September 21, 2008
The Leave-taking of the Cross
When the prophet Elias was on the mountain praying to God that he could die because he thought he was the only believer in the world, he thought he was the only person faithful to God, God revealed to him that he had reserved for himself in Israel 7000 men who had not bowed a knee to Baal. In the strength of this knowledge, Elias was sent to perform the mission that God gave him, coming to Mount Sinai and beholding God, hearing his voice.
We have come to a point in our own history, the history of mankind, that leaves people in consternation. It was not much more than 15 years ago that some academic historians had declared the end of history. They had said that with the fall of the Soviet Union, that now we would grind our way on joyously, day by day in everyway getting better and better and that there would not be anymore calamities or clashes among nations. Of course, these people who, because they were anti-soviet thought of themselves as conservatives, were worshiping the same god of history, the same god of the machine, the same dialectic process that Marx and the Bolsheviks worshipped. Both sides, both Nazis and fascists, and Soviet Bolsheviks, were bowing their knee before a mechanical god, a god who ground out this process through time and through the interaction of matter with matter. Thus they were not atheists, though the claimed themselves to be, but they were slaves of a god who was the process
It wasn’t so very long ago that the dominant school of theology at this resident theological seminary here in Denver, Iliff, was what was called process theology. When Episcopalians had to explain why they went from holding in high value the mystery of marriage, condemning abortion, and declaring homosexuality a sin to tolerating, encouraging, and elevating those who practiced those things, their answer was, “It’s the process.” Their thought was the truth changes. How convenient the truth always seemed to change in direct relation to our desires for the outcomes. That we’re always able to redefine it in relation to what we wished to be true, to relieve ourselves of the burdens of decency, honor, morality, righteousness.
In 1908, a man wrote this: “The whole modern world has divided itself into conservatives and liberals, progressives. The business of the liberals is to go about making mistakes, and the business of the conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”
In other words, the world at that time had divided itself into two parties who warred with each other over ideology, both of whom were convicted of some idea that was other than the Christian idea. One convinced that somehow or the other the lot of human kind would grow greater and greater, more humane, as time went on, as the dialectic process worked its way through. And the other convinced that the market itself, a great organism crunching up little people and spitting them out would somehow produce a homeostasis, again and again, which would be the market process and restore the economy and make everything right. And both of these people who looked at each other with disdain both parties who despised each other, were worshipping the same false god: the god who grinds out truth through process.
You see, when St. Paul tells us that there’s nothing in which we can boast except the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, he’s reminding us that in the world there are many things in which people boasted. The Romans in their laws and in their armies, the Jews in their righteousness and in the covenants they had with God.
But he said, “God forbid that I should glory except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
His source of glory was in defeat, in an apparent defeat: the arrest, trial, persecution, crucifixion, and death of God in the flesh. And yet the Apostle says it is in that only that we can glory, because it is that only that makes sense out of senselessness, order out of chaos.
The generation I am part of only came knowledge, only became alert in the world, in the last moments of the Second World War. We have never really known serious calamity. We’ve called recessions economic disasters, and we’ve called flares up of combat in various corners of the world wars, and we have called the fall of the market a great economic crisis. But for us there’s never been any real serious problem that faced culture or our nation. More people died by far in the tidal wave that overtook Galveston at the beginning of the 20th century than died in the fall of the twin towers, and yet because one was caused by people and other one by nature, we construed the fall of the tower to be a much greater calamity. In fact, those who are among us now who came to sensitivity, to knowledge, before the Second World War, they’re aware of what real tragedy is. They’re aware of a world in which evil fights evil and people become gravel in the gizzard of the great beast that are ground into powder by the process of history. We’ve seen some of it in our own time, but it hasn’t fallen on us. When the Serbs of Kosovo, when the people of Bosnia became victims of ideology, of a clash of ideology, of the KLA which is an international terrorist group against Milosevic who was nothing but a throw back to the pseudo-Bolshevik Yugoslavian communism, then millions suffered, but we didn’t suffer.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we cannot glory in our peace. If we have too much peace, if we have too much prosperity, too much security, then we begin to glory in those things. But God forbid that we should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world is crucified to us and we unto the world.
Some of those 7000 men in the early 20th century who had not bowed a knee to Baal, or having bowed had repented, were a group of English scholars. One of them was C.S. Lewis, you know him, he was a little later.
