Morality and Truth in a Secular Age

It sometimes seems that each new day brings with it another assault on traditional Christian morality from yet another front. The dust had barely begun to settle after the Supreme Court of the United States descried a hitherto undetected right to gay marriage hidden somewhere between the lines of the Constitution, when immediately the forces of radical secularism began the fight to promote and normalize the transgender ideology. To give some context for the rapidity of these seismic cultural changes, both the forced legalization of gay marriage and the subsequent transgender crusade received the full blessing and enthusiastic support of a President who, when originally elected only five years before Obergefell, had firmly and definitively opposed gay marriage.

Now, five years after Obergefell, we see 9-year-old drag queens being glamorized by the mainstream media, and stories of teenage polyamory being sentimentalized in the New York Times. Those who do not recognize these pieces as the first steps toward the normalization of pedophilia and polygamy are, unfortunately, being naïve. “Love is love,” says the supreme dogma of modernity, and the few caveats to that statement which yet remain are not long for this world.

But the attacks on traditional morality and Christian practice are coming not only from secular society, but even from certain people within the Church who have succumbed to the secular mindset and yet seek to somehow reconcile it with Orthodox Christianity. Thus hierarchs insinuate that the Church is merciless and unjust in its treatment of homosexuals, and monastics insidiously suggest that the Church’s traditions are actually only indefensible and arbitrary whims.

The prevailing belief of our culture is that traditional Christians are bigots. There are many Christians who believe that traditional Christians are bigots. And tragically, as the preceding paragraph shows, there are even prominent Orthodox theologians who seem to believe that traditional Christians are bigots. Increasingly, the only question regarding genuine Christianity which our culture finds relevant is the question of the extent to which bigotry (i.e. Christian belief and practice) ought to be protected by law.

It is very easy for those of us who desire to be faithful Christians to become overwhelmed by the ferocity, the variety, and the sudden ubiquity of these attacks. Our chief instinct amidst the confusion is to defend the Faith from these slanders and calumnies, and to prove to the world the falsehood of the accusations made against us. And this is indeed both right and needful.

But very often our efforts to defend our faith and our morality come to nothing. We reason and argue and persuade, but nobody seems to be convinced, no matter how reasonably we argue or how eloquently we speak. Why?

I think that, to a large extent, we have missed the forest for the trees. We have become so focused on parrying each individual blow that we have lost sight of the larger battle. We have tried so hard to treat all the various symptoms that we have forgotten about the disease.

St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, describes the morality of a society which bears no small resemblance to our own:

For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly… And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.

But notice what St. Paul says at the beginning of his description: this state of abject slavery to the passions did not come out of nowhere, but rather had a very specific cause. This cause is identified in the passage immediately prior (as Fr. Thomas Hopko once pointed out, it really helps to read the whole thing):

Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Amen.

Quite simply, the passions cannot in any way be prevented from gaining mastery over us once we ourselves have rejected God. Our society’s glorification of the passions is a clear and direct result of our rejection of God, our pride, and our idolatry. And as long as our society rejects God, as long as it clings stubbornly to its own pride, and as long as it refuses to stop worshipping its chosen idols, the likelihood that we will be able to dissuade it from glamorizing its own slavery by brilliant arguments or beautiful speech is precisely zero.

We must give up the misguided belief that we can persuade society of religious truth on secular grounds. Once we accept the secular premise, then immediately and necessarily we “become vain in our imaginations, and our foolish hearts are darkened.” And it is a short road from there to the morality of 60 million murdered babies, of Obergefell, of glamorized self-mutilation, of pedophilia and polygamy, and of basically any other form of depravity imaginable.

And there is no argument in the world that has the power to prevent those things from happening.

We have allowed ourselves to be deluded by the alluring promises of secularism. Even as Christians, we have allowed ourselves to believe that society can be successfully established upon popular consent and consensus, rather than upon the holy revelation of God. We have allowed ourselves to act as though morality can be arrived at through human reasoning, rather than through humble and patient obedience to the commandments of the Gospel.

In short, we have thought God to be unnecessary. We have thought that mere argument could suffice in His place.

As it turns out, we are not so unlike the aforementioned Orthodox theologians found to be fighting against the Church. Deep down, we really think that we can serve two masters. We really believe that Christianity can be reconciled with secularism. We really imagine that truth can be found through reason.

But Truth cannot be found through reason. Truth can only be found through repentance.

It comes down to this: either we trust ourselves, or we trust the Church. Everything in this world — and in the nexthinges on this one vital choice. On this question there can be no compromise, and there is no possibility whatsoever of avoiding it. Our Savior has explained all of this to us already:

Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.

The world insists that obedience is death, while the Church preaches that obedience is life. Whom are we to believe, and whom are we to imitate? St. Paul gives to us the clear and simple answer:

Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings; for it is well that the heart be strengthened by grace.

This is indeed a hard saying for those of us who have been chosen to pastor the flock of Christ. Our own failure to speak the word of God and to live a life worthy of imitation is in great part responsible for the modern catastrophe.

Yet even this grave and sinful failure, by the grace of Christ, can show us the way forward: not through reasoned arguments and convincing speeches, but rather through deep and sincere personal repentance. This is the best, and indeed the only, form of true evangelism. As St. Paul writes:

Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.

