Publications: Articles - General
The Contemporary World in the Church Today
It would be no exaggeration to state that Church life in today's world has become so irrelevant that even the title of the article may, at first sight seem puzzling. One would expect a title such as "The Church in the world today" and not the other way around as has been suggested. In other words, one may ask, is the Church just another institution which exists alongside others in society, like governments and other organisations whose worth is defined in terms of their efficacy in promoting the values of the world today? Or is the Church the all-embracing reality, the context in which society exists and functions? Is it more correct to refer to, "the Church in the world" or "the world in the Church"? It is this dilemma that this article seeks to clarify. However, before discussing this all important question, we will now proceed to describe and critically reflect upon the reality of the world today. Only then we will be in a position to point out the significance of the Church in contemporary society.
The reality of the contemporary world today is one whose course of events is determined primarily by economic factors. This can easily be seen from simply tracing how the meaning of "economy" has evolved throughout the centuries to reflect this reality. Originally the word "economy" meant the laws governing a household or the world in general. However, today this term has been limited in its scope to denote specifically matters pertaining to finance since everything in today's world is governed by money. For this reason we hear so often the well-known phrase: "time is money!" This phenomenon reflects clearly the extent to which consistent materialism has triumphed in today's society. One needs only to note the rapid globalizational forces of the Western world and its capitalist outlook to appreciate the extent of its influence on every nation of the world today. It is this plutocratic world view (the rule of the affluent), which is moving and shaping history today. Such a theory has given birth to consumerism, which continues to hide behind popular expressions of "progress" and "development". However, when taken to its extremes, consumerism, as Prof. Yannaras so profoundly notes, "levels whole civilizations, uproots ever-growing populations from centuries old spiritual traditions, renders politics useless, obliterates social aspirations."
And it is tragic to see that on the collective level, one can already begin to discretely discern these destructive effects of the so called 'human liberties'.
In fact so embedded is this extreme capitalist paradigm in society at large that merely questioning its validity is seen as curious since most people have defined themselves solely in terms of their financial successes or comforts as if all other aspects of life are irrelevant. The motto by which the modern human person lives is: "I must ensure my economic success at all costs" even if this means compromising or worse still destroying relations not only with other people but with the environment at large. Whereas whole communities of old lived with the truth that good deeds carried out for the common good of society would last for ever, our preoccupation today for the common good has been lost. Instead 'individual' achievement cut off from the communion of a united body is espoused which, in turn gives rise to an apathy towards the moral advancement of a society as a whole.
In critically reflecting upon the policies, which are being formulated by our "modern, democratic" governments today we are justified in asking if they are in fact taking a stance or if they are they mere 'pawns' in the hands of multinational global institutions (investments banks, insurance organisations, media giants et al.). It may seem so obvious to some that modern politicians do not promulgate policies as such, which can truly advance a society but are rather subject to the whims of these multi-national financial institutions. One is perhaps justified in drawing such conclusions in seeing major decisions and policies being taken by these impersonal economic directorates instead of being decided by nationwide informed democratic processes. Furthermore, how else could one explain why they are so easily ready to sell national assets at such rapid rates in the name of 'privatisation' of course.
On a personal level, such consumerism has influenced human beings to such an extent that their entire life is driven by a passionate thirst to acquire these never ending commodities, which are continuously invented for the alleged amusement of the individual. Not only is one's entire life outlook reduced to a child-like myth or one endless amusement park where we are constantly bombarded with ever new commodities but more importantly this way of life has inevitably led people to forget about the reality of death. Simple sayings formulated by saintly people of the past such as "keep you mind in hell and despair not" seem ridiculous and therefore silenced. This triumph of materialism, beyond the death that it has created for existential questions, has also brought the death of people's concern for the arts, music and culture. These are considered as mere entertainment "add-ons" for the occasional attendance as long as they do not interfere with the economic priorities of society.
To reflect upon this a little further, one needs only to take a look at the state of Arts departments in universities to appreciate the truth in this. Lecturers in the Humanities are continually retiring and are not replaced. Subjects, in the classics for example, are becoming more and more irrelevant not only to students but also to the university administrators themselves who are not interested in keeping these subjects on board. To mention a concern for metaphysical questions, or issues regarding the general morality of a society or questions pertaining to love, which, of old were formative for the advancement of a community, let alone any mention of God seems bizarre if not absurd in today's society. Questions pertaining to the meaning of existence, the existential otherness of all human beings with their endless possibilities hidden within are meaningless preoccupations. That is, until something seriously unexpected comes our way, by way of sickness – cancer, heart attack, stroke, nervous break downs – only then do we stop for a moment to reflect upon something which is beyond the ephemeral and passing.
It is of much interest and in need of serious explanation and reflection to examine why this way of life has not been born out of atheist or communist societies, as one would expect at first sight. Rather this materialistic way of life has been born out of countries predominantly moulded by alleged 'Christian' ideals. I would argue that the turning point began when Christian institutions began to abandon a way of life understood as a gift of communion opting instead for an individualistic pursuit of empirical positivism (that is, only realities which can physically be experienced are deemed real). This loss of communion brought about, what Nietzche called the death of God whose being is communion. When God ceased to be experienced as a relationship of Persons and instead became an object and concept of the intellect whose existence can be proved by rational arguments, He ceased to be existentially real. It was this personal God that Nietzche affirmed was dead and he was right.
The birth of the Enlightenment and the reaction to this philosophy which gave birth to Marxism, Capitalism and the Post-modern world was the natural consequence of this intellectualisation of God. Christian ontology, cosmology and anthropology based on communion was substituted for individualism, political liberalism, utilitarian rationalism, moralistic legalism. One is shocked, for example at the extent of this individualism, in hearing the news that in Helsinki an employee died whilst working in his office only to be discovered by fellow colleagues after two days. This concrete example stresses most clearly the extent of the crowded solitude in which modern society finds itself. Questions on God are not even spoken about since human being's preoccupation on materialism have lead to a metaphysical nihilism (a death of the beyond).
Now, an underlying cause which has given birth to modern society, as described above, is a loss of communion in one way or another, whether this be a transition from a Christian understanding of the communal aspect of the person to an understanding of the person as individual, or a transition from truth (a-letheia) which originally meant a disclosure beckoning for communion and relation to its meaning today – that is simply as an objective reality. The truth that life is truly discovered only in communion with others has been lost. Only as participants, relating with others can human persons, whose true being is communion, transcend their individualism and give rise to another way of life which is victorious over loneliness, isolationism and even death.
In response to all the above, it would be the firm conviction of the Orthodox tradition, that the entire world would necessarily be destined to this isolationism and death, had not the Church existed which offers the world another way of existence – that of God's way of existence which is communal par excellence and therefore life-giving. It is this communal way of life, which the Church has always proclaimed and which alone can transform an individualistic mode of existence to a communal one. This ecclesial or communal way of life, whose epicentre is the Eucharistic community is not a nostalgic desire to experience again a romanticised past of our Christian heritage but is the most sure and trodden path of so many generations past giving the possibility for the realisation of existential freedom – a freedom even from death. It is for this reason that the Church must proclaim once again the Gospel proclamation of the freedom of the person and indeed the freedom of the entire world from the constraints of time and death realised in the event of communion.
Since the Church is the event of communion par excellence – that is, the most intimate event of communion between the created world and the divine – can it offer the world God's communal way of eternal existence by grace. It is into the radically new communal reality which is able offer even freedom from death, that the entire created world, not just human persons, is invited to participate and share in. The human person must overcome this false sense of security that it is better to remain alone since there is no danger in getting hurt because living life in this way, totally isolated from others, leads to our death whilst still alive. Rather, the true destiny of human persons is to exist the way God exists, that is free - free from the bounds of death; loving - that is ceasing to draw their existence from their individuality which is corrupt and mortal and instead seeking the freedom of personal relationships - a life as communion of love.
It has been the Church, which has always existed to offer this communion of love to the entire world. In fact, the Orthodox tradition would claim that it was for this purpose that God created the world – that is to realise a most intimate communion of love between the world and Himself. Since the Church, in its essence is God's gift of communion to the world – the solution par excellence to the impasse of isolationism - it exists from the very moment that God decides to communicate with the world when He creates it out of nothing. It is for this reason that we can speak of the Church as preceding the creation of the world, since it was part of God's eternal plan to communicate with His creation. For this reason, Bulgakov writes that "the church [is] the pre-eternal purpose and the foundation of creation." Therefore, seeing the Church as this communal event par excellence between God and the world, it would be more correct to speak in terms of the world today in the Church rather than the Church in the world as it commonly stated. Such a statement which may seem daring at first expresses nothing other than God''''s desire, arising out of His absolute love, to share with the creation those things that are His - life, love and even divinity through Himself, that is through His Church.
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College