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The Orthodox Christian in the Information Age

by Priest Gregory Naumenko

INTRODUCTION

In the Name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Your Eminence Vladyka Hilarion, Holy Fathers, dear brothers and sisters gathered here for the 33rd Annual Russian Orthodox Youth Conference in Australia,

For those of you who do not know me, I am the priest of the Protection of the Mother of God Russian Orthodox Church in Rochester, N.Y., USA.

Rochester is quite an interesting city: it is the Lilac capital of the world. Our Highland park boasts 528 varieties of Lilacs—in all, more than 1500 shrubs. Our city is home to many famous corporations, including Eastman Kodak, Bausch and Lomb, Xerox, Rochester Products, Paychecks, just to name a few. A little known fact about Rochester is that it is unique in a very unusual way: I have been told by some naturalists that it is the only geographic location in the northeastern United States where truly poisonous mushrooms (ones that will kill you if you eat them) can be found in the wild. Most places in America have mushrooms that will make you quite sick if you mistakenly eat them (you need to be careful when you pick and eat wild mushrooms anywhere), but it is only in the Rochester area that you will actually die if you eat a certain species of mushrooms that grows in the woods there. Interestingly, these mushrooms were not originally native to Rochester. As a matter of fact, before around 1920, you would not be able to find these mushrooms even if you intently looked for them. The story goes, that the poisonous variety was inadvertently brought to Rochester by George Eastman, the founder of what today is known as the Eastman Kodak Corp. He unknowingly brought these mushrooms, from Russia, of all places.

George Eastman was quite an interesting character. He was born in Waterville, N.Y., in 1854, and while still a young boy moved to Rochester. He originated transparent film and organized the Eastman Dry Plate and Film company in 1888. By 1927 Eastman had a virtual monopoly of the photographic industry in the US and quickly became a multi-millionaire. He was not a bad person. Actually, he was one of the most generous philanthropists in America. But something strange happened in George Eastman's life. The more wealthy he became, the more bored he became with life. With him, that process that Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky so aptly described in his novel Demons manifested itself in all clarity. Dostoevsky points out that materialistically man derives pleasure only from the desire and quest of material goods and pleasures, yet when the object of desire is actually attained when we actually have it in hand, it quickly ceases to satisfy, and one has to turn ones attention to other things to desire. Is this not true? We only need to think of the great multitude of items—items that at one point in time, we desired so much, now gathering dust in our attics or garages, to see the validity of Dostoevsky's observation.

This is exactly what happened to George Eastman on a grand scale. Once his fortune was made and he had all the money and things a man could want, he attempted to amuse himself with various projects and hobbies.

Eastman liked to do things in a big way. While most other people are content to collect stamps, coins, works of art, and so on, he decided to collect trees. He traveled the world and brought back trees and planted them in and around his estate in Rochester. All sorts of exotic varieties can still be seen on our East Avenue and in the different parks around the city. These trees had to be transported from the various places around the globe by ship, and in order that they not die en route, they were transplanted with plenty of soil left around the roots. One of the varieties that George Eastman especially liked, he found in Russia. What he must have known at the time was that along with these trees from Russia he transported soil rich in spores of deadly poisonous mushrooms. These mushrooms have now spread throughout the Rochester area. Mushroom enthusiasts have to be very cautious when they go picking there.

George Eastman had many other interesting projects and activities. He undertook a number of hunting trips to Africa and elsewhere. He was a great lover of Champagne. His enthusiasm for cooking is well documented. He was an unmarried man, yet was illicitly familiar, often with married women. According to one of his biographers, Eastman was a man who lived by his will, one who formed his world to his own needs, one who got his money's worth. From a worldly perspective it can be said that he had everything a man could want. Yet, on the morning of March 14, 1932 George Eastman, after having made methodical preparations, went to his room and proceeded to put a bullet into his own head.

What, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, would cause a person who had everything, riches, fame, fortune—a person who by all accounts, had no mental illness—what would force such a person to take his own life.

Perhaps the cause for this is the same reason that so many people in our age—especially young people, die by their own hand. It is clear that in our society today, suicide, primarily among teenagers, is reaching epidemic proportions. Why?

On the surface it may seem that there is a multitude of complicated reasons for this. Yet, if we honestly analyze the situation, we will see that the root cause is basically always the same. Simply speaking, we were all created by God to live in full communion with our Creator and share in His Divine Glory. When God is taken out of our lives, a spiritual vacuum is formed. We attempt to fill this vacuum by various distractions, but no matter how hard we try, nothing can truly satisfy our longing. If we do not find our way back to God (and in Orthodox terminology we call this process repentance), if we do not return to God, despair and despondency set in, which often lead to suicide. In other words, when one is spiritually dead, it seems only logical to attain the same state physically.

We are all familiar with the ways contemporary man attempts to fill the spiritual emptiness that reigns in his heart as a result of his withdrawal from God. Some turn to alcohol, some to drugs, others to an obsession with physical pleasures and debauchery; still others become preoccupied with the pursuit of material goods. You have probably heard that the average American, and probably Australian, "goes shopping at the mall" to raise his spirits. Many deal with their depression by overloading themselves with work, becoming so called workaholics. All of these are things that people do to deaden that empty feeling that gnaws from within, that feeling that perhaps they do not even realize is a longing to be with God—God Who created them, loves them, yet about Whom they know very little, if anything.

In the past two decades a new distraction has appeared, a new method of deadening one's spiritual faculties. This phenomenon is feasibly the most dangerous to appear, because on the surface it seems innocent, and even healthy at first, and has achieved such universal acceptance. This phenomenon is the obsessive preoccupation with the acquisition of knowledge and information. For the purpose of today's discussion we will call it Informational Sensory Overload.

