Secularism and its offspring including radical individualism, moral relativism, and religious and political correctness are a pernicious threat to the correct comprehension of Christian teaching. Secularism borrows the vocabulary and categories of the Christian moral tradition but fills them with a different meaning thereby evoking the authority of the tradition while changing its teaching. This bastardization of Christian thought is often promoted as a higher expression of the common good when in fact it causes grave moral confusion and sometimes justifies evil in the name of good.
Secularism is not new. Intellectual history scholars locate the emergence of secular thought in the French Enlightenment, particularly in the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau who rewrote the Genesis narrative by placing the locus of the Fall in Adam’s socialization rather than his private decision to disobey God. Rosseau effectively shifted responsibility for sin in the world – including the deleterious social effects some sins engender – from the individual to society.
This reinterpretation of Genesis unleashed an idea that would have huge cultural ramifications. Society, not the individual, was responsible for the ills that beset it. The idea captured the minds of the intelligentsia relatively quickly. If the ills in society were primarily the result of socialization the thinking went, then the best way to heal the ills in society was through social reorganization. The first experiment in social enlightenment was the French Revolution – a popular movement that overthrew the medieval order in the name of Fraternity, Liberty, and Equality but ended up implementing a nascent totalitarianism in the crowing of Napoleon Bonaparte as emperor.
The acceptance was not universal of course. England for example, was experiencing cataclysmic social changes of its own, but the ideas unleashed in Revolutionary France never jumped the Channel. Why? Historians contend the Great Awakening led by John Wesley effectively inoculated England against Rousseau’s virus.
Napoleon was effectively deposed when the French came back to their senses but Rosseau's idea never died. They would reappear later especially in Marxism, which elevated the notion that the state was both the source and enforcer of the project to build a heaven on earth and set about to create the new utopia with ruthless efficiency. The count of the people who died under Communist brutality makes the French Revolution seem like child’s play and eludes the historians even today.
Secularism rejects God as the touchstone of truth and meaning. Moreover, when God is rejected, the locus of truth — the place where truth emanates and where it is found — must necessarily rest in the created order. The locus shifts to man himself, and as pride and an inflated sense of self-sufficiency grows, ideas that find no court of accountability apart from the like-minded, are implemented in this quest for a new Jerusalem. When these ideas accept a-priori that improving the lot of man begins with social reorganization (the inevitable outgrowth of Rosseau’s initial assertion), the state becomes both the source and enforcer of morality — often with catastrophic results.
Communism fell but the dream of earthly utopia continues unabated. Susan Jacoby (2005), no friend of religion, recently asserted: “What the many types of freethinkers share, regardless of their views on the existence or non existence of a divinity, was a rationalist approach to the fundamentals of earthly existence — a conviction that the affairs of human beings should be governed not by faith in the supernatural but by a reliance on reason and evidence adduced from the natural world.”
She went on to say: “Biblical authority is cited by politicians and judges as a rationale for the death penalty. Vital public health programs — the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, family planning aid to Third World countries, sex education for American teenagers (unless it preaches “abstinence only”) — are held hostage by the religious doctrines of a determined conservative minority.” She postulates that in a democratic society, “there must be a moral consensus, extending beyond and in some instances contradicting particular religious beliefs, to maintain the social contract.”
Overlooking for the moment the self-congratulatory term “free-thinker” that Jacoby ascribes to herself and her compatriots, note how the justification for the negation of any religious dimension of the social problems she cites rests in her assertion that rationalism alone is sufficient for solving those problems. Conditioned as we are to this assertion, it strikes our ears — initially at least — as entirely plausible.
But is it really? Take a closer look at it. The assertion is universal in character. It posits that rationalism alone, that is, a self-contained and self-referencing system of ideas that broaches no recourse to a touchstone outside of the creative capacity of the individual, is sufficient for solving the catastrophic moral collapse that looms before us.
Moreover, because Jacoby’s statement is universal in character, it functions as a religious precept even while simultaneously denying the existence of the transcendent. In denying religious authority (in this case arguing that the influence of the Holy Scriptures in judgments about human behavior should be dismissed), the statement also denies God and substitutes in its place the sufficiency of the human mind to script the social reorganization necessary to solve the social problems she listed. Jacoby is clearly a daughter of Rousseau.
