Atheism and the Imagination

einsteinimaginationEinstein was famous for his “thought experiments.” He worked his way into radical new insights, not through careful research in a laboratory, but through careful work in the imagination. The same is true for almost all work in cosmology. You cannot simply observe the data generated from particle experiments and announce a conclusion. What is required is a work of imagination to describe a universe in which what has been observed makes sense. If you have read about various ideas such as String Theory or Multiverses, then you are certainly aware of just how much imagination is involved. The difference between a truly great physicist and a merely good physicist will not be found primarily in their IQ, but in the ability to push their imaginations past what has previously been thought.

With this in mind, it occurs to me that modern Atheism is largely a lack of imagination. If someone tells me that they cannot imagine a universe that behaves as ours does and is the creation of a good Creator, then I can only include that the failure lies in their imaginative powers and not in the universe itself.

But, on the other hand, if such a universe can be imagined, then it would seem that the only reasonable response would be curiosity. If it can be imagined, then it is not impossible. And if the existence of God is, indeed, possible, how is that not the most important thing to consider?

What if the universe that exists as the work of a good Creator has as its Creator, the God who largely remains hidden? Can you imagine a reason such a thing would be true?

And if the hidden God chose to reveal Himself, how might that be done?

If the hidden God is largely hidden because He does not belong to the realm of material, observable things, then isn’t that exactly what you would expect? But how would such a God reveal Himself?

Now, I am a believer. So, perhaps such exercises in the imagination come easily to me. But I am only moderately smart. Surely those who argue from science that there is no God must be smart, since science is not a work for the unlettered. So surely they can imagine as much as I do.

Imagination is another word for wonder. St. Gregory of Nyssa said, “Only wonder understands anything.”

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


59 responses to “Atheism and the Imagination”

  1. Sunny Avatar


  2. Mark Avatar

    “Wonder is worship without words.” To those who believe, wonder needs no further explanations or answers. Deconstructing wonder can end in a sterile pragmatism in which we think we understand and can thus control – it deadens our soul. It is akin to the Lord’s words to the church at Ephesus in Revelation, “…You have lost your first love.” Children wonder and accept. Those of us who have inherited fear and estrangement want to know the “how” and “why”.

  3. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    Not to quibble Father, as I agree with your premise, but how do we explain away people like Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins? They both reject even the concept of a god and yet they seem pretty imaginative people.

  4. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    Forgot to click follow as I want to see this discussion unfold

  5. Annette Avatar

    A quote of Albert Einstein that I displayed for years in my science classroom:
    “He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.”

    Albert Einstein


  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think that the conversation here would be quite appropriate for them to engage. I think both show a willful lack of imagination on the subject of God. If either of them showed the same lack of imagination in science, they would be without success.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think if someone admitted that they could imagine God in the manner I’ve described, but had found nothing that compelled them to think it to be true, I easily accept that. Most believers would probably agree that they have similar thoughts from time to time.

    But this is still a world beyond those who argue that belief in God is ignorant or worse.

    I could have added, “Is it possible to imagine that some people have a perception about this that others lack?”

    You see, there are so many things that must be true if belief in God is irrational or ignorant. Things, that are either not true, not necessarily true, or very likely not to be true.

  8. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    In the case of Richard Dawkins I feel there is a great deal of ego involved as well. I have read some of his disparaging and belittling comments about those who believe and yet I wonder if there is something deeper. My Philosophy Professor in Seminary posted a comment by an atheist friend in which the atheist claimed the reason for the disbelief of an atheist was that they did not want to consider that someone was greater than them and knew better how to run their lives. On the surface this is ego but I wonder if you are not on to something Father when you say, selective lack of imagination.

