The Religious Nature of Modern Life

On a daily basis, I have become increasingly aware of the “religious” nature of almost the whole of modern life. That might seem to be an odd observation when the culture in which we live largely describes itself as “secular.” That designation, however, only has meaning in saying that the culture does not give allegiance or preference to any particular, organized religious body. It is sadly the case, however, that this self-conception makes the culture particularly blind to just how “religious” it is in almost everything it does. I suspect that the more removed we are from true communion with God, the more “religious” we become. It is, I think, an idolatrous substitute for true existence, and a misguided attempt to impose an order and meaning that we ourselves create. Our social life thus becomes dominated by our continual efforts to convince (or compel) others (or to convince ourselves) to accept a worldview and way of life that has no true existence apart from our own efforts to make it so.

In the first half of the 19th century, the German theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher, advanced the idea that religion consisted of feelings (very primal) rather than doctrine, ritual, or morality. His writings were quite profound and offer some of the earliest explorations of the psychology of the religious mind. His thesis, however, was symptomatic of cultural movements that were already being unleashed in waves of “religious” (meaning “feelings”) fervor. His century was already rebelling against the arid rationalism of the 18th century Enlightenment. The mathematical beauty of a Bach fugue was giving way to the Romantics (such as Beethoven) where music moved away from theory towards the pyrotechnics of emotional impact (not to take away anything from the beauty of a Bach fugue). The same movement can be seen in art as well as a number of other cultural touchstones. The 19th century became the century of feelings and sentiments. We have never recovered.

The religious movements of the 19th century (particularly the Second Great Awakening) were not movements of doctrinal moment. Indeed, its one great doctrinal innovation was to promote a “born-again” experience, largely defined as an emotional event. Emotional excess was the expected result of “revival.” Indeed, the revivals of that century swept through areas in something of a hysteria. Lives were transformed. Hundreds of new denominations were started in its wake as a fever of emotion brought about a religious creativity not seen in centuries. America’s great cult movements (Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Shakers, etc.) flowed in the fever of religious emotion. I would add to these 19th century movements the modern social “revivals” that manifest themselves in gender theory, trans-genderism, and such. They share a common “religious” basis and behavior and, I think, can only be rightly understood when seen in this manner. Thousands of people are being sexually “born-again” and, behold, they are made new – complete with cult-like behaviors and definitions.

The same religious emotion in the 19th century swept into the political realm and became the engine for social reform. It is equally the case that the drive towards the West rode on a wave of religious sentiment in order to fulfill the nation’s “manifest destiny.” In the 20th century these religious feelings have been tapped by advertisers and politicians (particularly in the form of patriotism). It is absolutely the case today that when we see debates around the flag and the national anthem, we are witnessing a religious debate. Patriotism is a religious movement.

Sadly, the same set of feelings are the fuel for the engines of war in our time. The song-writers of Tin Pan Alley were tapped for patriotic music to support the ill-advised entry of America into the First World War. It is a rare case that the “logic” of a war is sufficient for its support in a democracy. Only a quasi-religious sentiment can muster the madness required to send people to their death on a large scale. We not only fight wars – we believe in them.

All of these thoughts swirl in my mind as I think of my own faith and practice as an Orthodox Christian. The habits of the heart that produce religious feeling are powerful. They are able to accomplish mighty works (like buildings). They do not, however, produce theosis – salvation. The feelings that are associated with religious-like movements and events in our culture are actually nothing more than passions. They include lust, envy, anger, shame, disgust, and a host of other such forces. Simply because they are attached to something we consider noble (such as our religious faith or our nation’s flag) does not make them noble feelings. Often, they are mob feelings, capable of generating dangerous, even murderous thoughts and actions.

As Orthodox believers we pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” This describes a life grounded in a right-ordered mind and heart, not dominated by the passions, much less moved by the winds and currents of popular culture. Sadly, Orthodoxy is seen by some as a castle of sorts in the culture wars, a bastion of traditional beliefs and practices that provides a place of safety from the prevailing liberal winds. It is, indeed, a place where traditional practices and beliefs are matters of dogma. But it is not a conservative “wind machine.” To both liberal and conservative, the Church says, “Come in out of the wind.” The invitation is renounce the religious spirit(s) of the age, whether they are blowing from the Left or the Right.

Scripture teaches us: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” (2Cor. 5:17)

The Orthodox way of life asks us to take up the way of the new creation in which the passions are perceived as distractions and the chains of bondage. For many, such an analysis is criticized as “withdrawal from the world.” It is not a withdrawal, but a refusal to participate in the orgy of sentiments that cannot possibly serve Christ or our fellow human beings. Only those who have crucified the flesh and gained freedom from such passions are truly present in the world. They are markers of our true existence and anchors for a steadfast communion in Christ.