Jacoby is correct in her assertion that a shared morality is necessary for social cohesion, a dynamic we call the cultural consensus. She is also correct in her brief historical analysis that in times past the consensus was shaped by Christian morality. Finally, she is correct that the cultural consensus is shattering.
This shattering creates considerable moral confusion that results in grave social problems, some of which she cited. A question arises that Jacoby never asked (although she answered): Where will the new consensus be drawn from? What happens if different groups conflict about what is morally acceptable, as is the case today? What rule (and who will be the arbiters of that rule) determines which consensus is favored when conflicts occur?
Several critical questions are raised by Jacoby's queries. Which group of people determines the consensus? What happens if different groups are in conflict in terms of what is morally acceptable? Can distinct groups of individuals come to a different consensus on morality and acceptability of behavior? What rule determines which consensus is the right consensus when consensus conflicts occur?
These questions are not new to cultural anthropologists. The discipline of cultural anthropology includes beliefs, cognitive organization, economies, family structure ideas, justice and sanctioning institutions, marriage, religious practices, sexual practices, social structure, technologies, values, and various other elements. A wide variety of cultures and peoples inhabit the earth with a wide variety of standards that define morally acceptable and normative behaviors. Put another way, many societies or groups have a different consensus on what constitutes normative behavior.
A couple of examples can illustrate this lack of consensus. In Melanesia, some tribal groups display homosexual relations among men that are universal and obligatory (Herdt, 1984, emphasis added). Another example is a marital lifestyle called polyandry, which involves one woman having multiple husbands. One subtype occurring in Tibet and Nepal is fraternal polyandry. In this behavioral pattern a group of brothers marries one woman. The oldest brother most often is the designated groom during the wedding service. However; all the brothers are recognized as her husband by this ceremony and all have sexual rights to her. The brothers also assume a group responsibility for all the children produced from this marriage (O’Neil 2006).
Other examples include normative child marriage among some groups in Ethiopia and Nigeria, It is reported by Nour (2006) that 50% of girls are married before the age of 15 and some girls are married as young as the age of seven. A contemporary illustration was reported by CNN in 2009 report: “Husbands are allowed to slap their wives if they spend lavishly, a Saudi judge said recently during a seminar on domestic violence, Saudi media reported Sunday. Arab News, a Saudi English-language daily newspaper based in Riyadh, reported that Judge Hamad Al-Razine said that, "if a person gives SR 1,200 ($320) to his wife and she spends 900 riyals ($240) to purchase an abaya (the black cover that women in Saudi Arabia must wear) from a brand shop and if her husband slaps her on the face as a reaction to her action, she deserves that punishment." In most Western Countries including the United States, such punishment would be considered physical abuse and the husband would be subject to criminal action.
In the Christian West, the collapse of a cultural consensus has caused deep social instability, some of it catastrophic over the last few centuries (the last century in particular) and most everyone intuitively understands that some kind of resolution must be found. Societies, like individuals, can only endure instability for so long, especially when the instability threatens a collapse. Two roads are open us: a slide into an imposed order that marshals the organs and authority of the state (the inevitable end of Jacoby’s type of secularism), or a turning back to individual accountability before God.
Some of the responsibility for this slide into secularism must be borne by Christians as well. No person who departs from the teaching of Christ is a true Christian no matter if he calls himself. In the history of the early Church, eminent historian Jaroslav Pelikan wrote of St. John Chrysostom's view on the undisciplined state of the Church in the late fourth century, after Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. It reads a description of Christianity today.
Quoting Pelican, “Chrysostom lamented the incursion of hordes of uncommitted new members in the Church and the breakdown of church discipline it presaged," — what today we would call nominal or "cafeteria" Christianity. Imperial fiat conscripted citizens into the Church. Little care was given to their beliefs or morals. Today, those who are Christian in name only or confuse their Christian identity with ethnic identity, hardly model Christ-like values that conform to the mind of the Church and thus are not examples of being a true follower of Christ.
The term mind of the Church refers to the collective teaching of what it takes to be a true follower of Christ by those recognized by the Church as authentic followers of Christ whose teaching and way of life can be trusted. These teachers stand on and within the Gospel of Christ given to us by the Apostles and which constitute and judge the Church even today.
