Some ten or so years ago, my wife and I were hunting for a long-ish audiobook to entertain us as we made a 10-hour drive. A novel was one possibility, but none came to mind. As it was, we chose a book named “Salt.” It was an account of the world in terms of salt – its use, its production, its vital importance to human life, and its place in the shaping of our history. I was skeptical as the trip began, but found myself intrigued as the hours rolled by and we journeyed across world history courtesy of everyone’s favorite condiment. Salt apparently belongs to something of a literary genre. The author of Salt has also given us Milk, Cod, Salmon, and Paper. I need to schedule more road trips.
What these fascinating books illustrate is that the story of the world, and civilization, can be told from any number of angles. Is the world really just the story of salt? Or, could the story of the world be told from the point-of-view of a single grain of sand? Doubtless, more would be said of the endless procession of ocean waves than is accounted for in our historical travails. As narrative creatures, we tend to dismiss the grain of sand as nothing more than background, a prop that supports the real action. A single grain’s story, however, would provide a great deal to consider. The silica and other elements that make up the average beach have an origin, no less complex than our own, though with fewer words and emotional tensions.
These exercises in historical perspectives are instructive for understanding the limits of all historical conversations. In history, we are always right to ask, “Who is telling the story? What’s this story about? From what point of view is it written?” If we were speaking of a “pure” history, then it would be the story of everything, about everything, told from everything’s point of view. Such, of course, is impossible. Choices must be made. When the choices are made, those questions will be answered more finitely and with greater precision. But what is then called “history” is not really about everything – but about a few things, and always with a point.
During a time of social upheaval, one of the most disturbing aspects of our lives is the turmoil within the public narrative. How do we speak about ourselves and others? How do we describe what is taking place. What is unfolding?
For the faithful, this disturbance should be revealing. The nature of the secular world is that it establishes the dominant narrative for the world. Without noticing, we quietly make the Christian story to be a sub-plot of this larger account. Our faith becomes what secularism tells us: a personal option that is, at most, a religious life-style. We feel powerless and worry that the voice of the Church is silent. Indeed, I hear this when various people suggest how the Church could make its voice more “effective.”
There is a “clash of narratives” as Christ stands before Pontius Pilate. Pilate imagines that the Roman Imperium is the true narrative and defining story of the world. He threatens Christ, “Don’t you know I have the power to kill you or to release you?” For Christ, the Roman Imperium is but a passing moment within the salvific providence of God. “You would have no power over me were it not given to you from above.”
This same clash of narratives occurs day-by-day in our own lives, though we rarely notice. We hear the dominant cultural narrative announce its importance and power. Our response is anxiety and concern flows from the fact that we believe its claims to be true. Imagine Pontius Pilate’s shock at being told that he would have “no power” over Jesus had it not been given to him by God (“from above”). It is Christ’s complete dismissal of the Roman narrative. The martyrs of the early Church lived in the same dismissal. Their faith was the full acceptance of the narrative we have received from God in Christ. Christ’s death and resurrection is the final word of God on the outcome of human history. In Christ, history comes to an end, and we won. That quiet assurance eventually led to the complete failure of Rome’s claims.
The danger resurfaces, however, as converted empires, and their secularized children, begin to assert new narratives that seek to replace the gospel of the Kingdom of God with the bastardized gospel of progress and human perfection.
There is always a danger within the political life of modernity that our participation will mark our capitulation to its narrative. As such, our vote (or other such actions) always borders dangerously on the pinch of incense offered to the emperor as worship, a thing rejected as idolatry by the early martyrs. I say, “borders,” because it need not be a capitulation. But, in order to refrain from that capitulation and blasphemous offering, there is a need to deconstruct our own vote.
So, what is the narrative that explains our vote? Do we imagine that history depends on such a thing, that the world is being constructed through politics? Again, in His dialog with Pilate, Christ said:
“If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (John 18:36)
The ballot is certainly a “peaceful” way of joining battle (thank God!), but it, nevertheless, generally assumes the Hobbesian contract in which the world is a pitched battle for control. The nature of the American social contract is an agreement to allow the ballot box to replace the battlefield. Nevertheless, it presumes the supremacy of the ballot. That is its presumed narrative.
For the Christian, the narrative of the gospel of Christ is, always, the controlling structure of our life. That work of Christ, completed in His death and resurrection, are the sole source of peace and true meaning. We may vote, but the outcome rests in Christ, just as surely as the outcome of Pilate’s judgment was not truly in his own hands. None of this denies the actual historical reality of our actions. Rather, it affirms the historical reality of Christ’s actions and their lordship over every human reality. There may be an election whose outcome could be classified as “death.” It remains a fact that Christ “tramples down death by death.”
For too many, the Cross of Christ has disappeared into the historical past and become a “fact” about which we proclaim a doctrine, a religious belief. As for the present, we take up our swords (even the peaceful ones) and imagine ourselves as having been delivered into the wars of this world for good or ill. (Do your best!) However, the historical character of the Cross does not exhaust its content. The Cross is an event of the God/Man. It is the marriage of heaven and earth, both within time and utterly transcendent of time. It is an eternal moment while being truly historical. Its “cause-and-effect” is equally eternal and triumphant over every human cause. Every human cause is thus “judged” by the Cross. An election, like every act of the human will, stands before the Cross and has its meaning within the light of the Cross. It is only in that Light that we see light.
