We must emphasise from the start that, when we speak of secularism in the Church, theology and pastoral care, we do not mean that the Church, theology and pastoral care are being secularised and destroyed, or that real human life and the true method of curing people are being lost. Rather, we mean that the members of the Church are being secularised and thus have a different view of the Church, theology and pastoral care. However, through the centuries there are members of the Church who preserve the truth about the Church, theology and Orthodox pastoral care.
a) Secularism in the Church
We had the opportunity earlier to see what the term ‘Church’ means. Basically, we said that the Church is the Body of Christ. It is not a human organism, but the divine and human Body of Christ. We also said that the Church is a communion of deification. Its aim is to guide its members to deification, which is the basic objective of man’s creation.
There is a basic passage in the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Christians of Ephesus which shows the objective of the pastors of the Church. The Apostle writes: “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-13).
According to St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, by the phrase “the knowledge of the Son of God”, the Apostle Paul does not mean “the knowledge of God which is achieved through viewing created things and the Holy Scriptures; for the impure can also have this. He is speaking of the supranatural knowledge of the Son of God that comes through divine enlightenment and enhypostatic illumination in the heart, which is only given to the perfect, who have been purified of the passions of body and soul, and which he wishes all Christians to attain.” Also, the phrase “to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” conveys the meaning of deification.
The existence of the true Church is demonstrated by its success in curing people. We know from the teaching of the holy Fathers that the Church is a spiritual health centre, a spiritual hospital that cures man. When we speak of illness and cure, we mean that the nous is ill and that it is cured. The cure of the nous is not independent of purification, illumination and deification. The aim of the Church is to cure this noetic faculty, so that man may attain the knowledge of God, which constitutes his salvation. Thus the existence of the true Church is shown by its degree of success, by the results of its therapy. If it cures man, if it diagnoses the illness correctly and if it knows the way and method of therapy, then it is the true, not the secularised, Church.
There are some examples which show that the knowledge of therapy and success in curing are preserved in the particular Church.
One of these examples is right social relationships between people. Actually, the disturbance of someone’s relations with others is a product and result of illness of the nous. The cure of the nous, which consists in its purification and illumination, also has sociological consequences. That is why the subject of curing the nous should be studied by what today is called the science of sociology.
We Orthodox see the transformation of society in this light, and this is why we are realists. It is utopian for us to want to transform society by trying to find a suitable social system. It is not a question of a system, but of a way of life. This does not mean that we do not applaud every attempt to improve bad conditions in sick societies after the fall, most of which do not accept God’s word. But the most effective and realistic way is through curing the nous.
The second example which shows the degree of the Church’s success in curing is the presence and existence of holy relics. The holy relics are a proof of man’s cure. When the nous is purified and illuminated, and when someone attains deification, then the whole human being is deified, because the grace of God is transmitted from the soul to the body as well. The saints’ relics, which are imperishable, fragrant and wonder-working, are a proof that the method and way of curing has been preserved, and that the Church leads man to deification. Therefore Fr. John Romanides said characteristically that the purpose of the Church is to produce holy relics, in the sense that the aim of the Church is to lead people to deification. And a Church which does not produce relics shows that it is not leading man to deification, and therefore it does not have the true therapeutic method.
The existence of the true Church can be recognised by the degree of its success. Just as in medical science we say that a sound medical theory is distinguished from an erroneous one by how successful it is, and just as the competence of a medical specialist depends on the extent to which he cures people, the same can be said of the Church. An organised Church is one that cures man. Its existence is demonstrated by its success in curing the darkened nous.
Secularism in the Church is directly related to the loss of the Church’s true objective. A Church that is not animated by what we have been saying, that is to say, a Church that does not cure people, but is occupied with other matters, is secularised. It is in this sense that we can speak of secularism in the Church. Next we shall look at some cases illustrating the secularised Church.
We can say that the Church is secularised when it is regarded as a religious organisation. There is an enormous difference between the Church and religion. Religion speaks of an impersonal God Who dwells in heaven and directs the world from there. And man, by various rites and ceremonial acts, has to appease this God and come into contact with Him. But the Church is the Body of Christ, Who assumed human nature, and in this way there exists a communion between man and God in the Person of Christ. To be sure, there may be some Christians in the Church who have a religious sense of God. But this happens in the lower stages of the spiritual life. It constitutes spiritual immaturity, and it goes without saying that the disposition and tendency exists for people to go on maturing spiritually and to attain communion and unity with God. At all events, a secular Church simply satisfies people’s religious feelings and nothing more. It is known for beautiful ceremonies, and it is unaware of the whole neptic and therapeutic wealth which the Church possesses.
