Fr. Michael’s erudition and sharp insight into the folly of Western civilization takes convincing form in this lecture delivered in Ontario in 1978.
Fr. Michael’s expose of secularism should be read as a critique of Western culture as established by the Western intellectual tradition. It is, essentially, an introductory Orthodox worldview that can serve to introduce us, products of the west, to the error of our own society.
Have you ever listened to a debate, perhaps on television, concerning abortion and not heard the name of Christ or God mentioned? Have you ever been dumbfounded by the number of teachers and scholars who publically defend sexual perversion and promiscuity? Have you ever wondered what brought about the Woman’s Liberation movement? What is the ultimate cause of the new wave of vulgarity in music and art? What explains the “slob syndrome” or the excessive informality which everywhere confronts us? Why has “democracy” become almost a political dogma? Have you ever reflected on the gradual disappearance of kingship over the last two hundred years? What is the explanation for relativism and pluralism? What has made ecumenism possible? Why have so many people spurned “organized religion?” In human terms, the word which describes the attitudes, values, and ideas behind this lamentable state of affairs is secularism.
We want, in the time allotted to us, to identify the most characteristic features of modern secularism. We ought to know, at the outset, that it is a Western phenomenon and this explains our preoccupation with the history of Western philosophy and theology. Special attention will be given to France and Germany of the nineteenth century, because it was there that the principles of modern secularism were formulated. Finally, there will be an Orthodox critique of what has become the Churches “changing environment,” the one with which She must contend henceforth.
As a background to our remarks about modern secularism, it will be useful to briefly discuss previously held ideas about the world. Such a discussion, too, will with the aide of historical perspective, bring clarity to the word world in its present understanding. One should be cautioned that the term secularism is a neologism, a new word invented and popularized in this century. We are taking liberties therefore, by applying secular, secularism or anti-secular to those other world-views. To be sure, there has always been a secular tradition in every culture, but its adherents used different language, the language of their time and place, to express their feelings and attitudes.
1. The adjective secular and the noun secularism derive from the Latin saeculum which is usually translated a period of time, an age. It is the complement of the Latin word mundus which refers to the world in space. When a Roman employed the word saeculum, he was alluding to a moment in time; and when he boasted of the Empire’s expansion across the Mediterranean or into Germany, Africa and Britain, he used some form of the word mundus. Rome, as he said, was caput mundi, “head of the world.” Both saeculum and mundum were attributes of time, tempora, which he conceived as reaching indefinitely into the past and future. The thinking of many Romans, however, will change with the impact of Asian and Greek influence.
Among the ancient Greeks the distinction between the world in time and the world in space was never made clear. There is no way to match aion with saeculum or kosmos with mundus. Aion is surely the word for age, but age for the Hellenes was more than a period of time; it was a description of the movement of time itself. Time, said the Greeks, moves in a circle and they saw this cyclicism in everything” the course of empires, the seasons, biological, animal, and human life. Nothing escaped the power of time, of fate: everything came into being, reached its acme, deteriorated and passed into the oblivion from whence it had come, as the Greek historian, Polybius, tells us. This view was surely very common, yet there was also a “mystical tradition,” as some scholars say, which came into greater prominence after Alexander’s conquest. Ideas about the soul and reincarnation, about time and the prison of the body, about the escape from the cycle of time, became very popular.
The Hebrews believed that time was not circular, but linear; time had a definite beginning and was subject to the God who created it with the universe. Time was divided into “ages” (yom) in imitation of the seven “days” if creation. The ideas of duration, extension in space, universe and world (olam) were synonymous. Interestingly, some Hebrews denied the existence of heaven and immortality and looked rather for a political Messiah and a Kingdom of the Jews on earth. The Prophets, at least, preached a heavenly Messiah and a heavenly Kingdom, in anticipation of the gospel.
The Church, while confessing that God made the world good, also teaches that it is in a fallen condition, subject ot the Devil, the “god of the age.” His domination, of course, is temporary. With the Second Coming of the Lord, he will be banished, the resurrection of all flesh will occur, there will be a new and deified universe in which God will be “all in all.” In other words, the Church conceives the world to have been created, governed and judged by God. According to the Fathers, He has divided time into a number of ages, the last or “eighth age” being without end. The history of the world leads to that great and glorious consummation. The Church is the vehicle of God’s Power, a Power which is “in the world but not of it.” The world is both Her enemy and the object of Her love. The task of Orthodoxy is to sanctify the world, to rescue it from the Devil.
Thus, when St. John the Theologian wrote in his first epistle (ii, 15), “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him,” he was not alluding to the creation, but its fallen state: to the world of sin, corruption, death, and the devil. For this reason, St. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, “what fellowship hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial?” (II Cor. vi, 14f). Nonetheless, this opposition between the Church and the world does not mean that She does not yearn to embrace all men, to transform their lives and destinies; on the other hand that love (agape) does not imply that She will disobey Christ. Her hand is out to the man in the pit, but She will not jump into it with him. She cannot save the world by sharing in its folly. The way of the Church is to pull the man out of the pit, that is, to free him from the Devil. God wants regeneration, not re-adjustment.
