurrection of Christ. As Christians, that is what rightly guides our every action. We look to Christ, the author and finisher of our faith.
That makes sense, Father, thanks for clarifying.
I’m glad that helps.
Some additional thoughts: Modernity bathes us in the message of human competency and the importance of our management. Think about that poor actress who recently received a Golden Globe, expressing thanks that her career was not hampered by a child because she lives in a society that allows her to freely abort when she wants to. I’m sure many applauded her. What kind of relentless brainwashing has it taken to make that even sound remotely ok?
Modernity’s plans, in the last analysis, always turn on murder. Our present economic life is predicated on murder (such as the one described above) as well as many others that are subtly called something else. The “new man/woman” of our age over-consumes, overworks, is saddled with anxiety, and applauds murderers as they worship the present Beast (there have been many before). And, strangely, we think we live in a good country, perhaps the best there has ever been.
I am not preaching politics. I’m preaching the Kingdom of God and identifying the politics of our time as idolatry. Democracy and government are not inherently evil. However…
One of your best Father Stephen! God Bless You and Your work! You are a beacon of His Light!
It is, of course, possible to take in the whole sweep of human history and make a theological assessment in the manner that Girard does. The weakness within such an analysis is in its broad sweep. We do not live in broad sweeps but in very particular circumstances. Though there are many things within all times that are similar to each other – the particular challenges of a particular time easily get overwhelmed in such a presentation. There are things within modernity that are quite unique, regardless of how they might rhyme with the broad sweep of history.
Such an account would be similar to coming to confession and just saying, “I’ve sinned.” Of course it’s true, but it doesn’t say what must be said.
“We are told (and agree) that the thing we call “government” controls and shapes the world, and that it is its legitimate role. Every protest to the contrary is met either with perhaps two verses of Scripture (if you’re a Christian)”
Those words struck a chord with me, as I seem to think of government and politics in terms of two quotes, though going in the opposite direction:
“Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish. Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God” (Ps. 146: 3-5)
” In this world you will have trouble. But take heart (or take courage)! I have overcome the world.” (Jn. 16:33)
I have always noted, when told of St. Paul’s exhortation to obey the governing authorities, that it must be balanced with St. John’s view towards the authorities of the world in Revelation. There is that need for discernment here, as in all things.
Interesting ideas. But I think there is quite a bit more urbanity and civilization in both the OT and NT—and it is shown in a positive light. I’m off to class but here are a few quick thoughts. Eden contains agrarian images for lots of people, but also recall that it entailed naming the animals and a call to tend and, basically, govern. There is also mention of mother and father—interestingly before, according to a more literal reading, there was ever a mother or father!—which already implies social structures. I would disagree that a pointy stick isn’t technology—I would say that the interface of man and creation according to man’s desire constitutes technology, even if it seems primitive—but within that I see what I believe to be the real issue: whether or not man’s desires are submitted to God’s Will. In the Pentateuch, cities and their regulations are part of the law, even before Jerusalem was taken. Indeed, it is only in the period of disobedience, the 40 years in the desert, where cities take a backseat.
In the NT, I find it interesting that The Eucharist presupposes civilization and technology: bread requires social stratification, planning, a standardized timekeeping system, organized labor, storage technology, [small-scale] industrial processing (to make flour), distribution networks, oven technology, and more. The same can be said of the wine. And that is to say nothing of all the other vessels and vestments and items that are required liturgically. Even the Last Supper itself was shared in an upper room—presupposing a certain level of construction technology, engineering expertise, testing, and more. And then in Revelation, St John presents Heaven as a city—complete with walls and gates—and the Tree Of Life *in the middle*: there is a synthesis of both the rural and urban. Or in St Maximos’s language, there is a duality or division which is overcome. That is the angle I would take: these are 2 complimentary facets which need to be brought together in Christ.
I am always interested in typology and allegory, though, and wonder if you’ve ever talked to your bishop about writing hymns involving some of these themes. We used to have very few Orthodox books in English (though they were of excellent quality and mostly liturgical). Now we have far, far too many (and most are questionable, at best). What we need is more hymnography, more prayer. There is fertile ground (pun intended) for new compositions in the imagery you’ve presented.
