Posts Tagged ‘secularism’

The Invisible Christian

May 13, 2012

But you, when you pray, go into your closet, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly (Matt. 6:6).

You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven (Matt. 5:14-16).

Blessed is he who is not offended because of Me. (Matt. 11:6)

There is an invisible side of the Christian faith, known only to God and the believer. St. Matthew’s gospel refers to this as the secret place. It is not only intended to be secret, but exists only in secret. If we refuse to protect the secret then we will find its door closed to us as well.

Our faith also has a very public aspect and cannot normatively be practiced solely in secret. I say, “normatively,” recognizing that circumstances of persecution make the public confession of the faith difficult. However, as the lives of the martyrs attest, even under persecution, the Christian life maintains a public aspect – unto death if need be. Our modern culture frequently asks us to hold these matters in reverse. We speak of secret things and hide those which should be public.

In the liturgical discipline of the early Church, the mysteries (today often called “sacraments”), were indeed mysteries: they were not open to public view. The catechumens, those who were preparing to be baptized, were dismissed from the service to attend other prayers and instruction, while the faithful, alone, remained for the celebration of the mysteries. In Orthodox liturgies, the dismissal of the catechumens remains, at least in word. The mysteries of Baptism and Eucharist are now open for public attendance, though the mystery of the Eucharist may only be received by the faithful.

In our larger culture, many things that should remain “secret” are open for public knowledge and scrutiny. The most sordid details of private lives are openly discussed before audiences on our screens. Magazine covers of relatively innocuous magazines promise “how-to’s” of great sex. I need say nothing about environs of the internet.

Secret matters of the religious life are often treated in a very public manner. St. Paul only obliquely refers to a man who was “caught up to the third level of heaven.” Most scholars agree that he is referring to himself – but such speech would have been deemed inappropriate. His oblique reference skates up to the very edge of acceptability.

Today, Christians often boast about their innermost experiences – we would seem to be a civilization of mystics. It is very difficult to find a balance in our lives.

The secularity of our culture constructs a false world-view for us, creating confusion within the spiritual life. Secularity presumes that there is such a thing as “neutral” territory. The world exists as a vast, neutral ground, inherently objective with no loyalties one way or another. People who subscribe to various versions of secularism see religion as an import, something which does not naturally belong to the order of things. It is not that secularism sees the world as “atheistic”: the world is simply nothing one way or another.

The “natural” spirituality of secularism is indifference. If you want to think about God, that is your business. If I don’t want to think about God, that is my business. But nothing in the world should make me or anyone else inherently think about God. The world and all of its stuff – is indifferent. The expression of the world is thus found in its neutrality. All expressions that deny this neutrality are disruptive. T-shirts and crosses, “Tebows” in the end zone, a creche in the public square – all are disruptive of the neutrality of the secular order.

Those who have been born to this order, those who are the children of the modern world, find that their inner lives are as “naturally” neutral as the world around them appears to be. Reading about the lives of saints creates a longing, a homesickness for a land that is as foreign as any fantasy. Do people actually see angels? Can bread truly be more than bread? Do waters part? Do voices speak from fiery clouds? Even the quiet efforts of prayer and the best intentions within the liturgy can be experienced with an emptiness that mocks our attempts at piety. No convert from ancient paganism ever suffered the numbing lassitude of neutrality’s temptations.

The “neutrality” of nature has moved beyond perception in contemporary society – it has now become a positive value. Thus, the disruptions of religious actions are seen as distractions and disturbances to the way things “ought” to be. They are unnatural and unwelcome. A reader of the blog relates public rebukes (in Greece!) for simply saying, “Thank God.” Of course, I am certain that oaths  and curses invoking God receive no such rebuke! Here in the Bible belt of America, a friend relates being publicly attacked for offering the traditional English “God bless you!” when someone sneezed. A recent letter to the editor in my local Tennessee newspaper requested that letters mentioning religion be removed to somewhere other than the editorial page, since the newspaper is “secular.” Little wonder that wearing a cross is increasingly forbidden in the work place.

The enforced “neutrality” of secularism asks Christians to become invisible.  Christians are the new pariahs. Invisibility is not a difficult request for modern Christians. Our religion is often enough invisible to us as well. Some will even argue that this is as it should be – Christianity belongs in the closet (Matt. 6:6).

Man is not meant to live a closeted life. If we are the light of the world, then the light will burn a hole in our secularized baskets and burn the closet down! But this is to describe what should be rather than what is. Modern experience teaches us that baskets and closets simply snuff the light. We go into our closets and pretend to be the light of the world.