Christ’s words, “Be of good cheer. I have overcome the world,” remain true and triumphant. Today, this is the story by which we live. All of creation holds meaning only in its light. God forbid that we imagine this to be a religious conversation and not a conversation about the whole of life.
We all stand before Pilate. However, it is God’s story that rules the world.
That fractal grain of sand beaten by each wave records and reveals the hierchy of history. Currently, those calling for us to be on the right side of history seem to worship history rather than the Lord of history, ignoring the fact that it is accomplished.
Wonderfully said, Father. Many thanks for this!
I find it amazing how much can be gleaned from Christ’s meeting with Pilate….
Thank you for this post Father. The inability to control outcomes is the hardest truth to accept for many of us. We are also taught from a young age that man can achieve anything on his own. I guess this is why we go back to the same old habits thinking that it if we try hard enough we can control outcomes – even to some small degree. Letting Go is truly liberating but hard to get to. With regards to the book ‘Salt’ it really satisfied the nerd in me and I ended up reading it twice. I never thought the history of a condiment could be so captivating!
The Southerner in me wants a book entitled, “Mayonaise”
That encounter is The specific moment in which the Kingdom of God confronts the Kingdoms of this world. It should be a constant reference point for us.
The Crux of the matter for me lies in discerning when to suffer and when to take arms. The voices of the martyrs show us both.
The mind of the world tends to combine with my gnomic will and the flesh to make such discernment difficult. In Canada to serve communion or not?
What is the incense and what is the silence of God?
Thanks for the reminder that it’s God’s story that rules the world! Thank you Father Freeman – God bless you.
The problem in Canada is, I think, restricted to Toronto, and it has only affected the Greek Orthodox Church. And the problem there is from within the Greek community itself in which certain members repeatedly insisted that the government prevent communion – until they got what they asked for. So, as far as I can see, the greater problem lies within the community of the Church itself rather than with the State. I don’t think I’ll say more about that situation.
I will follow my hierarch with joy. There is, on the altar, an antimens with the hierach’s signature. I have not authority to celebrate the Eucharist apart from obedience to my hierarch. God is fully aware of that situation, and He ordained it so. As to “when to take arms.” I’m trying to imagine the situation in which we are commanded to do that. Generally, all I hear in that are the questions urged by our passions.
Father what you say about the study of history is correct. Any good historian has to be aware of his own bias, which includes the bias of presentism (interpreting the past solely in light of the present). Political ideology is always presentistic, extremely so at the moment. Orwell’s ‘Ministry of Truth’
There are also types of history: political history, economic history, social history. The first great work of the social history genre was Henry Adams 9 volume work “The History of the United States 1801-1817. It was published in the late 19th century before the monograph was the norm. Adams also wrote speculative history such as his short essay, ‘The Law of Phase as Applied to History’ Of course there is also biography. Indeed Adams worked in all of the genres. A great historian.
I have always been intrigued with the field of historiography (the history of the writing of history).
I have never encountered what I would call elemental history before (Salt, Cod, etc). Fascinating. It could easily encompass all of the genres I mention. Rather than the grain of sand how about Silicone?
The risk for we Orthodox is to fall into two traps: history is past and the Church is just a repository of theological history and our Liturgies are not unlike Civil War re-enactors.
Father, by taking arms I mean standing up in defiance of state mandates.
I think the Church must ever be vigilant to confess the historical/present reality of the death and resurrection of Christ and live on that basis alone.
There are plenty of opportunities daily. First and foremost, we have to stand up to the false claims of the State that it is in charge of history. That battle is first fought in our own hearts. In that manner, if we need go to the Cross, we go with joy, not with fear.
Might I suggest another study: Grapes or Wine. I’d be surprised if some version of Wine is not already been done.
In truth, the State can do nothing to harm the Church. Whatever harm we suffer, we will do to ourselves.
Mayonnaise would be a fascinating study. Astounding the connections that can be made with a seemingly narrow focus. As to the rest, I will be paying close attention to John 18 I think.
Wow, I was not aware of the situation in Toronto. Very sad. 🙁
Your mention of narratives remind me of “Guns, Germs, and Steel” which was very popular several years ago. I just read the various titles from the same author, and realized he had another narrative from the viewpoint of sex. He has made a whole career writing books from various narratives.
your comment to first battle within our hearts by standing up –there– to the false claims of the State that it is in charge of history (“so that if we need go to the Cross, we go with joy, not with fear”), is an apt resumé of the whole article, ‘Aemilianesque’ in tone.