I might be wrong but I don’t think I was taught that God rejected Cain’s sacrifice due to his ‘way of life’ defined as agrarian vs the nomadic. Although I’ve heard thus before the source doesn’t seem Orthodox, even if Orthodox repeat the meme.
The use of typology in the OT, as far as I understand I’ve been taught, is the revelation of Christ.
I’ve heard *this* before,
The source of such comparisons agrarian vs nomadic as a point made against one life way vs another on these specific terms and definitions seem to come from non Orthodox sources. Nevertheless I’ve heard Orthodox writers make such statements.
If I recall correctly, I believe what was in Cain’s heart was what made his sacrifice unacceptable. And if I’m not mistaken it had to do with the condition of the sacrifice, which was not ‘first fruit’. In other words there is none other before God. And Cain put himself first.
Indeed. The Cain sacrifice critique as inadequate in and of itself seems to primarily be something espoused by proponents of the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement. They say that his sacrifice did not include blood, and was therefore rejected – despite the fact that there are numerous non-blood sacrifices and offerings commanded by God in Leviticus.
The heart seems to have been the issue – and we’re never really told what that problem was.
Thank you for your clarification, especially the point about the adequacy of the sacrifice itself, not being the issue. What I said was a bit muddy and needed the point you stressed about the condition of the heart.
Since I was never exposed for very long to Christian theology growing up, some of these interpretations stemming from the penal substitution theory/theology go right over my head. I appreciate your pointing this out!
Father, given Cain’s reaction to the rejection of his sacrifice it seems reasonable to assume that there was a lack of humility in his heart. That in turn made his “offering” not an offer but a bribe or at least an expression of control over God.
It is a variation of the “give to get” approach to tithing.
I would think along those lines as well.
The problem with Girard’s approach to historical narrative is that he seeks to impose a narrative rather than to investigate the tapestry and appreciate the weaving of it .
All events and creatures in historical time are interconnected with all other creatures and events including each of us right now.
Thus, on a lower level history shares a quality with the Kingdom. It is “at hand”.
It is possible to take almost any object or idea and craft a supported “historical narrative” that indicates said idea or event is the key to understanding “all” of history. It is a lot of fun but not profitable.
The only such idea or event that is unique is The Incarnation. Not just His nativity.
To make His Crucifixion a single point in time an take it out of the context of His birth, ministry, Ressurection, Ascension plus the Gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost not to mention the reverberations “backward” in time and to further make his killing a subset of a supposedly larger historical narrative is astoundingly wrong.
But that is true with any such linear, causative approach to historical interpretation.
History is revelatory and providential.
Thank you Michael,
You teased out another point which was bothering me, and was hard to describe for me. As you indicate it seemed to be that a narrative was being used to describe Pascha, rather than Pascha shaping the narrative, in the interpretation. It produces a different perspective but not necessarily one that is salvific.
Dee, exactly. Pascha is the narrative. Of, course I could be accused of doing the same thing as Girard but Pascha began, if that is proper, before the foundation of the world. The historical event of His Ressurection is the providential revelation of that pre-existing reality.
As you said, Father, “I’m preaching the Kingdom of God and identifying the politics of our time as idolatry. Democracy and government are not inherently evil.”
The simplest answer for much of this is found in the statement of Jesus, “render unto Caesar, the things of Caesar, and the things of God to God. We need to differentiate between the two and that is where the church helps us. The King James version has a passage not found in the Septuagint where God tells Cain to ‘be careful, sin is crouching at the door.” I have always assumed that the crouching was taking place at the door of Cain’s heart, there was still hope for Cain to be found in repentence. We know little about the state of Cain’s heart after his murder of his brother.
Concerning politics, a Greek friend at church a few Sundays ago commented that politics is a Greek word and then he said, “poly means many and what does that leave.” After thinking about it, I said, “tics.” He then said “you got it, many blood suckers.” How true.
As always, or very mostly, thank you Father. Beautifully written, and i was reminded immediately of this St. Xenia/Napoleon article: http://orthochristian.com/104036.html.