Modernity demands involvment in “a changing environment,” “changing” because unbelief is always “cast about by every wind of doctrine.” Modernity does not share the Church’s vision of history. The contemporary understanding of the world has antecedents deep in the life of the West, the post-Orthodox West. The movement of its independent existence, of the forming of its own brand of Christianity and its own historical perspective, is not easy to determine. The clear sign that the West was no longer Orthodox, surely, is 1204, the sack of Constantinople. Thomas Aquinas and the thirteenth century constructed the papal worldview, mingling the pure tradition of the Apostles with Hellenism, especially Aristotle. Herein lies a certain irony, for Scholasticism begat the Rennissance, which begat the Protestant Reformation, which begat Pietism and the Enlightenment, which begat Romanticism, which begat the nineteenth century, which begat the twentieth.
Of course, we are guilty of some oversimplification, but, in one sense, the history of the West is the story of gradual secularization. For a more precise statement of the facts, listen to the words of Henry Aiken, Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University:
From one point of view, the whole history of ideas in the modern age may be regarded as the history of the progressive breakdown of the medieval Christian synthesis most powerfully articulated in the Summas of Thomas Aquinas and most movingly and persuasively expressed in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Since the Renaissance, the primary and increasingly crucial ‘existential problem’ of man has been the adjustment of new attitudes and ideas to the orthodox vaules and traditional conception of human destiny that are represented in the medieval synthesis. From the middle of the eighteenth century on, however, the very possibility of such an adjustment came increasingly into question, and on more and more fundamental cultural levels. IN the nineteenth century, many philosophers can no longer credit such a possibility. They determined, therefore, to reconstitute the ideals of Western culture on a radically secular and humanistic, that is to say, a radically non-Christian basis (The age of Ideology. New York, 1956, p. 25).
With the twentieth century, and especially with the Bolshevik Revolution, the West and, indeed, the world, has entered what Harvey Cox has called the “epoch of the secular City.” By this expression he means “a change in the way men grasp and understand their life together” or the determination of modern man to replace the City of God with the City of Man. Man has displaced God as ruler of the earth. “The world has become his city,” Cox observes, “and his city has reached out to include the world. The name for the process by which this has come about is secularization” (The Secular City. New York, 1965, p. 4).
What more specifically is secularization? It is the “liberation” of man “first from religious and then from metaphysical control over his reason and language…the dispelling of all closed world0views, the breaking of all supernatural myths and sacred symbols.” Secularization is “man turning his attention from worlds beyond, and toward the world of this time (saeculum)…” (l.c.). His “liberation” signifies also that man has entered a new period of history, a period when, to use the celebrated phrase of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, man has “come of age.” He is responsible for the world. He is a “big boy” who no longer needs God, the celestial “big daddy” to provide, guide and protect him. As Professor J.C. Raines remarked, “He comes to know himself now as an active citizen and caretaker of this homeland, earth, who must bear, without benefit of eternal interventions, the consequences of his own world-making, world-shattering activity.” He will eradicate his ancient enemies — death, disease, war, oppression and hatred. The great tools of his genius are science and technology. The “end of the Constantinian era has come” proclaims the German historian, Guenter Jacob, “and a new world has begun.”
2. Let us now examine the three most conspicuous features of modern secularism: a) “the death of God;” b) pluralism or “tolerance;” and c) relativism. We will see that pluralism and relativism are the necessary deductions from “the death of God” ideology.
a. The Death of God
The expression “the death of God” or, as some prefer it, “the absence of God” is not a new one; it dates at least from the Eighteenth century. Sometimes it is a declaration of naked atheism; sometimes it means that the Christian God, the God of “New Testament mythology” has been put to rest. Not that the post-Orthodox West or the rest of the world ever knew the true God, but now even their misconception has been eliminated. Modernity is conscious of the unpleasant truth, i.e., no God, and is determined to live without him.
“The death of God” means, therefore, that He is gone as a cultural fact; the God of the old metaphysic has vanished and no longer influences our institutions, our creativity, our morals and manners. Even the soi-disant “secular Christians” are busy redefining the “God” in whom they wish to believe, a God who will not interrupt man’s construction of a “brave new world.” This vision of an empty universe, a universe without a personal, loving God — indeed, without any deity at all — is given shattering utterance in the nihilism of the German poet, Jean Paul. His Siebenkaes, composed around 1796/7, presents “The Speech of the Dead Christ from the Top of the Universe” in which He mourns the loss of “the Supreme Father.” Jean Paul puts these terrible words into the mouth of Christ who wanders aimlessly in the land of eternal shadows.
“Now a tall and noble form, in pain without surcease, sank down from the heights on to the altar, and all the dead cried: ‘Christ! Is there a God?”
He answered, ‘none!’
The whole shadow of all the dead shook, not just the breast alone, and one after the other was torn by the shuddering.