The context of Christianity in the modern world differs significantly from the context of first-century Palestine. Our context is the fantasy world of secularism. Our struggle is not against the false public piety of the Pharisees but against the false humility of invisible Christianity. Religion should be understood as a set of practices. Religion or spirituality as a set of ideas is a fiction of secular thought: “keep your religion in the closet of your head.” How we eat, how we speak, how we marry, how we die, how we mourn, how we order our time, how we dress, how we manage our money – all of these and similar “folkways” rightly involve practices that are identifiably religious. For the modern invisible Christian – folkways are  largely indistinguishable from those of the surrounding culture.

To live as the light of the world is to be a transforming presence. We do not transform the world by coercion – we transform the world by our Christian existence. Much of our culture, even in its secular form, owes its shape to the transforming presence of Christians. That the world today has a concept of human rights is the direct result of Christian Trinitarian thought and its understanding of personhood.

However, the offspring of Christendom has learned to reject its history and to imagine itself to be self-invented. Christians cannot agree to this myth and pretend that we have not lived within the world for 2,000 years. We are locked in a struggle.

The primary weapons of that struggle remain the inner life of prayer and the purification of the heart. We will not be the light of the world if our hearts are filled with darkness. Christians do well to be confident and hopeful within their daily lives – for “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.” Despair and anger are the tools of darkness and have nothing to do with light.

By the same token, Christians should not be fearful of the growing aggression of radical secularism. We should not abandon Christian folkways (where they exist). The return to traditional Christianity (as opposed to secularized market-based Christianity) should include embracing a transformed life expressed in public as well as private. If we are the light of the world, we need not fear the darkness.

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God (Romans 12:1-2).

A Path Beyond Secularism

March 27, 2012

…It is truly ironic, in my opinion, that so many Christians are seeking some accommodation with secularism precisely at the
moment when it is revealing itself to be an untenable spiritual position. More and more signs point toward one fact of paramount importance: the famous “modern man” is already looking for a path beyond secularism, is again thirsty and hungry for “something else.” Much too often this thirst and hunger are satisfied not only by food of doubtful quality, but by artificial substitutes of all kinds. The spiritual confusion is at its peak. But is it not because the Church, because Christians themselves, have given up so easily that unique gift which they alone – and no one else! – could have given to the spiritually thirsty and hungry world of ours? Is it not because Christians, more than any others today, defend secularism and adjust to it their very faith? Is it not because, having access to the true
mysterion of Christ, we prefer to offer to the world vague and second-rate “social” and “political” advice? The world is desperate in its need for Sacrament and Epiphany, while Christians embrace empty and foolish worldly utopias.

My conclusions are simple. No, we do not need any new worship that would somehow be more adequate to our new secular world. What we need is a rediscovery of the true meaning and power of worship, and this means of its cosmic, ecclesiological, and eschatological dimensions and content. This, to be sure, implies much work, much “cleaning up.” It implies study, education and effort. It implies giving up much of that dead wood which we carry with us, seeing in it much too often the very essence of our “traditions” and “customs.” But once we discover the true lex orandi, the genuine meaning and power of our leitourgia, once it becomes again the source of an all-embracing world view and the power of living up to it – then and only then the unique antidote to “secularism” shall be found.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World

This posting is a reflection on the two essays at the end of For the Life of the World, perhaps Fr. Alexander’s most influential volume. It will be tough reading for some. However, I hope to be developing parts of it for easier reading and deeper reflection in coming weeks.

+++

I have quoted at length from Fr. Alexander’s essay (a paper read at the Eighth General Assembly of SYNDESMOS in 1971) for it captures well the spirit and sense of that landmark paper. Sadly, some of its most hopeful tones (“modern man is looking for a path beyond secularism”) have perhaps not proven quite true. But the crisis he describes remains. For myself, his analysis and critique of secularism have been the most important aspects of his writings – his liturgical theology being all the more poignant because of its situation within a secularizing culture.

In the same essay, Fr. Schmemann describes secularism as the “great heresy of our time.” Secularism does not refer to the separation of Church and state, or a non-Christian or atheist world-view.

[Secularism] emphatically negates …the sacramentality of man and world. The secularist views the world as containing within itself its meaning and the principles of knowledge and action.

It is this radical division between the world in which we live and a so-called “spiritual” world that I have dubbed a “two-storey universe.” There can be no proper sacrament nor proper Christian life within such a world. In Schmemann’s words: it is a heresy.

The crisis of modern man which Schmemann described (in 1971) has passed.  The hunger for worship remains, but is now encompassed by a host of other hungers. The world is perhaps more “post-Christian” than at any time in history. Worship has been swallowed up in a sea of secular meaning, a result of the reforms that were only beginning when Schmemann wrote.

There can be no celebration of ideas and concepts, be they “peace,” justice,” or even “God.” The Eucharist is not a symbol of friendship, togetherness, or any other state of activity however desirable.