INFORMATIONAL SENSORY OVERLOAD

To illustrate what we mean by Informational Sensory Overload let us look at a hypothetical, typical day in the life of the average Joe Smith of our day:

Joe wakes up in the morning to the sound of his alarm clock which is pre-set to an all-news radio station. Even before he is fully awake, he is bombarded with information, some useful but mostly useless. When he finally gets himself out of bed and into the kitchen for breakfast, his attention is split between the morning paper and the small television in the corner of the kitchen. His attention may be even more "schizophrenic" if he has a remote control device and is able to "surf" between morning programs.

Of course Joe has a home computer and modem, and checks his e-mailbox for any messages that might have been received overnight.

When he finishes his morning preparations, he gets in his car, where along with the ignition, the radio is activated. He can listen to "Morning Edition," CBC, a host of local or national call-in talk programs or be soothed by the pounding music of his choice. If he is anywhere but on the lowest rungs of the social ladder, he will have a cellular phone, through which he can join the arguments on the radio talk show, or hook up his lap-top computer to get the latest stock quotes from the Internet all while going nearly 70 miles per hour down the highway on the way to work. Once at work, the information influx does not cease. Besides the information needed to actually do his work, there is the office radio that is constantly on in the background to so called "Muzak." At coffee break, the The New York Times and USA Today are browsed during brief conversations with co-workers. During lunch hour, Joe has taken to jogging in the park near-by. This is done with the accompaniment of the Walkman which Joe's wife gave him for Christmas last year. He is oblivious to the chirping of the birds in the park, the earphones block out all natural sounds. After another half day at work and a ride home listening to "All Things Considered," Joe is back home. He sits in his car in the garage until the in-depth news story on public radio runs its course. On the way into the house he stops at the mailbox and removes a four-inch-thick pile of various letters, newsletters, brochures, catalogues, magazines, flyers, advertisements, along with the evening edition of the local newspaper. This supply of literature is enough reading for three full days, yet an equal amount or greater will come tomorrow. Dinner is again in front of the television, but not in the kitchen as was breakfast. Now it is before the giant screen in the family room. This is the set to which Joe has connected his new mini satellite dish, with perfect reception. Joe had real trouble choosing between the two providers of this service. Finally the company that offered 157 channels won out. The other company, after all, offered only 84 channels. While surfing the myriad of offerings on the big screen, Joe finishes some work that he has brought home on his lap-top computer. Before going to bed, he spends a considerable amount of time on his computer playing an interactive, on-line game that he believes himself to be addicted to. The game is wildly popular among on-line computer users and is called MUSH: M.U.S.H. which stands for Multi-User Shared Hallucination. Joe has told his wife, who complained once about his habit, that this is better then being addicted to a MUD—Multi-User Dungeon. MUDs are a brutally violent version of MUSHes, because the object is often to kill or be killed.

Joe finally pulls himself away from the computer when his eyes can no longer focus on the screen. He takes a shower while listening to the waterproof radio hanging on the shower spigot. Then, its off to bed where he finally dozes off under the flickering of his bedroom TV and the accompaniment of his clock radio, which will awaken him tomorrow morning once again to the sound of the latest morning news.

Does this sound far fetched, brothers and sisters? I am afraid it is not.

Truly we live in the Information Age. We are bombarded with information nearly every minute of the day. Is this good? Is it healthful? We have been imparted a God-given thirst for the Truth. Yet like so many gifts from God, we have corrupted this thirst and have turned it into a passion. How should we Orthodox Christians deal with the glut of information?

It is commonly accepted today by the educational establishment and society as a whole that acquisition of knowledge is empirically good—the more knowledge one acquires the better a person one becomes—more well rounded, more enlightened. Yet is this necessarily true?

DEFINITIONS

It is important for us to understand that there is a difference between information, knowledge, truth, and wisdom. We must also realize that a Christian defines these terms differently from a non-Christian. Let us focus our attention on these concepts:

Information according to the American Heritage Dictionary is simply defined as a collection of observations or data. We can certainly agree with this definition. A phone book is a collection of information. If we were to arrive at the Melbourne bus station from out of town and needed a ride to church, the phone book would surely contain some very useful information for us. Yet, we would all agree that if we were to memorize the phone book for the City of Melbourne we would be filling our brain with a lot of extraneous information. Thus, not all information is necessary or useful. An overabundance of information can actually be distracting and even harmful.

We can also agree that a phone book may contain a great amount of information, but we would not call this information wisdom or even knowledge.

The dictionary defines knowledge as the sum or range of what has been perceived, discovered, or learned. Notice that in this secular definition there is not even a hint of discernment between healthful knowledge and harmful knowledge. Yet the Church has always distinguished between the knowledge of good and the knowledge of evil. We must remember that our current fallen condition, is the result of our First Ancestors' disobedient partaking of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. What moved Adam and Eve to violate the one limiting commandment given to them by God in Paradise, given to them, so that, as St. Ephraim the Syrian says, they by remaining obedient to it, could show their love for God (Works, vol. 6, p. 233). Why did they transgress? Yes, they were tempted by the Devil; and yes, they became prideful and began to think that they knew better than their Creator; yet there was a large dose of curiosity present as well. After, the Devil had promised them: …in the day ye eat there of, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. Is it not sinful curiosity that so often causes us to stray where we know we should not? To seek knowledge that we know will not bring us any benefit? What is the usual result of this divergence? Are we truly satisfied by our foray into the sinful? No, we are not. The result is usually a feeling of defilement, emptiness. The only useful knowledge that we may have gleaned from our action is that it is best not to stray from the commandments of the Lord our God. This is exactly what St. John Chrysostom, one of the greatest Fathers and teachers of the Church, who composed the Divine Liturgy that we use most often, says. In answer to the question Why was the tree called 'the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,' he responds: The tree did not give birth to the nature of good and evil. It merely exposed the disposition of man. It is called by this name not because good or evil was bound to its essence, but because it served for the disclosure of good and evil. And actually, continues St. John, what knowledge did Adam attain from partaking of the tree? He found out that obedience to God is good while disobedience to God is evil. This then is it, concludes Chrysostom, the knowledge of good and evil, nothing more (Vol. 8, p. 799).

