Messiness in the Modern World

Salvation can be messy.

I believe this with all my heart and so I state it at the outset of this article. As such, it marks me as a heretic in Modernity. I not only believe that salvation is messy – I believe that messiness is pretty much inherent to salvation. And along with that, I believe that our aversion to messiness (in all things) is a peculiar affliction of the modern world and a vexation of the spirit.

Let me explain.

I hold no ill thoughts towards those who appreciate cleanness and neatness. I even recognize that there are arguments to be put forward in their support. But the universe tends towards messiness – in physics it is known as entropy – things tend towards increasing amounts of disorder. Human civilization has always offered a push back to the world’s entropy. We build roads and then begin the tedious work of maintaining them while all of the forces of nature conspire to return their invented cleanliness to a more natural, disordered state. Every home-owner knows the never-ending work of holding back the forces of entropy, for he or she has invested a tidy-sum into a structure that is destined to fall down.

Our lives are no different. For though there is some inner drive at work within us that wants to order things and make sense of them, the randomness of the day works in the opposite direction. I have often thought that movies (and novels) fail to rightly represent this aspect of our existence. These narratives always show the wonder of a beginning and an end. The story moves from one point in the text to another and finds its crisis, climax and denouement. A good movie leaves us with a feeling of resolve. But life is not like that. Just before the incredible job interview that would have opened a new chapter in life and provided the capstone for a personal story, the real-world protagonist has a heart-attack and dies. And that’s just it. The film breaks and the images flutter on the screen and render the entire work of art that is a life-time little more than meaningless tatters. And this happens every day. Many people do not die at the “end” of their lives. Their narratives are interrupted messes that frequently leave loose ends and deep, unresolved problems.

But Modernity despises this aspect of our existence. The Modern world is the triumph of human intellect and will. It is the subjection of nature to the force of order. Entropy be damned! The myth of progress is the imposition of an orderly narrative onto the canvas of the world, an insistence that things must come together in a more sensible, useful and productive manner. Our lives will be better if only we master the messiness. The myth of success only works if the world agrees to be predictable and manageable, yielding itself to our efforts to make it behave.

But it will not – ever. The world was not created for such behavior. Even in the Garden of Eden, man had to “dress it and keep it.” There were weeds in the Garden of Eden! Someone will doubtless suggest that our “dominion” over the fish, birds, and every creeping thing, etc.” is a commandment to bring order into the messiness. I respond that this is like “herding cats.” Fish and creeping things become orderly at our command, only when they’re dead and we can lay them neatly in rows. And even then, the entropy of corruption will reduce their rows to dust.

These are just observations on how things work. But the problem that I want us to see is how Modernity works – and particularly how it works within us. We have internalized the myth of progress and utility. We not only believe that the world and the things around us can be better, but that it is our God-given task to make them so. We push this same cultural mandate into the Scriptures as well. We imagine the parable of the good stewards (those who invested their talents of money and made a profit) to be stories of how God praised and rewarded them for their productivity and usefulness. We fail to wonder what actually constitutes faithful stewardship in the Kingdom of God.

More than this, we are tormented by the abiding and increasing messiness of our lives and world. The cultural myth runs deep in our psyche. We experience guilt and shame in the face of entropy, knowing that we could have done better and should have done more. For some, such thoughts are the very stuff of insanity. They have more than occasionally been the stuff of great evil.

The darkest moments of the modern world have come as a result of various plans to “improve” things. The Modern state found its first great champion in the efficiencies of 19th century Prussia (later Germany). Rationality was elevated to new heights, not just on the philosophical level, but across the board. The result was an efficient state, an effective army, and a policy of improvement for the world that created two world wars, genocide and a legacy of darkness that has yet to be dissipated. Other visions of a better world sought to remove the irrationality of religion and any number of other “messy” human pursuits. And although it is popular among the new atheists to blame religion for human conflict, religion is purely amateur when compared to the ruthless efficiencies of the rationalized state.

