Several years ago at the St. Herman Summer Pilgrimage, Fr. Alexey Young delivered a number of lectures on "How to Survive as an Orthodox Convert Today." In essence, the lectures focused on the central thesis of Fr. Seraphim's series on forming an Orthodox world view, which examines the historic development of man's relationship to truth, to God, and to himself. In so doing, they provide a basic framework in which Fr. Seraphim's lectures can be more easily understood. Although rather lengthy for our newspaper format, they express that which underlies the very foundation of "Orthodox America's" activity, and we have compiled them for our readers as a special offering in this 50th issue.
Most of us are in the state of someone who has a terminal disease and is unaware of it. We have the attitude that because we are baptized members of the true Church, we're all set, there's nothing for us to worry about; "We're saved , " as it were. The fact is, however, that there are many, especially among converts, who do not endure to the end, who do not survive the rigors of Orthodoxy which takes one along the narrow path to salvation. They may attend church on Sundays, they may be "members in good standing," but even here we see many, very many, whose souls are infected by the spirit of this world. The prince of this world and all his legions are engaged in a fierce battle for our souls. If we expect to survive their onslaught, we must make haste to acquire a sober understanding of who we are, what we believe, and the condition of the world surrounding us, In this way we should be able with God's grace not only to survive, but to overcome, and to help others onto the path of life.
The purpose of this lecture is to examine this question of survival and to offer some practical suggestions. To begin, we must realize that wherever we look today there is a new concept of truth in the world. On every side--whether in the arts, or literature, or the popular media--one can sense the stranglehold of this new way of thinking, this new methodology in man's approach to truth and knowledge. A hundred years ago one would not be overly concerned about the foundation of one's way of thinking. Until this century most people worked on the same basic presuppositions, perhaps the most fundamental of which was a belief in the existence of absolutes. An absolute is something that exists independently of anyone's opinion, of anyone’s knowledge of it. For example, just because a blind man cannot see the sun does not mean that the sun does not exist, even if the blind man were to deny it. To use another simple illustration: if I say a certain object is a chair, my statement is either righter wrong; either it is a chair, or it isn't, regardless of my opinion or anyone's opinion on the subject.
Until a few generations ago people were united in this common belief in absolutes. This made it possible for them to reason together, to communicate--even if they didn't always agree, even if they held different opinions. They understood that if anything was true, its opposite was false, In the area of morality, if one thing was right, the opposite was wrong. There was the classic formula of logic: if something is 'A,' it cannot be 'non-A.' This century, however, has seen a tremendous shift take place. Today everything seems to come down to a matter of relativity. How often is someone heard to say: "Well, but if you look at it this way..." and "On the other hand..." or "That may be true for some people..." And if one tries to defend the existence of absolutes, one is likely to be branded a fanatic or accused of lack of tolerance.
One would think that this rejection of absolutes could only result in total chaos. Instead we see that a real unity has emerged among people who have adopted, consciously or unconsciously, this new way of thinking, which is basically the logical outcome of the centuries old humanist philosophy--that beginning with man, using man as the only integration point, one can try to understand all things. Anyone who shares in this new way of thinking, whether or not he says he believes in God, cannot claim to be a Christian, because Christianity is firmly based upon absolutes. When our Lord warned us to flee from the vanities of this world, He was not speaking merely about externals. It is not enough that we avoid rock music, or short skirts, or drugs. We are threatened by something far more dangerous, and that is this whole new attitude towards truth which, like a poisonous leaven, is building up in our society and destroying souls. Once we have understood this new way of thinking, all the various external particulars will assume their true place. Without this understanding we shall never have any real communication with the men and women of today, we shall be fruitless as missionaries, and we shall fail to defend ourselves and our children from the spirit of this world.
But before we can even begin to talk seriously to someone about Orthodox Christianity, we must find out if they have a proper understanding of Truth. And we might well ask ourselves the same question. All people, whether they realize it or not, function in the framework of some kind of truth. Our concept of truth radically affects cur understanding of what it means to become and remain an Orthodox Christian. So many people who come to Orthodoxy immediately start reading books about Church history, theology. They should begin at the other end, with the question Pilate asked Christ: "What is Truth?" Truth, ultimately, is not something that is just Orthodox and nothing else. The Bible, the Nicene Creed, Orthodox Tradition - all are important and believable for one reason only--because behind them all is the living God. Here is Truth, the absolute on which Christianity is founded. If God is not there, as St. Paul said, if you find Christ's body, our faith is in vain. But Christ did rise from the dead, and God does exist, not just as an idea, a "force," but as the personal, living God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This truth, this absolute, forms the basic presuppositions of the Orthodox Christian and determines his view of himself, his purpose in life, and his view of the world.
There are many sensitive people today who are struggling for their lives, asking the question: Who am I? What is the purpose of man? The Christian answer is contained in the First Commandment: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength." This expresses both the purpose of man and, individually, my purpose in life. But for someone who has no belief in absolutes, it is not enough to quote this commandment and expect it to solve their dilemma; it will sound like a religious cliché. They need the answer that historic Christianity can give, that God is really there. Since we are commanded to love God, it must mean that God exists and is personal; and that He has communicated something of Himself to man. This first commandment also says something about man--that there is nothing more important for him in life than to love and serve God with his whole being. Here is contained a total concept of truth and life.
The question of truth is not an abstract philosophic exercise. It determines the way in which a person looks at life. What each person considers to be the truth forms the basis of his presuppositions which affect the way he thinks , the way he lives. Most of us get our presuppositions from our family, our surrounding society. It is especially important for converts to realize this, because when they become Orthodox they invariably bring with them non-Orthodox presuppositions which have become ingrained or second nature with them; and in order to successfully rid oneself of these, one must have an understanding of just what these presuppositions are. Although most people get their presuppositions as unconsciously as a child catches the measles, those with more understanding realize that their presuppositions should be chosen after a very careful consideration of what world view is true, because some world views aren't true , and our presuppositions determine the whole direction of our lives, and can even affect the direction of a whole society.