For more than 200 years, modernity has labored under slogans that promise a better world. While the sentiments they contain are always well-meant, in truth, they serve primarily to stir passions and demand actions that transcend reasonable and rational strategies. They presume that no problem is insurmountable as long as we care enough (that’s a sentiment that I expect to see someday on a bumper). It is, of course, not true.

The “religious” sentiment of modernity is a vortex of death. You need look no further than the warring culture, where the religious factions (some of which imagine themselves to be secular) are drawn up in constant battle array. Neither can vanquish the other. You never win a religious war.

Scripture teaches us that our warfare is not with flesh and blood but against “angels, principalities and powers, spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places.” The only place such battles can be waged is within the human heart. St. Seraphim taught us that if we acquire the Spirit of peace, a thousand souls around us will be saved. By that ratio, we could save the world. Such a salvation would appear as quiet and ineffectual as 12 peasants in an upper room. God has never had any other plan.

61 comments:

  1. I am amazed at the growing secular religious nature /pressure of the calendar and holidays. Everything from mothers day, fathers day, valentines day, groundhog day, Super Bowl, Martin Luther King day, Memorial Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, on and on. They often coincide and ape our long standing Church calendar. The whole consumer culture pressures everyone to follow that calendar and buy the appropriate gifts and woe to you if you miss a Hallmark opportunity to show your love.

  2. Dear Father Stephen,
    Somewhere out in the parking lot is a car with a smashed windshield – you just knocked (another) one right out of the ballpark!
    This is seriously good and fundamental stuff. I am so grateful for your wonderfully clear way of expressing these things in writing. It is very helpful to me. Thank you!

  3. Fr. Thomas,
    You’re spot on. I noticed, surrounding the Super Bowl this year, that everything seemed to be full of fervor and religious devotion – whether it was about cars (Jeeps and a chapel) or beer, etc. And the constant selling of the Superbowl as though it were some sort of transcendent event. It’s just a damned football game. It is not important. I like football – but not the cultural nonsense.

    By the way, why didn’t you send me a valentine?

  4. I do enjoy watching the Super Bowl, no matter who plays. But this year, I was struck by the amount of “pomp and circumstance” before the game began.
    It’s football, folks, not salvation.

  5. I think all the pageantry that surrounds events such as the Super Bowl speak to the fact that “nature abhors a vacuum” ie. that we have been created for transcendence yet seem to seek it erroneously in things that are not! Many folks in Europe even go so far as to call football (the kind played with your feet) as their religion…at least they’re honest about it. May the Lord free us all from vain sentiment and misdirected passion/emotion that we may have Life, and have it abundantly in Him.

  6. I notice that you include “disgust” within the passions that disturb the soul. That’s interesting, as it is often overlooked.. But disgust has a lot of power. I have recently been reflecting on its role in my life. I believe in your writing on shame referenced Tomkins’ theory of basic affects. Tomkins theorized that unexamined disgust is the germ of an ideological orientation toward the world.
    It does seem like these passions, at least in the way they show up in our experience, deserve a certain kind of attention because of the pain they cover over.

  7. Jordan,
    Digust and dissmell (which is sort of similar) are both affects (2 of the 9) and play a major role in things. I did a talk back in October on Shame and Disgust and Their Role in Racism. If you nurture the affect of disgust (or dissmell) towards something – it’s a very deep way to inculcate certain thoughts and feelings. Watch 1940’s Warner Bros. cartoon depictions of Japanese soldiers and you can see Hollywood’s way of helping nurture a de-humanizing disgust reaction. It makes it easier to kill people. Of course, the Japanese had long done the same in their culture – with a very deep-seated disgust of Westerners.

    My childhood in the Jim Crow South included the sowing of that seed of disgust, dissmell as an inherent part of the racism that permeated our culture at the time.

    Disgust and dissmell are extremely visceral – deeper even than shame sometimes. When the schools were suddenly (1969) integrated fully in the South – there were highschoolers (white) who were suddenly placed into contact with people whom they unwittingly found disgusting. There were race riots at my highschool. It might have gone both ways – I don’t know. I see this changing in the culture – but not disappearing.

  8. Wonderful article, Father. One of the key realizations that led me to faith from a secular background was that everyone is religious about something, so I might as well make that “something” an actual religion. Then I encountered Orthodoxy and discovered it’s even better to be religious about that which is beyond religion – God in Jesus Christ.

    Also, forgive me, but I think the last word in this sentence is spelled “fervor”:
    ‘His thesis, however, was symptomatic of cultural movements that were already being unleashed in waves of “religious” (meaning “feelings”) ferver.’

  9. Dear Father,
    Thank you for this. Please forgive me for echoing your words. I want to emphasize these sentences:

    Sadly, Orthodoxy is seen by some as a castle of sorts in the culture wars, a bastion of traditional beliefs and practices that provides a place of safety from the prevailing liberal winds. It is, indeed, a place where traditional practices and beliefs are matters of dogma. But it is not a conservative “wind machine.”

