Right Belief in a Left-handed World - Priest Martin Swanson

In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Your grace, fellow clergy, and brothers and sisters in Christ.

A few days before Jesus was given over unto crucifixion, he said the last parable of his public ministry: "When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. … Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels …. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal."

And on his right hand was the thief who believed in Christ's kingdom, acknowledged his own sinfulness, and asked for mercy. And Jesus said to him " Today you will be with me in paradise." Many have stood on Christ's right hand over the last two thousand years. Sheep who have joined themselves for our Lord's flock -- the Orthodox Church. For, is not the church the body of Christ? And is not the name proclaimed "right belief?" But many are on the left hand of Christ. Like the sinister thief, they blaspheme him, and they stand in direct opposition to His church. Thus on the right hand, we have the faithful who have made the church their abode. And on the left hand we have those who are separated from the church, and have chosen the world as their home. There has always been an opposition between the church and the world. For, Christ's Kingdom is not of this world. The world is ruled by Satan, and throughout history he has tried to lure Christians to his bosom. How then, do Orthodox Christians live in the world without becoming of the world? Or, in other words, how do we practice right belief in a left-handed world?

To be Orthodox is extremely difficult today. In the heterodox world, everything is a denial of the truth which was once delivered by Christ to the saints. In the past, Christians were persecuted by pagan rulers who had absurd ideas about what Christians actually believed. In the modern world a persecution more insidious is being carried out against true Christians. Today, a significant part of the world calls itself Christian, builds churches, and reads the Bible. But it's all a sham, a shadow, it is appearance, apostasy. But there is a pernicious warfare being waged which is directed at the destruction of our souls. Our Lord said, "Fear him which is able to destroy the both your soul and your body in hell."

And that is exactly what we are being offered today. For today, every apostasy has entered into every nook and cranny of our existence. At the root of all apostasy is the ancient evil of humanism. In order to understand the anti-christian chaos in which modern man finds himself, it is necessary to understand historically how humanism evolved, and the disastrous impact that it has had on our society, and in the lives of Christians. The core of humanism is as old as man. Satan himself, in the garden of Eden, infected Eve with the disease which forms the essence of humanism. And the serpent said to Eve: "Ye shall not surely die if you eat of the fruit, but your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as God -- knowing both good and evil." As soon as our first parents believed this lie of Satan, they began to breathe evil and be puffed up with the wind of pride. This was the beginning of man's preference for himself over God.

The term humanism first appeared in the vocabulary of the early Greeks to describe a great importance to man of human values. The word was used by early Christians. It is implicit in the fifth century heresy of Pelagius, which taught that man had perfect freedom of will and could achieve righteousness on his own; and is therefore, not dependent upon God for his salvation. St. Augustine, in his own over-reaction to Pelagianism, developed a whole mosaic of theological errors including the false notion of pre-destination, which was later to find its way into the teachings of the Protestant reformer, John Calvin. By the sixth century, humanism destroyed the exalted relationship of man to God. In the eleventh century, the Latin West apostatized from the church of Christ, and the bishop of Rome proclaimed himself to be Pontiphus Maximus, the supreme Pontiff, and the vicar of Christ on earth. In the year 1274, an Italian Dominican by the name of Thomas Aquinas, had not only given formal credibility to some of Augustine's erroneous teachings, but has also elevated man's reason to almost celestial heights. His major work, Sumatheologica, gave birth to scholasticism with its reliance of human wisdom, and spurred the growth of the great universities of Europe.

Scholasticism still dominates our intellectual culture today. By the end of the middle ages, we notice that that which is human has been exalted above all that which is nature. This trend is obvious by 1500, and can be seen most explicitly in western art. Typical of this period is the Work of Michaelangelo. It is in it, for example, that we can see the sharp contrast between an eastern icon of the prophet Moses, in which he appears as meek and mild -- depicted as a humble servant of God, and in Michaelangelo's sculpture, commissioned for St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, in which the same Moses has become a fierce and war-like God, fashioned after Zeus, a literal god among us.