Luke, I haven’t read all of your comment(s) as I’ve had a long day.
Just a quick nod to your appreciation of Girard. My priest was introduced to Girard’s thought decades ago, by the late Don Sheehan. In a study group they put together, the read great works (e.g. Dostoyevsky) through Girard’s lens and place him in conversation with the ascetical homilies of St Isaac the Syrian. This was overwhelmingly fertile ground, and has made an indelible mark on my priest. He is one of the wisest old men I’ve ever met, and can expound in profound depth on the connection between Girardian thought and insights of the Orthodox Tradition. (His family was the fist, and perhaps only, whole family to attend a Girardian conference on Violence and the sacred!).
I have a great appreciation for Girard as well, having discovered him back in my Evangelical days through the works of Gil Bailey.
I agree with you, his work certainly should not be written off or so quickly dismissed.
Anyway if you want to I can try to connect you, though he has intermittent access to internet as he lives off-grid.
Feel free to contact me: man or they [all one word] [at] gmail [dot] com
Love in Christ.
Luke, I did not mean to dismiss Girard. Sorry. As to particulars within modernity, there are about 2500 articles on the blog. If they are of use I am grateful. If not, if only a little bit, then it is as it is.
My suspicion is that there are many fine voices that God has provided that give a moment or more of clarity in the mists of modern confusion. I suspect the voices are not competitors. But, if one of them has been of deep personal significance it will seem like the voice of the Baptist Himself.
Girard remains one of those whom I have not read for God only knows what reasons. Had he been “that” voice for me, I would, no doubt, be writing in a Girardian metaphor. I’m glad that he is useful to you, and to others.
Mark – I have the deepest regard and respect for Don Sheehan. His name in this conversation is a strong recommendation. Thanks for sharing. Perhaps in my retirement, I’ll find time to broaden my own reading.
I respect Girard too as many I have known have profited from his writings. I just think the manner described in approaching the Crucifixion is a way of approaching history that I find quite artificial and not productive.
I use the term “modernity” in its common, academic meaning – referring to a set of ideas and practices that have come to dominate the contemporary world, beginning largely in the 19th century (with birth pangs dating back to the unintended consequences of the Reformation). There are tons of books and articles out there on the topic.
But, in general, I’m describing a world-view in which secularism (the notion of a world without God) is dominant, along with the Nation State and free-market capitalism. It is highly psychologized, and centered in a notion of the human that is autonomous, defined by free-choice (voluntarist), etc. It is inherently violent in its belief in the human/political/social ability to control and shape the outcome of history.
Obviously, people as sinners have a kind of universal character throughout history, regardless of place and time. But the ideas of modernity, in that they dominate our present world, call for particular comment when addressing the circumstances of our present existence. Certainly, other, more universal comments can be made – and I’ve written plenty of articles that have nothing to say about modernity.
Fr. Alexander Schmemann, wrote about modernity largely under the heading of “secularism,” which he described as the greatest heresy of our time. Thus, I pay a lot of attention to it.
I did not mean to imply that Girard was vacuous – God forbid. He’s worth reading and is held in high regard by many. However, your first article suggested that I was constructing a “straw man” in indicting modernity and that Girard was the proper way to think about all of this. I appreciate your sharing your enthusiasm for Girard – but your own dismissing of my work on modernity occasioned some push-back.
It’s not an either/or. But the conversation here on Orthodoxy and modernity is part of a much larger conversation and has been going on a long time. If you do a search (the search pane is on the right side of the blog) on the word “modernity” – the list of articles generated will be quite long and have many, many particular details and topics that relate to that.
I’ve not been a reader of Girard – so I only had your short synopsis to go on. But Girard is not the topic of the article. It is obvious that Girard is worth reading and digesting. I appreciate your thoughts.
” But, if one of [the many voices God has provided] has been of deep personal significance it will seem like the voice of the Baptist Himself.”
So true, Father! God comes to us right where we’re at and provides for us exactly what we need…at the right time…in the right place…by the right means! Some renown person (I forget who) tells a story about an ‘epiphany’ moment that occurred when a fox crossed their path.