If we hope to understand the basic presuppositions of contemporary society, how modern man thinks and how we can protect ourselves from falling prey to this way of thinking--and at the same time help those who are caught by it--we must go back to the root of these presuppositions and trace their development through history. This brings us to a brief overview of Western culture in which I should like to point out a few main ideas from each era, showing how ideas change and shape the way people are and the way whole societies behave. This will help us discern what lies behind the new way of thinking present in our world, and thereby help us to understand our situation and the tragic dilemma of contemporary man.
This overview begins with a look at ancient Greece and Rome – that cradle of the modcrn Western world, The Greeks attempted to built their society on the city-state, which they called the polis. An individual has meaning only in relation to this polis. For this reason Socrates, when given the choice between exile and death, chose death because he could not be separated from that which gave his life meaning, i.e., the state. This, of course, was a very insufficient basis on which to build a society, and it did not last long. A no less shaky foundation was provided by the pantheon of ancient gods-both Greek and Roman--who more closely resembled mortals than supernatural beings. Late Rome instituted a very authoritarian system centered in the emperor, who ruled as a kind of god. Everyone was urged to worship what was called the "spirit of Rome and the genius of the emperor." But just as man is mortal, no society built upon the fragile foundation of human "gods"--even if they are strong rulers and have absolute authority-can survive. And in 476 Rome fell.
The only survivors were the Christians and the Jews. As diffused arid as persecuted as the Christians were, they were able to resist the pressures of the decadent and cruel Roman society because their world view was based on absolutes which transcended this earthly, transient reality. Their faith did not rest upon the Roman emperor and the cult of his personality, or upon the economic system of the Empire. They lived for another world, here we see the difference that a people's world view makes in their strength as a people and as individuals as they come up against the pressures of life, The Christians not only had knowledge about the universe and mankind that people cannot find out by themselves, but they had absolutes, universal values by which to live and by which to judge the society in which they lived.
It was their world view which caused the Christians to be so violently persecuted--not that they worshipped Jesus Christ, but that they worshipped Him alone. In so doing they radically disrupted the unity of the state and challenged the established Roman world view, which was centered in the formal worship of Caesar. The Romans considered this to be treason and punished the Christians as rebels. No authoritarian state can tolerate those who have an absolute by which to judge that state and its actions.
In the Middle Ages, which lasted' roughly 400 AD – l400 AD, a new element entered Western thought, and this was the growing emphasis on man rather than God. Here the seeds of humanism were planted. In theology it began with the idea that man in some way had to "earn" salvation. No longer is Christ's sacrifice on the Cross sufficient. Now man begins to take upon himself that which belongs to God alone, This opened the door for the concept of indulgences, and one distortion began to follow another, generating developments that provided a whole new alternative to what we might call a truly Christian culture such as still existed in the Eastern world, in Orthodox countries at that time.
Suddenly--and here one sees the influence of the Roman mind-set--baptism becomes important not only spiritually, but also socially and politically, it came to have a very legalistic meaning which allowed for a double standard, Those who weren't baptized, such as the Jews, were considered non-persons and could therefore engage in occupations such as money-lending which were forbidden to baptized Christians. And for centuries to come, the Western Church continued to move away from the light of the Gospel, and into the darkness of humanism.
One of the most influential thinkers of the Middle Ages was Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican monk who lived in the 13th century. He is worth our attention because his ideas gave such impetus to the rise of humanism. Aquinas held that in the Fall man's will was corrupted but not his mind, his intellect. This was a revolutionary, astonishingly new concept, totally foreign to Apostolic Christianity. It meant that man could rely on himself on his own human wisdom to find Truth. No longer necessarily tied to revelation, philosophers began to act in an increasingly independent, autonomous manner. They now felt free to mix the teachings of Christianity with the teachings of non-Christian philosophers. Aquinas relied in particular on Aristotle.
It is important for us to understand Aristotle' s ideas, which Aquinas transformed into the framework of post-schism Western thought, because Aristotelianism set the stage for Renaissance humanism, and can without exaggeration be said to underlie the whole basic problem faced today by Western man. Essentially, Aristotle had taught the importance of particulars, individual things over absolutes, ideal things. The particulars became so important that their true meaning--which is really only derived from their relation to an ethical hierarchy of absolutes--was eclipsed. This was a radical departure from the Platonic world view which had given the pagan Greek world a philosophical preparation for Orthodoxy. If everything is judged from the relative basis of an individual's viewpoint, soon the finite individual ceases to have an ultimate, absolute value. And without some ultimate, absolute meaning or purpose, outside of oneself, what use is there in living? What basis is there for morals? for values? for law? Thus, ever since Aquinas Western man has been faced with a crucial dilemma: how to arrive at universal, general, and absolute ideas that give meaning to the individual's existence-after the philosophical basis for an absolute has been destroyed.
In reaction against the development of Scholasticism, there was another movement which occupied the late Middle Ages. It grew out of the teachings of a 11th century Oxford professor by the name of John Wycliffe. In trying to restore belief in a universal, or absolute truth, Wycliffe went in the opposite direction and asserted that the Bible and the Bible alone was the supreme authority: sola Scriptura. This was another radical, very innovative idea, but one that was not surprising given the growing confusion of the times in which men were struggling with the question of what is truth. Wycliffe's English translation of the Bible raised a voice that was heard throughout Europe. Unfortunately, however, Wycliffe did not have an understanding of the true nature of Christ's Church, and because of this, in his battle against the scholastic humanists, he ironically laid the groundwork for another essentially humanist movement, the Reformation.
Before leaving the Middle Ages, we should dispel two widely held views. The first prejudice of the Renaissance and the 18th century "Enlightenment" against absolutist Christianity was that the middle Ages was somehow a "dark" period in Western civilization. However, the achievement of the magnificent Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals alone should convince anyone that the concept of the Dark Ages is inappropriate. From an Orthodox standpoint it was indeed a "dark" age, but only because the True Church had disappeared completely from Europe at that time; in other words, the True Light, Christ, no longer shone in those lands. Secondly, although the word Renaissance does mean "re-birth"--and no one can deny that from a worldly viewpoint this was a very rich period in man's history, it was not the "rebirth of man". This is a piece of Renaissance propaganda which has come down to us largely unchallenged by Western historians. But it is an idea which we, as Orthodox Christians, cannot accept in light of what really went on at that time.
