Orthodoxy and Humanism
To the Orthodox Christian faithful it is beyond dispute that the Orthodox Church contains the fullness of Divine revelation, even while consisting of sinful human beings. This apparent anomaly is explained by the fact that the power of God’s Grace operates through our human weakness, as St Paul so movingly describes in his second letter to the Corinthians (12, 9). Outside of Orthodoxy there is Roman Catholicism, a movement which broke away from the Orthodox Church around a millennium ago, as well as a plethora of Protestant denominations that have come into being over the past 500 years. These non-Orthodox groups contain obvious remnants of the Christian Tradition in varying degrees, but none of them has the fullness of Divine revelation. The reason for this lack is found in their rejection of the Christian Tradition and its gradual replacement over a thousand years by humanism, although this truth is not apparent to most Catholics and Protestants.
What do we understand by humanism? Humanism is the worldview according to which humankind is the measure of all things. This is the opposite of the Christian worldview, in which God is the measure of all things, as revealed in Scripture, the Fathers, the sacramental Mysteries, the Liturgy and the lives of the Saints. In other words, humanism is man-centred instead of God-centred. In the Western Christian world the movement from a God-centred to a man-centred worldview can be traced back nearly a millennium to the rationalism of Scholastic ‘humanism’, but an obvious turning-point in this process was the Renaissance. This ‘rebirth’ that commenced in Italy was rooted in the values of the classical Hellenic-Roman world of the pre-Christian era. Since humanism is man-centred, it stands in opposition to the Christian worldview. Therefore, to claim to be a ‘Christian humanist’, as many over the past few centuries have done, is a contradiction in terms. One is either a Christian or a humanist.
Until the eighteenth century the proponents of humanism claimed that this worldview and the value system based on it was compatible with the Christian religion. However, the century that would be crowned by the revolutionary terror in France would also witness the first large-scale public attacks on the Christian faith since the birth of the Christian Roman Empire in the fourth century. Thus was born secular humanism, which would increasingly become the dominant Western worldview. Furthermore, in the eighteenth century, during the so-called Enlightenment, many philosophers, scientists and other intellectuals began openly proclaiming their new-found faith in the ability of human reason to serve as final arbiter in all things human. Divine revelation, spiritual tradition and ecclesiastical authority came to be seen as inferior to the enlightenment that untrammelled human reason can bring about. In this way rationalism was finally fully united to humanism – an alliance that would grow and prosper into our time, notwithstanding temporary setbacks such as the horrors of the world wars, the rejection of rationalism by the existentialist movement (which was in fact another version of humanism, being explicitly man-centred), and the spread of the New Age movement with its pseudo-mysticism.
Underlying all versions of humanism is the assumption that human nature is basically good and capable of further improvement through proper education and social arrangements. This belief in inherent human goodness is the precise opposite of the traditional Christian teaching on the inherent fallenness of humankind once divorced from the restorative Grace of God. The Church has always held that human nature has been radically corrupted through the rebellion of Adam and Eve (representing humankind) against God. Therefore, in the Orthodox view human reason is deficient without spiritual enlightenment, and humans cannot do any good without Divine inspiration and assistance. This is understood as mutual co-operation between God’s uncreated energies and the damaged (yet not totally unfree) human will, with the Divine action being primary.
By the Grace of God the Orthodox Church was spared the subtle humanist take-over of the Renaissance and the rationalist-humanist onslaught of the ‘Enlightenment’, to which Western Christianity succumbed to a greater or lesser extent. However, by the early twentieth century the fringes of the Orthodox Churches had become receptive to secular humanist influences under political or secular pressure to conform. The first manifestation of this new inclination was the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1924 by the Churches of Constantinople, Greece and Cyprus, then the Patriarchates of Antioch, Alexandria and Romania, to be followed by Bulgaria. In rejecting the Julian calendar used by the Orthodox Church, these Churches demonstrated their wish to be in step with the Western world. The result of this ‘reform’ is that Orthodox Christians in these ‘new calendar’ Churches are out of step with the majority of their brethren by thirteen days for all the fixed feasts of the Church. Providentially, the Churches of Russia, Serbia, Georgia, Jerusalem, Mount Athos and Mount Sinai have retained the Orthodox calendar. Since the early Christian era the Orthodox Church has worshipped God by means of the Divine Liturgies, notably those of St John Chrysostom and St Basil the Great. It is a basic Orthodox belief that the Liturgy is not to be tampered with, while allowing for new hymns and prayers to be added as more saints are canonised by the Church. This hallowed practice stands in stark opposition to the ‘liturgical reforms’ of the Catholics and Protestants, most of the latter even rejecting the concept of liturgical worship, preferring to be ‘open to the flow of the Spirit’. The Roman Catholic world finally succumbed to humanist pressures on this matter in the 1960s, when it rejected the Counter-Reformation Mass in favour of a ‘new order of the Mass’, which is a modernist parody of its predecessor. A small part of the Catholic world revolted against this innovation and broke away from Papal authority, but the vast majority went along with their superiors. In the Protestant world only the few remaining Anglo-Catholics have preserved a sense of liturgy, their High Mass being based on a nineteenth-century restoration of the medieval Eucharist.
On the fringes of the Orthodox Churches humanist pressure for ‘liturgical reforms’ has come to the fore recently. We therefore encounter a few Orthodox priests, usually converts from Protestantism, cutting out portions of the Liturgy to shorten the service. For instance, some of the litanies are omitted, being regarded as ‘too repetitive’. Following modernist Greek practice, the dismissal of the catechumens is also omitted, due to a misplaced desire not to offend non-Orthodox visitors. This truncation of the Liturgy holds the added ‘benefit’ of arriving quicker at the socialising afterwards, which is presented as Protestant-style ‘fellowship’. There is naturally nothing wrong with authentic Christian fellowship, but not at the expense of the far more important and essential ‘fellowship’ with God, which is what the Church is about.