Thus we see that not all knowledge is healthy, positive. On the contrary there is much knowledge that is harmful and even poisonous.

Divine Scripture points out that some knowledge can be useless. Eliphaz the Temanite in the book of Job asks: Should a wise man utter vain knowledge, and fill his belly with the east wind? Should he reason with unprofitable talk? or with speeches wherewith he can do no good? (Job 15:2-3). What would Eliphaz have to say about the endless hours spent by so many engaging in the interminable deliberations in the discussion groups of the Internet.

Yet, how are we to discern worthy knowledge from vain knowledge? The Holy Prophet David gives us a good indication of this in his 118th psalm, that most beautiful noetic prayer. The psalmist cries out: Despondency took hold upon me because of the sinners who forsake Thy Law… The cords of sinners (web of the wicked) have entangled me… Goodness and discipline and knowledge teach Thou me, for in Thy commandments have I believed… Thou art good, O Lord, and in Thy goodness teach me Thy statutes.

Goodness and discipline and knowledge teach Thou me…. Contemporary proud humanism dictates to us that man can attain true knowledge through the efforts of his own reason or experience. Yet the Church, ever trying to humble our proud souls, teaches us the opposite. King Solomon in his first proverb plainly states: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. Can we really trust a teacher to teach us genuine discernment if he not only does not fear the Lord, but does not even acknowledge God's existence?

It is truly humbling to realize that St. John Climacus, in his Ladder of Divine Ascent, (a book organized as a series of rungs on a ladder, each step depicting a virtue one must attain or passion one must overcome), places discernment on the twenty-sixth of thirty steps. There is so much to overcome and so much to attain before one can, with the help of God, hope to possess at least the sprouts of spiritual discernment. How close to the Church then must we remain, to Her good Bishops and pastors, to Her Fathers and Teachers; how often must we delve into the Word of God, in order not to be led astray, following leads of false knowledge, idle imaginings of the sinful human mind.

Further, can we lead a sinful life, engage in illicit relationships, pollute our minds eye with corrupting images, defile our speech with obscene words, fill our mind with vile imaginings, yet honestly hope to be able to discern indispensable knowledge from knowledge void of worth or significance? At every Sunday Liturgy we hear the Beatitude: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. There is only one way to purify one's heart: that is through repentance, Holy Confession and Holy Communion. Dare we live in this world without frequently turning to these salutary Sacraments?

Clearly then, in order to discern worthy knowledge from vain knowledge we must live a life of spiritual struggle, that is, we must live a life in the Church. This takes time, dedication, concentration, and rejection of vain distractions. It requires that we escape from Informational Sensory Overload which is heaped upon us by the Information age.

A question may arise, especially among the students: does all this mean that secular, worldly knowledge is at best vain and useless, and at worst harmful and in conflict with Divine knowledge? Ivan Michailovich Andreyev, of blessed memory, the professor of Orthodox Apologetic Theology at our Holy Trinity Seminary, gave a good answer to this quandary in his lecture on the relationship between religion and science. Professor Andreyev states:

True religion and true science, marking the limits of the sphere of their competence, can never have contradictions between them. If such contradiction occurs, it means that either religion or science has betrayed its principles and become pseudo-religion or a pseudo-science.

Faith and knowledge in their very essence are inseparable. It is impossible to surmise that a believing person does not think about the object of his faith and does not know what he believes in. It is likewise impossible that a philosopher or scholar, while investigating, does not believe, at least in his own intellect.

Knowledge is as necessary and lawful for religion as faith is for scholarship. Faith can be indispensable where knowledge is inadequate and helpless. Anything learned through faith should not enter into contradiction with genuine knowledge…

The more deeply and thoroughly man studies the sciences and knows the limits of their competence, the more philosophical and theological culture man possesses. Likewise, the more deeply his religious faith is developed, the fewer become the imaginary contradictions between faith and knowledge and between religion and science…

Religion answers the highest and most intricate inquiries of man's spirit, which science is absolutely helpless in answering. The more highly developed religion is, the more it nurtures a love for knowledge; not of course, vain knowledge, but true knowledge, which is called spiritual wisdom…

St. Basil the Great, who was a scholar, a philosopher and a theologian, said: "In pre-Christian philosophical teaching there was only a shadow of revealed truths, a pre-portrayal of Truth shown in Holy Scripture, a reflection of the light of Christ's truth, similar to the reflection of the sun in water." Of the relationship between faith and knowledge, St. Basil the Great also asserted: "In science faith precedes knowledge. This is profoundly true, since everything most fundamental and initial in scientific knowledge is impossible to prove and is accepted as a basic principle by an act of faith."

If the great Fathers of the Church regarded honest scientific and philosophic knowledge with such deep respect, then in their turn, the greatest genuine scientific scholars of the past regarded religious faith with deep esteem and reverence. They realized that True knowledge is incompatible with pride. Humility is an indispensable condition to the possibility of perceiving Truth. Only a humble scholar, like a humble religious thinker, always remembering the words of the Saviour: Without Me you can do nothing, and I am the way and the truth and the life, is capable of going in the correct way toward perceiving Truth. For God resisteth the proud, but giveth Grace unto the humble.

