The Modern Heresy

“There can be only one permanent revolution — a moral one; the regeneration of the inner man. How is this revolution to take place? Nobody knows how it will take place in humanity, but every man feels it clearly in himself. And yet in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.”
-Leo Tolstoy

“He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man … might become the son of God.”

-Iraneus of Lyons

“The Word was made man in order that we might be made divine.”

-Athanasius of Alexandria

“The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self — all your wishes and precautions — to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call ‘ourselves’.”
-C.S. Lewis

A few months back (I think, it can be hard to keep track of time) I decided to take a break from following politics. Now, I still look at the news sometimes, and might catch some political stories here and there, but what this really means is that I stopped listening to the political podcasts that I had been listening to. Also, I severely cut back on watching such youtube videos (The intent was really to not watch those at all, but, I confess that sometimes I find something enticing and watch it). The result of this was actually what I pretty much figured it would be: No real net loss to me in any area and I generally feel less frustration and probably am generally happier than I otherwise would be.

Much of what gets thrown under the political sphere these days though would probably be more correctly identified as culture. It only becomes political if you decide that government should have some sort of role in everything. A character in a game I was playing the other day said “Everything is political”. While I disagree with the statement myself, I think there are a lot of people out there who hold that to be true.

The Tolstoy quote I referenced up top has a shorter, punchier variant that is perhaps more popular: “Everyone thinks to change the world, but no one thinks to change himself.” This is a big part of what I want to talk about here. So much of how we engage with each other in the modern world is through trying to change other people to fit into our idea of what a better world would be. Everything becomes political because the government becomes a tool to enforce that change. Most times when people propose a law or a regulation, it’s to bring the world more into line with what they believe would be better.

I think that there is at least one major problem with this line of thinking. That is, you could very possibly be wrong about what would be better, or good. Do you really know what all the possible consequences of enacting a certain law would be? Want to get guns off the streets? How about a gun buyback program? (Follow that link and tell me if you still think it’s a good idea.) The truth is that as people we tend to oversimplify issues and don’t appreciate the complexity of the problems that we are dealing with. Changing the big picture is extremely difficult, because there are so many small details and we are incapable of seeing how they all interact.

What really gets to me though is the way in which many Christians respond to the question of how to redeem the world (to use Christian language). I think that many or perhaps most Christians put too much stock in the government’s role in this, but I am particularly disturbed by those I will call “social justice Christians.” To be clear, I am not making any judgments as to whether or not someone is a Christian – but I do believe that by engaging the world on the idea that we can achieve perfect justice, or something approximating it, via government might, is heretical to the very essence of Christianity. The world can only, and will only, be redeemed by God, through the incarnation. We should not think we can pass that role on to the government.

Western thought is really closely associated the the idea of individualism. I think individualism is a really important concept and that we’ve made a lot of great developments based on a Western understanding of it, however, I will say that we’ve perhaps overemphasized the individual by too often neglecting the communal. On this point, anyone reading this who has been disagreeing with my up until now has probably found something we can agree on. By and large, we do not value our communities as much as we should – and we often neglect to really see ourselves as part of our communities.

I recently had a conversation with a friend in which he brought up “the social contract.” It’s a term that I really hate. Why? Well, the definition of a contract is: “a written or spoken agreement”. For a contract to be a contract, there must be at least 2 parties, and they must come to an agreement. “The social contract”, on the other hand, has absolutely nothing to do with an agreement. But while I hate the term, I don’t necessarily completely disagree with it. I do think there are certain obligations that we inherently owe each other. That’s a big part of what being in a community is. We are all made better by helping each other.

One of the things that Social Justice Christians like to point to in defense of appealing to governmental redistribution of wealth is the Church in the book of Acts. Primarily this passage:

” All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

– Acts 4:32-35

Yes, this is a picture of something approaching socialism. However, it is an entirely voluntary thing for the people taking part in it. The Roman government was not involved in these transactions. One of the key things to note is that the passage credits God’s grace for the lack of needy person’s among them, and not Caesar. The Romans certainly collected taxes from these people, but they took care of each other as a community of their own free will, not by government compulsion, and not by seeking the government compulsion of others. The modern equivalent here would truly be living in a Christian commune. You can absolutely do it – and if you really believe that you should share all you own with those you are in community with, I think you should. And I’m not at all saying you’re wrong to believe that. What you can’t do is use this passage to support government compulsion of the redistribution of wealth.

