A Journey to Eastern Christianity
The following is a talk which my departed grandmother invited me to give for her Sunday School class at First United Methodist Shreveport and which, due to some confusion, was given in its entirety to the wrong class. Because of that, I have never shared it until now. The talk zones in on Fr. Seraphim Rose, my favorite author and greatest spiritual influence that I never met. I decided that this page is the appropriate place for this talk because it highlights a particular quote that resonated with Rondall as highly relevant, both to the current state of things and to our shared personal experiences:
Last time I saw you was just after Christmas. My grandparents, Paul and Debbie Brown, brought me to speak to you about Orthodox Christianity. This time, I’m told, it was your choice, for which I’m all the more grateful. My name is Paul Hand, and I’m Choir Director at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church here in Shreveport. I don’t get to do this very often, and I’m glad you all get to see me one more time before I turn 30 next month. I actually welcome that inevitable event. I will wake up one morning far more respectable and employable than the day before, without having changed one bit–God willing, of course, because no amount of time is guaranteed.
A few months ago, there was a great deal of noise made about a study published by the Pew Institute, showing that the Christian population in this country had declined by 7%. We are down to roughly 70% of the population. The unaffiliated population, those who identified as “none,” increased by the same number.
Now, reaction to this account of America’s changing religious landscape was as diverse as America’s religious landscape itself. One response I read said, “That’s still 70% too many.” Christians on either side of the political spectrum were quick to claim vindication for their sides of whatever issues and to blame the other side. There was also a cartoon that resonated with many of my friends. It depicted three people labeled “Definitely Christian,” “Definitely not Christian,” and “Meh.” (Remember that word.) When it’s socially advantageous to be Christian, Meh sides with Definitely Christian. When social advantages shift away from being Christian, Meh sides with Definitely not Christian. Now surely this interpretation is at least partially true. However, to say that it sums up the whole situation is to make, I believe, a costly blanket statement.
There is one very important detail in the study that is being overlooked, of which we should take note. By way of patting myself on the back, I didn’t see anyone notice this detail except for me, so naturally, I want to tell you about it. As I mentioned earlier, the Christian portion of the population declined by 7% while those who identified with no religion (the “nones”) increased by the same number. So how much do you think the ranks of atheists and agnostics increased? The answer: 1%. Just 1%.
The Significance of “Meh”
Now, how do we explain this? We’ve known for some time that Christianity is losing its hold on my generation, and the numbers in this study show it. But if we’re leaving Christianity resolutely enough to report it, why can we not say what we’re leaving it for? Surely there is virtue in appreciating the teachings of multiple religions, but it is perfectly normal to do so while still adhering to one’s own religion or even atheism. And yes, there are valid reasons to distrust tradition and revelation, and it can be indeed sensible to consider that one doesn’t have the answers and may never have them. But in such cases as this, why not identify as agnostic? Thirdly, seeking what is good, true, and beautiful is also a worthwhile exercise. But the numbers of the study are a continuation of trends from nearly a decade ago, which suggests that we’re not seeking to find, but seeking for the sake of seeking.
Now here is my hypothesis: I do not doubt that there are many young people out there who actually do exemplify the virtues in the three scenarios I just mentioned, but I hold that these people are the exception, not the rule. As all that is serious, grounded, and definitive declines or stagnates, the one philosophy of life that flourishes is: Meh. So if this is true, what explains the rise of Meh, and what can we do about it?