Moves to Center Stage!
During the Renaissance we seen surge of enthusiasm for pagan Greek and Roman culture. This was inspired partly by increased contacts between East and West as a result of the False Council of Florence in 1439, and by the Fall of Constantinople less than 20 years later which caused a tremendous Western exodus of Greek scholars and Greek texts --including manuscripts of many pagan philosophers. But these would not have had the impact they did were it not for the growing separation of philosophy and theology and the new emphasis on man which the Renaissance inherited from the Middle Ages. The Renaissance perfected an inner "union" between Latin Christian teaching and pagan thought. We see this in the writings of Dante and in the artistic creations of Michaelangelo--for example, his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. In art, these new concepts are particularly noticeable. For the first time all artists began to make use of perspective--which is not wrong in and of itself--but which made it possible to place man in the center of space. It was a very optimistic, very idealized concept of man. Yet what man has ever looked like Michaelangelo' s "David"? This certainly was not the Old Testament prophet king; rather, it was a representation of the humanist ideal of man's greatness. Religious art was now couched in very human terms, at times actually blasphemous. There is Fouquet's (1416-1480) painting, popularly called "The Red Virgin," which everyone knew to be not the Madonna about to feed her Baby, but the king's mistress, Agnes Sorrel! What could be more insulting to pious feelings? While the Virgin had for centuries been highly regarded, now all holiness was removed and representations of her were stripped of any "religious" meaning, Here we can see how individual things were being viewed as more and more independent and divorced from reality.
The Renaissance s full of examples of this new emphasis on man to the exclusion of God. Whereas inthe Middle Ages artists had remained largely anonymous, and gave glory to God for their achievements, in the Renaissance man identified himself as creator; a worshipful aura began to surround men of artistic genius. In Cellini's boastful autobiography, (1558), the idea is proposed that ordinary morality does not apply to geniuses like himself, an idea which received lasting credence among Western artists. What demonic pride! The very genre of biography strengthened man's faith in himself.
Not everyone, however, saw life in such overtly pagan terms. Some realized that it was indeed just that, a pagan "cloud" which ultimately could never support a meaningful philosophy of life. In one study of Leonardo DaVinci we discover that at the end of his life, at the very height of humanism, he began to see where humanism would end. DaVinci realized that starting with man, one would never arrive at any ultimate meaning, and that once the meaning and purpose of existence had been lost, man was no more than a machine, a collection of molecules-which is precisely the conclusion of many thinkers today. It is no wonder that DaVinci who lost all Christian hope, spent the last years of his life at the court of Francis I in a state of advanced depression.
But if men like DaVinci were finally able to see the logical conclusion of humanism, most others didn't, and mankind was held fast in the grip of humanism. Even today we still hear echoes of it: 'I can do whatever I will, just give me enough time.' This is fallen man speaking. But, of course, once man had placed himself at the center of the universe, independent of everything else, it was almost impossible to dislodge him; the most powerful patterns of art in Europe, the Renaissance popes, themselves fully supported this neo-paganism.
Move to Reform
The Reformation fathers tried to overturn this very unchristian concept. Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the church door in Wittenburg in 1517, Zwingli led Zurich in a break with Rome in 1523, the Church of England broke with Rome in 1534, Calvin wrote his Institutes in 1536. Although there were some serious gaps in their understanding, these men sincerely wanted to give some answers that the Church of Rome--suffused with humanist culture--could no longer give.
In contrast to Thomas Aquinas, the Reformers realized that relying solely on his own wisdom, man could never arrive at Truth. They took up Wycliffe's rallying cry of sola scriptura. This, of course, placed the Bible under the Church, which is not an Orthodox teaching, We must understand this, however, because it is an important part of what Western Christianity and Western thought are today. The Reformation did have some good points; it believed that what God and the Bible say is true. and that we can therefore know something about God. But if the Reformation returned God to a position of supreme importance, it was, ironically, man who remained at the center. This was a very subtle outcome of the Reformation doctrine that each man was guided individually by the Holy Spirit to a knowledge of Truth. An analysis of this idea reveals a very egocentric world view. Nothing like this had ever been taught in the Church before. Suddenly, Sacred Tradition was dismissed and there was an entirely new concept of the Church. If there was a healthy emphasis on the need for a personal relationship with God, the Reformation interpretation of this also carried within itself a distortion: as man approached God in this individualistic way, the mystery surrounding God and the vastness that separates man from God on account of man's sinfulness--an understanding vital to the preservation of a sense of humility and unworthiness--this began to disappear. It is interesting to observe at this time the disappearance of what are called rood screens, which existed in almost all European cathedrals prior to the Reformation. These screens separated the nave from the sanctuary, somewhat similar to an Orthodox iconostas. They were called rood screens from the ancient word for the Cross, the Holy Rood. With their removal throughout Protestant Europe, the sense of holy mystery began to diminish.
Clearly, the Reformers had their faults-and they were not minor ones, but it would be a sad mistake to dismiss everything from this period as being corrupt. Some of the greatest musical geniuses emerged from the Reformation tradition. The music of Bach and Handel, for example, is among the most edifying music to grace Western culture, Bach's private piety was such that he wrote on his scores the initials representing phrases such as: "with the help of Jesus," "to God alone be glory,' "in the name of Jesus," etc. The last composition he wrote was appropriately titled, “Before Thy throne I now appear." And who is not familiar with Handel's masterpiece, "The Messiah'', composed in 1741. This could only have come from a culture such as the Reformation, in which the Bible stood at the center'. One notices that the order of selections in this oratorio follows with extreme accuracy the New Testament's teaching about Christ as the Messiah. Here we see again how much a person's world view shows in his creative output and thought. In the art of this period we cannot but admire the sensitivity and compassion with which the 17th century Dutch painter Rembrandt treats his subjects. Although he does portray man as being 'great"--the humanist idea--he also shows that man is cruel and ugly because he had rebelled against God. (But unlike some other painters of his time, Rembrandt did not hold human beings up for ridicule and make them into grotesque creatures .) His paintings of old people are especially filled with love and gentleness. This was the positive side of 17th century humanism.
