church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

The Church has the same task in whatever land it takes root and finds itself, namely that of making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Trinity, and of teaching them to observe all that Christ commanded.  How it goes about fulfilling this task, however, varies with time and place.

For example, in Russia and Ukraine, where the Orthodox faith was planted over a thousand years ago and where Orthodoxy remains a part of their national and cultural DNA and where a procession with a saint’s relics attracts thousands of people, evangelism of the masses takes one form.  Here in the West (such as in Canada and the US), where a procession with a saint’s relics would attract a mere handful, and where it is a Gay Pride parade that attracts thousands of people, evangelism must take quite another form.

The Gospel the Church offers is the same, but its mode of evangelistic approach must vary with the target audience.  It was the same with St. Paul:  when speaking with Jews, he focused upon how Jesus fulfilled the Messianic hope found in their Hebrew Scriptures.  When speaking with Gentiles, he did not cite the Hebrew Scriptures, but their own Gentile literature (see Acts 17:28).  The goal of conversion was the same; it was the approach that differed.

We must do the same sort of thing here in the modern West—our approach to our neighbours must recognize where our neighbours are and what they value, and we must respond to these values appropriately.   Our western culture is characterized by three things:  individualism, pluralism, and secularism, and these characteristics must determine the presentation of our timeless and universal Gospel.

First of all, our culture is radically individualistic.  That is, our culture assumes the primacy and sovereignty of the individual, and it asserts that a person’s values and beliefs have legitimacy solely based on the fact that they are individually held.  If I as an individual reach a conclusion, that conclusion is legitimated solely because I sincerely hold to it, and no other authority or reference are required.  Formerly values needed to be upheld by one’s family, tribe, nation, or religion to have legitimacy, but this is no longer the case.  In fact, asserting that something is true solely because one’s family or tribe ascribe to it is regarded as a sign of immaturity.  Never mind one’s family or tribe or religion:  what do you think?

Oddly enough, such radical individualism does not lead to chaotic diversity, with everyone believing something different, but to wide-spread conformity to the collective.  Bluntly put, people are sheep and they choose to accept whatever values are currently ascendent.  People of my vintage saw this in the 60’s:  an entire generation of young people rebelled against Conformity (that great sin of the 50’s) and expressed their rebellion against Conformity by all thinking, dressing, and speaking the same.  Nothing says, “the sixties” therefore like the image of long-haired hippies wearing the required uniform of jeans, T-shirts, sandals, and love-beads, holding protest signs, and talking about Free Love and “sticking it to The Man”.  They rebelled against Conformity by all conforming to the new model.

Our modern embrace of individualism therefore leads inexorably to our being swallowed up by the collective.  We may be individuals, but that only means that we are individual cogs in a machine, individual ants clambering around the anthill.  All the individuals may insist that their opinions are true (or “true for them”), but all of them hold the same opinions, sharing in the tyranny of the collective to which they belong.  The irony, splendid as it is tragic, is that this membership in the collective goes largely unrecognized by the individuals who belong to it.

In approaching this culture, the Church offers as an alternative to the individual and the collective the model of the family (or, in Pauline terms), the body.  In a collective, one’s individualism is swallowed up; in a family it is reaffirmed and fulfilled and finds its proper place.  In a family, mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, uncle, aunt, brother, and sister, though all individuals and each one different, find their proper places, roles, and functions.  Dads are different than moms, and brothers are different than aunts, and each plays a different and valuable role.  St. Paul says the same about the body:  each member (or limb or organ) has a different function, and each is valued for the different role it plays.  No member of the family or organ of the body is interchangeable; that is why they are valued for what they are.

The Church therefore must model itself as a family, offering a different way of living to a world where individuals are swallowed up by the collective.  In the collective, one party member or one vote is as good as another, and none are really allowed to stray far beyond their assigned role as just another cog in the political machine.  But church congregations are to be different.  In a parish, everyone is known by name (compare 3 John 14), and valued for their diverse gifts.  One thinks of the television series Cheers! (if you are old like me):  you want to go where everybody knows your name.  You want to belong to a family.  The parish Church is that family.

