There’s a German word, zeitgeist, which means “the spirit of the age” You could call it the mindset of today, the social and mental realm in which we exist. It affects everything, including our interpretation of Scripture and spiritual life. I want to speak today about how we are to relate to this, as Orthodox men and women.
The lines along this worldly determination of what is good and what is bad are being clearly and very forcefully drawn. We humans haven’t gotten better or worse, but our public expression of opinion made easily accessible and almost unavoidable in the media, has made our differences very obvious. It’s so easy to choose a side, and there’s so much information to back us up!
However, our duty as Orthodox Christians is to not be overcome by this spirit of the age and begin believing that one secular interpretation of how we should think and behave is better than another. We must put on the mind of Christ – everything we think, and the actions we take, must be rooted in the Gospel.
How does this work? It’s a real challenge, but our salvation, and our witness to our brothers and sisters, depends on facing our present reality honestly and fearlessly, keeping our face turned towards the kingdom not of this world. We need to practice other-worldliness, develop discernment, and act only on gospel principles
I spoke last year about the need for an otherworldly perspective. This need has become even more pressing.
We know that our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees or we shall in no wise enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, which is our only goal. I often tell the story of my great grandfather, Wallace White. He had been enslaved, and after Emancipation, he remained in the same area as those who had enslaved him. He and his wife were well known for their generosity and the quality of the sorghum they made, which she baked into some famous cookies. The story goes that my father and uncles, his grandsons, once asked him how he could be so kind to people who had done him such a great wrong. His reply, “because I want to go to Heaven.” This, I think, is a good example of the radical other-worldliness that we must aspire to.
I have always maintained that the Afro American spiritual tradition has an other-worldly quality because our ancestors knew without confusion that this world, in which their suffering is well known to us, was not their true home. Our righteous ancestors spoke of keeping our eye on the prize, which meant not letting the good seed that is planted in us be choked out by the cares and the worries of this world.
This other-worldly focus does not mean that we are not responsible for righteous action in the world. I’m not suggesting that this world doesn’t matter. But the actions that we take must be rooted in our Orthodox faith, and they may not be what the surrounding society expects or even approves of. To paraphrase St. Moses about the nature of our efforts: The farmer endures the heat of the day and the labor of planting seeds in order to bring forth a profitable harvest. The merchant, likewise, endures travel on the high seas and the plains in order to further his business endeavors. The monk, and we can this extend to all Christians, endures the hardship of fasting and vigils and being contrary to the world he lives in, in order to reach his goal – the Kingdom of Heaven.
I recently saw the movie, “Harriet” about Harriet Tubman. She was a powerful example of a person taking action, while rooted in her faith. Would that we had a small part of her courage and conviction.
When we strive to maintain an otherworldly perspective, discernment becomes a lifelong challenge. The meaning of Scripture changes for us we grow in our faith. We often need the counsel of a spiritual advisor, or the wisdom found in our church Tradition, to help us uncover the truly orthodox response to our situation – to judge rightly how we ought to think. To add to our difficulties now, we are presented with clearly drawn battle lines wherever we look. Indeed, “battle” is not too strong a word to use to describe where we are now. Have you taken a side in the “culture wars?”
But this is a fight that we have no part in.
You may have heard me talk about what I call “high secularism.” High secularism refers to the thinking of the public intellectuals, seemingly religious and otherwise, which is often excellent and attractive, but falls short of the Truth, even if it sometimes seemingly coincides with Orthodox principles. For example, I think of Te-Nahisi Coates, who speaks most eloquently about the Afro American situation. And yet, he is not a guidepost for us. Others of you may have other examples.
Aligning oneself with this high secular thought, liberal or conservative, or whatever other flavor we choose, makes us feel relevant and engaged in what they might call “the Struggle.” Remember, though, that this struggle is the secular battle in which there are opposing sides. Can we, as Orthodox, set ourselves against others on this basis? I think not. On a practical level, as a pastor, I can’t preach or teach even my most dearly-held opinions unless I want to alienate, and thus create a stumbling block for, members of my flock. I can, however, speak of Christ’s commandments to us, which when obeyed, lead to everything we hope for in this world.
If we speak truth deeply rooted in the Orthodox tradition, which is full of longsuffering, love and compassion, we may express something unexpected, and even, perhaps, unacceptable. My wife, Magdalena, likes to tell the story of a time she confessed to a priest in Russia that a deep wound had been suffered from a clergyman they both knew. She hoped for a sympathetic response, and she did get one, but it wasn’t the one she expected. Yes, said the priest, he (meaning the other clergyman) is deeply wounded. Pray for him.” My wife immediately felt the burden of the injury lifted off of her. This was the real truth, and it was healing. It wasn’t the typical answer, but it was the Orthodox one. Orthodoxy doesn’t give us what we expect, or what necessarily “makes sense.”
I urge you all to love one another and not be affected by the rising tide of high secularism. If we are to follow anything, let us follow the teachings of the Church which have been handed down to us that we may have a chance to think clearly and discern wisely.
If we’re not careful, we will be sucked into one camp or another. We have been given our mandate from God as to how we ought to behave towards one another. Yes, the wheat is being separated from the chaff.
Don’t let anyone tell you that you have fallen short, that our efforts in BSMB have missed the mark. We have not missed the mark, and God has been with us. “Don’t you let nobody turn you ‘round”.
People will say that the Brotherhood could have and should have done more to fulfill our mandate of bringing the Church to under-represented people. Of course, we all sin and fall short of the Kingdom of Heaven, but we have been diligently plugging away for all these years, and we have made a mark on Orthodoxy in America, and will continue to do so. When I sometimes get weary and doubt this, my wife reminds me that I might not see the fruits of my labors, but the seeds are planted. And yes, there are sprouts!