    It’s very hard for me to hear Orthodox speakers bang on the politics gong, attempting to rally others to passionate fervor against others within and outside the Church in political activism clothed in the garb of righteousness. Such has been the intensity of our anger and conviction of our respective views that have been stirred up from this culture.

    I believe it helps to see the larger picture in history as you have described it. And I agree whole heartedly that all that you describe is part of a religious movement away from Christ. May God grant that we have a clean heart:

    As Orthodox believers we pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” This describes a life grounded in a right-ordered mind and heart, not dominated by the passions, much less moved by the winds and currents of popular culture.

  10. We are a human race of habitual excess and create the suffering of others as we participate in our excesses. We have always been ritualistic in our ways, but these rituals are mis-directed, a refusal to worship the true God. We prefer instead to love the things that wither away.
    But I would like to ask the following question:
    Would you say that the yearning to belong, in a group; a gang, political party; footbal fan club etc. Is ironically a search for the very truth that has already been rejected? If so, and if there is anyone here who needs help in redirecting their worship and love back to God, what advice can you give Father.

  11. Very timely post, these thoughts, are the primary reasons my wife and I are Orthodox.

    In trying to understand where we are heading as a country, I am reading “Taking America Back For God – Christian Nationalism in the United States” / Andrew L. Whitehead & Samuel L. Perry.

    Page 153 / 2nd paragraph / 2nd Sentence – – and in other pages, similar thoughts: Quote – Christian nationalism is significant because calls to “take America back to God” are not primarily about mobilizing the faithful toward religious ends. —- 4th Sentence – Quote – They are instead seeking to retain or gain power in the public sphere – whether political, social, or religious. End quote.

    So Father Stephen Freeman’s observation is timely, especially for us with Lent fast approaching.

    “Sadly, Orthodoxy is seen by some as a castle of sorts in the culture wars, a bastion of traditional beliefs and practices that provides a place of safety from the prevailing liberal winds. It is, indeed, a place where traditional practices and beliefs are matters of dogma. But it is not a conservative “wind machine.” To both liberal and conservative, the Church says, “Come in out of the wind.” The invitation is renounce the religious spirit(s) of the age, whether they are blowing from the Left or the Right.”

    “The “religious” sentiment of modernity is a vortex of death. You need look no further than the warring culture, where the religious factions (some of which imagine themselves to be secular) are drawn up in constant battle array. Neither can vanquish the other. You never win a religious war.”

    So the lenten journey begins anew, our walk toward the narrow door. We must remember that Christ came into the world at the behest of God the Father to put an end to death and bring us into life. He did not come to create a political party or an army to over through the world but to change our hearts and my his humility change us, sinners, us goats if you would; by our free will (we must answer the knock at the door), to find peace and forgiveness.

    Jesus taught in ways all could understand, might we remember: The Parable of the Good Samaritan
    It was not the Priest or the Levite that tended to the fallen and injured man but the Samaritan; the outcast, the hated, the “other” of the then society; that saw, not just with his eyes/mind; but with his heart and in humility took pity and acted to bring comfort. May we become this keeper of our neighbor by this example.

    So then Father Freeman plants this thought for our hearts to witness:

    “St. Seraphim taught us that if we acquire the Spirit of peace, a thousand souls around us will be saved. By that ratio, we could save the world. Such a salvation would appear as quiet and ineffectual as 12 peasants in an upper room. God has never had any other plan.”

    Words then for the journey, may they aid our walk through Lent. Thank you for your witness and thoughts Father.

  12. Bud,
    Thank you for this thoughtful reflection – it assures me that what I’ve written is being understood.

    I think I might add to this (to underline): We are mistaken to imagine “politics” and the “political” to actually be what they profess themselves to be. It is an invitation to join a false religion. There is such a thing as good governance, but, frankly, it’s pretty far removed from the thing most people watch on tv or think about. We should live as citizens of heaven (viz. Philippians). That is, and always has been God’s plan. Jesus did not come to fix the problems of this world. He brought a new world and a new life.

  13. Hi Fr. Stephen,
    Could you clarify the distinction between the kind of sentimentalism, passions, and idolatry to which you refer and the healthy emotions we were created to experience?

    To love God with all of my heart certainly means more than the mere emotional feeling that we often associate with love. It is a verb – an action, a way of living, that sometimes feels full and other times empty. However it feels, my charge is to keep loving. There is a commitment of self that is more than emotion – and also more than intellect. Theological debate of itself does not make a believer either. There is a sort of leap that takes us beyond both our thoughts and our emotions.

    Although our faith should never rest completely or even mostly on emotion, to deny or disown our emotion can be very unhealthy. It seems that there must be a middle ground on the continuum between worshipping our emotions and denying or disparaging them as though they were not a gift.

    I do understand and agree with your basic premise – of how our culture has taken on a “fervor” regarding things that cannot save. I think this is largely because we no longer believe we need saving and consider it an antiquated concept.