Christ went on: ‘I went through the worlds, I ascended into the suns, and flew along the milky ways through the wastes of heaven. But there is no God. I went down as far as being cast into its shadow and looked into the abyss, and called, “Father, where art Thou?” But I heard only the eternal storm, ungoverned, and the trembling rainbow of life stood without a sun that created it, and fell drop by drop into the abyss. And when I looked up to the immeasurable world for the divine eye, it glared at me with an empty and baseless socket; and eternity lay upon chaos and gnawed it and chewed the cud. Cry on, discords, tear the shades apart with your crying. For He is not!’
(Then came the children and said) ‘Jesus! Have we no father?’ And he replied with streaming tears, ‘We are all orphans, I and you, we have no father.’
Then the discords shrieked more violently – the trembling walls of the temple broke apart – the temple and the children sank down-and the whole earth and the sun sank after them – and the whole structure of the world sank past us, in its immeasurable extent- and at the summit of immeasurable nature Christ stood and gazed down into the structure of the world shattered by the light of a thousand suns, as it were into the pit hurled into eternal night, where the suns move like miners’ lamps, and the milky ways like veins of silver.
…then tall as the supreme finite one he raised up his eyes to the void and to the unfathomable emptiness and said: ‘Stiff and silent void! Cold and eternal necessity! Mad chance! Do you know it, among yourselves? When will you smash the whole structure, and me?… How alone each is in the broad tomb of the universe! I am only by myself. O Father, O Father, where is your infinite breast that I may rest upon it? — Alas, if each I is its own fathers and creator, why can it not also be its own destroying angel?’
…Here Christ looked down, and his eyes were filled with tears, and he said, ‘Alas, once I lived upon the earth. Then I was still happy, then I still had my infinite Father, and still looked joyfully from the mountains into the infinite heaven, and pressed my pierced breast on its assuaging image, and still said in bitter death: “Father, draw your son out of the bleeding body and raise him to your heart!” Alas, you happy earth-dwellers, you still believe in him…you wretched ones, after death, your wounds will not be closed. When the wretched one lays himself down in the earth, with wounded back, to sleep into a more beautiful day, full of truth and joy and virtue, he awakes in tumultuous chaos, in eternal midnight, and no morning comes, and no healing hand, and no infinite father! You mortal beside me, if you still pray, then pray to him: otherwise you have lost him for ever.’
And as I fell down and looked into the bright structure of the world I saw the rings of the great snake of eternity rising up around the universe and falling down to coil yet again around the All, then winding a thousand times around nature, and squeezing the worlds together, crushing the infinite temple into one little church – and everything became narrow and dark and fearful— and an infinitely extended bell-clapper was about to sound times least hour and shatter the structure of the universe — when I awoke.
My soul wept with joy that it could once more worship God-and my joy and weeping and faith in him were my prayer. And as I stood up, the sun gleamed deep behind the full purple ears of corn, and peacefully cast the reflection of its evening red upon the little moon, which rose without an aurora in the morning; and between heaven and earth a joyful and passing world stretched out its brief wings and lived, as I did, in face of the infinite Father. And from the whole of nature round about me there flowed out peaceful soundws, as from distant evening bells.
Later, in the next century, Friedrich Nietzsche will say very much the same thing in his Joyous Science:
Have you not heard of the madman who lit a lantern at noonday, ran to the market place, and cried unceasingly, ‘I am looking for God! I am looking for God!’ Since there happened to be many standing there who did not believe in God, he roused great laughter. ‘Is he lost?’ said one. ‘Or gone astray like a child?’ said another. ‘Or has he hidden himself? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? Or emigrated?’ SO they shouted and laughed. The madman leapt into their midst, and pierced them with his glance. ‘Where has God gone?’ he cried. ‘I will tell you. We have slain Him. You and I. We are all his murderers. But how did we do it? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe out the whole horizon? What did we do, when we unchained this earth from its sun? Where is it moving to now? And where are we moving to now? Away from all suns? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in every direction? Is there an above and a below any more? Are we not wandering as through infinite nothingness? Does empty space not breathe upon us now? Is it not older now? Is not night coming and ever more night? Must we not light lanterns at noon? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers, as they bury God? Do we not smell God decaying? Gods too decay! God is dead. God stays dead. And we have slain him. How shall we console ourselves, chief of all murderers? The holiest and most powerful that the world has ever possessed has ebbed its blood away beneath our knives – who will wipe this blood from our fingers? What water can make us clean? What propitiations and sacred rites will we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed to great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods, in order to seem worthy of it? There was never a greater deed, and because of it all who are born after us are part of a higher history than ever was before!’
The madman fell silent, and I looked at his hearers again. They too were silent, and looked at him with shocked eyes. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, so that it broke in pieces, and went out. ‘I come to early,’ he said, ‘it is not yet my time. This monstrous event is still on the way—it has not yet penetrated men’s ears. Lightning and thunder need time, the light of the stars needs time, deeds need time, even after they have been done, in order to be seen and heard. This deed is still further from men than the remotest stars—and yet they have done it.’