Well, this thread is hard for me to follow. I shrink at such confrontation, thus unable to decipher what is being said. Mostly, I can’t help but wonder how it must affect you. I have some idea why I react this way, as you have spoken about this type of reaction in your writings on shame. Still…..
I think about why you voluntarily put yourself ‘out there’ and am sure it is because you want to help us actually see what we are up against, and to see exactly who we are ‘in Christ’….always always always speaking with an Orthodox mind. You are convinced that the subjects you write about are of major importance (and they are!). Your responses demonstrate much patience. You strive to see ‘both sides of the story’ (this is important, as we’re much too opinionated these days). Through this blog ministry you show yourself as a pastor who has great care for people’s well being. I can see why there are ~ 2500 articles amassed over the years. We need concrete direction. Hard issues bear repeating, as well. That takes a lot of effort, Father.
All I can say is that I have had many ‘epiphany’ moments since I started reading here, due to both your teachings and responses in the comment section. And what can I say but to repeat my gratefulness and thanks.
And all I can say is AMEN!
I’ve had time to read the comments here more carefully including your own.
If you are not familiar with Lanza delVasto, I recommend looking at his life and teachings and understandings of technology (e.g. four scourges; introduction to the inner life; etc.). He finds limits that are very human.
My priest also loves the example of a steam engine that was invented to facilitate the building of Hagia Sophia. When that work was done, there were not legion of these reproduced to forward industrial progress. (Instead I think the one engine became a garden decoration or something similar). What kind of culture behaves like this?
This is the difference between classical- and humanly possible- uses of technology, and contemporary cancerous Modern impetus which is part of the monster Fr. Stephen has written against.
You asked him for particular ways that he would envision solutions. There is a place for this but there is a place for many voices too, and this is not exactly Fr Stephen’s. I have profited tremendously from his writings here (you have’t spent enough time here, your comments make it clear). But I have also sought out other paths that take me further in the vein you question, where Father let’s off so to speak. (I am part of an Orthodox ‘nonviolent community’ for terrible lack of a better term, that seeks to live simply and ascetically, against the powerful flooding flow of Modern impulses. We are *not* political conservatives!).
I am failing to get a clear picture whether you are Orthodox or not. But in our Tradition, one man can change the entire world through his own repentance. This is the beginning and ending of the solution, though each person will manifest this radical transformation in ways that have lesser or sometimes much greater outward visibility. But there is nothing ‘private’ about my repentance. Your very salvation depends on it, as does mine on yours. And this will turn the tide. Whatever we grasp with our intellect about all that is ‘going on in the world’, this falls far short of a little living movement toward Christ from within the depths of our own hearts.
Please email me if you desire to explore Girardian thought in dialogue with far greater depths found in Orthodox Tradition (St Isaac alone takes us so much deeper). When it comes to desire, Orthodoxy knows the game better than any other commentators I’ve ever encountered.
Love in Christ;
man or they [at] gmail [dot] com
Mark, and Luke
I think it’s worth noting that what I write about modernity is rooted in the context of Orthodox Christianity and its practice. As such, it’s only a part of the things that I write. One of my writing rules, or discipline, is to write about what I know or understand. That, of course, sets limits. The limits, however, are the same thing as my own self. If they are of use, then I will have been of use. But, it is, nevertheless, as limit.
I have found over the years that every time I’ve ignored that rule, no good comes of it. Modernity, in its present stage, is utterly dependent on the passions and constantly works to keep them stirred and to speak directly to them. As such, we are non-rational as a culture and highly subject to manipulation. The Orthodox faith teaches us that the passions need to be properly disciplined. I would put understanding modernity under the heading of asceticism – learning to understand and discipline the passions. It is a path to true freedom. I suspect that Girard’s thought would fit somewhere within that same heading – a model for understanding the passions at work in our sin. That would be, no doubt, always useful.
Dear Father Stephen,
When is your next book coming out? I even have a title for it, if you need one: “Modernity”. 🙂 I don’t know if it’s possible anymore to publish a book without a subtitle, but it would be wonderful if you published a book titled “Modernity” without.
