Orthodoxy and Culture

“State, society, culture, nature itself, are real objects of mission and not a neutral milieu in which the only task of the Church is to preserve its own inner freedom, to maintain its religious life.”

~ Fr. Alexander Schmemann, The Missionary Imperative in the Orthodox Tradition

There are some very serious disconnects between the Church and the culture in our modern times. In fact, there seems to be mass confusion just as to what the Gospel does to us as ‘mere mortals’ and how these mortal bodies become victorious bodies while on earth. How do we know that we are living out a life of worship, that our ceremony is affecting our lives and that our lives are affecting others to further the Kingdom? What does this look like when it begins to happen?

From the early Church’s conviction of sharing their property and “having all things in common,” as we see in Acts Chapter Two, to our modern struggles of regaining this sense of unity in a very confused society, the goal of this article will be to attempt to sort out the rubble and bring light to this subject of Christian purpose.

A Bi-lateral Commission

The Great Commission is a bi-lateral commission. In other words, it has two spheres of accomplishment while on this earth:

I. It changes hearts.

II. It changes culture.

The Gospel is not just a philosophy and doctrine, it is an actual movement of people. The Gospel moves people to change their very lifestyles. Their ethics change, and those ethics (the manifestation of the law of Christ) will take their complete form and make massive changes in our world, convicting many of their sins and driving them to the cross of Christ.

Genesis 1:26-31 shows how God created the earth for man to take dominion over and to have an actual vocation. After the fall, this call to take dominion was not abolished; rather, it was mortified, which means we are recovering from this mortification through the redeeming power of God’s Good News. Our call to life is not to simply evangelize in an exegetical fashion through preaching and teaching to one another. In fact, God says in Hebrews 8:11 (a quote from Isaiah) that evangelism will one day be outmoded due to the Gospel and its advancement, proof that we are slowly but surely – and maybe one day more suddenly – redeeming mankind and the earth that God has provided for us.

God created man so that he could enjoy God by discovering His marvelous beauty within His nature and the cultivation of it. And while righteously practicing (ethically, and in faith) this cultivation, man would be many times, inadvertently (since we can’t always see God’s handiwork) proclaiming the Gospel to mankind.

It is from a terrible deception that we, as followers of Christ, no longer desire to be architects, artists, writers, politicians, teachers, law enforcement officers, etc. As a whole, we have left what our culture calls “the public sector” and many of the vocations that relate to the public sector. We have become enslaved to the very same institutions that we have created. What on earth has happened?

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? Psalm 139:7

The mission of the Church, according to Christ and His Apostles is to grow the Kingdom of God throughout the entire world; hence the Lord’s Prayer: “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The parable of the Mustard Seed is also a good example of how the Kingdom is to conquer the world; it begins a small seed and grows into the “largest tree in the garden for all the birds to dwell.” Christ also said that the Gospel itself would need to be taught to the entire world before He returns. There is a lot to accomplish with this mission of the Church and it is clear that this mission has much to do with the very spiritual dominion of all earth and creation that God has given us!

A Mission from the Beginning

From the beginning of the New Testament Church we can see that there was an aggressive pursuit of the Apostles to cover large portions of geography to plant new churches and Church ministries. The Church became an obvious threat to the dominating Empire of Rome, in which Roman officials persecuted the Church. Through this time of the first few centuries, the Church had already become what Christ had commanded it to become, a beacon of light to the nations, serving the poor, the sick and the downcasts of society. In the fourth century, Emperor Saint Constantine issued a decree to unite the Church and rid her of the heretical arguments against her. Constantine summoned a council, and bishops from all over the world gathered to agree upon certain directions and doctrines of the Church.

