This article is from PRAXIS 2016 Volume 15 Issue 1/2: "Speaking to Secular America" (Fall/Winter 2016).

Keynote Address of His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America

Esteemed Scholars, Reverend Clergy, Dear Friends:

We find ourselves today in an unusual situation. We are in a holy place—our beloved Theological School—and we have come together with a spiritual agenda, which includes the installation of Fr. Christopher Metropoulos as the new President of Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. Yet while our bodies stand on sacred soil and our hearts beat with a holy purpose, our minds are turned toward things of the world in the most literal sense, as we discuss secularism.

For this is what the original Latin word saeculum, denotes in addition to a duration of time, namely it denotes this world, this present age, the immanent, material realm of this lifetime, as distinct from the eternal realm of the sacred and the spiritual. In contemplating the task of speaking to secular America, we concern ourselves precisely with “every earthen care,” with pasan biotiken merimnan, with “every earthly care.” At the present hour, we do not lay these concerns aside. For the phenomenon of secularism and secularization in our society touches every aspect of our being as Christians, body, soul and spirit, and our homes, our families, our parishes, our neighborhoods and cities.

It is a matter of utmost importance, and all the more so, because it is often only partially understood. Secularism may be a topic of many sermons in our parishes in America, yet for all this preaching, we fi nd the encroachment of secularism in our communities to be a continual source of stress. We can measure that encroachment in terms of attendance and stewardship and parish demographics. It is no coincidence that we address this topic even as we install a new president for our seminary: one of the chief tasks of our Schole should be to prepare priests and bishops to function intelligently and effectively in a climate of secularism.

We would do well to begin our discussion by casting our eyes back on the history of the Church and its struggles in the world. In the early centuries, the Church contended with the paganism of Old Rome over the question of whether the Godhead was one or many. In later centuries, the Church contended with the other great monotheistic religions as to whether the one God was revealed most fully through Jesus Christ, or through Mohammed or Zoroaster or the Talmud. Aft er that, the Church struggled mightily within herself to define the proper expression of that one faith in the one God as revealed in the one person of Jesus Christ.

But today, in the America of 2015, we face an entirely different challenge. Today, the Church contends with leading voices in our society as to whether there is any God of any description; whether Jesus Christ ever even existed as described in the Gospels: and whether there is any place in our society for any religion or faith at all…aside from a trust in science and psychology, technology and statistics. Make no mistake: this is a very different challenge from the ones our Church has met in the past. It is a challenge that will demand new approaches, new strategies, and new voices from within our midst.

It would nonetheless be incorrect to say that this is a challenge that has not been anticipated. In His earthly ministry, the Lord Jesus Christ spoke of the time of His return to this world, and He asked in Luke 18:8, “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” With this saying, the Lord looks beyond secularism, beyond the marginalization of theology, beyond even the persecution of religion, He looks, even hypothetically, toward a situation of a total eclipse of faith in the world of humankind. As we frame our discussion of “Speaking to Secular America,” we must therefore keep this eschatological frame of reference always in mind. We must be ready for that time of the likelihood of total eclipse of faith, knowing that it is a sign strictly related to the end of this age.

And now, let us proceed with some specifics on the topic of secularism, presented in four brief parts.

1. Secularism and Secularization: Basic Definitions and Concepts

First, as we begin our consideration of secularism and secularization, we should be careful to use these terms precisely and consistently. They are not interchangeable, and often people speak of the one when they mean the other.

The word secularism was first coined in 1851 by George Jacob Holyoake, a British rationalist and socialist. By secularism, he meant “a form of opinion which concerns itself only with questions, the issues of which can be tested by the experience of this life” (English Secularism: A Confession of Belief, page 60).

This initial sense of secularism is one that most Americans embrace when they speak of secularism in terms of “the separation of church and state.” It is the idea that society should not be based on any theology or ideology, but rather that the social order should be predicated in terms that are non-dogmatic, non-religious, rooted in universal experience, and independent of belief or unbelief. In this sense, secularism entails a society that is pluralistic, tolerant and open for citizens of every creed or no creed.