A man who, having started out as a believer became an agnostic and then an atheist, tinkered and toyed with Marxism, went out one day asking himself, “Why should anyone believe in a personal God?” and came back asking, “Why should not one believe in a personal God?”
A man who has given the world a great deal of Christian literature that’s especially edifying to little children, but also to adults, who spoke in That Hideous Strength of a great ecological movement that would come in the future in which life itself would be destroyed and replaced by mechanical life; in which all brains would no longer be necessary because there would be a super brain, a big mainframe (this was in 1943) that would do all the thinking for the whole world.
Another one of these folks was a man named T.S. Eliot who also had toyed with bolshevism and who said that one day the thought came to him, “How can I dedicate my whole life to a philosophy which says the only consolation I have is that a thousand years from now, when my bones have rotted, when I’ve returned to the dust, that my descendents will look back on me as some evolutionary precursor” – he used the term lemur – “some monkey in the process of social evolution.”
Another one of these people was Owen Barfield who was fortunate enough to live long enough to see the Orthodox Christian church regain its equilibrium enough to become again a missionary church, and who died as an Orthodox believer.
And then there was G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton, having come to believe defined himself as an orthodox Christian, but when he went to find out what that meant, there was no canonical Orthodoxy even available to him. He lived in a time before Kallistos Ware and before Anthony Bloom; when English people thought of the Eastern Church as the exotic leftover of a dying culture, so he became a Roman Catholic. But his ambition, his longing, the longing of his heart, was to find and to embrace Orthodoxy. And he wrote, not in 2008 but in 1908, these words:
O God of earth and altar, bow down and hear our cry.
Our earthly rulers falter, our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us, the swords of scorn divide,
Take not they thunder from us, but take away our pride.
From all that terror teaches, from lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches that comfort cruel men
From sale and profanation of honor, and the sword
From death and from damnation, deliver us Good Lord.
Now the beginning of the 20th century was a strange time. It was actually the last decade of the 19th century. And, from 1890 to 1910, people had a great optimism. There was a treaty being formulated to unite all of Europe into one great political entity with no boundaries, with one currency, with one common market. There was the expectation that science had now created the answer to every problem, or was capable of creating it, so that we would no longer need superstition or religious faith to answer questions, because scientists would be able to answer every question we could address to it. That man almighty had conquered.
There was built into this system a thought called social Darwinism which said that the human race had arrived at this high level of development – or at least the white race ahd – by natural selection; and that now that we had reached a point where we had removed those things that drove natural selection – that is starvation, disease, and war – that we had to recreate them.
We had to find some new way to select out those who were from the “shallow end” of the gene pool, to cleanse the gene pool, and that we would produce man almighty, the god-man of whom Nietzsche spoke, the super man, when he said, “If God is dead, all things are possible.”
And in this optimism, men began to reject their Christian faith and to become worshipers of false gods and false philosophies. In the city of Berlin in 1890, 95% of the people were baptized, about 80% were baptized and Lutheran and the rest mostly Roman Catholic, and only the other 5%, the Jews, were not baptized. But within the next 20 years, only 15% of the children born in that city of Berlin were brought to the baptismal font either by their Catholic or Lutheran parents, because, you see, God had become superfluous. We had answered all of our questions, we solved all of our problems.
In 1908 though, Chesterton, a prophet, looked out and said, “Our people drift and die; the walls of gold entomb us, the swords of scorn divide.”
And in 1914 the world was plunged into the First World War, not because people hated each other, or wanted to fight each other, because of a doctrine of nationalism that taught that each nation considered itself as more highly evolved than the others. So we could have Serbianism, and Francism, and English nationalism, and German nationalism, and Italian nationalism, and Austrian nationalism, and Magyar nationalism, and these could all bash heads with each other, and some of them would move forward a little and some backwards. All would be okay, because it was like a football game – you might have to carry some people off the field, there might be a few people who would have to sit out the next few games – but it was all a big game. BUT it is not a big game when a cannonball falls on you. For the people of the lower end of the gene pool, it was a way to cleanse the gene pool. So all the nations that engaged in the First World War fought because they were willing to do so. They fought because it seemed to them to make sense to get rid of the dead weight in humanity, to kill off a few million people in order to make the human race more vital and healthy. When the Czar tried to prevent fighting, he was overruled by his generals.
Yes, the great ruler, the autocrat supreme of all of Russia was told, “You can’t do that,” by his generals, “We didn’t plan that way. Mobilization has started, we can’t stop it.”
