That was a question I was asked yesterday when I made a comment about the insanity of our Congress and its headlong move towards socialism. “Father, should the Church be involved in the affairs of the world? Shouldn’t it really focus on ‘the things of the spirit’?” It was a very sincere question from a very pious and gentle soul. We talked about it and he quickly understood that what I had said truly was part of the very essential of the Gospel when we were finished. But it got me thinking. How many others are confused about this? Shouldn’t I give some sort of picture frame to it so that we can all better understand it? I think so. I also think that the question is much broader than it usually assumed. The question seems like a miniature painting but it is much more on the order of a large landscape.
Let’s look at some of the background concerned. When I was a young boy the 1960s were in full swing. Churches became wildly involved in social programs and the “social gospel” was the essence of all their works. It was so common that many people began to assume that this was the real purpose of the Church. Everything in the Church became oriented towards man, his needs, his desires, his political concerns. The social agenda was assumed by many to be the sine qua non of the Church. It was made visibly manifest in the Eucharist life of many of the Western churches by having the priest face the people during the Mass. This was a sign that the people were the focus of the worship. It was a community meal.
There have been many tragic outcomes from this perspective. One of which is that if the Eucharist is a community meal, and if the community is defined as everyone present, then naturally anyone who attends should be free to receive the meal, holy communion. At its most broad use, I recently heard—from a clergy‘person’—that in the Methodist church, everyone is invited to receive communion when they offer it, even if they are not baptized! The unbaptized are not Christians, how could they possibly be admitted? They call this “the open table.” How bizarre.
One of the other outcomes is that many of these churches have been so re-oriented by the social agenda that they have now completely confused it with the Gospel of Christ. The Gospel is thoroughly identified with their political and social perspectives. Homosexual unions, ordination of women, the ordination of practicing homosexuals, the church as social reformer (in the modern political sense) are all absolutely inextricably bound to their conscience. They believe that all of these things are positive goods.
I hope that it is needless to say that I have never been attracted to this sort of religion. I recall in the early 70s when the Episcopal Church had the green trial Prayer Book, that my father was absolutely sickened by it. Gone were the lofty and beauty phrase of Elizabethan English (which we Antiochians still enjoy). The majesty of language was substituted for a banal, lack-luster, shallow contemporary idiom. Daddy said, “I joined this church because of the beautiful worship and its love for one another, not this. All you need now are trumpets and a drum set to make it a complete travesty.” Little did he know then what was coming.
The reaction of many people was to either become completely identified with the social agendas or to withdraw into a liturgical isolation as best they could. You found either a social crusader or a cranky rubricist. The Orthodox Church experienced something similar in her past because of its historic subjections to occupiers, like the Communists in Russia and Eastern Europe, or the Muslims in the Middle East and Greece. Orthodoxy’s life came to be profoundly identified with the liturgical experience that each ethnic group practiced. It is an historical fact that up until the mid-1500s the Eastern liturgical life was continually developing and changing. With the fall of Constantinople that ceased. Orthodoxy was a particular way of worshipping. There were no substantive changes until the mid-1800s following the independence of Greece from Turkey. Social concerns became an object of the ghetto (the community of “Romans” as we were called by the Turks, in Arabic you’ll remember that the Orthodox are called the “Rum Orthodox,” or “Roman Orthodox”).
We could easily point out that historically this has occurred among the Protestants through state interference as well. There is at the very heart of this fallen world the desire to keep the Church from being involved in two primary spheres: 1) worship of God, the Holy Trinity, and 2) the transfiguration of this world. The prince of this world (Ol’ Nick, or Satan) is happy to have us isolated into either of these spheres. If we only focus on worship, then the world runs amuck. If we focus only on the world, then we have nothing with which to transform it because we adopt the world’s vision. Should we marry the world and this age, then we will indeed be a widow in the next. Where’s the balance?
Well, believe it or not, I think that a proper, godly humanism should be fostered.
Humanism usually takes a beating from conservative Christians because they see the sort of humanism that has come to the fore in the last one hundred fifty years or so. The sort that says, “Man is continually advancing and becoming better and better.” This kind of optimism fuels a lot of the sympathetic drive of the modern liberal, but it is selectively blind to the horrors of what man does to man. Man has become more brutal and debased in the last two centuries than ever before. Two world wars, the holocaust, lynching blacks in the deep South just because they were black, an explosion of abortions, sexual license and perversions made public and “acceptable” instead of things that need to be repented of, children bringing guns to school and killing classmates and teachers, wide-spread disrespect and virtually the complete loss of civility and manners. Are these the signs of our continual perfection? We can only think so if we are deeply deluded... by the Evil One.