Father… as for the intersection of the Cross and Resurrection at the intersection of time and eternity, and that everything that has been, that is momentarily now, and will ever be, including —
what we call ‘history’ in all its forms, politics, taking up arms, The Church, the churches, Christians, non-Christians, Divine Liturgy or secular, Holy Communion or none, politics, Henry Adams, Lincoln, et al, the ballot box, straight, gay, gender, marriage, the unmarried, activism, silence, the etc etc etc of the world —
all have their distinguishing factors in light of the Cross. There, all stands naked and is “judged”. In standing before the Cross, naked like that, is itself its own judgment. It will be known in that very silence. Or a silent howling. (a desperate thought, I know..)
These things are given to Christ, He receives them, and in Him are given their true meaning. In suffering, Death, and Resurrection – transformation to a completely ‘other’ image. Reality. Newness. Born again. Recapitulation.
That is what I hear you saying, Father. Really, apart from Christ, all else is just dust in the wind.
There is constant transformation in this life, in Christ. He is gathering all things, all creation, all peoples, unto Himself.
The only concrete offering that we can freely give is ourselves, to Christ and in Him, to others. I think once this is done, the worldly attachments are then seen in their true light.
It seems that we are not to “own” anyone (or any thing); but freely offered, we may be “owned”.
Indeed Father, “God forbid that we imagine this to be a religious conversation and not a conversation about the whole of life.”
And I am fully with you about the taking up of arms and obedience to our hierarchs.
Thank you. Another very thought provoking piece.
I recently read a book titled “Beyond These Horizons: Quantum Theory and Christian Faith” by Fr. John Breck. I found it an excellent companion to your own book “Everywhere Present.” Of relevance to this particular post, Fr John’s examination and explanation of space-time and how events (and God Himself) can simultaneously be past, present, and future makes for some thought-provoking reading.
I have an interest in quantum mechanics but no formal education or training and I found the entire book a not-difficult read (an average high schooler should be able to read and comprehend it). I have posted a link below for those interested.
Tell us about the painting posted.
Encouraging words. So often I forget.
Father indeed the battle is on. It always has been, but it’s external forms of late make it all that much more apparent. You have helped me to observe my own involuntary seduction to the modernist narrative and I’m very grateful for that.
The picture choice also has many layers as your article. What stands out in the picture (as in your writing) right of center is the realistic depiction of Christ on the Cross His blood spilling over the wood and seems also to have dripped onto a woman’s head covering. And in the distance beyond Christ on the Cross is an icon of His Resurrection. The space between them is only that of perspective of the viewer. But here they are one in this painting, an icon of a moment very much like the moment of Christ before Pontius Pilot, as you describe. This is indeed a pivotal moment in each of our hearts.
The painter was a survivor of the siege of Leningrad. The leaders of those forces in that siege, Hilter among others, were completely self-convinced of their self-perceived ‘rightful’ claims of supremacy and of place. Their rhetoric was their scripture.
The Cross is no mere symbol that I wear around my neck. But how often I wear it in such a way. We are the branches of the Vine. His blood and His life flows in us, and His Life does include the Cross in all of its tangible meaning. He has conquered death with death, with His strength let us pick up our cross and live in Him.
— Pilate — spell check doesn’t work the way I’d like.
I think that we Christians make the mistake of thinking that if only everyone else would follow Christ then everything would be ok – when, in fact, everything is ok because Christ is risen. The difference between those two positions is everything. The first one simply makes of Christianity one more political tool. It’s why I see so many shrill Christians these days. I get emails wondering why I have denounced this thing or that thing – suggesting terrible things about myself if I don’t. It’s when I think – then such a person has never read or understood a single thing that I’ve said. They only see me as a very visible priest with a platform. Sad.
It is by Ilya Glazunov. It was painted in 1999 and is entitled “Smashing of the Church on Easter Night” representing a time during the Bolsheviks.
Both of Glazunov’s parents died in the seige.
Mercy… (about the picture). Both parents killed. And we seek to take up arms. God in heaven.
Dee, my silent sister! Your comment is deep, as if your ‘eye is single’ in the vision you see in the picture. If it were not, you wouldn’t be able to see, also, the times where we wear our crosses ‘forgetting’. God always brings us back, though. He is faithful.
Father, it pains me when people reduce others to a non-person, political platform. It hits us personally when it is someone like yourself who we admire, learn from, and lean on, and more, who we respect as a Priest.
In light of this conversation, I have to assume that when subject to such shame, you accept it as your cross…it is sad, it is heavy, and in ‘imitating’ Christ (as a priest, no less), it (eventually) brings an indescribable peace.
At least I hope it does, Father.
I think one of the greatest challenges I have, Father, is trying to understand all of the different narratives – but in doing so, relegating Christianity to just one among many narratives (even if unintentionally).
It’s hard for me to stop, though. I read various news sources to get “multiple points of view” – but clearly not the one that really matters. Or histories, or philosophies, or what have you – but again, engagement with these things seems to only further the notion of Christianity as a narrative among narratives, not to elevate it to the single narrative by which all other stories are known.
Is there a way to do this? Or, if one struggles with this, as I do, should we limit ourselves from learning about the world around us? Or even cease from learning about it altogether for a time?