The story goes that the madman went into the several churches on the same day and sang his requiem aetarnam deo. Led out and questioned, he replied just the one thing: ‘What are the churches, if not the tombs and sepulchers of God?’ (pages 161-163 of RG Smith. Secular Christianity. New York, 1966)
There seems little coincidence in the fact that Jean Paul wrote his poem during the era of the French Revolution and Nietzsche was drawing out the implications of that event to their fullest extent. Indeed, there is no more important moment in the history of the West. The French Republic and its Declaration of the Rights of Man, with the motto: “Liberty, equality, fraternity.” Is the first serious attempt to erect a purely secular state, a state without God, a City of Man, of Humanity. Here, too, is the end of the traditional Western notion of descending political power—power conceived as “descending from God through the king; henceforth, political power will “ascend” from the people to their elected representative. In the words of Albert Camus, the condemnation of the king by the French Revolution is “at the crux of contemporary history. It symbolizes the secularization of our history and the disincarnation of the Christian God… God played a part in history through the medium of the king, but his viceroy has been killed. Therefore nothing remains but a resemblance of God, relegated to the heaven of principles” (The Rebel. New York, 1956, p. 120).
AN Orthodox might agree with Camus with a single exception. The disappearance of the French king does not signal the end of the Christian era, for, in the West, it ended long before the death of Louis XVI. For mankind that era, “the Constantinian era,” was terminated with the regicide of Tsar Nicholas II, successor to the Byzantine Emperors, charismatic ruler of God’s people. His assassination at the hands of those who were indeed heirs of the French Revolution, the Communists, is the time when “that which restrains” restrained no more: the “age of lawlessness,” “the age of apostasy” had begun. There is no more sacred monarchy, there is no more sacred nation.
TO be historically precise, the secularization of Russia began with Peter the Great, nearly seventy years before the French Revolution; and, as we know, the process of Western secularization has its roots in the Middle Ages. The French Republic was the climax of that process: the first attempt by Western man to build a new order without God. The supporters of the Revolution gave a new interpretation to the history of the human race and began to relocate heaven on earth. As Professor Carl Becker put it, the philosophers of the French Revolution (Voltaire, Diderot, Montaigne, etc.) “demolished the Heavenly City of St. Augustine only to rebuild it with more up-to-date (secular) materials.” Thus, for God was substituted Humanity, for the Saint the genius, for divine wisdom science, “for hope of immortality in heaven, the hope of living memory of future generations,” to quote Becker once more.
Everywhere through the following century, the significance of the French Revolution was diligently examined. No people were more zealous in their work and none more portentious in their conclusions than the Germans. The first name which comes to mind is George Hegel (1770-1830). A devout Lutheran, Hegel saw that the Revolution called for a new defense of Christianity. He gave his contemporaries a secularized version of it. The only response to the atheism and the deism of the French, he said, was a theology of Immanence: the Trinity became the very world-process itself. Nature was a manifestation of the Absolute, so he referred to God; man was God come to historical consciousness.
When Hegel died in 1830, he had many disciples, not all of whom agreed with his philosophy. Heinrich Heine, the Jewish essayist, described the “Young Hegelians” as “these godless, self-gods” who with their master, had murdered God. “Hear ye not the bells sounding?”, he lamented. “Kneeel down. They bring the sacraments ot a dying God.” The particular objects of his enmity David Strauss, Ludwig Feuerbach, Max Stirner and Karl Marx. This group will also earn the wrath of Dostoyevsky who became acquainted with their ideas through the Russian anarchists, Bellinski and Bakunin.
Among others who wrote works of a similar character was Strauss, who wrote in 1835 his famous The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. His intent was to entirely discredit Christian “supernaturalism” or “transcendentalism.” At the same time, he taught that the entire human race is the unity of God and man. The Incarnation did not take place at one moment in time and to one man, but it has been happening from all eternity. “Humanity is the union of two natures—God become man, the infinite manifest in the finite…” he declared in The Life of Jesus. Christ was only the supreme example of that unity. Strauss argued, furthermore, that nature itself “pulses within the womb of the divine.” Like Hegel, then, he was also a pantheist. Everything for him was divine: all phenomena a manifestation of the Absolute.
No one seemed more impressed with Strauss than Ludwig Feuerbach. He was not a pantheist, but a materialist. Spirit did not exist for him. Strauss had made it clear that man was indeed at the center of things. From that notion, Feuerbach developed his theory that man is “God.” All questions about God, he said, are really questions about man. To affirm God is to deny man as to affirm man is to deny God. His magnum opus, the Essence of Christianity, was written to demonstrate such assertions.
The true sense of theology is anthropology, he wrote. The God of Christian theology is only a dream of the human heart, an awareness of man’s own infinity. Therefore, God is nothing more than a projection of man’s true self, of his ideal being. Feuerbach blamed religion for man’s alienation from himself: it led him to worship a phantom. The elimination of religion will mean that man will overcome that “alienation” and uncover his true self. He will come to realize that all the attributes-omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, justice, etc. – heaped on “the Supreme Being” really belong to himself, to his ideal self. Man will only be happy, then, with the disappearance of religion.