  9. Dino Avatar

    My interpretation is that there is a certain ‘scientistic pride’ that cannot humble itself enough to ever accept a creator. They sometimes fall for that in a very big way and it becomes -almost- their main motivator, sometimes unconsciously but at other times fully consciously… It is a kind of post-renaissance ‘worship of human reason’ that ends up seeing belief in another God (than the god of our own thought processes) with great enmity. This makes them -as someone once said- “believe in far more far-fetched things just in order to avoid believing in a God”. The people you cited have, in fact, been unequivocal on that themselves. Hawking, for example, states it here (speaking of the marvel of the anthropic principle and the issues it raises for atheists):

    “the fine-tunings in the laws of nature can be explained by the existence of multiple universes. Many people through the ages have attributed to God the beauty and complexity of nature that in their time seemed to have no scientific explanation.
    But just as Darwin and Wallace explained how the apparently miraculous design of living forms could appear without intervention by a supreme being, the multiverse concept can explain the fine – tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the universe for our benefit.”

  10. EPG Avatar

    “[I]f the existence of God is, indeed, possible, how is that not the most important thing to consider?”

    Indeed, it is the most important thing.

    Which is why, long after giving up on the nearest Orthodox parish (the persistent anti-Semitism got to me, among other things), I keep reading this blog, and several others (not all of them Orthodox).

    It is not something that goes away.

  11. Jane Avatar

    I used to be easily intimidated by atheists and troubled by the content of their attacks. One day when I was reading on Mystagogy I came across the observation by a spiritual elder (I forget which) that “Atheism is a serious spiritual illness.” I sensed the truth of this as simple recognition and have been blessed a refreshing increase in serenity in belief since then. Atheists arguments no longer interest me much, and when I do come across them they seem more paltry than they did before.

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m dismayed to hear about any antisemitism.

  13. Byron Avatar

    My Philosophy Professor in Seminary posted a comment by an atheist friend in which the atheist claimed the reason for the disbelief of an atheist was that they did not want to consider that someone was greater than them and knew better how to run their lives.

    It’s odd that an atheist would admit to this viewpoint; most of the ones I’ve run into are quite self-assured. They never bother to really acknowledge that anyone would know better than they do.

  14. Yelena Avatar

    Atheism opposes any religion, but it itself is a religion. Atheists just believe that God does not exist. Can they prove it? Nope!

  15. Robert Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    Didn’t know where else to put this, but a request for your prayers.
    I received the bad news yesterday that my friend, and this blog’s interlocutor, John passed suddenly passed away on Saturday. He frequently contributed to the blog’s comment section, (although not recently).

    Please say a prayer for him. He is survived by his wife and 5 daughters.

    If you require more detail, please email me directly.

    Thank you.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Many in our comments community will remember John as TLO (it stood for “the loyal opposition”). He commented, pressed, argued, and searched. May God grant him paradise.

  17. Matt Avatar

    Father, any source on that St. Gregory quote? I am completely unable to find anything.

  18. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    I am not sure if he was admitting there was someone greater or saying that he did not want that to be. It would be a way of stating that the self is supreme which is the way I interpret an atheist views the world.

  19. Mike B Avatar
    Mike B

    Philosopher JP Moreland writes that to change one’s belief the new belief must at least be plausible to one (plausibility structure). Another writer, writing before the recent Supreme Court decision, observed that Christians had already lost the marriage battle because most could no longer imagine life-long, monogamous marriage as there are too few examples.

    Fr Schmemann says that our witness (mission) in the world comes from our having left this world during Liturgy, going into the Kingdom, and returning to the world having been “somewhere else.”

    Is it our witness to the world, then, as Kingdom people to spark imagination and demonstrate that Kingdom life is at least plausible? (“Come and see,” to quote Jesus and Philip in John 1).

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Patralogia Graeca, PG 44, 377.

  21. jamesthethickheaded Avatar

    Excellent beginning. I wonder if we do our atheist friends a disservice… assuming that imagination is the same for everyone, and similarly, the ability to assent to and act on an idea (an act of will) equally the same. Some things seem impossible for some… I’m not sure why, and even if one can show another that something is in their interest, logical, etc. … and even if they agree to all that… some simply cannot take the next step and remain frozen… or perhaps the desire for those things which would follow is simply not compelling to them, and they find themselves at best immobilized but not energized by the “goal” set out.