One of the most conspicuous phenomena in the modern Western Christian world has been the rise of the so-called Pentecostal movement. Its rather hysterical revivalism originated in the United States and soon spread to other parts of the world. From the outset this ‘Pentecostalism’ has been characterised by excessive emotionalism, intense proselytising, scriptural literalism and other marks of heterodoxy. During the 1960s, the decade when the former Christian West began to turn publicly against God on a massive scale, the ‘Pentecostal’ hallmark of ‘charismatic gifts’ began infiltrating the mainline Protestant denominations, where it became known as the ‘Charismatic’ movement. The Catholic world, reeling under the innovations of the second Vatican Council, would not be spared this onslaught.
From an Orthodox perspective the whole ‘Pentecostal/Charismatic’ movement can best be described as charismania, with its hatred of the Christian Tradition, liturgy and authority and its elevation of subjective emotions to final arbiter of the truth. This feel-good ‘faith’ is based on the un-Christian belief that if something ‘feels’ to be from God, it must be right. It is therefore all the more disturbing when a few, untrained modernists, ostensibly priests in Orthodox churches, hail the birth of the ‘Pentecostal’ movement as a ‘new outpouring of the Holy Spirit’, instead of warning their convert parishioners of its dangers. It is to be hoped that these misguided clergy will remain an insignificant and unheeded minority in the Church.
With the ever-increasing domination of the Western world by the forces of secular humanism, it was only to be expected that one pillar after another of the Christian Tradition would be assaulted. One such pillar is the practice of an all-male priesthood, which is based on the theological teaching of the man being spiritually responsible for the woman, as held by the holy Apostle Paul and all the other holy apostles. This traditional Christian belief has nothing to do with male superiority or female inferiority, as militant feminists charge. That the Church equally values man and woman is affirmed by the Orthodox (and Catholic) veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary as Mother of God, the Theotokos or God-bearer. As the archetypal Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary symbolises the fact that the privilege of birth-giving has been given to women alone. Thus, without women, there would not since the Fall ever have been any man on earth, or any human life for that matter. The balance of the equation is found in the fact that the privilege of spiritual leadership has been given to men alone, thereby bringing life (Greek bios) and spirit (Greek pneuma) in proper relation.
Naturally, all of the foregoing is unpalatable to the modern humanist product of feminism, which rejects any qualitative distinction between man and woman. In its militant aspect, feminism condemns the traditional Christian faith as ‘male-dominated’ and demands that women should have access to all clerical functions. The minority of Protestant denominations that do have clergy have already submitted to this attack, the Anglicans in England being the last to yield in the 1990s. Of course, the majority of the Protestant world does not have clergy: ‘ministers’ or ‘pastors’ have taken the place of the priesthood. As Orthodox we cannot object to Protestant women being ‘ministers’ or ‘pastors’, since they are not part of the Christian priesthood anyway. For its part, the Roman Catholic world has managed so far to preserve its all-male priesthood. On the other hand, the Catholics have since the Middle Ages enforced celibacy on their priests, with disastrous moral and psychological results.
In the Orthodox Churches the voices of humanism are now also being heard from a few converts and others lapsed from the Tradition regarding female clergy. For the moment this consists of a few pleas for women deacons, based on the fact that the early Church had such. However, these women deacons were employed at female baptisms and in social ministry (caring for the widowed and orphaned, for example), and never served in the Liturgy. For Orthodox women wishing to serve the Church (and not themselves), opportunities are always provided for social work, choir direction, Sunday school, catechism and so forth. These are all God-pleasing activities, liturgical service in the broadest sense of the phrase.
From another angle, still a humanist one, we hear talk among a few fringe Orthodox that married bishops should be allowed in the Church, also on the grounds that this was an early Christian practice. However, a bishop is responsible before God for the parishes under his supervision, including regular visits to them, which is supposed to be a full-time duty. It is evident that a monk, having no marital or family responsibilities, is far more suited for episcopal duties than a married bishop could be. Talk about married bishops will remain just that. Apart from anything else the wife of any married priest knows just how difficult it is to share her husband, with the Church taking priority. It would be profoundly cruel to any woman to be married to a bishop, who is fully devoted to pastoral care.
One of the main characteristics of modern secular humanism is the thirst for instant gratification. Time is regarded as an enemy, to be defeated with the big rush in all things. Thus we witness the ugly spectacle of young children encouraged to take part in ‘beauty competitions’, ‘modelling’ and other adult activities, some of which are quite unwholesome. We witness ‘fast food’ taking the place of properly prepared meals among the teeming millions of more affluent societies. All credit therefore to the women and men who enjoy cooking! We witness Church services and other spiritual activities getting ever shorter, so that the great god of entertainment can be worshipped.
Alas, the big rush has even infected fringes of the Orthodox Church. In some ‘mission parishes’ that specialise in proselytising Non-Orthodox (a thoroughly Protestant concept), we witness instant receptions into the Church, with very little instruction in the True Faith or any other preparation. Finally, we witness the sad spectacle of men being ordained as deacons and priests without proper training, in some cases without spending a single day in an Orthodox seminary. These new clergy are then sent out to ‘convert’ others to ‘Orthodoxy’ – truly a case of the blind attempting to lead the blind. May God have mercy on all of us!
Vladimir de Beer