The Culture Wars:
Orthodox Christians in the Trenches
By Reader Herman T. Engelhardt
(Ph.D., M.D., Dr.h.c., professor, department of philosophy, Rice University,
and professor emeritus, department of medicine, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas)
Orthodox Christians find themselves in a fragmented and polarized culture. We live in an age characterized by numerous, competing accounts of the good and human flourishing. This is an age that is after Christendom, after the dis-establishment in law and public policy of Christian moral and spiritual insights. This age seeks to privatize religious commitment and drive the presence of God from the public square. The inheritance we received from St. Constantine the Great (A.D. 280-337) has been spent. In this conflicted cultural landscape, Orthodox Christians must raise their families and seek salvation. This presentation will offer a geography of the challenges to living an Orthodox Christian life in this age of post-modernity.
I. Conflicting Cultures: Orthodox Christianity and the Post-Christian Secular Culture
Today I address the culture wars: the conflicting views about morality, human flourishing, and the meaning of life that define our cultural environment, our environment of ideas, moral views, and metaphysical commitments. We live in societies marked by foundational cultural struggles between the Christian culture of the past and the emerging post-Christian culture. Crosses are being removed from public monuments. So-called Christians are supporting homosexual marriages. These are struggles about the values and understandings that should direct our lives, the lives of our children, and the lives of our grandchildren. Such conflicts, the culture wars, are not new to a Church of martyrs. Until Christ establishes the New Jerusalem (Revelations 21:1-4), the culture wars will in some form be with us. The current culture wars, as all culture wars, are about the definition of our social and familial roles. Or to put matters more provocatively, the culture wars are about how the contemporary culture is attempting to reshape us and re-define us. However, the contemporary conflicts are in many ways more subtle than those of the paleo-pagan past. Through the media and through schools, the culture wars reach into nearly every aspect of our existence, in many cases inviting us to see virtue as vice and vice as virtue (e.g., to regard the virtuous recognition of homosexual acts as vicious, and the failure to recognize the vice of such acts as virtuous). My goal here is to think through with you where we as Orthodox find ourselves in the midst of our contemporary culture wars. First, I will offer a sense of the texture and character of our culture wars. Then I will say something about how the history of the West that led us to our current conflicts.
Finally, I will conclude by emphasizing that our response to these cultural battles cannot be simply moralistic or simply intellectual. It is true that the post-Christian culture we face confronts us with an anti-morality and a secular intellectual agenda opposed to us and our beliefs. However, our response cannot merely be that we have a different morality and a different intellectual agenda, though we most surely do. We must confront the contemporary post-Christian culture with our way of life as a whole, a way of life at one with the Fathers. Therefore, after sketching some of the battles of the culture wars and giving an intellectual history of their origins, I will emphasize that our response must be through the large and small commitments, through the habits of body and soul that define, and at times simply adorn, what it is to be Orthodox.
Again, my final point will be that in the culture wars our response must be our Orthodox life as a whole, full and unashamed: asceticism, Liturgy, and ritual. In the last part of my presentation, I will pick out fasting as well as orientation in prayer (i.e., praying to the east) and in Liturgy as elements of the life of Orthodox Christians in order to stress that it is our life as a whole that sustains our moral and metaphysical understandings. Archimandrite Vasileios, who was abbot of Stavronikita Monastery on Mount Athos warned that “faithfulness to the tradition and the dogmatic teaching of the Church means not only that the right formulations of terms are not altered, but also that our lives are altered and renewed by the truth and regenerative power latent in these terms….[and then Archimandrite Vasileios adds] among the creedal and dogmatic monuments of the Orthodox Catholic Church [are] the liturgies of St John Chrysostom and St Basil the Great, complete with their typikon or liturgical rubrics and the actual manner of their celebration.” Even in secular moral terms, Archimandrite Vasileios’ warning is of deep insight. Culture in its etymology is tied to the Latin cultus, the forms and the character of worship. Good culture, rightly-ordered culture, Orthodox culture cultivates us into right worship that binds us in body and soul within a community over time. Orthodox culture is not just morality and academic intellectual positions, but a way of worship that is a way of life.
