Sometimes I am, sometimes I'm not. Fearful of the the future, that is. Sort of a phobia of "The times, they are a-changin'."
And I shouldn't be, that is. Shouldn't be future-phobic. After all, the first generation of Christians incorporated into the Word made flesh, destroyer of hell and raised from the dead, was not future phobic at all.
They were radically orthodox enough to say, without question, "Maranatha." It doesn't matter whether this ancient aramaic term is taken in an imperative sense ("O Lord, come"), or in a perfect tense ("Our Lord has come"). In both cases, there is a huge confidence in the fact that Christ is Person and He is infinitely Real, and His Body is a mystical culture of Peace that embraces all reality. Seen and unseen. And beyond.
"Peace to you," He said, and that Christological peace prohibits future-phobia. This peace through Christ and in Christ is the only possible peace at all. So in this, the fundamentalist anti-cultural doomsayers (and future-phobics) are correct when they intone "No peace until the Prince of Peace."
But on the other hand, this peace is not deferred to the future. It is present as Christ is present. Christ is even more present, after Pentecost, than He was in the events of the Gospel. It is the height (or depth) of "un-orthodoxy" to speak or act as if Christ were somehow "not present," or somehow less experienced than the Gospel experience of the apostles. It is a tragic pathology to reduce the meaning of the "Word" to just the printed text of Scripture -- such a reduction is a modern invention, and may have had a hand in turning the modernist project so awry.
Christ is present, as Peace, to you and me in the Eucharist (and all the mysteries) and in the Orthodox Gospel of theology -- a narrative "project" that began with the apostles and has been elaborated to moderns ever since.
Sacraments are the substance of Beauty. Theology is the experience of Beauty.
And Beauty is the prophecy of Peace.
And Peace displaces and overcomes the future phobic temptation that seems to be afflicting many of us.
This fact has practical implications. There are more, but these are just a few.
The first is a mere suggestion of doubt. Not in divinity or orthodoxy by any means, but in institutionality as a ecclesiological construct. In particular, I'd like to serve up an irritating question (something like a grain of sand ticking off an oyster): is it really profitable, or even ethical, to worry about institutional viability when it is hardly certain that what is worried about (i.e., the church in the future) is an institution at all? A few texts -- like David's own experience with a census (1 Chronicles 21); Gideon's phobic insistence on numeric strength (Judges 7); and the Lord's own failure in the church growth movement (John 6.66) -- might be instructive.
I mean, just Whose institution is it anyways?
The second implication is like unto the first. Permit me to preface the proposition with an abbreviated litany of the usual doomsaying. 1) The Pew Report (always the Pew Report, or the Barna Report, or some sociological occult prophecy -- has anyone noticed how close surveys resemble augury?) in its latest screech warns that the "nones" are gaining the upper hand and millennials are leaving the church in droves. 2) The church cannot retain her young people, and young people are not taking their place in stewarding the church (i.e., no one new is running for Church Council). 3) America and the World are getting so damn immoral. Cohabitation. Non-traditional sexuality. Gender identity fluidity. The dominance of pornography as cultural force. 4) The news cycle makes it sound like Arkham's been busted open and the basement's been let loose (e.g., ISIS, riots, gangs, terrorists using pressure-cookers, meth labs in the sticks, heroin in Smallville). 5) Because entertainment and celebrities with power.
Note that I didn't take time to make a nice bulleted list, for the simple reason that you've heard all this already.
But I will set out two more sentences of this dark litany for special notice:
6) The Church is entering into a time of persecution in America. This has long been said all over the place in conservative Christian America, and now it is being chanted in Orthodox America (perhaps because of importation by converts like me). This article is a good example of such a jeremiad prophecy -- tightly analogous with the OT prophet's warning of state dissolution as a consequence of moral ruin. I was intrigued, in this essay, by the possibility of juxtaposing the bedtime reading of Madeline with a narrative of a confessor's torment at the hands of a modern tyrant. The conclusion of the essay was clear:
"The kids wanted to hear more, so I promised to find other (appropriate) passages to read for them later. That boring Sunday liturgy looks different in light of what Father George suffered for it, and to be able to say it in prison. I could tell a change in my children’s view. These are the stories we have to start telling our kids. They are the stories that belong to the church."
Please note that I do not doubt any of these sentences. I, too, am honored to be a member of the fellowship that includes Fr George. I think young people ought to be acquainted, well, with the history of the Church, and the biographies of her saints and martyrs -- if only to reinforce the reality of Christ's presence and His transcendence.
It may be that all the surveys and all the observations are correct. They are likely true because America has never been as Christian as people thought. Morality may not have been so successful in the past as has been assumed, in the popular narrative. And, dare we say it, ethnic communities that revolved around the church have been completely assimilated into the dominant culture.
But I doubt the efficacy of doomsaying in either keeping kids in church after they graduate or insuring the survival of orthodoxy. And I struggle against such (and all) future-phobic language.
I have lived with the language of impending doom for over fifty years: in that narrative, America has always been in decline. The Rapture was always coming. The Communists were always on the verge of taking over. The liberals were always toxifying the faith. Strangers were always invading the community, messing things up.
And I have to tell you, these narratives never worked. They never packed the church. The kids, made to watch "A Thief in the Night" and "The Burning Hell" and getting entertained by rock bands and praise choruses and made to feel important, left anyways.
Future phobic language not only does not work.
Future phobia is, more importantly, toxic.
This leads me to the last sentence of the litany, a sentence one can either be phobic about, or faithful about. And that is this:
7) Never before in human history until this moment -- when there is one civilization unified with one culture (whatever we want to call it) -- has humanity been so non-metaphysical.
Indeed, if civilization is anything, it is anti-metaphysical (despite its complete dependence upon metaphysical realities).
And what can we do for that, when it comes to our kids, our church, our communities, our personal existence?
You can go ahead and tell the scary stories and linger in a doom that might even be likely.
But far, far more important is this: Tell the narrative and doctrine of Christ. Teach your children well -- tell them how to answer the insane and inane anti-theistic complaints of our nitwit culture. Teach orthodox theology by first learning it yourself -- a theology that must go far beyond the simple propositions of brochure catechisms and even exceeds the likes of Pomazansky and Romanides -- these catechisms are not enough for an anti-metaphysical age. By all means, read out loud the saints and the elders: but you need to read and teach the Fathers' doctrine much, much more.
Abba Zosima told Alyosha, in The Brothers Karamazov, to "tell the stories." Certainly do this. But the abba's advice, while necessary, is not sufficient. It is not enough to narrate stories: wisdom (i.e., apostolic theology that is continuous with philosophy) necessitates plunging into the depths that lie beneath the prima facie "simple reading of the text."
We don't want to admit this, but come, let us reason: theology calls for a humble surrender of Occam's Razor.
Take your kids and yourself to Liturgy every single Sunday -- not to survive the future, but to live today.
We need the Eucharist to live in the here and now. Only secondarily do we need it to prepare for a future that we will never predict accurately.
Do you trust God with Time?
Do your kids believe that God's Will is a Good Will? Because you are convinced of this yourself?
And one more thing. Do you know the real reason why kids not only leave church, but do not return?
Because they are sick and tired of church fights and family arguments. They are tired of denunciations at Sunday dinner. They needed discipline and order and love: they never needed domination and authoritarianism and cultish anti-cultural esotericism. They needed guided and encouraged to engage the present, not to run from the future into a fictional narrative that lies about the past.
They were told "Peace be unto you."
They looked for peace.
But didn't find it.