With this kind of thinking, Max Stirner, another disciple of Hegel, evolved his own philosophy—a philosophy of total egotism. His The Ego and His Own is the attempt to delineate what Stirner meant by the uniqueness of the individual, the ego. “I have set my cause on nothing,” he wrote. Nothing “concerns” me, nothing but myself—not mankind, not truth, not freedom, not love, not justice, not fatherland, nothing but myself. Each man is his own cause: man is god to himself. Stirner despised “organized religion,” because it always demanded self-sacrifice. Nothing was more immoral to Stirner. Also, he despised the French Enlightenment, because this movement offered the world the idea of “equality.” Equality, he grumbled, forces me to be like others, to think of the rights of others: it breeds mediocrity. “But nature entitles me to nothing. If I can win a status or privilege, I will take it. I take it by my superior power.” The world can survive only with the genius, the great man, the superior talent or, what Nietzche will later call, uebermensch.
Stirner’s natural enemy was Karl Marx, who opposed to Stirner’s Egotism his own socio-economic collectivism. Marx, as a materialist, could only interpret history in terms of that materialism which meant, as he said so often, the struggle of economic classes. The lack of equality and the existence of egotism has produced misery and injustice. Religion is largely responsible for the unhappiness that man has endured hitherto. He not only believes in a God which is no more than a projection of himself, but he yearns for a heaven which does not exist and cannot exist, save for here on earth. Religion keeps him from this truth: it acts on him as a drug—“religion is an opiate.”
If men are ever to find happiness, they must forget their superstitions and band together to fight those very natural things which prevent it. Negatively, this means the establishment of “the truth of the world” by unmasking “human self-alienation” and, positively, to convert religion and theology to law and politics. Once it is affirmed that “man is the supreme being for man,” then, human consciousness will be raised and we shall become “a new species of being” (Gattungswesen). Only this “new man” will be able to live in the new order, a world in which equality prevails, exploitation ceases, conflict, injustice, hatred, slavery and privilege have withered away. At that moment, love, freedom and plenty will characterize human life. Marx, Socialism and secularism in general are eschatological, utopian, and future-oriented, anticipating a new world on earth.
Until that time, however, revolution is necessary: it is necessary because the privileged will not surrender their power voluntarily for the common good. In particular, Marx wanted the eradication of private property, because those who possess always exploit those who do not possess; and the latter is always envious of the former. IN addition, the possessor always puts his interest before the interest of all. Private property precludes any serious possibility of common action against the enemies of mankind. Society must be united, integrated, if the enemies of man are to be eradicated. There is, too, a certain danger to the common good in the family, because its members work for the survival and prosperity of a unit of society rather than the whole of it.
Those who have the most to lose by the status quo, Marx said, is the “working class,” the proletariat. No one is more exploited and oppressed, as history proves. That class will take its rightful place only with the elimination of all classes, when all men contribute their talents for the good of all. Meanwhile, the proletariat must spearhead the revolution, acting together with other oppressed peoples, in order to achieve their common socio-economic goals. The “capitalist” must be forced to pay a just wage, an action which will lead him to capitulate more and more of his power and which will eventually bring him down. Marx had a lingering fear that the proletariat would settle for security; it must be constantly pushed. Lenin used the word “vanguard” to describe the leaders of the people, an elite which would inform and inspire them.
Now, we are aware that the onus for secularism cannot be laid entirely at the feet of Hegel, Marx and their followers. The Nineteenth century was filled with sages and scientists who wished to displace what they believed to be the Christian world-view, the Christian “mythology.” What makes Marxism and Hegelianism the object of special treatment is the special deference the Twentieth century pays to them. No one doubts the impact of Marxism on our milieu; and it is a tribute to Hegel that every important secular philosophical movement of this century began with an attack upon his doctrine. Nevertheless, his spirit pervades them all—existentialism, phenomenology, pragmatism, logical analysis. It is noteworthy, too, that there is at present a Feuerbachian revival, probably as an addendum to Socialism.
The last century, moreover, is a time of unprecedented advances in the physical sciences. They claimed and continue to claim the territory once held by religion. For example, who can deny the immense significance of Darwin? His theory of evolution eliminated the need for any spiritual explanation of life on this planet. Darwin drove God from the earth as Newton, a hundred years before, drove him from the heavens. And, too, how shall we forget the technological discoveries which have become for us now the source of every good thing, a “source” which men in former times called “Beneficent and Merciful God.”
But, of course, the Ninteenth century struck down, once and for all, the so-called “God-hypothesis;” or, indeed, if there was to be some kind of deity to explain the design of the universe and the maintenance of its laws, this “god” was hardly personal, hardly anything we could worshipl instead, science and philosophy has permitted us a “force,” a “life,” “the Ã©lan vital” of Henri Bergson. The God of Christianity, the Blessed Trinity, is gone. He has evaporated so quietly, so gradually from government, from theater, music, painting, sculpture, poetry, education, mores and family living, that His passing is hardly noticed.
If this God of the Prophets, Apostles and Fathers stubbornly persists, if the true God still lurks somewhere in the dark recesses of the universe, it is in the hearts of the lonely and despised men or in “reactionary institutions” such as the Russian Church Abroad. Undoubtedly, men everywhere want the consolation and inspiration of religion, but they want no creeds and canons, no discipline and dogma. If they want a Bible at all, they want to bend it to their understanding. More and more they want the peace and salvation the world can give, for these do not convict them of sin.