I’ve found your articles of late particularly convicting – in a good way. I see things about myself I didn’t see before (or, sadly, thought I’d overcome, but realize now it was just a delusion). But it does leave me wondering what to do for those of us who want to know “what’s going on” or are curious about the world we live in.
Are those simply itches we ought not scratch?
Even as I write this, I think: I probably ought to be asking my spiritual father, as maybe the answer will vary depending upon the person. But I’ll post it here anyway, because I am curious as to your thoughts, and perhaps there are others who feel the same way. Though I’ll certainly be asking my spiritual father, too. 🙂
Their rhetoric was their scripture.
Dee, this is true of many people today as well. In fact, I would guess that a majority of people fall in this category.
This will be going on throughout our lives. The world makes sense of itself by creating its own narratives. Many narratives are repeated often enough and widely enough that they become public narratives – the things by which people live their lives. The problem is that in our world, the public narrative has also created a little niche for religion and religious belief. It would like us to keep our faith stuck in that little niche. It really won’t bother anything in their world at all. We can rant and rave about Orthodoxy this and that and when the public narrative snaps its fingers, we’ll pay attention because we’ve come to believe their account of what’s really going on.
In truth, what is really going on is the Kingdom of God. Everything else is largely a matter of make believe. If we go and visit a graveyard, we can see the end of the public narrative. They all believed it, and now, they lie in the grave. And at this point nothing of the public narrative matters at all. There are no democrats or republicans in the grave. No rich men, no poor men. Just dead men. And the dead stand before Christ – who alone can make any difference at all. In the end, the only narrative that matters is that of the crucified and risen Christ. For, in the end, if that narrative is not true, then everything else was not worth the bother.
As a Christian, when we name Jesus as King and God – we are declaring our loyalty to His narrative – to the story God has told us. We make our decisions based on what He taught us. And, when we come to our end, with joy we lay down to rest in His peace.
Frankly, the news cycle is pretty much a version of addiction. We feel like we need to know something that pretty much doesn’t matter at all. It’s like gossip (very like gossip) and the larger part of it is twisted and only half-true. There is much to be done in a day and in each day of our life – none of which has anything to do with the news. We would do well to do it and let the news worry about itself.
Try a day or two without it. Then, if drawn back to it, wonder how much it will matter to you the day after you die. It’s good to know about the world around us. However, the news is pretty much the last place you’ll find out anything worth while. We would do better to know a neighbor or two.
Thank you, Father. I have refrained from the news increasingly over the last couple weeks. It has been refreshing. But I was feeling that itch again. The anxiety of “not knowing what’s going on.” Your words truly help.
Good morning and dear Fr Stephen. Thank you for the spiritual nourishment. May God bless you abundantly.
This comment from the article really cleared something up for me:
“The nature of the American social contract is an agreement to allow the ballot box to replace the battlefield.”
This is why folks that abstain from voting are treated as duty-shirking military DESERTERS by “both sides” of politics.
I have yet to encounter a gravestone that wouldn’t have existed if all the other corpses in the graveyard had just voted differently.
“If My Kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been VOTING…but My Kingdom is not of this world.”
I am so thankful for Athanasios’ question and your encouraging response, Fr. Stephen! I, too, have been wondering about “trying to read good sources of information” and have basically given up and not watched or listened to news broadcasts of any type for a few days now. I also have been blessed to have a fairly peaceful, Christian social media (facebook only) presence, so keeping in touch with friends and family that way. God is good and He is with us! I especially appreciate these words from your response: “Frankly, the news cycle is pretty much a version of addiction. We feel like we need to know something that pretty much doesn’t matter at all. It’s like gossip (very like gossip) and the larger part of it is twisted and only half-true. There is much to be done in a day and in each day of our life – none of which has anything to do with the news. We would do well to do it and let the news worry about itself.
Try a day or two without it. Then, if drawn back to it, wonder how much it will matter to you the day after you die. It’s good to know about the world around us. However, the news is pretty much the last place you’ll find out anything worth while. We would do better to know a neighbor or two.” Glory to God for all Things!
A thought occurred to me this morning. I lived in Chicago for 3 years back in my seminary days. I served in a small mission on the Northside, where there was a large cemetery (Rose Hill). Our Church was used as a polling place during elections. It being Chicago, we always said about those in the graves, “They only come to Church on election day.”
I don’t know if the dead still vote in Chicago. They did for many years…
I’ve been reading the book “The Life of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos” the last few days, and I have been noting how this book fills me with such peace and joy. It is enlivening to my soul as there is so much beautiful hymnody in the pages and so many beautiful details of our Holy Mother’s life; it makes me feel closer to her and by extension to my neighbor.
By contrast I have found myself only sparingly looking at the news anymore because it has an opposite effect on me.
Paula and Fr Stephen,
Thank you both for the conversation about our faith and the response of shrill Christians. I fear I have had such a voice myself.
“I think that we Christians make the mistake of thinking that if only everyone else would follow Christ then everything would be ok – when, in fact, everything is ok because Christ is risen.”
I hear similarly in the scripture I’ve read this morning:
“These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you might have peace. In the world you will have tribulation: but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 NKJ)
I note the fact that He does not imply that He will (future tense), but that He has already overcome the world
Again thank you both for your edifying words. They are so helpful in these times of crises.
