“We have to begin building our own institutions.”
October 9, 2011
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
I have a friend who is a Ph.D. student at a university in New York City. He is a brilliant, traditional Orthodox Christian who is serious about his faith in Christ and also serious about doing real scholarly work. He is also possibly the smartest person I’ve ever met. I recently had the privilege of spending some time with him at a history symposium in Princeton, and he and I began talking about the doctoral work he was pursuing.
He’s in the theology department at the university, and he said that pretty much everyone on the faculty were almost entirely hostile to traditional Christianity and of course therefore to Orthodoxy. He said that they tolerate his presence but that they are so steeped in secular fundamentalism that they would never consider eventually acknowledging him as a colleague. I asked him why he was there, since he knew he would never break into their world. He answered that he was simply trying to get the work done, but that he regarded most of the modern academy, especially the theological academy, as really too far gone to even include the possibility of working in it from within.
“We have to begin building our own institutions,” he said. “We have to develop our own culture.”
I’ve been thinking about that last comment now for these past couple of weeks, and it came to mind again when I was looking at the epistle reading for today. In it, the Apostle Paul references to the Christians of Corinth from the Old Testament books of Isaiah and Ezekiel these words: “‘Therefore come out from among them, and be separate,’ says the Lord, ‘and touch nothing unclean; and I will receive you, and I will be a Father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Is. 52:11; Ezekiel 20:34, 41).
What did my friend mean? And what does this mean, when the Lord Almighty says to us, “Come out from among them, and be separate”?
It is one of the most basic problems of true Christian life. Indeed, the very word for the Church in Greek, the language used when the Church was conceived, is ekklesia, which means “those who have been called out.” We as the Church have been called out of the world. We have been called to be separate. What does that mean?
In the earliest years of the Church’s life, the separateness of the Christian was pretty obvious. If he was a convert from Judaism in Palestine, he was someone who was withdrawing from the majority Jewish practice. He no longer was ruled by the Mosaic Law and the customs of the rabbis. He at first supplemented his synagogue and Temple worship with the Christian Eucharist, and then, when the Christians were thrown out of the synagogues and when the Romans destroyed the Temple, he worshiped exclusively with Christians.
Likewise, a pagan convert to Christianity was even more conspicuous. He stopped worshiping pagan gods. He wouldn’t join the army, because serving meant worshiping the god your unit took as its patron and also worshiping the Emperor as divine. The Christian also held to a much higher moral standard, and he even was known for loving and caring for the pagans, not only members of his own group, something no one else did.
Whether a convert from Judaism or from paganism, the Christian understood himself to be separate from the world, if only because the world was quite often prepared to put him to death for his faith. And he knew he was separate, because he now belonged to a new community, the Church, the first truly counter-cultural community.
As time went on, in the fourth century Christianity eventually was not only legalized but gradually became the majority religion of the Roman Empire, and the idea of Christendom was born, in which the separateness of Christians from the world was no longer quite as literally obvious as it had been, because now almost everyone was at least formally a Christian. One did not have to leave society in any sense in order to become a Christian. Indeed, being Christian became expected by society. About this time monasticism arose as a major movement, because the fervor of those first martyric Christians had been replaced by Christianity becoming “normal.”
And now we live in the age of post-Christendom, when the ruins of what had once been Christian society are here and there around us, but we again find ourselves in an empire that is becoming more and more hostile to the Gospel. This time it is not paganism, however, but secular fundamentalism. And like all fundamentalisms, secular fundamentalism will not stop until it has taken over every moment of our lives.
If you don’t believe that that’s true, consider the kinds of changes that have occurred within the past couple of centuries and even within many of our own lifetimes. In the great age of Christendom, daily participation in corporate worship was the norm for every Christian. Your day was regulated not by alarm clocks but by church bells. No one went to work on Church holy days—not just Christmas and Easter, either, but all of them. Rulers were not only comfortable with using sincere religious language in their governance, but most of them had actually received a theological education. Now, they’re almost all lawyers and businessmen.
As time has gone on, Christ’s name has been less and less comfortable to use in public life. People eventually whittled down their personal investment in worship into just an hour or maybe two on Sunday morning. And for a while, Sunday was still regarded as sacred. Stores weren’t open on Sunday. It was a quiet day, begun with God and continued with family. But now, even Sunday morning is under assault, and there are all kinds of activities that are impinging, bit by bit, on Christian education and on Christian worship.
I wonder whether most Christians will simply quietly surrender, and yield the last little scrap that we had once reserved for God, so that now all seven days of the week, all 365 days of the year will be dominated by the anesthetic of activity. Personally, I think the moment came a long time ago when we returned back to those first days of the Christian Church, when choosing Christ meant truly giving something up, when the Church functioned as the ekklesia, those who have been called out. But make no mistake that the moment has indeed come. And perhaps the moment will soon come again when choosing Christ may mean giving up our very lives. It already means that for some of our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world.
We have to begin building our own institutions. We have to develop our own culture.
As Orthodox Christians, we are not called to reject the created world that God made and filled with His creatures, but we do reject Satan and all his angels and all his works and all his service and all his pride, either at becoming catechumens or being baptized. That is “the world” which we are called to reject, the corruption and the fundamentalism of secular society, the endless and mindless pursuit of pleasure and possessions and prestige. When will we say, “Enough!”? When will we say as the Prophet Joshua did so long ago, “Choose you this day whom ye will serve… as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15)?
While there have been periods when the mind of Christ forms culture and even perhaps in a sense begins to rule over it, we are again in a time when we as Christians must be counter-cultural. We cannot afford to live life the way everyone around us does, just because it “makes sense” or because it’s “normal” or because that’s how we “get ahead.” I tell you the truth: None of that will count for one scrap when we stand before the Throne of God! Are you going to spend your life and your children’s lives getting prepared for success in this world, which might last a few decades, if you’re lucky, or will you spend this life preparing for eternity?
“Choose you this day whom ye will serve… as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
To our Lord Jesus Christ be all glory, honor and worship, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.