As we stand at the door of the new millennium, adhering to the Scriptures, the Apostolic Tradition, the Church’s dogmas, and the patristic teachings, all may seem unreal and even “primitive” or archaic. The Orthodox Church has a reputation for incessantly clinging to Tradition, and that She has no message to bring to contemporary society. But as Orthodox Christians, how do we deal with such claims? How do we deal with a society, which can be described at best, as indifferent to God and religion, and at worst as antagonistic? How do we witness to Christ, knowing that Orthodoxy is a minority in a culturally heterogeneous society, which opposes organized religion? How do we make Orthodoxy relevant in our lives?
In our complex society, it may be difficult to give simple answers. But, by the grace of God, we will make an attempt.
All the Church Fathers teach that man was created in the image and likeness of God, and this image is never lost. All of man’s efforts, whether consciously or unconsciously, is towards making this image clear. As Christians, we believe that this can be attained by the grace of God. However, because of sin, this image is distorted or buried so deep that it is no longer apparent. Yet, it is never lost. God created Adam from the earth’s matter, dust. At the same time, Adam was made in God’s image and was made alive by God’s breath, His Holy Spirit. Therefore, he has kinship to God. It is a fallacy that Christian life can be separated into sacred and secular. The first being limited to Sunday mornings and a few moments of daily prayer, and the latter ruling all aspects of our life. Each person is called to be in continuous growth towards his full potential, the image of God. This requires that we witness to Christ throughout life and even unto death. This is where the correlation between “witness” and “martyr” comes in. Christianity was originally called “The Way” (Acts 9:2), and Christ Himself said, “I am the way.” (John 14:6) Therefore, following Christ is a way of life, which penetrates every aspect of our life down to how we dress, how we talk, what we eat (the fasts), etc. What life is all about is knowing how to love God with all our being and our neighbor as ourselves. This is our basic guide to witnessing to God. The problem arises when we want to accept God on our own terms. We want God to make life easy for us.
Something pervasive in our society is the negative connotations given to words such as “doctrine”, “dogma”, “The Truth”, “Tradition”, etc. Some believe there are no “objective truths” in religion, and it is all relative and we should not tell people what the “Truth” is. In our society, there is cultural and religious pluralism. People have a plethora of data in everything, and they can decide what they want and don’t want. This relativistic and self-centered attitude has, in fact, infected the perception of religion in many churches. People want to come to God on their own terms, and they end up making-up their own idea of what God should be. The end result is they create their own “god” and their own values, which may be different from the basic understanding of true Christianity. The consequence is secularization of religion.
As Orthodox Christians, we believe that God is the ultimate “Truth”, and this Truth was revealed to us through our Lord Jesus Christ and is inspired in us by the Holy Spirit. We follow the example set by our Lord Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit do what He did. We also believe that the teachings of the Church can not be given as a personal opinion, i.e. we can not “pick and choose” what we like and discard of what we don’t like. I must conform myself to the ultimate Truth, and do the will of God. Tradition is regarded as the voice of the Holy Spirit in the Holy Church, which needs to be heard in every generation, so that we can remain faithful to the Bible and make Christianity relevant to our lives. People associate stagnancy and complacency with tradition, because there is lack of change. But in Orthodoxy, we do not accept a time-bound view of Tradition. As the Body of Christ, the Church shares the mind of Christ, and the Church is alive by the Holy Spirit, Who is dynamic.
Christianity in Western society moves fast causing polarization and fragmentation, which are accepted as the norm. Contemporary Christianity focuses on approaching the Gospel from the human point of view rather than from God’s vision. On the other hand, as Orthodox Christians, we recognize that there are certain truths, which are central to the Gospel message and way of life. We are not afraid to remain faithful to them despite ridicule and even persecution. As Christians, we are called to live in purity in an impure world (2 Pet. 2:19). This is how we witness to our Lord.
From a Christian view, there is depth to life, which is often lacking in our society. As Orthodox Christians, we can say that man’s hunger for depth ultimately springs from the image of God in us, which has been obscured and distorted by so much secularization. There is a cry in the human heart, which tells us that there is another life in us, which we are not living. It is the life according to the Spirit. There is more to our life than the surface life of safety, comfort, status, and power. This deeper purpose is communion with God. When we distort the image of God within us, we lose our true self, and thus become unhappy. The Church, as the Body of Christ, is set apart, yet not taken out of the world (John 17:15). God leaves the Church in the midst of the world to witness to His goodness, love, and grace. This is our responsibility in this life, sustained by the grace of God.
The central paradox of Christianity is that in holding on to the earthly and temporal, we lose the heavenly and eternal. As the Fathers teach us, in sacrificing everything, we gain unimaginable riches. Like the martyrs and saints, in dying to the passions and lusts of the world, we live in our Lord forever. This is how we witness to our Lord.
Only when we realize that absolutely nothing exceeds the value of finding true life, i.e. the salvation of one’s soul, do we understand the meaning of life. By spiritual discipline, we can live a fruitful and righteous life, obeying the Truth. Being Christian goes beyond just belief in Christ. It requires changing kingdoms from that of darkness to the Kingdom of the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. We have to recover the mind of the Fathers, which is the mind of the Church. As the Church of Christ, our actions and lives must witness and confess to the Kingdom of God present here on earth. The key to a Christian life in a materialistic society is the virtue of dispassion, which includes constant refraining from treating physical things as ends in themselves, and maintaining a certain detachment from them. The problem lies in seeing our work as a way of personal gain and luxury and not as a way to serve others. We manifest our love for God in our worship and our love for our fellow man by self-sacrificing service. Thus the Christian seeks to do good work for the glory of God, and this is how we witness to our Lord.
Does all this mean we are better than others? Of course, not! We may be worse than others because we often do not apply what we are taught. In fact, we may be in greater trouble, because to whom much is given, much is asked from. On the Last Judgment, we will have to answer to what we have been given in this life, and we have been given an enormous treasure in our Church and our faith. The process of Christian growth requires commitment of our free will to walk in holiness and righteousness. St. Paul said it best when he wrote, “That you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation among whom you shine as lights in the world.” (Phil. 2:15) This is how we witness to our Lord.
May our Lord, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and the prayers of the saints fill us with every virtue and every fruit of the Spirit so we can witness to the Kingdom of God on earth and in the end may be members of this Kingdom for eternity.