Archbishop Averky of Syracuse, Constantine Cavarnos, Ecumenism, Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra, Elder Joseph of Vatopedi, Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Glossary, Hedonism, Hieromonk Alexios (Trader), Humility, James L. Kelley, Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, Modernism, Presbyter Peter Alban Heers, Protopresbyter James Thornton
The fundamentalists accept a gross distortion of the doctrine of “salvation by faith” in which once they “accept Jesus into their hearts,” they are saved and automatically freed from the stain of sin. Life for them is no longer a struggle, in such circumstances, and religion becomes a veritable carte blanche. A single, and highly subjective, highly emotion-charged experience in their lives — the moment they were “saved” — frees them from the need to struggle and genuinely to transform themselves. It is no wonder, then, that after the passion of the moment of conversion wears off, and the new fundamentalist is alone with his still-sinful self and recognizes that he is cut off from further improvement or development by the doctrine he has accepted, he will often drift away from the fundamentalist creed. Millions pour through the open door of fundamentalist churches, but as many are always leaving.
When one is familiar with the traditions of the Orthodox Church, its way of life, its manner of worship, its body of doctrine, its style of organization, its art, its architecture, its music, its forms of piety and devotion, its insistence that men must be humble, and obedient, and Christlike — in other words, when one apprehends the culture created by Orthodox Christianity — and then compares all of this to the corresponding forms in the fundamentalist camp, one is hard-pressed indeed to conceive how the two things can be grouped together under the heading “Christianity.” If one represents Christianity, the other seems like the product of a totally different planet. The mind and senses revolt at comparisons between the divine poetry of the sermons of a Saint John Chrysostomos, on the one hand, and the coarseness of an Oral Roberts, on the other; the exalted writings of a Saint Basil the Great and the uncouth histrionics of a Jimmy Swaggart; the sublime expressions of eternal truth in a Saint Gregory the Theologian and the show-biz antics of a Jim and Tammy Bakker; the exquisite spiritual beauty of the humility, and boundless love, and self-abnegation in the lives of the Desert Fathers and the naked pride, boundless greed, and self-aggrandizement in the lives of the TV—wasteland profligates.
Nonetheless, despite this radical dichotomy, there are men who have in recent years moved from this world of fundamentalism into the world of “official” Orthodoxy. They have told us that we must put aside our old-fashioned ways, our superstitions, our quibbling about the fine points of theology, our traditions, our “hang-ups” about ethnic heritages, our love for the two-thousand-year-old culture that Orthodox Christianity has created, and renovate our thinking. We must, they tell us, combine the best of Orthodoxy, which they perceive primarily as Orthodoxy’s “officialness,” and combine this with the methods and style of evangelical fundamentalism. If we do this, they claim, we can evangelize America and win it in toto to Orthodoxy. Simply transform Orthodoxy in America into a gigantic tent revival, and voila, America will be “Orthodox.” This is sheer balderdash, needless to say. Is it not clear that one cannot combine the ethos of a Saint Anthony the Great with that of a Jim Bakker? On the one hand is authentic Christianity, and on the other pride, avarice, and ignorance personified.
Let us be clear here that we should have no objection to the use of modern methods of communication to reach people with our message, including Websites, e-mail, radio, television, and videos to proclaim the true Gospel of Christ, so long as what is done is done with the dignity proper to Orthodoxy. No, we have no objection to this. It is the mentality and methods of fundamentalism (in addition to its elemental doctrinal and historical fallacies) to which we object. Fundamentalism is an extension of the commercial mentality that reckons everything and everybody in terms of money, consumption, and material success, and that sees everything as a commodity to be bought and sold, even religion. If it doesn’t “sell,” if it doesn’t make money, it is a failure. Saint John of San Francisco was a failure, according to any commercial criteria one cares to name. He had no television program, he certainly did not possess the outward appearance of success, he lived in a state of wretched personal poverty, his Church was not and has never been wealthy, and he cared nothing about being “popular” in the sense of being loved and admired by the mob. But he was a Saint of our own time, and his simple, humble life serves as an inspiration to millions of people and doubtless saves countless souls. Some modernist Orthodox Churches, in contrast, raise millions of dollars every year, are awash in money, and are definitely “successful” in the commercial sense. But they do not have, and will never produce, a Saint John of San Francisco.
The fundamentalist way of thinking represents, along with the pan-heresy of ecumenism, a tremendous danger to the Orthodox Church in our country. Orthodoxy presently possesses only the most slender, shallow roots in the soil of America. It is opposed, in all of its activities, by a rampant spirit of materialism, by what is sometimes called the “Money Power.” We traditionalist Orthodox say that come what may, Orthodoxy must survive untouched for the sake of the salvation of souls. The fundamentalists within Orthodoxy’s ranks insist that we must allow Orthodoxy to be “Americanized,” to absorb thoroughly the Zeitgeist of contemporary American life, and to become itself transformed by this Zeitgeist. Almost two thousand years ago, Orthodoxy indeed seized many ingrained facets of life in the ancient world and baptized them, made them Christian. It baptized that which was worthy in old Greece and Rome. But in doing this, it transformed, it sublimated these things (made them sublime), and it never compromised its own essence in doing that. Orthodoxy transformed; it was not itself transformed. The fundamentalists, because they come from a revolutionary tradition alien to Orthodoxy, would drain the vessel of Orthodoxy of its essence, which essence is the true, saving, Living Water of Christ Himself, and then fill that vessel with a spiritual strychnine.