This conversation has led me into remeberance of the Pascha I celebrated in 2004. My late wife passed into eternal life a few days after Lent began that year. It was quite a Lent. Then came Pascha. I went more out of duty and somewhat numb still- certainly filled with grief. Then about the time we started proclaiming Christ 8s Risen! I “saw” the Resurrection, and was lifted up by it and there too was my newly departed wife, her death was overcome by His and that fact was no longer hidden from me. I left the service in such joy I confounded a few of my friends. I was still in grief and to a certain extent always will be but I know the reality of the Resurection.
My late wife did not have an easy life. Being married to me, physical abuse as a child, spiritual abuse from the priest (since reposed) who received us into the Church. It left her deeply wounded and hardened unable to attend the services for some time before she reposed. Yet as she lay dying in the hospital we and my son were attended by our priest in anointing and prayers with fellow parshinors praying and chanting. As she was taking her last breath my son and I saw angel appear at her head, watching and waiting. He disappeared as she breathed her last.
Even now, when I allow my heart to remember the expostulation: Christ is Risen is not said routinely but with humble understanding and joy mixed with grief and longing.
The priest was deposed.
Thank you, Michael Bauman, for sharing the beautiful story of seeing an angel at the deathbed of your wife. God bless you!
That puts me in mind of a quote from St. John of Damascus which is a favorite of mine:
“It must then be understood that the word age has various meanings, for it denotes many things. The life of each man is called an age. Again, a period of a thousand years is called an age. Again, the whole course of the present life is called an age: also the future life, the immortal life after the resurrection , is spoken of as an age. Again, the word age is used to denote, not time nor yet a part of time as measured by the movement and course of the sun, that is to say, composed of days and nights, but the sort of temporal motion and interval that is co-extensive with eternity. For age is to things eternal just what time is to things temporal.” (An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book II).
It is not unusual for Jesus in the Gospels to speak in multiple “times” at once, or perhaps both temporally and in a manner co-extensive with the eternal; immanent to time and transcendent of it. The wonder of these passages should mute all of the ways in which we are often shrill and all too ready to condemn. To denounce is our modus operandi, and to be clement is a struggle. Always it is good to dwell in the knowledge that the victory is accomplished, but to truly *know* that reality is at the heart of the struggle I think.
Dear Michael and Reader Christopher,
Each of you speak of experiences of knowing and seeing. These experiences come, I believe, in the way of living in Him and having the Holy Spirit dwelling within. Admittedly, my attention and the work of my hands aren’t always where they need to be.
I ask for your prayers.
Dee, in my case “seeing” is not really accurate. It was shown to me. My late wife was a master of crochet making items of consumate beauty with much prayer. She was able to make real with her hands what she saw. These things are gifts given as needed. Each person has many gifts in their lives. I was blessed to recognize one..
You wrote “The risk for we Orthodox is to fall into two traps: history is past and the Church is just a repository of theological history and our Liturgies are not unlike Civil War re-enactors.” Your reference to Civil War re-enactments is vivid. People drive long distances for these, dress in uniforms, camp outside, participate in mock battles. They return to their vocations refreshed by the distraction from their normal activities. The re-enactments have no other significance than fun, a re-charge for the things that really matter — the 9-to-5 world. God forbid that our worship descends into this.
Dee, I have had some small experience. The two moments in my life in which I am confident beyond all doubt that fit this category of knowing were both in the midst of such agony that all I could do was sit in wordless supplication and tears before God. The first was when I thought my marriage was ending, in which I knew my utter dependence on God, and which eventually led our family back to the Church. The second was when I thought my eldest son was likely dead and I sat alone in the middle of the night weeping, and in which I knew that Christ’s victory still enfolded my son whether he was alive or not. In both instances I heard God speak to me in a way that was not feeling or thought or sensation. I have no words to describe it.
Outside of those two experiences in which extremity of suffering drove me to complete silence I have found it to be a constant struggle to be silent, to attend, to pray. I wish it was not so with me, but it is. I have added you to my prayers, and it would bless me if you would do the same.
I think a healthy touch of humor goes a long way…
Father, I wonder, not for the first time how our historically low exposure to much suffering in our lives leaves us more exposed to the insanity of the modern paradigm?
A friend of mine was just telling me s brief bio of Fr. Roman Baraga.
We ain’t seen nothing yet.
Indeed Dear Sister Paula,
A touch of humor does go a long way. Sometimes I take myself too seriously. How often we are told (and need to be reminded!) when we fall, to get up, to pray as the first day we have ever really prayed. To begin again! And then sit in quiet, in silence and listen.
And this brings me back to what you said in you comment dear Reader Christopher. In Christ we have a new life. I understand how difficult it is to be facing a death of one’s child. This has happened to me and I know no pain more difficult to bear. As difficult as those circumstances were dear Christopher, when we are in them we cry to God in tears and He hears. You were always in God’s hands, being shaped and molded by Him and His love. And indeed Christ’s love and ever flowing life enfolded your son. May God grant that He always abide in you and you in Him. You are one of His own. God bless you and thank you for your prayers. And I humbly lift up mine for you.
