Fr. Alexander Schmemann described “secularism” as the greatest heresy of our time. He didn’t describe it as a political movement, nor a threat from the world outside Christianity. Rather, he described it as a “heresy,” that is, a false teaching from within the Christian faith. What is secularism?
Secularism is the belief that the world exists independent of God, that its meaning and use are defined by human beings. Things are merely things. The world is no more wonderful than its surface. To this is contrasted Christian orthodoxy – that all things “live, and move, and have their being,” in God. God sustains the world and directs it providentially towards its end: union with Him. More than this, all that exists does so with depths and layers. The universe has a sacramental or iconic structure, such that everything is a point of communion with God.
In our time, the notions of secularism have been in the ascendancy for well over 200 years. They have found their way into the bedrock understanding of most Christians, and chipped away at the faith of the Orthodox and Catholics as well. It is a largely unrecognized heresy in that it appears to be a “non-religious” point of view, being outside the realm of theology. For modern people, it is simply thought to be “the way things are.”
Over the course of the years, a continuing theme of my writing has been to point readers towards what is not seen. It is at the heart of my use of the image of a “one-storey universe,” as well as how I have sought to present the Scriptures. It is even woven into the problem of shame, though I have not yet fully explicated that aspect of the problem. The answer to secularism, however, is not to be found in attacking it. Rather, it is best seen by presenting what is true and real – the shape of the world that is denied by the secular dogma. In this, St. Paul offers a profoundly helpful declaration:
“Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.(2 Corinthians 4:16–18)
It has seemed to me that the habits of our modern lives run counter to this theme. We are captivated by the “surface” of things, failing to see what lies beneath. It causes us to be anxious and driven by things of insignificance. If there is a constant temptation for us in our present time, it is to lose confidence that there is anything unseen or eternal, at least in the sense that such things impinge on our daily existence. Our disenchanted, secular world is a siren song that promises the power of control while robbing us of the reality of communion. We “manage” the world when we should be in love with it.
The supreme example of the eternal, unseen, reality among us is found in the Eucharist, where we profess that “this is truly Thine own most pure Body, and truly Thine own most precious blood.” This example is not an exception, a strange instance in which such a thing is said but once, while surrounded by the flatness and emptiness of a secularized landscape. This point is at the very heart of Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s writing:
“The liturgy of the Eucharist is best understood as a journey or procession. It is the journey of the Church into the dimension of the Kingdom. We use the word ‘dimension’ because it seems the best way to indicate the manner of our sacramental entrance into the risen life of Christ. Color transparencies ‘come alive’ when viewed in three dimensions instead of two. The presence of the added dimension allows us to see much better the actual reality of what has been photographed. In very much the same way, though of course any analogy is condemned to fail, our entrance into the presence of Christ is an entrance into a fourth dimension which allows us to see the ultimate reality of life. It is not an escape from the world, rather it is the arrival at a vantage point from which we can see more deeply into the reality of the world.” (For the Life of the World)
One way to begin the journey out of secularism is to follow the path of beauty. We have been trapped in the syllogism that says, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” something as patently untrue as it is opposed to beauty itself. When beauty is reduced to subjectivity, its meaning is lost, as well as its ability to save us. Dostoevsky famously wrote, “The world will be saved by Beauty.” The mystery of this thought is lost within a secular mind.
The perception of beauty is as essential to the soul as the perception of heat and cold, up and down, right and wrong. The subjectivization of beauty is a war of the secular against its only possible opponent. At stake is the soul of human beings. Secularism would ultimately deny the existence of the soul, unless there is some form of “survival” after death. That there is an unseen dimension of each human life, transcending emotions and thought, is unacknowledged in a world that is increasingly materialistic. The soul, as a truly existing reality, is as easily denied as the Body and Blood of Christ. Contemporary polling suggests that as many as 60-70 percent of US Catholics no longer believe in the doctrine of real presence. They very likely deny their souls as well.
This is far more than an indication of unfaithfulness to classical teaching. It points to a shift in worldview in which the possibility of an inner reality is denied. All that remains of the inner life is that area we now describe as “psychological” (which has now become a misnomer, in that its name means “the study of the soul”).
Early secularism speaks in the nineteenth-century character of Ebenezer Scrooge, Dickens’ Christmas creation. When he confronts the ghost of his old partner, Jacob Marley, he says:
“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”
We bring the same skeptical nonsense to our own perception of beauty. We are more likely to credit our cultural experience than bad gravy, but we are certain that the beauty we perceive should have no more claim on us than our preference for Coke over Pepsi. “I don’t know, I just think [feel] it’s pretty!”
The Fathers of the Church were deeply certain of beauty, so much so that they grouped it together with truth, goodness, and being as a foundational, essential aspect of reality itself. For Christians, the transcendent reality of beauty is grounded in Christ as Logos, the One through whom all things were created, and by whom all things exist. The denial of beauty as transcendent is a denial of the goodness of creation as well.
“Noetic perception” is a phrase that describes the ability of the human heart to perceive that which is Divine. As such, it is our capacity for communion with God and the whole of creation. Primarily, what we noetically perceive of creation is its “logicity,” its reflection of the Logos. Without such a perception, we do not see the truth of things. By the same token, without such a perception, we cannot know the truth of our own selves. Of course, goodness and truth are as endangered in the secular world as beauty. A world that cannot see goodness and truth is a world in which distortions and even lies are raised to a place of prominence. In a secular world, money and violence become the primary energies of governance and change.