When the Kaiser eve took second thoughts and said, “I don’t really want to engage on two fronts,” he was told by his generals, “You’ve already started the machine. The wheels are grinding. Just let it work itself out.”
So we saw the fall of the German empire, of the Russian empire, of the Austrian empire, and almost of the English empire. When the world emerged from that war which was supposed to last till Christmas and ended up lasting 4 years, then the whole planet was swept with the Spanish flu. We had indeed weakened the whole human race. The whole of society from continent to continent had become enfeebled and starved, and so more people died from the flu than died from the war.
And now these people who were so optimistic that we had solved all our problems, that we had answered every question or were soon going to answer it, did they come back and say, “God, we humbly repent. We were very wrong. We’re sorry. Take us back again”?
No! They entered into the roaring twenties, like the people I described last week at the bottom of Mt. Sinai. They sat down to eat and drink and rose up to fornicate.
Said, “Party on dude.”
And they became total cynics.
They said, “Oh now, you see, Darwin has taught us that all creation is the result of a process. Einstein has taught us that all physics and chemistry are really ultimately random, and Freud has taught us that we’re really just animals. So we don’t have to be responsible for our actions.”
So in 1929, when Germany couldn’t meet its war debt, and the French banks refused to give them more time to pay, and the American banks refused to back their notes and help them out, we thought we were punishing the Hun, the people who had been responsible for WWI – or were forced to take the blame for it. They were just the unfortunate ones who blinked first and then found that their armistice had turned into an unconditional surrender. The whole world was plunged into a depression. A depression from which, let me tell you, no one successfully brought about a recovery except Adolf Hitler. He created a recovery in Germany by building planes and boats and motorcycles and trucks that nobody needed to buy so that he could put people back to work. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt reassured us we had nothing fear but fear itself – and that was an important thing people: we could have had our own Bolshevik or Nazi revolution here if he hadn’t calmed our nerves. We really could have, here in the United States. It was possible.
He still also said, “Well we’ll just try something, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.”
He had not the least idea, nor did his economists, nor did the republican economists, what to do to get us out of that depression. It was only WWII that brought us out of it. Only WWII that brought us out of it. Fortunately, after that war, some things like the GI bill managed to give us a better educated workforce, take some people out of the labor market for a while, and give us a chance to recover.
What I’m telling you is, that what’s going on now is what’s gone on before, especially among civilized people where we no longer think of it as just going out, raping and pillaging our neighbors lands, stealing what he has and bringing it back home, and then waiting for him to come back and get us. But where we cover it over with a patina of righteousness, of philosophical uprightness, of political acceptability, and of biological explanation. It’s been going on before and it will go on in the future. There will be crises, and there will be recoveries, and there will be suffering. Because there is no progress, however apparent it seems progress is, except the progress of individual souls and communities of people from the fallen state to union with God. That is the only real growth, the only real dialectic in the universe. It’s a dialectic between my soul, between the soul of the church, and God who calls us to union with himself. Yes, we can become more complicated, more elaborate. Now we can have economic crises in one corner of the US that takes the whole economy of the world down with it. We can have a little war here that turns into a big war there. We can have a nasty little, hateful, sadistic state somewhere in the corner of a rocky mountain range off in central Asia that can unleash nuclear contamination or set off bombs in the cities of great powers without their having any ability to answer it.
Progress, yes? Yes, the collision assault is more effective than the sword – you can kill more more efficiently and you don’t even have to touch them to do it. But that’s not progress. It is only as we become more Christ like, as we witness to the world, as we put forth our Orthodox faith, as we manifest our sanctification in Christ, as we demonstrate grace that is in us that we give the world any hope. We are the priests – not me, not even Fr. Eugene and Fr. Averky – we ALL are the priests of God’s salvation to the world. The mediators of God’s grace to mankind; the agents of bringing hope and light to a planet that over and over again, on a higher, and higher level is able to make the same hateful, destructive, and selfish mistakes. Chesterton closed his poem with this verse (and I have to tell you that a thrall is a peasant, a laborer bound to the soil, the lowest class in society, a working proletariat):
Tie in a living tether the prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together, smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation aflame with faith and free,
Lift up a living nation, a single sword to thee.
And he’s not talking by “nation,” about Great Britain or the United States. He’s talking about the kingdom of God united, hopeful, visionary, a city set on a hill, from which men take light into the darkest night, and by which they are directed out of the sloth of despondency and purposelessness into the heavenly truth.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, glory to Jesus Christ!