Finally, to talk about the culture wars is to engage a metaphor popularized by James Davison Hunter in his 1991 book, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. The book bears a further subtitle, Making sense of the battles over the family, art, education, law, and politics. Today, I will not so much speak as Hunter did to issues of law and politics, I will primarily address the issues of competing moral and metaphysical visions, which he also explores. I will stress just two clusters of battles in the culture wars. First, the conflicts are about whether in public one may openly acknowledge religious truth as truth. That is, the secular culture wishes to forbid confessing publicly that Orthodox Christian is Orthodoxy, that ours is the one true belief and worship of the one true living God. Second, the battles are over the politically incorrect character of traditional Christian morality, especially our sexual morality. In case you have not noticed it, Orthodox Christianity is becoming increasingly politically incorrect.
II. Battles in the Culture Wars
To put things more starkly, we who are Orthodox today, like the Christians of the first century, find ourselves within an emerging world-culture that is lost in the cosmos, to take a phrase from Walker Percy. Unlike the paleo-pagan world of the first centuries in which Orthodoxy once lived, our neo-pagan culture is becoming operatively agnostic. This culture seeks to have us act as if the world came from nowhere, is going to nowhere, and for no discernible ultimate purpose. It is a culture committed to ultimate disorientation. We now live in an age in which atheism and blasphemy are asserting themselves as the proper cultural remedy for what ails our world, and the ills of the world are being blamed on religious belief. One might think of recent books such as The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, The End of Faith by Sam Harris, God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens, Atheist Manifesto by Michel Onfray, Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith among others. This attack on religious belief, this clash of cultures, is not restricted to the United States. It also marks Europe and Latin America. In great measure, it reaches across the world. It does not merely involve a clash between geographically localized civilizations, as Samuel P. Huntington puts it, in the sense of different regions with their local cultures in conflict with external cultures in other regions, although there is surely an element of this. For us here in America and in Europe, the culture wars primarily involve cultural divisions within our own societies, often within our own families.
This may all sound very complicated and/or abstract. So let me begin first by saying a bit more about what I mean by this term, the culture wars. The culture wars are disputes in our societies about to how our society should publicly regard morality, religion, and the ultimate meaning of things. The culture wars are about which culture should be the leading culture (i.e., the Leitkultur), our society’s defining moral and metaphysical perspective. That is: should our culture be a culture defined in terms of advantage, self-satisfaction, and pleasure construed in terms of acting as if God did not exist? Or, should our culture be defined in terms of charity, love, asceticism, and the pursuit of union with God? The emerging post-Christian culture invites us to marginalize Christ and Christianity, radically to privatize religion, and even to banish the recognition of God from all public spaces. The goal of the secular culture is to replace recognition of Christ as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of the living God with a dominant, post-Christian, post-traditional, post-modern culture in which the truth of God’s existence and the demands of Christianity are reduced to at most one among a plurality of narratives, to one among a diversity of traditions, none of which is allowed to claim enduring truth. At the very least, if this post-Christian culture would have its way, belief in Christ would be more hidden from the public gaze than sexual lives once were. Religious belief is only to be manifest in private places. Public prayer, especially Orthodox Christian public prayer, has become the secular equivalent of an obscene act.
To underscore one dimension of all of this: our contemporary dominant secular culture requires that we never speak in public about our religion as really being true, as being truly Orthodox, as being the right belief and the right worship of the true and living God. After all, our belief is not just a tradition. Nevertheless, this secular culture demands that we characterize ourselves as one tradition among others. Yet, our Orthodoxy is not just a tradition. It is the Truth. When a physician diagnoses a patient as having a disease, the physician does not say, “Well, according to my medical tradition, you have cancer.” The physician simply says, “You have cancer.” Physicians do not apologize for medical truth by qualifying the truth as my tradition. Like the Christian martyrs of the first centuries, and unlike the paleo-pagans of old Rome and unlike the post-traditional, post-modern, so-called tolerant neo-pagans of our contemporary age, we are committed to the politically incorrect truth that only our God lives, that only our Christianity is the truly Orthodox Christianity. Think how different this makes us.
