The Mathetian Option (Part One)

The God of the Scriptures is a very specific sort of deity. He is the architect who created and fashioned all things in a logical and orderly sequence. While he does not permanently expel chaos from the cosmos, he makes clear that disorder is not good but a distortion of goodness and a movement towards non-being. God then places man in the midst of his creation and asks him to share in his work of establishing order by tending and keeping the garden.  Together with Zoe, Adam is tasked with subduing chaos and filling the void with life wherever he and his wife go. Of course, they would fail, as would most their progeny. But when the Second Adam comes, his disciples are called to once more broaden the borders of Paradise. This work is first actualized within the life of the Church, for “God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all the assemblies of the saints” (1 Cor 14:33).

It should be no wonder to us that this same God desires for all mankind to strive towards establishing an orderly society. Any government—even a despotic one—is preferable to outright anarchy. This is evident in the way the Bible deals with the Roman Empire. Although Caesar was no friend to the Jews, Jesus teaches them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt 22:21). And though Caesar was no friend to the Christians, the Apostle Paul teaches them, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Rom 13:1; cf. 1 Pet 2:13-14). The regnant emperor at the time Paul wrote to Timothy was likely Nero, who would later hang Christians as torches to light the streets of Rome (AD 65); yet Paul tells the young bishop, “I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all piety and reverence” (1 Tim 2:1-2). To this very day, every Orthodox Church continues to pray for her civil and military leaders, no matter how wicked they may be, no matter how much the faithful may disagree with them.

Any attempt to address the role of a Christian in society, or the relationship of the Church and state, must begin with these presuppositions. We are not enjoined to adjudicate and control the world. And we are also not called to revolution. We are called to pray. We mustn’t compel, but impel by love. Neither punching down nor punching up—this is our way. And when pressured to disobey God, we are called to humbly accept martyrdom rather than rising up with violence. No other ethic has been given us.

But what of the prospect of creating a Christian society? Any thorough examination of the historical record reveals that we have never truly achieved a Symphony between kings and clergy. The former usually dominates the latter. And when the government goes bad, the damage that can be inflicted upon the Church is that much greater. When the Church is aligned with the state, Barbarians and Bolsheviks infiltrate with ease. This may not occur in times of prosperity, when Church and state seem to operate in harmony; but this leads to another problem: favor shown the Church quickly corrupts the hierarchy. Graft becomes ubiquitous and the Body of Christ devolves into a mouthpiece for the government, which continues to be the case throughout Eastern Europe and the Balkans where men vie for authority, bribes pass for positions, and would-be bishops inundate monasteries. It should be obvious that such behavior stands in sharp contrast to the sort of “inverted hierarchy” that Christ requires of the Church (as I’ve written about elsewhere).

If history has taught us anything at all, it is that the Church must be entirely free of the state. The Third Rome has fallen and a fourth is not prophesied, and perhaps this is for the best: now we may return to the model provided us in the New Testament (whatever time is still allotted us). Members of the governing elite may themselves be members of the Church, but their presence must not influence the work of the hierarchy. The Church exists to guide and teach them, not the other way around. Paul may have wanted to convert Caesar, but he would have settled for nothing less than true repentance and a fervent desire to submit to the easy yoke of Christ.

The same rubric must be applied to culture. The Church may be able to baptize “whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy” (Phil 4:8); yet culture must always be in service to faith, and not vice versa. The various components of culture—language, art, customs, and mores—need to be examined closely and received critically to ensure they square with Christian doctrine and praxis. It does not matter whether the current culture is in ascendance or decline, our behavior must not be based on popularity. Perhaps it should also be pointed out that an authentically Christian culture, reflective of the kingdom of heaven and the radical demands of the Gospel, is always rare (even in the midst of “Christendom”) because the actual number of practicing Christians is always small. This is true even in Orthodox lands, where most are baptized and yet few darken the door of the temple (to wit, they excommunicate themselves after three missed Sundays, according to Apostolic Canon 80). Did not our Lord describe the Church as his little flock? Is not the kingdom of heaven a little leaven that makes the whole loaf rise? We are called to set an example by our manner of life, not our dictates.

Paul makes clear that the Church maintain purity within while being careful not to impose her standards on those without: “For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges” (1 Cor 5:12-13). Our interactions with society must be rooted in freedom, even at the risk of its misuse. As Saint Paisios the Athonite would often say, Christians must learn to let go of the rights we hold others to. Without real freedom, there is no possibility of true love. This ethic is especially apropos in response to the culture wars. Not that the Church should cease to speak the truth, or that she should alter her ways, but that she not conform society to her image against its will. Rod Dreher is not wrong in pointing out the problems of modern western civilization (particularly in America), and lamenting the loss of certain Christian values writ large. He says we’ve lost the culture war and need to accept that. But we may rightly ask: was this war ours to begin with? We cannot pretend that our culture has been perfectly infused with a vibrant Christian ethos until just recently. A pious society is one in which just, virtuous, and altruistic behavior is strongly encouraged by culture; and in which selfish, misanthropic behavior is strongly discouraged. How does America measure up? We are quickly reminded that the faithful have always been a remnant.

Even the battle itself is nothing novel. The world has always been against Christ and his Church. “If the world hates you,” the Lord warns us, “know that it has hated me before it hated you” (Jn 15:18). While there have been moments of uneasy compromise with the world—times and places where the Church flourished, albeit at the constant risk of collapsing the tension between the sacred and mundane—evil never sleeps, and the devil is ever crouching at the door. No matter the epoch, for each saint that served God there have been a thousand sinners who would rather serve themselves. The struggle is not recently born. Every generation must contend with the world in order to remain faithful. Whether our battle is waged against the world around us or the world within makes no difference, we are summoned to a spiritual fight because “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (Jas 4:4).

How then, should the Church abide in the world? Simply put, Christians must come out of Babylon while still remaining in it. This is precisely what the anonymous writer who called himself Mathetes (“the Disciple”) wrote to Diognetus in the 2nd century:

“For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives.”

“They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.  To sum up all in one word—what the soul is in the body, Christians are in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world.”

This is our both our starting point and our ideal.

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