Secularism, however, has split into factions, and so we find nowadays that there is a “hard” and a “soft” secularism, to borrow the terminology of Barry Kosmin. Soft secularism takes a relativistic view of truth and meaning, and so allows for almost all types of faith or non-faith. Hard secularism on the other hand is characterized by an absolute certainty that theistic faith, i.e., faith in any God, is wrong and even dangerous, and so must be excluded from public life. Soft secularism encourages all people to speak from within their own paradigm of belief. Hard secularism treats theology as a thought-crime, and insists that all matters be discussed only in the vocabulary of agnostic materialism. In such a case, this world, and this world only, provides the sole paradigm for public policy and discourse.

Along with secularism in its various types, we also have the word secularization. Secularization is a process of transformation, one in which the basis of a society’s values and institutions changes from religious to non-religious. Secularization involves a thoroughgoing change of identity and self-definition; it is more than a mere change of wording in a constitution or a law code. Whereas secularism is a static condition, secularization implies a continuing evolution from a divine orientation to a purely earthbound view of life and meaning.

2. Secularism in the New Testament

As a word, we mentioned earlier, secularism is less than 200 years old. As a concept, however, it goes back to ancient times. The Latin root word saeculum corresponds to the Hebrew word ‘olam and the Greek word aión, from which we derive the English word “aeon.” In all three cases, the words have an equivocal meaning of “world” and/or a period of one hundred years, or a long span of time, or an age. All three words—saeculum, ‘olam, and aión—express the ancient conception of the world existing as evolving distinct systems of order through a progression of times and eras. For the Jewish people, the world in the time before the reign of the Messiah is ha-‘olam ha-zeh, “this world, this age.” This expression was taken over into the Greek of the New Testament as o aión outos or o kosmos outos, “this world,” as well as o nun aión and o enestos aión. For the Jewish people, the time after Messiah comes to reign is ha-‘olam ha-ba, “the coming world, the age to come.” And again, we find this rendered in New Testament Greek as o mellon aión, o aión ekeinos, and o aión o erchómenos.

The plain words aion and kosmos used in the New Testament are in and of themselves neutral in their connotation, and can be used even with a positive sense, as in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world…” In the constructions denoting the present age, however, there is a strongly negative connotation for “this world” or “this age.” The basic passage illustrating this negative usage is 1 John 2:15–17:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.

In this passage, the “world” is not the planet Earth or the natural universe, but rather the entire system of structures, values, attitudes and institutions that exist apart from the realm of God. The “world” here is an illegitimate kingdom ruled by a counterfeit evil god.

This we see throughout the writings of the New Testament. In the Gospel of John, for instance (12:31, 16:11), the Lord speaks of Satan as “the ruler of this world,” o archon tou kosmou toutou. St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:4 that Satan is “the god of this world,” o theos tou aionos toutou.

Again, in Romans 12:2, Paul commands, “Be not conformed to this world [to aioni touto].” In 1 Corinthians 2:6–8, Paul says that he speaks in the wisdom that is not of this age, which the rulers of this age, tou aionos toutou, did not understand, else they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

In the First Epistle of St. John (5:4; 5:19), we learn that “our faith is the victory that has overcome the world” (e nike e nikisasa ton kosmon); and that “the whole world lies in the power of the Evil One” (o kosmos olos en to ponero keitai).

This is the view of secularism in the New Testament: secularism is worldliness, or more precisely, this-worldliness. Secularism is not a mode of existence independent of spiritual commitments or agendas. Secularism constitutes an allegiance— witting or unwitting, willing or unwilling—to the invisible rulers of this present age of the world, those powers of darkness under the leadership of Satan. This is the clear teaching of St. Paul in Ephesians 2:1–2:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.

This is the clearest possible expression of the essence of hard secularism from the understanding of the Lord and His Apostles.

3. The Trajectory of Secularism In History

Secularism, therefore, in essence, is not merely a theoretical outlook of detachment from metaphysical concerns, nor an attitude of maximum objectivity and neutrality. Secularism is a spiritually deficient, conscious or unconscious attachment to hidden forces that guide the thoughts and actions of human beings. Secularism, in its fully blown form, is an enslavement of the mind and the will to only the visible reality, leading to existential derailment and to spiritual truncation and degradation.

Is this not the condition of the secular world around us? We look at the Western world in which we live and we watch it being torn apart by class divisions, racism, gender conflicts, the politics of identity and the polarization of every issue in government. We see an increase in slave trafficking, drug abuse, violence and warmongering. Faith in general, and organized religion in particular, have become the scapegoats for the social ills brought on precisely by the lack of a healthy and creative fear of God.