Think how we will stand out as a beacon of hope if we actually have the courage to take our differences as Orthodox Christians seriously. There is a whole set of issues that are for us simply non-negotiable. Consider, for example, that we live in a world where people take for granted that there is nothing wrong with having a sexual partner to whom one is not married. It is becoming highly politically incorrect to point out that homosexual relations are seriously morally wrong. The emerging post-Christian, post-traditional culture wants to pervert the ways in which Christians have traditionally regarded immoral acts and assert that, not only should we not judge sinners, in the sense of not saying whether any particular person will go to hell or heaven, which judgment is surely God’s, and only God’s business. In particular, we are admonished never to make public judgments about those sinful acts that our dominant culture wishes no longer to recognize as sins, as immoral, as improper, as perverse.
The loss of a very important distinction is at stake: the difference between recognizing sin as sin, versus condemning the sinner. The latter only God can and may do. In contrast, the secular culture requires that we judge neither the sinner nor the sin, at least with regard to those sins that define this secular culture. In this, the dominant secular culture is clearly inconsistent. This inconsistency is tied to its support for the sins that nourish the very heart of this contemporary, post-Christian culture. On the one hand, the dominant secular culture will not only recognize the murders committed by Hitler as wrong. It will also often arrogate the prerogative of God and judge whether Hitler himself went to hell or heaven. It will recognize environmental pollution as a wrong, and even condemn such peccadilloes as smoking. On the other hand, it will not recognize as wrong, and it will surely not wish us to recognize as sinful, the commitments that structure the contemporary post-Christian culture of self-satisfaction and blindness to God. Nevertheless, we as Orthodox Christians are always called to judge sin as sin, although we should not judge the sinner. We are called to acknowledge and mourn even the sins that structure our culture, such as fornication, adultery, masturbation, and homosexual actions. Yet, identifying in public such sins as sin is becoming increasingly difficult. Acknowledging the sins that structure our post-Christian culture will be condemned as politically incorrect. This judgment of political incorrectness is tied to an essential recasting of the meaning of tolerance in the case of those sins that structure our secular culture. The result is that toleration in the case of such sins does not simply require forgoing force against the sinner, but forgoing as well even recognizing the sin as sin. For example, to recognize homosexual acts as sinful is in this sense termed intolerance. One is required by this secular ethos to say no more than the life of homosexual engagement is a different life-style, but not one’s own life-style. The dominant culture seeks to erase from our consciousness the recognition of a whole range of sins as sinful, from fornication to homosexual acts. Acknowledging the sins that structure, that support, our post-Christian culture is judged by that culture to be unacceptable, politically incorrect.
This point bears special emphasis. It will take courage to acknowledge publicly how different from the dominant culture we are, both as a community and as individuals, as well as how much of what the secular world takes for granted is sinful. Many sinful acts define the very character of our contemporary secular culture. Consider how abortion is integral to the post-Christian sexual morality of much of our public, post-Christian culture. For example, young men and women are encouraged to postpone marriage until they have established successful careers and considerable financial independence. In the meantime, men and women are not encouraged to remain virgins. Indeed, in our hyper- eroticized culture, the very opposite is true. In any case, it is difficult to be in the world and remain a virgin until the age of thirty or thirty-five. Moreover, in our secular culture it is then taken for granted that while pursuing their careers young men and women will live together illicitly. But living together, in the natural course of things, even with contraception, means that some women will get pregnant. Pregnancy outside of wedlock can undermine career plans, and the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy looms as a stumbling block to the self-indulgent pursuit of self-realization. In such a context, the availability of abortion is a needed secular insurance policy against becoming pregnant, so that an unplanned child will not radically change career and life plans. Abortion is thus central to the contemporary, secular, post-Christian life-world. It is for this reason, among others, that the availability of abortion is so passionately defended by its pro-choice advocates. This is the case because the availability of abortion is core to the capacity in a hypereroticized, self-indulgent culture, freely to choose one’s own sexual life-style and career plans, without fearing that one will have to pay the consequences. The availability of abortion is a keystone of the contemporary, post-Christian culture.