Human beings are created in beauty and we crave its communion. The same is true of goodness and truth. There is a disconnect within us when our cultural language tells us that the deepest instincts of our existence are merely subjective impressions. It is a shaming thought that seeks to discount the very truth of who we are. It creates a loneliness and alienation that searches for answers in a world we are told is mute.
There are rational arguments that are exercises in the absurd. For example, to engage in an argument over whether you exist is silliness. The argument which says that all experience is purely subjective (it’s all in your head – you are only a mind) is another. To a similar extent, arguments that seek to deny a proper existence to truth, beauty, and goodness carry us to the absurd. Saying such a thing often provokes others to argue about truth, beauty, and goodness (witness, Pontius Pilate’s “What is truth?”). Such arguments, I think, imagine that you are seeking to impose truth, beauty, and goodness.
This is one of the fundamental problems of secularism. As truth, beauty, and goodness are denied any hidden, eternal existence, what is left is the version of pseudo-truth-beauty-goodness that are created through violence and money. It reduces life to the political – the struggle for power. Those who, in this election season, proclaim that the “soul of the nation is at stake” (both sides say it one way or another), mean only that their side might lose in the game for power. It is the battle for power, and our faith in secularism that endanger the soul. If truth, beauty, and goodness are eternal verities, then they defy legislation. They are to be discerned and perceived in order that we might enter into communion with them, becoming the kind of people who manifest them in our lives. As St. Paul opined, “Against such there is no law” (Gal. 5:23).
What is not seen are those things that matter most. Fifteen thousand years ago, in the back of a cave somewhere in Spain, a human being, utterly removed from us in experience, language, and culture, drew pictures of bison on the walls. We have no idea of his intention or purpose. However, we are able to say, without hesitation, that his drawings were (and are) beautiful. Without words, and beyond words, he said this thing to us. His drawings were true and good as well. It tells us that he perceived eternal things and left us this witness. God forgive us if we refuse to listen.
Father it is believed now that cave paintings were used for religious purposes. At Dan and Jerusa’s wedding at St. Anne’s. I asked Jerusa’s friend (A UT archaeology student.), “How do you like our cave paintings?” She liked them, and confirmed that prehistoric art was indeed created for religious purposes. I had only toyed with the idea of that being a possibility, as I had recently watched a movie (with Zach) about new cave paintings discovered in France. To me it really speaks volumes of the Orthodox Churches us of Icons today. A tradition that has existed in mankind’s beliefs since the very beginning.
Whenever a French leader speaks about France’s “secular values” I cringe. Your article here has helped me to better understand why. May God richly bless you.
PS. Would it be better for them to speak about the values of freedom — freedom of speech, freedom of worship?
“Have you ever asked yourself
Who gave the butterflies their wings?
Could it be
just the nature of things?
Or have you thought about
Who taught the birds the songs they sing?
Could it be
just the nature of things?
Or can we see from the beginning
just part of a grand design
in the nature of things?
Have you ever thought about
who taught the stars the heavenly dance?
Could it be
just a matter of chance?
Or have you asked yourself
Whose idea is romance?
Could it be
just a matter of chance?
Or could we see from the beginning
just part of a grand design
not a matter of chance?
Or could we see from the beginning
we are part of the grand design
not a matter of chance.
We are learning to our dismay that words like “freedom” mean very little in a secularized context – that is, they only mean as much as the powers-that-be are willing to allow them to mean. If there are no eternal verities, there is only power.
However, I think a very good line of thought on some of this can be found in Tom Holland’s book, Dominion. He is described as a “secular historian.” But he is doing honest work in which he realizes that everything of value in modern democracies of the West depends on Christianity and that without it, it is nothing. Thus, he says he is “losing his faith in liberalism” (“liberalism” classically means the whole secular project). Here is a good video interview with him. I’ve not read the book, if it’s as good as his conversation, it would be worth the read:
Ah, but Fr. Freeman, he didn’t say it.
A character in The Idiot attributes the phrase to Myshkin in a conversation in a drawing room — ‘and did not Prince Myshkin say beauty will save the world’ — so we never hear the Prince actually utter it, the phrasing’s suggestive of a possible answer in the negative, and the speaker giggles and attributes such a view to Prince Myshkin being ‘in love.’
As such it *is* a pretty good example of secularism — the guy thinks such an idea is hilarious and stems from a flight of fancy, rather than deep truth — but it’s in a novel and not directly from Dostoevsky.
Also seems unlikely the author wd think it strictly so, tho it’s likely he’d give it a key role in the saving of the world entire.
Though that is an accurate observation about the quote, if you work your way through Mochulsky’s commentary on D, it is fairly well demonstrated that it does, indeed, represent Dostoevsky’s own thoughts, and certainly conforms to an Orthodox understanding.
In a letter to his niece, Dostoevsky writes: “The main thought of the novel [the Idiot] is to depict a postively beautiful individual.” He goes on to say much about this task, and the great difficulty in creating such a character. He says, “On earth there is only one positively beautiful person – Christ, so that the appearance of this immeasureably, infinitely beautiful person is, of course, an infinite miracle in itself. The entire Gospel of John is in this sense: it finds the whole miracle in the incarnation alone, in the manifestation of the beautiful alone.”
Those who critique the little quote, without sufficient research, are being far too clever.
God will save the world through beauty: this is a Dostoevskian summary of the Gospel of John.
I am reminded of The Great Divorce again where Lewis sees the procession of a veritable queen across the lawn. When Lewis asks who this is, his guide says something to the effect of, “You wouldn’t have noticed her on Earth. She was a nobody. But what’s valued here is far different from what we valued down there.”