That is not the sort of humanism that I think we should be concerned with. What I am promoting is what might be called an eschatological humanism. What does that mean, Father? Eschatology is the study of the last things, the second coming of Christ. This sort of humanism takes its vision of humanity not from this world and where we are now, but has as its focus what humanity is created to be in the Kingdom of God. Or perhaps even more simply and clearly our vision of humanity and proper humanism is the Saint. This is an essential point. We cannot take our current state of affairs as normative. They aren’t. Only the Kingdom of God can be considered normative for Christians.
What then is the nature of this sort of humanism? Well, first of all it is concerned with worship. We know that in the Scriptures—especially in the Book of Revelation (or Apocalypse) that the Church is constantly shown to be in worship of the Lamb who was slain. That worship is not directed towards the community. It is directed only towards Christ. Our orientation in worship is that of common focus beyond ourselves to the One who was, and is, and is to come. From a practical standpoint then, all of our life must be principally founded on our worship. Conservative movements that take up intellectual points that may well be correct, but which are not expressed and fulfilled in the liturgical worship of the Church are, in the last analysis, empty and worthless.
Humanism that is formed by its vision of the Kingdom of God is also profoundly interested in every one around. Again the Apocalypse shows this by showing the prayer of the Saints for the faithful here on earth in travail. They ask Christ to aid and support us. We should aid and support those around us in many areas. We know we should clothe, feed, and visit those who are in need, prison or sickness. But we must also provide for them in the most elemental way of making it possible for them to be cared for in our country without enslaving anyone else.
When laws are unjust, then we have not only the right but the obligation to speak out against them. When necessary we must become a political force so that the vision of the Kingdom of God might transform this world. This is very different from the political activism of the 1960s and the modern liberal churches. The foundation and principles are to be found beyond this age. They never contradict what has always been taught and preached and believed within the Church from the beginning of time.
This is absolutely essential to recognize. We cannot proclaim something “new” or “more enlightened” because we are entrusted with the faith delivered down to us from the Apostles which is the same as that held and enshrined in the Kingdom of God to come. There is no new morality. There is no alteration in the essential worship of the Church. They have not and cannot change. And this is the only thing we can preach, or teach, or act upon.
But surely this also means that we cannot retreat into a merely “spiritual” world. What does that really mean anyway? Yes the Church is the New Israel, the “Spiritual” Jerusalem, but that is not to say ‘unreal’, or ‘aerial, misty, mystical,or purely other-wordly.’ We have only one life, which has been spiritualized, or put in another way, it has been filled by the Spirit of God. The same life that we live at the altar, we live at work, in the voting booth, at home and in the shower. We truly have only one life. The dualism that many people have regarding the ‘church life’ and their ‘work life’ and their ‘family life’ is not Christian. And Christianity is about life. It is about our life in all of its arenas. So the Church speaks about it, and properly so. For Jesus Christ became a real life human being within a very specific time, place, and political environment.
The Church first points out that we must pray. Our liturgy is the heart beat of all that we do. This is why I get so irritated when people don’t make it their first priority. If they don’t get to the Church to worship, then they are not behaving like Christians in the least. It is not optional. It is not whether or not we ‘get anything out of it.’ It is not whether or not it is ‘my cup of tea.’ It is the foundation of being a Christian to be at the altar of Christ. This is what makes us a Christian people and community, and it is focused on the Holy Trinity. Notice this, it’s very important. True humanity moves to Christ, and he makes us a genuine community, which is his body in time and space. Without this movement first (which he inaugurates by his condescension towards us and what is often called ‘prevenient grace’) we can never be a community at all.
Then from this newly reconstituted humanity we strive to love others. We feed them. We shelter them. We care for them. We give them medical help. We visit them in prison. We lobby and vote in such a way that the Kingdom illuminates. We give them the life of the Kingdom. Everything starts at the altar and flows out into the universe from there. And finally, Christians move back to Christ in thanksgiving and adoration again. Everything starts and ends at the altar, but it includes everything that we understand as reality—both visible and invisible.
So, are Christians to be activists? For the Kingdom of God, absolutely! Might that require political awareness and activity? Absolutely! Can we be quiet about it? Not if we are part of that Kingdom which Christ inaugurated and which will reign through all eternity. And we have guidelines that are seldom spoken. There are real solid foundation stones that we need to be aware of before we act. We cannot just act out of sentiment, but only out of our deep theological understanding which is first and foremost a summation of our prayer.
As a priest I will not refrain from speaking the truth “in season and out of season.” If it is directly about politics, I will still do it because be assured that I am not speaking as a Republican or a Democrat, but as a Christian priest standing at the altar of Christ our God with a vision of the Kingdom and not of this world. I am not concerned with foreign policies and their intricacies, except to the degree that they reflect the Kingdom of God, the heavenly Jerusalem and new Israel. I could care less about any other social agenda. Everything else is secondary and negotiable, but it must be based on the essential understanding of what that Kingdom is.
Let us all act and speak in this manner. And may Christ our God fulfill his Kingdom in and among us.