    Metropolitan Anthony saw musical tones in color – a mental capacity considered quite rare. Perhaps we too readily assume that others can engage and direct their own imaginations as readily as we presume for ourselves (though admittedly we have issues ourselves here as well). Maybe our own struggles with our own imaginations… attested as easily as our daily pratfalls… suggest this isn’t easy in the first place, and for some others, darn harder work… work they may be unaccustomed to doing – especially in an era where we too often delegate imagination to Hollywood and its powerful media generations.

    We have a tendency towards tradition and great respect for the fathers and following in their phroenema… but perhaps a typical atheist accords no similar place for the “Fathers of Modernity”, nor to following in “their” spirit. I’m tempted to think this might be the case, but can’t fairly say. On the other hand, I’d imagine your experience could probably yield considerable color on these issues… and whether there is a potentially fruitful line of inquiry or not.

  22. Lynne Avatar

    So sorry to hear about the falling asleep of John. May his memory be eternal!

  23. Rick Kasten Avatar
    Rick Kasten

    The imagination in question is not one that delights in fairy tales but one that pieces together truths in ways never before seen. Religion has been piecing together those truths for millenia, and yet we are still left lacking. This is because the imagination of religion is found in fairy tales, in simplistic children’s stories and in reconciling monstrous behavior with incompatible platitudes about God. I’m proud to not have that type of imagination. My children already disbelieve in Santa Claus; why would I choose, or want to choose, to be more childish than my own children?

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    What you describe is a tragic caricature. First, you really don’t understand fairy tales or you wouldn’t be so dismissive of them. But neither would you compare the stories of Scripture to fairy tales. They are quite different, though frequently in a story-form.

    I think you’ve spent too much time encountering Christians whose own understanding of the faith is a caricature – this is not at all uncommon. Some, for example, treat the “monstrous behavior” you describe in an entirely incorrect manner. But what you’ve seen is not at all the real thing, only a dark shadow of it.

    I don’t believe in Santa Claus, because he’s actually a figment of Madison Avenue. But I believe in the historical St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra in Lycia in the 4th century, and I know why, historically, certain things were thought about him and believed about him. In my Church, and in my family, we learn about the real St. Nicholas and rejoice in his life. No North Pole. No Reindeer. But that’s just a very recent invention of Madison Avenue.

    If you had more wonder, you could learn a lot. The modern mind is getting smaller and smaller. That’s why it’s so satisfied with the silliness of modern TV and magazines.

    Real knowledge is much broader and deeper.

  25. Christopher Avatar

    “…Metropolitan Anthony saw musical tones in color – a mental capacity considered quite rare. Perhaps we too readily assume that others can engage and direct their own imaginations as readily as we presume for ourselves…”

    As someone who is a music lover but have not natural talent for it myself (no pitch, ear, etc.), I have been fascinated by this. Many of our greatest musicians (and obscure ones) have had this ability. However, on the other hand I can “imagine” it to some extant myself. Occasionally, I will have a dream that I can’t fully remember but where I was actually creatively making music.

    I am red/green color blind to a strong degree. I have often wondered and “imagined” what it would be like to see what others see (or even to simply match my clothes in the morning 😉 ).

    The best Jiu Jitsu players (and all the best athletes) have the ability to “see” body movement in “3d”. I have to break down a move in simplistic, blocky, “2d” steps, and I can only “see” my opponent in parts. Those with this ability to “imagine” the move and their opponent in space and time in a holistic manner have such an obvious advantage. They are also the most creative, finding new movements because they can see the whole. It’s not a function of experience or knowledge, but of imagination.