A person truly has to be given new eyes in order to see real things in this life. One vision isn’t merely different from the other; earthly vision is distorted and marred compared to what it was created to see.
To the extent that I possess it, I find this second sight painful. It’s like the ghosts learning to walk on real grass. It’s a very good thing; don’t get me wrong. But if a person wants to see true beauty, they must also be prepared to view true ugliness. The same for goodness and truth of course. It IS the way, but we are out of practice functioning with Sorrow and Suffering as our constant companions and eventually even best friends (Hind’s Feet on High Places).
Speaking of beauty and Altamira…
Father this article is a feast for the heart and soul. Thank you for this!
Drewester, your comment reminds me that a feast never tastes so good as after a fast.
Back to Father’s article:
One of the things that I find frustrating and difficult to handle is when I attempt to communicate how it was that I had encountered “Christ’s Resurrection” when studying the Higgs Field. Such a statement is heard as if it were some sort of argument, or worse, as some sort of bravado. Alternatively, it is also seen as some sort of psychological whimsy, when in fact it is an attempt to describe something real and beautiful.
Such a response actually is crushing (as it may be also the condition of the hearer as well) as if the hearer attempts to throw the experience of the Divine into a void, as if the sounds of the words themselves are spoken into a vacuum. I don’t see such a response intentional, but reactive. The Real is what secularism says it is and it dictates that we must by any means turn away from beauty. Perhaps this is due to a sort of shame if one doesn’t see such beauty with their own eyes.
There is one whom I love, whom I deeply desire to share my experience of and Life in Christ. But the adversary does his work to turn their eyes away. I ask for your prayers.
Your talk of feasting and of trying to share something beautiful to those who won’t or can’t receive it reminds me of the dwarves in the stable in C.S. Lewis’ Last Battle of the Chronicle of Narnia series. It’s so close I could swear you were picturing yourself as Lucy, begging Aslan to somehow help make them understand because she loved them so much – and yet they just couldn’t get it. Tragic. But of course with God all things are possible.
Altamira guitar piece above: very beautiful
Dee, ah what a Cross to bear. To have the pearl of great price and someone you love not seeing it though it is right there before them. If I may suggest a friend of mine long ago advised in such situations — just love the other person and allow that love go deeply within you. Some folks are more apt to respond to love than to argument. That is difficult when something so important and obvious to you and they are so important to you. Yet, your loves are not separate are they?
My wife and I will pray for you.
What a beautiful post. It brought tears to my eyes twice. May God grant us the true eyes of the Beholder to see what He truly sees.
“Those who, in this election season, proclaim that the “soul of the nation is at stake” (both sides say it one way or another), mean only that their side might lose in the game for power”.
Yet only one side offers some degree of protection for the unborn and the freedom to worship, the other offers Marxism and social justice. So why isn’t the soul of the nation really at stake?
I am utterly committed to the life of the unborn, and, there are serious things at stake in the coming elections. It is possible, however, to win all of the political goals we desire and still lose or damage our souls. It is also possible to lose all of our political goals and yet save our souls. If we had truly paid attention to our souls – we would be in a very different place at the moment.
But, please read and think about the article and what it says about the question of the soul. It is not making a political point.
By all means vote and put your trust in God. Regardless of the outcome (and it could be terrible) we are in for some very, very difficult and trying times. During those times, getting past the temptations to violence and power will be very difficult. Belief in God – true, active, trusting belief in God, will be very difficult as well. We should be prepared to suffer.
For me, the most alarming thing in the article is the statistic on Catholic belief in the Eucharist (I could not find any information on the Orthodox). But, I dare say, those Catholics (the majority) who do not believe in the Real Presence are also probably far more likely to believe in abortion as well (just an educated guess). The fact is that Catholics, Orthodox, and Evangelicals procure abortions at about the same rate as the general public. It is our souls – not our ballot boxes – that have been destroying the soul of the nation. Voting will accomplish little in that regard. We have much, much deeper work to do.
Thank you Michael and Merry!
Father what you say about abortion rates and who is aborting is a very important point. The media and political parities would cast such circumstances into the political realm. Indeed it is an American political Football.
Whenever I see the topic of abortion mixed with politics I see only one thing afoot, and that is how to score.
I would love to see the life of the unborn protected as thoroughly as all lives. Our laws are a reflection of our souls (and their neglect). We suffer from a terrible lack of love – awash in a world of materialism where souls a measured in wealth and power. Politics is the work of a well-ordered society. When the souls of citizens are disordered, their politics cannot help but mirror the problem. We live during a time in which an empire is crumbling – there is a revolution taking place (and has been). On the other hand, the Kingdom of God is among us and the mystery of our salvation and its triumph cannot be stopped.
Our parish has been having out-door Liturgies for the past month (as the weather permits). It is, of course, unusual, but also an amazing experience. As we sang, the birds joined in (or did we join them?). The deep sense of union with all creation permeated the service. This is the true reality that will remain come November 4. We must learn how to live in union with God and understand the logoi of all created things. This is the true soul of a nation.
It is part and parcel of the principal of – Being Present wherever you are! Wherever you are – YOU ARE! Isn’t it interesting that the Deacons Says to the priest – “It is (present tense) Time – in other words – wake up to the time that is now – the kingdom of God is ever present – but we are not! Being present in the “now” is impossible if you are attempting to live in the future, past, or any fantasy as you try to negotiate now!
“We must learn how to live in union with God and understand the logoi of all created things. This is the true soul of a nation”
So true father, it just breaks my heart that so many unborn children have not been given that chance.