But one often does pay the consequences for sin, even this side of the grave. For example, when young men and women after numerous sexual partners finally decide to marry around the age of 35, they are not as fecund as they were in their 20s. In addition, many have been exposed to sexually transmitted diseases that can lower the capacity easily to get pregnant. As a result, many will find that, by the time they are married, and are finally ready to get pregnant, they cannot reproduce without third-party-assisted reproduction (e.g., in vitro fertilization), thus raising a further cluster of moral concerns. This whole pattern of difficulties engendered by the post-Christian culture’s normative pursuit of self-indulgence has led, among other things, to the demographic challenge currently facing the future of Europe. Europeans are running out of Europeans to pay the taxes for their social-welfare states, because fewer people are willing to take on the cross of having large families.14 After all, cute little babies grow up to be troublesome teenagers. Not only does this economic and demographic state of affairs have significant adverse social and political implications, but at the micro-level it reveals the contrast between those couples who enter into marriage seeking first the kingdom of heaven in order as Christians to raise many godly children, versus those couples who first seek the kingdoms of this world and then, perhaps as an afterthought, decide to have one or two trophy children. T. S. Eliot in Sweeney Agonistes observes, “Birth, and copulation, and death. That’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks.” How one regards sexuality and having children separates people into quite different life-worlds, different ways of seeing reality. Understandings of sexuality are central to a culture, because they tell the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve how to relate to each other. They provide what ought to be a cardinal insight into the meaning of humanity before God. The sexual moral problems of our culture are tied to its loss of moral and metaphysical orientation.
III. Are Things Really That Bad
But you might say, “dear brother Herman, things are not that bad—surely you are exaggerating matters.” To which I will reply, “Bless you, my brother! You may be right about your own local neighborhood, about your close friends. Maybe it is really not that bad in your small exclave. But you are deceiving yourself if you have children at most of the colleges of our nation. Most college students are in the midst of these culture wars.” Let me try to bring some of these points together in order to emphasize the challenges we face. To begin with, the culture wars are conflicts between different ways of understanding and living life. They are conflicts about which morality and metaphysics should guide our society. Because of the culture wars, we have deep and understandably bitter disagreements in our society about the meaning of human life, community, and the universe. Think about the radical differences that set us as Orthodox Christians apart from the post-Christian, post-traditional culture we confront.
(1) Orthodox Christians are set over against those who say, “it really doesn’t matter to what religion one belongs, as long as one lives a good life.” The latter do not recognize that the first commandment is to love God rightly. Also, they do not recognize that, if one does not love God first and rightly, one’s love of one’s neighbor will be distorted, and one’s sense of the good will be one-sided and incomplete at best.
(2) Orthodox Christians are set over against those who are at peace even if their children are not religious, as long as they are good people. Orthodox Christians recognize that our goal is holiness, not mere goodness, not concerns merely with the goods of this world.
(3) Orthodox Christians are set over against those who try to bring their children first and foremost to pursue successful careers as physicians, lawyers, and businessmen, adding a concern with being Christian as a kind of after-thought.
(4) Orthodox Christians are set over against those who tell their children that having a onechild, three-car family is the ordinary image of a good family in our affluent, contemporary, postindustrial culture.
(5) Orthodox Christians are set over against those who say Orthodox Christianity is but one among a number of religious traditions, and that we should not publicly acknowledge Orthodox Christianity to be the only one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church – and the only one truly Orthodox Church on the face of the earth.
(6) Orthodox Christians recognize that all sex outside of marriage is wrong, and this recognition sets us over against those who take for granted that pre-marital sex, at least in committed relationships, is just fine.
(7) Orthodox Christians are culturally set off against those who without blinking an eye accept that in college and for at least a while afterwards children will have boyfriends and girlfriends with whom they sleep, and that they will have friends who live in long-term committed relationships without marriage, all without referring to these acts as fornication or these relationships as the keeping of concubines.
These are just seven points of collision between opposing cultures, between traditional Orthodox Christian understandings and the post-Christian understandings and commitments of the surrounding, secular world. Those who do not appreciate the depth of these conflicts have either hidden their heads in the sand, or they have internalized major tenets of the post-Christian, post-traditional culture that emerged in the late Western European Enlightenment.