    IMO, Atheists/modernists who reduce God to “a fairy tale” imagine their own fairy tale. Dino’s quote of Hawking is a typical rendition:

    “…Many people through the ages have attributed to God the beauty and complexity of nature that in their time seemed to have no scientific explanation…But”

    Following that “But” is the myth of progress (which in the minds of these men is simple and unbending ideology). Like all myths, it has some truth in it, and therein is it’s power. C.S. Lewis wrote about the beauty and power of this myth (in God in the Dock if memory serves), but it is only a myth. Still, it captures our imagination all to often…

  26. DNY Avatar

    Father bless!

    Is it failure of imagination or failure of understanding?

    It seems to me that modern atheism is usually either the sensible rejection of the logic-puzzle God that Western speculative theology has presented — a mere entity with a long list of implausible characteristics almost deliberately constructed to be paradoxical — or of the equally of the crabbed too-anthropomorphic God of monotheism misconceived as one-god paganism.

    The God who transcends all binary distinctions — including that of unity and multiplicity being Father, Son and Holy Spirit, One God; even that of transcendence and immanence, being absolutely transcendent, but at the same time becoming Incarnate for our sake and being closer to us than our own breath in the gift of the Holy Spirit — remains uncomprehended, unconsidered, and thus, not actually rejected, by the modern atheist. An atheism that actually reject the absolutely transcendent God, is a very strange creed: the absolute certainty that the ground-of-being, the reason there is something, rather than nothing, is not somehow, even if only by an improper analogy, enough like a person that we ought speak of God as the source of being, and ought to seek to relate to the ground-of-being personally.

    As another poster said, atheists arguments bore me. The all seem to me analogous to arguments that purport to disprove the existence of a room or of wallpaper by soundly arguing that no article of furniture has the properties attributed to rooms or to wallpaper.

  27. neal Avatar

    Hawking has always wrestled with the fine tuning of the physical constants of nature. What is really ironic is the invoking of multiple worlds theory as a work around. Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory as proof of Atheism? He is close, and needs prayers.

    A lot of those are just in shock, and fear synethesia. What they really fear is a Person.

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I should add that spent a couple of hours working in the Patrologia Graeca text cited, and can’t seem to make it into the present popular translation. Must be a failure in my imagination.

  29. Makedonka Avatar

    I agree with neal. Those who claim being atheistic have most certainly not encountered a person with the gifts of the Holy Spirit (which is a shame for us, I suppose), or have just not spent enough time with them in addition to the fact of being proud. I do not remember John, I haven’t been very frequently in the comments section, but by the prayers of the Theotokos may Lord grant him memory eternal +

  30. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    I read that Met. Anthony was the nephew of the composer A. Scriabin – his mother was Scriabin’s sister. There could have been a genetic component to his sensitivity to music.

    I too am sorry to hear of John’s repose. He seemed to have a kind heart, and was trying so hard to find a way out of the caricature, the “dark shadow” as Fr Stephen described it above. May the Lord grant him rest in a place of light and verdure, and make his memory eternal.


  31. Helen Avatar

    It’s amazing to me that is it He who gave us the mind to seek and discover, knowing that we would trust our minds and ignore Him because he can’t be “proven” by the scientific method.

    It’s easier to trust in things of the head if your heart has scary places locked away years ago.

  32. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you for the information on John “TLO” I will pray may his Memory be Eternal! And prayers offered for his wife and 5 daughters also. Lord have mercy on your servants!

  33. Gregory Manning Avatar
    Gregory Manning

    I long ago gave up engaging in conversations with people who demand a proof for the existence of God after I read something to the effect that the quest for such a proof was a waste of time; if there were such a proof, the author wrote, that proof would become the object of veneration, not God. I got to the point where I found myself wondering why these people really, really, don’t want it to be true. I suppose there are some who have genuine intellectual problems with the proposition but for most the absence of a proof is just a cop-out. Once they trot out the Inquisition, the Crusades, and/or the pedophilic abuses by clergy, you know it’s time to remember there’s someplace you have to be.