The witness of the saints and the message of St. Paul remain clear: until we truly decide to believe the Church rather than ourselves, until we learn to trust and to imitate our fathers in the faith, and until we finally understand that Jesus Christ really is the same yesterday and today and forever, we will have absolutely nothing of any worth to offer to anyone. Any truth that we preach, or any morality that we defend, will only be a hollow imitation. It will not save us, and it will not save the world.

Only Christ can do that.

7 Comments

  • Montesquieu got it right , Rousseau got it wrong. We today prefer Rousseau and are paying the price as did the 20 -odd children he procreated and gave to an orphanage .

  • Fr. Gabriel,

    I found you site by your cogent comments on Rod Dreher’s post on the Met. Kallistos “forward”. I started with this essay. Very important subject; Secularism, its grounding or “presuppositions”, Reason, and if/how these correlate with the Faith. To avoid a crude fideism, it is in my opinion important not to grant Secularism one of its central tenets; that it’s presuppositions are “true” and a reflection of Reality, therefore it is Reasonable and the arbitrator of Reason in contrast to every other philosophy, world view, and religion in the history of mankind which are all grounded on “faith”, the unknown, and the unknowable.

    Secularism or “modernism” is itself a faith, a world view, a religion despite the fact that it loudly denies this. While Secularism claims Reason for itself, and has been very successful evangelizing this particular point of its faith, Reason is in fact a tool or attribute (one of many) given to rational creatures by God no matter what their philosophy/word view is. Reason always begins with a presupposition that itself can’t be examined and adjudicated by the later chain of Reason. Secularism is subject to this limit as much as any other worldview.

    The presupposition(s) of Secularism are varied but rest on the schizophrenic foundations of Modernism; Baconian methodological materialism on the one hand and the Cartesian Self on the other. This two legged stool could not stand on its own, so the Devil supplies the third with plain old ‘original’ sin by tempting us with pride, lust, sloth, etc.

    Met Kalistos, the priest Robert Arida, the boys at Fordham – these are just the “scholarly” tip of the iceberg of a deep secularization that has occurred in the Church itself. This has of course occured since the very beginning but in our age and place it has this certain character. I am very blessed, in that my family are in a small mission parish where 2/3 of the people standing next to me in any given service are in fact Christian, even if they like me struggle deeply and profoundly with secularism. Still, that leaves the 1/3 who are in fact secularist of one stripe or another and whose Christianity is a thin and incoherent veil on their true selves. However, I have been in Orthodox parishes where those numbers were reversed.

    The battle is not about Reason itself, but about these presuppositions. In this present age, the battle is anthropological in that the question “what is man (anthropos)?” is THE question of the day and is where these secularized hierarchs, clergy, and scholastics are getting it wrong in that they are consciously (sometimes unconsciously) accepting assertions and facts about man (anthropos) and his nature that are from the Modernist faith and not the Faith. They then attempt a reconciliation on reasonable grounds. Their error is not so much in Reason (though they make errors here also) but where they start out. Theological errors of the reasonable type can be corrected in reason and dialogue itself, but errors at the beginning can not be in that their genesis and solution lie elsewhere. Of course, to a Modern man this is anathema because he believes that everything (man & God) begin and end in (his version) of Reason itself.

    In any case I have said too much in a comment box. Keep up the good work!

    Christopher Encapera
    St. Anthony’s Orthodox Mission (New Mexico) UOC-USA
    St. Sophia’s Seminary (Deacons formation program)

    • I agree with much of what you have said, but at the same time we have to be very careful not to condemn our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox Faith. Only God knows the heart! It’s a fine line between condemning modernism and condemning people, but with God’s help we must try to avoid letting the former turn into the latter.

      • I agree Fr. Gabriel. One of the limitations of this medium (i.e. the ‘comment box’) is you can’t say all that you want to – who would read it!? I don’t make any “judgement” or “condemnation” when I note the fact of where people are at, at least to the extant that I can make such a diagnosis.

        Making the diagnosis is necessary because if the Church is going to be the Church, if it is going to pass the faith on to our children, if we are going to find a way to communicate the Faith to a Secularized Age (something you were pointing to on Rod’s blog), then we have to be honest about what Secularism is and how it effects those in the Church as well as out of it. We can not allow our own squeamishness about those who would accuse of of “judgementalism” or “fundamentalism” or such derail us from seeking the truth about this either

        One of Rod’s central thesis of his book “The Benedict Option” is that traditional little “o” Christians (including Orthodox) are in significant denial NOT so much about the secularism of the general culture but rather how far and deep that secularism has penetrated the church itself – how much it effects the thinking, living, and praying of the “average” believer. I don’t agree with everything Rod says, but he is correct about this in my view.

        I am heartened, I really am about much of the reaction to Met. Kallistos’ “forward”. However the simple fact is that Met. Kallistos is speaking for a great many people who are Orthodox and approach the Cup regularly, and he has been doing so for years.

        It is not so much that we are to ‘condemn modernism’ in my opinion, that is actually the easy part at least on a theological and reasoning level. What does the light have to do with the darkness? The trick is what to do, how to preach/speak, how to relate to the struggle of the Faith against modernism that every modern person struggles with in their own heart and lives. I have seen this battle take place in our parishes, in my family, in myself and it is a real struggle and one that – and I am just being honest – is being “lost” in the parishes as a whole. Is it any wonder that Orthodoxy does not appear to be any more resistant to the children of the faithful being seduced by the secular culture and not ever returning to the church once they reach maturity than either the RC’s or Protestants?

        In any case I will have to read more of your essay’s because it appears to me you are working on this in your way as well!

        Christopher

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