by Hieromonk Damascene (Christensen)
This is from a talk given at a conference sponsored by the Northern California Brotherhood of Orthodox Clergy and held at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Sacramento, California, October 21, 2006.
2. Prerequisites For Preaching The Gospel
I would now like to outline three things which we should have in place in order to preach the Gospel of Christ in the modern world: First, we must know the Orthodox Gospel of Christ; second, we must live the Gospel; and, third, we must know the modern world, in order to know what we’re dealing with.
1. So, to begin with, we must know the Gospel in the Orthodox context. This means that, not only should we know the Divinely inspired Holy Scriptures, but we should know how the Church, which gave us the Scriptures, has interpreted the Scriptures through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We can know this through the writings of the Holy Fathers of the Church who have written extensive commentaries on the Scriptures, especially the book of Genesis and the entire New Testament.
Almost all of these commentaries are now easily available in English. They are not hard to understand, even though some of them, like the commentaries of St. John Chrysostom, were written sixteen hundred years ago.
There is no question in our confused times that cannot be answered by a careful, pious, and reverent reading of the Holy Fathers, who give us to understand the true meaning of Holy Scripture and to know the substance of our Orthodox Faith. We must go to the Fathers in order to become their disciples, laying aside our own “wisdom” which we have acquired from the modern secular world.” When we find the consensus of the Fathers on any given issue, we find the teaching which has prevailed and has been upheld in the Church. Thus, we find the mind of the Church, which is the mind of Christ, since Christ is the Head of His Church.
Of course, we should read Orthodox books by some contemporary authors also, because they distill the teaching of the Fathers and bring it to bear on modern concerns. But to get a well-rounded view of the Patristic teaching, and to know which modern authors reflect more of the Patristic mind, we should not neglect to go to the writings of the Fathers directly.
The Lives of Saints and righteous ones of earlier times and of our own times are also essential reading, as are the spiritual counsels of these same saints and righteous ones. These writings give us a blueprint for our own Christian life, both instructing and inspiring us to live our lives in Christ, in communion with Him, and on the path to unending union with Him.
St. John Chrysostom once said:
“The Christian who is not reading spiritual books cannot save his soul.”
Commenting on this statement, Fr. Seraphim Rose said:
“We must be constantly filling ourselves with the word of God, the Holy Scriptures, and other Orthodox literature, so that, as St. Seraphim [of Sarov] says, we will be literally ‘swimming in the law of the Lord.’ The science of how to please God and save our souls will become a deep part of ourselves that can’t be taken away from us. The process of Orthodox education begins with infancy, with the simplest Bible stories and Lives of Saints related by one’s parents, and it should not cease this side of the grave. If anyone learning an earthly profession devotes all his energy to studying and gaining practice in it, how much more should Christians be studying and preparing for eternal life, the Kingdom of Heaven which is ours for a short struggle in this life.”
2. This brings us to the second prerequisite for preaching the Gospel in the modern world, and that is, we must live the Gospel.
Again, to quote from Fr. Seraphim:
“There exists a false opinion, which unfortunately is all too widespread today, that it is enough to have an Orthodoxy that is limited to the church building and formal ‘Orthodox’ activities, such as praying at certain times and making the sign of the Cross; in everything else, so this opinion goes, one can be like anyone else; participating in the life and culture of our times without any problem, as long as we don’t commit sin. Anyone who has come to realize how deep Orthodoxy is, and how full is the commitment which is required of the serious Orthodox Christian, and likewise what totalitarian demands the contemporary world makes on us, will easily see how wrong this opinion is. One is Orthodox all the time, everyday, in every situation of life, or one is not really Orthodox at all. Our Orthodoxy is revealed not just in our strictly religious views, but in everything we do and say. Most of us are very unaware of the Christian, religious responsibility we have for the seemingly secular part of our lives. The person with a truly Orthodox worldview lives every part of his life as Orthodox.”
As we go deeper into the Orthodox Christian life, with daily prayer, daily reading of spiritual books, regular attendance of Church services, and regular confession and reception of Holy Communion, we will see our entire lives transformed in this way. When we come before Christ every day and speak to Him with love and longing, we will find our relationship with Him deepen, so that He will live in us more fully. When we daily reestablish our connection with Jesus Christ in this way, it will become natural for us to follow His commandments throughout the day, in every aspect of our lives. Then His commandments — even the hardest ones, like loving those who spitefully use us (cf. Matt. 5:44) — will not seem burdensome to us.
Through our life of Grace in the Church, we are to be continually transformed into the likeness of God, which is the likeness of Christ. We are to be united with God ever more fully by acquiring and assimilating His Grace, His Uncreated Energy.
For the Orthodox Church, salvation includes the forgiveness of sins and justification before God (cf. Eph. 1:7; Rom. 5:16, 18), but it is also more than these. It means to abide in Christ the God-man and have Him abiding in us (cf. John 15:4), to participate in the life of God Himself, to become
“partakers of the Divine Nature” (II Peter 1:4)
both in the present life and in eternity. In the language of Orthodox Patristic theology, to be saved ultimately means to be deified. As the Romanian Orthodox writer Fr. Dumitru Staniloae explains:
“Deification is the passing of man from created things to the Uncreated, to the level of the Divine Energies — Man assimilates more and more of the Divine Energies, without this assimilation ever ending, since he will never assimilate their Source itself, that is, the Divine Essence, and become God by Essence, or another Christ. In the measure in which man increases his capacity to become a subject of ever richer Divine Energies, these Energies from the Divine Essence are revealed to him in a greater proportion.”
