Can The World Be Changed?

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In a recent exchange on one of my postings I was congratulated for my advocacy of attention to small things, and told that thereby we will change the world. I wrote a light-hearted response in which I demurred from such a lofty goal – but have thought much of it since – and have decided to post on the present topic – why changing the world is not the agenda of the Christian life. I will quickly say that I do not mean by such an assertion that we are not to care about justice nor to correct wrongs that are done or any other such thing. But I want to think aloud on the subject – particularly in the light of Scripture.

First it must be noted that Scripture itself never speaks of a charge to the Church to change the world. It is not a Scriptural notion in itself and I hope to show why this is so.

There is certainly a change prophesied for the world:

But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. (2 Peter 3:8-13)

And this:

And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever. Rev. 11:15

A much larger list could be assembled with quite the same effect. The New Testament vision of the world and “its kingdoms,” is not very sanguine. The general tenor of prophecy in the New Testament is not only to recognize the difficulty of the times in which the saints are living at that time, but warns that times will grow much worse before all is done.

It became the fashion in 19th century Protestant thought – and has continued to the present to some degree – to treat such warnings as mistaken notions of the early Church. It was a common assumption by liberal Biblical scholars that Christ had expected to see the Kingdom ushered in quite soon (an idea shared by the disciples) and that things just did not happen that way. Nineteenth Century liberal thought both in Europe and in America began to substitute “progress” for the coming of the Kingdom. Instead of a cataclysmic end to history, mankind would work towards the justice and peace of God’s Kingdom. “Working for the coming of the Kingdom” became a common notion (I can recall having said such things in prayers and the like prior to my conversion to Orthodoxy).

It is easy to mistake material progress for a change in the nature of things. Of course, material progress is change of a sort. Most of us would not vote to rid ourselves of such conveniences as plumbing and electricity, antibiotics, etc. But these conveniences have not apparently changed the world towards the coming of the Kingdom – only made it a bit more comfortable – and not for all.

There are important social changes that have occurred, as well. Human rights have been extended though they remain embattled in many places. And, of course, they seem to be redefined almost at will depending upon who’s in charge of the largest and most numerous guns at any one time.

So what are Christians doing? If we are not changing the world, what is our life about?

First, it’s useful to think of the nature of the Church compared to the nature of the world. The Church, the Body of Christ, transcends the world. It is in the world but not of the world. Receiving communion, we take into ourselves the very Body and Blood of God. The world cannot contain Him and yet we receive Him into ourselves.

Thus to a certain extent, changing the world would be a diminution of the Church’s role. The Church is larger than the world in which it dwells.

Another important consideration is a principle that has been articulated by the theologian Stanley Hauerwas on any number of occasions. He says that so soon as we agree to take responsibility for the outcome of history, we have agreed to do violence. His contention is that the outcome of history has already been determined (and in some sense completed) in the death and resurrection of Christ. Efforts to make things turn in a certain direction inevitably mean that we take up the sword in order to accomplish that goal.

Doubtless there is a role within the world for the kingdoms of this world, and there has always been the need for the voice of the Church to be directed to those kingdoms, calling them to repentance and to do justice.

But we cannot measure the Church and its life by its effect on the Kingdoms of this world. Sometimes we seem to have a great effect, sometimes we get martyred. In all times we are subject to the mercy of Christ and the workings of His salvation within the life of the world.

Some years back I pastored a parish that had entered into a joint agreement with the local school board to provide a location for a daycare program for the children of young mothers at the local high school (which was next door). When the agreement was drawn up, I had insisted that there be mutual veto power for the parties involved. I did not want the school setting the agenda for my parish, nor did they want me setting the agenda for the school.

The board had school administration representatives, parish representatives and members from the community at large. Of great interest to me was how driven some of the board members were to “change” the young women. There was a parenting program included with the daycare that offered opportunities for young women (and young men if we could get them to be involved) to learn better parenting skills. But there were repeated efforts to include rules that would “punish” (usually by expelling them from the program) any young woman who became pregnant while involved. I saw in this simply another incentive for young women to have abortions – and I vetoed it. I stated then a single goal that the board adopted: for young women to graduate high school.

Change, particularly change within a person, requires their assent and their freedom. My own belief in that case was that the problem of teen pregnancy was fairly complex – at least it included a number of factors – not all of them the same for each individual involved. I believed then and now that every young mother who had a high school degree had a gift of greater freedom – more possibilities and choices were available to her than would have been the case as a high-school drop out. I do not know how the program fared after I left that parish. But I do know a number of young women whose possibility for change was improved by the care we gave their children and the support we gave them as parents. I also know that while I was involved, attempts by others to control, reward and punish young women was thwarted. And I think this was a proper Christian action.