It should break our hearts – and we should raise our voices in lamentation. It is a tragic manifestation of how dark the soul of our nation (the souls of all of us) has become that such a thing is happening. When I write about Modernity – this is simply one of the symptoms of that dark philosophy. It is a culture that is built on death, but death that is hidden in such a manner that most go about their day without giving it a thought.
To echo Christina, in France, we are in an increasingly dense bath, enveloped on all sides by secularism … It is the continual leitmotif …
Even among Catholics, I am distressed by their visions … There is a Catholic theologian who defends this very well ! She says that we are caught in the nets of religion, that is to say with its rituals, its mode of organization, its language and that we must not lose sight of, insists the theologian, that a spiritual journey is a journey of self-construction ! And in his own words: Secularism rests God ! She even wrote a book with this title …
What to say ?! ….
On the good news side, thank you P.Stephen for this important and encouraging text, because you give us to understand and to see with a great “prism” and the depth so necessary … The soul rejoices in these good foods …
Through the years, particularly my Anglican years, I saw that academic theologians could come up with the most silly nonsense. There are occasional Orthodox examples of this in America – someone who tries to “spin” the blasphemy of secularism in a manner that makes it sound holy. It’s just nonsense, of course.
Much that passes as secularism is really nothing more than the self-justification of the bourgeoise and the upper class that their materialism and selfishness is perfectly fine. They imagine that what they think and what they do constitute “culture.” I spent the day yesterday with a group of brick masons who were working on my chimney. The conversation was as lacking in “culture” as possible and quite down to earth. Their thoughts and concerns were quite real – and their quiet disgust with “culture” was very evident.
I read a national newspaper. Once per week, it has a section entitled, “Mansion,” that features homes for sale of the most extreme price and luxury. Once per month, there is a magazine section that features fashions that I could imagine no one wearing who either had to walk or do anything other than stand in a corner at a party. It is decadence. But all this constitutes “culture.” I often wonder what kind of people produce this stuff and what kind of people form its market. I toss those sections into the dust bin.
But when this silliness is imagined to have theological value or worth – that is sad in the extreme.
I am praying for you and “the one whom you love.” Be encouraged. I saw a nephew come to Christ and His Church after praying for him for many years. God is faithful
I read a national newspaper. Once per week, it has a section entitled, “Mansion,” that features homes for sale of the most extreme price and luxury. Once per month, there is a magazine section that features fashions that I could imagine no one wearing who either had to walk or do anything other than stand in a corner at a party. It is decadence.
Father, as I recall, this was one of the main themes of the movie Apocalypto: the decadence and excess of the Mayan civilization before its fall.
I think the Fall of Rome (which is mostly a myth) makes us think in apocalyptic terms – while missing what is actually going on. Rome never “fell” in the apocalyptic sense. There were invasions that came and went, and military withdrawals and economic upheavals. But the sense of Roman civilization continued in a very uninterrupted manner. That Latin survived as the language of learning, etc., up until the modern period is one example.
Benedict (to use a current buzz-word) would not have thought of Rome having fallen.
I think it is likely that the Empire of American civilization is falling. In a thousand years, perhaps they’ll assign it a date. Why I make that observation is the fact that we have very little cultural consensus – and very few things that serve as touchstones from which a cultural unity could be established. The decline in the family and the birthrate closely follow the collapse of other empires. The cancer of dissolution is somewhere between stage 3 and stage 4 (I think).
It’s one of the reasons I’m interested in Rod Dreher’s new book, Live Not By Lies, in which he thinks more about how to live and survive in a hostile culture than how to fix it. I think that the notion of “fixing” the culture is a non-starter and makes us ask the wrong questions. It makes us substitute the political for the ontological.
Re: Decadence and how our culture is chosen by those in power (from “The Devil Wears Prada”);
Thank you for this article, Father. It is lovely
This past week I found myself in a frustrating discussion when a Protestant friend asked ‘What do you think Luther’. I said I agreed with his decision to leave a wildly corrupt Catholic Church but he went left when he should have went right. This decision led, eventually and inevitably to Calvinism and in that brackish water secularism metastasized to Christianity which then gave rise to the ‘prosperity gospel’ as you accurately call it.
This then turned to the topic of salvation. I quickly saw the…unease and confusion secular ‘Christianity’ has with our ontology and theology.. The car-crash mess of it all that I find re-enforces the hyper-realness of Orthodoxy. They see this like a germ or virus that needs sterilization. It unsettled him how I explained our daily work for salvation. He only heard ‘so you don’t think Christ saved you? You don’t think you are saved?’ Followed by 40 Bible quotes.
What about Christ’s life was tidy? What about his work on the Cross and subsequent resurrection was easily explained and *understood* ?
I just said ‘look man, I can’t trade Bible quotes with you. That’s not the point and I don’t know it well enough. If…if I run around *knowing* I’m saved. A legal transaction already happened for me. It’s one and done. Than it stands to reason I will also know who is *not* saved and it is likely i will then feel justified in condemning them before myself. God says to love Him and my neighbors. That is the work of salvation and it’s all I can do.’ The exchange went on and was not fruitful. I politely agreed to disagree.
This universe we live in is immeasurably layered and deep. It is forever unpacking itself to us in breathless beauty and wonderment and sometimes horror. Why should anything about religion not reflect this? When did it say we were owed simplicity? I do not trust sterile, secular descriptions of reality so I do not trust depictions of religion that marry to this technocratic impulse.
By surrendering to the ‘mess’ we can discover and grow in humility. Because you don’t ‘control’ anything and God is not your ‘Co-pilot’
The other way encourages pride. And perhaps that is why so many Westerners take to the secularization without alarm- it tells them what they want to be true. Truth becomes subjective and temporary. The ‘myth of progress’ as you’ve described eloquently.