  14. Thank you for your reply, Father. Lent will be hard this year after all the death, and politicization of simple ways we should support one another; especially for me, a sinner. Anything worth the effort is rightfully hard. I appreciate the last several posts and suggest three recent books to understand the distortions we are living in.

    “The Founding Myth” – Andrew L. Seidel – 2019, Sterling Publishing
    “Taking America Back For God” – 2020, Andrew L Whitehead & Samuel L. Perry – Oxford University Press
    “The Power Worshippers” – 2019, Katherine Stewart – Bloomsburg Publishing

    We still have scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23:13–36) – different titles, same false gifts. The messages from pulpits are in some instants no different than those offered in political speech. There is a danger in that, an withdraw from the message Christ brought us.

    There is one line in the Orthodox liturgy (from Psalm 146) that should remind all that we cannot use our faith to create a political religion. “Put not your trust in princes, in sons of men in whom there is no salvation. For when his breath departs he returns to his earth; on that very day his plans perish.”

    Your grandson is beautiful, congratulations; that is a relationship few can enjoy, revel in it. May God continue to bless you and your family.

  15. Fr. Stephen – thank you. I think many Christians understand what the hierarchy of prioritization of love should be (God, spouse, neighbor, etc.) but far fewer live according to such a hierarchy, and therein lies the confusion here. I believe this problem is why St. Siloaun, who prayed for all of creation, in another instance, criticized the love we have for our pets.

    It’s not always easy to discern when you’ve properly gotten your heart oriented towards God, which is why we must ask for a clean heart. For instance, I, as a soon to be convert to Orthodoxy, will oftentimes have such zeal after reading something deeply spiritual/truthful (a lot of times your blog) and I will want to share it with everyone, and I get sad that most people will never read whatever it is I want to share. But there I run the risk of making the blog post or the book an idol, where instead I should not get sad about people not reading whatever it is I read, but I should be sad that they might not know Christ (in whatever way was meant for them to find Him). In such an instance I love beautiful prose more than I love Christ. I try to consider that example of the fine line between passions and properly ordered love when thinking about other actions/feelings that are seemingly well-intentioned, yet are clearly rooted in disordered passions upon deeper examination.

  16. Mary,
    Sorry for any misunderstanding. I went back and re-read your comment and I think the fault is on my end. Let me respond more accurately:

    Could you clarify the distinction between the kind of sentimentalism, passions, and idolatry to which you refer and the healthy emotions we were created to experience?

    Yes. Emotions are natural and healthy. The passions are distortions of the emotions – distorted with shame, disgust, lust, anger, etc., so that they’re a mix of feelings that do not give us the information or allow us to truly experience things as they are. Our asceticism (confession, etc.) is a slow process of purifying these things. It’s the work of a lifetime. But, unattended to, the passions become slave-masters and drive us to do wrong things.

    Healthy emotions are a long slow thing as well. God give us grace!

    To love God with all of my heart certainly means more than the mere emotional feeling that we often associate with love. It is a verb – an action, a way of living, that sometimes feels full and other times empty. However it feels, my charge is to keep loving. There is a commitment of self that is more than emotion – and also more than intellect. Theological debate of itself does not make a believer either. There is a sort of leap that takes us beyond both our thoughts and our emotions.

    Although our faith should never rest completely or even mostly on emotion, to deny or disown our emotion can be very unhealthy. It seems that there must be a middle ground on the continuum between worshipping our emotions and denying or disparaging them as though they were not a gift.

    I think I got hung up on this paragraph above in your comment. Healthy emotions are good – not a question. But, we should be somewhat wary of our emotions as a guide in our life. They were not given to us as guides to our actions. They are easily manipulated – particularly in a modern culture that uses psychological techniques to careful manufacture consent and enthusiasm. The guide of our actions should be the commandments of Christ.

    I do understand and agree with your basic premise – of how our culture has taken on a “fervor” regarding things that cannot save. I think this is largely because we no longer believe we need saving and consider it an antiquated concept.

    I think that Americans imagine themselves to be “saved” far too much, and imagine themselves as “saviors” of the world as well. Our nation, as a culture, became a diseased form of religion in the 19th century, I think. Obviously not completely – but much more dominantly than we have acknowledged or realized. The awakening that we require is to see ourselves as God sees us so that we can properly repent.

  17. I was going to try make a funny comment about the religion of big orange, but I thought of something serious. Religion creates a dangerous and unhealthy desire for a strong leader. “If only big orange could hire a great coach”, “If only my church could find a charismatic pastor”, “If only our country would elect a powerful president.” Religious movements are always looking for the perfect leader.

  18. Indeed Allen! Which is another reason I run from any voice that talks about “taking America back”. It’s easy for us to say “for God”, but even when coming from an Orthodox voice, my hair raises on end. Why? Who among us thinks they really know God’s intentions for America?

