By Jackie Morfesis
Again and again, I wish that I could say that I am surprised and shocked at the new wave of secularist ideology infiltrating Orthodox theology. But tragically it is so commonplace, I am not. It has become our new normal.
Allow me to explain. Again and again, the faithful of the Orthodox Church are co-opting the faith, God’s Holy Word, the wisdom and the writings of the church Fathers, and the practices and teachings of Orthodoxy to align with the changing social, cultural, and political tides of the world. Something that should sound the alarm – but since the bell has been rung so many times, we do not even hear nor notice.
We already know this alarming trend and pattern has permeated our theological schools, academia, Orthodox Christian conferences (some of which I have attended and presented), and all forms of media (podcasts, webinars, platforms, websites, etc.). However, I am most disheartened when I see this happening within our monastic communities. I have always had a heart for monasticism. I cannot describe the overwhelming peace and comfort that I feel when I am on the grounds of a monastery. The monastery does not only speak to me physically, but it is at its core, a spiritual home that speaks to my soul. God save, preserve, and bless our Holy Orthodox monasteries and our monastics.
Yes, secular humanism and secularist thoughts have not only permeated the walls and minds and hearts of our clergy but of our monastics. This is most evident on social media. I know, it is probably best to refrain from even engaging on social media. It can be not only a distraction but a portal for the darkness at the hands of others to disseminate information that is anathema to Orthodoxy and to our faith.
Two examples come to mind. The first, a clergy of the Orthodox Church posted a story of an Abbott, a monastic, who gave a young man who visited the monastery of Mt. Athos advice. The young man, a seeker, was desirous of having a closer relationship with the Lord, and the Abbott advised him to read “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens.
According to the post, on Facebook, he even told the young man that reading and studying the writings of the Patristic Fathers, the teachings of the church, albeit to say – God’s Holy Word could “destroy his soul” – as per the post: “Unless you first develop normal, human, Christian feelings and learn to view life as little Davey did – with simplicity, kindness, warmth, and forgiveness – then all the Orthodox ‘spirituality’ and Patristic writings will not only be of no help to you – they will turn you into a ‘spiritual’ monster and destroy your soul.”” This was cited from: “Not of this World: The Life and Teaching of Fr. Seraphim Rose” by Monk Damascene Christensen.
We do not look to literature, even great and classic literature for advice or teachings to develop “simplicity, kindness, warmth, and forgiveness”, we look to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, God’s Holy Word, and to the church. “Jesus saith to him, I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life: no one cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). David Copperfield is not the benchmark for being on the faith walk. We do not need a fictional character to be modeled to us on how to be in the world – when we have the real, living, Lord, who showed us everything we need to know.
On the heels of this social media post, very shortly after, another post on the page of an Orthodox Christian hieromonk touted the writings and views of Fyodor Dostoevsky as spiritual guidance. Let us be clear, I respect the writings gifted to us, great literature is indeed a valued treasure. I would not have pursued advanced university study of the world’s classical literature here and abroad if I did not feel this way. However, again, I do not look to Fyodor Dostoevsky nor Charles Dickens to advise me nor model me on how to proceed on my faith walk as a Christian or Orthodox Christian in lieu of God’s Holy Word and the writings of the Church.
And what specifically was the post regarding Dostoevsky? That according to him, we are all to take on the sins of the whole world. That every single one of us is responsible for the sins of the whole world. This philosophic or spiritual viewpoint is one more anathema to the Christian faith walk and Orthodoxy. Going down that rabbit hole is not even necessary nor healing.
What we do know rests in God’s Holy Word. God sent His Son – Jesus, who paid the ultimate price for the “sins of the world.” “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). This is God’s plan. And it is finished. We will also be judged according to our own sins, not the sins of others. We are destined to die once and after that to face judgment as told to us in Hebrews 9:27.
On an earthly, practical level, that clergy, monastics, and hieromonks have jumped upon the secular humanism bandwagon is all too evident. It is easy. It is accepted. It has no challenge. In a world that persecutes faith followers and attacks God’s truth in scripture – it is a safe, protected place. We know the persecution and suffering that comes from speaking God’s truth in a world where not only truth, but truth speakers are attacked.
But why exactly on the spiritual level is this done? Because this is exactly the language that is celebrated by the darkness. The darkness in fact revels in the fact that a supposed Abbot would warn against the Patristic writings, the traditions of the Orthodox Church, and Orthodox spirituality. The darkness revels in and celebrates that we would look to Dostoevsky for spiritual guidance and theological truth – when our Lord is who we need to be looking to and God’s Holy Word is the truth that we should be seeking. “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20).
One may say – that I am overreacting here. This is “just social media.” They are “just words.” It is “harmless really.” That cannot be further from the truth. Do we not know how the darkness works? The darkness does not always announce itself, boldly, to be seen by all, to be recognized, acknowledged. No, the darkness many times operates in darkness, in the shadows, in the hidden and secret places. It, like a drop of rain, falls unnoticeable, but over time, has carved a cavern in our souls as big as the Grand Canyon.
However, unlike the Grand Canyon, this is not a working of God’s wonder and beauty, but a destruction, drop by drop, and erosion of our spiritual armor. No, I will not take the advice of the Orthodox priest/monk and follow in the footsteps of David Copperfield to teach me what it means to be “human.” And no, to the Orthodox hieromonk, I will not look to the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky to educate me on biblical and scriptural truth.
We must also remember that the Bible tells us to “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking who he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Open your eyes. We are called to have discernment. Not everything we read is true. Not every social media post is verified for its truthfulness. Yet, we just “post and post” assuming this is the case. And in spiritual matters, or matters of the church, it is absolutely urgent and vital that we proceed with caution. Does it align with God’s Holy Word and the teachings of the church? If not, have the wisdom, faith, and courage to say “No”. We rationalize that this is the “way of the world.” Do we not remember that we are in the world but not of the world? Do we not remember that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).