Glory to God and His mess hall
I often think that popular Protestantism is like American politics. You decide who to vote for, then try to get other people to vote for them. “Jesus saved me” (meaning I picked Jesus to be my God) “He can save you too” (vote for Jesus). People have these deep reasons they give for their votes, but most often those reasons have nothing to do with how they are going to live. It only tells you how they are going to argue and who they are going to hate.
Orthodoxy, when rightly practiced, says, “Jesus is my King and my God,” and then there is an Orthodox way of life – which you are expected to struggle to adhere to. Jesus alone saves, but this way of life contributes in some measure to how effective that salvation can be displayed in this life.
But, Orthodoxy was preaching Jesus before it even understood its own doctrine. It was a way of life when we were dying for it – as doctrine was continuing to unfold. It is an organic and ontological union with Jesus Christ such that His life becomes my life and my life becomes His.
The debates of Catholic and Protestant, and then Protestant with Protestant, and Protestant with the State (as in England), worked in many ways to politicize them. The American government is a Protestant institution from beginning to end. All the language of “secular” is simply a way of saying what kind of Protestant institution it is.
I’m hoping to pick up Live not by Lies soon as well, Father. I have been considering a trip to Wichita just to go to Eighth Day Books this weekend….
Byron, my son and I are going too for the same reason.
Father, I’ve sat with your response for the last few hours. Thank you. There is a deep challenge in there both of how to live and what to be wary of. I mess these up a lot. I am not who I was a year ago. Nothing outwardly changed. I purchased a small, beautiful Orthodox prayer book that I use most days (I still fall off here and there). I would say that prayer has changed me without me realizing it until conversations and topics like this force the issue.. A secularist might demand ‘how’!? Like a trick is being had. I don’t know. I don’t need to know.
Touching and smelling pages from a physical book, reading out loud next to Icons and, if I’m at home, with incense and candle light is possibly the most hostile antidote to modernity a person can practice at home (Obviously attending Liturgy, confessing and taking Communion are even more so). These are not quantifiable. They cannot be categorized or cataloged. It is just… the organic mystery of trying (and I fail often) to see Life revealed as you and Fr Schmemann have both written about.
I know that many Protestants see the, ugh, modalities above (for complete lack of a better phrase) as antiquated. And that they are liberated from superstitious superlatives. But these ‘modalities’ are living sacrament-so if I follow you correctly, it would mean they are always and forever. Entering into time with them is the Life of the Cross which isn’t a ‘once upon a time’ event but an ever-happening. From the foundations of the world to the end.
It’s a mess too big to be politicized. Too big for vanity or hate. Maybe,,,we just have to slow down and be humbled by the majesty of God.
Having not read your books, I find this post to be quite helpful. In some ways I see that I was Orthodox before ever knowing about the Orthodox church. I would appreciate more posts delving into an analysis of the true, the good and the beautiful as well as their counterparts in regards to our culture.
Thank you P.Stephen for the “little accents” of the name !
45 kilometers from my home, in the oldest prehistoric cave in France, there is notably a fresco representing a herd of bison and horses, together. They seem to move forward, mingle with each other, in very soft and harmonious colors. The drawings are extremely fine and no violence emerges from their presence. It’s amazing, there is like a peace and a recognition of these animals. Despite their real weight, they seem light, airy, very soft … And when you are in front of this spectacle so alive, so humble, drawn 36,000 years ago, the tears start to flow … because the time is crossed in an indescribable way, and the most distant is made near, really very near … What noble souls gave life to these “wild” animals at the bottom of a dark cave …
Now, on which visible “tyranny” much of the world seems to be dependent …
but the Spirit, a subtle dew which, morning and evening, wets and permeates, without seeing any drop falling from the sky, envelops us in Goodness and His Beauty, at the best times of prayer …
This post reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, in which he confronts the claim from a certain ‘Green Book’ that beautiful experiences (e.g., gazing upon a waterfall) are nothing more than material and subjective. God help us all.
Fr. Thomas Hopko, of blessed memory, strongly recommended that book. Written back in 1943, it has only become more an more relevant. That’s the nature of truth!
Could I recommend this review of Dreher’s “Live Not By Lies” ? https://handleshaus.wordpress.com/2020/10/06/review-of-rod-drehers-live-not-by-lies/
Fr Thomas Hopko also made a podcast on that subject as well.
Here it is:
Dear Dean thank you for your comment and prayers!
Mule-Chewing: For what it’s worth:Dreher is an interesting read. The referenced article has its own interesting take on all of this – but, hopes in organized, political responses. I do not. They may be undertaken – but I do not put any hope in such things. It is for us to be ever more seriously the Church – nothing less. That’s the plan that I will follow.
Father, I’ve started to read Dreher. Do you agree with him generally?
Similar to you I sense the urgency to ever be more seriously the Church and nothing less. And yet I have questions about what I’m reading in Dreher.
I haven’t read the review article above. And I’ll admit that I’m not as informed about social structure and politics in terms of what they are today, so that when I read Dreher, I’m not sure that I hold his perceptions on all factors that he brings up. He describes himself as conservative, and perhaps his views follow along that trajectory. I don’t consider myself conservative or liberal or progressive. Yet I suppose I hold views which might land in any one of these ‘camps’, depending on the topic. As a result, I don’t bother trying to classify myself.
