We have received an email asking our advice. The sender has given us permission to discuss his email here on the blog. Here is the email, slightly edited both to protect the identity of the sender and to correct a few typos:
I have been studying Orthodoxy for about a year now and am currently attending a certain Eastern Orthodox Church in a certain city here in the United States. (This church belongs to a certain well-known jurisdiction.)
My question for you is how does one live the Gospel while still in the world?
Having come from an Evangelical and later an Atheist background all I know about ‘Christianity’ is that when you become a Christian your job is then to preach the Gospel. This has never sat well with me because the more I study the more I realize that I know nothing. So who am I to go out and share the Gospel when I am so weak and foolish?
I get confused because I like to read Philosophy and the Church Fathers. When I do this I feel like my mind is being pulled a thousand different directions. The one constant that I always come back to is that humanity is desperately hopeless without Jesus Christ. The struggle I have is that I don’t know how to go about living. For example, If Jesus Christ is all that matters what am I doing just going about my life and struggling for the things of this world i.e. career, house, car, and so forth?
I feel like my life is being lived in vain. I also feel like I have so much work that needs to be done on my soul. I am not disciplined, my prayer life is poor at best and I don’t think I really understand the power of the incarnate Christ, God who became Man.
Having read quite of bit of Philosophy I see the world as completely opposed to the Gospel. It appears that Modern Life does all it can to distract the soul. From endless mindless TV/Radio shows to a vast Internet that can satisfy temporarily all the earthly pleasures. To even the realization that Modern Life is a tier-based system of pleasure. Those at the top tier get all the pleasures of the world whenever they want. Those at the bottom also have access to pleasures but work for the ones at the top. It seems like the world we live in is centered around the divinity of man and in complete contrast to Christianity.
That being said its easy to point fingers. Even if the world is so terribly upside down, so is my soul. My soul is what God has entrusted to me. So my question is: How do I live the Gospel knowing that the world is? And knowing also that my soul is also upside down? How do I act? What are my primary concerns in life?
Thank you for your consideration.
A Lost Modern Man
There are a number of issues here. First of all let’s run through what we know and don’t know.
A Lost Modern Man lives in a certain American city. We happen to know that that city is characterized by a banal materialism. ALMM doesn’t say what his age is but he seems a relatively young although mature man. He also doesn’t say what his education is, although he seems quite intelligent. He doesn’t say what his professional and economic situation is but we infer that he has a job which lets him get by and even consider obtaining material goods such as a house and a car.
ALMM started off Evangelical—whether by a youthful conversion or by family upbringing he doesn’t say. Evidently disillusioned he left that for Atheism. Evidently finding that Atheism didn’t give him the answers, he has been studying Orthodoxy for about a year. He has attended an Orthodox Church in his city for at least part of that period. It’s not clear to us if he attended other churches, whether Orthodox or not, before coming to rest, at least for the moment, in the particular Orthodox Church he is now attending. From what we gather he has not been received into the Orthodox Church, since we are sure he would have mentioned that.
Now the first issue that ALMM raises is how he should live the Gospel.
The next issue he raises is his reading Philosophy and the Fathers of the Church, which makes his thoughts ricochet around his mind like pinballs.
However, and this is the next issue, he realizes that the only answer is Jesus Christ.
The next issue is that he feels he is living his life in vain.
The next issue is that on the basis of his readings in philosophy, ALMM feels that the world is completely opposed to the Gospel.
Moreover, the next issue is that modern life does all it can to distract the soul with temporary pleasures.
The next issue is that there is a tier-based social structure to the system of distracting pleasures.
The next issue is that this system of distracting pleasures is founded on the divinity of man.
The bottom line is that the world is upside down, just like ALMM’s soul. What should he do?
We have spelled the issues out in a formal schematic way because we think we have to address each of them.
Let us start with ALMM’s position at the Orthodox Church he is attending. There seems a problem here. ALMM has been attending the particular Orthodox Church he has for a while and still has very fundamental issues of alienation from the society he lives in. It doesn’t sound like the particular Church he is now attending (we know NOTHING about it) has been able to respond to him pastorally. It may be that ALMM should be looking around at other CANONICAL Orthodox Churches, perhaps in the vicinity, perhaps—if he is able to continue his career elsewhere—a little further afield.
There are a couple of points we would like to make here. The particular city that ALMM is living in is a banal, materialistic American city. At the best of times, it’s not going to be a particularly spiritual place to live although there might be a community of interesting and accepting canonical Orthodox somewhere close to where ALMM lives. It might be that ALMM can and should move elsewhere, to where he can find a more congenial place to live. Of course this is assuming that he doesn’t have obligations that keep him where he is. However, we’re not sure that moving to Manhattan would solve ALMM’s problems. People are interesting in Manhattan, yes—perhaps too interesting.
Next, ALMM really should be undergoing a course of instruction, preferably one-on-one, in Orthodoxy. This is not an intellectual endeavour the way they teach courses on Orthodoxy in University, but a spiritual preparation for Baptism. Here we wonder if the ‘pastoral team’ at ALMM’s current church is really able to respond to ALMM’s needs.