Secondly, modern western culture is radically pluralistic.  Pluralism can be a good thing, if by “pluralism” one means people of different beliefs co-existing in peace, respecting one another, and enjoying one another’s company.  A neighbourhood block party can include Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, people of different races, languages and colours, and everyone can mingle and get along and enjoy themselves.   They may disagree and argue about certain things, but these disagreements do not destroy their peaceful co-existence or their mutual respect and enjoyment.

But pluralism has now come to mean something quite different.  It now usually means not that people who hold different views of what the truth is can still get along, but that there is no single objective truth.  So why fight over something that doesn’t exist?  I have “my truth” and you have “your truth”, and truth is now whatever anyone wants it to be.  And given our radical individualism, one doesn’t even need to produce evidence for one’s truth:  something is true (such as for example, my gender) simply because I say it is.

When faced with this new pluralism, the Church must gently but firmly insist that there is in fact only one truth, and that this truth is true for everyone.  Truth about God, mankind, sin, salvation, and human destiny (i.e. theological truth) is rather like mathematical truth:  two times two equals four regardless of how you feel about it.  Truth is objective, not subjective, and our happiness and salvation therefore depend upon our acceptance of it and conformity to it.  Interestingly, scientists see this clearly:  if an engineer building a bridge does not accept that mathematical truth is objective and that two times two equals four, he knows that the bridge he is building will fall down.  When it comes to building bridges, he knows that truth is objective.  What goes for engineers must go for all.

This insistence that there is one truth for all—i.e. one religion for all—does not in itself mean that this must be given political expression.  It does not mean that we must instantly get into bed with the emperor Justinian and outlaw all religions other than orthodox Christianity, or have a State Church to which everyone must belong.  But it does mean insisting that moral truth and Christian doctrines are true in themselves, and should be accepted by all in the same way that the multiplication table is accepted by all.  Truth is universal and one.

Finally, modern culture is radically secular.  By secular I do not mean “anti-religious”.  The term “secular” is derived from the Latin word meaning “world” or “age”.  It refers to things entirely grounded in this world and this age—things which can include religion.  A secular worldview does not object to religion, provided that the function of religion is to equip people to live in this age and cope with the stresses of this world.  Secularism has no problem with a religion that provides an opium to the people and thus enables them to find their place and ultimate meaning in this world.

When religion regards its main function as helping its adherents to coexist in this world and to live in it as productive citizens (as the Ecumenical Patriarch once wrote in his book Encountering the Mystery), religion has become secularized.  His All-holiness’ assertion that, “Our goal is to promote a peaceful resolution of disagreement about how to live in this world, about how to share and use the resources of our planet” is as a classic a statement of secularism as could be wished.  In our Lord’s words, this is salt that has lost its savour.

The opposite of being secular therefore is not being religious, but being eschatological, and of finding ultimate meaning not in this world, but in the coming Kingdom of God.  It is only in our submission to Christ that the world finds its true meaning, and it is only through the transformation that Christ offers that authentic human existence becomes possible.  The Church’s message to the world is that true life only comes through our participation in the powers of the age to come, and that this is only available through faith in Jesus.

The Church must therefore live in this world as those who are mere sojourners and strangers here, and as those whose life here is characterized by a transformation whose source is the age to come.  Our parishes must become and be seen as islands of love and unity in a world torn by hate, as havens of hope in a world on the edge of despair.  We must model for the watching world a different way of living, revealing to discerning hearts that the Kingdom of God has already broken into this age, and that light is already shining in the darkness.  The world does not need more religion, especially religion as defined as a coping mechanism for the weak.  The world needs Jesus.  The world needs an eschatological Church in its midst, witnessing to the reality of the Kingdom of God.

If we would evangelize the West, we must recognize its errors and offer the appropriate and saving antidote.  Otherwise we are simply talking to ourselves, sowing seed upon the sea, and spitting into the wind.

Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.