I agree with you that I see the ‘American Empire’ (for want of better descriptors) imploding. But the causes for it and the resulting forces coming out of it, I’m not sure I would classify as coming from one direction or the other. From the right I see fascism and from the left totalitarianism. Both appear to be at work and equally deadly.
I appreciate your words:
Rather than substituting the political for the ontological, I hope to push in my own personal sphere and stick with the ontological. And as you point out, the best way to do that is to simply be the Church. But this brings us to an important point. Do we know how to be the Church?
Dreher describes Church ‘leaders’ who with their group of disciples, carried on in difficult circumstances. I’m just not sure we have such an inclination, even within the Church, here in the US. I sense the political divides goes so deeply that it is a blessing not to confront them in the social settings at social hour after Liturgy, rather than to talk about them in hopes of creating some kind of a Benedict option. I sense that even if such groups form, they would only perpetuate the political divides and the respective ideologies that have been politically propagated and culturally inculcated.
Perhaps I’m just holding a very bleak outlook, but I don’t sense much cohesion that comes from brotherly love, here in the US, in the Church, amongst parishioners, at this time, when I believe we need it now more than ever in the Church.
Father please forgive me I have no desire to be contentious and no desire to live by lies.
Dee, the ideological divide is such that it is often mistaken for ontology. I have a dear friend. There is an intimacy between that is surprising and was a gift from God. Still, politically, we seem to be miles apart. He told me the other night that he would no longer talk politics with me. The essence of the disagreement is that he still believes that politics can fix things. I do not and have not for a long time.
As long as you think politics can fix things, they are worth arguing about. Reconciliation becomes quite difficult. That has a lot of repercussions.
This is a reason why I am so thankful for Monasticism. I have found monks and nuns to be a beacon of light, because they steadfastly continue for their glorious garments, and renounce/put aside garments of skin, which fall off in the Resurrection.
Dreher is an Orthodox Christian and a columnist for the American Conservative – which certainly puts him in the camp of conservative pundits. I take all of that into consideration when I read him (sifting here and there). My own history has tended to make me more sympathetic to a conservative reading of history though I have any number of reservations or objections. For example, I am pretty much as concerned about the availability and cost of medical care as I am about abortion – both are costing lives (though nothing actually reaches the level of the tragedy of abortion). I am deeply concerned about the rise of Marxist theory as a major player in American culture. I think it’s quite flawed and has a nasty history.
But, that said, I feel strongly that the solutions are not political (we’ve been living in the “political” now for a couple of hundred years and are in a worse mess than ever – more of the same poison will not make us better). That element of Dreher in which the Church is thinking about being ever more deeply the Church is of interest to me. However, his analysis is still quite “horizontal” and social – how do we educate, etc. I think we need to be more vertical and deeper – fully grounded in the reality of the Kingdom of God, present now within us and among us. That alone will be our life and our salvation.
When, for example, we read the book, Father Arseny, we see a tiny community, scattered, but held together by Christ and the prayers of a holy priest. Their “Benedict Option” is a living miracle – in which they find and live answers that would otherwise be unseen – and which cannot be planned and implemented in a purely human fashion.
As for the world itself, like you, my outlook is rather bleak, and it troubles me. But, I’m working daily to bring the troubles to Christ in prayer. Christ said, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in Me.”
Father, the weakness of the political fix is two fold: too narrow an understanding of “political” and too much faith in the unaided human intellect.
Whenever two or more people get together to accomplish something, that is political. It need not be toxic. The toxicity comes from ideology that dehumanizes. Ideas become more important than people. Actual facts, morality and sense are abandoned. Ultimately the ideology becomes an idol so that both man and God are subsumed in a “historical process”, i.e. The Myth of Progress.** Ideology is easy–one does not have to think or even ” be”. It is a false way to gain immortality by “being on the right side of history”. Just “believe and you will be saved”. That is true no matter where on the spectrum the ideology is positioned.
One of the fascinating things about Trump and what confounds pols and pundits alike is that he does not seem to be an ideolougue. Therefore he is unperdictible as is people’s reaction to him. He is rude, crude, vulgar and mercurial (or so it seems).
He still has an element of humanity that is leached out of most politicians and pundits. I think, hope and pray that Rod is searching for a deeper humanity.
Of course our real humanity is only recovered in the eschewing of anything that is not Jesus Christ and Him Crucified, buried and Risen.
Ideology is sin wrapped in a package and marketed as a solution to all pain and worry. They all, of every stripe, imprison and enslave instead.
**The great early 20th century American historian, Carl Becker had a entire body of work trying to debunk the idea. Reading him in college,(shortly after my encounter with Jesus on the hill top) began to set my mind free to be open to Holy Orthodoxy.
I would also add that if and when we begin to live a life of genuine repentance and forgiveness there is no telling what transformation we might see in the world. It could lead to a total collapse of the false and the beginning of the Eschaton. Or not. It would allow us to overcome our pesonal demons but it is anything but easy.
Dee, my wife does not participate directly here very often but I share favorite monents with her. When I told her your request for prayers she simply said, “I really like Dee, she is neat.” All in her elfin manner which seems to correlate openness with a deep unspoken wisdom. Her love of God and her love of me have brought about deep changes in me yet she rarely says anything to me to “make me better”. When she does I know there is something crucial I better pay attention to.
Love meeting love always leads to transformation. For her as well as me interestingly enough.
Father thank you for your helpful response.
I sense your deep distress about the lives of the unborn. This rightly needs to be in our prayers.