Fr. Seraphim Rose
My favorite Orthodox author and greatest spiritual influence–almost like a friend I never met–is a man named Fr. Seraphim Rose. His extraordinary life is beautifully relevant to our situation as Christians today. (Throughout my account of his example, I will cite his own words and those of his biographer, Hieromonk Damascene.) He was born in 1934 into an ordinary middle-class American family in San Diego. His parents gave him the name Eugene. Eventually, upon becoming an Orthodox monk, he would adopt the name Seraphim after the beloved 19th-century Russian wilderness dweller St. Seraphim of Sarov. His mother, the steering wheel of the household, gave him a typically moderate Protestant upbringing, though readily changing churches and even confessions when she frowned on a minister. Even from his childhood, Eugene was said to radiate an uncommonly noble spirit. He was serious and studious, a highly gifted mathematician, and had a deeply personal yearning for high ideals. He had a lifelong love for classical music. By his youth, not surprisingly, typical middle-class American Protestant Christianity would seem far too small for his vibrant intellect. Hieromonk Damascene writes:
“He had begun to hate the complacent, prosaic, consumer-oriented, middle-class culture in which he had been raised. Its idea of God, he felt, was shallow and provincial, not worthy of one who aspires to the highest reaches of the intellect; its religion was just an unquestioning acceptance of facile answers by people who are afraid or actually unable to look deeper into the nature of things. To Eugene, Protestantism represented the status quo: people living for this world and enjoying earthly happiness while embellishing, justifying, and making more tolerable their everyday existence by resorting to the ‘religious’ side of their life.”
Before I continue along this track, I hope I don’t risk insulting your hospitality. I don’t forget that I’m speaking to a room full of American Mainline Protestants who, I’m assuming, are mostly middle class. The reality is that people of many religions, frames of mind, and walks of life can and do recognize the problems I’m addressing, and we have a variety of opinions as to how to address them. But it’s crucial that we do address them, and in this man’s life, Orthodoxy set these things straight in a most unique way.
Revert to the present for a moment. Ten years ago, two authors studied the common religion of American youth, for which they coined the name “moralistic-therapeutic deism.” Their findings were later published by CNN and sparked some interesting conversations on social media. It is summarized in five points, at least according to Wikipedia:
- A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on Earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught by the Bible and most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to solve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
As you can see, the young people these authors studied probably had little to say about higher theological matters such as revelation, worship, sin, and salvation. We might allow exceptions for young people from fringe religions who are used to being questioned on their beliefs. Personally, I’ve found that this phenomenon is not limited to youth–for young people must be learning it from somebody. Nor is it limited to the 21st century. Practical, simplified versions of Christianity like this flourished in the formative years of our nation. When we had a multiplicity of religious traditions and yet were overwhelmingly Protestant, these were things we could all agree on.
The Boy who did not Prosper
I often hear a charge from my non-Christian friends that religion is not necessary to be a moral person. I agree, but the making of such a charge betrays an erroneous assumption that the whole point of religion is to make people moral. This assumption also had its heyday in past centuries right here in America. Mark Twain satirized American Protestantism (one of his favorite pastimes, by the way) in his short story, “The Story of the Good Little Boy who did not Prosper.”
“Jacob had a noble ambition to be put in a Sunday-school book. He wanted to be put in, with pictures representing him gloriously declining to lie to his mother, and her weeping for joy about it; and pictures representing him standing on the doorstep giving a penny to a poor beggar-woman with six children, and telling her to spend it freely, but not to be extravagant, because extravagance is a sin; and pictures of him magnanimously refusing to tell on the bad boy who always lay in wait for him around the corner as he came from school, and welted him over the head with a lath, and then chased him home, saying, “Hi! hi!” as he proceeded. This was the ambition of young Jacob Blivens. He wished to be put in a Sunday-school book. It made him feel a little uncomfortable sometimes when he reflected that the good little boys always died. He loved to live, you know, and this was the most unpleasant feature about being a Sunday-school-book boy. He knew it was not healthy to be good. He knew it was more fatal than consumption to be so supernaturally good as the boys in the books were; he knew that none of them had been able to stand it long, and it pained him to think that if they put him in a book he wouldn’t ever see it, or even if they did get the book out before he died it wouldn’t be popular without any picture of his funeral in the back part of it. It couldn’t be much of a Sunday-school book that couldn’t tell about the advice he gave to the community when he was dying. So at last, of course, he had to make up his mind to do the best he could under the circumstances – to live right, and hang on as long as he could, and have his dying speech all ready when his time came.”
