Pusillanimity, a virtually obsolete word, is the name of a heresy rampant in the world today. Most people have never heard of it, but it has some important thought elements which make it useful in pursuing the spiritual life. Therefore, Orthodox Christians should consider it carefully. Pusillanimity denotes spiritual cowardice, lack of “manly” strength, spiritual inertia, a certain diminution of faith and trust in God. Before we clarify the nature of this heresy, let us examine the background of its applicability to today’s social and religious environment.
A recent forum called Global Fashion: American Commercial Culture in the World sponsored by the Center for Arts and Culture met on November 3, 1999. A participant named Todd Gitlin of New York University advanced the proposition that the United States is exporting “revolutionary values” around the world. He described it as “a brash culture that knows no boundaries.”
The world seems to be demanding whatever the American culture has to offer, good, bad, or indifferent, but it is also protesting against some elements of it. We know, for example, that Moslem fundamentalists call America “the Great Satan” for reasons that should be obvious. People abroad who are resisting American culture feel that American culture is like a typhoon, a force that is not only unavoidable, but also terribly destructive.
American culture’s current effect on foreign languages and therefore on ideas, mores, and attitudes is phenomenal. But it’s not just the whole secular world that has been influenced by American popular culture. The Orthodox world and we Orthodox faithful ourselves have also been affected by it. Radio, television, the movies, newspapers and magazines have gradually conditioned the mind and hearts of people everywhere to sensationalism, commercialism, secularism, materialism, and to what amounts to paganism.
If we have personally experienced a true spiritual conversion sometime in our life, and are struggling against our passions, we are aware that these harmful spiritual effects are a serious problem in our spiritual life, and that to remain true to our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ we must take vigilant measures to minimize those effects in our life. The struggle of a truly converted Orthodox Christian will be in large part a struggle against the American secular world and its value system.
At this point we must observe that Holy Baptism alone does not magically bring about a total conversion. It gives us the grace and spiritual strength necessary to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in making a full conversion, but the eventual outcome depends on whether we individually choose to cooperate with the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we may say that in any given Orthodox community there will be those who have been converted, those who are being converted, and those who have not yet begun to be converted. People baptized as babies, for example, must sooner or later undergo voluntary conversion in cooperation with the Holy Spirit if they are to become truly Orthodox.
Among the effects of American popular culture is the tendency to give in to this state which we are calling pusillanimity, that is, to spiritual cowardice or a lack of spiritual courage. Those Orthodox patriarchs, hierarchs, priests, and people who believe that in our day it is impossible to arrive at the height of virtue achieved by the saints of old are on dangerous spiritual ground. If they teach this, they are heretics and we must avoid them.
At least one chief hierarch of an American Orthodox jurisdiction, for example, has said publicly that Americans will not tolerate long services. (It is true, of course, that some Americans will not tolerate long services, but can that reasonably be said of all? Look at us!) Therefore, rather than attempting to teach and encourage personal self-discipline, endurance, and spiritual strength-building, this hierarch prescribes a limit of 45 minutes on the Divine Liturgy. That policy requires that the Liturgy and Homily be shortened, greatly reducing the educative powers of the Liturgy and the preaching. This robs the faithful who don’t understand they are being robbed. This conditions the laity to demand one compromise of Orthodox practice after another, causing great detriment to the integrity of Orthodoxy.
The heresy of pusillanimity proposes that since we are not living in the time of the apostles, and are not in the immediate physical presence of the Saviour, it is impossible for us to become holy in the way the apostles were holy. It is impossible for us to pray and fast and attend services the way the early Christians and great saints of later centuries did. It is said that only the destitute and starving poor actually fast today, and that only out of necessity. That only the old babushkas and yayas really spend time praying. Therefore, it is argued, the Church should abandon or greatly restrict the Orthodox fasts and the numbers and length of the services for the vast majority of people. And since only monks, generally unmarried and unskilled in business and management, are allowed by the Canons to become bishops, the Church must remove the restriction against the episcopal ordination of married men. They say the Church has to get the “best educated” men in the episcopate. Arguments such as these accommodate the spiritual weaknesses of pusillanimous Orthodox clergy and laity alike. Already widowers and unmarried men are being chosen bishops in New Calendar jurisdictions who have never spent more than a few hours in a monastery, but are tonsured as monks pro forma in a great big hurry. Soon some secularized Orthodox women can be expected to start clamoring for the priesthood and the episcopate. These are or will be violations of the Holy Canons and blasphemies against the Holy Spirit. The next thing you will see is agitation for an “ecumenical council” to add Canons which will nullify the Canons of past centuries. No true Ecumenical Council had ever abrogated the Canons of previous ecumenical councils, and never will.