IV. Our Contemporary Culture Wars: The Historical Roots
Our contemporary culture wars are the consequence of the choices that produced Western heterodox Christianity, which then eventually led to the emergence of a post-Christian culture. If one were to identify one event in this complex history that represented the first major official turn in the West clearly in the wrong direction, it can be found after the third Mass in Rome on Christmas, 800. Surely there were already many wrongheaded, heretical changes in the West, namely, false teachings by Blessed Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430) and others, that pointed Western Christian culture in wrong directions. But on that Christmas Day, 800, a truly decisive event occurred that directed the culture of the West away from the united Christianity of the Fathers. Pope Leo III of Rome crowned as emperor King Charles of the Franks, although the Christian empire of the East, rooted in the conversion of St. Constantine the Great (A.D. 280-337), was still alive and well. This act was not merely a political act, but an ecclesiological manifesto. It implicitly asserted universal papal jurisdiction. It indirectly affirmed as well the West’s growing heretical misadventures with the filioque and its proclivity to changing traditional Christian fasts. The West turned away from regarding papal authority as the authority of a presiding bishop, as the authority of a first among equals, to a new doctrine, namely, one that falsely regarded the papacy as having universal jurisdiction. This development changed the meaning and character of the Western church. Ecclesiology is sufficient to define what a church is. In crowning Charles emperor, Pope Leo III created a political, cultural, religious, and moral identity that was in opposition to the political, cultural, religious, and moral identity of Orthodox Christianity, which was rooted in the Apostles and the Fathers. Pope Leo III began the creation of a new church.
The new culture of the Carolingian renaissance was anchored in a novel account of the role of philosophy for theology, an account at odds with the Christianity of the Fathers. This new Western Christianity in the end became confident that, without an experience of God, and with the help of philosophy, it could think and reason its way to the existence and nature of God as well as to the character of human moral obligations. Moral obligations were approached through a Scholastic recasting of Stoic and Aristotelian concerns that produced the Western church’s account of natural law. This new culture aspired to lay out an account of morality and human flourishing through engaging a theology foundationally rooted in the capacities of the philosophy of the pagans, rather than in an epistemology rooted in right worship, right belief, and Orthodox Christian asceticism.
Because Orthodox Christianity is anchored in the experience of the uncreated energies of the fully transcendent God, as David Bradshaw a convert to Orthodoxy observes, Orthodox Christianity “has no concept of God. [Orthodox Christianity] views God not as an essence to be grasped intellectually, but as a personal reality known through His acts, and above all by oneself sharing in those acts.” Think about it: I do not have a concept of my wife. I experience my wife as a person, I do not know her as a concept. If my wife and I begin to treat each other as concepts, as conclusions to be proven by arguments, rather than as persons to be experienced, our whole relationship with each other will have radically changed. For instance, if I come home from one of my many trips and my wife tells me she has five proofs for my existence, either she has gone crazy or she is telling me that we need a better relationship.
When the West took the philosophical turn to proving the existence of God rather than experiencing the existence of God, its very understanding of God began was recast. The West in the process fashioned an understanding of God that was grounded as much in philosophy as in theology. Indeed, theology in the strict sense ceased to be set within a life of asceticism and rightly-directed life of prayer leading to union with God. Theology instead became primarily an academic discipline. The result was that the god of the West ceased to be the living God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. In a series of steps through the High Middle Ages, the Second Scholasticism, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment, the god of the West came to be an intellectual construct. In this light, one can understand how everything went wrong. Looking back from a culture that has become post-Christian, we can with David Bradshaw now ask “whether the God Who has been the subject of so much strife and contention throughout western history was ever anything more than an idol.”
The developments that led to this point are complex. Here I can only gesture to some of the more important. First, the West in the Middle Ages came to have as much faith in reason, as faith in the transforming and noetically informing power of God’s energies, God’s grace. As a consequence, philosophically-directed academic reflection began to develop the many new dogmas that characterize Roman Catholicism, such as purgatory, indulgences, and finally much later the novel teaching of the immaculate conception. These and other dogmatic changes, when combined with claims of universal jurisdiction and the imposition of clerical celibacy, produced a church radically apart from the mind of the Fathers.