The sad drama of contemporary Christianity is marked by the “improvements” of “productivity” and “effectiveness.” “Better” Church has given us increasingly silly and ill-invented forms of the Christian faith. Old mainline denominations are shuttering their buildings with increasing frequency as their once efficient forms fail to keep pace with the rapid morphing of the contemporary scene.

And it is here that I will point out one of the great virtues of Orthodox Christianity: it is irretrievably messy. It operates with a set of canons that have remained unreformed through the centuries. Some are so old that the date of their origin is lost in speculation. Its messiness is visible to all the world – particularly in such problems as the over-lapping jurisdictions that seem to serve as a constant embarrassment. It is a situation that others point to with derision. It is being addressed at the present time, though it remains to be seen whether the problem will be corrected in the lifetime of anyone now living. I am not confident.

The Orthodox life is simply messy (when it is properly lived). For it is not a way of life given to us in order to tidy up the planet. It is a way of messiness, or a way to live with messiness. Christ trampled down messiness by messiness (to paraphrase). Death is chaos, for those who have understanding. And we need fear chaos no more than we fear death because of what Christ has done and is doing.

The world around us is simply messy, chaotic and marked by the workings of entropy everywhere. And though we “dress it and keep it” we must not curse it or despise its “weediness.” And we should recognize and resist the abiding temptation of our times to fix everything. Rather than create jobs and insist on a living wage, we declare a “war on poverty,” much like our forebears fought the “War to End All Wars.”

As the present state of things seems increasingly chaotic (Covid, politics, and the like), so our anxiety grows. The call to alarm can be heard from every corner, including some within the Church. The injustice and disorder of all things presses on us as a threat to our existence (or so it feels). We crave for an order (“normality”) to be restored and can only imagine it as the result of better management. Regardless of whatever temporary measures might be inacted, the messiness of the world will reassert itself, given time. There is a logos within creation, an order that reflects the Divine Logos, through whom all things are made. It is, however, an order that must be discerned within the apparent messiness. 

“All things work together for good,” is probably the boldest proclamation of messiness that I know. Many are quick, even nervous to note that the sentence goes on to say, “For those who love God and are called according to His purposes.” That is certainly true. And His purpose doesn’t seem to be about making the world a more tidy place, only in making us to be like His glorious self.

42 comments:

  1. The photo is of an abandoned trailer in the northwest part of South Carolina. It is the home to which my parents retired, and thus became “home” for my family for a time. It is slowly being swallowed by nature.

  2. The world around us is simply messy, chaotic and marked by the workings of entropy everywhere.

    And yet God sustains it (and us) and does not bother to tidy it up as so many desire! Many thanks for this, Father. It is a great help in chaotic times.

  3. “All things work together for good,”
    Thank you for your words in the final paragraph. I have always said the evangelical understanding of that verse led me away from that world more than any other belief. The evangelical interpretation mixed with modernity and the “American Dream” caused me a crisis of faith as my life seemed to always be moving towards messiness. To this day, I still struggle with that verse.

  4. There is a logos within creation, an order that reflects the Divine Logos, through whom all things are made. It is, however, an order that must be discerned within the apparent messiness.

    Amen, Father. May God help us to have ears that hear!

    Allen you speak the truth of all of our lives. We all suffer in our entropy. May God penetrate through our judgments about our lives and those of others, to look upon the face of Christ and abide peacefully in Him.

  5. Unless I am mistaken entropy only prevails completely in a closed system. Thus the Incarnation defeated it but as a creation we are still subject to futility. His mercy lifts us up when we sink but all things are not yet made new.
    Still even now He prays in us helping to bear the burden of our futility ad Symon the Cyrene did for Him.

  6. One of the things that has kept me in the fold of Orthodox Christianity over the years, in spite of the scandals and infighting and misogyny and reactionary thought I have encountered along the way, is the fact that the Church isn’t legalistic and hierarchical in the same way as the Catholics or rigid in the same way as the Evangelicals or boring in the same way as most mainline Protestant churches I have attended. It is gloriously messy. Thanks be to God!

  7. “There is a logos within creation, an order that reflects the Divine Logos, through whom all things are made.”

