These are difficult times that divide Christians from their neighbors and from one another. In large part this is because we do not agree on how to relate with secular culture and which parts of it, if any, can be blessed. Eastern Orthodox theologian and ethicist Vigen Guroian’s new analysis of secularism and how it insulates us from the power of the Gospel is timely and spot on. We can look to his work, and especially the collection of essays in The Orthodox Reality: Culture, Theology, and Ethics in the Modern World (Baker Academic, 2018), to see where he comes down on each of the major issues. He is, for example, pro-life, pro-traditional marriage and family, and pro-reestablishment of communion between East and West. But his views on specific issues are less important than understanding the process he used to arrive at them. His main point is that the widespread application of that process – a living connection to God through traditional worship – would lead, not just to a consensus on issues, but to the creation of a culture that can actually replace (rather than just battle) secularism.
Building on Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, Guroian argues that secularism separates all things, even sacred ones, from their source and turns them into objects. Groups then argue with one another about what criteria to use to evaluate these objects to find their virtue. Conservative Christians living in a secular culture become just one of many groups, endorsing what they consider to be better, more traditional and correct evaluations than their opponents. If their tactics and rhetoric are good, their standards of virtue may dominate for a while. But they will have succeeded at the expense of the truth and will have further reified the dominance of the heresy of secularism, because they themselves will have removed holy concepts from their contexts for utilitarian reasons. (See especially chapter 4.) This is a powerful observation that helps us understand why we seem to be losing the cultural war.
secularism separates all things, even sacred ones, from their source and turns them into objects
There are others who understand this, see the implications, and are enjoying some success in fighting back. Jordan Peterson is one of them. Peterson first won acclaim through his public refutation of state-enforced political correctness (and especially new gender pronouns), but he seems to have known that even victory in this domain would have been insufficient. Rather than turning this into a battle of competing evaluations, even one as useful and winnable as the value of social cohesion and of tradition over feelings, Peterson used his acclaim to help us reconnect the objects – and their proper evaluation – to their proximate source: traditional Judeo-Christian mythology.
Peterson’s YouTube series “The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories” goes through the major events and ideas of the Bible from Genesis onward and describes the time-tested wisdom they reveal about mankind, the world, and meaning – as well as how the society based on this wisdom created the most prosperous, good, and noble civilization in the history of mankind. This is hardly novel. Hundreds of thousands of churches in America offer Bible study classes that teach similar lessons every week. What is novel is Peterson’s reach. This video series has millions of views, has bolstered the confidence of many conservatives, and is especially popular with millennial men, a demographic traditional institutions have found hard to connect with. His success demonstrates that people are hungry for meaning and are willing to look to religion for answers. Peterson’s work is good, but it is not enough.
The Orthodox Reality explains why Peterson’s approach won’t succeed unless it is grafted onto or leads people towards something deeper. Secularism does not just objectify ideas like marriage, sexuality, and virtue; it is equally capable of objectifying – and thus dismissing – cultures and the mythologies that gave rise to them. Peterson’s approach is the best that secularism can offer, but as long as it works from within its confines, it cannot replace it. The problem is not just that the “good” of something in Peterson’s worldview is defined by its fitness or utility rather than its intrinsic value. The problem is that it allows for no living connection with anything really true or good. His agnostic approach to mythology and virtue is politically useful to the extent it privileges Western culture and the Judeo-Christian symbols and stories that are linked to them (these are “specifications of the symbolical ontology of creation,” as Guroian describes them on p. 135), but Guroian convincingly makes the case that they cannot heal, bless, and perfect mankind or the cosmos if they are cut off from their true Source.
The answer to the problems of our day is not just a restored commitment to the traditional Western canon and mythology, but a commitment to experiencing God through the traditional liturgical worship and sacraments of the Church, and allowing that experience to enliven us and the culture that rises up around us. The strength and beauty of Guroian’s theology is that it, like him, has been formed by that very experience. He writes in the chapter on marriage that, just as the Eucharist reveals the “epiphanic character” of the bread and wine that are the “natural symbols of flesh and blood, ” so to the service of marriage reveals the unique capacity of a male and female couple to become “one Christic and ecclesial being.” He is not proof-texting the marriage ceremony to support a traditional understanding of marriage. He is indeed expressing a truth that a life of worship and prayer has made obvious to him (and that is available to all who have allowed themselves to be reformed through their own immersion).
Similarly, when he points to the unique sacramental communion of traditional marital “coupling, ” he is less arguing against cultural norms of fornication and sodomy in favor of biblical morality than he is describing a specific example of how God works in the world to perfect His children. Unmarried sex may feel good, but Guroian is trying to help us understand that feelings and strong opinions, even ones derived from an abstract commitment to traditional morality, are poor substitutes for a connection with the living God. Without that connection and the true love it sustains, even the perfect words of “men and angels” are as a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (I Corinthians 13:1).
There was a time when we knew that God was with us.
Guroian does a great job describing how we fell into this heretical rut in Part I and II of The Orthodox Reality. There was a time when we knew that God was with us. The Holy Bible and tradition, Christianity’s symbols and stories, the concepts of virtue, asceticism, and morality; all these were the words He used to voice His love for us, a love that He shared with us continually through worship and mystery/ sacrament. As a happy marriage fills a home with peace and hospitality that increases and shares its love (p. 145), so our joyful union with Him created a culture that deepened the awesome reality of His presence. As the rituals of home life manifest the harmony between those who live there and give it shape, so our connection with God through “prayer and sacrament” allowed us to “remember and regain” the “divine culture” that was lost to us through the Fall (p. 15). Secularism ruined this. For a while we missed this ruination. We celebrated the way Christian concepts, after having been liberated from their “religious” context, became universal, not anticipating how this liberation would eventually allow people to attack Christian institutions with the very concepts Christianity gave them as they redefined them to meet their needs (pp. 59, 129).
Guroian points out that Orthodoxy, with its insistence on the permanence of God’s uncreated energies pervading creation, has been somewhat immune to the encroachment of secularism (pp. 46-47), but also notes that the Orthodox have squandered the evangelical opportunity this provides through ethnophyletism and a decrease in the kind of commitment to creedal truths that would keep their spirituality from descending into syncretic mysticism and therapeutic deism along with the rest of the world (p. 49). Because we have been defined by secularism, we are less interested in what worship is than what it does, and thus we disable the vehicle of our deliverance.
So what is the answer? Guroian is insistent that responding to secularism is fraught with danger (a special danger for converts – a very American fortress mentality – is found on p. 76). Nor can we hope to bless its more noble parts the way we have done with other cultures. The best answer he gives in The Orthodox Reality is the response Dostoyevsky gave to the penetrating attacks of the middle brother, Ivan, in The Brothers Karamazov, a response he gives in the witness of the younger brother, Alyosha. Alyosha did not give a point-by-point refutation of Ivan’s arguments, nor did he attack him or refuse to live with him. Rather, his actions provided “a religious vision that refute[d] Ivan’s assertion that the love that Christ taught is neither possible for human beings nor triumphant over evil and death.”
Rather than trying to fight a losing battle to reclaim the lost Christian culture of pre-Enlightenment Europe, Guroian argues that Christians need to create a new organic version: an Orthodox- Catholic culture that grows out of our complete dedication to our mutual, sacramental, credal, and evangelical life in Christ. This book may not provide a complete guide on how to do this, but it is a prophetic description of what secularism has done and the destruction that awaits us if we further isolate ourselves from the Source.