The thoughts of Professor Andreyev give us hope that there is still knowledge worth pursuing out there in the world of scholarship. Yet, with what caution must one proceed in a world, where words such as Faith in God, humility, reverence, and even Truth have been banished from the lexicon of academe. Like the mushroom picker in Rochester, N.Y., one must be extremely careful in choosing what to consume, lest one be poisoned and risk spiritual death.

This brings us to the next term which we must investigate in our examination of our Age of Information: Truth.

The simple dictionary definition of Truth is: The substance of reality; actuality.

In one of his lectures Professor Andreyev noted that every sensible, normal and critically thinking person, developing spiritually, sooner or later sets before himself a whole line of questions concerning what Truth is: What is the nature, meaning and aim of life, personally for each individual and for the universe as a whole? What is life? What is the origin of all existing things? Is there a God, Creator of all things, or does the world exist without a Creator? If there is a God, can we possibly have communion with Him? Does another world exist besides the visible one? What is matter? What is conscience? What is the Spirit? What is death? Does the soul exist, and does it possess immortality? What is good and evil? Can the absolute Truth be known? How must one live and what must one aspire to?

These are questions which, in one form or another, every normal, thinking human being must ask himself. For if there is no absolute Truth, then life has no meaning and no goal. Yet, these questions take time to form. They do not arise all at once. Time is needed for the process of their formation, contemplation, and resolution. Each individual needs to go through this process, otherwise he does not develop as a human being and is spiritually and psychologically stunted.

The question can validly be asked in our age of hyper-information, where from the youngest age individuals are perpetually subjected to Informational Sensory Overload: is there enough time, is there enough attention capacity left, for these all important questions even to arise in a young person's heart, let alone for them to be resolved? Perhaps this is why we have become a society of spiritual misfits and that two out of every five Americans are known to be mentally ill.

Of course, before the Fall, when man lived in full communion with God his Creator, the question of God's existence did not arise. It is only after the Fall, when sin began to geometrically multiply and the majority of the human race started to lose the concept of the One True God, that man begin to ask himself: Is there a God, is there an absolute Truth, and can it be comprehended? Throughout the ages fallen man has dealt with the question of the existence of God and absolute Truth in a variety of flawed ways. Our century, which has been marked with the re-invention of all the heresies of old, has not shied away from embracing the flawed philosophical systems of the past as well.

FALSE WORLD-VIEWS

Let us briefly define these flawed philosophical systems, so that we can more easily spot them in their various contemporary manifestations. We will once again turn to Ivan Michailovich Andreyev, our Apologetic Theology professor for concise definitions:

Skepticism a philosophy first conjured up by the ancient Greeks and then revived, after the so called enlightenment in Europe. It is a system of doubt of everything, which includes the doubt of the existence of God and absolute truth. A skeptic answers the question of the existence of absolute truth by saying: "I do not know." Skepticism is fruitless in that it makes no moral or spiritual effort of will to perceive the absolute Truth. Consistent skepticism becomes completely impotent in questions of any kind of perception of the world and man.

Criticism is a philosophical system propagated by Immanuel Kant. It is a declaration that the absolute Truth is not perceptible. To the question of the Existence of God and absolute Truth, this system answers: "Scientific methods are the only way to prove anything concretely, and since these questions can not be answered by scientific method, then I must answer: I cannot know." Criticism in the final analysis is only the recognition of the limitation of scientific knowledge and of the rational method.

Modern materialists have wholeheartedly adopted a combination of Skepticism and Criticism as their dogma and creed. They have, however, combined and modified the two philosophies to suit their needs. To the retort of the skeptic "I do not know," the contemporary materialist has added, " I am too busy with earthly things to know, and it is comforting for me to know and I am very grateful to the critic for informing me that I cannot know."

Positivism, whose main propagator was Auguste Comte, is a declaration that mankind in its growth, passes through three stages: theological, when faith predominates; metaphysical, when speculative philosophizing predominates; and, positive, when science predominates. The answer of positivism as to the existence of God and the absolute Truth is: "I do not want to know this."

Positivism is the world view propagated by the "Star Trek" television and movie series. I am sure that most of you are familiar with this fantasy in which a group of humanoids zip around the universe seeking out new life and new civilizations, boldly going places where no man in reality will ever go. The crew of the starship Enterprise (and in the latest offering of the series, the starship Voyager) travels from planet to planet, supposedly meeting different civilizations of beings in various stages of evolutionary development. The more developed the race encountered, the more likely it is to have abandoned any belief in the supernatural. This positivist theme continually recurs in the various episodes of the series and attempts to hammer into the viewer the idea that religious beliefs are mere superstitions and have no credibility for the modern human being. According to Star Trek, everything is explicable without appeal to the supernatural.

The problem with Positivism, however, is that by cutting itself off from the most important and urgent queries of man's spirit, it emasculates itself as a world-view, and changes into a conglomeration of scientific knowledge suitable only for the satisfaction of shallow practical questions of life. Positivism suffers through the absence of a will to learn the Truth. It turns out that what captain Jean Luk Picard of Star Trek propagandizes as a giant quantum evolutionary leap forward is in actuality a giant quantum spiritual regression backward.

Atheism is the assertion that there is no God. Atheism is itself a belief, since to know that there is no God is impossible. Thus, Atheism is faith that there is no God, a faith in an un-God.