Towards the end of the 16th century, a German Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, rebelled from the authority of his religious order. His disobedience was as much as his own pride and self-will, as is was a result of the innovations of the Roman Catholic Church. Nonetheless, the Protestant reformation which he started, spread the seeds for contemporary humanism, which provide the foundation for the building of the kingdom of man on earth. Protestantism, with its hydra-headed branches, not only radically altered the true understanding of Christianity, rejected the dogma of the church, and made man himself his higher authority, but also dismissed Jesus Christ as the founder and head of the church.

The Renaissance marked a transition from the Middle Ages to modern times. In outlook, the Renaissance brought new importance to individual expression, self-consciousness, and worldly experience. It was based on the denial of Christianity, and on the return to the ideals of paganism and the deification of human reason. The Renaissance served to usher in a period of the so-called enlightenment which fostered a rational scientific approach to political and social issues, and gave rise to a belief in the state as the instrument of human progress. Among the fruits of the enlightenment were both the French and Russian revolutions of 1789 and 1917 respectively. Another product of the enlightenment is our own American political system which dresses political freedom and the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The United States evolved out of a constitutional base which developed under the influence of the Scottish and English Protestant enlightenment. The first puritan settlers established the foundation for the development of a secular humanistic and Protestant society.

Of necessity, this description of the history of humanism has been incomplete, and perhaps, even a bit tedious. However, a realistic understanding of the concept is necessary to grasp the situation in which Christians find themselves today in the modern world. Humanism is clothed in appealing rhetoric about individual human dignity and self-worth, but it is tragically deceptive. For individuals, as history has shown, who stand in the way of humanist's agenda, are at least ostracized and, at most, deposed for the social good. In the words of the late Alexander Kalomiros, humanists can be characterized as loving mankind, and hating their neighbor; especially when their neighbor disagrees with them. The contemporary agenda of humanism excludes traditional Christian values, and replaces them with those of self-actualization, self-creation, and self-love. Humanism speaks of love and compassion, consideration of dignity co-mingled with charity. It holds that the ultimate goal of man is worldly happiness, freedom and progress, which can be achieved through science and man's innate ability to solve his own problems. Pushed to extremes, it denies the very existence of God, pointing instead to the age-old axiom that man is his own god.

Most Americans accept humanism unwittingly, for it is the air that we breathe. Humanistic thinking and its offspring, the new age, are supported at all levels of government, and invade our schools, entertainment industry, media, and our jobs. It is found in main-line Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Churches. Society is thought to be responsible for its own social problems, and not individuals. As a result of this, we live in a land in which abortion is not only legally performed, but condoned by a majority of its citizens. Marriage, home, and family rearing are no longer seen as a balance of rights and responsibilities, but rather as an experience in self-actualization -- a psychological euphemism for selfishness. Because parents and teachers now expect children to actualize themselves, they no longer discipline. Throughout our society, emphasis on rights are maximized, while emphasis on responsibilities are minimized. Short of harming others, individuals are free to express themselves in any way they wish -- even unto the most uncivilized sexual proclivities and life-style choices of their own fallen inclination.

Peace and unity are the by-words of our new-age order, giving added strength to the appeal of the heresy of ecumenism. The assumption being that Christian love demands unity, and somehow requires one to ignore the truth to avoid offending anyone. The delusion of unity and peace has served to ensnare even the church in the net of papal authority. On the one hand in Protestant, syncretism on the other. Thus, we hear talk of sacramental communion between Orthodox and the Roman Catholics by the year of 2000. We note that in a letter to the pope concerning Patriarch Bartholomew's recent visit to the Vatican, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of North and South America described the occasion as a God-sent mission, and stressed the need for unity in Christendom. Archbishop Iakavos went on to say, and I quote: "I pray with all my strength, faith, and soul that this meeting is completed with a triumphant announcement that Christendom is one."