Such developments finally set loose the energies of a revolution against the Western Christian medieval edifice, which revolution became the Protestant Reformation. When the Protestants rightly reacted against the Roman Catholic heresies of universal papal jurisdiction, purgatory, and indulgences, as well as the false imposition of clerical celibacy, the political and social unity of the empire established with Charles the Great in 800, and re-established with the coronation of Otto the Great by Pope John XII on the second of February, 962, fragmented in bloody wars. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) and the British Civil War (1642-1649) provoked complex intellectual reactions against faith in general, and Christianity in particular. The result was the Western European Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment, a period one can think of as spanning from the Great and Glorious and Bloodless Revolution in England (1688) to the French Revolution (1789), was a multi-dimensional phenomenon marked not only by anti-clericism and by anti-Christian sentiments voiced by persons such as David Hume (1711-1776). There was an affirmation as well of a faith in reason, rather than in faith. It was faith in faith, so many Enlightenment figures held, that had led to the bloody slaughter of the Thirty Years’ War and the British Civil War. Faith in reason, so they thought, would lead to progress, liberation, and enlightenment, all without the bloodshed of the past. Of course, most did not at all foresee that faith in reason would lead not just to the bloody terror of the French Revolution, but even worse to the October Revolution and then to Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, and Pol Pot, who would kill tens of millions.
Some in the Enlightenment did dimly see such dangers. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the German Enlightenment philosopher, when he looked back at the forces of the Enlightenment and forward to the future, appreciated that the morality of the West required an at least as-if recognition of God in order to make plausible the priority of morality over prudence and of the right over the good. Though perhaps himself an agnostic25, Kant argued that one must at least act as if God existed, although he realized that the flawed Scholastic attempts at rational proofs of God could not reach from the finite to the infinite, from the immanent to the transcendent. More than two hundred years ago within the leading intellectual circles of the West, God had become a mere concept, an idea in an argument. It required only later thinkers such as G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) to declare the death of God and to render God into merely a cultural category.
Because of these intellectual developments, Western philosophical thought was cut loose from its proper anchor in an experience of the living God. Today’s great-grandchildren of the Enlightenment hope to liberate persons from the oppressive hand of the Christian past and to recast morality and social customs in terms of the demands of a secular reason now seen through the lens of the French Revolution’s commitments to liberty, equality, and fraternity. From feminism to gay pride, secular rationality is now engaged in a second and thoroughgoing Reformation of Western culture, including Western religious belief. The dominant culture’s portrayal of the relationship of humans to each other and to reality as a whole is now being recast in terms of the demands of a secular, post-Christian, discursive rationality. Morality, human flourishing, the family, indeed all human relationships are now to be regarded fully, and only, within the sphere of the finite and the immanent, all regarded as if the universe comes from nowhere and goes to nowhere, for no ultimate purpose. In the shadow of this moral and metaphysical vision, all claims to transcendent truth, especially religious transcendent truth, are to be deconstructed. The goal is now to see everything as if there were no God, as if all in the end were ultimately meaningless.
Of course, we Orthodox do not agree with the post-Christian, secular culture. Our place in the battles of the culture wars is rooted in our politically incorrect Orthodox Christian commitments to call the world back to the truth of Christianity, which truth is precisely the truth that this secular culture born of the false directions of Western culture wishes to obscure and deny. After a millennium and a half of Christendom given to us by St. Constantine the Great, we are back to moral struggles that bear a strong affinity to those in which Orthodox Christians were enmired within the pagan culture that surrounded Christianity in its first few hundred years. However, the contemporary culture, unlike that of the paleo-pagans of the Greco-Roman empire, wants to regard Christianity as past. It wishes to place true Christianity in a past it wishes fully to set aside and forget. Here one might think of the recent disputes in Europe as to whether the last proposed European Constitution (2004) should even mention Europe’s Christian past. As Orthodox Christians, we represent an insight into morality and reality that the dominant secular culture wants to pretend does not even exist.
V. Some Conclusions: Leaning into the Wind
The secular, post-Christian culture we confront is bent on recasting us in its image and likeness. It wants to break our unity with the mind of the Fathers. It wants to place us within a post-Christian morality, set us within a view of the cosmos as if all were without any ultimate purpose. Much of the Enlightenment aspired to undo religious traditions in the light of a secular rationality. Similar post-Christian Enlightenment forces now seek to recast our spiritual habits in both large and small ways. In large and small ways, we must resist. We must live our lives and orient our families within an understanding of the universe as coming from God’s creation, going through the Incarnation, and on its way to final restoration at Christ’s Second Coming. We know that reality does not come from nowhere, that it does not go nowhere, and that it is not without ultimate purpose. By living our lives focused on our ultimate purpose of union with God, our moral commitments, including our sexual moral commitments, we will be set apart from this post-Christian culture. By living an Orthodox life as a whole, we will have the strength to live our lives against the grain of this adverse post-Christian culture.