Atheism, is of course, the creed of socialism and communism. The great multitude (by the most conservative estimates over twenty million) of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia who suffered for their Orthodox Faith in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, testify of the extreme militant efforts the atheist enemies of God had to resort to in their attempt to inculcate their false beliefs on the populace. In Russia atheism failed miserably, but has had considerably greater success in the west. In the 50's and early 60's it gradually became the dogma of secular humanism, which is the de facto religion of the current academic community. Here in the U.S., under the guise of "separation of Church and state," the Christian God has been totally removed from the classroom and can be mentioned only, if this is done in a negative light. For example, a number of schools in the Rochester area have now even banned all Christmas decorations. Last year, when a group of students, of their own volition, put up a Christmas tree in the cafeteria, the police were called in and the tree was expeditiously removed. So much for freedom of religious expression.

It is impossible, however, for Atheism to satisfy the thinking person. Being a belief in the absence of God and absolute Truth, it becomes entangled in a mass of contradictions and is incapable of building not only a complete world-view, but even a more or less satisfactory theory of matter, which it tries to idolize, imputing to it absolute virtues.

It is no surprise, then, that in America the Atheism of the 50's and 60's was replaced by the decadence and nihilism of the late 60's and 70's, which was then replaced by the materialism of the 80's and now is being replaced by a return to Pagan Pantheism in the 90's. Man cannot live without God. Yet because of decades of ridicule and open warfare against the True God of Christians, contemporary man cannot bring himself to return to Christ and finds himself turning to other gods. It is just not politically correct to admit that one is a believing and practicing Christian. Yet to be a Pantheist is perfectly acceptable now—considered even enlightened.

Pantheism is a belief that God and nature are one and the same thing. In identifying God and nature as one, the faith of Pantheism becomes enmeshed in insoluble contradictions, since it is unable to explain the origin, aim, or meaning of the world and man. It fails also to define the expedience of the universe, the origin of evil, or to provide any basis for moral law. Pantheism is the underpinning of Hinduism which has manifested itself in the West as the "New-Age Movement." This new-age paganism is both covertly and openly being disseminated in our schools today. The most harmful idea of this recycled ancient delusion is that since God and nature are one, and man is the crown of nature, then man must be god. He needs only to realize his divine potential. Does this not sound strikingly similar to the promise of the serpent: "Ye shall not surely die:… eat thereof, [and] your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." Contemporary man, pridefully confident in himself, is once again being duped by the father of lies.

Of course, as Orthodox Christians, we are Theists. Theism is a belief in God not only as the Creator and original cause, but also as the Intellect of the universe. God is not part of the universe, though it can be said that He has left His imprint on His Creation, just as it can be said that an artist puts part of himself into his painting. Further, man can be in communion with God through the Sacraments and through prayer. The most perfect aspect of theism is represented by Orthodox Christianity. Only Christianity, in its unaltered, original form, that is, Holy Orthodoxy, gives the most orderly, complete, deep, wide, reasoned, proved, convincing, and, at the same time, the most bright, joyous, and vital world-view.

If pride was the cause of the fall, then humility is the first step towards salvation. We must humbly accept that Absolute Truth is incomprehensible to man. There is however a condition under which the recognition of this Truth is possible. If there exists an Absolute, All-Perfect, Higher Being (i.e., God), Who is the Individual, the Originator of everything, the Creator, and if this absolute Being desires to reveal the absolute Truth to man, then, and only then, can this Truth become accessible to our consciousness. In other words, the absolute Truth is either unknowable (in which case life is meaningless), or can be known only through God's revelation to people. The absolute Truth is revealed by God! Where can such revelation of God be found? It can be found in the Holy Orthodox Church.

Realizing this, we begin to see that, though the information age makes a wide variety of data available to us, this information can be of only a temporal, insignificant nature, which, at best, brings us no closer to the comprehension of eternal Truth, and at worst distracts us from it. Only through Christ and His holy Church can we approach any knowledge of perpetual significance.

Christ spoke of this clearly, plainly, and definitely: I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

How shall we, dear brothers and sisters, regard these words of Christ? We can believe them, or we can disbelieve and ignore them. If we choose to disbelieve, then this means that we have chosen "to believe in nothing." We, as all men do, have a free will and on this free will depends the choice of what we believe! Yet with freedom, comes responsibility. Holy Scripture is quite plain regarding this. In the Gospel according to St. John we are clearly told: God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved. He that believeth on Him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light…

It is extremely important for us to understand, therefore, clearly and definitely, that there exists nothing, outside of ourselves, that definitively can prevent us from believing in God, in Christ, and in God's revelations given to us through His Holy Church!

For one who proceeds with faith in God, in Christ, in Divine revelation, there are no contradictions or hindrances in the process of building a complete world-view; quite the contrary, it is precisely with such faith, that knowing absolute Truth becomes possible.

Professor Andreyev, makes another interesting observation. He writes: "Only when one's knowledge is merely a superficial knowledge does there arise before man's intellect imaginary contradictions between faith and knowledge, between religion and science. However, with a deeply penetrating knowledge these imaginary contradictions disappear without a trace. Superficial knowledge often draws one away from God. Penetrating knowledge draws one near to God."

This point is important enough to repeat:

Superficial knowledge draws one away from God.

Penetrating knowledge draws one nearer to God.

Here we must make a distinction between simple truth and Wisdom. Something can be true; for example, if I say: "there is no snow on the ground outside today," but this will not necessarily be very profound. Eternal, profound, penetrating, ever significant Truth is Wisdom. Eternal Truths are revealed to mankind primarily through the Logos, the second hypostasis of the Holy Trinity, the Son of God our Saviour. This is why one of His attributes is Sophia, Divine Wisdom. Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is truly the Way, the Truth, and the Life, Divine Wisdom. He imparts this Wisdom to us Through His Holy Church: the Holy Sacraments, the Holy Scripture, the writings of the Holy Fathers, the Divine Services, and our participation in the Life of the Church in
general.