The church has pandered to Protestants by participating in the world council of churches, praying with them and accepting Protestant baptism as effectual. Is peace and unity at the price of truth justified in any way? Is not truth the gift that Christ gave to his church, and the dearest thing to Orthodox Christians? Can truth be bartered away for the price of a lie which is offered by Satan himself? We have a pearl of great worth in the teachings of the church, and it cannot be compromised at any price. But Orthodox Christians living in the world should find themselves at odd is not surprising. Today in every way the message is blurted out from every media, "feel good about yourself, for you deserve it." Even in the midst of sin and corruption, we still hear the cry loud and clear, "feel good about yourself, you deserve it." Considering the general despair in our society, the loneliness, the drugs, the alcohol and substance abuse, the suicide rate, the aids epidemic; does anyone really believe that we profit from self-indulgence?

Apparently we do. We continue in our faith and mammon. In a recent best-selling book entitled Searching for Wisdom in America, the author asked a cross-section of Americans to describe their greatest personal individual personal concerns. The vast majority responded that they had run up against the limits of the American dream. Life had lost its meaning, and that they felt empty. Then he asked them, "What would a perfect solution to the problems?" Most prevalent answers were, "Seek out multiple messages and teachers from diverse philosophies and religions. Trust your desires and your dreams. And most important of all remember that you have the skill and the power to heal yourself whenever you suffer physical, psychological, or spiritual illness." These findings go hand in hand with what the psychologists had been telling us. "If you want to feel good about yourself, and your beliefs will not let you, then change your beliefs."

Yet this is not the Christian way. For to Orthodox Christians, sin is the cause of unhappiness. We are healed with the help of God through repentance. Our sinfulness, and not our faith must change. Our society despises any Christians, even though Christians have done nothing wrong to the world. It hates them because they set apart and aside its pleasures. In the same way, the world hated Christ, so it hates us.

Our secular society will tolerate Orthodoxy, but only if the church makes accommodations to humanism. Among the demands are that the church be one among a plurality of equally valid faith traditions. She will be expected to re-interpret herself in the light of American culture. Can the demands of society be tolerated? They cannot. For first and foremost in this age of apostasy, we must hold fast to the tradition delivered to us. For the church exists to change man's heart, and not to be changed by the hearts of men.

Be wary, fellow Christians, that the whole world lieth in wickedness. Draw away from evil, for what communion does light have with darkness? Or what part has the believer with the infidel? As true Christians, we must keep watch over ourselves or we will be drawn into the whirling torment of Apostasy. We must cling to the church as our only ark of salvation. For, by clinging onto the church, our spiritual life is preserved by Jesus Christ himself.

But, of course, simple membership in the church is not enough. We must be as living members of the body of Christ. For this, it is necessary to church our personal and family lives. One must be of the church, following its rules, decrees, customs, and traditions --not allowing ourselves to be subsumed by the unholy environment which surrounds us. Instead, we must live every jot and tittle of the faith. For everything, even the smallest detail, is important. We should neglect nothing, making compromises and concessions in nothing. Every compromise which we make, weakens our faith, and contributes to apostasy. In essence, what we have said is that we must live an Orthodox way of life if we are to successfully combat the corruption of the world. And, I add that if at all possible, we should do so in close knit Christian communities in order to insulate ourselves from the evil influence of our humanistic culture.

To develop and Orthodox way of life, we must first commit every fiber of our being. The Christian life -- the faith must become our elementary reality -- becoming as much a part of us as the air that we are breathing. This is developed only through prayer and through fasting. Second, we must learn to live our lives in piety, holding what is God's with awe, and with greatest honor. This is an external aspect of the Orthodox way of life, and is encouraged in its development by love of neighbor, charity and worthy participation in the mysteries of the church. When we have experienced both the first and the second elements, we have begun to live an Orthodox way of life, which is not only outward ritual in custom, but the whole of our being -- the center of all that we do and of all that we think.