Your invaluable answer to Athanasios, reminding us of the immense power ‘remembrance of death’ bestows to the children of the Kingdom of Heaven when confronted with the Kingdom of this world, also mentioned something else:
“The problem is that in our world, the public narrative has also created a little niche for religion and religious belief. It would like us to keep our faith stuck in that little niche. It really won’t bother anything in their world at all. We can rant and rave about Orthodoxy this and that and when the public narrative snaps its fingers, we’ll pay attention because we’ve come to believe their account of what’s really going on.”
I think that used to certainly be the case. But I also think that it contains the seeds of, not just pushing religion into a little niche, but of becoming a religion itself in future. Secularism has steadily increased in messianic overtones over the years, besides, if one analyses Marxism, a huge ideological force in modern secularism, one instantly sees that it is clearly “secular messianism” .
Secularism has always been a religion, and the State has always been its messiah. The myth of secularism is that there can be a power separate from God. Americans, in particular, are deeply enamoured of the phrase “separation of Church and State,” and imagine that it is something that protects the Church. It’s a little bit like saying, “separation of lion and prey,” in which we really, really hope the lion is not hungry. But our modern sense of “outrage” that with the conversion of Constantine, something terribly corrupting occurred, is actual nonsense. There was no outrage from the Bishops at the time for the precise reason that, much better than we, they understood the nature of the state itself.
The Roman state, and every other state, everywhere before it, was always a religious entity. The pagan Romans believed that the well-being of the Republic and the Empire depended on the favor of the gods. Everything the state did always kept that in mind – and there were numerous monuments and festivals that served as reminders.
If the old gods were to be set aside, then who was going to care for the well-being of the State? Who would guide and protect it? If the God of the Christians was now to be expected to do that, then the State had jolly well better pay attention to that fact. And it did. Of course, it ushered in new conflicts and the need to think through what it would mean if Christ is God and the state’s allegiance was to be to Him. And that conversation began.
The conversation is not changed for the better simply because someone said, “The State should not have a god but should look out for itself. It is answerable only to the people.” The Romans, of course, would have laughed themselves to death over the notion of being “answerable to the people,” in that the people were pretty much little more than a mob that (in the cities) lived off the public dole. Every Roman citizen was entitled to his daily bread, provided free of charge by the state.
We moderns imagine that the separation of Church and state was a genius of a solution to the problems created by a state church. It is not. The state is a dangerous power – who can stay its hand? When the state does not explicitly acknowledge that it is subject to God and His Law, then you have unchained the lion and merely await its appetite. If you are to live in a cage with a lion – only an idiot would give up the chains.
The weakness of modern constitutions are their failure to acknowledge God as sovereign. They dodged the most obvious problem: Who is greater than the state? In the US, we breathlessly await every Supreme Court decision because we intuitively know that every so-called “right” and “freedom” we have is given to us only through the generosity of the state. We love to argue about these things – but fail to admit that the state is unchained and walks about like a roaring lion seeking whom it may devour. It needs to be chained.
On the other hand, God is greater than the state and will ultimately judge every so-called authority and power. He will protect us – even though the state may slay us.
I do admire a certain element of religiosity built into some constitutions. Of course these were written many years ago by people steeped in scripture in depths unimaginable now. Your American founding Fathers, at times, seem to be in harmony with Solzhenitsyn: in their clear awareness of the absolute dependence of freedom on morality. It is sometimes said that only virtuous / faithful people who have God at the center, rather than the corner of their lives, can interpret the spirit of your constitution. AG Barr notably said something to that effect. This obviously has not been the case at all lately.
But if the enemies of the faith are willing to subtly or vehemently dismantle all tradition, to even dismantle nature (as Daniel’s prophecy explains) whether through unnatural edicts or in quasi-mirraculous/scientific ways… God surely can fortify the faithful, (and can do this both subtly as well as miraculously.)
Chairman Mao was not right very often but he did know the state. His dictum “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” is absolutely true. The myth of secularism is that science and reason make that moot. Plus “rights” have historically been granted by kings.
The framers of the US Constitution removed that context and invested them in humanity as a whole and in each person. Life, Liberty and pursuit of happiness (originally property).
Unfortunately these “inalienable rights” are still subject to interpretation and given the number of abortions in this country every year the first “right” alone is not honored by the state. Nor are the other two, nor property as truly “inalienable”. They are still, in fact, bestowed by the state it is restricted only by the twin false god’s of science and reason.
Least we forget the architects of the French Revolution replaced the Catholic Church with The Cult of Reason.
Apparently the American founding fathers took some stuff for granted that they should have put in writing. That oversight continues to haunt the Republic.
Personally I’ve never taken the “founding fathers” to be particularly oriented to Christ, regardless of their choice of words. Perhaps I’m being too cavalier. But for me, behavior speaks louder than words.