In a similar vein, we can say that being Orthodox includes having the right beliefs, the right doctrines, the right worship, and the right interpretation of Scripture, but it is more than these. Being Orthodox means being in the Church. We should not only know this intellectually; we should feel it in the depths of our being. By the Grace of God, although we are sinful and unworthy, we are part of Christ’s Body; we are members of His one and only true Church.
As such, we believe in the Church.
In order to communicate this belief in the Church to those outside the Church, we must experience what it means to be in the Church. In other words, we must experience, gradually and a step at a time, what it means to be transformed into the likeness of Christ, to live in Christ and have Him live in us, to participate in His life, to be deified.
It is significant that, of all the Christian confessions, only the Orthodox Faith understands Grace to be the Uncreated Energy of God, in which God Himself is fully present. In the Orthodox Church, Grace is known to be God Himself. In the non-Orthodox confessions, on the other hand, the grace that is communicated is considered to be a created phenomenon. In Roman Catholic theology, it is said that grace cannot exist apart from the soul, and that it is only a “quality” of the soul.
When in the Orthodox Church we say that we are to be filled with Grace, that we are to acquire the Grace of the Holy Spirit, this means to be literally filled with God Himself. Only in the Orthodox Church do we know and confess that it is possible for a Christian to be deified in the sense of becoming god through His Grace— that is, not God by Nature and pre-eternal begetting, as only Christ was and is, but a god by Grace and adoption. This is what the Apostle John meant when he wrote in his Gospel:
As many as received Him [Christ], to them He gave the power to become sons of God, even to those who believe on His name (John 1:12).
Yes, it is significant that only the Orthodox Church has this understanding of Grace and deification. But it is significant not just in the sense that only the Orthodox Church has the right views on these subjects. Most of all, it is important to consider why the Orthodox Church alone has the right understanding. Of course, one could say that it is because, as I’ve already mentioned, only the Orthodox Church is the true Church which Christ has preserved from error and heresy for two thousand years. But I would say that it is more than this. Does not the Orthodox Church alone have the right understanding of Grace and deification because she alone makes possible this full participation in the life of God, this union with God, this deification?
To be sure, those outside the Church can experience God’s Grace. In fact, some Holy Fathers, such as St. Maximus the Confessor, teach that nothing could exist for an instant without God’s Grace. But full participation in God’s Energies, as much as is possible for human nature, is only available in the Orthodox Church.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this talk, the Gospel of Christ is, most essentially, the good news that the central problem of the world — death, both bodily and spiritual — has been overcome by Jesus Christ.
Through His Incarnation, His Death on the Cross, and His Resurrection, Christ has brought Life to the world; He has made it possible for man to live eternally with Him in His Kingdom — not only in soul, but also in body after the General Resurrection. Any Christian confession that has retained the basic teachings of Christianity will affirm this. But only in the Orthodox Church do we find the complete understanding and experience of this salvation that Christ has brought to the world, this Life that He has brought to the world (cf. John 11:25), this Living Water that He has promised to His followers (cf. John 7:38).
This Life that Christ gives is the Life of God Himself — it is God Himself— and that is why the Saints and righteous ones of the Orthodox Church are known to be literally filled with God, to be deified by Him. And, in the General Resurrection, it will not only be the soul of man that will be deified; the body will be deified as well. Therefore, the Orthodox Holy Fathers have summed up the Gospel of Christ with a phrase that might seem surprising to Christians outside the Orthodox Church.
“God became man,” they say, “so that man can become god.”
These considerations can help us to appreciate more fully why we, as Orthodox Christians, have a responsibility to preach the Gospel of Christ to those around us. We have the right teaching; we know — or should know — what it means to be in the Church and believe in the Church; and we have all the means that Christ has made available to mankind to be saved— saved, that is, in the maximalist sense of being transformed, even deified, in order to be made fit for the everlasting Kingdom of Heaven.
Of course, we do not have to be fully deified — that is, fully and perfectly penetrated by God’s Energies — in order to preach the Gospel. All of us who have been baptized and chrismated Orthodox have already been deified to some extent, since we receive the Uncreated Energy of God united to our souls at Baptism; and all of us who receive Holy Communion experience a kind of deification. St. Symeon the New Theologian, who was deified in the full and strict sense of the word, affirmed that all those who partake of the Holy Mysteries
“with sincerity of heart are quickened and deified”
— that is, deified in the broader sense. We are to grow toward a more full deification, a more full participation in God throughout our whole lives. As we grow in this way, we will have more and more Grace to give to others when we preach the Gospel of Christ.