Clarity in theological and in some cases moral matters was hard fought. Scripture records the conflicts the Apostle Paul had with false teachers who attempted to subvert the Gospel of Christ. Church councils were often call in the heat of conflict and in some cases persecution (Iconoclasm for example). Indeed, conflict within and without the Church is to be expected although it may ebb and flow from one generation to the next.
St. Matthew (7: 15-16) quotes our Lord saying, "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.”
This exhortation defines what is meant by the term the mind of the Church. Think of historical atrocities committed in the name of Christ. Are they of Christ? Of course not. Evil often masquerades as good to hide its real nature. But a simple test of whether or not it conforms to the mind of the Church, that is, if it conforms to the body of moral and theological teaching which has emerged from the previous experience of persons living in and through the Gospel of Christ (the Tradition) clarifies the question in short order.
This distinction is lost on thinkers like Jacoby (2005) however since it does not confirm to her thesis that Christianity is absolutist in character and laced with contradiction. She writes, “It is often noted that religion played a major role in both the nineteenth-century abolitionist and the twentieth-century civil rights movements, but, as Lincoln pointedly observed, the Bible was used just a frequently to justify slavery as to support emancipation.”
She’s right of course but only partially. There were indeed Christians that argued that the holding of slaves conformed to Christian morality. But so what? Clearly the larger body of teaching prohibited slavery, and slavery was finally outlawed largely first through the successful appeals to the conscience of a nation by Christians (Wilberforce in England, Thomas Clarkson and others in the US), and then through political and social work of others holding the same convictions.
Posting two opposing views from two Christians does not negate the body of teaching developed over the centuries, and Jacoby’s attempt to dismiss the moral authority of Christianity in this way is little more than a cheap ploy. It is a-historical, but then moral relativism usually is. It also blinds one to a crucial cultural fact: the basis from it is even possible to conceive as slavery as a moral wrong could only have come from Christianity.
This notion is rooted deep in the Decalogue where liberation from slavery was initially conceived. Fr. Alexander Men wrote, “The Mosaic religion was born along with the idea of salvation. The first commandment of the Decalogue reminds us that Yahweh liberated [H]is people from the slavery in which they languished. The general masses always understood salvation entirely concretely, as liberation from enemies and natural disasters. The Prophets inspired this hope, inserting into it eschatological contents.”
Now there are a number of references to slavery in New Testament scripture. These passages can be easily misunderstood and even applied, by any individual, who out of pride, passion, lust for power or delusion attempt a personal interpretation apart from the Mind of the Church. The famous passage in St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (6: 5-9) immediately comes to mind: “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ; not in the way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. Masters, do the same to them, and forbear threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.” Jacobse (2009) pointed out, that the meaning of the word slave from the Greek doulos is better rendered household servant. In actuality this position of household servant has little or nothing to do with the horrific slave trade on the West African shore discovered by Portuguese merchants in the 15th Century and imported to the American Hemisphere over the ensuing centuries.
If anything the roots for the eradication of slavery as it was known in the Americas (& elsewhere) can be traced to the genuine Mind of Christ and the Church. To Titus (2:11) St. Paul writes: “For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men.” Consider the words of the psalmist (8:5-6): “[W]hat is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him? Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor.”
Because of the God given dignity of mankind, the Church has the built in foundation to be centered on Christ, eradicate wrongdoing, and grow in the understanding and application of the teachings Christ gave to His Church. The guideline of this understanding is conformity to the Mind of Christ and the Church. Bishop Hierotheos Vlachos (1998) states: . "The word mind denotes the way of thinking and consequently the way of acting as a member of the Orthodox Church." This Mind of the Church was sealed at Pentecost and has passed down to the Church to the present day. Recall St. Paul’s words: "I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you" (1 Corinthians 11:2). St Paul told the Ephesians "you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone " (2:19,30). St Luke told his readers: "Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, [bishops and priests] to care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son (Acts 20:28). Following St. Paul, these traditions, oral first and then written were passed from the apostles to their successors, the bishops and priests. All we have in the Church, its oral tradition, written tradition (Holy Scripture), Holy Mysteries, prayers, teachings of the Church Fathers and saints, holy councils, icons, architecture, music, all proclaim the glory and mind of Christ. Collectively they are the Mind of the Church.