I guess we shouldn’t be surprised if the religion of the “Sunday-school books” is not enough to satisfy inquiring minds and restless hearts. Mark Twain abandoned it, my fellow Millenials are abandoning it, and so did the young Fr. Seraphim Rose.
Stale and Obsolete
To what did he turn? In his second year at Pomona College, his campus was visited by the charismatic ex-Anglican priest Alan Watts. Watts prophetically announced that Western Christianity had become stale and obsolete. Therefore, it was time for the West to discover the powerful, holistic wisdom of the East. In the advent of Rock N’ Roll, psychedelic drugs, and other triumphs of counterculture, Watts scratched where the young people itched, and they ate it up. Rose himself was quite taken in. He would later take classes directly from Watts and become a devoted scholar of Eastern philosophy. He even helped one of his teachers to translate the Tao Teh Ching into English.
However, something profoundly spiritual was happening to him as a person. He lost any good relations with his family and sunk into feelings of deep isolation. He felt that he was being pursued by God and wanted none of it. He developed suicidal thoughts, drank heavily, would sometimes have drunken fits of rage, and would lie pounding on the floor, screaming for God to leave him alone. He would describe this part of his life as a taste of hell. Of course, God did not leave him alone.
Seek and love the Truth above all else
His journey to Orthodox Christianity would be a long and winding road, and it would begin with new awareness he acquired as he studied Eastern religion. First, a French philosopher, Rene Guénon, would change his attitude toward spiritual matters at the most basic level, and would teach him “to seek and love the Truth above all else, and to be unsatisfied with anything else.” Guénon taught that Christianity was failing the West because it was failing to be Christian and that replacing it with consumer pseudo-religions would only lead to further breakdown of true spiritual values. The answer, Guénon proposed, was not more modernization, but the restoration of traditional, orthodox forms of religion. This understanding led Fr. Seraphim to depart from the experimental, self-serving religious dabbling practiced by types like Watts, of whom Fr. Seraphim would later write:
“Watts philosophy is a justification of naturalistic hedonism, however refined. It exploits the doctrines of numerous religions to do this, denying them when he sees fit, judging everything by his own hedonistic standards. This is dishonest. If he wishes to cite religious doctrines, he should take them in context and should take all of them. By picking and choosing he makes it obvious that he does not take them seriously; they are toys to him, for he is God. He joins the ranks of the pseudo-religious preachers…Looking back, it is obvious that he had simply caught the right wavelength, followed it all the way and made his career out of it, made lots of money, and attracted many followers. Some of what he taught was true, especially about modern civilization. But he gave only some pitifully small shred of truth combined with a lot of his own opinions, and in the end a great system of lies; and he destroyed souls, including his own undoubtedly.”
Connecting to Eastern Christianity
For his own more serious inquiry into Chinese philosophy, Fr. Seraphim grew close to a real Chinese mystic, Gi-ming Shien, who on account of his authenticity and seriousness never resonated with the experimentalist California intelligentsia the way Watts did, and therefore did not stay as long. It was one of his friends, a convert who would one day say to him, “You’re interested in Eastern religions. You should look into the Eastern side of Christianity.” Eugene obliged and attended the Russian Orthodox cathedral in San Francisco. One visit turned into many visits. This experience coincided with a time in his life at which his dissatisfaction with Modern American life and its consumerism, populist politics, and hopeless dependence on technology was all coming to a full boil. It was finally clear to him, that what he ran from since the days of his youth was his only place to turn:
“For years in my studies I was satisfied with being ‘above all traditions’ but somehow faithful to them…However, when I entered an Orthodox Church for the first time…something happened to me that I had not experienced in any Buddhist or other Eastern temple; something in my heart said that this was ‘home,’ that all my search was over…With my exposure to Orthodoxy and to Orthodox people, a new idea began to enter my awareness: that Truth was not just an abstract idea, sought and known by the mind, but was something personal–even a Person–sought and loved by the heart. And that is how I met Christ.”
Modern American and an Orthodox Voice
Having had a broad and intensely personal experience with the currents of thought and behavior in modern America, he lived to tell about it with an Orthodox voice:
“Perfection is that in which man rests; but man can only rest in God, for God alone is perfect, and the imperfections of the world and of men only lead us to what is truly perfect. Modern man, however, wants to rest in this world, so he has to make it perfect; since it is obviously not, he must make it so. Hence the ideal, utopian character of all rational schemes of the world. Without a utopia, modern man would despair–and sure enough, when deprived of it, he does despair. In normal times he would turn to God, but most people today no longer believe He exists, so despair is futile and self-destroying.”
He would now use his brilliant mind to bring great treasures of Orthodox spirituality to the West, and he himself would one day become such a treasure. He diligently studied the writings of Russian Orthodox saints. With the help of one friend, he translated their works and published them with their own printing press which they ran out of a small storefront property. He studied them, not merely to learn about them as one would in a college classroom, but to acquire their mind.
In 1968, he and his friend became monks and established the St. Herman of Alaska Monastery in the mountains of Northern California. There he lived a simple life of prayer, work, and study. People came from all over the country to visit the monastery for spiritual refreshment and inspiration. People who encountered him felt that they were in the presence of a holy man. He was gentle, kind, compassionate, humble, never spoke loudly or out of turn, and yet he remained fiercely faithful to preaching Orthodox faith in its purest, unadulterated fullness. He warned that life had become abnormal, and spread awareness of Orthodox Christian suffering under communism to bring people back to reality and prepare them for the call of Christ. His writings even reached Russia and became a source of hope and encouragement.
In particular, this call back to reality rings ever true for my generation, which is leaving the church but not quite sure where it is going. We are not only losing our touch with religion. We are less interested in marriage and children, we distrust our government, our political process, our enterprise, our news media, and none of this is without reason. But we are less connected with our communities, we spend less time outside, and an insidious kind of cynicism threatens to overtake us. Combine this with technology that makes us oblivious to the world beyond the palms of our hands.
I’m even giving this talk from an iPhone and will be sharing it on Facebook later, so not a single one of us is safe.
But Fr. Seraphim had real advice for those who live in our strange world. He gave this advice in a talk called “Living the Orthodox Worldview.” The audio recording is available to the public. He said that there are two false approaches to our contemporary life that we must avoid: the first is simply going along with the times, and the other is false super-spirituality, in which prayer and spiritual struggle are only a new game added to the attractions of Disneyland. We must be in constant contact with the sources of Christian nourishment, and we must allow them to directly touch our lives, rather than learning about them to gain information or so that we can judge the incorrectness of others.
Even Orthodoxy can become subject to the experimental mentality we’ve been taught to bring to religion, and it has no bearing on our lives other than as something to discuss over our beer and pizza. Fr. Seraphim calls us to an attitude that is down-to-earth and normal, recognizing how far we are, not only from sainthood but even from ordinary Orthodox Christianity of a hundred years ago. Our attitude must also be loving and forgiving, and finally, “…something which is very unfashionable today: innocent. Today the world places a high value on sophistication, on being worldly-wise, on being a professional. Orthodoxy places no value on these qualities. They kill the Christian soul.”
On Behalf of All and for All
By the providence of God, Fr. Seraphim Rose got an opportunity that was not afforded Mark Twain’s good little boy: giving advice to the community before he died. Neither he nor anyone who attended that talk would have thought he had only a few weeks to live. An undiagnosed intestinal condition took hold of him and after a slow and painful bout in the hospital, he died on September 2, 1982, at the age of 48. It was said that after he departed this life, his body appeared to be filled with light, and his face fell into a smile.
His name was quite appropriate: from the ashes of disillusionment and declining cultural dreams, he sprung up as a Rose, conquering temptation, apathy, and despair. His background was not unlike many of our own both then and now. We have not only his words but his life to show us that it can still be done, whatever the latest statistics show. He is a champion for Orthodox people because he was Orthodox, for Americans because he was an American, and as we say in the liturgy, “on behalf of all and for all,” because, as is the result of holiness, he was truly human.
Glory to God for all things.