Apart from this, there were other vast areas in which the Reformation sadly failed people of the West. In the area of race alone, there were two kinds of abuse: one was slavery, and the other was racial prejudice. This harkened back to Aristotle's definition of a slave as a "living tool," and even Christians permitted themselves to regard the black man as a non-person, With the exception of groups like the Quakers, the Protestant Churches were all too often silent about these abuses. Many who have read Dickens are not acquainted with his American Notes (1842) in which he exposes the atrocities of the American slave system. He cites passages from American newspapers. To give an example: "Detained at the police jail the negro wench Myra; had several marks of lashing and has irons on her feet." The United States was a predominantly Protestent country, and yet it took many years and a Civil War before slavery was abolished.
Another' negative consequence of the Reformation was the non-compassionate use of accumulated wealth, especially in the 19th century. This is a glaring example of inconsistency with Christian principles, and resulted in the growth of slums in London and other cities in England and Europe. Many of Dickens' novels give a stirring social commentary on the conditions of those times, with the 12-16 hour long working days, the exploitation of women and children, and the vast discrepancy between the wealth of the few and the misery of the many. The point is that because the Reformation had only a partial, flawed, understanding of man and of God, it was unable to provide a needed voice to oppose these abuses.
Elevation of Reason
The 18th century was characterized by the utopian dream of the Enlightenment. “Reason" was the foundation for all that was good: happiness, progress. There was an air of optimism and a belief in the perfectibility of mankind. Religious thought centered in deism. If God existed at all, He was silent, and it was the task of Reason to deliver the Truth to man. The Enlightenment thinkers perpetuated the Renaissance fascination with pagan ideas. To see this, one has only to visit the house where Voltaire died (1778) in Forney, France. At the foot of his bed is a painting of the goddess Diana reaching down to help man. This is what Voltaire, one of the most ardent of the French philosophers, saw on waking up each morning, not an icon of Christ or the mother of God, but a picture of a pagan goddess.
During the French Revolution men reached a state of such frantic pride that they considered themselves independent of the old order, and to make their outlook perfectly clear, the revolutionists changed the calendar, which was no longer to center upon the Advent of Christ, Anno Domini, but focused on the Revolution: 1792, the year of the Revolution, was proclaimed the year 1! Scorning tradition, they destroyed many things and went so far as to suggest the destruction of some of their cathedrals. Having silenced God the Creator, they elevated "Reason" to a position of supremacy, carrying into Notre Dame Cathedral an actress dressed in Roman costume who represented the Goddess of Reason! More often than not, history courses paint an idealized and distorted picture of the French Revolution--"liberty and equality'', the rich against the poor. But a careful study shows that this period was rooted in a total rejection of a Christian basis for life, and a revival of paganism whose destructive influence, like the shock waves of an earthquake, reverberated throughout Europe, affecting everything from painting to science to educational theory. Europe, Western man, our world, has never recovered; from this time we became even more a truly post-Christian "civilization".
Enlightenment thinkers adopted two major presuppositions of the pagan Greek world: rationalism--the assumption that by the use of his intellect man can ascertain truth for himself, and derive universals from it, and can therefore reject the idea of revealed absolutes: and a rather naive optimism that the power of human reason and human will is sufficient to create a good and just society. (One must be careful here not to confuse rationalism, with its dependence on fallen human reason, with reason itself, which is a gift from God.) In view of such an understanding it is not surprising to find in the 19th century various attempts at utopian communities-some utterly fantastic--led by such men as Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen.
This current of optimism is strongly felt in the works of the Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), the most influential of all the 18th century writers. According to Rousseau's philosophy, primitive man--as he could be found in the wilds, undisturbed by modern society--was superior to civilized man. He believed that man was good by nature (not a Christian teaching) and that corruption was brought on through the influence of society. He concluded that primitive man was therefore innocent because he was free of these influences. Following his argument, man's goal should be to achieve freedom--freedom from the corrupting institutions of civilization, freedom from the shackles of tradition, freedom from law.
In his Confessions, Rousseau sees himself as destined to show man the only road to salvation. Realizing that a return to nature was neither possible nor entirely desirable, Rousseau proposed the creation of a moral and just state which would serve both as a center of values and as the preserver of these values. This could only be achieved provided that the individual will of each citizen was sublimated to the will of the state. Children must therefore be educated in such a way that they are formed into the desired model while believing themselves to be free. This is the philosophy behind the communist system of education. Rousseau's ideal, however, was the virtual absence of education. Like the "noble savage," children who were left free from the harmful restraints and preconception s of society would, he believed, naturally develop their inherent goodness, they would investigate and figure out for themselves values and moral judgments and would arrive at what was good. Anyone familiar with the Montessori Schools can see here the basis for their philosophy. Most people, however, are unaware of the profound impact that Rousseau has also had on the American school system--and the harm this has caused. John Dewey, whose name is all but synonymous with American education, was very much influenced by Rousseau. According to Dewey, that "great" modern educator, there are no absolutes, and therefore a teacher or an enlightened parent must not lecture a child; he must not seek to impose his values on the child. In the classroom teachers should not so much instruct as guide and encourages child to discover learning on his own. And this idea carries over into other areas of life. Raised in this system of moral and subjective relativity, parents today are often heard to say, "I'll let my child decide when he grows up what church he'll attend." Such a statement accurately reflects the lack of absolutes characteristic of the philosophy of education today. It is very important for Christian parents to be aware of this in order to be able to combat it in their children. As Christians, we believe in a very definite absolute, and therefore it does matter what our children believe, and it does matter to which Church they belong. So many people today base their whole world view on this philosophy without being aware of it; they pride themselves on being tolerant and do not realize that they are depriving their children of any secure values and, ultimately, of any real meaning in life.
