The series now moves to section 1 of the seventh chapter of For the Life of the World. Here again is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s podcast on chapter seven.
Whatever the achievements of the Christian mission in the past, today we must honestly face a double failure: the failure to achieve any substantial “victory” over other great world religions, and the failure to overcome in any significant way the prevailing and the growing secularization of our culture.
In a strange way, both of those threads are tightly interwoven throughout my childhood formation. As Fr. Schmemann has noted elsewhere, “secular” is not a synonym for “atheist”. They are not expressing or addressing the same concept, though there is a fair degree of overlap between the two. One thing I find fascinating is that Fr. Schmemann saw these forces at work and correctly understood them before I was born. A lot of people have looked back and interpreted what happened during the part of the cultural turn that marks my life, but I’m not sure I’ve encountered many who saw it and understood it as it was happening. Fr. Schmemann did.
In regard to other religions Christianity stands simply as one of them, and the time is certainly gone when Christians could consider them as “primitive” and bound to disappear when exposed to the self-evident “superiority” of Christianity. Not only have they not disappeared, but they show today a remarkable vitality and they “proselytize” even within our so-called “Christian” society.
Of course, I’m not sure that many people would even call our society “Christian” today, but his point above describes my life. I grew up studying, learning, and practicing everything from Transcendental Meditation to palmistry to numerology to past life regression to astrology to tarot to Hinduism to Taoism. (Buddhism didn’t attract me as a child.) Yes, Christianity was in the mix, but I’m not sure I would even describe it as a prime contender. Nor am I talking about some sort of teenage exploration. I had experienced, practiced, or explored to some degree all of the above and more by the time I turned thirteen.
In fact, that perspective on reality was so much a part of me that I have never been able to grasp the common evangelical assertion that Christianity is not a religion. Of course, part of that is the shallowness behind the evangelical version of the assertion. The various reasons given usually lack depth. It’s one example where evangelicals have exactly the right idea, but don’t seem to grasp why it’s true. I began to really understand the reason for that assertion (both in terms of today and in the context of the ancient world) from some things I heard from Fr. Thomas Hopko. And then, of course, this book has really helped clarify the idea for me — probably better than anything else I’ve read or heard. But my “default” formative perspective still sees Christianity as simply one among many religions. It takes real effort for me to overcome that lens.
I believe it was GK Chesterton who wrote: When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything. The experience of my life has certainly been evidence of that truth.
As for secularism, nothing shows better our inability to cope with it than the confusion and division it provokes among Christians themselves: the total and violent rejection of secularism in all varieties of Christian “fundamentalism” clashes with its almost enthusiastic acceptance by the numerous Christian interpreters of the “modern world” and “modern man.”
At it’s heart, secularism involves wrongly dividing the world into categories like “nature” and “supernature” (and possibly dismissing the latter entirely), “profane” and “sacred”, “material” and “spiritual” rather than the proper categories of created and uncreated. Whether they embrace or reject the “supernatural”, most Christian groups today have accepted that manner of perceiving reality. And that drives the confused response.
The object of mission is thought of as the propagation of religion, considered to be an essential need of man. … But what are these “basic religious values”? If one analyzes them honestly, one does not find a single one that would be “basically” different from what secularism at its best also proclaims and offers to men.
You see this in the common approach to “evangelization” today. The goal is to “convert” others into what you are. Further, our secular society professes much the same “values” in many (though not all) areas as Christianity. (That’s not entirely surprising, since I think Fr. Schmemann is correct in his insight elsewhere that the “secular” perspective of reality has its roots as a Christian heresy.)
It sounds like a paradox, but the basic religion that is being preached and accepted as the only means of overcoming secularism is in reality a surrender to secularism. … And it is really amazing how little difference exists in the religious self-consciousness of members of confessions whose dogmas seem to stand in radical opposition to one another. For even if a man changes religion, it is usually because he finds the one he accepts as offering him “more help” — not more truth.
Oddly the SBTC magazine recently had an editorial decrying exactly that tendency, that people today don’t really care all that much what a particular church or denomination teaches or believes. I have to admit, living in the wilds of Christian pluralism, I tend to share that attitude. I’ll check to see if a place is too obnoxious in their statements about the proper “role” or “place” for women and steer clear of them. If they are stridently anti-evolution or even anti-science, I’ll tend to give them a wide berth. And if they are nutty in their interpretation of and focus on “end times” I’ll keep my distance. Beyond that, Christianity has become so fragmented that I don’t really expect any coherence or place any particular stock in “denominational distinctives”.
And in this general religious decline, the non-Christian “great religions” have an even greater chance of survival. … Have not Oriental wisdom and Oriental mysticism always exercised an almost irresistible attraction for religious people everywhere? It is to be feared that certain “mystical” aspects of Orthodoxy owe their growing popularity in the West precisely to their easy — although wrong — identification with Oriental mysticism.
Why? Because if you are looking for a religion that “helps” then Buddhism or other Eastern religions can certainly offer that to you. They may “help” better than Christianity, and certainly better than much of what Christianity has become in the modern pluralist West. People are flocking today both to other religions and to no particular religion at all.
It is a very serious question, indeed, whether under its seemingly traditional cover certain forms of contemporary Christian mission do not in reality pave the way for a “world religion” that will have very little in common with the faith that once overcame the world.
If anything, we’re simply farther along that path today.