Homily: Practical Atheism

Sunday, 3 December (November 20, OS) 2017: Forefeast of the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple. Ven. Gregory Decapolites (816). St. Proclus, Archbishop of Constantinople (447). Martyr Dasius (303). Martyrs Eustace, Thespesius, and Anatolius of Nicaea (312). Hieromartyrs Nerses and Joseph; and John, Saverius, Isaac, and Hypatius, bishops of Persia; Martyrs Azades, Sasonius, Thecla, and Anna (343).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission
Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians  5:8-19
Gospel: Luke 12:16-21

The man in the parable is not condemned for being wealthy. He isn’t condemned for his labor practices or how he treats the environment.

No, he’s condemned for being a fool, for saying “in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1, NKJV).

Since we’re pointing out why the man wasn’t condemned, it’s worth saying that he wasn’t condemned because he failed to keep the Law, withheld wages from his workmen or neglected the poor.

Jesus gives no indication that the man failed in the external observances of the Law. But the external demands of the Law never penetrated into the man’s heart. Much less did his religious observances come from his heart because in his heart “There is no God.”

quote-we-find-the-most-terrible-form-of-atheism-not-in-the-militant-and-passionate-struggle-against-the-nikolai-berdyaev-338034The man in the parable is condemned for his practical atheism. “Practical atheism is not the denial of the existence of God, but complete godlessness of action; it is a moral evil, implying not the denial of the absolute validity of the moral law but simply rebellion against that law” (Borne, Étienne (1961). Atheism. New York: Hawthorn Books, p. 10).

In other words, the man lived as if God did not exist.

We sometimes fail to appreciate that the difference between the City of God and the City of Man is not the absence of virtue or goodness in the latter. There is goodness in the City of Man even as there is virtue in the heart of the unbeliever. We fail in our evangelical vocation if we deny the presence of goodness outside the Church.

My own willingness to acknowledge good in the culture or virtue in the lives of unbelievers is as serious a moral failing as in any unwillingness on my part to recognize evil. Any indifference, or worse hostility, on my part to the Good, the True, the Beautiful and the Just–wherever they are found–is a sign of my own lack of repentance, of the hardness of my own heart. And if left uncorrected it will certainly result in my hearing the same word as the man in the parable: “Fool!”

The difference between the City of God and the City of Man, between the Church and the World, isn’t the absence of goodness in the latter and its presence in the former. The difference rather is that in the City of God any experience of truth, goodness, beauty or justice is received with gratitude as a gift coming from the hand of an all-loving and good God.

The temptation we face as Orthodox Christians living in America–a land of unparalleled wealth and opportunity for the Church–is that we become indifferent, or even hostile, to the gifts God has given us in establishing His Church in this land.

Rather than thanking God for material blessings, we can succumb to envy or greed.

Rather than thanking God for liberty and economic freedom, we can give ourselves over to sloth and fail to cultivate the life of virtue that these blessings make possible for us personally and as Church.

We can’t forget that our witness to Christ and the Gospel is found less in condemning error and more in our embracing the goodness we see around us and redirecting it to God.  In a word, we begin to fulfill our evangelical witness when we thank God for the goodness, the truth, the beauty and the justice we see, however faint, in the City of Man.

When we do this, we invite those who live in the City of Man to renounce their citizenship and become instead citizens of the City of God. Let me offer one example.

Our Founding Fathers, valued freedom of conscience not because they were moral relativists or indifferent to religious truth or divine revelation. In the American Experiment, the freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution–freedom of religion, speech, the press, and assembly–are all ultimately in the service of obedience to God as He reveals Himself in the depths of the human heart.

While this may sound like relativism, and to be honest it is often used to justify moral or religious indifference, what do we hear in the kontakion for Transfiguration? The Disciples beheld the glory of God “as far as they could see it.” God conforms His revelation to our, personal and unique ability, to receive Him.

Ultimately, to live a life of practical atheism, to be a fool in the biblical sense, is to live a life of delusion. This is why the Apostle Paul tells us to “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them.” He doesn’t say avoid people who sin. What he says is that we are not to sin. “[D]o not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit.”

In the Scriptures, drunkenness is symptomatic of spiritual delusion. I can become as drunk on ideas and fantasies as I can on wine. In fact, I can become more intoxicated by my own fantasies and plans than on alcohol.

It is spiritual delusion (prelest) that leads to the condemnation of the man in the parable. He created a fantasy world in which he equated the real but relative good of material wealth with eternal life. “And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.’”

These are the words of the practical atheist. And it is this that St Paul tells us to expose as shameful by the light of the Gospel.

But before I can expose this in others, I might root this out from my own heart. And so St Paul tells me, tells us, this morning:

“Awake, you who sleep,
Arise from the dead,
And Christ will give you light.”

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us awake from sleep! Let us embrace the Good, the True, the Beautiful and the Just that we see around us and give glory to God.

And let us be bold in saying to those who live in the City of Man that the good things in their lives all come from the hand of God and invite them to join us in thanking God in the sacrifice of the Altar.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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