The world of feminist liturgies, eco-liturgies, liturgical dance, much less the abominations of “clown masses,” are simply fulfillments of Schmemann’s prophetic vision. Their banal secularism has, however, not diminished, but increased.

The heart of the secular heresy, according to Schmemann, is locating the meaning and cause of the world within the world itself. This makes sense for an atheist – for whom there is nothing other than the world itself. For a believer, however, the relationship between the world and God is crucial. In secular culture, God has been exiled to the realm of ideas. The world operates as it does, with God hopefully intervening from time to time (His failure to do this creates consternation among secular Christians). But if the meaning of the world is found in the world itself (apart from God) then it is we who are exiled from God, cast adrift in a universe where God’s absence is our most poignant spiritual reality. Of course, for those who are living the unconscious secular life, God’s absence is quite convenient. He remains aloof until we decide to think about Him.

Schmemann’s passion was the insistence on the proper meaning of symbol (and related words). In modern, secular understanding, symbol has come to have the meaning of something which stands in the place of something which is not there. As such, symbols are representations of absence, or, at best, of ideas. They have no inherent meaning – only the meaning which we ourselves assign to them. I have described this as the literalism of the modern world: things are what they are, and nothing more.

To this, Schmemann contrasts the Orthodox Christian understanding of the world as symbol. The meaning of this term in the early fathers is not a sign of absence – but a means of presence. Because the world is God’s creation, it is inherently symbolic – it points to and participates in its Creator. Schmemann notes that symbol is part of the very ontology of creation – part of its very being.

This is a radical assertion in the face of the modern world. Things do not find their meaning within themselves but within their relationship to God and the nature of that relationship. The whole of creation exists as a means of communion with God. The sacraments are not unique in what they do – all of creation is sacramental. What is new in the sacraments is what they make present.

[The Christian sacrament]’s absolute newness is not in its ontology as sacrament but in the specific “res” [thing] which it “symbolizes,” i.e., reveals, manifests, and communicates – which is Christ and His Kingdom. But even this absolute newness is to be understood in terms not of total discontinuity but in those of fulfillment. The “mysterion” of Christ reveals and fulfills the ultimate meaning and destiny of the world itself.

The world is sacrament and icon. God is everywhere present and filling all things. All things have been given to us for communion with Him. The advent of secularism is a change of vision and perception. The world becomes opaque – God is removed. The Western world’s attempts at sacraments, in which the supernatural has somehow invaded the natural, inadvertently destroys the natural. The sacred enters the profane – but in such an understanding the merely natural is also the merely profane. In Orthodox understanding, nothing is profane. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

Schmemann’s vision was prophetic in its accurate depiction of our world and its spiritual trajectory. I pray that he was equally prophetic in his vision of the cure:

My conclusions are simple. No, we do not need any new worship that would somehow be more adequate to our new secular world. What we need is a rediscovery of the true meaning and power of worship, and this means of its cosmic, ecclesiological, and eschatological dimensions and content. This, to be sure, implies much work, much “cleaning up.” It implies study, education and effort. It implies giving up much of that dead wood which we carry with us, seeing in it much too often the very essence of our “traditions” and “customs.” But once we discover the true lex orandi, the genuine meaning and power of leitourgia, once it becomes again the source of an all-embracing world view and the power of living up to it – then and only then the unique antidote to “secularism” shall be found. And there is nothing more urgent today than this rediscovery, and this – return – not to the past – but to the light and life, to the truth and grace that are eternally fulfilled by the Church when she becomes – in her leitourgia – that which she is.

There is nothing more urgent today…

Quotes are from For the Life of the World (1973, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press).

Do Something

February 24, 2012

My recent post, The God Who Is No God, spoke of Christianity as a set of practices. This is a crucial understanding – a requirement for a living faith. It requires that we ask the question of the rich young ruler, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Oddly, he did not ask, “What must I believe to inherit eternal life?” Nor does Christ give him an ideological answer.

He is first told to “keep the commandments.” On further inquiry, he is told, “Sell what you have. Give it to the poor and come follow me.” The entire conversation turns on actions.

The Christian faith turns on actions – even such things as prayer should be understood as actions. We do not need to have opinions about prayer. We simply need to pray. We do not need more careful understanding of the nous, the passions and hesychasm. We need to pray.

The question of action can become an important spiritual exercise. A way of phrasing the question of action is to ask, “What would it look like if….” This is not the same thing as saying, “What if?” It is asking the question of action (“what would it look like”). For example, “What would it look like were I to forgive my enemies?” A general answer is not the point. However, the point might very well be, “Then I would be able to look Jack in the eyes again.”  It would probably look like something smaller, such as a conversation that has been postponed. Indeed, the question of action would more accurately be asked, “What would it look like if I forgave just one enemy?”

