There was a wicked kingdom in which there lived a large number of slaves. The kingdom fought wars, built cities and was extremely successful in growing its economy. Its achievements were the envy of all the other kingdoms. The slaves did well, too. They were not given low jobs or manual labor. Instead, they were “helping” slaves. Their task was to help the people of the Kingdom get by. If life in the kingdom became empty and meaningless, the slaves would cheer the people up and help them continue with their lives. When people began to doubt that the kingdom served a good purpose, the slaves would reassure them that together, they would make the kingdom better. One day, a terrible calamity occurred and the kingdom perished. Very few people survived. “What was it all for?” the survivors asked. “Nothing,” the slaves replied. And in that day, the slaves became free.
No one has written more insightfully nor critically about secularism than the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann. His classic book, For the Life of the World, is not only a primer on the meaning of the sacramental life, but primarily, a full-blown confrontation with the great heresy of secularism. Secularism is not the rejection of God, but the assertion that the world exists apart from God and that our task is to do the best we can in this world. Fr. Alexander suggests that the Church in the modern world has largely surrendered to secularism. “The Church’s surrender,” he says, “consists not in giving up creeds, traditions, symbols and customs…but in accepting the very function of religion in terms of promoting the secular value of help, be it help in character building, peace of mind, or assurance of eternal salvation.”
He is not alone in this observation. The Protestant theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, says much the same thing:
…the political task of Christians is to be the church rather than to transform the world. One reason why it is not enough to say that our first task is to make the world better is that we Christians have no other means of accurately understanding the world and rightly interpreting the world except by way of the church. Big words like “peace” and “justice,” slogans the church adopts under the presumption that, even if people do not know what “Jesus Christ is Lord” means, they will know what peace and justice means, are words awaiting content. The church really does not know what these words mean apart from the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. After all, Pilate permitted the killing of Jesus in order to secure both peace and justice (Roman style) in Judea. It is Jesus’ story that gives content to our faith, judges any institutional embodiment of our faith, and teaches us to be suspicious of any political slogan that does not need God to make itself credible.
The extent to which we have all been secularized is easily measured by just how strange these statements by great theologians sound. The Church has surrendered because it promotes the value of “helping?” The Church does not exist in order to make the world a better place? These have been common themes in my writing (and I easily acknowledge my indebtedness). But when I have said, “We will not make the world a better place,” my articles are met with a torrent of dismay. I offer here more of the same.
Hauerwas makes the clear point that the word “better” has no meaning apart from the story of Jesus, or certainly no meaning that Christians should agree to. Schmemann goes so far as to call the Church’s agreement to “help” the world (however the world wants to define that help) as surrender.
So what are we to do? First, we must recognize that the world is under judgment. As it exists unto itself, it is meaningless and without value. It measures itself by GDP and slogans of equality and freedom. And yet the GDP is but a measure of meaningless consumption and equality and freedom only mean equally free to amuse ourselves to death with whatever pleasure we might choose.
One of the “helps” the surrendered Church provides to our culture is courage in the face of death. The cultural Church reminds people that death is not the end of things, but only the beginning of something newer and greater. Death as an enemy is no longer preached. Instead, death is natural, a part of life, and though we mourn someone’s passing, we “celebrate their life” and pretend that nothing tragic has occurred. We will remember them.
When the disciples saw Jesus on the Road to Emmaus and recognized Him in the breaking of the bread, they did not say to each other, “Wow! There really is a life after death!” This is not the meaning of Christ’s resurrection. The Resurrection is not proof of your life after death, but the showing forth that Christ Himself alone is Life.
The death of Christ does not reveal death as a passage. It reveals death as an enemy, something to be destroyed. All of our life that lies under the power of death comes under the same judgment. And this judgment isn’t bitterness – it is freedom. Emptiness is revealed to be emptiness. The vanity of empires is revealed to be just that. We do not exist to serve the masters of this world, but to serve the only Master and Lord, and to reign with Him.
Outside of the Church, the truth of this is likely to be rejected. The world is willing to accept Christ so long as He is willing to be a place-holder for some other worldly-defined value. Jesus stands for peace. Jesus stands for love. Jesus stands for forgiveness. But only peace, love and forgiveness as the world gives. And those are hollow and self-serving.
Schmemann is known as a champion of the sacramental character of this world. This does not mean that he was devoted to the Eucharist as a special place of piety, an island of grace in the midst of the world. That would be surrender. He declares that the world is sacrament – that sacraments reveal the truth of things.
The Eucharist is not an island of grace – it is the revelation of Christ in the world. Bread and Wine become what they are meant to be – and we ourselves – when we rightly enter into the feast – become what we are meant to be.
There are no values apart from Christ. He is our sole value. He alone is “worthy.” In Christ, all things find their fulfillment and the truth of their existence. Apart from Him, everything is nothing.
Recognizing that everything is nothing, the slaves can become free, and sing the praise of the only worthy One, before whom all kingdoms will fall.