    May we say that we manifest this order when we make our fallen reason subservient to our faith?

  8. Sharon,
    Not sure I would say that. Our reason, though fallen, can itself coincide with the Divine Logos – it’s a matter of its healing. Sometimes our “faith” has to be healed as well. We begin by giving God thanks, and, little by little, keeping the commandments of Christ. In time, our healing will be manifest it various ways.

  9. “…we are tormented by the abiding and increasing messiness of our lives and world. The cultural myth runs deep in our psyche. We experience guilt and shame in the face of entropy, knowing that we could have done better and should have done more. For some, such thoughts are the very stuff of insanity.”

    My life in a nutshell.

  10. I appreciate this statement: And although it is popular among the new atheists to blame religion for human conflict, religion is purely amateur when compared to the ruthless efficiencies of the rationalized state.

  11. Thank you Father! Michael called me earlier today and said “You HAVE to read Fr. Steven’s post for today!
    I saw why very quickly. I love it! You, like I suffer from a very disordered ADHD mind at times, and I can say now I have a very “Orthodox” house now too! It is a continued struggle with the things that tend to accumulate and my way of trying to sort thru and rid us of them. Life tends to accumulate a lot of “things” along the way, and choosing what to give away or throw away is a continual battle. It is like that with relationships too. Some are temporary, some are long lasting, and some are downright toxic. Learning to “dress and keep” the messes that we encounter in every day we live, can be a bit overwhelming at times. Knowing it is okay, and actually as God intended it to be is SO freeing to me! At times, I feel so guilty at all the “disorder” around me in this life, and knowing I am not responsible for making any of it make sense now – is joyous.

  12. Also I love the thought that the Orthodox life is a way to live with the messiness of the world and our lives.
    On Orthodoxy’s resistance to being ‘tidied up,’ here is a word from Sir Walter Scott, whose Journal I am reading: Law and Devotion must lose some of their dignity as often as they adopt new fashions.

  13. As a teacher, one of the most profound statements shared with me by a mentor was the phrase, “Learning is messy.” When I finally grasped that, stopped trying to impose a rigid order to my classroom, and allowed schedules and structures to be more fluid and organic in response to student (and my) needs, did I feel like I truly mastered the art of teaching.
    I think God has a supreme order to everything, but from our perspective things can appear quite random and chaotic and “messy.” Thus, our need for faith. My college math teacher at a Christian school showed us an interesting concept discovered by mathematicians: everytime they rolled a dice or produced a random number from a generator, they put the numbers on a coordinate. He said that when this random act was repeated enough times (through computer generation), the random dots eventually took on a recognizable pattern. So when we constantly are trying to force order and pattern from our miniscule perspective, could we sometimes be inhibiting the supreme order beyond what we see and understand?

  14. Michelle,
    My experience of the Divine Liturgy has a bit of messiness about it. Perhaps it’s just the nature of serving a liturgy as complex as the Byzantine in a parish context. We always mess something up, even if just a little. I do not like liturgies that are very tight and highly choreographed (I have seen that on occasion in the West). I like altar servers to do what they do because it’s the right thing (like bowing to the altar, etc.), but I’m not terribly interested in them doing it in perfect order, like military parades. Whenever there’s the military thing at a funeral, it always creeps me out, it’s like soldiers doing “the robot.” Human beings are not supposed to move in that manner. It’s not natural.

    But, given how I am wired, messiness is always a given.

  15. What does then actually constitute as faithful stewardship in the Kingdom of God?

    I know I’ve been really burdened by the talents as abilities, artistic genius, athletic prowess, etc approach.

  16. Humility tends to be messy. Bragging on my son: several years ago my brother was being ordained in a small Bulgarian parish in Indiana. My son who served regularly in the Antiochian Cathedral in Wichita, Ks was blessed to serve in my brother’s ordination Liturgy. Being a small parish they did not see the bishop often. My then 13 year old son had more experience serving in a Hierarchical Divine Liturgy than any one else in the altar except for the Bishop. My son was quite surprised when the priests were checking with him on what to do when. Not button down tight to be sure, probably a little messy, but my brother got ordained and everybody rejoiced. God is good.