Your writings on this subject have helped to give me a way to think about things that have been on my mind for a very long time. By “a very long time”, I mean decades. Things sensed and suspected, but I had no words, no theme to organize them. You have given me this, and pointed me in some fruitful directions, and for that I am hugely grateful.
I have read a lot of your past essays on the topic, and if you brought them together into a structured book, well, I think it would be quite a gift. I strongly suspect that I am not alone in thinking this…
Thank you Father for this. I like Mallick, but I have not seen this movie. I’ll certainly be trying to now!
Your article did get get me looking for it. I thought this was a useful review: https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/5/20/18631526/a-hidden-life-review-terrence-malick
This passage from the review struck me as interesting:
“Which is why Jägerstätter strikes me as in some ways a necessary corrective to our valorization, and particularly American Christians’ valorization, of figures like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Corrie ten Boom. Both of them are rightly admired, praised, and lauded for their attempts to take down Hitler (in Bonhoeffer’s case) and save Jews from being sent to concentration camps (in ten Boom’s). Bonhoeffer died for his efforts; ten Boom lost her sister Betsy in a concentration camp and narrowly escaped death herself.
But it is in our human nature to love the story of a person who did great things: saved lives, wrote books, stood against the dictator who wiped out millions of lives. It is less common for us to celebrate a man who threw away a comfortable life and simply refused to do what he knew he could not, and paid with his life.
Instead, A Hidden Life dares us to imagine that the latter is at least as important as the former — and maybe more so.”
It had me thinking that focusing on the political as a way of “manage” modernity in the sense you mean is at best of limited use or appeal, political events do mean there is an issue about our moral response to them, and that there is probably a wide range of valid responses. How does your analysis work for the responses that Bonhoeffer and ten Boom chose?
I did not say that I found Girard’s work artificial and unproductive. That was in a comment made by someone else. I would not have made it because I’ve not read enough of Girard to draw such a conclusion.
That aside: thank you for your lengthy and thoughtful critique and your interest in improving my thoughts viz. modernity. Blog writing is not book writing, in my experience. Articles run about 1500 words, at most. They are short essays, not unlike sermons. There are limits as to how much development anything can be given. Added to that is the dynamic that a forum such as this blog serves. It’s a doorway into a conversation. There are any number of people for whom any particular article is their first time, first encounter. An article that is as developed in argument as you would find in a book-length presentation is too far into an idea to serve as a doorway.
Over the course of 2500 articles (I mention them again) a very wide array of issues, including some that you’ve mentioned, are touched upon in one way or another, but, not developed anywhere near the way they might be in an in-depth presentation (book-length).
I would hope that this blog, and its various topics (of which modernity-related issues are only a portion) serve their purpose for the larger conversation. That larger conversation is the Orthodox life. That life is lived in a parish, immersed in the sacraments and repentance. I have no larger goals.
Over the years I’ve been urged to do one thing or another – to take up a cause – to develop something further – write this book, write that book. Those suggestions often represent somebody else’s agenda – wanting me to be other than I am – or for my work to be other than it is. I do what I do because it is what I know to do. It has its limits.
Again, thank you for your thoughts and suggestions. Perhaps in the strange process that is my creative work, they will serve as a catalyst.
Good review! I’ve never been one who idealized Bonhoeffer – because I think he was wrong, or came to wrong conclusions about his duty to kill Hitler. But that’s a complicated conversation. Corrie Ten Boom is certainly a hero – there are Orthodox saints, such as St. Maria of Paris and St. Dmitri of Paris who did the same sort of things and were martyred as well.
But the review makes a very salient point. The Hidden, faithful life has value, perhaps infinite value. There are a couple of moments in the movie when a neighbor here or there breaks ranks with the village and quietly, secretly says or does something to help or comfort the protagonist or his family. Those actions seem huge in the context.
Stanley Hauerwas argues that all actions are political – that everything we do has a public/moral impact. That’s probably true, but not, I think, in the historical sense. Our penchant for history (a modern fascination) tends to make us all think of ourselves as though we were living in a movie, or television series. “Posterity” or some such thing is watching the show and we imagine ourselves there and judge whether our life is worthwhile, etc.