Also, I recall a good argument that secularism (or at least the seeds for it) began as a result of the Reformation. Perhaps it began earlier than that, but it seems to have gotten a good boost by that ‘reform’.
Father, “Apparently the American founding fathers took some stuff for granted that they should have put in writing. That oversight continues to haunt the Republic”
The problem was not that they left stuff out, their premise was wrong. Their God was a general God, a intellectual concept for the most part. Many of the founders were Deists. They were practical people, largely traders, plantation owners, lawyers. There were a lot of internal and inter-personal conflicts.
If John Adams had stuck to his guns on the slavery issue, there would likely not have been a republic as we know it and the trajectory to independence from the Crown much more like Canada’s. The Southern plante class was, so they supposed, economically dependent on slave labor. Thus, at some point, a reckoning had to come because as Abraham Lincoln observed a nation cannot endure half slave and half free. Had the Unionists simply split (as they could have) who knows? But Andrew Jackson had set the mold with his dictum during the Nullification Crises: “Liberty and Union, one and inseparable” .
Like “inalienable rights” a good political slogan and rallying cry, but way short of reality.
As you note, “Separation of Church and State” is actually impossible. Either the state is dominant or the Church is dominate. Once the decision was made to allow plurality of religions it was inevitable that the federal state would dominate the religions under the Constitution. Had we remained a confederation, anybody[s guess. The U.S. Constitution was not, by today’s standards, a democratic document demanded by “the people”. The Revolution was statistically the minority position as less than half wanted the split, they just had a stronger will. The economic interests were decisive: The Northern colonies wanted more control over their commerce (e.g. John Hancock, Adams, etc) while the Southern colonies were concerned even then that the Crown might make the slave trade illegal.
If we were truly “Under God” we would likely have an economic system similar to what was directed in Leviticus with the 50 year Jubilee. With the premise of a secular state governed by human reason however, no such thing is possible unless one chooses the Marxist/Communist approach.
It tends to be a binary choice: Either all comes from God and is rule by Him and His law, or all comes from the State. The U.S Founders attempted a middle path. That is where the problematic nature of the Republic rests. It is really the same issue Slavery or Freedom. A nation cannot long endure have slave (rights from the state) and half free (recognizing that everything is from God and should be used in accordance with His will and purposes, not our own).
Patrick Henry famously shouted “Give me Liberty or give me death” Politics, ideology and false gods aside, is that not what Christians are called to: Liberty in Christ?
Historically, when dedicated men and women have acted on that call, imprisonment, banishment, torture and death at the hands of the state have been the common response.
But we easily give up our liberty for a little perceived safety. I think Bonhoffer called this “cheap grace”.
Is it possible for any state to live with the Church without one or the other in dominance? I do not know, but the examples of history and in my own heart and perhaps from the scripture would suggest not: “:No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” Mt 6:24
Secluarists try to give the impression that there is a middle way in which humanity can be free from serving either God or mammon, i.e. we are autonomous. That is a delusion but a powerful one that verges on prelest I think.
May God grant us mercy, peace and repentance in love and grace through His son, our Lord, Jesus Christ.
An interesting book on this: Before Church and State: A Study of the Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX. “The Business of the Peace and the Faith” was a very interesting concept.
“Also, I recall a good argument that secularism (or at least the seeds for it) began as a result of the Reformation”
Dee…yes, I do recall…☺
Viz. the Reformation – I’ve come to greatly appreciate seeing secularism as an “unintended consequence” of the Reformation. It was not really on anyone’s radar screen…
It is very worth noting that there was plenty wrong with various aspects of the Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation. In 1381, just 150 years before, when there was a peasant’s revolt in England – they killed the Archbishop of Canterbury and several abbots. The monasteries (many of them) were up to their necks in the abuses of the feudal system of oppression and villainage (serfdom).
Orthodoxy has had its own messes. There should be no triumphalism within us. The Church has the treasure of the gospel, and has even had the treasure of an entire culture that loved her – and too often that trust was betrayed and abused. So, now we live in a difficult time. It’s not our fault (at least not this generation). But, in our own time, we do not live worthy of the gospel treasure we have received.
There is so much to pray for – and so much to live for. When I plead the cause of a simple life – it is as much for the sake of the Church as for the sake of our own souls. Our secularized, modernized (philosophically) lives are squandering the gospel.
There will be faith when Christ returns. Be even He asked aloud about it.
It’s kind of hard to see secularism when we’re swimming in it. And it’s easy to claim we see it elsewhere rather than in our own hearts and minds. I see no problem with science and reason in and of themselves, but how they are used and thought of philosophically in modernism and secularism isn’t all that conducive to the life in Christ. I have to be perpetually, fastidiously on guard in my own mind and heart, and usually in my own blindness, that’s not enough.
I’m going to look up that book you mentioned Byron!
Forgive me. Too quick and thoughtless of a response.
You are right Father, we all fall short of following the Gospel of Christ.
I started it! Admittedly I have a bug in my bonnet about Protestantism and in particular evangelism of the protestant varieties. But it’s rather funny for the pot to call the kettle black, eh? Yet that’s what I do.
“I started it!”