With “the death of God,” the mind is left stranded, without criteria from which to function. When I use the word God, of course, I mean a personal Creator-God. Only a God Who speaks with man, Who communicates with His creatures, Who enlightens them, has any meaning for the problem of knowledge. Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover” or the Hindu “Brahman” or Hegel’s “Absolute” are useless to us. They do not love us, they do not reveal the truth to us, they do not change our hearts. Thus, “the death of God” deprives us of those foundations which make knowledge possible, which allow us to receive and apply the truth. Without God, truth cannot be distinguished from falsehood. Nothing at all can be known with any certainty.
Since there is no absolute criterion, truth must forever elude us and we are condemned to live by the arbitrary rule of “tolerance” or, as modern sociologists and political theorists say, “pluralism.” Necessarily then, just as no sex, race or ethnic groupcan claim superiority over others, no religion may claim to be the “true religion,” that is, a religion established by God for all men. Obviously, since God is “dead” or absent or indifferent, we can only believe, each in his own way, in what we choose to call good and evil, true and false, right and wrong. Logically, then, the modern secular state can be linked with no particular religion. Secularism demands pluralism which automatically precludes a privileged position to any religion.
It is no wonder that ecumenism must take the same position. It may believe that the Church is divided and one day will be reunited, but in the meantime ecumenism must accept an “alliance of traditions.” Doctrinal differences may not be taken seriously, because the full truth is not yet achieved. Without that truth, ecumenical dialogue is in vain. Some ecumenists have come to just that conclusion: pluralism means that either we dismiss doctrinal divergence as meaningless (and thereby offend some of the membership) or we find some common basis by which to justify the continued existence of “the movement for Christian unity.” The answer: common social action, the pursuit of social justice and equality— such as running guns to African terrorists and revolutionaries and disseminating information about birth control. In a word, supporting every secular cause on the face of the glove. As one ecumenist at the Zagorsk meeting in 1968 said, “Let the world write the agenda of the council.”
No doubt one still hears traditional religious concepts and language at ecumenical meetings, but, if they were ever understood Biblically and Patristically by the post-Orthodox West, their authentic meaning is rapidly deteriorating. The words God and Church and Christ do not have the same connotation for all members of the World and National Council of Churches, not even from the inception of these organizations. Such movements have always been implicitly pluralistic. Perhaps, initially some viewed “tolerance” as a suspension of hostilities, a way of promoting genuine love and unity, but pluralism has become an ecumenical dogma. Indeed, there is a new perception of the Church and the world because there is a new perception of God. Recent developments in the metaphysic of becoming and immanence have strongly influenced the ecumenical movement, especially the teachings of Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Bultmann, Barth, Heideggar and, yes, Marx himself.
Inevitably, the Orthodox Church is just another “tradition,” “experience” or “denomination.” Most Orthodox ecumenists are either ignorant or insensitive to the danger which this movement represents. Some of them bask in their fame and delusion. For example, Patriarch Demetrius, Archbishops Iakovos and Bartholomaios believe that uncompromising loyalty to any “Confession” is “religious fanaticism.” They support the idea that the new Orthodox Council, which the Patriarch of Constantinople has proposed, is for the promotion of Christian unity and the opening of the Orthodox Church towards Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, “towards contemporary (secular) culture, with its aspirations for brotherhood…” (Pat. Christ. Ency., 1977).
Such a belief is a tacit denial of the finality and infallibility of Gods’ revelation. The ecumenical Patriarch and his followers are conducting a revolution of their own. They seem totally oblivious to te fact that they are advocating pluralism and introducing secularism into the Orthodox Church. They like to think of their opponents as “religious fanatics” who refuse to face the realities of the modern world. But it is they who are not facing those realities, it is they who fail to comprehend the radical significance of the times through which we are now passing.
There is one more aspect of this unhappy situation that we should mention — the secular attack upon monasticism in which many Orthodox ecumenists have not failed to join. On the ideological spectrum, monasticism and pluralism are polar opposites. The one is “other-worldly” and the other a product of “this-worldliness.” The first is the ideal life, the pattern for all life, the model and criterion of all human existence and, as St. Basil declared, “the monk is the true and authentic Christian.” The second, pluralism, reduces monasticism to an option, reshaped, of course, to accommodate modernity, for in its traditional form monasticism is the negative of secularism. Ecumenists and/or “secular Christians” believe a compromise is possible; that the way of the monk and the way of the world may be reconciled. The result, of course, is simply to reduce monasticism to a secular service.
