Tag Archives: Secularism

Atheist In All But Name

Sunday, January 26 (O.S., January 13), 2020: 32nd Sunday after Pentecost Sunday after the Theophany; Martyrs Hermylus and Stratonicus (315); Martyr Peter of Anium (309-310; St. James bp. of Nisibis (336); St. Hilary, bp. of Poitiers (368)

Epistle: Ephesians 4:7-13
Gospel: Matthew 4:12-17

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Apostle Paul reminds us that God has not simply blessed us but done so in abundance, “to the measure of Christ’s gift” as he says. St John Chrysostom says that to the gift of salvation given in Baptism, “having God as our Father, our all partaking of the same Spirit–these are common to all,” says we each of us also given the gifts needed “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ,” as we await the coming our Lord Jesus Christ in glory.

Everyone here today, in other words, has not only been called but equipped, for the work of building up the Kingdom of God on earth in anticipation of the coming of that same Kingdom in glory. We have each of us been called and made able to work not just for our own personal salvation but for the salvation of the world. This means that we have each of us been called, set aside and been given grace to live sacrificially so that others can come to know Christ and to know themselves in Christ.

Unfortunately, too frequently we adopt the secularism that Fr Alexander Schmemann identified as the besetting failure of Orthodox Christians in America. We are often quite sincere in our affirmation, Schmemann says, of “the need for religion.” We even “give it a place of honor and cover it with many privileges.” But while we look to religion (including the Gospel) to “supply life with ethical standards, with help and comfort, we often fail to expect the Gospel to “transform life” to radically change us, our lives and those we love.

As a practical matter, this means that as an Orthodox Christian I can believe “in God and in the immortality of the soul” even pray daily “and find great help in prayer.” But between my morning and evening prayers everything that I do, is done without any awareness of “the fundamental” truths of the Gospel, “of Creation, Fall, and Redemption.”

Taking Fr Schmemman’s criticism to heart means that whether I am an Orthodox Christian or not, whether I am a priest or layperson, whether I pray daily or not, I live as if I were an atheist.

This is why Chrysostom tells us to “pay attention” to what St Paul says. We have not been given spiritual gifts “according to our own merit.” And, if we had, “then no one would have received” what at all God has given in abundance.

St Paul goes on to list some (though by no means all) the gifts that have been given. “He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers” but again, all for the purpose of “equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”

When I live as if I were an atheist, I make a mockery of the Gospel and show myself to be a fool.

Actually, I reveal that I am worse than a fool. I leave unclaimed the reward that comes from faith in Jesus Christ. In refusing to love sacrificially, I don’t only love a little, I refuse to love at all.

And when I refuse to love? What then? Simply put, I enslave myself to my own desires.

Either I worship God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit or I worship the idol of my own plans and projects. The latter means living always dependent on constantly shifting circumstances and the whims of others. And it is precisely from this state that, as we hear in the Gospel, Jesus comes to free us.

We are “the people who sat in darkness” who have been invited to see “a great light.”

We are those “who sat in the region and shadow of death” upon whom Christ the divine “light has dawned.”

“To repent,” says Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware), “ is not to look not downward at my own shortcomings but upward at God’s love; not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of God I can yet become.” The fruit of repentance is to see myself, to see you and all creation as God sees us.

It is from this vision that we get the desire, the strength and the ability to no longer live “as if” God didn’t exist. It is from this vision that we become able to sacrifice not just fearlessly but also prudently.

The latter is often sadly lacking. Practical atheism is not simply living as if there was no God. It is also living as if, the moral and material limits God places on creation were optional for us.

Swept away by the romance of the Gospel, I fail to ask what God wants from me. And so I fail to ask what is the next step along the way. It is the absence of the vision of God, of seeing as God sees, that causes me to worship my own plans and projects.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Today God invites us, invites me and you, to lay aside the life of practical atheism, of living as if God did not exist. And, its place, He offers us a share in His life and His vision.

He offers us the gift of Himself and the ability to live and love as He does. It is this that is true freedom, it is this what love means and what it means to be an Orthodox Christian.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Schmemann and the Life of the Parish

Fr Alexander Schmemann in his essay “What Is the Parish?” makes what he characterizes as two shocking assertions.