Here what ALMM should understand is that entering the Orthodox Church is a mystagogy: a spiritual passage that leads from one spiritual place (where we are) to another spiritual place (membership in the Church, being a member of the Body of Christ).
Moreover, we would emphasize to ALMM that the proper means of being received into the Orthodox Church is Baptism. This is not fanaticism on our part. We can see that ALMM is out of joint with the society around him. What he needs is a transforming experience that puts him into joint with Christ. The only sure transforming experience to do this is Orthodox Baptism.
Indeed, if it is necessary, when it is time to enter the Church, if ALMM’s current Orthodox Church will not accept to receive him by Baptism, he should move on to another CANONICAL jurisdiction that will. This is not to say that he has to live the rest of his life in that new jurisdiction, but that he should be received into the Orthodox Church by a canonical baptism in a canonical jurisdiction. We would caution ALMM to avoid non-canonical jurisdictions in and around his city; they will destroy him.
It is very difficult for someone with a strong Evangelical background to convert to Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is a way of life, not an ideology. And it is a completely different way of life from what someone would have lived among the Evangelicals. We often encounter a situation where someone makes a physical conversion from Evangelical Christianity to Orthodoxy but persists in thinking like an Evangelical. It is only Orthodox Baptism that has the power to change this. Moreover, even with Baptism it can take years for the baptized person to slough off the Evangelical mind-set.
We would recommend that ALMM read our translation of the Gnostic Chapters of Diadochos of Photiki (look in the right margin at the topics). St Diadochos spends much time discussing the actual results of Baptism on a person. After a fashion, St Diadochos is analyzing the mystagogical path from where we are to where we should be.
Now how should ALMM live the Gospel? When we are medical students, we learn; we do not heal, except perhaps under the direction of the Professor. Moreover, when we are patients in the hospital we do not even learn; we merely follow the doctors’ instructions. ALMM should be learning what the Orthodox Church teaches about God, Man and Society. He should be learning, not teaching, and he should not feel obliged to proclaim the Gospel—except, if he wishes, to answer someone simply if they ask him what he believes. But if the other party wishes to get into a debate, ALMM should simply say that he is learning and not in a position to debate issues.
Given the fact that reading Philosophy and the Fathers of the Church makes ALMM’s head spin, we would recommend that for the moment he stop reading Philosophy and restrict his readings in the Fathers of the Church to St John Chrysostom, in particular St John’s Commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew.
This is not to close off ALMM from serious thought but to stop his mind from being a pinball machine. We suspect that ALMM is cut out for the study of theology but now is not the time. Later, after he has become a member of the Orthodox Church, he can turn to a more systematic study of Philosophy and Theology.
However, it is far too early for ALMM to begin such a formal academic study of Philosophy and Theology; it would only damage him. What ALMM needs is to hook up with someone who can ground him in Christ in the Orthodox Church, someone who will guide him spiritually to baptism and the practice of membership in the Orthodox Church, also giving him a strong basic Orthodox intellectual formation. That Orthodox intellectual formation will be necessary when ALMM turns to the systematic study of Philosophy and Theology, to give him an inner criterion to separate the wheat from the chaff.
For similar reasons, we would recommend that ALMM lay off coffee, tea and whatever other stimulating beverages he drinks (including too much beer), and turn to drinking herbal teas. Again, this is to get ALMM’s mind to slow down.
ALMM should do exercise, but for reasons that would take too long to explain, should not practice the martial arts (assuming that he does).
ALMM should make an effort to be polite to people.
Some temporary pleasures are acceptable to the Orthodox Church. ALMM should have some recreation that is not inimical to the Gospel. We think he knows what that means.
Next, ALMM raises issues about the structure of society. St John Chrysostom challenged the Empress Eudocia concerning a widow’s vineyard that the Empress coveted and seized. He was exiled by the Empress. He was force-marched to death, dying in the Caucasus. Both in his Commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew and in his own personal life, St John Chrysostom showed us the teaching of Christ concerning human society: what the Orthodox Church accepts as being legitimate structures of human society and what it condemns.
Concerning the issue as to whether the world is inimical to the Gospel, it will be important for ALMM, both as a thinker and as a person, to learn just what the Orthodox Church’s teaching is on the world. Here we should point out that just as the Orthodox Church does not take the position that man is completely depraved by the sin of Adam, utterly incapable of doing good except through salvation by divine election—as the Calvinist strain of Evangelical Christianity teaches—so it is important for ALMM to learn that the Orthodox Church is more about transfiguring the world than condemning it utterly and irrevocably. Here it might be useful for ALMM to read the Life of St. Seraphim of Sarov.
What is important for A Lost Modern Man to understand is that Orthodoxy is a way of life, a new way of seeing the world, a way of seeing the world that is transfigured by the grace of the Holy Spirit given in Baptism and Holy Communion, along with the other mysteries (sacraments) of the Church. It behoves him to meet people who manifest that new life in their being and actions, and if he so chooses, to prepare himself to participate in that new life beginning with a canonical baptism.
May God bless him.