At a conference addressing the rise of secularism in America, Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America recently said that secularism seeks to annihilate individuality. He continued to explain that for us Orthodox Christians this means our society is increasingly seeking to ignore, if not destroy, the personhood of individual people. This is a disturbing development, for we know that to seek to devalue the personhood of individuals necessarily also means to annihilate the image of God in each person. One cannot even speak in these terms unless the place of God in society is already being relegated to a place of unimportance, if not ignored all together. For a secular society, this means that the individual person has no value other than what they can produce in economic utility for the collective, whether it be for a corporation, for the government or for a given organization.
In addition, Archbishop Demetrios explained that secularism, after devaluing individuality and personhood, then seeks to standardize society, but uses the lowest common standards as its basis of standardization. This is only possible when a person is made to believe that his or her only value is in what they can produce. A secular society seeks to stop its citizens from believing they are unique and unrepeatable, or that they are made in the image of a loving God Who wants them to be like Him. Secularism does not want people to understand that they are free and creative and can express the truth, nobility, beauty and character of their Creator in everything they do and all that they are.
As Orthodox Christians, we understand and recognize that each person is of extreme value to God. We know that God loves every one of us enough to empty Himself, take on the form of a servant, and die on the Cross with every single, unique individual in mind. Holding fast to this truth in our hearts should serve as motivation to be our best and to continue to strive for growth and excellence in everything we do. The market does not define the standard for this growth nor is it defined by what is popular or trendy in the media, rather it is defined by the unchanged and almighty God. Orthodox Christianity sees each person as a little “christ,” uniquely expressing Christ’s light through the prism of his or her own distinct personality. This is why the Church is understood to be one Body made up of many different members, each with varying gifts and diverse roles and functions.
While innovation, especially in the realm of technology, is still happening, personal craftsmanship is at a low. There is so much pressure to produce quickly and in high volume. Profit is the primary criteria by which success is judged, not the quality of the product. Whether in the area of art, architecture, food production, furniture, housing, music, speech, writing, homemaking or even personal appearance, people are forgetting that they represent God in Whose image they are created. They forget that who they are and what they do is supposed to be an expression of God in them and God through them. People are being brainwashed into thinking excellence doesn’t matter, because they are the standard, right now and right here. If we are not accountable to the past and we are not accountable to God in the future, then it’s easy to see how relative the standards can be and how low they can become without people even noticing.
This shift in our American society towards secularism is a shift away from God and Godliness. Godliness is defined as whatever expresses the character of God and the truth of God. The Apostle Paul provides us with a picture of Godliness when he says: “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things.” (Philip.4:8-9) This list by St. Paul is part of the spiritual fruit of abiding in Christ and allowing Him to abide in us. We do not bring God down or seek to change Him to make us feel comfortable or to justify ourselves in any way. Instead, God comes to dwell in us and necessarily changes us into His likeness. This is why St. Paul again and again addresses his spiritual children with words similar to these: “And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach.” (Col.1:21-22)
We cannot be united to Christ through baptism, and then further united to Him through our obedience to His commandments, and not be changed. In other words, our obedience to Christ will, by His grace, progressively make us more like Him. We will take on His characteristics. This will not only manifest itself in our inner life through the adornment of our souls with virtue, but it will also be expressed outwardly. The newly canonized St. Porphyrios once received a young woman scantily dressed. When he received her warmly, showing no signs of scandal, his disciples were surprised. He later shared with them how important it is to meet people where they are at, and as they begin to allow Christ to dwell within them, the Holy Spirit will bring about the necessary changes in their inner and outer worlds. Things like modesty and external appropriateness are as much the fruit of the Spirit as are gentleness and self-control.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I share these things with you because I see how increasingly secular our society has become. We are under spiritual attack. At risk is our personhood in the image of Christ. We must remember that God immeasurably values and loves us, enough that He gave up His life for every person. Abiding in Christ, we are all called to a transfigured life of excellence and dynamic perfection, not mediocrity. As we begin a new year of life, let us all strive to exercise our personal freedom to draw ever nearer to our Lord Jesus Christ. In so doing, may His transformative presence change us, helping us to express His likeness in our hearts, our thoughts and in our actions.