    As Father says, it’s enough, actually more than enough for us sinners, to just follow Christ’s commandments in our own small lives.

  19. Father,
    “The mathematical beauty of a Bach fugue was giving way to the Romantics (such as Beethoven) where music moved away from theory…”

    As you can see here, there is plenty of mathematical beauty in a Chopin Etude, even as it represents a pinnacle of Romanticism. This is necessary in any high-quality music.
    http://www.musanim.com/ChopinEtudes/

    We see, in the last few hundred years, a greater focus on harmonic structures and less on melodic interaction. It can be argued that this is a greater focus on effect, and hence a form of degeneration.
    Seeing how you distinguish between passions and emotions, we could say the melody is the emotion, and the harmony is the passion.

  20. Father Stephen,

    Thank you for this–I am a non-Orthodox reader who has been following your writing. I have been lingering in that liminal space between belief and cynicism for a long time now. I have never considered before the religiosity of modern secular life.

    I have a question for you that veers towards the personal. In this past year I have carried and given birth to a child, through the pandemic, and through all political madness. It was, as I told a friend, the worst-timed pregnancy possible. While I love my son to the marrow of my bones, I feel guilt at having brought him into a world that seems so corrupt and poisonous to his sweetness. His future is uncertain–climate change, political turmoil, etc. It is no wonder to me that many of my peers have chosen not to have children at all, and to some degree I am troubled that by giving him life I have condemned him to suffering in a broken world that is drawn irresistibly towards chaos.

    As a mother, how do I put myself to the task of childrearing without despair about the future? I ask your counsel as a father and grandfather.

  21. Wow! Profound stuff, Father – thank you.
    It astonishes me than in half a century of being a Protestant I never heard any specific teaching about the passions and how to avoid them …

  22. Bri,
    God has blessed you richly with the birth of a child, despite the difficulties of our times. This past Sunday, there seemed to be more children at Church than in a while (as we’re gradually coming back in our attendance). There have been many new births in the congregation this year, including a grandson for me. I spoke with a young couple who are new to the parish and new to Orthodoxy (with a new-born child as well). My comments had to do with being in a community of people where there are so many children. This is “normal” and healthy – and vitally important.

    The present distress (social, political) is simply but the latest version of a kind of madness that has been dominant in our modern world. It can seem all important and overwhelming (irresistably). But it is nothing of the sort. In recent articles I’ve been emphasizing the essential goodness of God’s creation – and that goodness is never ending and renewed moment by moment. Our health and sanity comes from living in union with the goodness God gives us constantly.

    Every child born into this world will endure suffering in some manner. Christ suffers in them, through them, with them. He has utterly united Himself to us. It would be a terrible thing to contemplate life apart from Christ – but we do not need to do that. We cannot know the future. Christ tells us to focus on each day instead. That’s where you find the joy of existence and His peace.

    I have four adult children. Each of them, I would describe as deeply committed to goodness. We would, no doubt, have arguments about the precise nature of the good and our politics are often at odds. But those are momentary things. I cannot see their futures (and wouldn’t want to). What I can see is the unrelenting love of God Who, through the Crosses that come their way, is working out their salvation and that of us all.

    The act of having a child is a great act of faith – and often brings concerns about the future. Pray a lot. Prayer is the foundation of homes. I recommend the book by Dr. Philip Mamalakis, Parenting Toward the Kingdom. It’s excellent. Raise your child with believing Christians around them. Don’t be afraid. God is with you.

  23. Who among us thinks they really know God’s intentions for America?

    Dee, I tend to wonder lately why God would have a plan for a nation-state? He called Israel as a people, I know, but we think of that in terms of “nation” and I’m not so sure that particular identity is necessary to recognize them as He called them. I wonder if we should be scaling down in recognizing God’s calling, instead of up, especially when considering plans?

    I don’t have an answer to the question. I’m just wondering out loud. I completely agree that our work is within our own hearts.

  24. With all the “doctrine” in the world I want to point to the healing ministry of a dear friend of mine, Fr. Moses Berry. https://mosestheblack.org/about/news/ and his gentle personal blog https://frmosesberry.com/

    His work is one of deep reconciliation, repentance and hope.

    It is not just about the racial divides although that is its focus. Because of its foundation in our common humanity and our deep need to repent, all false doctrines are addressed.

    It is my belief that he is a true confessor of the faith.

  25. Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you for your calming words of reassurance to the young mother. Your words are so right. We cannot know the future. We must live in today, the only time we have, if we are to know Christ’s peace and presence. With the pandemic there are among Christians, even Orthodox, many articles and videos of the endtimes, that we are in the very last days. Perhaps so, yet Jesus in His humanity said that only the Father knows the Day of the Son’s return. We saw the same kinds of “prophesy” at Y2K and I’ve read it occurred around the end of the first millennium. So Father, thank you again for your sober and hope-filled pastoral reflections.