This comes to us, though, not as a surprise. Our Lord left us with a teaching that clearly should expect precisely these negative things to increase in the course of history, culminating in the times of the end. We find this instruction especially in the Olivet Discourse preserved by the Gospel of Matthew (24:3–14):

As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us… what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” And Jesus answered them, “Take heed that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs. Then they will deliver you up to tribulation, and put you to death; and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away, and betray one another, and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because wickedness is multiplied, most people’s love will grow cold. But he who endures to the end will be saved.”

It is a clear process of deterioration throughout the world that is being foretold here, a disintegration that Christians have witnessed happening around them to some degree in many places in various times. What we glean from this passage today is that the disappearance of basic human values will surpass even the atrocities of our present day, as wickedness multiplies and the love of many will grow cold. Th is is something that goes beyond even the limits of hard secularism into a condition of either militant atheism or the outright worship and subjugation to evil as the supreme power of this world.

For this eventuality, we as Christians are ready, for we have been warned. As we consider our response to secularism and secularization in society, we keep always near the forefront of our minds these teachings of Christ about the ultimate condition that likely awaits this world and this age.

4. Encountering Secularism and Secularization

Let us consider briefl y, then, the strategies that are available to us as we encounter the rising tide of secularism. In this conference, of course, you will present and consider many specifi c proposals for addressing secularization as it aff ects our children and our families, our outreach to the unchurched, our interactions with fi elds of science and technology, and the ethical dimensions of our lives as citizens of a secular society and world.

There is a profound paradox at the heart of secularism. In the name of promoting individual freedom and worth, and a liberation from religion, secularism tends to obscure individuality. In the name of reversing religious pressures toward conformity— moral, intellectual and aesthetic conformity—secularism imposes an economic conformity that reduces the person to a mere consumer or a unit of labor. Why is this so? Because when all transcendent religious values and metaphysical ideals are excluded from the national conversation, the single remaining common denominator is money. And thus money becomes the measure of all things, including the human person himself.

Concomitantly, what we see so clearly in our culture at the present time is a movement toward standardization in every facet of life. But it is standardization by means of the lowest possible standards. Secularism drives out the mention of God and the act of worship from everything. Secularism drives out faith from our schools and universities, and replaces it with a vacuum that leaves students without a sense of ultimate purpose and meaning.

In his 1985 classic of social analysis, Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah noted that individualism lies at the very core of American culture. But he wrote of the individualism of America’s past, a healthy respect for the uniqueness and rights of each person for self-determination. It is this American individualism that is being lost today through secularism.

There is, in religion generally, and in Orthodox Christianity in particular, a strong sense of the value of each person as unique. This is due to the invaluable, immeasurable image of God in which each human being has been formed. It is this presence of the divine image in us that renders us capable of love, that divine agape, which comes from God alone. In that agape, we rejoice in the specialness, the distinctive beauty, the unique glory of each individual.

If the love of many is growing cold, it is because they chose no longer to see the imago Dei, the image of God, in themselves and in others. It is because they see human beings as fungible economic entities instead of as eternal spiritual beings.

What we, as Orthodox Christians, can off er to our secular world is a return to the healthy individuality of our Faith: where every child of God is greeted by name at the chalice. As Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon wrote:

Uniqueness is something absolute for the person. The person is so absolute in its uniqueness that it does not permit itself to be regarded as an arithmetical concept, to be set alongside other beings, to be combined with other objects, or to be used as a means, even for the most sacred goals. The goal is the person itself. (Being as Communion, page 47)

Tragically, the uniqueness of the human person as an image of God has no place in the anthropology of secularism.

As you continue this conference on “Speaking to Secular America,” think about the ways in which we can bring the medicine of sacred personhood to the sickness of our society that comes from secularism and its ongoing secularization. Th ink of the tremendous possibility given to us, to reveal the world of God, to off er a salvifi c liberation from the enslavement to the limited, stifl ing world of secularism. Th e door for action is open for us by God. And, as Jesus Christ says, “no one can close it” (Revelation 3:8).

His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios is Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.


Like what you’re reading? Visit the Religious Education Department to view back issues of PRAXIS and learn how to subscribe. You may also contact the Department of Religious Education by phone at (646) 519–6300 or by email at [email protected].