  17. Florence Nightingale my disagree about messiness! Her orderliness and cleanliness saved lives. Infact some even say that hygiene and proper disposal of sewage and trash has done more for health issues than vaccines. Anyway…not sure what this has to do with anything but it was something that came to mind. I guess part of the messiness is that organization and cleanliness is part of the path.

  18. Nancy Ann,
    I missed the part in Fr. Stephen’s essay where he said we should all go out and wallow in sewage 😉

  19. Even God, in the creation and fall myths of Genesis, seems conflicted about the tension between the messiness of original chaos and the desire of sentient beings, including himself, for order. First he creates a pocket of order in the middle of chaos, then populates it with humans to maintain and thrive within it. But when they begin to have ideas of their own about ordering the mess, he repeatedly contemplates destroying it all, like an artist who destroys all his works rather than leave them for the world to critique–but never quite finishes the job.
    I never quite finish straightening my apartment, so I can relate.

  20. Nancy Ann,
    Having spent some significant time around hospitals, hospices, nurses, etc., I have a distinct impression of messiness, even in the medical world. Indeed, if you don’t like rolling up your sleeves and being close the terrible messiness, nursing would not be a good profession. And for all the cleanliness of hospitals – they are the most likely place to be infected with an untreatable bacteria.

  21. Thank you Father Stephen for this post and for sharing the picture of your childhood home. Mother Nature does have a way of caressing everything back into itself. Your words bring to mind the difference of ‘recovered’ and ‘recovering’ with regards to addiction and mental health. ‘Recovered’ is neat and complete. All the work is done. The finish line has been reached. Recovering, on the other hand, is a constant struggle. Each day brings a new battle. Millions are made in the self-help industry by authors promising people they will reach a certain destination with a big prize at the end in a reasonable amount of time. Disappointment and anxiety are usually the result and hence the need for newer updated solutions. This wonderful faith of ours does give us all the tools to manage this sea of messiness and our own brokenness. We are truly blessed!

  22. Father Stephen – thank you so much for this. I have this morning nearly been driven to distraction by ‘helpful’ suggestions about tidying up our church’s marriage liturgy . . . I won’t go into details, but I suspect some folk of being suspicious lest people enjoy themselves at a wedding. (I have recently been reading Hilary Mantel’s latest book on the fall of Thomas Cromwell. I couldn’t help but note how ‘the peasantry’ rose up because their new (soon to be) Puritanical overlords sought to rid their culture of all its messiness, of saints and feasts and all the rest . . . something resonated) And then your post!

    A common sign in many homes is ‘God bless this mess’ – such signs are not found in the false ‘homes’ on display in magazines, within which one couldn’t possibly LIVE! Homes are real places – I often think they are a sacrament of the heart, which points us to our true home.

    The World has little place at the moment for those who ‘come eating and drinking’ . . .
    Lord have mercy

  23. “Messiness in the Modern World”
    Simply a brilliant article that provides great insight into the human condition. Thank you for writing it!

  24. Nancy Ann,

    Yes, but what if you take it too far and everything is too clean and sanitized? You end up with an immune system that’s weak (like a muscle that’s atrophied for lack of use) and overreactive (allergies). The messiness reasserts itself. Funny you should mention vaccines too, as they’re a kind of managed, contained messiness intentionally introduced into our very bodies. And their “managed-ness” isn’t perfect either–for example, a live vaccine has the potential of developing into the very illness you were trying to protect yourself against!

  25. Dear Father Stephen,
    I am a longtime follower of your blog though I rarely comment.
    Your post is quite timely as at present I’m rereading Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin, in which I find a compelling example of the messiness of salvation.
    It is a novel that does not conform to the false life narratives that many movies and novels portray. (I know you are familiar with the book)
    Had it been read by the me of thirty years ago it’s likely I would have found it nonsensical and offensive to my western ethos.
    I’ll resist trying to say much here of how profoundly it has impacted me except that it helps the orthodox me to a better understanding of Romans 8:28, as I struggle with my own flawed and sinful existence.