  26. Fr. Thomas, it looks like Fr. Stephen beat me to it….but nonetheless….a thousand times amen to your great comments! Growing up, I absolutely loved sports. But as I’ve gotten older, I find myself hardly interested. I liked the Super Bowl better when it was just the championship game for football. These days, I’d honestly rather sit on my back porch and watch the grass grow than watch that tripe. Interestingly, you also mentioned Thanksgiving. Another day that is known for football as much as anything else.

    Anyway, thanks again Father Thomas.

  27. Dee, I’ll take a wild guess that God’s plan for America doesn’t include the zeitgeist of every powerful institution in this country telling 10 year old CHILDREN that they should become the opposite gender. But maybe that’s just me.

  28. Alan,
    Of course that is not God’s plan. (I didn’t hear that being suggested). It can seem like a tortured journey from the Second Great Awakening to the present “Woke” movement – but there is a profound connection. I recall a book by an Anglican bishop, The Cruelty of Heresy. It was an insightful treatment that looked at the consequences of heresies when they played their way through the years.

    We’re living in the religious consequences of heresies that were lauded by many, over and over again. Those who want to take America “back” for God do not recognize or acknowledge that the core of their movement is part of a long disease that has given our present circumstances. Left and Right in America are two wings of the same culture-religion – and neither of them are able to offer a means of healing since they are part of the original disease.

    But, that same disease has a foothold in my (our) heart as well. And we do well to recognize its voice and find ways to rightly treat the passions it ignites within us. I think of the image in the Star Wars films where Luke is struck with terrible anger (and he’s correct in his anger). But the evil emperor says, “Good! Good! Use your anger…etc.” The passions – even when employed in what seems a good cause – will destroy us.

    There are many, many things that people identify as extreme threats and dangers in our culture. And, no doubt, there are terrible, horrific things. But the true threat – the greatest danger – is actually found in our battle with the passions. It is clear to me that most people, including the Orthodox, do not think this to be true. St. Paul would say that they are “carnally minded.” They think according to the flesh.

    It is perhaps the case that this has never been known or understood very well – that most Christians, including the Orthodox, have led passion-driven lives most of the time. History would suggest this to be the case. However, there remain some unknown number of holy men and women who have crucified the flesh and its passions and pray for the world. By their prayers, God sustains the rest of us. May God give them great grace in times such as these.

  29. Indeed Father, I believe we need more Orthodox monasteries here in the US. And yet we are all called to that life of prayer and sacrifice, lay and monastic. But we live in the world in a way that they do not, and are buffeted by the winds of this culture. May God grant us a clean heart.

  30. Michael,
    I greatly appreciate Fr Moses’ ministry. Thank you for providing the link!

    Byron you bring up an important observation.

    We (I) do have a tendency to read the Bible using a framework of mind constructed from this culture, which is why it is so important to acquire the Orthodox perspective. But being baptized into the faith isn’t sufficient for gaining that perspective, which is why I’m so grateful for Fr Stephen’s ministry and Fr Moses’ ministry. May the Holy Spirit fill our hearts and open our eyes. Indeed, what is in our own hearts and what we do in the small sphere of our lives (ie not talking heads but doers of the commandments) is what we are called to do.

    Father, you describe the ersatz renewal that pervades this culture very well. And it’s killing us.

  31. Of course, America has never “been with God” so there is no “going back” Even during the Revolution there was the dualism present. It has gotten worse over time.

  32. Dee,

    It is just something that occurred to me while reading your comments. We always hear “the nation of Israel”–and I don’t refute that they were a nation. But I wonder if there is a better image of how God called them? Acquiring an Orthodox perspective is both time consuming and difficult. But it is what it is. If we concentrate on keeping Christ’s commandments, it will come to us naturally, I think, in spite of our culture’s best efforts.

  33. Father,
    I took delivery on *The Enchantments of Mammon* by Eugene McCarraher, as per a recommendation (in one of your comments above that seems to have disappeared since yesterday). 800 pages! But it looks like a fun read. Looking forward to it!

  34. Dee, I’d like to suggest that the Nation of Israel is in no way a nation state which is a really new concept. The Nation of Israel is much more akin to say, The Chickasaw Nation. A people. More than a mere tribe but not a “state”..

  35. Michael,
    The nation state is a modern concept (a secularized one at that) and it uses language that was never meant to say such a thing. Nationalism is a very modern idea – it was once-upon-a-time more of an ethnicism – though, even that, is very sketchy and inaccurate. The nature of modernity dictates that we internalize these new concepts, and, in so doing, we grant a substantial existence to something that is really only an abstraction.

    I occasionally like to “de-construct” such language. Like, what is the state? It’s an entity that has permission to use violence against you. Whose permission? If you have enough guns, then you make your own permission.

    All of this, I think, was much clearer, once upon a time, when violence and force was much more naked. For example, those charming castles all over England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland were built to house “nobility” who used violence against the people outside their walls. Most of them were built by Normans in order to subjugate the British people.