This may come as a shock to Americans and any who live under a democratic politic. It should be noted the Church does not endorse or conform to any particular governmental system: democracy, dictatorship or theocracy are all spiritually neutral. That is to say, they are themselves outside of the Mind of Christ and the Church. Christ, Himself told us: "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (Mt 22: 21) The key to spiritually judging any particular governmental system, (including Caesar’s) is if it conforms to the Mind of Christ and the Church. This is seen in St. Paul’s instruction to the Colossians (4: 1) “Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.” By implication this means thus all governments and leaders, no matter a president, king, emperor, dictator, priest or bishop must treat all they govern “justly and fairly.”
Second Caveat: The Mind of Christ is based on Divine Justice not Human Justice
One primary example of Divine Justice-Human Justice distinction is found in the parable of the workers in the Vineyard Mat 20: 1-16):
"For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place; and to them he said, 'You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.' So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing; and he said to them, 'Why do you stand here idle all day?' They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You go into the vineyard too.' And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, 'Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.' And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the householder, saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?' So the last will be first, and the first last."
Why this parable, violates human justice and is so repugnant to many is easy to see. By human standards it is “unfair.” It violates human sensibility and law. Why should someone who worked only one hour be paid the same as one who labored all day and bore the scorching heat? In the United States, labor unions would run to court and such a human injustice. Regulations and rules should be the same for all.
But this is not how God operates. Starting with the incarnation itself, we merit nothing. God, “ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever existing and eternally the same,”[i] emptied Himself for our salvation. Recall St. Paul’s words to the Philippians (2:6): “ who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped ..” Grace is freely given. No one has a right to anything. By trust in God, and conforming our minds and hearts to His, by adopting the Mind of Christ and the Church we trust based on His Love and Mercy that we will be deified and be one with Him not only on earth, but in eternal life. Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain (Ageloglou (1998), gives us the following example: “The person who has trust in Divine Justice is neither upset when treated unfairly, nor seeks his justice; on the contrary, he accepts the false accusations as if they were true, and does not try to convince others that he has been slandered; instead he asks to be forgiven. Some or our saints called themselves intemperate, without of course being so, because they hoped and trusted in divine justice.” The Elder’s constant reminder was to always seek God’s justice “ and all these things shall be yours as well.” Mt 6: 33).
Now there are to be sure some teachings that are humanly incomprehensible and some which violate human justice that are at the core of the Mind of Christ and the Church. God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, (e.g. the Father is not to be named Creator); the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father (not the Father and the Son); only males can be ordained to the Holy Priesthood, because only males are the proper icon of Christ; only a man and woman can be united in marriage blessed by God, through His Church. While type of government is not within the scope of the Mind of Christ and the Church, the way rulers govern and the content of what is legislated and executed is at the core of this Mind. Rather following Christ’s exhortation to the Romans (6: 16-18):
Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to any one as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
As mentioned above, it is in this guise we can understand the rebuke of Jesus to the Pharisees and Herodi-ans, who were trying to entrap Him : "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (Mat 22:21). Over the years it is righteous rulers that are acknowledged among the Just, those who while living on this earth as members of Christ’s Body, lead exemplary lives and models of Christ to family and society. Indeed they fulfilled in their lives the counsel of St. Paul and died as “..an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.. righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness” (1Tim 4:12, 6: 11), of Christ.
The reason why this issue of secularism is so important is psychologists such as George Kelly (1955), has demonstrated the way we construe, that is the interpretation of the meaning of something, greatly influences our thoughts feelings and actions. the act of construing the world, Kelly states these constructions are based on a postulate which is defined as self-evident premise or assertion that guides and give meaning to our lives. Kelly’s fundamental postulate is a ground level postulate, premises and assertions that form the foundation of much of our thinking). Kelly did not concern himself with the origin of personal constructs. (Sechrest, 1963). In other words, his fundamental premise is the way we construe the world guides our lives, but he leaves open how these constructions come about.
Given the variability found among different cultures, the content of how different cultures view their world and others is itself variable. Truth can not be found in contradiction. Secularism, relativism, freethinking is the mother of contradiction.