While being attentive to the large issues of obedience to God’s commandments, we must not neglect what might wrongly appear to be merely the smaller issues: the devotional peculiarities of a way of life, our ascetic disciplines, and our ritual observances. These bind us in body and soul with the Church of the Fathers over the centuries. We are flesh and spirit. As a consequence, we must not only will the good, but we must also realize the good bodily in and through our lives, through our concrete ways and habits that aim us at holiness. For good reasons, we are the Church of incense, bells, and beards. Our whole composition of incense, bows, and movements, is important in ways we at times only dimly appreciate. The whole ties us together in an experience of community with the Fathers. My father (may God give rest to his soul) in reflecting on our post-traditional age used to say that he was leaning into the wind. He knew that we have to push back against the powerful, post-traditional forces born of the Enlightenment. These secular forces will invite us to draw a line between traditions with a big “T” and traditions with a small “t”. Unless there are very powerful reasons for allowing such distinctions in certain cases, we should resist these temptations as misguiding. We are beings of body, mind, and spirit. We will need to hold as faithfully as possible to the full constellation of habits of body and soul that bind us over space and time, in community with the Fathers.
For example, consider both the Orthodox Christian fasts and the universal Christian custom from the first centuries of praying towards the east. Both of these practices subtly define how we use our bodies in orienting towards God. Both practices place us within a body of traditions that binds and unites us as a community over generations. As to the fasts, their exact character could perhaps have been otherwise. Who knows what the Holy Spirit could have allowed? Nevertheless, we should understand that all the fasts, including this Peter-tide fast that we are now keeping, are instances of the deep Christian appreciation of the necessity of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. Our traditional fasts provide an insight into how asceticism can purify our hearts so that we can be theological, so that we can pray rightly, so that our hearts can become pure, so that we can see God.
So, too, praying to the East, being bodily oriented in prayer, is more than merely a pious custom. Every time we orient ourselves in prayer, we should remember that Christ is the true light (John 1:9), and we should join with the myrrh-bearing women on their way to the sunrise on the first Pascha. Is this a mere pious custom? Surely it is not, far from it. St. Basil when he rhetorically asks “what writing has taught us to turn to the east at prayer” has already answered that we have unwritten customs that, were we to reject them, “we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals.” That is very strong language. Our post-traditional culture will invite us to think of such habits of body, heart, and spirit as merely superficial, as merely pious customs, as merely traditions with a small “t”. Our post-Christian, post-traditional culture will attempt to nickel-and-dime us into a world ever more out of step with the world of the Fathers. In resistance to this post-Christian, post-traditional culture, in defense of our Orthodox Christian culture, we should conform everything of our lives, as far as possible, to the lives of the Fathers, so that in this post-Christian, post-traditional age we will be able as easily as possible to live in the unbroken unity of the mind of the Fathers, the community of Orthodox Christians over the centuries. To take a lesson from the mistakes of another religion, namely, the Roman Catholics, one might consider the moral chaos that has beset Roman Catholicism when, after Vatican II, it changed the few traditions it still preserved from the Fathers regarding liturgy, prayer, and fasting.
I close with these remarks about fasting and orientation in prayer (i.e., facing to the east in prayer and Liturgy) as a warning against a temptation from our post-Christian culture to regard our commitments in overly intellectual and moralistic terms. We have a life that is an Orthodox Christian life as a spiritual whole. To hold our own in the culture wars, it will not be enough to recite a set of moral and metaphysical propositions such as our opposition to abortion, adultery, fornication, masturbation, homosexual acts, suicide, and euthanasia. We will have to live the lives of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting that have marked Christians from the time of the Apostles. We will need to embrace the pieties that support our lived appreciation of our moral commitments. The devils of this modern age are likely to be resisted and driven out only by prayer and fasting (Matt 17:21, Mark 9:29). In the culture wars that engulf us, we must live our Orthodox way of life as a whole, supported by Orthodox habits of body, soul, and spirit, all of which tie us into a community held together in grace across space and time. Only within a living community of Orthodox worship and belief will we be able to resist the forces of the secular, post-Christian, post-traditional culture that oppose us. Only then will we be able to convert its disoriented members to the true faith.