The presence of this phenomenon is indicative of our lack of understanding who/what a person is. And even if we were told such from the Orthodox perspective, who sincerely cares? Of course I hear people say they care. (I believe you sincerely do)
Generally, I hear the outcry and the angst in the media of various sorts concerning the unborn to be a pretense for political action, not to save lives, but to win political sides. Or to present oneself to belong to one camp or another, as a form of social/political identity, rather than of soul. To be open and honest here, as such, from my perspective they are lies. (And I apologize for using such strong words— another example of my bleak outlook)
Your words are key, and as far as I can see, cannot be emphasized enough.
I’m a mother of two children, losing my daughter in her infancy. It is completely beyond my comprehension that someone would abort an unborn child. Yet, I have been ever aware that the usual voice raised against it sounds to my ears to arise from political angst not so much concern for a soul. If one is asked what their understanding of a person is, I sincerely doubt that the answer would be theological but moral/political.
This is a long winded way of saying that I doubt that politicizing abortion, that is ‘fighting for the rights of the unborn’ lands us in a place that sincerely protects the unborn (as a political movement). It seems to me we need to emphasize the importance of doing locally whatever work for pregnant women we might do to support the circumstances of women who have ‘unwanted pregnancies’ toward having and bearing their children. We need to speak of the reality of the soul and the lives of the unborn as person. A difficult concept in modernism.
Too often I hear a response to my perspective that I express here as a “political position” rather than a concern for mother and child. The mother and child are objectified. The mother who aborts is objectified. I’m not condoning abortion when I might disparage the description of “success” of shutting down abortion clinics. Rather from my perspective, it seems only to be an illusion of success. We have not gained a better understanding of the soul. And it will be easier for abortions to go unnoticed as they go underground.
I’m not inclined to speak of these things openly in my social sphere. It will only seem to be a political statement as it may seem here.
Dear Father I thank you for your ministry. And I pray for us all. And I’m grateful for your prayers. And please forgive this comment if it raises any angst and inflammation of an already inflamed condition.
My son bought the book today. He has an approach that if isn’t the truth precisely and complete it is a lie. Indeed that is an aspect of all politics even less ideologically poisoned than is ours. How much can be traded without giving away everything? Is it appropriate to give away anything for a seemingly better outcome? Or is there a different way?
Here in Wichita the two Antiochian parishes started a service agency called the Treehouse which works with women to keep and mother their children. Ot is a drop in the bucket but it is honest. My late wife used to crochet dozens of baby blankets every month. She did that for years. They were beautiful. A Noah’s Ark pattern. By that time my late wife was almost crippled and spent quite a bit of time sitting in a chair.
But does politics, for all the promises, do more?
A further note on Rod Dreher in this regard. It is of note that he did not endorse D. Trump. Instead, he recently endorsed the candidate of the American Solidarity Party. If you google that party and read their platform, you might find it quite interesting. It is an American attempt to present a fully Christian social platform consistent with classical Catholic/Orthodox social teaching, by and large. I found it very interesting reading, and unlike anything else I’ve seen. No matter its viability, it is a collection of very reflective thought on social/political problems that was worth the time and trouble to read and think about.
Dear Father, thank you for this. Indeed I will read and think about it.
I’ve also sincerely appreciate your comments as well. What a wonderful symbol your wife made in her blankets, Noah’s Ark indeed!
American Solidarity platform is reminiscent of Chesterton*.
The temptation to vote for one of the two “major parties” or you are ,”throwing your vote away” is what keeps them in business. But shoot the last Democrat Kansas voted for was Lyndon Johnson running on Kennedy sentiment.
Thanks for bringing this to my attention.
*Now all we need is for Rod Dreher to start writing detective stories using an Orthodox priest as the crime solver
If anyone wants to see the nature and extent of the anti-life agenda read here https://www.nationalreview.com/author/wesley-j-smith/
“Personhood” has become a politicized term–one defined by the State (or seemingly, to many). If we speak to people about “being human” and what it means, or about “the soul”, I think we would find a lot of blank looks returned to us in silence. But it may help people to begin to think about it all.
I remember having such a conversation some years ago. I made sure to quickly assure the person that I only wanted their viewpoint and was not “looking for a ‘gotcha’ moment”. That statement, as silly as it sounds, reassured them to where they did in fact provide an answer and it spurred on worthwhile conversation (I was careful to not attack their answer, once they gave it).
I think the surprise element in this may be courtesy. So many people expect a setup.
I believe you’re quite right Byron. To be honest I avoid such conversations altogether, if I can. . There is either agreement or altercations, no discussions. And then again for various reasons, when such occasions do arise I lose patience if what I’m hearing shows no love for humanity.
I’m grateful for this community. Frequently it is a life line for me. And that includes you, too, dear Byron.
Technocratic elites first destroy our understanding of personhood, so we believe in the transhumanist vision of becoming one with the machines (instead of with God). Without a Christian understanding of the soul the average person will succumb to such a vision. Father if you believe in a one-story universe, do you then answer the mind-body problem with a form of monism instead of the cartesian dualism or do you not hold a position on this topic?
Byron, missed you yesterday at Eighth Day. They have plenty of copies of Live Not By Lies. They also have a 1000 bead prayer rope that was given to them by a monk. It must be 12ft long.
Just being there is wonderful. It is always a place of peace, quite joy and wonderful hospitality. Created by the personality of its proprietor, Warren Farha as a nexus for love of Christ, love of learning learning and love of books . All of that is present in the place itself imbued in the studs I think. There are icons everywhere. I especially like the Romanian series on the Creation. Such beauty and grandeur. Christ at the center.
“…And as for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.”
Such, the anonymous cave man surely was, an artist who has honed his skill with patience and love for his subject. How lovely his art! As Dostoievski said, man needs beauty. This painting is humblingly beautiful.
