church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

Many people will (hopefully) identify the above quote as coming from the speech of Polonius in Act 1, Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  It was part of the fatherly talk he gave to his son Laertes before the boy moved away to university.  It is now often quoted as a bit of perennial wisdom for life (it was written by Shakespeare, after all).  It is not as often known that it was part of a speech that Shakespeare meant to be recognized as almost meaninglessly platitudinous, a kind of Elizabethan “blah-blah-blah, yada-yada-yada”. 

       That is perhaps unfortunate, because making being true to yourself into a kind of moral imperative is endemic in our modern Western culture.  That is, if we are true to ourselves, we feel that we cannot really go wrong, and that sincerity lends an aura of legitimacy to our opinions and views.  We assume this when we say, “That may be true for you, but it’s not true for me”, the idea being that if I hold a view with sincerity, that view cannot really be wrong.  We don’t usually phrase the thought so plainly and baldly, because doing so would reveal it to be the nonsense it is, but that is how we feel and what we mean:  truth is relative; individual sincerity is everything. 

       We can see the nonsense when we look for a moment at history.  Any number of people held views with absolute and complete sincerity, but they were sincerely wrong.  Take for example, the dying advice given by one mother to her son.  It was a heart-breaking example, because the woman was writing a letter to her son far away.  She knew she was about to die, and had no certainty that her beloved boy would ever get the letter.  Her advice therefore is all the more poignant.

       She wrote:  “My dear boy—for your journey I pass on to you the best thing that life has taught me:  be true!  True to yourself, true to others and true to our country!  In each and every way!”  The identity of the mother and son is revealing:  the passage came from the final letter that Magda Goebbels wrote to her surviving son Harald—surviving because after she wrote this she was planning to drug and poison her other six children by cyanide in the Fuhrerbunker and then take her own life, unwilling that those children should survive to live in a post-Hitlerian world.

       It is clear that one can be true to oneself, one’s ideals, and one’s country and still be completely and horribly wrong.  Sincerity is better than insincerity, but in itself it possesses no inherent virtue.  Magda Goebbels was sincere.  Hitler was sincere.  But they were sincerely wrong.

       This means that we must find a standard beyond ourselves—a transcendent standard, a standard beyond this world and this age, for everything and everyone in this world and age can be wrong.  Love of and service to one’s country cannot serve as that standard, for it can provide internal justification for committing atrocities (as the Magda doubtless discovered one minute after she took cyanide).  Even the triumph of one’s religion cannot provide such a standard, for history has shown us, in projects like the Spanish Inquisition (which admittedly was a secular project, not an ecclesiastical one) that atrocities can be committed to aid the “progress” of religion.  It is fatally easy, especially in the heat of a moment of crisis, to conclude that the end justifies the means, and do things one knows to be wrong in themselves. 

       For true and thoughtful Christians, the standard is in Christ Himself, and in the words He gave us, transmitted through His Church.  Taught by the One who chose defeat in this world over political expediency and success, we know that it is never right to do the wrong thing in hope of serving a greater good.  God will do what seems right to Him.  Our task is simply to obey Christ and leave all the results with God.

       But what does it mean to obey Christ?  For many people have thought they were obeying Him when in fact they were not.  I suggest that, although there are no guarantees (the human capacity for self-deception being apparently boundless), we will probably remain safe if three things line up for us.

       First in importance is the teaching of the Scriptures.  Of course given that the Bible is a library and not a single book, it requires a lens through which its message can be interpreted.  For us Orthodox, that lens is the apostolic Tradition, accessed through the consensus of the Fathers.   

To take a single example:  that Tradition teaches us that human life begins in the womb, and that pre-natal life is as sacred as life postpartum so that abortion constitutes murder.  The patristic material reaffirming this Biblical view begins early with the Didache, a document usually dated to about 100 A.D.  This means that, regardless of how difficult carrying a pregnancy to term and giving birth might be, abortion as an option is off the table for those determined to obey Christ.

The second thing to line up is the counsel of holy and mature Christians.  If all our Christian friends (such as our pastor) are emphatic that a proposed course of action is wrong, this should give us pause.  If, on the other hand, they all encourage us to go forward, it is probably right.  Obviously I am referring to Christians who are rooted in the apostolic Tradition, who have grown old in the ways of God, and whose wisdom has been tested and proven.  Picking as advisors only those we know will tell us what we want to hear is useless.

The third thing to line up is a subjective peace of mind regarding a proposed course.  Such peace of mind is compatible with fear.  For example, fire-fighters know that rushing into a burning building to save a child is the right thing to do, even though they may be afraid while they are doing it.  The peace of mind of which I speak is the conviction that a proposed path is the will of God, even though doing it may be difficult and costly.  Sometimes this peace of mind is indistinguishable from conscience.

I suggest that if all these three things line up—if a proposed course of action is consistent with the Scriptures, if our mentors all give it their approval, and if our heart tells us it is the right thing to do—then we may proceed, trusting in God and always open to His further guidance.  If one of these three essentials is lacking, we should go back to the drawing board and think again.

Ultimately what matters is not our own sincerity and being true to ourself, but our determination to do the will of God, whatever the cost and whatever the difficulty.  As the days grow darker, such inner determination will become all the more important to our spiritual survival.  People who are brainwashed by the World are always true to themselves.  That is because brainwashing works.  We would be true to the One who made us and died for us.  For He is truth itself.






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.