This article is part of Fr. Stephen Freeman’s series on “The Modern Project.” While I recommend all of the articles in the series, this one has special relevance for those who feel called to the priesthood. Why? Because I have met men who want to become priests so badly that they cannot imagine their lives being complete without it. Some believe this nonsense so much that they are willing to “shop for a bishop” (even outside canonical Orthodoxy) willing to ordain them. While this may seem extreme, the Modern Project (with its goal of individual self-actualization through empowering choices) has so permeated our culture that I have to assume that this way of thinking is part of most “callings,” even those that eventually pan out. It seems to me that Fr. Stephen is right; “The proper vocation of the Christian life is to be united with God and to be conformed to His image. Economically that vocation is defined by work, hospitality, mercy, kindness and sharing. These are the criteria of “success” in the Christian life.” I can’t imagine a bishop ordaining a man to the priesthood who would not have been peaceful and content to become perfect and successful as a prosphora-baker.
In the modern project, human beings are autonomous centers of consciousness whose choices and decisions bring about their self-actualization.
What could be more impossible than inventing yourself? What imagination, courage and daring would be required? How is such a thing possible? To the young our culture offers the incredible task of “becoming.” This is not achieved through apprenticeship or through a process of deep consideration. Rather, they are offered an education with virtually every option imaginable. Often these options include years beyond a bachelor’s degree and the incurring of debt that would have deadened earlier generations.
The “choices” made at this young but critical stage-of-life illustrate some of the absurdities in the modern project. Freedom (complete with its debt) has become a mockery of youth. In Paris, students would be at the barricades.
The historical context of the Modern Project has changed tremendously over the last few centuries. The “choices” of the early part of the modern period very likely created a surge in freedom at a moment whose potentials for reward were at a maximum. The settling of America (driven by land and gold) would have proceeded much more slowly had individualism not been a driving economic factor.
That same landscape and the economic success of America fueled the perception that the Modern Project was the key to happiness and prosperity. Hidden beneath the aggregate numbers of that success, however, are the failures of those whose “choices” were not rewarded.
These failures provide a likely explanation of popular versions of American Calvinism. Poor “choices” and their abysmal results “prove” the theories of the depravity of man and the righteousness of God. Protestant “virtues” of hard work, thrift and common sense were touted as the means to the righteousness of God and the prosperity of man. The same virtues continue to have a hold on the popular imagination.
A recent blog article on the failures of the American college system (by a young person who found “success” without college) offers a sad example:
You have to put some skin in the game. You have to find your niche and master it. You have to be the best. Conquer it, whatever it is that you want to do. Be better than everyone. Be a visionary while everybody else is checking the handbook. Take risks while everybody else stays cozy and comfortable. Be good at something. Then, once you’re good, become great.
It is the myth of the good choice in the new economic landscape. What is the vocation of choice? What is the proper role of the freedom inherent in human existence?
The classic Biblical summary of human well-being is found in Micah:
He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what the Lord requires of you: to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? (Mic 6:8 NKJ)
In more explicitly Christian terms – we were created for union with God through Christ. That union alone makes life “good.” Prosperity and success are not measures of the Christian life – they are merely the sounds of cheerleaders in the economic “market” of human competition. In no case are they the required hallmarks of justice, mercy and humility.
The marriage of American economic power and Christian gospel has, like the American economy itself, been a powerful voice for the modern project. “Self-actualization,” interpreted as “career,” has been the preferred “spiritual” path for several generations. “Career” and “identity” have fused.
I should offer a disclaimer. I am the son of a man who made “poor choices.” He was the son of a man who made “poor choices.” Indeed, I come from a long line of poor choices. I cannot think of a single individual among those whom I most admire who fits the American description of success and prosperity.
The failure of the Modern Project on the personal level accounts for one of our favorite pejorative terms: “loser.” Those who have not chosen wisely, who somehow failed to turn hard work into success, or are simply less than gifted become losers. Our culture’s two most dominant emotions are shame and envy. Shame is what we experience when we feel there is something wrong with us – it is what losers are “supposed” to feel. Envy is not covetousness – it is not the desire to have what someone else has – it is the feeling that resents another for having what they do have. It is the source of pleasure we feel at someone else’s misfortune. It is the Biblical “evil eye,” a source of “great darkness” (Matt. 6:23).
I offer no proposals for a new economy – only observations about the dissonance of our present model for the true Christian life. That the present economic order has been blended with a version of the Christian faith (representing a major distortion) makes discernment in all of this of deep importance.
The primary virtues of the public Christian life are kindness, hospitality, mercy and sharing.
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful (Luke 6:35-36 NKJ).
It is the practice of these virtues that make us to be “sons of the Most High.” It is these characteristics that manifest the image of Christ being formed within us. Thus St. Paul offers this as the purpose of our work:
Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need (Eph 4:28 NKJ).
The proper vocation of the Christian life is to be united with God and to be conformed to His image. Economically that vocation is defined by work, hospitality, mercy, kindness and sharing. These are the criteria of “success” in the Christian life. The pursuit of these virtues and the life required to acquire them are the hallmarks of Classical Christianity.
Unlike the world of the successful and losers, the Classical Christian path is open to all. We do not need to correctly pick a vocation and navigate our way through the constantly shifting changes of popular demand. Even the poorest of the poor is capable of sharing (statistically, the poor give a greater share of their goods to others). This is a manifestation of the Kingdom of God as preached by Christ. What a tragic caricature has been created in the failed promises of the Modern Project!