Furthermore, the Church is secularised when it is regarded as an ideological viewpoint and an ideological system unrelated to life. Ideological systems are animated by abstract ideas and steeped in idealism, which bears the characteristic marks of all anthropocentric systems, depending on philosophy and opposing materialism. Ideas are not much related to life or to the transformation of man. Idealism is constructed by human reason and is presented in the form of arguments and ideas.
The Church does not function as an ideological viewpoint. It does not simply have some ideas, even the best and most beautiful ones, which it can use to counter other ideas. The Church has life, and indeed the true life, which is a fruit of man’s communion with God. St Gregory Palamas says: “Every word contests another word.” Every word is countered by another, and every argument is confronted by a counter-argument. We see this clearly in so many philosophical ideas that have been formulated. But who can oppose the true life, and particularly the life which conquers death? The Church does not have ideas. It has life, which is the transcendence of death.
It is a mistake, and it is secularism, when we compare the Church with either ancient or contemporary ideologies and with contemporary ideological politico-economic systems. The Church does not simply copy the methods and ways of other social and philosophical systems, but it possesses a life which is beyond them. It has a different purpose which is not the same as that of idealistic systems. To be sure, when the Church cures people, this also has great sociological consequences, but that is a result and outcome, never a cause and principle.
The secularised Church is occupied with human conjecture and abstract ideas. In the real and true Church, however, the same applies as in true medicine, especially surgery. A surgeon can never engage in philosophy and culture or make conjectures while performing a surgical operation. He is faced with a patient whom he wishes to cure, to whom he wants to offer health. In the same way the Church, faced with sick people, cannot indulge in conjectures and culture. The Church itself experiences the mystery of the Cross of Christ and helps man to experience it in his personal life. Experiencing the mystery of the Cross means deepest repentance, through which the nous is transformed from working unnaturally to moving in a natural and supranatural way.
Furthermore, the Church becomes secular when it is degraded into a social organisation like so many other organisations which exist in society. It is often said that the Church is the Greek nation’s crowning institution. But the Church cannot be regarded as a national institution, even its crown. It can be the nation’s foundation, because the nation’s tradition is inextricably bound up with the tradition of the Church, and because the members of the nation are at the same time members of the Church. However, the Church can never be institutionalised. Rather, it is a ‘sacred institution’ set up by the Holy Spirit. When a revolution ends in bureaucracy, it loses its value, and this is its downfall. The same is true of the Church. The Church, which is the spiritual hospital that cures man, can never be regarded as a worldly institution supporting society and suitable for domesticating the citizens.
Unfortunately, some people today regard the Church as a necessary organisation useful to society, and its role is valued according to its social usefulness. Many regard the Church as a forethought and the police as an afterthought, that is to say, the Church is fine for helping society, so as to avoid the need for police intervention. When the Church fails, the police step in. No one can exclude the benefit of the Church even in this area. A Christian who is cured does not bother the police and other repressive forces. But we cannot look at the presence of the Church only in this area, for then we have a secular Church.
Unfortunately, there are others too who do not see the prophetic and sanctifying role of the Church, which consists in the sanctification of man and of the whole world. Rather, they accept the Church only as an ornamental element. They need it to adorn various ceremonies and to brighten them with its presence. Or they consider that the presence of the Church is required to demonstrate broad social approval. As it has been pointedly observed, not even atheists reject such a Church. I may add that such a secularised Church is the despair even of atheists. They can use it for the present, because it serves them, but when they too need the real presence of the Church in their lives, they will experience great disappointment, as they will not find such a Church.
Today there is a general tendency for us to regard the secular Church as the most useful for contemporary social needs. I can add that there is also a growing tendency for us to adapt the Church’s preaching and teaching to these social needs, especially to the needs of a society which is functioning in an anthropocentric way, because we are afraid of being rejected. The Protestants and Western Christians in general have succumbed to this temptation, and that is why they have spread much despair among those seeking therapy, who are longing to find the true Church to cure them.
In any case, a Church that crucifies instead of being crucified, that experiences worldly glory instead of the glory of the Cross, a Church that succumbs to Christ’s three temptations in the wilderness instead of overcoming them is a secularised Church. It is destined to help fallen society to remain in its fallen state, and it spreads disappointment and despair to all who are trying to find something deeper and more essential.
extract from the book The mind of the Orthodox Church