    Once, coming out of a coffee shop, I ran into a priest I know, and we stopped to chat a bit. A young man approached Father (who was cassocked) and allowed as how he didn’t believe in God. “I know” replied Father. Bewildered by Father’s response, he asked Father why it was he believed in God. Father replied, “Why isn’t you don’t?” Flummoxed, the fellow turned and left. I glanced up at Father with a smile. “What?” he said, “I’m tired of the assumption that I’m obliged to explain myself! I’m not the loonie in the room; he is!”

    And, thank you Father; I also came to the conclusion that such people lack imagination which often times means that they are boring. How ironic that they see themselves as broad-minded.

  34. Matt Avatar

    Thanks, Father. The quote seems to basically get the gist of what my extremely limited Latin seems to be sort of getting from the translation on column 378, maybe…

    Praying for John. With the faith that the darkness he was dealing with will not overtake the light he was reaching for, and the hope that it won’t just turn around and block him instead.

  35. albert Avatar

    The God we know from the Gospels would not reject any sincere doubters or disbelievers if they are trying to lead a good life. In fact, we don’t even know whether Peter and the others had much faith before they med Jesus, do we? He saw something in them, invited them, and they checked him out, as we might say. Soon enough they convinced by. . . what, his presence and demeanor and strength of conviction, probably. Or at least moreso than by arguments. (Guessing here. Forgive, please) It was the already believing ones who were closed minded and self satisfied–thy seemed to be in trouble with Jesus.

    I don’t think we need to be worried about atheists as much as about our (my) own weak faith. Even the idea of a religion of atheists is not a threat, but more of a challenge to examine the elements of church structure that possibly result in alienation of very some very intelligent persons. Jesus said we should be like children, but also wise and wary. I think he would have talked quietly with our atheists, and asked them probing questions rather than shunning or criticising them. And if they were thoughtful, they would go away thinking instead of a grumbling . If they were shrill and superior in their attitude, then he would probably have walked away. The ones he stood up to were already in the fold, they thought. So I suppose you could say that atheists are good to have around in that they keep us sharp. In any case, I prefer reflecting on lost sheep stories than on imagining threats to the kingdom.

  36. albert Avatar

    Threats from atheists, that is.

  37. Richard Larson Avatar
    Richard Larson

    Noam Chomsky makes the interesting point that rational inquiry shows that rational inquiry (including scientific inquiry) cannot yield answers to every sensible question we can frame to ourselves. We know that rats can be taught to run many different maze patterns: Turn left, turn right, repeat; turn left, turn left, turn right, repeat, etc. But they cannot be taught this pattern: turn left at every prime numbered junction. This is because the cognition rats are given by their biology doesn’t make number theory available to them, including the notion prime number. Despite being perfectly able to frame the question to itself “How do I get out; what’s the pattern?” the answer is simply inaccessible to rats. It stands to reason, Chomsky concludes, that the cognition humans are given by their biology limits them in comparable ways. There must be questions – e.g., “How is free will possible” – that we can perfectly well frame to ourselves but whose answers lie beyond us. Questions about God and His nature strike me as other good candidates.

  38. Byron Avatar

    As someone who is a music lover but have not natural talent for it myself (no pitch, ear, etc.), I have been fascinated by this. Many of our greatest musicians (and obscure ones) have had this ability. However, on the other hand I can “imagine” it to some extant myself. Occasionally, I will have a dream that I can’t fully remember but where I was actually creatively making music.

    Christopher, have you ever read the book “Silverlock” by John Myers Myers? It is a fantasy book about a cynical man’s journey through the Commonwealth of Letters. Songs, and the ability to learn to compose them, play a very large part in the story. As a side tangent, it is quite fun and you may enjoy it.

    Memory Eternal to TLO, who I knew only from limited commenting on this blog and Father Stephen’s kind correction and explanation to me when I replied to one of his comments. May God hold and keep him and comfort his family in this time.