    Thank you for your continuing efforts and faithfulness on behalf of our souls.

  26. This post reminds me of the documentary “The Biggest Little Farm” where the farmers spend much time and effort to reclaim a farm and place it into a natural order such that nature (or creation) begets nature. This is the best example of how I see the commandment of Genesis to “have dominion” over the earth. Things still tend toward entropy, but it’s an entropy that is beneficial to everyone and everything.

  27. For those who have not heard of him, papa Tychon must be one of the “messiest” holy elders to have lived in Mt Athos (https://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2009/09/last-days-of-elder-tychon-athonite.html).

    He was the spiritual father of St Paisios, lived in a very simple cell which he never cleaned, whose floor became a solid surface of mud, hair and whatever fell onto it. He served coffee in little cups unwashed from the previous serving, insisting if one questioned that these things are of no importance.

    A very simple, childlike, angelic ( yet to be canonised ) saint.

  28. Fr. Stephen,
    For so many years, I tried to clean up my messyness. But like the cockroach, that grooms itself; after all its grooming, it still is black! So my attempts to not be messy(:>). I am now beginning to see that the work of God is changing and healing my life –in the midst of the ongoing messyness.

  29. Sin is the ultimate messiness of course. It is amazing how much havoc and destruction I can cause my own heart and in those around me with the ordinary everyday sins of an unweeded garden. “Things rank and gross in nature possess it merely”
    Ah, but Jesus lies even deeper in the soil and will reach out and grab me before I am swallowed up by something like Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors.
    God is good.

  30. Father,

    Doesn’t salvation imply a reordering of things?

    How is the belief in salvation not complicit in the myth of progress? What happens when faith in the future is taken from Christianity?

    Christianity seems to have simply changed from a literal expectation of the end the world for the sake of a new world into a metaphor for a spiritual transformation.

    How is Christianity not responsible for the myth of progress in the modern world as we know it today? One may believe it’s the human task to make the world a better place or one may believe it is God’s work, but both believe in cosmic justice, but have faith in a future reality that promises progress or even more so redemption.

  31. Christian,
    Of course Christianity is complicit in the myth of progress – that is – a heresy born out of Western Christian thought – particularly that found in the radical wings of the Reformation (which eventually morphed into the dominant forms of Protestantism today). It is a false eschatology.

    It is not the case that Christianity was once a simple literal expectation of the end of the world. That’s a misreading of what we see in the Scriptures and the earliest Fathers. Jesus is not proclaiming a soon end of the world. He is proclaiming the immediate in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. He is inaugurating the Kingdom. The Church, rightly understood and lived, is to be the living “edge” of the Kingdom in this world.

    Christian, I would say that “belief in a future reality” is a distortion. Christ does not teach us about the future. He teaches us about the present – and what is happening precisely in the present moment. The “future” is a way of taming Christianity, of postponing and putting it off, even placing it into a second-storey arrangement.

  32. I have come to believe that one of messiest components of modern life is one that ought to be self-evident: what is a man/woman. Modernity promises freedom and offers nothing but confusion. Everything about us is ideologically determined. Even the seemingly simple statement “Male and female created He them” is fraught with danger if spoken in some circles.
    Human beings are designed to be creatures of faith and from that faith create a dynamic order that bears fruits for thanksgiving.

  33. Father and Christian
    I certainly concur that the one-storey notion that “Christ does not teach us about the future but about the present – and what is happening precisely in the present moment” is the most practical spiritual advise one can be given.
    Anything that takes us out of that sacred meeting spot of the present with the eternal, that decisive embrace of Providence, is a dangerous distraction. The key danger being the weakening of faith.

  34. “ Many people do not die at the “end” of their lives. Their narratives are interrupted messes that frequently leave loose ends and deep, unresolved problems.”

    These words haven’t left me since I read them nearly a week ago.

  35. Fr. Stephen Freeman. Thank you for another great article. Where could I learn more about the alternative reading of the parable of the talents? Thanks!

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