Among those who sought reality in Rousseau' s ideas was the French painter Gaughin (1848--1903). So intent was his search that he abandoned his family and went to Tahiti to try to find Rousseau's "noble savage," But to his great dismay, he discovered that Rousseau's conception was an illusion. His experience showed him that "primitive" man could be just as cruel, immoral, and heartless as men under the influence of the civilized world. Seeing the cruelty of man's nature, Gaughin was driven to despair. This is expressed in his last great painting – an enormous canvas now at the Fine Arts Museum in Boston – appropriately titled: "When Came We? What Are We? Whither Are We Going?" Truly, left to himself man cannot find the answers to those ultimate questions. What Gaughin discovered in Tahiti was perfectly true: man's nature is fallen and in this fallen state it can be very cruel. A book popular a number of years ago, William Golding's Lord of the Flies, provides a good illustration of this very point, Gaughin was so shattered by this revelation that he tried to commit suicide. Most people, as we said before, do not think seriously about their presuppositions. If they analyzed them carefully and followed them to their logical conclusions, as did Gaughin, there would be even more incidents of suicide than we have today--which only proves the fallacy of this world view.
Another example of someone who believed in the deification of nature, of what is "natural," is the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), a French writer notorious for his debauchery. Taking nature as a moral standard, he concluded, very logically, that if nature is all, then whatever is, is right, and there can be no right or wrong. As a result, in his book La Nouvelle Justine (1791), he was able to write: "As nature has made us, thereon, the strongest, we can do with her, the woman, whatever we please." And with this philosophy he justified the most perverse behavior from which the word "sadism" was coined. It is important to understand that although De Sade died in an insane asylum, he cannot be dismissed as being crazy; his depraved actions were consciously based on philosophical principles,
But not all European thinkers were convinced by the romantic notion of Rousseau's "noble savage." There was a school of rationalists who were increasingly coming to the conclusion that man was but a machine. This signaled a tremendous shift away from the optimism which characterized the earlier rationalists. Using the Cartesian foundation, scientists in the 19th century began to teach that the universe was a closed system, According to this theory, there is absolutely nothing that exists outside this total cosmic machine of the universe, nothing--not even God, If God exists at all, He, too, must be part of this great cosmic machine, if not, indeed, identified with it. Following this theory everything can be subjected to tests, to examination through microscopes, telescopes; everything can be explained on the basis of materialism--including the human soul. These men felt that given time, science would provide all the answers and solve the mystery of life. It was the Enlightenment philosophy and not any new scientific discoveries that provoked such an attitude. In the Middle Ages scientists worked from the presupposition that God exists and that He created the universe. This explains why they seem to have been uninterested in probing the origin of life--a question of such concern to modern science which functions without regard to revelation. It is an interesting and little known fact that the scientist Francis Bacon (1561-1626) also wrote a number of theological treatises, an accomplishment not unusual for a scientist of his time.
The idea of a closed system is, of course, contrary to the Orthodox Christian teaching that God exists outside and independent of His creation. Parents must be very aware of this distinction and help children who are exposed to these "scientific" teachings at school to understand the logical consequences of such theories.
By the end of the 19th century the logical
consequences of this rationalist, scientific interpretation of the world were
becoming clear to the intellectual elite; it would still be some decades before
they penetrated the world-view of the average manor woman. If the closed system
forced the exclusion of the Christian God, it also left no place for man,
because without God man loses his identity as man and becomes simply a
biological machine. This is a very cold, cruel view of the world indeed, because
within such a framework not only is there no place for God and no place for man;
there is no place for love. And this is the tragedy which characterizes our
And much it grieves my heart to think What Man has made of Man. Wordsworth
science and philosophy had reduced man to a machine, there was no sense left in
the idea of personal freedom. Everything a person did, everything a person was,
could be explained by a form of determinism; man was conditioned like any other
animal, and any sense of freedom or choice was just an illusion. In retrospect,
we can see that by divorcing himself from God's revelation, by trying to make
himself into something autonomous, something independent, man followed the
ruinous course set by his proud humanism and became nothing more than a chance
collection of molecules, the very opposite of what he had envisioned. And if
this is true , philosophers such as Satre are justified in saying that life is
absurd because, as we have seen, if there are no absolutes, no universals,
nothing has any real meaning, and we may alI just as well be actors in Ionesco's
theater of the absurd.
This new philosophy of the absurd was well illustrated by the prolific 20th century artist Picasso.In his early years Picasso was influenced by Rousseau's romantic idea of the noble savage, as well as the impersonal geometric forms of Cezanne. But with his canvas, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907), he exhibited a radical departure which shocked even his contemporaries, Braque and Matisse. With few exceptions all his subsequent paintings convey a very bizarre sense of reality--if it can be called reality at all. It seemed that he was less interested in exploring the use of color, form, space, than he was in expressing some kind of private reality which cannot be fully communicated to the viewer. However, Picasso shared the presuppositions of the intellectual elite of his time, and with an understanding of the se presuppositions, one can at least understand something of the genesis of his ideas. The grotesque, often tortured figures on his canvasses accurately reflect that philosophy of despair, that world in which there is no place for God, no place for man and no place for love. Looking at his paintings, one cannot but see the emptiness, the futility of life without God. In some of his later works, particularly his sculpture, here is an element of amusement which a serious viewer can only see as mockery. And, in fact, Picasso understood his audience and his times so well that he was able to play the genius, and few were honest enough to call his bluff. In an article he wrote in 1952, Picasso himself draws back the curtain on his private world.