  36. Father, yup. I know all that quite well. In college my European history professors made it clear, plus my reading. The Nation of Israel in the Bible certainly was commanded to use force aggressively, internally and externally and eventually even claimed a territory but was still not a modern “nation state”. The Nation of Israel was both more amorphous and more organic. The modern state of Israel is a nation state.
    The modern nation state requires ideological politics and an Hegelian Dialectic approach that means no real purpose or peace. But that is “progress”. Eventually nihilism sets in. Modernity is nihilism. Nietzche’s “Three Metamorphoes of the Spirit” explains it quite well.

    Fundamentally it is the belief that if there is a god, it is our individual and corporate duty to kill it. Even Tolkien succumbs to that, I think. He never really addresses the source of virtue and purity.

    I spent my whole senior year in college immersed in Nietzche. By God’s grace, He used that to draw me closer to Him.

    The Biblical Nation of Israel is ordained to bring forth the womb of God, I think.

    https://pomog.org/akathist-to-the-most-holy-theotokos-en/

    This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

  37. My general take on the nation state is to understand that it is that thing that we live with. We have responsibilities and payments, and such. But, nothing requires us to “believe” in it. Much of patriotism asks us to accept a false religion. I have found, for example, that I cannot say the pledge of allegiance in good conscience – even if the reason is simply that I’m not sure what it is asking me to mean. These things (patriotic symbolism) almost always developed in time of war.

    In the Episcopal Church, back in WW2, the American flag would be marched out to the center of the Church at the end of the liturgy, and the 3rd stanza of America was sung (if I remember it correctly). There were still a few parishes (back in the 70’s) that had not stopped doing this. I am not comfortable with flags in Churches, though I know it is quite common.

  38. Father, yes. The Pledge is problematic, especially the “under God” phrase which was added in 1954 to distinguish us from ” Godless Communism”. That was also the McCarthy era. Not surprising that such things have become matters of contention in our new “holy gatherings” the pro sports arenas.

    The new gladiators are better compensated but are still serve the same purpose.

  39. This leads me to ask: How do you feel about all the mythology around Constantine’s vision on the Milvian Bridge and “In this sign conquer.” ? Not the occurrence itself but all the rest of the historical triumphalism that comes with it. It seems a bit like cosmic patriotism to me and I have always found it distasteful.

  40. While we are describing the rhetoric of the nation state, I’ll mention that I hear indigenous peoples (which includes my own heritage on my mother’s side) specifically some of the indigenous peoples in the US, who have also picked up the words ‘take America back’, and some of these who speak in this manner have generations of Orthodox heritage.

    By doing this it seems they wish to contend against others whom they see have taken their lands or want to poison their lands. However, there appears to be a general failure, regardless of who speaks and uses these words to incite the passions, to see them and the intent involved in them as a vehicle of the modern project. And in turn , by capitulating and consenting to such a blindness, they have risked subjecting their hearts to the phronema of modernism.

    For these reasons I am saddened when I hear these words brandished by the Orthodox. Because in this country the Orthodox do not have a common ethnic heritage nor common history.

    “Taking back” by force and or passionate rhetoric was not Christ’s way. Rather His manner was gentle and meek; He took up His cross, He died on His cross, and then He invites us to do the same, because it leads us to Life in Him.

    As it happens in my sphere of my life, I do not support nor desire to participate in any wing of the modernist project as it has been manifested in this country. And as a result I receive flack from both sides.

    I thank God for the shield of Christ on my heart and soul.

  41. Michael,
    Orthodox history is exceedingly complex (especially when viewed through my Anglo-Saxon eyes). Amusing, and enfuriating, is when American converts like myself take up the language of peoples and places where they have never had any roots – as though being Orthodox makes you Greek, or Russian, or any other thing. It can, in a healthy way, lift someone out of their own parochialism to see the world through different eyes. For example, to be aware of the history of the Eastern Church is to learn a very different story. But, that should not be a reason to suddenly adopt a sort of alien jingoism.

    Constantine is a complicated topic – including what it means that he is a canonical saint. It doesn’t mean what some people imagine.

  42. Dee, the assumptions for these crusades are never articulated well, if at all.
    1. What exactly is to be taken?
    A. The country?
    B. The people (which people)?
    2. To where is it being taken?
    3. What is the plan to take “it”?
    4. If successful what happens then
    5. If you fail, what then?
    Over all, Why?

    The original Crusades for “Taking Jerusalem Back” suffered from all the same problems.
    The end result was a vast amount of resources wasted and a lot of people died. God was ridiculed. People lost faith.

    God is never anywhere else. He is always right here and now. His mercy permeating everything and in all of our hearts. Mostly, it goes unrecognized but His mercy endures forever.