Most of us are somewhere in the process of becoming. Our journey is advanced by sharing with others, by forming Orthodox spiritual communities around the church and its divine services, becoming one in mind and soul with fellow strugglers. An Orthodox community involves constant struggle, bearing of one another's burdens and hardships. If we cease struggling, however, the world will approach upon us and steal our treasure. Those who do not live the Orthodox way of life, centered around an Orthodox community cannot imagine the joy, the peace, and the quietness which it brings. To the world, it seems pointless. We must be on our guard against success, however. For with success, often comes a loss of fervor, discord, and decline. When the source of warmth perishes, then the life of the community will cease.

When you all leave here this Sunday, leave with the warmth of faith full of the Holy Spirit. Do not return to your parishes. I repeat, do not return to your parishes. Let us ban that word from our vocabularies. Rather go home to a community, prepared to begin living an Orthodox way of life. Take the tools which you will acquire here, and apply them to the growth and edification of your community. Be prepared for a tax both from the left, and from the right. The world will do all in its power to seduce you. Insulate yourself from the world by avoiding worldly entertainment: books, movies, televisions, and parties. For all of these things reek of the world and have the stench of Satan about them. Prepare yourself for reception of the mysteries by keeping the vigil. Never go out on a Saturday night or on the eve of feasts. Rather prepare yourself for the King coming. Avoid undue socializing, gossip, and participation in the affairs of the world.

And most importantly, my brothers and sisters, do not send your babies to public or private schools. The American education system has become the breeding grounds of neo-paganism. It is saturated with humanism. Children are indoctrinated into our materialistic culture under the pretense of helping them develop social and psychological skills and growth. The result is that they grow up ready to assume their places in our neo-pagan society. In addition, they are exposed to all manner of evil, sexual permissiveness, and substance abuse. Even the strongest Christian family finds it difficult to compete with the lure of a vanishing vapor, which their children's contemporaries offer. Homeschool your children, and use your children, and use your Christian community to form community schools.

Many parents don't have the skills, the patience, the time or the disposition to homeschool their children. But the Christian community can. It causes me to wonder when I see parishes in which several parishioners are independently homeschooling their children. Could not so much more be gained if we pulled our skills, and collectively develop community schools? I know that this is not always possible. But it certainly, in this world today, if we wish to protect our children, be something which we must strive. Be prepared also for a tax from the right, from fellow Orthodox Christians. Be prepared to be criticized and called "old fashioned -- out of sync with the 20th century", and with world Orthodoxy, un-American and even fanatical, for protecting your faith and practicing it as the church has always believed in all times and in every place.

Reverend Fathers, don't give in to worldly demands -- to trade your ryassa for a Roman collar, or your beard for a shaven face. Preserve the dignity of the priesthood and live the Orthodox way of life yourselves, and be a model to your community. Brothers and sisters, keep the fasts, adopt a rule of prayer, and give obedience to the teachings of the church. Demand that the whole services be served, despite the appeal of worldly objections. Believe me, serving a truncated service will not attract members to your church. Instead, make your services full, and allow people to participate to the degree of their strength. Serve the services on feast days during the week. And if people say, "But Father, we have to work!" Serve the services at 7 am; serve the services at 6 am. And those same people who say they have to work, will still not attend. Don't violate the typicon of the church. Serve no vesperal liturgies on days when they are not called for. For this is unknown to the church, and a violation of our integrity. Avoid innovations and changes that have never been known in the church. Never adapt the Orthodox church to fit American culture. Rather work to change the culture to fit the requirements of the church.

And if your community grows, which it may if you don't compromise, don't be surprised. For, there are many who thirst for the truth. Thank God, and do all that you can to preserve fervor. On the other hand, if your community fails to grow, don't despair, but preserve what God has given you. Thank God, for in the end time men's hearts will grow cold, and very few will follow the truth. Live in the world sanctifying time. Be of the church. Prepare yourself to wage spiritual warfare against the sinister evil of our time. And take heed; for blessed are you when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. For great is your reward in heaven.

Amen. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Fr Martin is the pastor of St. Basil the Great Orthodox Church , St. Louis, Missouri. He may be reached at: rmswanson@primary.net





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