"In art people no longer seek consolation or exaltation .... they seek after whatever is new, odd, original or scandalous. Since Cubism and what followed, it is critics such as these I have sought to please with whatever bizarre extravaganzas entered my head. The less they understood, the more they admired me. By dint of amusing myself with such fun and games, I became a celebrity in no time. Fame for a painter means sales, gains, a fortune. Today, as you know, I am both famous and rich· But when I am alone, alone with myself, I haven't the courage to consider myself an artist in the former grand sense of the term. Giotto, Titian Rembrandt, Goya · ..there were great painters. I am only a public clown who has understood his period and has exploited as best he could the imbecility, the vanity, and the cupidity of his contemporaries."
Here at last is an honest statement in a world which has become cluttered with fakery, and this we must avoid at all costs, no matter what face it chooses to wear-whether art, music, philosophy, literature, even theology. We have focused on Picasso because as one critic stated: "No name more aptly conjures up the past century in art than does Picasso, and the image of our times transmitted to posterity may well be the one represented by his drawings, etchings, paintings, ceramics and sculptures." if this is so, future generations will make no mistake in discerning the chaos, insecurity, hopelessness and despair which are so much a part of the modern world.
The same message is carried by 20th century music. In 1973 Leonard Bernstein wrote about the Swedish composer Gustav Mahler: "Ours is the century of death, and Mahler is its musical prophet. If Mahler knew this death of tonality and the death of culture as it had been, and his message is so clear, how do we, knowing it too, manage to survive? Why are we still here struggling to go on? We're now face to face with the truly ultimate ambiguity which is the human spirit, the most fascinating ambiguity of all. We learn to accept our mortality, yet we persist in our search for immortality. All the ultimate ambiguity is to be heard in the finale of Mahler's Ninth."
Just as thoroughly as philosophy or art, music disseminated these ideas of despair throughout our culture. This is all the more regrettable since more than any other art form music has the gift of being able to elevate man' s spirit towards the sublime. Just as any artist, however, a composer is influenced by his world view. Therefore, it is not surprising that like art, the transcendent language of music has been harnessed to the service of the absurd. The modern composer John Cage, in one of his pieces, comes out onto the stage, sits down at a grand piano, and remains there for three minutes--in total silence. He then gets up, bows to the audience--and everyone applauds. While critics may praise his novel approach in exploring the rational limits of musical form, would not Cage himself admit, like Picasso, that his "artistry" was dishonest?
Alone With Himself
A similar movement is to be observed in literature. Camus, Kafka, Joyce, Fitzgerald--their books are now considered to be classics, and they all echo this philosophy of despair. The roes sage of more modern literature is no less discouraging. If despair is rooted in the denial of absolutes, one would expect the intelligent man to seek a reversal of this orientation and cry out for truth at any cost. Instead, the erosion of meaning, the erosion of values continues, and man sinks deeper and deeper into this t re g ic abyss. Moreover, our times are possessed by such a lack of seriousness that we brazenly flaunt the meaninglessness which has driven more thinking men to suicide. The American writer Henry Miller made quite a sensation in plastering the pages of his novels with sex. By thus drenching the reader with sex, he reduces it to the mundane, robbing it of meaning. This was especially devastating for modern man who still had hopes that if any meaning was to be found, it might be found in the sexual area of life. Now this, too, was exposed and ridiculed. And the casualness with which the subject of sex is treated today is due in large measure to the popularity of writers like Miller and a whole generation of writers after him, who have elevated pornography to the level of a philosophic statement.
Even homosexuality, a subject once frowned upon, now came into the open, encouraged by works such as D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, which was made into a film in the '70's. And this inspired a whole philosophy, a world view that is much more harmful in the long run than homosexuality itself. Already this modern form of sexuality --which denies the idea of opposites, of antitheses--has led to a growing obliteration of the distinction between sexes . This can be observed in many areas of life--in fashion, in sports, in social behavior. Men and women are rapidly losing their identity; no longer are they complimentary partners; we are now made to believe that they are very nearly similar--sexually, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically. And because they are so much the same, it doesn't matter if a man chooses another man for a partner, or a woman goes with another woman. In schools the idea is being Introduced that homosexuality is simply an alternate lifestyle. If indeed there are no absolutes by which a child is taught to think otherwise, he will accept homosexuality together with a host of other evils which have already disfigured our society.
One more example in the area of literature which illustrates the prevalence of hopelessness and meaninglessness in life may be found in the play Martin Luther, written by John Osborne, one of the 'angry' young men of the '50's and '60's (angry in the sense of being an idealist frustrated in his search for an ideal). The play has its weaknesses but in general it portrays the early part of Luther' s life with accuracy. The ending, however, has much more to say about modern man than about Luther. In the final scene, the elderly abbot of Luther's former monastery comes to visit him. One expects a wonderful confrontation between the two different world views: the elderly abbot representing the traditional Roman Catholic culture, and Luther representing the new, Reform movement. Instead, the abbot turns to Luther with the question: "Do you know you were right?" And against all history Osborne has Luther reply: "Let us hope so." The insecurity of this last line makes its 20th century play. Today man cannot accept, even historically, that it is possible to know anything with assurance. Those who do claim to have an assurance that what they believe is the absolute truth are considered to be either naive or fanatic. Such belief is regarded as being neither reasonable, nor even civilized.
The philosophy of despair is no longer the possession of an elite. It is not necessary to go to art galleries and view the latest sensation or to listen to sophisticated music like Mahler; today's common media carries this message just as effectively. To single out an example, the poster for the 1960's movie "Blow Up" by Antonioni--considered as one of the avant-garde film directors--read: "Murder without guilt; love without meaning." This was more than clever advertising. The movie confronted the viewer with a compelling statement of the negative philosophy which has overtaken the contemporary world. If there are no certainties concerning moral values, it becomes possible to commit murder and not feel guilty; it become s possible to indulge in illicit sex without love. What basis remains for judging right and wrong when the boundary separating reality from illusion ha s disappeared? The world is indeed a stage.