Fr Alexander Schmemann and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

First, that “the parish as we understand it now, i.e., as an organization with officers, by-laws, finances, property, meetings, elections, etc., is a very recent phenomenon and exists, in fact, almost exclusively within the Orthodox ‘diaspora.'” His second, and what he calls his equally shocking observation, is that “in spite of all its religious connotations” the parish as it exists in America is “a product of secularization.” He qualifies this slightly by saying “that in the process of its development within the American way of life [the parish] has accepted a secularistic basis which little by little dissolves the ultimate seriousness of that which it claims to serve and to be, i.e., the Church.” He then goes on to offer a brief analysis of “the genesis and the development of the Orthodox parish in America.”

As for his diagnosis of the situation he says that the parish has become “an end in itself, an organization whose whole efforts and energies are aimed at advancing its own good material stability, success, future security, and a kind of self-pride. And it is no longer the parish that serves the Church, it is, indeed, the Church that is forced more and more to serve the parish.’ This mindset is so entrenched that even the “priest, the last sign and representative of the ‘Church’ in the “‘parish,'” is expected to “entirely subordinates the interests of the Church to those of the parish.”

All of this, he says, is a result of Orthodox Christians capitulation to secularism. Recent sociological studies in the growth (or not) of Christianity both in the US and worldwide, I think give us reason to doubt Schmemann’s analysis of the Church in America. For example, Rodney Stark and Roger Finke (The Churching of America 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, 2nd edition) have argued the churches that have failed to thrive in the American free market of ideas are established churches. It is likely not secularism as such that has led to what Schmemann calls the parish’s “loss of religious seriousness” but rather the Orthodox Church’s loss of state support when its faithful came to America. Living and developing as a beneficiary of the state fosters an inability—and even unwillingness—to compete in the free marketplace of ideas. Like other established churches, the history of Orthodox Church put it at a disadvantage in America. Ironically, freedom and prosperity have harmed the parish. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say, the parish needs to learn how to use the blessings of America to further the Gospel.

Schmemann makes a mistake here common to intellectuals. His scorn for democracy and the free market (economic as well as intellectual) leads him to shift responsibility for the Church failure from Orthodox Christians to American culture. Doing so, however, he overlooks the long history, of prophetic Christian involvement in American. To be sure, this witness is often less than perfect. But as Stark and Finke, argue, not all Christian communities succumb to the temptations inherent in the Novus ordo seclorum. If in fact, as Schmemann argues, the parish “by standards and principles, which, when applied to an individual, are condemned outright by Christianity as immoral: pride, gain, selfishness, and self-affirmation” we need to first look inward and examine our own consciences and practices before we look outward to the social conditions that may have contributed to this state of affairs.

To his credit, Schmemann does look inward. He criticizes “the constant preaching in terms of the ‘glory’ of Orthodoxy.” He is correct when he says that this “is a rather ambiguous substitute for the glory that according to the Gospel is due to God alone.” If in fact, the parish “has replaced the Church and, by the same token, has become a completely secular organization” it isn’t simply because of secularism but a failure to preach the Gospel. It reflects a situation in which we make good Orthodox who are not (necessarily) good Christians in the sense of being disciples of Jesus Christ.

While I think he is romanticizing the history of the Church, when he says that “this it is radically different from the parish of the past” (see for example, the treatment of mediaeval parish life in R. Stark, The Triumph of Faith: Why the World Is More Religious than Ever), he is correct that the parish has in many ways “ceased to be a natural community with [the] Church as its center and pole of ‘ultimate reference’ and ‘seriousness.'”

But this raises, or should raise, a question. If the parish serves the purpose of the Church, what is the purpose of the Church? What is that “common religious ideal” that unites us as Orthodox Christians?

In simplest terms, we are to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16: 15, NIV), making “disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything” Jesus has commanded, confident that our Lord is with us “always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28: 19-20, NIV).

The goal of the Church, and so the parish, then is this:

  • To Preach the Gospel
  • To Make Disciples
  • To Catechize the Faithful
  • To Live in Hope

With all due respect to Schmemann, his argument is that it is the failure to do these things, rather than secularism as such, that has led to the parish’s lack of religious seriousness. In what follows, we’ll look briefly at each.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory