June 02, 2010

Orthodoxy & The Pursuit of Happiness

Excerpted from Chapter 7 of The Heart Of Orthodox Mystery

The clash between Orthodox Christianity and the culture of the world has always been dramatic. The reaction of the world may vary, of course, but the inevitable basic challenge of Orthodox Christianity always representing a counterculture is always there for the lover of Christ... 

Is the “pursuit of happiness” not, according to the myth created by the founding fathers of the American Republic, an “inalienable right?” That concept has, in fact, entered so deeply into the thought and conscience of generations of North Americans that it is difficult to question it without being suspected of being, if not actually some kind of foreign agent, at least “un-American.” The concept of “the pursuit of happiness” itself is, however, diametrically opposed to Orthodox Christianity’s view of the Christian’s fundamentally sacrificial and intercessory role in the cosmos, to say nothing of Christianity’s most basic tenant: the sacrifice of Christ is absolutely essential within the divine economy of His Incarnation. 

“The pursuit of happiness” actually opposes, moreover, man’s intimate relationship with God and that total submission to God the holy fathers of Orthodoxy teach us is basic to the spiritual life. The true lover of Christ, in fact, can never take the concept of the “pursuit of happiness” seriously as something that might ever be incorporated into his own life in Christ. 

The “pursuit of happiness” inevitably fosters a totally self-centered view of life, ignoring completely all cosmic sense of man’s place in the universe. It further ignores the inevitable, perennial and very basic dimension of sacrifice demanded of man at every level of his human existence. Whether in pursuing the bonds of love with a future spouse, or in bringing forth and rearing children, or in caring for those one loves, or in maintaining the well-being of one’s own family, sacrifice and suffering are far more basic necessities to human well-being than is the “pursuit of happiness.” 

Whence then came this superficiality and shallowness postulating what a government should stand for in regard to its citizens? To a great extent, this shallowness can most certainly be attributed to the 18th century so-called “Enlightenment” of which, intellectually, the Fathers of the American Republic were the too-confident sons. 

A direct descendent of Renaissance humanism, the 18th century Enlightenment had strong convictions about what was important and what was not. Man alone, not God, was to be taken seriously and served. Though God was somewhere up above, He was no longer one to reveal Himself to anyone as He did in those far-removed, superstitious, and ancient times of the Bible.
This point of view today still remains basic to the assumptions of officially legislated American culture, the various Christian coalitions so often spoken of in the press notwithstanding. When a conflict arises, such as the question of prayer in schools in America, it is the man-centered preoccupation with North America’s Enlightenment heritage that lies behind not only the exclusion of prayers, but even of the mention of God in public schools, as shocking as this would undoubtedly have proven to the deist fathers of the American Republic. 

Be that as it may, these founding fathers still, being what they were, kept God at a very respectable distance in the official documents when the American Republic was being set up. This distant God might be invoked, but only to the extent to which He could be used for the benefit of man. Never did He exist for His own sake alone. He could be freely associated with “life,” “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness,” since these were, after all, the personal aspirations of all sons of the Enlightenment. 

Even in choosing to believe in God, the Fathers of the Republic still considered themselves the masters of this world and the center of their own self-appointed goal, something that has remained a very “American” characteristic. 

Certainly, deist man was very far from viewing himself as existing for God, and for God alone, and therefore utterly dependent upon God’s grace even to exist. According to the deists, God had made man that man might enjoy the “pursuit of happiness.” No lowly sheep of God’s pasture, he! Whereas the true lover of Christ, of necessity, views man as fashioned by God, and existing for God alone and not for himself, Enlightenment man refused, and still refuses, such a Christian idea. 

Having thus divorced himself from God incarnate in Jesus Christ, deist man was most certainly not about to entertain the possibility that God actually continues, in our modern age, to reveal Himself through Jesus Christ to the saints within the mystery of the Orthodox Church! That the God of the Bible, through divine revelation, actually reveals Himself to man was also completely foreign even to the deist clergy of 18th century France and England, who themselves laid the foundation for completely divorcing educated Westerners from the God of the Bible. Moreover, grave suspicion about revelations even being possible still holds, for the most part, in Western Christianity and can be found at the root of the “modernizing” adherents of Roman Catholicism who insist on official intellectual and scientific analyses, even of the miracles of the saints sent by God Himself. 

For such self-centered and proud children of Renaissance humanism, it has become a natural reaction to maintain utter distrust and suspicion, if not downright disbelief, in anything coming from outside oneself. It is not without relevance that leaders of the French Revolution, such as Danton and Robespierre, had all been educated by deist clergy. Those misbegotten cleric-professors, being themselves imbued with the “new ideas,” successfully in turn imbued their pupils with far greater admiration for the heroes of ancient Rome than for the Roman martyrs and saints of the Christian Church. 

Both Robes-pierre and Danton merely applied the ideas taught them by their deist cleric-professors. Could there be anything farther removed from the flesh-and-blood Incarnation of Jesus Christ and His mercy to sinners, so sublimely demonstrated in the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery, than that frigid, intellectual “virtue” Robespierre so passionately sought to impose? He was, after all, willing to guillotine anyone he conceived of as getting in the way of realizing his impossible dream of establishing a truly virtuous French republic. During the last six weeks of the Great Terror, Robespierre’s crusade for “virtue” sent 1,306 persons to the guillotine in Paris alone, among whom are found few aristocrats or clergy. 

Paradoxically, the fruit borne by those 18th century deist cleric-professors is, moreover, not only to be found in the French Revolution, but also in its nefarious dissemination throughout the world, particularly in the rise of Communism. Many of those upheavals, by the vastness of the catastrophes resulting from them, cause the French Revolution to seem but a sort of tranquil prelude to an overwhelming, subsequent tragedy. Paris’s brief, four-month Reign of Terror under Robespierre is hardly worth mentioning when compared with the Ukrainian famine created by the Soviet Union, for example, or, more recently, the genocide produced by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. 

Having rejected Christ and His saints, any idea of seeking to live within the mystery of Christ’s Church would necessarily have been regarded as something completely useless and irrelevant, as it still is by non-believers to this day. 

It is this rejection of Christ by the world that continues to make Orthodoxy radically countercultural, just as it always has, in fact, since the Prince of this world is not Christ. The challenge offered immigrant Orthodox Christians in regard to civil religion in America has always come, and still comes, from their desire not only to survive, but to “fit in” to North American cultural patterns and somehow not prove to be counter-cultural. 

How many well-meaning immigrant Orthodox, wishing sincerely to pay grateful and quite genuine homage to the freedom they have received as American citizens, struggle gallantly to accommodate the American Republic’s officially enshrined ideal of the “pursuit of happiness” as a realistic goal for living out their life in the new country? Having experienced so many good things that were often denied them or completely impossible ever to achieve in an older and ethnically Orthodox country that, perhaps, had fallen under Communist control, they find themselves torn between the unswerving Orthodoxy of their grandmothers and the American idealism of the “pursuit of happiness” espoused by their energetic and successful Americanized offspring, of whom they are so justly proud. 

The great national feast of Thanksgiving Day, always arriving with its “turkey and all the trimmings” in the midst of Christmas Lent, is perhaps the most notable conflict imposed on Orthodox Christians by America’s civil religion. I was told by a friend about a visit to some old Greek-American friends during Great Lent. He noticed that the parents were keeping the fast, but that their teenage children were eating meat. When asked why this was so, the parents answered him with confidence and great pride: “Americans do not fast, and our children are Americans!” For the convert-lover of Christ who opts for Orthodoxy, a fairly basic and all-inclusive question, therefore, must inevitably arise, sooner or later: “Is the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ worth sacrificing one’s whole life for?” Embodied in this question is the implacable challenge offered, at all times and in all places, to every believer by the ongoing mystery of the Church. This challenge takes us far beyond all the superficial details of Orthodox lifestyle and far beyond the American dream of the pursuit of happiness. 

This question, in fact, uncompromisingly articulates the ongoing countercultural challenge required of anyone who, through Christ, seeks to understand the value not only of his own human life, but also the value of the life of all those around him. The historical fact that God was made man in Jesus Christ, therefore, becomes, in light of this question, “the still point of the turning world,” as T. S. Eliot put it. The Incarnation, that “still point of the turning world,” contains within itself the Logos and only-begotten Son and Word of God, the beginning and end of creation itself. The veritable challenge that must be faced squarely, day-by-day in Christian living is that of not allowing the demands of civil religion to alter our allegiance to Him Who is our Life and is the only means of saving each of us from the death that is our own nothingness. 

In any case, living for Jesus Christ alone was, indeed, something fundamentally opposed to the thinking of the framers of the American Constitution, whatever their merits as lawgivers.

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