A concept that is so integrated into our subconscious that we do not even realize its presence within us is the modern lie regarding the progress of humanity. This legend states that over time, mankind is progressing and leaving the old, oppressive ways behind.
Certainly we have seen forms of progress in the past fifty years regarding technology and some civil issues. But do these things confirm that we are collectively evolving as a society? Or are we simply making a few corrections with one hand while driving society deeper into depravity with the other?
Today in America: men, women, and minorities can vote, drive a car, sleep in a comfortable bed, and instantaneously talk to nearly anyone in the world via technology. At the same time though we are murdering our children through abortion, corrupting our nation through crooked politics and corporate practices, poisoning our food with chemicals and genetic modifications, abandoning our churches, worrying about leaving our doors unlocked, discarding the elderly, and praising cowardice in the name of relativity and conformity.
From what I have seen, for every moral “progression” there seems to be a subtle slide deeper into darkness.
ORTHODOXY AND PROGRESS
What does the Orthodox Church have to say regarding progress and our human condition? Elder Ambrose of Optina states:
On the other hand, it is also not right to say that man continually perfects himself on earth. Progress or betterment can only be in external human affairs, in the comforts of life…In the Christian-moral realm there is no collective progress.
However, that does not mean we should despair. He continues:
Throughout times there have been people who have attained a very elevated moral state of Christian perfection, directed by a true faith in Christ and following the true Christian teaching in accordance with divine revelation as God has revealed in His Church though divinely inspired prophets and apostles.
In other words, we as a society and humanity will never evolve to a state of moral perfection or even progress over a long period of time. We can become perfect in Christ as we commune with Him, but society is not evolving. Elder Ambrose continues:
…Moral perfection on the earth (which is not perfect) cannot be attained by all of mankind collectively, but by each believer in part, according to his keeping of the commandments and the measure of his humility.
THE GODLY BALANCE
This, I believe, is the holy balance that the Orthodox Church offers us: you can work on perfecting yourself, but do not hold your breath waiting for society to progress. Nor should we become frustrated when humanity sinks deeper into depravity. We should acknowledge that our own lack of love and sinful tendencies have, at least in a small degree, contributed to the chaos around us. I know my own have.
And that is the message of the Church: do not judge your neighbor who is spiritually sick. Instead, turn away from your own evil and toward Christ. Ask the divine physician to heal your own heart, and then turn your eyes toward your neighbor and society. Not to judge, but to be a healing presence.
Again Elder Ambrose states,
The royal Prophet David said first to turn away from evil and then do good (Ps 33). Nowadays people go about this in the other direction. Everyone wants to labor in word, as opposed to in deed for his neighbor’s good, but he takes little or no concern for the fact that he must first turn away from evil and only then worry about his neighbor’s profit.
THE HOUSE OF HEALING
The Orthodox Church is often referred to as a hospital for the soul. In the middle of the third century, a controversy arose in which many Christians were conflicted regarding others who, subjected to threats and torture, denied their faith in Christ. The debate had as its central question: is the Orthodox Church a house of saints or a spiritual hospital for sinners? The Holy Spirit guided the Church aright in this and we agreed to be the hospital of sinners.
Fortunately, that does not mean that we are a spiritual hospice for dying souls, nor are we incapable of progressing. It is of no good to believe we are hopeless failures. We can and do progress through the following of Christ’s commandments, humility, and partaking in the sacraments of the Church.
What I find to be even more exciting is that the promise of progress is not the end. We do not only “do better,” but we become transformed into the likeness of God, we become God’s sons by adoption, we inherit the Kingdom, we acquire the Holy Spirit, and we become divinized in unity to God’s energies (theosis).
In an Orthodox Christian sense, the above is what progress means. We walk in healing with Christ, and simultaneously, God heals others through us. Therefore, the Orthodox Christian should not be wrapped up with pursuing the right “calling” in life (as most of my evangelical Christian friends were and are) or worried about changing the world, but rather pursuing Christ himself, knowing that by doing so, all other things in life will fall into place.
As St Seraphim of Sarov so famously said
Acquire the Spirit of peace, and a thousand around you will be saved.
The book from which I quoted St Ambrose is: Elder Ambrose of Optina by Fr Sergius Chetverikov, St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2009.