There is no resemblance between the aristocratic religious spirit of the best of our American heroes and the grasping philistinism of modern fundamentalists. What the spirit of Jacobinism (which was a sort of proto-Bolshevism), radical egalitarianism, and unlimited mob rule are in the political sphere, fundamentalism is in the religious. It is not truly spiritual, but vulgarly commercial. It does not oppose the Zeitgeist, the debased “spirit of the age,” but is the child of that spirit, and augments it. It does not look to personal struggle against sin and evil, but accepts sin and evil as impossible for men to overcome, and then pretends that “saved” followers are automatically freed from the penalties of a sinful life by their faith. It follows a form of religious hyper-individualism. It claims that the individual is saved by his acceptance of Christ, and therefore has no real need of a Church or of its Divine Liturgies or Holy Mysteries (though for some reason there is a need for TV fundamentalist evangelists). The relationship is strictly between God and the individual, a one—to—one situation. It does not urge its followers to handle wealth and material goods with care (as Clement of Alexandria warned, handling wealth is like handling snakes), but exalts wealth as evidence of God’s favor upon His elect. It cannot produce its own true culture, but lives a parasitic existence at best, and, at worst, exercises a highly damaging and undermining influence with regard to any sort of genuine religious tradition, towards any form of a “spiritual community,” and towards any genuine culture.
It will doubtless be argued by some that I have been unjust in that I have failed to recognize that some simple folk are actually helped by fundamentalism, that their lives are indeed turned around and made better. I certainly will not deny that fact. It cannot be denied. For every Jim Bakker or Jimmy Swaggart who gives into temptation, there are a thousand guileless supporters who do not. Individual people are very often far better than the false creeds they follow. The credit for this good accrues to God and not to fundamentalism. At the same time, let us remember how many intelligent, educated people have been repelled by the outrageous capers of fundamentalists, and in rejecting what they think is Christianity, which is really ersatz Christianity, unfortunately reject true Christianity.
I have mentioned today the profound connection between culture and religion, and we have seen that all culture comes from cult, that is, from religion. Religion is the mother of all great cultures, and Christianity—more correctly, Orthodox Christianity—, is the mother of the greatest culture and civilization known in all of human history. We have discussed too that as religious belief dies out, so too does culture and an ordered, civilized way of life. We see that every day all around us. We then demonstrated that while all culture derives from religion, not all so-called religions produce cultures, and that some are actually destructive of culture. We surveyed several religious movements of past ages that anticipated modern fundamentalism, and that were highly destructive of Christian life. We then discussed the fundamentalist movement and considered its danger to traditional Orthodoxy in America. Finally, we showed that despite its extremely superficial show of patriotic sentiment, fundamentalism is actually antithetical to traditional Americanism and to America’s religious tradition.
I wish to conclude by saying a few words about the present state of our civilization and our country. We Orthodox Christians live in a world that in many respects has gone mad. We do not exaggerate when we say that we are living on the very edge of catastrophe. Indeed, many of our fellow Americans have already gone over that edge, whole generations of young people, for example. For almost two thousand years, that splendid civilization that sprang up from the dying pagan civilization has been animated by traditional Christianity. Even in the West, Orthodoxy lies at the roots. But for the time being, this is not the case; the leaders of our civilization at present choose to throttle that vessel that nurtures our way of life. We seem now to be plunging headlong into an unknown darkness, an abyss. Our only hope as we strive to navigate through the whirlpools and treacherous currents, and around unexpected obstacles, is to cling fast within that Ark which God has provided for our safety, the Orthodox Church. At the same time, we all, as Orthodox believers, as decent Christians, and as Pastors, must attend with all possible urgency to our brothers and sisters who have not found their way into that Ark, or, who having found it, are in danger of falling out. That is our most pressing duty. But there is another duty also, towards certain larger concepts and towards those good things given us by our ancestors, and preserved so lovingly down through the centuries by Christianity. That involves the civilization into which we were born, and the country which God has given us.
Is it too late to save our country and our civilization from destruction? At the moment the vast majority of people are too enchanted by the so—called good life of materialism to understand the life—imparting power that traditional religion possesses, to know that Christian tradition, and most specifically Orthodox tradition, is a rampart that protects those precious things that truly make life worth living: beauty, knowledge, truth, family, order, selfless love, and respect for life, to name only a few; that rampart holds back the maelstrom of chaos, barbarism, and evil that swirls in the outer darkness, and that relentlessly seeks to engulf and obliterate all. Is it too late? Philosopher Richard M. Weaver wrote that if we truly wish to restore what has been lost, we, and everyone else, must understand that it comes at a price. He suggests that people be asked if they understand clearly that “comfort may be a seduction,” that the “fetish of material prosperity will have to be pushed aside in favor of a sterner ideal,” and that there is a necessity that one accept duties before one begins to talk of freedoms.
These things will be very hard; they will call for deep reformation. It may well be that the course of degeneration has proved so enervating that there is no way of re-inspiring with ideals. We know that such is often the case with individual histories. Yet it is the duty of those who can foresee the end of a saturnalia to make their counsel known. Nothing is more certain than that we are all in this together.
—Protopresbyter James Thornton
Modernists, who would ignore the decisions of the Holy and Great Œcumenical Synod of Chalcedon (and others) and unilaterally enter into communion with non-Orthodox, often imagine themselves more intelligent and better-educated theologians than the Holy Fathers of old. They are as mistaken in that delusion as they are misguided in their transgressions of the boundaries of Holy Tradition.