The Church and Modernity
Earlier this week, I began examining an article from Public Orthodoxy entitled “Fundamentalism as ‘Orthodoxism.'” In this article, the author laments what is, in his opinion, “our long-standing captivity to a sad caricature of Orthodoxy.” In the first part of my analysis I discussed two of his four main allegations: that the Orthodox world has developed an idolatrous attitude towards the Holy Fathers, and that it has additionally come to an erroneous belief in the completeness of Holy Tradition (as opposed to Tradition being something that is under continuous development). Today I will examine the remaining two features of this purported “Orthodox fundamentalism,” which concern the relationship between the Church and modernity.
From the article:
3). Orthodoxism harbors a strong aversion to modernity and its dual spin-offs, an open society and liberal democracy. The whole culture of modernity is often publicly targeted by Orthodox hierarchs and certain theologians as inherently anti-Christian, because by taking human and civil rights seriously and by giving room to tolerance, pluralism, and freedom of the individual, not only does modernity allow for freedoms that the Church deems sinful and counter to its normative values, it ultimately renders the Church’s voice but one among many…
The author alleges that “Orthodox hierarchs and certain theologians” oppose modernity first of all because modernity is tolerant and takes human and civil rights seriously. This is a rather uncharitable way of putting things. It is also an extremely vague way of putting things, and I suspect that this is deliberately so. Because what “human and civil rights” does anyone seriously contend that any Orthodox hierarchs and theologians are publicly opposed to? I cannot think of any whatsoever that do not have to do with the Sexual Revolution and/or the LGBTQ movement (if I am mistaken on this point, I would sincerely like to know it).
If this is indeed the case, however, then what the author terms “human and civil rights” are in fact nothing more than “sins” which the modern world insists that all human beings have a right to commit. Who gave them such rights, one might ask? God allowed the possibility, but when people choose such a possibility it is something to be mourned and not praised.
More to the point, is it really fundamentalism to say that it is anti-Christian to flatly reject the moral teachings of all the Scriptures, all the Holy Fathers, and two thousand years of unbroken Christian Tradition? And why would any believer accuse Orthodox leaders of not “taking human and civil rights seriously” simply because they uphold the teachings of the Church? The only explanation is that such a person is not attacking “fundamentalism,” but rather the authority of the Church Herself, despite the fact that She alone is “the pillar and ground of all truth” as the Scriptures say.
The author then continues by saying that “modernity allows for freedoms that the Church deems sinful and counter to its normative values.” This is another instance of extremely misleading language: what modernity calls “freedom” is known in the Church as “slavery to the passions.” Of course the Church considers it anti-Christian when the world encourages people to enslave themselves to their passions! This is not because the Church is intolerant, nor because it is authoritarian: it is because the only possible response of any Christian to widespread spiritual sickness is profound sorrow and grief.
For physicians to pretend to sick people that they are healthy is not “tolerance.” It is malpractice of the worst kind.
Lastly, the author denounces Orthodox hierarchs and theologians for viewing the modern world as anti-Christian because “it ultimately renders the Church’s voice but one among many.” But are the pastors of the flock of Christ expected to rejoice to hear a cacophony of voices spreading falsehoods which destroy the souls of those who believe them? Is it somehow pro-Christian to hope that everyone hears at least seven different lies in addition to the truth, so that they can “decide things for themselves”?
Now, please understand that by saying all these things, I am not at all trying to encourage some sort of theocracy of the sword. The modern world has chosen its course, and the response of the Church is surely not to be found in brute force. But all the same, it is beyond any doubt that the modern world has decisively turned away from Christianity. To expect the Church to rejoice in this fact is absurd, and to expect it to keep silence is misguided. Those on the path of error will never find their way home unless someone has the love and the courage to tell them that they are going the wrong way.
The major bone of contention here, is the separation of Church and state (whether de jure or de facto) that lies at the heart of political modernity.
I’ve written in depth already about the separation of Church and State, and I won’t rehash that entire subject here. Suffice it to say that there is no such thing as state neutrality in matters of religion; when the state pretends to such, it is actually promoting unbelief — or rather, the religion of secularism/humanism/Antichristianity.
The Orthodox Churches, by virtue of being predominantly national Churches, have long learned to lean on the State for survival and benefits and do not take kindly the prospect of one day sliding to one more voice in the public conversation regarding civil affairs. They have learned to be Caesar’s partners since day one, and that is the sole role they know how to embody. The point missed by those state Churches is that when you become Caesar’s partner, you inevitably turn out to be his whore as well.
If there was any doubt up to this point as to whether the author is attacking fundamentalism or the Church Herself, then this paragraph should lay such doubt to rest (please take note also of the author’s language: throughout the article, he gradually shifts from denouncing the “fundamentalists” to inveighing against “the Church” and “the Orthodox Churches”). To not only state that the Orthodox Churches are the whores of Caesar, but also to declare that they don’t even know how to be anything else, is nothing short of blasphemy.
It also betrays an underlying neo-Marxist dialectic in which everything in the world is reduced merely to competing power structures. While undoubtedly fashionable, nevertheless what a sad view this is to take of the Church, the Ark of Salvation and the Body of Christ! The article argues that the Church decries modernity because it doesn’t want to give up its own power. Might it not be that the Church decries modernity because it doesn’t want people to give up their souls?
But even sadder is the Church’s blindness to the fact that the distinction between God and Caesar is first categorically drawn in the Christian Gospels themselves.