Through the help of Constantine the Church became liberated from much oppression and persecution, and began to grow rapidly across the both Eastern and Western hemisphere. Through this “liberation” of sort, the Church began to acquire buildings for worship, hospitality and monastic ministries, and a general respect within the culture at large. The call to take spiritual dominion over the world and grow God’s Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven” began to rapidly take shape; not without trouble of course. Many people entered the Church through this empirical mandate of Church growth with ill motives, not wanting to be discipled, rather wanting to be a part of the popular culture. This can echo the words of Christ when He said in Matthew 13 that we should not be troubled when we see the tares growing within the wheat, and that we should actually allow them to dwell with us, giving them a chance to grow until the final harvest when Christ divides the wheat from the tares.

Throughout the First millennium of the Church we can see mighty examples of Church leaders who initiated great ministries. Saint Anthony with his monastic initiatives, Saint Basil with the foundation of hospitals, Saint Chrysostom with his outreach to the poor, all the way to the 14th century Saint Athinasios, who sought to reform the empire as it had begun to slip into foreign culture.

From the First millennium, and well into the Middle Ages, the Church within the Byzantine Empire lived lives of community. Even western Christianity held tightly to the concept of social outreach and community. Western kings were in tight alliance with the Church, regulating that all be built to reflect the mission of the Church. Again, many complications arose where the emperors exceeded their given power, causing much hostility amongst Christians. Nonetheless, the Church continued to carry out her mission to evangelize the lost through preaching and also through cultivating and growing the community.

The Monastic and Ascetic Foundation and Advancement

Throughout the ages, both in the east as well as the west, the Church took on a very monastic calling; many men and women dedicating themselves to lives of sexual purity, financial sacrifice and in general an ascetic way of life. This is important to note: From Saint John the Baptist, through the calling of Christ, to the Apostles, and directly into the monastic communities of the early centuries, monasticism was the driving force of the Church and all that she represented.

Christ was a “monastic” and He lived an ascetic life. At times Jesus encouraged the renunciation of commitments to important symbols of established society: marriage (Matthew 19:12 – “Others have renounced marriage because of the Kingdom of heaven; the one who can accept this should accept it”), and wealth (Mark 10:21 – “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor”). He had also promoted a high level of self-denial among his followers (Mark 8:34). This was the beginnings of the New Covenant Church, formed and fashioned amongst the very highest of ethical, moral and spiritual standards ever known to man; a very certain type of lifestyle.

Saint Basil

As the influence of the monastic and ascetic life continued to influence the Church and the Church began to win over the respect of the State, monasteries began expanding and forming communities for the entire Christian communities. In Fourth century Cappadocian Asia Minor, Saint Basil the Great began Christian communities that were tightly woven around the local church and managed by the local clergy (see Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society, Ch. 17). These Basileias were usually located just outside the cities and always had some type of hospitality ministry such as a hospital for the sick (this was the very invention of the hospital), temporary housing for the poor, and training centers for the poor and other needy for learning trades. What Saint Basil did was manifest the very words of Christ by engaging society not with generic handouts, but with the love of the Church. When the many immigrants entered one of these communities, they knew that the help given to them was from God!

Saint Chrysostom

Another well known and powerful saint (also of the Fourth century) who took what he was given and used it for the bettering of the Kingdom of God, was Saint John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople. Saint John has far too many quotes to really even begin to list in this article, but here are a few just to give you an idea of what he was about:

“It is not for lack of miracles that the church is stagnant; it is because we have forsaken the angelic life of Pentecost, and fallen back on private property. If we lived as they did, with all things common, we should soon convert the whole world without any need of miracles at all.” – Living Simply, Robert Van de Weyer

“Countless poor people have to go hungry so that you can wear a single ruby.” – Catech. illum. 1.15.

Chrysostom called everyone to live a type of ascetic life and said, “The Christian house should become like a church or a monastery,” and “the creation of a new form of urban community though the reform of the Christian household.” He preached on the ancient subject of eleemosyne, a word which is hard to translate to English due to theological relativity to society, although we do receive the word “alms” from it. Eleemosyne is an actual behavior that expresses itself in acts of compassion to others. It is also a power that leads God to people and people to God. John says, “For through mercy and compassion, not through asceticism, we become more like God” (see Wealth and Poverty in the Early Church and Society, Ch. 9).