Love of others, as commanded by Christ, would bid us do many things on behalf of others. But the nature of our actions has to finally be judged simply by the measure of goodness. Utilitarianism (“the greatest good for the greatest number”) has been a great temptation for Christians in the modern world. In its name, much evil can be justified. On the other hand, doing something good simply because it is good frees us from the delusions of moral calculus. Is it good to help someone finish school? I think so. Is it good to set up rules so that the only easy option for a young pregnant woman is to abort her child? Absolutely not. The Kingdoms of this world have already conspired against such a young woman and her child. The Church and the Christian have no need to add their support to such evil efforts.

In this life we have no measure of success. Faithfulness to Christ, perservance in the faith – these are perhaps the only things that approach such a measure – but only God can judge the truth of these. Judgment is in His hands. There will come a day when everything will be revealed. On that Day, the world will have changed, and no one can delay or hasten its advent. 

18 Responses to “Can The World Be Changed?”

  1. fatherstephen Says:

    I am posting today from the airport in Atlanta, where I’m waiting for a plane to Miami. I will be there for most of the week with my wife, attending the Diocesan Assembly for the OCA Diocese of the South. I’ll try to check in once or twice a day, and post as the mercies of God allow.

  2. stephen Says:

    Another great blog. As Christians were are to present the love of Christ to others. Rather than to make something happen, we offer Christ and let it happen. I believe Frederica posted along this similar vein about not trying to change the weather but to offer shelter to those caught in the storm. If we could only practice this, our effect would be a greater good for those caught in the storm. To offer something, not to change, not to make demands, but to offer Christ, the rest will follow.

  3. Vincent Bavaro Says:

    Mother Teresa once said “we are not called to be successful only faithful.” I think this is to some degree your point and I agree. Many of the churches have made this world the beat all and the end all. This was one of my reasons for converting to Orthodoxy. I converted two years ago from Roman Catholicism.

  4. David_Bryan Says:

    “[To] a certain extent, changing the world would be a diminution of the Church’s role. The Church is larger than the world in which it dwells…we cannot measure the Church and its life by its effect on the Kingdoms of this world. Sometimes we seem to have a great effect, sometimes we get martyred. In all times we are subject to the mercy of Christ and the workings of His salvation within the life of the world.”

    Good word, Father; as one who’s got a history in foreign missions (and who despairs at times at the relative sparsity of foreign missionaries in the Orthodox Church), I often have to wrestle with delusions of “winning the world for Christ” via aggressive and/or highly visible means of reaching massive audiences with the gospel message.

    Not that there’s anything WRONG with doing all we can to offer the truth of the Gospel to all the people we possibly can, but feeling some sort of burden, some sort of responsibility to “pull all this off” in order to reap the assumed harvest that would come in as a result is wrongheaded…would that we could live evangelistic lives while trusting in God to bring the increase as He wills (instead of putting the weight of that event on our efforts, lacking or not).

    Thanks for this post. Obviously it got in my kitchen.

  5. David_Bryan Says:

    Also–hope you enjoy the Assembly. If you see Fr. Basil Zebrun, say hi for me.

  6. Sam Keyes Says:

    Thank you, Father, for this meditation. Several years ago I heard Hauerwas say, “The purpose of the church is not to make the world a better place, but to show the world that it is the world.” At the time–being a conservative evangelical–I had no particular interest in “making the world a better place,” but at some point I realized that my evangelical idea of converting the world was really another version of the liberal vision of enacting the kingdom.

    Anyway, your post is much appreciated. Orthodoxy certainly provides great witness to your understanding of the purpose of the church.

  7. fatherstephen Says:

    I indeed think that God is changing the world – and not just at a cataclysmic moment. The saints are but one example. But they are a sign, pointing beyond themselves to a change that is yet to be revealed.

    I want to stress again that theologically it would be a tragedy were anyone to use this understanding of change to do nothing for the poor or nothing about justice, etc. This distinction I wanted to make here is between doing good for the sake of good, rather than doing something for the sake of some other measureable result.

    I for one would love to eliminate hunger (as would I hope everyone else). But I do not want to stop feeding the hunger in lieu of eliminating hunger if you understand my point. Whatever the world does, the Church has clear commandments from Christ to be about these things. We do not necessarily have to enlist the aid of the world to do good. If the world’s kingdoms do good may they be blessed – and it is not necessarily unusual to see them do good. But I cannot wait on some political figure to come along and enact my Christian agenda.

    Which, of course, brings us back to simple things – pray, forgiveness, alms, etc. that is, doing whatever I can do, together with others. No one can stop us (unless they gun us down) but still we can continue to do what we have been commanded.