This is simply a case of terrible and anachronistic exegesis. The verse “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s” simply does not have anything to do with the “separation of Church and State,” an idea which nobody in Christendom had ever propounded until Martin Luther came up with it. In the Gospel passage referenced, Christ was asked whether it was unlawful for Jews to pay tribute to Caesar, and Christ responded by saying that we should do our duty to the secular leaders so long as it does not supersede our duty to God. St. John Chrysostom explains:
But when you hear this command to render to Caesar the things of Caesar, know that such things only are intended which in nothing are opposed to religion; if such there be, it is no longer Caesar’s but the Devil’s tribute. And moreover, that they might not say that He was subjecting them to man, He adds, “And unto God the things that are God’s.
This is very far from stating that the Church has no authority at all in matters of the State! The witness of many saints from all the ages tells quite another story: Samuel rebuked Saul, Nathan rebuked David, St. John the Forerunner rebuked Herod, St. Ambrose rebuked the Emperor Theodosius, St. Philip of Moscow rebuked Tsar Ivan the Terrible. And in fact, these same examples also do much to refute the groundless and blasphemous charge that the “state Churches” are inevitably bound to become the “whores of Caesar.”
By the author’s argument, the Church ought to mourn the Triumph of Orthodoxy, when the veneration of icons was endorsed by the State — how “oppressive” and “intolerant” the poor benighted Empire was in daring to impose the sight of the holy icons on those passing through the public square! After all, somebody might have been offended.
The problem with the Orthodox Churches’ hostility toward the open, democratic society, is that it ingrains this hostility to the minds of believers, who are keenly trained to eschew the entire culture of tolerance and civil rights… In that context, the protection of private lives and the continuous expansion of civil rights are sternly denigrated as a consent to “individualism,” which supposedly threatens the collective standing of society – as if a society that crashes the individual and demonizes otherness is one worth preserving in the first place.
It seems we are expected to believe that the promulgation of soul-destroying heresies, various false religions, and slanderous attacks on the Church is absolutely essential to any healthy society. To proceed instead on the belief that false spiritual teaching carries with it the very real possibility of leading people to hell has now been defined as “demonizing otherness.”
At this point I should stress that every single person is made in the image of God, and must be treated at all times with love, honor, and respect. In short, we must treat them as we would treat Christ Himself. But the Church has never at any time denied this, although often we have sinfully failed to live up to it. However, to love someone does not mean to blindly insist that they are just fine the way they are, even if they are miserable and perishing, and to happily send them down the road to hell (after all, they can decide for themselves!). Rather, to love someone means, above all other things, to tirelessly labor and to ceaselessly strive for their salvation in Christ.
4). Following directly from the above, Orthodoxism appears to be (and in fact often is) anti-western, to the extent that western democracies are the home of pluralism and the freedoms that make Orthodox so nervous nowadays. This is very unfortunate, because western societies, while far from perfect (a fact that they readily acknowledge, as they are both willing and capable of self-criticism), are still the only places in the world where the freedoms of thought, conscience, speech, and act are more than mere words, and where individual liberties and choices are taken seriously by the State…. [The West] is the place where religious freedom means not only freedom of but from religion as well, in the spirit of the Lord who invites us all personally to pick up our cross and follow Him freely, out of our own will.
I do not believe it is written anywhere in Scripture or in any of the writings of the Orthodox Church that “freedom from religion” is a laudable and necessary social principle, in keeping with the spirit of the Lord. “Freedom from” our Orthodox Faith is nothing other than the “freedom” chosen by Adam and Even in the Garden, which is to say it is precisely a rejection of the spirit of the Lord, Who “became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” Such a false conception of freedom is precisely what has brought about all of the death, decay, misery, suffering, and slavery that has ever been known by anyone in the entire history of this fallen world.
Nevertheless, yes, we have that freedom. We each have the freedom to choose whether to accept Christ or to reject Him. Nobody and nothing can take that freedom away, other than God Himself — and that is one thing that He will never do.
But nobody at all is suggesting that the State ought to somehow force people to believe. We are simply suggesting that it was sinful and spiritually harmful for the State to apostatize from Christianity in favor of a false religion (and even Dr. George Demacopoulos, the director of the organization which publishes Public Orthodoxy, agrees that secularism is a religion).
The ascension of Julian the Apostate, the Fall of Constantinople to the Turks, the regicide of Tsar-martyr Nicholas and the Royal Family at the hands of the Bolsheviks — these events were all allowed by the loving providence of our good God. But that does not mean that the events in themselves were good. And that does not mean that the Church ought to welcome or to praise them.
It means, simply, that we must once again renew the primal cry of the Church in the Gospel: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” And as always, that repentance must begin with ourselves, in the depths of our own hearts.
God bless you for trying to address this rant, Fr. Gabriel. I have a hard time with these things because the author does not pick a coherent, logical position, and then provide proofs for that position. It’s simply a rant against the church and traditional values.
In no way is the church forcing its moral or theological stances upon anyone, which makes this rant even more difficult to understand since the author ends with a note about freedom (as if Orthodoxy is holding the entire world captive to its ideas). I haven’t met anyone who has been forced or oppressed into becoming Orthodox or forced to live by our standards. We’re a small minority, especially here in the West — a fraction of one percent of the population in America. Most people have never even heard of us. Besides that, the political spectrum among the Orthodox is quite broad: everything from hard-leaning right to the liberal left. A few are monarchists, other Republicans, and quite a few Democrats as well. The author has done little except reveal his own feelings about an institution that does not actually exist in the real world.
To be fair, even though the article was published in an American institution’s journal, the author is from Greece. I don’t know much about the political situation there as it relates to the Church, but recently the government made the decision to take Orthodox priests off the public payroll. Greece is secularizing hard, and I don’t know much about the public reaction of the Church in Greece to that phenomenon.