The Hidden Life (which is the Christian life) does not view things in a historical manner, I think. When we stand at the altar of God, history has no presence. All is Kingdom. Something that happened 2000 years ago is now present and we are there. Everything is gathered at the foot of the Cross. Time, all time, is relative to that moment. In that sense, all things are “political” but, as St. Paul says, “Our citizenship (politeia) is in heaven.”
Only in such a way does every human life, every blade of grass become something of infinite value. We’re not really managing anything – we’re just living.
Also, the Russian Orthodox Church recently cannonized Alexander Schmorell, one of the founders of The White Rose Society. The members stood against Hitler without advocating violence. They were martyred quite early.
That larger conversation is the Orthodox life. That life is lived in a parish, immersed in the sacraments and repentance. I have no larger goals.
Father, many thanks for your focus on this goal/point. I have often been comforted by knowing that the work of life is not “action” (in the common sense of society) but prayer, humility, and love for those immediately around me. The work of the heart, of the shaping of the heart, takes a lifetime of effort. May God bless.
“ When we stand at the altar of God, history has no presence.”
Yes. A thousand times yes.
God meets us exactly as we are as who we are and where we are. It is all present moment.
Converted by your post here (to actually go to the cinema), I just saw Malick’s (“Tarkovskianly” slow) ‘A Hidden Life’.
Another, more subtle point it makes, is the contrast of the persecutors’ reality, to the [persecuted] conscientious objector’s reality. It ingeniously depicts their inability to eventually not admire his noble life (as he goes to his death), even though they have mocked him and could not see the point of his ‘unknown’ sacrifice.
Sainthood will always be admired, no matter what! Even by its enemies…
I saw the movie this weekend as well and found it simply amazing. Unlike the reviewer how commented on “…whispered voice-overs of prayers lifted up to an unhearing God”, I found the faith of the protagonist(s) to be the bedrock of their lives. It carried them through the trial(s) the (nazi, in this case) state thrust upon them. A great film of people with a very solid spiritual foundation.
I suspect a lot of people who are not believers will fail to appreciate this film. “Unhearing God” is about a tone-deaf as they come.
Dino, your last comment reminded me, perhaps oddly, of the Hannah Arendt “banality of evil” controversy. A useful quick (if not entirely adequate) summary is here: https://aeon.co/ideas/what-did-hannah-arendt-really-mean-by-the-banality-of-evil .
Alas I have still not had an opportunity to see the film, but I wonder whether it has those kinds of considerations as part of what it is exploring? I personally tend to think that Arendt’s general idea has at least some merit: people are generally so caught up in their own (generally petty) concerns and conditioning that they frequently are morally blinded (or tone deaf, to use Father’s metaphor) to what is happening, and just distort reality to fit their narratives. But the Light has this way of often finding a way to shine through. Perhaps it was lived out truth and integrity – combined with a connection to Jägerstätter’s life to which their souls found themselves reacting despite their ‘banally’ evil conditioning?
Father, I would say that when we stand before the altar of God all history is present as it really is. In a sense that is communion is it not.
Of course there’s evil by weakness or carelessness and the like. And there’s premeditated and more lucufereanesque evil. Our diligent cultivation of Integrity guards against both. Many who are good at discerning evil have it lurking deep inside in latent form. The tendency to excuse (and to discern innocence) even in evil perpetrators is a sure sign of holiness lurking inside a person though. The film makes a very good point of demonstrating how the protagonist does not judge any of his perpetrators.
I have just seem the movie, and can now heartily endorse the recommendations. A must see (and hear).
There are a great many things that could be said, but I shall confine myself to two because these did not seem to come out in the article or comments.