A Jesuit, E. Larkin, has, for example, called for monastic reform. “Whereas the Christian of yesterday feared egoism and worldliness and tended to seek God outside the world in pure adoration,” he states with some exaggeration, “the Christian of today begins with himself and the world as he finds them and expects to find God there.” The Christian of today views “efforts to neutralize or frustrate inordinate love as something outside the axis of the spiritual endeavor. He is less concerned with purification than with commitment, and for him the means of action, work, is doing for others. He is very optimistic, sometimes quite presumptuous, in the appropriating human motivations and identifying his projects as the work of the Lord. He accepts difficulties: he knows he must rise above ambivalent or selfish feelings and overcome frustrations, ingratitude and other obstacles…”
One may question in what sense the Rev. Larkin is talking about monasticism or even Christianity. There is no mention of holiness as the presupposition to goodness or Grace as the presupposition to holiness. His entire article, “Asceticism and Modern Life” (1963) pays absolutely no deference to doctrinal truth and there is very little allusion to “asceticism.” Monasticism is become just another, but differently organized form of service to man. It is a service which ultimately is no more than self-service.
That the secularist, as a pluralist and relativist, must repudiate or dilute monasticism is the supreme irony of the dream to build a new world. He may learn to late that he has cut away the very foundations of civilization and, if he thinks at all about heavenly immortality, the very possibility of salvation.
Relativism is the Siamese twin of pluralism. In the vernacular, we say, “doing your own thing.” This means the ability to do what I wish without criticism; to do it in my own way. Since there are no universal, necessary and public criteria for conduct, my actions, my “life-style” cannot be judged to be right or wrong. Choice is a matter of taste not law. God is “dead” or, at least, “absent”: there is no commandment, no unimpeachable principle, no sacred injunction. Morality is a personal attitude, a perception, a preference, a value. The Anglican bishop, John Robinson, in his popular book, Honest to God, describes the morality of the Bible as “legalism.” It forces men to live by external and abstract laws, he insists, rather than freely and creatively.
In point of fact, I can do what I want, even murder and suicide, for, as Dostoyevsky said, “If there is no God, all things are permissible.” If I wish to kill you for the sake of my cause, my revolution, my whim, none may condemn me. If I wish to kill myself, no one should prevent me. Dostoyevsky goes further in The Possessed, arguing that relativism — which implies there is no God — demands the highest form of self-will, that is suicide. Kirillov is bound to show his self-will, says the Russian novelist, because it is the only way for him to demonstrate his conviction that God does not exist. “I am bound to show my unbelief,” exclaims Kirillov, walking around the room. “I cannot understand how an atheist could know there is no God and not kill himself on the spot. To recognize there is no God and not to recognize at the same moment that one is god is an absurdity, else one could certainly kill oneself… So I must certainly kill myself to prove that I am god…”
I suspect that not many people would surrender to Kirillov’s logic. Rather they have adjusted to or happily embraced relativism or self-will. Of course, it is an old idea, an idea first propounded by the ancient Greeks. The Cynics and Epicureans espoused it. In modern times, it has won a new popularity. The most famous book in recent times on the subject of relativism and morality is Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics: The New Morality, published in 1966. He maintains that the terms “right” and “wrong” are relative to the “situation,” that is, “we cannot approach every decision-making occasion with a whole apparatus of prefabricated rules and regulations.” The only guide for human conduct is my conscience and the Holy Spirit. He informs me according to the needs of the “situation.”
For example, there is no law which states that sexual activity is always wrong before marriage. We have no right, Fletcher scolds, to label pre-marital sexuality as fornication; it may or may not be. Fletcher agrees with Bishop Robinson that “chastity is chastity only if it is charity—caring enough. And this is the criterion for every form of behavior, inside of marriage or out of it, in sexual ethics or in any other field. For nothing else makes it right or wrong…” In other words, we live for persons and not by laws. The “loving thing to do in a particular situation” is “the right and good thing to do.” One cannot say that living together without benefit of marriage is necessarily wrong. For instance; indeed not, for if it is “the loving thing to do,” the Holy Spirit is present.
Fletcher’s theory is, if I may say so, as superfluous as it is silly. Moral relativism requires no guidance from the Holy Spirit. IN any case, there is no way to determine the Presence of the Spirit; neither can we maintain that love is the sign of His Presence. Not only do we often confuse love and lust, but there is no reason to believe that love is the sign of anything more than my own attitude. Whatever Professor Fletcher may have intended, there is simply no way to reconcile relativism and Christianity. IN fact, there is no need: God is “dead” and pluralism, along with relativism, is the order of the day. There are many life-styles, none of which can or should be refuted. Even Biblical morality has a place. Yet, any course of action is a “value-judgment,” good to him who wants it. One may not even condemn murder, assassination or terrorism by appealing to “the dignity of man” or the “rights” of the individual. Everyone has his own understanding of these clichÃ©s. Besides, there is no right or wrong except to him that thinks it is. I cannot be criticized for anything I do, because there is no sin or, to be more exact, sin is relative. If you think fornication is sinful, that is your business; but you cannot impose your opinion on others.
Relativism, as you now, has a far wider application than morality; it enervates religion, politics, art, etc. The consequence is terrible, because all communication must break down between persons and groups. Relativism renders anything outside my self-will, anything impartial and objective, impossible tor each. Conflict is inevitable. As Thucydides, long before Karl Marx, said: relativism invites compulsion and strife. Marx observed that the rights of one individual or group must sometimes clash; the class or individual that prevails, must resort to force—revolution, if necessary. There is the force of the ballot which imposes the will of the many on the few; and there is the more drastic force of violence. In a few words, “might makes right.”