We are responsible for the ripple of every stone we toss into the stream, let each stone reverberate with God’s will, with God’s Word, and not with the world’s. We are responsible to have spiritual discernment. Instead of our knee-jerk reaction of “Amen” to every single religious post we read or every word we hear, let us stop to meditate on its truth. We must always hold close to Matthew 10:16, but especially now in a season when even the devout and faithful are succumbing to secularism: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”
Thanks for writing this JM –
Diabolo has infiltrated every corner…
IF the illustrious Elder Ephraim of Arizona
heard that story on a heretic Abbot he would’ve called out he be suspended!
I remember reading a little book by St. Paisios where he describes some of the Monks living on Mt. Athos;
some were extraordinary advanced beings and some were just lazy, bad apples who didn’t belong on holy mountain. It’s like that.
Zoey, thank you for sharing.
We have to be careful with “generalizations”…
For a couple decades I had heard from both monastic and secular clerical circles that it “can be spiritually dangerous” for some individuals to read works such as “The Ladder” / “Philokalia”, and other patristic writings.
Two years ago, a very respected hierarch on this side of the Atlantic (not GOARCH) provided an excellent response as to “why”…
It is no secret that several of these works focus on “humbling” the individual’s ego…however, the point the hierarch made was that the writers of these works in many cases originated in the Aristocracy of early Christianity (wealthy enough to learn how to read and write), and they generally had a lot of ego to “deflate” along the way…
Fast forward to 2023…while the above angle works, and has always worked, we are living in a strange historical era, where psychological problems have undoubtedly increased in the general population…in the hierarch’s words, if someone is already suffering from an anti-Christian ailment of “self-loathing”, it is absolutely true that some of these patristic readings will be harmful. That’s probably one of the wisest statements I’ve ever heard, and I’m a big fan of original patristic teachings.
Monks / abbotts are not stupid. They have seen / heard a lot, and many of them are educated. They may have identified something troubling with the individuals that they advised to read “other secular books” first…I have seen a fair share of “disturbed individuals” visiting monasteries and seeking advice, and that’s just with only a handful of circumstantial visits as a layperson, and not being someone living there day by day…
So, we have to be cautious with this topic…to blindly call these monks “secularists” may not be the correct answer here…
Markos, thank you for your thoughtful reply and comment. You bring up many worthwhile points. I was speaking to a “secularist ideology” and secularist “thoughts” – I did not carte blanche call monastics “secularist”, which for me would be the broad-brush generalization. I do again, see this as I mentioned as a “drop by drop” issue that has the potential to affect our understanding and outlook.
You do touch upon something that I see as a concern – I have participated in an Orthodox Christian Association and presented at conferences – where they separate the psychological, intellectual, spiritual, and physical aspects of our being – with practitioners from each area. You mention “psychological problems” and “disturbed individuals”. Herein lies the rub. We often forget that we are made whole beings in Christ. “Psychological problems” are deeply “spiritual problems.” Jesus healed 27 times in scripture – and each time it was not a “physical problem” (though that was the surface manifestation) but a spiritual healing. The spiritual healing led to physical healing. This is exactly the same today in spiritual healing – the illness is called out and removed in Jesus’ Holy Name. We do not call out what God gave us. We call out what is not of God.
Some background – my mother had a Master’s degree in French Literature and studied in Paris, France – unusual for her time “in the 1950s”. I have a Master’s degree studying literature as well and studied one year in Athens, Greece. I grew up surrounded and saturated with the world’s great literature, art, history, and culture. It was celebrated in my home and in my life. I will always value great art and literature, including Dostoevsky and Charles Dickens – which I have read.
My point was that we should not blindly – accept social media posts as “truth.” We should use our discernment. I realize that I am about to speak language that is not that comfortable with many Orthodox Christians – but it is backed by scripture. There are “portals”, “doors” that once opened give the darkness legal access to our lives. They become “strongholds” which lead to spiritual bondage. St. Paul:
Though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses (strongholds) “2 Corinthians 10:34”.
We think that everything is okay, everything is permissible, “it’s all good”, the rallying cry is that we must be inclusive at all costs. When the truth is – God’s laws exist for a reason. Bringing certain objects, even books, ideas, ideologies, practices, philosophies, into our lives – opens a spiritual door, that creates imprisonment and bondage over our lives that may be very difficult to break without the ministry of deliverance.
“Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1).
There is much in life that is dangerous – spiritually speaking. Listing God’s Holy Word and the writings of the Church Fathers on the “dangerous list” is what concerns me. We serve a God who protects us and delivers us from evil – not a God who protects us and delivers us from His Holy Word or the writings of the Church.
“We do not look to literature, even great and classic literature for advice or teachings to develop “simplicity, kindness, warmth, and forgiveness”
Still St Basil the great ,one of the three hierarchs, who wrote the Holy liturgy that we follow in our churches every Sunday, wrote την επιστολη προς τους νεους ως αν εξ ελληνικων ωφελοιντο λογων urging them to read examples of righteous εναρετους men in classical authors so they can become better christians.
Socrates is considered by many as a Christian before Christ.
Its obvious that ethically men have the same problems since Antiquity
Thank you Leonidas. In my excitement to stand for and defend God’s Holy Word and the writings of the church in response to these social media posts, I dismissed as you say in that moment the contributions of great literature, art, theatrical performances, and music, to not only instruct but move our souls. This is certainly not how I feel. Thank you for pointing that out – forgive me.