Yes, my sister…and it probably won’t be the last time that I follow a loved one the wrong way down a one-way street! So we need the caring elder to ‘signal’ to us the right direction!
Father would it be accurate to say that secularism as a disease of the human soul is a corporate manifestation of the gnomic will?
My step-daughter’s mother-in-law is a Bible prophecy believing Protestants who thinks it is her God-given responsibility to make sure everyone else know the “truth” of what she believes. She talks all the time and it is always a come to Jesus talk of some kind. Funny, sad and irritating. I spent the 4th of July which is my step-daughter’s birthday with the family. Contemplating my reaction, I realized that I was little different, just not as persistent about it.
I must be careful not to do the right deed–tell people about the love of Jesus, for the wrong reason,i.e. my own desire to win and be correct, and some of the most secularized religious folk could be we Orthodox. It is always tempting to point to the others.
Secularism has a history that in some sense goes back to Cain. The desire for “rights” and separation or the suppression of everything to the will of one person. Same thing actually. The desire to be autonomous and free from God.
“However, the historical character of the Cross does not exhaust its content. . . . It is only in that Light that we see light. . . . All of creation holds meaning only in its light. ” Thank you for these beautiful words.
Standing before Pilate: There are times in prayer when, although I am convinced of the dangers around me in a community’s assent to chaos (or whatever it is), I seem to be “advised” to simply be silent. In other words, to keep my mouth shut! And oh is that hard!
Lately the image of a soldier has come to mind as one who serves. A soldier doesn’t have a choice where they go; the battle isn’t theirs to pick or choose, and it means they may forego or miss other things that the rest of the world can choose. I think it’s a good image. We just have to learn the battle we’re fighting and what the proper means are — at least perhaps I should just say that *I* need to learn that, anyway.
Another great post. Thank you Father.
I think the lie is that voting is the highest expression of our personhood, that the pseudo-discernment of who to vote for is what it is ‘all’ about, that the casting of a vote is who we are.
It seems like we can vote and buy into the ceremonious lie or we can vote with the caution and nonchalance of going to the DMV. It is among the set of things being here involves but unlike the DMV tasks we can skip it. I plan to skip it from now on. My husband was so sick in 2016 I am glad I skipped it then
I was at my polling place before my son was born so 12 or mor years ago and I read the local vote question ‘Should Arlington issue a bond for…..x……million’ and I realized I couldn’t understand that at all. And I couldn’t skip it either. In the book polling and the public there is a good section, always write the survey in such a way that respondents can register a non opinion. Don’t make them say yes or no or even neutral. A non opinion choice is needed to not skew it. How about ‘should Arlington borrow money at high interest….’
I like the theme of the ‘thin witness’ of immigrant Orthodoxy from a while ago. It makes so much sense that it would be the case after years of potential oppression in foreign lands. But correcting out of it is so important because the drum beat of ‘this is the greatest country in the world’ may be sounded frequently. It was to me.
That Orthodoxy exists ‘alongside of’ seems to be the lie. Orthodoxy encompasses. If I am right in the phrasing here the theme is present ‘call brothers even those who hate us’
They have also been welcomed/adopted. (Correct?)
I am guilty of shrillness too, trying to learn
Father Stephen, you have probably been asked this before and already answered it, but I am interested to know if you feel Orthodox Christians are obligated to participate in political elections. I have chosen not to vote because I feel that none of the candidates represent me and because we do not live in true democracy where every vote actually counts. However, there has been quite a vocal push from a few public Orthodox priests and even monks that we should vote, one individual recently even argued that voting was somehow an act of repentance. I’m still trying to figure out his thinking on that one. Anyway, your perspective would be greatly appreciated. Many thanks!
I do not believe that there is an Orthodox Christian duty to vote. There are any number of reasons someone might choose to vote, one of those being the lack of a clear conscience. Indeed, to urge someone to act against their conscience and choose an “evil” (because it is judged the lesser of two evils) is, I think, a sinful suggestion. There is a video circulating out there with citing advice from St. Paisius, and another video from a monk urging people to vote. I’ve not watched them – but I think these videos – strangely – do not come at the behest of any of our hierarchs. They are “opinions.”
America is not Greece – the advice of St. Paisios has a very different context. Political efforts in America are rooted in the passions – anger, resentment, fear, etc. – these same passions are the fuel of our consumerism and advertising reigns over it all.
It is possible, I think, for someone to make an effort to vote in good conscience. I did this year, but my candidate was a write-in. I liked and agreed with his platform. I think the present system is deeply coercive and has driven Christians to make very damaged choices. The echo of those choices will continue in our hearts. It’s like killing in war. You can “justify” the killing, but you cannot walk away from it undamaged. This election will be deeply damaging for Christians (regardless of which way they vote). I suggested elsewhere that, if we vote, we should do so – weeping. Weeping that this was the best we could do – because it is a deeply sad commentary on the soul of our nation.
But, if your conscience is unclear, then pay attention to it and stay home. And pray for the providence of God, by Whose mercies we may survive even this.
Thank you, Father Stephen, that was very helpful.