    Sit quietly, pray simply and faithfully–His mercy will well up within you like living water even if you are in pain, monetary uncertainty, cold and hungry. Possible even in comfort and riches but more difficult.

    There is never any “back” to go to. There is no magic place to progress to. There is only the opportunity to repent and enter His mercy. That is ever present.

  43. “Taking back” by force and or passionate rhetoric was not Christ’s way. Rather His manner was gentle and meek; He took up His cross, He died on His cross, and then He invites us to do the same, because it leads us to Life in Him.

    Dee, I very much love John 18:36, where Jesus stands before Pilate and says, “If my Kingdom were of this world, my servants would have fought…my Kingdom is not from here.”

    I must admit that part of me enjoys the annoyance this causes to people who want to “take” anything….

  44. Father, their are days when I deeply admire your diplomacy and tact even when I have to read and reread what you have said. Then there are times when I gnash my teeth. This time is s little bit of both. Thank you, I think. Very Zen in a Christian way or Christian in a Zen way.

  45. I have no problem with Constantine’s sainthood. Zero. Nor with the fact that he actually had the vision he said he did. Just the “alien jingoism” . The jingoism dishonors Constantine IMO and the Church. But ‘nough said.

  46. The only reason I thought of him, Father, is because he seems a perfect intercessor for us in our times for the very difficulty we seem to have discerning the boundaries of government and faith. I think Constantine knew those boundaries quite well.

    Some who have adopted his name, do not I suspect.

  47. Dear Father Stephen,

    Thank you for your thoughtful, kind-hearted response. Having a child changes things; everything seems to matter so much more. I read somewhere that having a child is giving the world a hostage. Your perspective–and Christianity–is a welcome rebuke to darker perspectives of this sort.

    With gratitude,
    Bri

    p.s. will you ever publish a book of your blog entries? I hope so!

  48. “… St. Seraphim taught us that if we acquire the Spirit of peace, a thousand souls around us will be saved. By that ratio, we could save the world. Such a salvation would appear as quiet and ineffectual as 12 peasants in an upper room. God has never had any other plan.”

    This was a lovely way to end our contemplation of modern life in this post; thank you, Father Stephen. I have been enjoying the way that we are brought to the threshold of Lent year by year with the story of the little man Zacchaeus, and when above I was reading a comment about the good Samaritan, it struck me that here was, in life, another version of that story, combined with the tale of how hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. One might see that the crowd was a religious crowd as for a football match, almost, and there is the little man climbing a sycamore to get a good view – and he gets much more!

    A little man nobody is very fond of, rich but not powerful – I love that story.

  49. Forgive me for adding a reflection on other eras as also pointing to what conflicts have arisen in our times – I was remembering that in “The Devils” by Dostoievski there’s the liberal character Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovenski (and also back in “Don Quixote” ) who sees his own liberal beliefs made fun of , outrageously mocked even by his own son as the new ‘culture’ takes hold. It is at that point in the novel that the narrator, (the “i”) says (and we feel it too as readers) “Dear was that man to me.”

    It’s possible to love such patriots or idealists – we have them in our times as well. Stepan himself, at the end of his life, can even then love his son. I’m not quite remembering, but I think Dostoievski goes further than Cervantes in this. Further, in any case, than the musical! And better by far to love them than to hate them.

  50. Bri,
    Thank you. I don’t know that the blog articles will be gathered into book – though my wife thinks that would be a good idea. I’m currently working on a book that pulls many thoughts together. We’ll see how it goes. Our conversation has occasioned more reflection for an article that I’ll have ready before Friday.

  51. Father and Michael,
    I think one ought to discern one extra little point within the whole complexity of the West’s regular misinterpretation of Saint Constantine the Great: its misinterpretation of the very traditional notion of ‘anointment’.
    From Saul’s (the first) all the way to St Nicholas in Russia (the last), three thousand years later, there was an undeniable notion of sacramental anointing (with the Holy Oil) which would result in a sacredotal kind of reverence of that office in the Orthodox mindset. So, in this understanding, you’d instinctively know that David had more reasons (than just his impressive meekness) to not murder Saul when he could (it would have been a sin of an especially irreverent gravity) and the murder of Nicholas of Russia would be instinctively thought of (in a traditional, Byzantine-tinged Orthodox thought) as a sin that carries a ‘penance’ for an entire nation. These are ideas that are laughed at in the secularly tinged western mindset, but are ever so natural in other places.

  52. Dino, definatly intriguing. Not something I have thought of. Certainly not part of modern politics in any way. Anointing is, if I understand it, a setting apart as well as a sanctification. My impression of St. Constantine is that he clearly understood that and, as he was able, embraced it. God gives the increase.

    Something utterly lacking in any modern ruler or politician. Lord have mercy.

  53. Greetings all & father,
    I am Senait, cradle Eritrean orthodox. I’ve benefited much from reading the posts & comments here. I just wanted to express my gratitude for this providence. May the peace of our Lord bless us all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.