Thank you, Father Stephen. It’s patience we need these days, don’t we?
A reflection on personhood: http://anothercity.org/dostoevsky-and-memory-eternal-an-eastern-orthodox-approach-to-the-brothers-karamazov/
A well known modern commentator critiquing our culture of ideology noted that idealogs of every stripe speak as if someone is turning a crank on the side of their head so the “right” thought comes out. Real people, he continued, are fascinating, they are unique. Each person knows things, significant things only they know.
The ideology of “the will of the people” is dehumanizing far more than is a monarchy or even an outright tyranny. Thus “democracy” is far more destructive to the human soul.
In a tyranny one still has the option to say no and suffer the consequences. In a democracy that option is effectively removed. If one rejects “the will of the people” he becomes a non-person. Buried in nothingness far deeper than even the blacks under Aparthied.
Cry the Beloved Country indeed
Sorry for the late response; I’ve been busy with school, etc. Since the book Live Not By Lies has come up repeatedly, I got the audiobook some weeks back and “fast-tracked” it; I finished the whole thing early last month. It was my first Dreher work. And it was shockingly political.
I am insulated in many ways, despite my broad studies, because I approach politics from the side of theory and philosophy (and experiments), mostly stick to theological work by canonized saints, don’t do social media, etc. So all of that may color my reading of his book and make it seem more partisan than it was. But I cannot imagine how the book would be mistaken for theological, much less religious. It is, cover to cover, a political manifesto. Even the second section, where there are some beautiful stories of faith, frequently jumps out-of-story and into political discourse and diatribe.
I don’t like to get into the “yay us, boo them!” sort of politics at all so I don’t want to describe the author’s take or whether I agree or disagree at given points. I just want to note that this book is *not* an antidote to modernity or politics or the fall of civilization but another panicked, dying gasp of it all. If a person is looking for something Orthodox on the subject matter, Everyday Saints, Father George Calciu, or similar books by St Herman’s/STS/SVS are what I would recommend: all of them have similar stories and much more, from an unabashedly Orthodox perspective without all the political maneuvering.
Dreher is a political/cultural columnist who writes for the American Conservative (I think), and is a bit of an up-and-comer in that regard. He’s Orthodox. I have a number of mutual friends with him, though I’ve only met him a couple of times socially.
His book, The Benedict Option, has certainly been part of a very interesting conversation in parts of Orthodoxy – though probably those conversations have not been about his points so much as about the subjects he raised. I think this book will likely be the same. A conversation starter that quickly lets go of his points.
Joseph, unfortunately there is a great deal of what is ordinary lay Orthodoxy that by its very nature is political in today’s environment. Rod is not a theologian. I am inclined to think it is unfair to think of him as one. He is into trench warfare I think.
While it may not be ideal, it is something that has to be dealt with. In fact I know a young man struggling with the politically based culture of lies in the healthcare practitioners he deals with and im so many other parts of his world that he is in therapy. His non-Orthodox therapist prescribed the book to him with money back guarantee. If the young man bought it, read it and he did not think ot helped, the therapist would buy the book from him.
To quote Randy Newman: “Its a jungle out there!”
A good deal of the jungle is a political minefield. No one is immune.
Thank you Fr Freeman – I greatly enjoy reading your posts. I am a Roman Catholic deacon preparing for ordination to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, so please keep me in your prayers.
Have you read much of Hans Urs von Balthasar? I know that for him, the way of beauty was the best path by which to engage the modern secularized world.
I also would like to share a talk given by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who also stressed the priority of beauty in sustaining faith in God today.
“I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.”
Than you for this insightful post, Father! It was good to see you make these correlations, as I have begun recently to notice them in myself:
“It is a shaming thought that seeks to discount the very truth of who we are. It creates a loneliness and alienation that searches for answers in a world we are told is mute.”
I am a Marriage and Family Therapist, and have always kept a thought in my mind about how assisting someone in finding meaning or purpose in their life can help with feelings of shame, loneliness, hopelessness, and even anxiety. I have yet to truly utilize Viktor Frankl’s (famous for his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”) version of therapy he entitled Logotherapy, by which he meant “meaning” therapy. But I have always wanted to find a way to practically use it to help my clients.
I recently have experienced much loneliness and homesickness after a significant move from my home-town to a place that is just as different in culture as it is in weather. It has made me reflect significantly on how it is I became more and more “secular” in mind over the years. This secularization of my own mind began and stayed focused on the idea that I was odd and should feel ashamed for enjoying the beauty in everything. I had previously spent some significant time pursuing theosis in my every step, praying without ceasing, and as you put it, communing with beauty, etc. Years ago, certain circumstances came up where I compared myself with those around me whom I thought to be Christian (before I was Orthodox) and people I should look up to. This comparison led me to believe I was wrong for wanting to commune with Beauty in the way I did, and caused me to attempt pursuing a life more secular, less mystical, and more materialistic. I have not attained that either! So, for 9 miserable(ish) years I have truly been someone who has experienced the shame and sadness that comes from a life without pursuing God in everything, thinking secularism is “just the way it is” in this world. I have been comforted only in the sacraments, the services, and in my family life (as a mother of 2). Besides that, I have found disappointment everywhere, and all because I thought I should be happy without this pursuit of Beauty, of something deeper, of Meaning, of God in every aspect of my life.
I can’t thank you enough for your words in this post, and I am hoping to purchase your book soon, because I need more encouragement and support as I get back into the truth about our surroundings and reality. It is nice to not feel alone in this desire to pursue Beauty.