By now the connection between “the Death of God,” pluralism and relativism should be clear. If there is no God, no personal God, then, we may do and believe what we wish in the way we want, anything from the most detestable and inhumane to the most imaginative and bizarre. Secularists consider the growing state of anarchy, lawlessness and apostasy as temporary. They anticipate that a new and perfect unity will emerge from it. Secularism is, then, the futile search for a rational, man-centered world-order. Here is its entire hope, its faith-one which seems very familiar. It was Adam, was it not, who first wished to place his destiny in his own hands; Adam who wanted to be a “god?” How strange, how ironical, for that was precisely God’s Plan for His creation. He intended that man should become divine, that he should share His Life through participation in the divine energies.
Secularism is a faith, a faith in man, a faith in his future, a future without God or, as the Process theologians say, a future which is God. Orthodoxy is a faith, a faith in God, a living God which it is “meet and right to hymn, to bless, to praise, to thank, to worship,” for He is a God of Mercy and Justice and Power. Secularism was born of a false theology, or more precisely, of a decaying post-Orthodox Wesetern theology. It is an observable decay from Aquinas in the Thirteenth century to Max Scheler in the Twentieth century: a traceable continuum of ideas, a rationalism of the most presumptuous kind.
Secularism is the creature of Western man. He is responsible for what we have euphemistically called “the changing environment.” As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from his Nazi prison more than three decades ago, “Western civilization is about to deny its historical heritage as such. Western civilization is inimical to Christ. That is the peculiar situation of our times and its real decadence.” That denial has been labeled a “revolution,” as indeed it is: a far more reaching and radical revolution than the world has ever seen, infecting every level of culture. Anything “traditional” is not only discarded but discredited. The past is being “salted” and the ground turned over.
The secular revolution has no place for God or, at least, no place for the traditional God. It demands a new concept, if any at all. If there is to be a deity, he must be “the ground of being” or some evolving cosmic principle, anything but a deity, as Nietzsche pouted, that will arous guilt or pity and interfere in my life. This “force” or “ground” of things itself will be perfected with man and the universe in the future—in that new and glorious age. At the same time, a new idea of God implies a new idea of man and, of course, a new idea of nature: sinless but imperfect, man is master of his destiny and nature is his responsibility.
What does this hope for a new world-view mean for the Church and for religion in general? If there is to be a place for them, it is as private preference. The Church as an institiution is entirely historical, even as “God” is something immanent and developing. If She is to survive, if She is to make Her contribution to “the brave new world,” She must begin to thinkof Herself as a wholly natural organization and way of life. She must understand that She, even as people, has no privileges, no quality or power which sets Her above other religions. As all men are “equal,” so are religions. Moreover, She must “demythologize” Her Bible and traditions: all their teachings about the supernatural must be sociologically and philosophically reinterpreted (e.g., the Resurrection signifies the exaltation of mankind). Christ, of course, was simply “a man for others;” doctrines, dogmas, and canons are neither infallible nor absolute, for in a pluralistic and relativistic world, nothing has such attributes. The Mysteries of the Church are symbols of human love and unity; and asceticism, although a “rejection of the world,” is a rejection of the status quo, of the world as it is now; and mysticism is the union of one member of humanity with the whole, the vision of complete harmony and love.
What can the Orthodox Church do in the face of such a challenge, a challenge She must meet if She is to fulfill Her divine Mission? Firstly, let us remember that the Church has always known that this challenge would come. The Saints have for centuries predicted the coming of these times, of this “age of lawlessness,” of this “age of apostasy.” Secondly, the Orthodox People, as God’s People, are Stewards of God’s Revelation, His Treasure. He has stored that Treasure in earthen vessles, to be sure, but he has also sent us the Holy Spirit to guard it. For that reason, too, the Church is “the ground and pillar of Truth:” She cannot err, She cannot lie, She cannot willfully deceive, because the Holy Spirit guides Her into all Truth. Thirdly, we are obliged to “hold fast,” as individual members of the Church, to the Tradition which Christ delivered to the Apostles. Our fidelity to that Tradition brings us sanctification, a sanctification which renders us, lights to them who dwell in darkness.
The Faith we preserve has not developed or changed. The Church has not been seduced by Plato or Aristotle or Freud or Darwin or Marx. She has never found it necessary to follow current trends and fashions to make Her Message appealing. Indeed, She is no beggar of souls. Moreover, She belongs to no century. She is not, therefore, a Twentieth century Church, but the Church in the twentieth century. She exists to change, not to be changed. The Orthodox Church has a Message for the modern world, the same one Christ preached almost two thousand years ago—“Repent! The Kingdom of God is at hand!” Here is the essence of the Gospel, here is the answer to poverty, crime, racism, war, leadership, mores and manners, sex and feminism, egalitarianism, fraternalism and supposed liberty—to all the human problems, national and international. The Church’s answers are sacred not secular, because Her voice is the voice of eternity.
The Orthodox Christian Youth Conference Lectures IN Ontario, Canada, 1978
St. Nicholas Educational Society (Roslindale, Mass. 1978)