HOW TO REMEMBER GOD IN THE INFORMATION AGE

What sort of knowledge does the modern information age impart? Does it in any way approach Wisdom? Or does it rather primarily impart "anti-wisdom?" From what we have said before, it certainly provides us with a wealth of information. Yet all these mega-bites of information amount to very little knowledge and even less, if any, wisdom. As a matter of fact, the over-abundance of information actually hinders knowledge. We cannot see the forest for the trees, as it were. Thus, at best the cumulative result of all the information we receive is a very superficial knowledge. Remember: what can superficial knowledge do to us? It has the potential to draw us away from God.

Even secular sociologists are coming to similar conclusions. In his book The Future Does Not Compute, Stephen Talbot points out the following:

It is hardly novel to comment on the personal scattering so readily induced by modern culture. Daily newspapers present my sweeping glance with a collage of the most dissonant images and stories imaginable, each allocated a few inches of space, a few moments of my time. The suffering in some African war immediately yields to an overjoyed lottery winner, who in turn gives way to a dispute in the city council, followed by survey results on American [physical] habits. The weather, comics, sports, book reviews scanning—all this is how I prepare to meet the day ahead. My attention, rather than engaging problems at hand in a deepening meditation, is casually, almost unnoticeably dispersed.

In a similar way, the television sound bite has become notorious; so, too, the dizzying succession of images in movie and music video. Magazines and billboards, the chatter of boom-boxes and the endless miles of retail aisle-ways heaped with a fiendishly beguiling array of merchandise all compete for a moment's subliminal notice from an otherwise absent subject, so that someone else's intentions can have their way with me. Everything is calculated to prevent my standing firmly within myself, choosing my own way in conscious self-possession. Left helpless to digest much of anything in particular, I have no choice but to go and move with the flow, allowing it to carry me wherever it will.

The critical law at work here is that whatever I take in without having fully digested it, whatever I receive in less than full consciousness does not therefore lose its ability to act upon me. It simply acts from beyond the margins of my awareness. Nothing is forgotten; it is only neglected. This is as true of Muzak as of the film image, as true of sound bites as of retail advertisements. To open myself inattentively to a chaotic world, superficially taking in "one thing after another," is to guarantee a haphazard behavior controlled by that world rather than by my own wide-awake choices.

The correlate of scattered (mental) "input," then is scattered "output." Car, telephone, computer, fax, television, VCR collaborate in this scattering by affording "freedom" of action that tends to enslave me. It becomes so easy to go somewhere else, whether via screen, phone lines, or gasoline-powered engine that the whirl of ceaseless goings substitutes for the hard work of inner attention to the fully dimensioned present. Encouraged to veer off wherever I wish with scarcely so much as a moment's forethought, I am never fully here or there, or anywhere.

But, someone will say, "Fr. Gregory, you are overlapping my different activities. I have a time for prayer, a time for contemplation, and there is a different time for my other pursuits: the newspaper, the computer, the television and so on."

But can we really compartmentalize our spiritual life to such a degree? Can we say our morning prayers and then forget about God, about spirituality, totally transform ourself into a completely secular being, like some Jekyll and Hyde, to become spiritually active once again only when it is time to say our evening prayers? Or conversely, can we possibly stop our scattered brain which has been subjected all day to Informational Sensory Overload from trying to make sense of it all, as we futilely attempt to concentrate on our evening prayers? I am sure that the Fathers here present will all confirm that the most common complaint heard in confession is the total inability to concentrate while praying. This is, of course, not at all surprising: after a day of hustle and bustle, when we stand in front of our icons in the evening, this may be the very first time we have stopped rushing about, since that morning. Physically we have stopped for the moment, but mentally the wheels keep spinning. We would all do much better if we were to follow what Apostle Paul entreats us to do: Pray without ceasing (I Thess. 5:17). This means that after the completion of our morning prayers, we continue being conscious the entire day of being in the presence of the Lord. A good way to practically accomplish this is to say the Jesus Prayer at every possible moment that our mind and lips are free: O Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me a sinner, or, as Theophan the Recluse advises, to simply remember in our thoughts that God is always present with us. Even at the times when our mind is intently busy with the tasks of the day, if we constantly realize ourselves to be in God's presence, then it will be easier for us to attain virtue, harder for us to sin, and when the day is done and we are before our icons at home, we will not feel so alien, so far away from God. We, after all, would have been conversing with Him all day.

LET US LISTEN TO THE HOLY FATHERS

Brothers and Sisters, all of us, young and old, male and female, priests and lay people, even monastics are effected by the unbalanced world around us. We are all subjected to one degree or another to Informational Sensory Overload. Our spiritual life cannot but suffer from this. What are we to do? Let us turn to the Holy Fathers for counsel. We have time only for two, though there is nearly a limitless supply of applicable writings that would be of help for us. But even this will suffice. The first excerpt is from the diary of thoughts by St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ. The second is a letter by Theophan the Recluse to one of his spiritual children. I truly believe that if we listen to the counsel of these fathers of recent times, we will surely benefit.