When John refers to asceticism not being the way to God, he is referring to the legalism which was practiced of sacrificing luxuries and necessities for no reason but ones own interest. Yes, we should fast from food and other materials of life, but if we do not then apply this newfound sanctification to our lives by helping others, then what good is this sacrificing?

Saint Athanasios

“Philanthropy and mercy for the needy are not a mere matter of choice, but rather a necessity and indispensable obligation.” – Saint Athanasios the Great

Like Saint Basil and Saint Chrysostom, Saint Athanasios was also considered an “ascetic.” Athanasios was the Patriarch of Constantinople in the early Fourteenth century. Athanasios’ goal within the patriarch was to successfully merge the hierosyne and the basileia, which is the priestly authority and the imperial authority (all information in this article on Athanasios can be found in The Church and Social Reform, The Policies if the Patriarch Athanasios of Constantinople, by John L. Boojamra). We know that now as the “relations of Church and State.” For Saint Athanasiois, the State was to be the guardian of the Church and the Church was to be the counselor of the State. Both authorities were to have a mutual relationship for the bettering of God’s Kingdom and the culture at large.

The fascinating thing about Saint Athanasios’ philosophy to reform the Roman Empire was the fact that he heavily relied upon monasticism as a model for economical development. And not only did he rely on monasticism as a model for reform but he relied on it as a tool to get the reform done! In a letter to an abbot, Athanasios urged the monks to eat no more than one meal a day in order to save food and money for the poor people of Constantinople. He also urged the monks to sacrifice various donations that were given to them in order to help the poor of the communities. But Saint Athanasios’ model of society was not based on getting the monastics to work harder and sacrifice more, rather his model was to encourage and in some cases command the general population to emulate the monastics. When refugees flooded the empire, he commanded the people to house them and feed them. At one point, Athanasios called upon the emperor, Andronikos, to wage a “holy war” against injustice. He told the emperor, “Let us rescue both poor man and beggar from hands stronger than theirs.”

Not Capitalism, nor Socialism, but Monastic Cenobitism

Saint Basil, Saint Chrysostom and Athanasios were motivated to maintain and create where needed, a cenobium (community) of monasticism. The entire empire, to these spiritual giants, was to reflect the monastery! These men were not capitalists, not in the modern sense as we know capitalism. Generally, capitalism can be understood as Pope Pius XI explains it in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno: “That economic system, wherein, generally, some provide capital while others provide labor for a joint economical activity.”

One may say that the above definition is exactly what we in the west practice, to which I would completely disagree with. The last part of the quote, “for a joint economical activity,” is a crucial part of the definition. It is not a “joint economy” of sort when a secular government who is funded by multiple secular corporations trump the people who desire to create, for instance, a monastic cenobium! It is impossible to accomplish this in a capitalism that is controlled by secularists.

How Capitalism – both Conservative and Liberal – is Unethical

There is going to be control of the economy and culture no matter what; some group of people is going to inevitably join together and create a philosophy to work by and become “those who provide” for “others to labor under.” Why Americans, for example, choose secularists to be this group, rather than a relationship of Church and State is beyond me, and so we continue to spiral down as a country.

The heartbeat of western capitalism is usury, a practice that the Church has condemned, beginning at the First Ecumenical Council. Usury (what the industry of modern banking survives on) will continue to gut the western world of its wealth and pride until it can no longer lead the world. Modern capitalism is completely dependent on usury. Anyone can capitalize on any given opportunity as long as the bank will loan them the money, regardless of whether or not this new “opportunity” is ethical or not. Qualifying for business has become a matter of profiting the banks rather than humanity and the culture itself. Again, this has created networks of industry that are completely unnecessary and in many cases, unethical. So called “free enterprise” has no worldview or philosophy of culture. The medical industry is a perfect example of this: Preventative medicine is nearly non-existent due to the capitalization of what is now known as ‘Big Pharma.’ One “specialist” begins to bypass the right way of doing things only to cause more calamities for people, creating a new industry to take care of that created calamity. Before you know it, there is a monster wrecking havoc on people’s lives because they have fallen into its “capitalistic” system, a system where the bottom line is about making money and not building up humanity and culture.

