What if we woke up one day only to realize that what we thought we knew of the world was wrong?
Fr. Stephen Freeman writes that our knowledge of the world, and the way we think, is flawed in a very particular way:
No one has written more insightfully nor critically about secularism than the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann. His classic book, For the Life of the World, is not only a primer on the meaning of the sacramental life, but primarily, a full-blown confrontation with the great heresy of secularism. Secularism is not the rejection of God, but the assertion that the world exists apart from God and that our task is to do the best we can in this world. Fr. Alexander suggests that the Church in the modern world has largely surrendered to secularism. “The Church’s surrender,” he says, “consists not in giving up creeds, traditions, symbols and customs…but in accepting the very function of religion in terms of promoting the secular value of help, be it help in character building, peace of mind, or assurance of eternal salvation.”
He is not alone in this observation. The Protestant theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, says much the same thing:
“…the political task of Christians is to be the church rather than to transform the world. One reason why it is not enough to say that our first task is to make the world better is that we Christians have no other means of accurately understanding the world and rightly interpreting the world except by way of the church. Big words like “peace” and “justice,” slogans the church adopts under the presumption that, even if people do not know what “Jesus Christ is Lord” means, they will know what peace and justice means, are words awaiting content. The church really does not know what these words mean apart from the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. After all, Pilate permitted the killing of Jesus in order to secure both peace and justice (Roman style) in Judea. It is Jesus’ story that gives content to our faith, judges any institutional embodiment of our faith, and teaches us to be suspicious of any political slogan that does not need God to make itself credible.”
The extent to which we have all been secularized is easily measured by just how strange these statements by great theologians sound. The Church has surrendered because it promotes the value of “helping?” The Church does not exist in order to make the world a better place? These have been common themes in my writing (and I easily acknowledge my indebtedness). But when I have said, “We will not make the world a better place,” my articles are met with a torrent of dismay. I offer here more of the same.
Hauerwas makes the clear point that the word “better” has no meaning apart from the story of Jesus, or certainly no meaning that Christians should agree to. Schmemann goes so far as to call the Church’s agreement to “help” the world (however the world wants to define that help) as surrender.
So what are we to do?