Father Alexander Men and Contemporary Culture

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Dr Raboteau second from right.
Dr Raboteau is former dean of faculty at Princeton University and professor of African American studies. This paper is from the Alexander Men Conference in New York 2004.

“In the world but not of the world,” this phrase encapsulates a perennial tension between the Church and culture. On the one hand, the incarnational character of the Church establishes her firmly in history, in this particular time, place, and culture. On the other, the sacramental character of the Church transcends time and space making present another world, the Kingdom of God, which is both here and now and yet still to come. Throughout the history of Christianity, the temptation to relax this tension has led Christians to represent the Church as an ethereal transcendent mystery unrelated and antithetical to human society and culture. Or, on the other hand, it has prompted Christians to so identify the Church with a particular society, culture, or ethnicity as to turn Christianity into a religious ideology. Because we are “not of the world” Christians stand over against culture when its values and behaviors contradict the living tradition of the Church. So it was that early Christians refused to conform to the world by honoring the emperor with a pinch of incense offered before his image. “Being in the world,” the Christian acts as a leaven within culture, trying to transform it by communicating to others the redemption brought by Christ. Thus the early Christian apologists stood within culture as they attempted to explain Christianity in the philosophical and cultural terms of their times and recognized within the culture adumbrations of Christian truth waiting to be revealed.

Listen to the words of a second century document, called the “Letter to Diognetus,” that poignantly describe the Christian’s cultural dilemma:

Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life. This doctrine of theirs has not been discovered by the ingenuity or deep thought of inquisitive men, nor do they put forward a merely human teaching, as some people do. Yet, although they live in Greed and barbarian cities alike... and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of their own commonwealth. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land... They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.

No less now, than then, we Christians continue to wrestle with our relationship to culture – an issue which Fr. Alexander Men thought about deeply. His life of active openness to the world and his historically informed reflections on the Christian’s engagement with the world offer us important resources for shaping our thought and action today.

In a talk on the role of the Church in the modern world, Fr. Men remarked:

If we ask ourselves in all honesty whether the presence of Christians reflects the presence of Christ in the world, then our answer...will be negative. I am fully aware that in the heat of apologetic fervor many of us, especially neophytes, are eager to cast unbelievers in somber tones while equating the word “believer” with light. But these simplifications are possible only in the heat of such polemical rhetoric as: “black and white,” “ours and theirs,” “all bad and all good.” I rather believe that we need to go deeper, be more serious, and to have the courage to admit that to the question posed to us by society, the Church, that is, we Christians, do not answer adequately according to [the] criteria...[of] preaching, witness, and presence.... Such is the way of history. (About Christ and the Church, pp.55-56)

“Such is the way of history.” These words remind me of that touching scene in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, when Frodo, feeling the full dread of the task he has undertaken, turns to Gandalf and says, “Why was I born in such times as these?” And Gandalf with great kindness replies, “It is not ours to choose the times in which we live, but only to choose what we do in such times.” It is a mistake notion, both Gandalf and Fr. Men insist, to romanticize history, especially the history of Christianity, seeking to retreat to some golden age when society and culture where Christian. I remember a book I read as a college student entitled The Thirteenth the Greatest of Centuries. I sometimes hear comments decrying the current state of our country in comparison with some previous period when “America was a Christian nation.” I am tempted to reply, “And when, just exactly, was that?” Whether it is nostalgia for thirteenth-century medieval Europe, nineteenth-century Russia, or the “symphonia” of seventh-century Byzantium, the rose-tinted spectacles occlude too much fallibility, venality, and evil. As Fr. Alexander succinctly put it:

Only short-sighted people imagine that Christianity has already happened, that it took place, say, in the thirteenth century, or the fourth, or some other time. I would say it has only made the first hesitant steps in the history of the human race. Many words of Christ are still incomprehensible to us even now, because we are still Neanderthals in spirit and morals; because the arrow of the Gospels is aimed at eternity; because the history of Christianity is only beginning. What has happened already, what we now call the history of Christianity, are the first half-clumsy, unsuccessful attempts to make it a reality.” (Christianity for the Twenty-First Century, p. 185)

Why do we have this tendency toward nostalgia? In a word, fear. The desire for simple solutions, the need to see things in black and white, as us vs. them, the Church vs. the world, rather than the Church for the world, is rooted in the difficulty of living the paradox of being in the world but not of the world. Fear pushes us to abandon one side for the other.