One of the reason why capitalism does not work as many might think it should is because of its natural tendency to fragment. Saint Chrysostom said, “but he who buys a thing so as to resell it complete and unchanged and thus realize a profit, he is a merchant who was thrown out of the Temple of the Lord.” (Opus imperf. In Matthew [page 56:840])

What Chrysostom seems to be saying in the above quote is that the seller must be involved in the production of the product, otherwise, there is a breach in the economy. This is a never ending cycle in which we as Americans have witnessed: The seller has no say in how the product is designed and so is forced to sell bad culture. The manufacturer – who, with our economy is in many cases some communist country without the slightest care of Christian ethic – is not accountable to much of anyone. The manufacturer presupposes the depraved culture of the west and seeks to “capitalize” in this notion without anyone to stop them or redirect them.

Throughout the classical period of the Church (the first millennium), many of the fathers spoke out against the sinfulness of various cultures to ensure that the Church would not fall in to these sins. (See Reforming the Morality of Usury, by David W. Jones) As opposed to a modern capitalistic economy, a Christian economy – as the fathers have instructed us to contribute to – would grow naturally where new industry would be sprung off the existing due to an overwhelming supply and demand. But usury allows anyone to trump an existing and humane industry with an industry that is simply more likely to make a faster buck. It’s forced production verses natural production, with forced production always winning due to the amount of money it is able to immediately harvest to take out the competition. It has gotten so disgusting that usury is now an advantage for the wealthy (who are now a majority of unethical people) and a severe disadvantage for the poor.

Orthodox Christianity

Orthodox Christianity is ascetic, and it is centered on worship, but if this worship, this ancient worship, is not practiced in our daily lives then what good is it? Orthodox worship is communal and ascetic. We sacrifice our mind, heart, soul and body, up to hours at a time, to give ourselves to God. It is an ancient and monastic way of worshiping God, and if we think that we can just leave Sunday afternoon and practice a completely different lifestyle, then we are delusional, and possibly even “carnal,” as Saint Paul puts it!

Maria Gwyn McDowell, an Eastern Orthodox from the Antiochian tradition, has an excellent article on how every Orthodox Christian is called to asceticism. Maria defines asceticism as, yes, giving up what we normally might have or enjoy, but she says that we should give it up only to give it to others. This is what Chrysostom, Basil and Athanasios were teaching their communities! Why, as Christ says, should we fill our barns with goods where moth and thief destroy when we are supposed to be an eternal people? Where is our community? Our faith is indeed a communal faith that calls us to organize our lives around those that are in need.

The ascetic life is not one of sacrifice without cultural ideal in mind; on the contrary, the ascetic life of Orthodoxy is one of sacrifice for a very common goal, an evangelistic goal of growing the Kingdom. Orthodoxy is a faith of culture. It is a faith that takes the victorious resurrecting power of Christ into society to mold as an agent and avenue for the Kingdom of God. Architecture, politics, education, art, etc, is all to be under the stewardship of Christ. Hedonism, the philosophy of today’s western society, is contrary to the Orthodox faith, it is contrary to the ascetic aspect of Christ Himself, the second person of the Trinity! Constantly acquiring goods, services and entertainment, and rooting ourselves within this type of economy is simply antithetical to our faith and our Church. The joyous life is found not in this hedonistic economy, rather, as Christ and the Fathers stress, it is found within an economy of servanthood!