St. John of Kronstadt writes as though he is writing specifically for us. Let us listen:

"Being occupied with vanity and vain pleasures, you have neither the time nor the desire to penetrate into the spirit of the Christian religion, of the Christian divine services, and to know the rules of the Church, the purpose of the festivals of the Orthodox Church, of the fasts… You sometimes know by heart a play that is given at a theater. [Now St. John speaks here of the theater, but if T.V., motion pictures, interactive video games and the like existed then, surely he would object even more strongly. Batiushka continues:] You know of how many scenes the current play consists, what its contents are in general and in particular; yet you do not know the essence of the Mysteries, although they give eternal life, and the unspeakable blessings of that life to those who receive them worthily. You do not know the essence of the divine services of the Holy Orthodox Church your Mother, who nourishes, warms, purifies, sanctifies, and strengthens you upon her holy, maternal bosom. You do not know the nature and significance of the evening and morning services, nor the Liturgy, the usual psalmody, the readings and rites of the Church. Some people justify play-acting, and call it instructive and moral, or harmless, or at least a lesser evil in comparison with drunkenness and profligacy; and with this object they endeavor to organize theatrical performances everywhere. It is surprising that Christians have not found any better way of spending their precious time than on the theatre, which both by its origin and meaning preserves, even up to now, a heathenish, idolatrous character; a character of vanity, frivolity—a character showing in itself, in general, the fullest reflection of all the passions and deformities of this world: of the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and of the pride of life; and only seldom, very seldom, represents the valor of the sons of their country, and even then, of course, of an earthly country, and not of the heavenly one.

"Everything heavenly, holy, bearing the stamp of Christianity, is foreign to the theatre; and if it does sometimes appear on the stage, then it is made the subject of ridicule. The very name of God, terrible to every creature, is only pronounced there heedlessly, with derision and scoffingly; the sacred calling—for instance, the monastic calling, the angelic calling—is turned into ridicule; the respect for authorities, for parents, and the clergy is prejudiced when any reprehensible actions of such persons are publicly turned into ridicule, and this before the whole of society, before thoughtless young people, even before children, to whom the names of their parents and superiors ought to be sacred. One disrespectful or unbecoming word concerning their elders is sometimes enough to prejudice the respect due to them. Have Christians become so thoughtless that they find no better means of spending their precious time than in the theatres, for which they leave even God's temple, the divine service? And the precious festival time, given by God for instruction in the Holy Scriptures, in salutary reflections, and in virtuous actions, they fritter away in laughter and stupid applause in the theatres.

"No; say what you like, theatres are an ungodly institution. Only penetrate into their spirit and you will agree that they are schools of incredulity, mockery, of the insolent ridicule of everything, and that they are depraved. Woe unto that society in which there are many theatres and which loves to frequent them! Occasionally, it is true, the theatre is the lesser evil for those who are evil. Lend an ear to popular opinion, to the opinion of those who have visited the theatre many times; they do not hesitate to say that theatres lead to depravity. Only the blind, in whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not (II Cor. 4:4), say that a theatre is moral. No; Christians ought perseveringly to study their religion; they ought to read the Gospel more frequently, to study the divine services, to fulfill the commandments and rules of the Church; to read the writing of the holy Fathers, religious publications, in order to become imbued with the spirit of Christianity, and to live in a Christian manner. Such should be your occupations and your recreations."

Such are the counsels of St. John of Kronstadt.

Let us now turn to Theophan the Recluse to see what we can glean from this great Orthodox counselor of modern times. In the following letter, Bishop Theophan counsels a spiritual child on the reading of secular books, but we can easily apply his recommendations to the other media of the information age. Let us listen to what he has to say:

"According to your wish I am sending you the writings of St. Anthony. Read and become absorbed in them. You will be amazed. He was not a scholar and did not read scholarly books; he merely sang the Psalter and read the New Testament. However the Grace of God revealed things to his mind intuitively—and you will see how very wise his sayings are. There is the testimony of an eyewitness about him that when he began to speak, his discourse flowed like a river and, issuing from his heart, it filled the hearts of all his listeners. Sometimes whole nights passed in such conversations, and neither he nor his listeners knew weariness or felt a desire for sleep. Also here in our country Fr. Seraphim of Sarov was not a learned man, but the experiences of a spiritual life and absorption in the Word of God and the writings of the Fathers made him wise among the wise. In the spiritual life books are only a guide. Actual knowledge is obtained through practice. Even that which is learned from reading, however clear and detailed it may be, when tried out in practice appears in a completely different light. The spiritual life is a special world into which the wisdom of men cannot penetrate. You yourself will experience this or are already experiencing it. Labor over yourself and be attentive to yourself. Very slowly, little by little—and you too will get to the point where you will begin to make wise conversation—such that one might even sit down and copy. May the Lord bless you!

"You write: 'I read a lot. Is that bad?' It can be either good or bad depending upon what you read and how you read. Read thoughtfully and check what you read with the inerrant truth of our faith. Whatever agrees with it, accept, and whatever does not agree, reject immediately as a thought opposed to God, and stop reading the book in which such thoughts are presented. You have undertaken to study the spiritual life. This is a subject which embraces much and is lofty and sweet to the heart, which cannot but see in it its own ultimate good. You have begun, so learn, both from books and even more from practice. You already know which books to read, you know how to adjust your life in accordance with them. If you seriously desire to enter onto this path, then you will not have time to turn to the study of other subjects. You have had lessons, and you have a general understanding of things, and that is enough for you.

"You will say: 'Well, will not one turn out behind the times this way?' What is the harm in that?—to be backward in one area, but excel in another (and in one much higher). If, while lagging behind in the philosophies of man, you did not succeed in God's wisdom, that would be a loss. But as you will undoubtedly succeed in the latter, if you apply yourself as one ought, then you will not experience a loss, but will gain a greater advantage. For human philosophizing cannot even be compared with spiritual wisdom.

"In speaking this way, I do not mean to say that one must read nothing else, but only that one can get along without anything also without detriment, whereas, if one inclines toward other reading, it might detract from what is most important. If you pursue two things, you will succeed in neither.

"But the question still remains unresolved: may one read other things besides what is spiritual? Reluctantly and barely audibly I say: if you want to, yes—only just a little and not without selectivity. Use this indicator: if, when you are in a good spiritual frame of mind, you stand to read a book of man's reasoning, and your good frame of mind begins to depart, then abandon that book. Let this be a general rule for you.