Fr. Men made a famous contrast between two stances of Christians to the world, one open, one closed. The open stance is represented by Dostoevsky’s elder Zossima, who is gentle, loving, embracing of people and creation. He sends Alyosha back into the world from the monastery to deal with his dysfunctional family. Zossima’s opposite, Elder Ferrapont is a rigorous ascetic, who condemns the laxity of the former and vindictively celebrates his apparent victory over his opponent when the corpse of the deceased staretz starts to stink – a sign of corruption instead of sanctity. Now most of us prefer Zossima over Ferrapont, but Fr. Men, showing the capaciousness of spirit that ought to our model moves beyond the literary antithesis created by Dostoevsky to offer a profound reflection upon the contrapuntal traditions within Christianity. We need both asceticism and compassion. He points to St. Seraphim of Sarov and the elders of Optina as exemplars of those who choose not to simply embrace the world, nor to use Christianity as a stick with which to beat the world over the head.

How does this play out in practice for us in the present?

In regard to the issue of pluralism, which seems so threatening to our religious identity when we reduce it to relativism, Fr. Men has some interesting, we might say radical ideas. His wide-ranging study of world religions led him not to condemn them but to look at the good within them and to claim that Christianity is exceptional only in the person of Christ, who is God’s answer to the religious hunger of mankind expressed in other religions. He is even so bold as to suggest that the divisions within Christianity may be part of God’s plan to ensure pluralism within our fallible human history lest we turn the Church into a monolithic idol and reduce the Gospel to an ideology of national or ethnic pride.

He argues strenuously, moreover, that pluralism is a fact of life and that the “secular state, which equally defends the rights of Buddhists and Hindus, agnostics and Baptists in a society where many peoples live and there are tens of millions of believers there can of course be no other way.” Toleration is based not solely on political necessity but on freedom of conscience:

All our people will benefit from the secularization of the state. The government, by guarding the holy of holies within man – his convictions and his freedom of conscience – is helping to unite the citizens in a unity based on religious tolerance. (Christianity for the Twenty-First Century, p. 137.)

Coming out of the Soviet experience he was fully aware that “the terrible experience of dictatorship in the twentieth century may...serve as a lesson to us believers...It enables us to see from the side what spiritual tyranny looks like...This experience should lead us to refuse the very idea of state religion.” (Ibid, p. 136.)

Religious pluralism, then, need not be accepted as a license for relativism or a secularization of culture. Indeed, Fr. Men saw pluralism as the grounds for ecumenical cooperation. “We need the combined efforts of people of different views sharing the same ground which unites believers and non-believers. That common ground is the revival of law and order, compassion, the protection and development of cultural heritage.” (Ibid., p. 146.) Pluralism does not represent a capitulation to mass culture but an opportunity for presenting our faith. “The way to combat [the evils of mass culture] is not by prohibitions but by making the best works available to people. You can’t graft on taste by making prohibitions. This is true of all aspects and manifestations of culture. What is bad must be combated by affirming what is valuable, enriching, beautiful.” (Ibid, p. 150)

Offering a strong critique of materialism, he argued that people are hungry for what Christianity has to offer and that is simply the authentic within Christianity, the Gospel. Realization of this profound fact should lead the Christian not to triumphalism, but to repentance. For church history teaches us that what we have preached so often has not been the Gospel, but ourselves. Ultimately, we have confidence, not in ourselves but in the Spirit, who will achieve the transformation within us and within our culture. Let me end my remarks with another quotation from Fr. Men’s words, a source of hope and humility, as we, like Frodo, face the times in which we live and choose what to do within them.

And now, if we are to speak of the future, let us pose this question to ourselves: “What does God require of us in the remaining time, which, we, that is the Church, should focus our attention on precisely now, in these days?”
  • Preaching. This means we have to find a common language with the people of our time, not identifying with them completely, yet not isolating ourselves from them behind an archaic wall. We have to state anew, almost as if for the first time, all those questions which are placed before us by the Gospel.
  • Witness. This means that we still have to determine – if we have not yet determined – our life’s goal, to find our place in life, our place not in the usual sense of the word, but in our relationship to all of life’s problems.
  • And finally, Presence. This means we must learn how to pray at all times and deepen our experience of the Mysteries, so that our witness may not be a witness about ideology but of the living presence of God in us.
It seems to me that the problems of the future can be entirely approached from these three points... If we witness to Christ and the Gospel, if we live in His Spirit, then in some measure we will participate in what He envisaged, and His aim was never to abandon this earth. He accomplishes this even without man, but He desires that it be accomplished with the participation of man. This means that we will act together with Him. And it follows, that then everything else necessary will take place. Through such an approach, each culture will be the beneficiary only of good. (About Christ and the Church, pp. 64-65.)

May it be so!