But who could be satisfied with this message of despair? When the surrounding reality of this world was pronounced to be an illusion, the search began for another reality. The writer Aldous Huxley suggested that drugs were the solution; they could direct man' s quest for meaning. Huxley first alluded to this in his book Brave New Worlds (1932) in which he calls the drug "soma"; this becomes very symbolic when one realizes that it is the name of an eastern drug which the Hindus believe keeps the gods contented, In his later book, The Doors of Perception (1956), Huxley makes bold to advocate the use of drugs to liberate the reality that he claimed was locked up within each person's mind. This provided an entirely new direction in the world of ideas. Huxley tragically influenced a whole generation of young people and brought a tawdry end to his own life; he made his wife promise that when he was ready to die, she would give him a hallucinogen, and that is just what happened; he died in the midst of a drug trip, totally divorced from the reality of life for which all men must give an account at the Last Judgment.
If we have any desire, for the sake of Christ, to reach people affected by the drug culture, we cannot simply dismiss the drug experience as a sin or some terrible aberration. True, it is a sin, it is an aberration; but in order to communicate with these people we must understand why--why they are attracted to drugs, why it is wrong. Sensitive people in the '60's were using drugs not as an escape, but in hopes that they would experience some reality, that they would find some meaning for their lives. Science, art, philosophy--the message of despair was written everywhere. By that time there was an overwhelming need for some kind of rational experience that would make sense out of life. Rationalism which had supported man for centuries, had suddenly come to a dead end; man had discovered that there was no objective truth, no objective reality. He felt that he had been brought up against a wail and only by a "leap of faith," or a leap into non-reason, could he hope to clear that wall.
The problem in trying to reach these people is that the content of their drug experience is not open to communication. Whether a person describes a drug experience as nonsense or says he met God, he can talk about it, but he cannot communicate it in the same way one can communicate the objective reality of a tree. The point here is not so much to evaluate the drug experience --demonic or not--but to be able to assure the drug user of the reality of the external world, a world which was created by a God Who exists apart from His creation. This world is not merely an extension of His essence; it is not in any way to be identified with Him-i.e., nature is not God. Secondly, God created man in His image; each man is a unique, real and personal being with qualities which set him apart from animals. And this world created by God exists outside of anyone's brain; it is there whether a man is aware of it or not. Such is the objective truth which is the unmoveable foundation of Christianity.
Unfortunately, if the drug user extolled his experience as heightening his perception --if, for example, he felt he had experienced the redness of a rose--he was still unprepared to admit that his perception had anything to do with an objective reality. Instead, drug users developed a whole new culture around their experience which had the effect of taking them further and further away from any reality outside themselves. The rock music groups which carried the gospel of this new culture were very successful in perpetuating the idea that life is but an illusion and the only answer is to get high. This also served to mask the face of this new ideology which proved more and more hideous as one rock star after another overdosed on drugs and drowned in his own vomit. The n e w and wonderful era anticipated by the Woodstock Festival in the summer of 1969 was stillborn; the last vestiges of Rousseau's 'noble savage', which the hippie movement had resurrected in its optimistic message of freedom and love, were sacrificed on the altar of the drug culture. What had begun for some as a desperate search for truth became a mass escape movement serving to insulate people from the only reality which could give their lives any true meaning.
This suffering culture of drugs and despair, of seeming dead ends, provided fertile ground for the new solution to man' s problems offered by the Eastern religions. These provided an ancient tradition which confirmed the latest discovery of Western man – that the world itself is an illusion, maya, Yoga and other techniques of meditation unlocked the door into a private fantasy world where each individual was free to construct reality as he so desired. The oriental doctrines had an advantage over the drug culture in that they could more convincingly lay claim to satisfy man's inherent need for religion. There was less guilt in a rejection of Christ if Buddha could act as a fair substitute. This attraction to the Eastern religions was fed by the intellectual insistence on tolerance and the false notion that all religions were basically leading up one and the same path. The fact is that Buddhism is the supreme delusion; by denying any reality it robs everything of meaning, of purpose, and can provoke the destruction of the mind as the devotee seeks to lose his very self.
Given the hollow atmosphere of society at the time, it is not surprising that students in the '60's began asking very basic questions: "Why go to college? Why get married?" When parent s answered by saying, "In order to get a good job. Why? To make more money. Why? So that you can buy more things and send your children to college"—the implication was that there was no answer. And many young people gave up hope in searching for meaning, for truth. While rebelling against their parents, they often came around to accept the same impoverished values with which they were raised: personal peace and affluence. Not long after being engaged in discussing the 'family of man,' the new generation was burying itself in material possessions, isolating itself from anyone or anything that threatened to intrude upon its selfish little world. If the parents still presumed to adhere to basic Christians principles, at least on a social level, even these now disappeared. The 1973 Supreme Court decision on abortion was spurred not by compassion for the poor, but by a tremendous rise in illicit sex and the selfish desire of women to control their lives without restraining their appetite for pleasure. The same selfish motives may be found in the contemporary move towards euthanasia and the still more frightening experiments with genetic engineering. With the capabilities of modern science, there is no limit to the harm man can impose upon himself once he has dispensed with the Christian standard of ethics and morality, in many areas of life man has already usurped the place of God.
What possibilities are left to our society? What values will supplant those belonging to the lost world of Christianity? There is very little on the horizon that looks promising. We see a shocking rise in hedonism--in the modern obsession with the body, with food, fashions, sex, material gadgetry, luxury items. But this can only lead to chaos. Another possibility lies with the "absoluteness" of the 51% vote, With the loss of real absolutes by which anything can be judged, America's increasing dependence on the polls is very frightening. One has only to remember that it was by means of the 51% vote that the outrage of Hitler's rule in Nazi Germany was possible. Abortion is now sanctioned because of a majority vote. Is euthanasia next? On this basis, law and morals become a matter of averages. Already this majority rule has brought about a whole revolution in sexual behavior. Two studies authored by Charles Kinsey in the early '50's and based on 18,500 interviews showed that x percent people engaged in premarital or extramarital sex. This indicated to the reader that if it was such a widespread practice it must be all right. Aided by similar statistics homosexuality is gaining the same kind of acceptance today. The underlying conception here is that the correctness of sexual behavior depends only on what people do at a given moment of history. And this is the standard which governs our society today.