3. Now we come to the third prerequisite for preaching the Gospel in the modern world, and that is to know the modern world, or, more specifically, the modern Western society in which we find ourselves. Compared to the countries of Western Europe, our American society has retained a considerable Christian sector, but that sector is becoming smaller and smaller. Recent polls have found that every year, there are two million fewer Christians in America. At the same time, there are two million workpeople who say, “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual.” In other words, they are abandoning churches and are opting for a spirituality of their own devising: personalized spirituality.
Fr. Seraphim Rose identified the sickness of the modern world as “nihilism”: the abandonment of belief in absolute Truth, which is grounded in faith in God. As Fr. Seraphim taught, the philosophy of the modern age can be summed up in the following phrase:
“God is dead, therefore man becomes God and everything is possible.”
We have to be aware of the effects of this underlying nihilistic philosophy on the life around us, and on ourselves. Although many people give lip service to God, they live as though He doesn’t exist. And we ourselves, sadly, if we will only admit it, also behave sometimes as if God doesn’t exist, being also under the influence of the spirit of the times.
If there is no God to Whom we are answerable and Who gives meaning and purpose to our lives, then our lives are all about “me”: what I want, my personal gratification, my personal fulfillment, my “quality of life.” According to this view, there is no absolute or objective meaning to life; there is only a relative or subjective meaning: what it means to me, how it suits me. This idea is very strong in our society; we breathe it in with the contemporary air, so to speak.
In preparing this talk, I was reading over the talks that Fr. Seraphim gave at our monastery nearly twenty-five years ago, which I have already been quoting from. Back then, he was saying that the current generation has been described as the “me” generation. Many of us here are from that generation. But what of the generations that have come after the “me” generation? They have been called “generation X” and “generation Y.”
These generations have also grown up in a society characterized by a gradual loss of belief in absolute Truth and by a concurrent absorption in self-gratification. At the same time, noticeably more than the “me” generation, they have felt the angst of this empty philosophy of life. As society moves further away from God, we are supplied with more sophisticated ways of distracting us from the pain that comes from being separated from God, and more medications to numb that pain. Generation Y has more access to entertainments than any other generation in history, but at the same time, with its use of antidepressants, it has been called the most medicated generation in human history.
In the meantime, to fill in the vacuum caused by the abandonment of Christian Faith, numerous forms of false spirituality have been on the rise for decades. Today, the fastest growing religion in the United States, in terms of percentage, is witchcraft. This is not unrelated to the fact that numerous movies, television shows, books, and games present young people with the idea that witchcraft is “cool” and “fun.”
Members of Pagan and Wiccan groups say that, whenever a popular book, movie or TV show comes out with this theme, they get a surge of phone calls from young people.
This is only the latest sign of the times. There are many other such signs, from the growth of Eastern religions to the UFO subculture, to the pseudo-Christian experiences seen at such gatherings as the “Toronto Blessing.”
And, while all of this pseudo-spirituality is being put into the air, there is a concerted effort to obliterate what is left of traditional Christian society in contemporary America. Not a year goes by without several cover stories in such major national magazines as Time, Newsweek, and US News and World Report, which attempt to undermine Christian faith under the guise of “objective” reporting. Not only is the reality of the Biblical account of creation and the global Flood rejected, but the historicity of the Prophet Moses is dismissed, the historicity of the Gospels are called into question, and the lives of Christ and His Apostles are reinterpreted according to heretical Gnostic notions which were condemned by the Church many centuries ago.
The aim of these articles — and of much else of what we see and hear in the media nowadays — is to denature Christianity. In order to fit in with the nihilistic, secularistic, self-worshipping spirit of the times, Christianity must be reinterpreted so as to abandon any claims to absolute Truth, and to abandon faith in Christ as the Only Begotten Son of God. Instead, Christ is made out to be some kind of New Age guru who leads each of us to the realization that each one of us is God: not god by Grace as in the Orthodox understanding, but God by Nature in the New Age, Gnostic understanding.
To a self-worshipping society for which absolute Truth has been replaced by “me,” nothing less than this false form of self-deification is satisfactory. It is precisely with this idea that Lucifer tempted Adam and Eve:
Your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as Gods (Gen. 3:5).
As we Orthodox Christians reach out to the modern world, we need to take into account this barrage of propaganda that is thrust on people in our society, that makes them forget God, give up on Christ as traditional Christianity understands Him, and live for themselves, live for this world only, live for today.
It so happens that we Orthodox Christians have answers to all the misguided attempts to deny the historicity of the Old and New Testaments, and to turn Christianity into something that it is not. Books and articles have been written by Orthodox theological writers, historians, and scientists to defend the historical interpretation of Holy Scripture that is found in the writings of the Holy Fathers. Some of these only exist in Russian, Greek, or Serbian, but some are in English, and others will be translated. It can be helpful for us to avail ourselves of these materials in order to defend our Faith, but we must also realize that, ultimately, it is not arguments that persuade people to come to the Orthodox Church, but something that moves their hearts. And, to move hearts, we must first of all have our own hearts turned to God.
With all the so-called spirituality available to people today, which they can find literally at their fingertips on the internet, people’s souls are empty. They are desperately in need of the fullness of Christ’s Uncreated Grace, which only the Orthodox Church can give.
Part Three will be published tomorrow.