    Fr. Arseny fed the poor in the Gulags of the Soviet Union even though his only means were keeping aside some small amounts of his own meagre ration. Christ is free even when the world thinks it has us trapped.

  8. alyssasophia Says:

    “Fr. Arseny fed the poor in the Gulags of the Soviet Union even though his only means were keeping aside some small amounts of his own meagre ration. Christ is free even when the world thinks it has us trapped.”

    I don’t know why I’m even posting something here– I have nothing useful to say except thank you for this post and for this last sentence in particular. Remarkably, but as usual, you have a way of cutting straight to the heart. Well, you and the Holy Spirit… 🙂

  9. The Scylding Says:

    Change is the task of the Holy Spirit – we are called to be faithful. Faithfulness will effect change, for sure, but that is not our focus.

  10. Nelmezzo » Blog Archive » Three on Theology #4 Says:

    […] exactly, writes Father Stephen. Such an idea can involve a false understanding of real change (substituting the idea of progress […]

  11. Visibilium Says:

    I seem to remember that when Jesus talked about material progress, favorably or otherwise, he used it as an analogy for spiritual progress. He never confused the two. Certainly, one’s choices play a part in both, but sheer randomness also plays a much larger role in the former than the latter.

  12. fatherstephen Says:

    Visibilium,

    Sorry your comment was delayed in getting posted. When I checked the site akismet had halted your comment as possibly spam (it’s not an infallible program though it’s more right than wrong, and has to date blocked over 6,000 pieces of spam). Blocking your comment was probably sheer randomness 🙂

    I don’t know that I would use the metaphor (“mind your metaphors”) of progress to describe any of the parables of Christ. He certainly uses images of profit, etc., but progress is an almost completely modern idea, an abberation of Christian eschatology.

    Indeed, if I had a modern article on progress, I do not know what Greek or even Latin word I would use to accurately translate it. You could use a dynamic equivalent, but still it would not carry the baggage that two centuries have given to “progress.” Though I know the word has a Latin root, it did not have it’s present meaning until quite recent times.

    But I’m still willing to be corrected.

  13. Visibilium Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    I’m happy to hear that randomness, not determinism, kept my comment from appearing. I was wondering whether you had finally gotten tired of my seemingly endless contradiction of your views.

    As to your point about material progress, let me point out that I am simple country folk and “material progress” to me means receiving a paycheck regularly. The material progress to which I was referring in the Gospel pertained to making money with talents and getting through the eye of a needle.

  14. Fatherstephen Says:

    Ah, indeed. Such material progress there is – I agree. But I was using “progress” in its more “progressive” meaning. Not tired of comments at all, by the way, even seeming contradictions. Without such things how will I be sure that I mean what I said or said what I meant? 🙂

  15. Visibilium Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    While I’m on the subject of randomness, I wonder whether you’d post some thoughts about randomness and providential determinism. If you need some grist for the mill, I’d be happy to throw out a few observations.

  16. fatherstephen Says:

    So long as the observations are random…

    I would indeed be interested in your thoughts…I might not be able to do a post on the subject. I tend to limit myself to what I know or care about, mostly so that I don’t degenerate into doing head trips. Theology has to have a ground in lived experience – of course all this severely limits my writing. In my parish, as I’ve been told authoritatively, I apparently only have one sermon. But since I’m limited to preaching what I know, I’m not certain yet how I could have two sermons. I was particularly delighted this past week in listening to Archbishop Dmitri speak about what should be the subject of our preaching, to hear that my sermon is pretty much the same as his sermon – which is perhaps the way things ought to be. It’s apostolic succession in sermon form.

    But I could randomly offer some thoughts on providential determinism, though it’s probably already been provided what I should wrtie… 🙂

  17. Chip. Says:

    Academic discussions of determinism always seem meaningless: to be honest, they have to be circular. Criminals often blame the past for causing their crime. A determinist judge would respond with cool logic that the same past was causing the court to enter such-and-such as a sentence.

    Practical discussion of determinism, especially of providential determinism, can lack for practical substance. After all, even if God know and wills one outcome, our acts and intentions are limited by our own knowledge. How can God’s (fore)-knowledge affect our living or loving?

    In philosophical terms, divine foreknowledge may be to epistemology what the parousia is to metaphysics — the completion and end of things. We shall know even as we are known.

    In more of a droll context, there once was a London paper that needed to cut its costs. The editors decided to implement a RIF (Reducion in Force) by firing some freelance columnists. The next day, the resident psychic/astrology columnist came into work only to read, “As you no doubt have already foreseen . . . “

  18. fatherstephen Says:

    The Ocholophobist has an excellent article on the end of things – Beer, Sex, death, etc. – very much worth the read.

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