In view of these brief observations concerning the development of thought and behavior patterns in our society, it is very revealing to look back at Edward Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, written in the 18th century. In his analysis the following five attributes marked Rome at its end:
End of the Road
Already we can see two effects of our loss of meaning and values. First, the marks of ancient Rome's degeneracy scar us from one coast to another. Second, a vacuum of power is being created; society cannot tolerate for long the chaos and confusion which it experiences today; it is bound to be overtaken by the government of an elite. A Time magazine essay entitled "Leadership in America" begins with a quote from the secular philosopher, Ortega y Gasset: "Before long will be heard throughout the planet a formidable cry, rising like the howling of innumerable dogs to the stars, asking for someone or something to take command." If to some this resembles "Star Wars," on a more serious level one senses that the stage is being set for the entrance of Antichrist. This will be facilitated by preparations already begun through one of the greatest dangers facing us today, a danger unknown to ancient Rome: technological manipulation. One basic form this takes is the media whose influence no one will deny. How many families live in the presence of a television reality? How many children are forming their values--not by what they are taught at home or even at school, but on the basis of television programs? "Welcome Back Kotter," for example, is a TV comedy which essentially teaches a gross disrespect for authority. Children know best, innocence conquers all, ethnics have class, dumb is cool, grown-ups can't hack it... The modern idiom readily transmits the message to children. And they are not the only ones to be manipulated.
One theory of manipulation already mentioned is determinism. B.F. Skinner's book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971)proposed that we are all products of environmental conditioning. We should therefore set aside our illusions of free will and concentrate on how best to condition the next generation. "Survival,'' writes Skinner, "is the only value according to which a culture is eventually to be judged." Reduced to a chance collection of molecules, man now has value only in terms of biological continuity. This is a very lamentable state indeed. Looking past Skinner's sociological determinism to the newer fields of chemical or genetic determinism, and realizing the vast applications for computer technology, we see that the door is already open to a nightmarish world in the future.
George Orwell, one of the few popular writers to emerge from the heart of Marxism, recognized an essential fact about our times – that we are giving up all contact with reality, with what is outside ourselves, and in so doing, we are left not with the absence of reality, but with a fake reality, a fantasy which we create in our own heads. No longer is it necessary to manipulate the environment; it is enough to control the mind. This he effectively illustrates in his novel 1984 in which Orwell gives a grim picture of the possible outcome of a world whose absolutes are conditioned by the whim of an elite, a world in which the sacredness of the individual, the sacredness of life, is rejected in favor of the "Party":
"It was as though some huge force were pres sing down upon you--something that penetrated inside your skull, battering against your brain, frightening you out of your belief s, persuading you, almost, to d e n y the evidence of your senses. In the end the Party would announce that 2 + 2 make 5, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final most essential command. And yet he was in the right. They were wrong .... Truisms are true, hold on to that! Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall towards the earth's center." With the feeling that he was setting forth an important axiom he wrote: "Freedom is the freedom to say that 2 + 2 make 4. If that is granted, all else follows."
Answer to Modern Man
In the face of such a frightening projection as Orwell's, who or what can protect us from manipulation, from being spiritually devastated by an anti-Christian technocracy? Rightly understood, Orthodoxy has the answers to the basic questions of modern man, questions about the reality of existence, the reality of individual personality, questions about who man is and what is his place in the world. Every man exists in a state of tension--whether he acknowledges this or not-until he can reach a resolution of these questions.
Basically, there exist two alternatives: either there is a personal beginning to everything, i.e., there is a very real and personal God Who created everything; or, the world owes its creation to chance, in which case there can be no universal meaning, no meaning to anything. The historic Christian answer turns on the question: Who is God? Before time, before creation, God existed in the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity. In the Holy Trinity there was love, there was communication. Therefore, when God created man in His image, personality and the reality of existence were intrinsic to the gift of human life. And the basis for believing this is the Christian faith in God's revelation, that He has spoken truth concerning Himself and concerning man and creation. This supports a unity of knowledge and an understanding of what goes on in the world around us. Just as God is real, so too His creation is real; we are real people, unique individuals who do not lo s e our uniqueness even in death. We have the possibility of knowing real love, of communicating with God and with our fellowman. This aspect of personality, of uniqueness, is a totally Christian concept not shared by other religions. One cannot say that all religions are basically the same when there is disagreement over the fundamental concept of God.
From all that has been said, it is clear that there is a basic incompatibility between 20th century thought and historic Orthodox Christianity. Man is not determined; he is not a chance collection of molecules somewhere on the evolutionary chain. Man is unique, created in the image of God and endowed with a free will. Furthermore, Christianity is based upon absolutes; it is rooted in reality, not in some kind of romantic notions. Christ did rise from the dead. If we cannot say this with certainty, we have no business calling ourselves Christians. In the realm of morals, Christianity says very plainly that the world is marked with evil and man is sinful; his choice of actions has meaning; good actions please God, whereas bad actions lead to guilt and the need for cleansing through repentance. This is entirely different from the modern conception which claims that actions are morally meaningless and therefore guilt should not exist. If we do not adhere to these absolutes of Christianity, if we seek to adjust them to a more modern way of thinking, we are deluding ourselves.
Although the picture presented here of the 20th century Western world appears gloomy, we shouldn't be discouraged. Our hope for the future is not based upon evidence of change for the better in mankind; our hope rests upon the reality that Christ rose from the dead. And it is this hope, this reality that we must try to communicate to this dying, desperate world.
around us children of Christians are being lost to historic Christianity. We may
have surrounded them with beautiful churches and icons, but we have left them
naked in the face of the 20th century. If they are not to-be
swallowed up by the world, we must equip them with the armor of faith, that is,
the steadfast and sure knowledge that Christ rose from the dead. He is our life
and salvation, and He has overcome the world.
Christ is Risen
The above is a condensation of Fr. Alexey's lectures. The complete lectures, as well as the discussion that followed, are available on cassette tapes from “Orthodox America”[OA/_private/oabot.htm]