The key problem here, and why I say it is a heresy, is that when you look to the State to be the savior, you are putting the State in the place of God, and making the State into your own god. God has saved, is saving, and will save the world through his incarnation. He is bringing mankind into community and unity with Himself via the Church. Our part in that is to open ourselves to His grace and mercy and to be changed and shaped ourselves. Our part is to love those we interact with as best we can.

Our part is NOT to dictate to others how they should be helping others. It is not to tell them how they should be loving others. It’s certainly not to enact laws that force people to do what we think is best. None of us humans are perfect, and we could all do better than we do. Until such time as we achieve perfection, perhaps it would be best if we focused on changing ourselves instead of changing others.

And if we should do so, perhaps we should consider this short exchange:

Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: “Father, to the limit of my ability, I keep my little rule, my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and to the limit of my ability, I work to cleanse my heart of thoughts; what more should I do?” The elder rose up in reply, and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: “Why not be utterly changed into fire?”

“Why not be utterly changed into fire, my son? Do not stop at the limit of your ability, but neither stop before it. Strive to the fullness of your being, but never in the belief that your being is your limit. Desire, long, and journey, but every step a step with one who falls afresh in fire and glory on his servants who walk here in the ground. Why not be utterly changed into fire?”


“We pray with fingers crossed,
But you listen patiently anyway.”

-In A Market Dimly Lit, by meWithoutYou

“Does God then forsake just those who serve Him best? Well, He who served Him best of all said, near His tortured death, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” When God becomes man, that Man, of all others, is least comforted by God, at His greatest need. There is a mystery here which, even if I had the power, I might not have the courage to explore. Meanwhile, little people like you and me, if our prayers are sometimes granted, beyond all hope and probability, had better not draw hasty conclusions to our own advantage. If we were stronger, we might be less tenderly treated. If we were braver, we might be sent, with far less help, to defend far more desperate posts in the great battle.”

-C.S. Lewis

“The ultimate purpose of the spiritual Way is not just a person who says prayers from time to time, but a person who is prayer all the time.”

-Metropolitan Kallistos Ware

In a few of the episodes of a Podcast I recently finished listening all the way through, The Areopagus, one of the hosts, Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, talks a bit about how he struggled for a long time with his daily prayer rule. He also mentions what he eventually realized was the problem: He didn’t really believe that it did anything. If it’s not accomplishing anything, then of course, you’re not going to want to do it.

It’s definitely something that I can relate to myself. I went a pretty long time not believing prayer really accomplished anything. Yet I have had, for as long as I can even remember, a habit of praying as I lie down to go to sleep. In many ways it was kind of a brain dump. I softly spoke aloud all my concerns, needs, and any wrongdoings I may have recalled doing that day. Then, not too long ago, there was a period of several months where I was simply mad at God, and I intentionally ceased those prayers.

I guess for most of my life, my thoughts about prayer have been that I’m not sure whether or not it does anything. I can’t say that I’ve ever asked for any particular big thing in prayer and had it come to pass. I mean, sure, I’ve had “answered prayers” before, like I prayed that I would get a particular job and I got it (but then again, there are an equal number of times I prayed I’d get a job and I didn’t get it). My experience just doesn’t tell me that anything is more likely to happen if I pray for it than if I don’t. And the impossible things I’ve prayed for, have, sadly, remained impossible.

Recently, I’m thinking that perhaps prayer does do something, and has been doing something, but it was not the something that I thought it should be doing. When I have asked myself, “Does prayer work?”, it has largely been self-focused. I am asking for things that I want and then basing whether or not it worked on if I get those things or not. Now, sometimes those things are things that I am asking for someone else, but still, there is a self-focused component there.

That’s not to say, though, that prayer doesn’t do anything for the person praying. In fact I believe it does. But while it is good to ask God for the things we desire, or to bring complaints when we feel we’ve been dealt with unjustly, those things should not be the goal of our prayers. The goal of our prayers should be communion with God, union with God, becoming like God. The act and habit of praying itself opens us to God and shapes us toward that end.

And when I think of it that way, I do get the sense that prayer is doing something. In the time periods I’ve prayed both fervently and consistently, I do genuinely see that happening. Prayer seems to be the very act of dying to one’s self to enter into communion with God.

A new addition to my prayers that I have discovered in Orthodoxy is “The Jesus Prayer”. I’d heard it referenced by that name several times and it took awhile before I knew what they were talking about. At first, I thought perhaps it was another way of referencing “The Lord’s Prayer” (it’s not).

It can have a few different forms, but the basic prayer is:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

A big part of the idea here is that when you don’t know what to pray, that is what to pray. Simply ask for mercy.