Imagine for a moment an aboriginal tribe. They live in isolation and are visited by an anthropologist. He notices a peculiarity about them: they do not lie. They are quite particular about it and tell the truth to a fault, despite the problems it creates. The anthropologist discovers that this is part of their religion (though religion might be an inaccurate word for such a life). 

Such a description is closer to the idea of practice than most of what we think about in our day. It is instructive that there is a struggle within American Orthodox over many practices. Oftentimes such practices are discussed under the heading of customs or “little t” traditions. For example, Orthodox women in America are often uncertain about whether they should cover their heads in Church (the men are uncertain about this as well). I will offer no opinion in the matter. What is of note is that we are uncertain.

I could multiply this example. There are many reasons of our uncertainty in the face of practices (most of which have to do with varying opinions of clergy and the hierarchy). But the deeper reason has to do with the depth of our engagement in the secular culture. The culture will not impinge on our lives at the level of belief (at least not at first). The power of secularism is felt precisely at the point of practice. At that point, it creates an uncertainty. Is this practice necessary? Isn’t attention to such things just phariseeism? Won’t this practice offend those who visit? Etc.

Practices such as telling the truth, forgiving one another, kindness to all, etc., are obviously of paramount importance. But Orthodoxy is also the Church of icons. The last great Ecumenical Council was primarily concerned with practice. The making of icons was only part of the question addressed by that council. The veneration of icons was perhaps of far greater importance. The greeting of icons, with metanias and a kiss, may seem to be an action that belongs to the category of custom, but, if so, it is a custom (practice) so important that it required an Ecumenical Council. Other practices may not have required Ecumenical Councils but only because their practice was not attacked by groups of heretics.

I have no wish to stir up a controversy over matters that may seem of little importance. The question that has importance is the encounter between religious practice and secular culture. The moment of uncertainty is a key. If an action creates controversy within a parish, it is likely not a good idea. In parish life, things should be done in good order, and that good order is best kept by the guidance of the priest and goodwill between members.

What is certain is that the faith has its practices and cultural pressures should be acknowledged. Orthodoxy is not an ideology, but a way of life (including outward forms). The outward forms of our life are iconic in nature (at their best). They are not legal requirements. Who should understand the value of iconic forms better than the Orthodox?

With the advent of the Second Vatican Council, many practices of Roman Catholicism began to disappear. I am aware that many Catholics at present lament this aspect of their common life. One effect of this disappearance was the “mainstreaming” of Catholics within secular, protestant culture. They became indistinguishable. An unintended (surely) consequence of this change was the gradual mainstreaming of Catholic belief. Studies indicate that Roman Catholics are largely indistinguishable from their Protestant (and secular) counterparts within American culture. There is no practice which distinguishes them as a group.

I would quickly add that this is largely the same with studies of Orthodox laity within American culture. America is “multicultural” only in its mind (and not much there). Our variety is largely in name only. Orthodox sometimes lament the fact that we have little impact on the society in which we live. Some argue that jurisdictional unity will increase that impact. Jurisdictional unity is desirable because it is canonical. However, it will have little impact on the culture and even less on the powers-that-be.

I have always had an interest in the Amish and some Mennonite groups (they have a presence in Tennessee and Kentucky). Most people are familiar with their rejection of modern technologies (they drive buggies instead of cars and wear clothes and beards that set them apart). I have heard the argument many times that their rejection of the mainstream culture makes them ineffective as witnesses for Christ. However, I find it interesting that a group which numbers so few and famously rejects participation in the larger culture, is so well known and identifiable. Most people are aware that they are pacifist and reject violence. Some are aware that they do not vote or participate in the political structure. Their practices and the contradictions created by them have been the occasion for several movies. These contradictions are of interest to the larger culture for the very reason that they bring into question things that secularism assumes as requirements. Is violence necessary?

Orthodoxy is not and should not be a religious ghetto (in the language of secularism). But the Orthodox life cannot and should not be mainstreamed into a secular culture. An invisible Orthodoxy rejects the wisdom of the Seventh Council and makes a devil’s bargain with a culture that hates our very existence (as it does any form of Christian practice). Orthodoxy has had no Vatican Council, but the same forces within the culture have had an impact within the practices of the Church. The liturgy has largely remained intact, but has been witnessed by an increasingly secularized congregation. The divorce between liturgy and congregational life is a significant reality that should not be ignored. The wisdom and Tradition that guides the liturgy is surely wise enough to guide daily life.

It seems interesting to me that questions of practice are far more controversial than questions of doctrine and the like. That fact says something about relative importance. What we do should not be a matter of indifference. If you would be Christ’s disciple, do something.