First, it was interesting – and good – that the film spends about as much time dealing with the faith issues, and faithfulness of Jägerstätter’s wife and her predicament as it does about him and his. If anything she was in the more difficult position. While he essentially chose (or felt spiritually compelled) the route of martyrdom and there were consequences for him of that, he mainly dealt with those himself (albeit the pain he knew he was causing his loved ones was an issue). Many for him were negative, although some were oddly positive as he becomes more spiritually purified in part by his sufferings, privations and violence. At one point his lawyer says “just sign here and you can be free”. To which he says “but I am free”. His wife however, has had his choice thrust upon her and has to deal with the consequences. She has to bring up the children and run a very labor-intensive farm on her own, put up with the contempt (and btw yes the village’s response really was textbook Girard), put up with pressure from her sister and her mother in law, deal with her own feels of separation and grief, and had her own faith challenged by the fact that her many specific prayers (and each prayer had integrity) did not seem to be directly answered (although there is the sense that in a range of ways she is being supported at some level. At the end, she even has to sort of give her blessing in person to his decision to proceed with martyrdom – which she poignantly does by saying she loves him. It is a potent mix. Others may disagree, but almost had the feeling of a Good Friday meditation on the experiences of those at the foot of the Cross to me.
Which brings me to point two. This was a very layered film. Yes it was slow, but that was because it felt to me as though that very fact was a way of continuing to say there is more to reality and meaning than these surface images and actions of things. There are depths that even the players do not understand, even though they might dimly sense (Jägerstätter pretty much says as much at one point). How was this effect achieved? Here are some that occur to me straight away: (1) the light (which is very, very pointedly used everywhere in a quite magical way – Edward Hopper would have approved), (2) the music (Arvo Paert’s remarkable Tabula Rasa as leitmotif for Jägerstätter’s decision), (3) the (typically Mallick) voiced over and slightly whispered nature of many of the thoughts of the characters even when at times when they were on screen, (4) the symbolism of the settings (which was indeed lyrical, especially the mountains and water and fields),(5) a constant smattering of excellent one-liners at the spoken-out-loud level, and (6) even the pace which gave the whole thing a contemplative quality that pointed to silence. This all contributed to a genuinely remarkable effect of suggesting hidden currents and depths. In past films when Mallick has tried this sort of thing it has often felt forced (even in Tree of Life) but in this one, I think he cracked it. Yes, Dino, I agree Tarkovskyan is an apt description not just for this film’s pace, but for its depth. And at the same time it was just plain beautiful as well. Importantly, the effect was also assisted by the feeling that although Jägerstätter kept on being told that his death would mean nothing and no-one would notice, in fact his (and his wife’s) actions did, sooner or later, affect pretty much everyone he (and she) came into contact with, either by testing their consciences which then played out in different ways (a great one being the Pilate-like position of the judge at his trial), or by bringing some characteristic out, like violence or mob anger (a wonderful scene is a beautiful Austrian folk Corpus Christi procession through the countryside at which the villagers end up attacking Jägerstätter’s children, without any sense of irony!). But then, pointedly even the particularly sadistic prison guard was not immune as we see him almost involuntarily take off his hat as Jägerstätter is driven off for execution. To go from the sublime to the slightly ridiculous, it sort of had the feel that by taking the stand he did Jägerstätter had created a disturbance in the force (Star Wars style), which then rippled around him. So the whole thing had for me an almost iconic sensibility – of a real depth and pointing beyond, which is rare in any film, but particularly a western one. And that is the right mindset to take in watching what is a slow film, I think.
Sorry for all that (particularly to you Father who I imagine has to read it), but it’s the enthusiasm of someone who has just seem something genuinely good. I try to console myself with the idea that this thread is pretty much closed! But for those who have not seen it and read this far, then, yes, go!
I week or so ago, I attended and spoke at the Eighth Day Symposium in Wichita, Kansas. While there, I met two young men who worked on the film. One was one of the producers, the other was involved with the music. They had read my article on the film and we had several very good conversations. Both are Christians – one is attending an Orthodox Church – the other – I didn’t ask. But I was touched by how “un-hollywood” all of that experience was – and grateful. Malick lives and works in Austin, TX, and has avoided interviews and such much that drives part of the world.
The world seemed ever so much smaller for me.
I think this is the great article, thanks for sharing. “A Hidden’s life” is the true story based drama movie which tells us the story of a Australian solider and his family. Who refusing to fight for the Nazis during World War II.
This film is becoming more and more relevant since its inception