"But even books of human reasoning can feed the spirit. Such are those which show us in nature or in history evidence of God's great wisdom, goodness, justice, and ever-caring Providence. Read such books. God reveals Himself in nature and in history just as in His Word. These too are God's books for those who are able to read them.

"It is easy to say 'read such books,' but where can one find them? That I cannot tell you. Today more books are being published in areas of the natural sciences. But almost all of them have a bad leaning—namely, they attempt to explain the origin of the world without God, and all moral-religious and other manifestations of the spiritual life in us—without the spirit and without the soul. Do not lay a hand on these. There are books on scientific subjects without such philosophies. Those you can read. It is good to gain understanding of the structure of plants and animals, especially of man, and of the laws of life apparent in them. Great is the wisdom of God in all this! It is unfathomable! To find out which books, exactly, are of this sort, ask someone who speaks enthusiastically about subjects of faith.

"What about stories and novels? Even among these there are some good ones. But in order to find out if they are good or not, you have to read them, and having read them, you will assimilate such tales and images, that—May God preserve us! you will sully your pure mind. Afterwards, go and be cleansed. But what point is there is causing yourself such labor?! Therefore, I think, it is better not to read them. When some upright person has read a certain story and recommends it, then you can read it.

"There are also good descriptions of the earth. And those you may read. But all this just a little at a time and only for variety. Keep to your purpose and do not divert your attention from it. May the Lord bless you!"

Dear Brothers and Sisters: Much has been said, much has been discussed. Much needs to be applied to our lives. But how are we to practically integrate all of this in our lives. I have a practical proposal, an experiment of sorts: It is not radical, it is nothing new. It is only what the Church has prescribed for fasting periods for its member for nearly 2,000 years. All I have done is to organize it into a convenient check list, of which I have made copies for each one of you. I would like to pass out this check list, go over it and then I will be glad to field any questions that you might have on what has been said.

What does this experiment entail? This pilgrimage ends on the 26th of December according to the secular calendar. That leaves exactly twelve days until the Great Feast of the Nativity of our Lord. Let us all do the following for the entire period from when we leave here until the Feast:

Check-list of Spiritually Necessary Activities for the Last Twelve Days of the Nativity* Fast Which Lead up to the Great Feast of the Nativity of our Lord:

* This lecture was given during the Nativity Fast. Yet the same concepts and checklist can be used for the other Fasts of the Church year.

  1. On all days abstain from all non-fasting foods (all meat, egg and milk products).

  2. At least on Wednesdays and Fridays, abstain from fish products as well.

  3. No parties (including secular New Year), no nights on the town, no concerts or the like.

  4. The only music to be listened to is appropriate recorded Church singing. No other music until Nativity, not even "classical." (The only exception to this might be if practicing a musical instrument or vocals are part of your studies.)

  5. Absolutely no television, radio, movies, video/computer games for these twelve days. For weather information use the free telephone weather-info-line listed in your directory under "weather."

  6. The computer is to be used only if it is part of your job, your studies, or necessary for personal correspondence. No frivolous uses.

  7. Attend all the services that you possibly can that are available at your parish church during this time period. Even if it entails asking for time off from work or from school, try to make it to all the services. Arrive before the beginning of the services, and stay until the very end. Make an attempt to understand and participate in the services.

  8. With the blessing of your spiritual father (usually your parish priest), prepare properly and partake of Holy Confession and Communion at every Divine Liturgy at your parish church leading up to and including Nativity.

  9. Every day: get up early enough to meaningfully say all of the morning prayers printed in the prayer book. Say the Jesus prayer repetitively at every opportunity during the day: O Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me a sinner. Be certain to say prayers before and after meals. Say your evening prayers immediately after the evening meal. Do not wait to say your evening prayers until you are so tired that you cannot even think.

  10. Each day, following your morning prayers, read at least a little bit (5-10 minutes' worth) of the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament (a little of the Gospel and a little of the Epistles of the Apostles).

  11. Each day, find a regular time to read a measured amount (10-15 minutes' worth) of the writings of the holy Fathers (My Life in Christ by St. John of Kronstadt is a good place to start).

  12. Be extra loving to other people around you, treating them kindly, as you would like them to treat you. If anyone wrongs you in any way, be quick to forgive and forget completely and forever.

  13. If at all possible, be extra charitable to the needy and worthy causes, giving not of your surplus but of your substance.

Again, brothers and sister, the items on this list are things we should already be doing, some during the fasting seasons, others all the time. Let us truly attempt to fulfill this entire check-list for the 12 days before our Orthodox Christmas. I can assure you that if you are able to fulfill the majority of the recommendations, it will utterly change your life for the better. You will eagerly await the next fast and you will be able to handle the hardships of life much more wisely, but most importantly, you would have made an important step in the direction of the salvation of your soul.

The first few days will be the hardest. You will go through withdrawal. But don't give up. Ask for God's help and He will help. And if you persevere, then when the Feast finally comes, God will certainly shine upon you the light of knowledge, and you will find it so natural, so easy to worship Him, the Sun of Righteousness and to know Him, the Day-spring from on High. O Lord our God, we believe; help Thou our unbelief. Through the intercession of the Holy Birth-Giver-of-God and Ever-virgin Mary help us to stand firm in these times of temptation and to draw ever closer unto Thee! For unto Thee is due all honor and glory, both now and ever and unto the ages, amen.

This is a lecture given at the 33rd Annual Russian Orthodox Youth Conference, held at the Joy of All Who Sorrow Russian Orthodox Church in Geelong, Victoria, Australia. Reprinted with permission from Orthodox Life, Vol. 48, No. 1, pp. 9-30.