Why is pusillanimity a heresy? It is a heresy because it denies the continuous and continuing presence and operation of the Holy Spirit in the Church. It minimizes the Holy Spirit, and minimizes Jesus Christ Who sent the Holy Spirit upon the Church to keep it from error. Pusillanimity is the belief that one cannot obey the Gospel as did people of old. It is the claim that there are no spiritual fathers left in the world today. It is the belief that the Church of Christ has not yet been established, but awaits the concurrence of world religions, many of which deny the divinity of Christ and other basic Orthodox dogmas. St. Symeon the New Theologian who lived in the last half of the tenth and into the first decades of the eleventh century did much to expose this heresy. His times were much like ours. Many people had become dissatisfied with what the Church had become. It is worthy of note that the beginning of the second millennium occurred during St. Symeon’s time. The West especially was wracked with religious dissent. The so-called Great Schism occurred shortly after St. Symeon’s repose. Out of the religious confusion the West developed scholasticism which in turn resurrected the philosophy of the pagan Greeks. It wanted to “save” the Church by turning back, not to Christ, but to the pagan, Aristotle. Scholasticism pushed Western Christianity in a direction away from the early Church and away from the Holy Fathers. Out of it grew the Roman Catholic Church and its papal monarchy which has proceeded on an increasingly rationalistic and innovative course. It is noteworthy, however, that the philosophical basis of Roman Catholicism has begun to break down at this, the end of the twentieth century.
The Eastern Orthodox Church was also tempted to move toward a Byzantine form of scholasticism in imitation of the West. For a time, two opposing theologies faced each other in Byzantium. One was abstract and philosophical like Western Scholasticism. The other, championed by St. Symeon, strove to restore theology to its pristine form as “wisdom infused by the Holy Spirit into the soul after its thorough purification through rigorous asceticism and a state of constant repentance.” St. Simeon was so successful in defeating Scholastic tendencies among Orthodox theologians of his time, that the Church designated him as one of only three men titled Theologians: St. John the Theologian, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. Symeon the New Theologian.
It is very important for Orthodox people to know that this wandering away from True Orthodox theology has occurred again and again in history. Again and again someone gets the idea that the Church is out of step, too old-fashioned, and needs to be “saved from oblivion” by being brought into harmony with contemporary life. This idea prevailed several times in Russia. Russian seminarians started to go to the West where they picked up scholastic ideas and brought them home. Russian Orthodox Seminaries started to teach Western theology as though it were Orthodox, and they came to be unfamiliar with the Tradition of Orthodox spirituality. St. Paisius Velichkovsky rescued the Russian Church at one point. Finally along came the Communist state, and weak, pusillanimous churchmen felt they had to compromise with the state to “save” the Church. The Church became in effect an arm of the Communist government. Sanctity in Russia had to go underground into the Catacomb Church where it still, alone, may be found.
When Greece finally achieved independence from the Turks, Greek hierarchs started to fraternize with the Anglicans and to send theological students to Western Europe where they absorbed Roman Catholic theology. The result was adoption of the New Calendar and growing accommodation to the Western world and its theological errors. It is only in our time that the Greek Church is beginning to recover from this Western Captivity under such people as Father John Romanides of America and Greece and Bishop Hierotheos Vlachos of Greece.
There is never anything that man can do to save the Church. Only the Lord can save the Church. And we ask it in a hymn at the end of every Divine Liturgy. What we can do is remain faithful to His word and to the Holy Spirit who operates in the Church through the Holy Mysteries. We can struggle by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to cooperate with the Holy Spirit by holding fast to the traditions of Holy Orthodoxy.
—Protopresbyter John F. Bockman