I have tried to indicate in this essay that consensus leads to conflict. It could be the tyranny of the majority over the minority, the minority over the majority or simply attempting to determine which consensus is the ‘true’ consensus.
True Christians can cut through this by focusing on He who said: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (Jn 14:6). They do this, not by cultural or ethnic identity or considering themselves members of a club or organization, but conforming their mind to the Mind of Christ and the Mind of His Church. From this follows that their hearts and actions will be Christ-like. Such Christians understand the words of St. Paul to the Ephesians (4:13) that they come to: “ knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” The mind of the Christian conformed to Christ and His Church, does not look to the world or consensus to know right from wrong. There is no question, that abortion, adultery, euthanasia, missing Divine Liturgy and prayer, promiscuity, same sex marriage, sex outside marriage, separation of those who call themselves Christ’s from the Apostolic Church of Christ, smoking, unchartiableness, unjust or tricky business practices, woman’s ordination are plain and simply wrong.
I was recently asked a question, by a highly educated scientist why I was committed to Christ and His Church. I admit being taken a back because except for my religious scholasticate [seminary] days in which I studied the proofs of God’s existence, I seldom give this question any thought. So I answered my the first thing that came to mind, and it was from the bottom of my heart. Without Christ and all He is he world does not make sense. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the sum total of truth, beauty, goodness and being. My answer immediately brought up a crisis in the life one of my most favorite contemporary spiritual father, Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain I quoted above. Ageloglou (1998), the Elder’s biographer recounts the incident. One day when still a child, Arsenios (future monk Paisios) was walking in the woods carrying a wooden cross and praying. He was accosted by an atheist, who mocked him and said “[God] does not exist. These religious stories are made up by some priests.” Arsenios fell on the ground and felt “confused, desperate and extremely sad, I asked Christ to give me an indication of His existence ” Suddenly the future elder had a thought: “Wasn’t Christ the kindest man ever on earth. No one has ever found anything evil in Him. So whether he is God or not, I don’t care. Based on the fact hat He is the kindest man on earth and I haven’t known anyone better, I will try to become like Him and absolutely obey everything the Gospel says. I will even give my life for Him, if needed, since He is so kind.”
Anyone who is a true Christian will take all the above to heart. Consensus without Christ means nothing. Christ with or without consensus means everything. Jesus tells us: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. " (Jn 14: 16). Of the Church St. Paul notes: "Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles ..." (1 Cor 12: 27-28) St. Luke (10: 16) quotes Jesus: "He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me.." Many, in today’s world look to the consensus of secularism to justify individualistic non-Christ-like living. In this individualistic, "I am the judge of all things," "I do not need the Church" world, all the more reason that the Mind of the Church and the Church has to be proclaimed and be the guide of all of our lives. If Christ, the Messiah on the Cross was a scandal to the Jews, (Morelli, 2009), so too is the Church a scandal, and to be ignored, changed or ignored by some individuals in our secular, politically and religiously correct contemporary relativistic society.
Ageloglou, Priestmonk Christodoulos. (1998).Elder Paisios of The Holy Mountain. Mt. Athos , Greece : Holy Mountain .
Herdt, G.H. (1984) (Ed.) Ritualized homosexuality in Melanesia. Studies in Melanesian anthropology, 2. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Jacobse, Fr. Hans. (2009) personal communication.
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Men, A. (1998). Son of Man. Torrence, CA: Oakwood Publications.
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Morelli, G. (2009, March 28). The Scandal: Jesus Hangs on the Cross to Forgive Us of Sin. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles-2009/Morelli-The-Scandal-Jesus-Hangs-On-The-Cross-To-Forgive-Us-Of-Sin.php.
O'Neil, Dennis. "Kinship Overview." The Nature of Kinship. 27 June 2006. 19 Feb. 2009 <http://anthro.palomar.edu/kinship/kinship_1.htm>.
Pelican, J. (2001). Divine rhetoric: The Sermon on the Mount as message and as model in Augustine, Chrysostom, and Luther. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
Sechrest, L. (1963). The psychology of personal constructs: George Kelly. In J. Wepman & R. Heine (Eds.), Concepts of personality. Chicago: Aldine Press.
Vlachos, Bishop Hierotheos, (1998).The Mind of the Orthodox Church. Lavadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery.
[i] From the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Anaphora Prayer