  39. jamesthethickheaded Avatar


    Thanks for your thoughts. I’m wondering along similar lines… whether by imagination, what we really mean is something more akin to Ben Franklin’s “…genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration…” and admit to feeling pulled toward questioning whether the shortfall lies in aversion to perspiration… something frankly that stands in the way of much in my own christian life. And maybe they see this… and wonder what’s the point… if even practicing christians don’t seem to have the energy to live it? But like any good, developing athlete, a good coach is needed to push, cajole, encourage, and train so that perspiration comes, and when it does, it yields its fruit. Thank God, we have spiritual fathers!

    Atheism is not new, nor despite the text books was there ever some golden age of faith (Durant). Chaucer makes that abundantly clear. Our age differs, but people much less so than the fabric they wear. Atheism is simply a faddish costume you put on when ultimately the veil of unbelief has dropped and the language and vocabulary, the “discarded mirror” as CS Lewis put it… is no longer sought (or even missed), and there is no longer a sense of shame in unbelief… and therefore no corresponding desire for learning and gaining the fruits of belief. Our culture even tells of our once sacredly secular “Santa” now mostly in ribald tales and raunch. And in this, I think it is fair to wonder whether atheism is the fruit of pessimism about man… or not? Don’t know, but I am sympathetic to the idea.

    But at the same time, I also wonder that the same instincts that animate our desire to peel back the layers of must and dust that cover ancient practices in the church and see the beauty and truth that lie beneath… doesn’t just go off kilter in an atheist… as the effort becomes less a “clean-up” and more of a “sweep it all away”. Perhaps it is a frustration or exasperation with the degree of difficulty, or revulsion at some of the unchristian practices that we “christians” are so often accused of (at least in the media).. and just our outright sins. Perhaps the atheist sees the sickness and not the caring hospital? If “christianity is about being nice to those less well off” (Fareed Zakaria), then it’s not essential and a matter of life and death, but something we can choose to “accessorize with” – or not, and to many, clearly not worth the trouble. Misrepresentation… is sold as often as the truth – perhaps more so.

    FWIW, we have many former atheists in our parish… as I’m sure there are in many parishes as well. Clearly very gentle care is needed in our approach to them… as they are often about far more than they voice… and often seeking deeply after the truth… and thankfully we have gentle priests. I’d be very interested in the atheist-to-orthodox “take” on this sort of discussion. Never having been an atheist, I found my own conversion to Orthodoxy (from Anglicanism) one simply of finally finding a door I could walk through… without stumbling over an endless series of “koans” at the threshold… as though the christian life were some sort of mental test rather than a love of Life, Repentance and Renewal through the cross.

  40. Sharon Joy Avatar
    Sharon Joy

    There are many Christians who lack imagination as well: the pinnacle of their freedom in Christ is their individual “rational” decision to believe in Him. They seem to be unable to imagine that there may be a different Way.

  41. Amanda Avatar

    A witty rejoinder for ‘curiosity killed the cat’ is ‘satisfaction brought him back.’ Wonder is man’s best hope at experiencing the universe with satisfaction. Wonder fills up the intellect where as curiosity kills it. Loved this article!

  42. Dino Avatar

    Yes, but, I don’t think we can say contemporary atheism, especially in its modern format of ‘consumerism/humanism/scientism’, is not new… Despite similarities, it is uniquely different to what was around at all other times in history.

  43. Byron Avatar

    My own observation, which is nothing new, is that atheism tends to grow in times of abundance. When one feels safe and lacking nothing then of what use is God? This is compounded by the belief that only the material world is real; if there is a “spiritual realm”, it is benign and of no threat to us.

    I often tell such people that society is only a “safety bubble” around them–and it will collapse, all societies do. It is artificial, not real. Reality is far greater than anything we create.

  44. Joe Avatar

    My brother is an atheist and what is most remarkable to me is that after having read Lord of the Rings, his estimation of it was “a story of a group of friends traveling from point A to point B.” Meanwhile for myself, I was profoundly moved and at various places had to put the book down and walk away because the weight of what I was reading (whether joyful or tragic or beautiful) so overwhelmed me that it became more than a story.

    A couple years ago at 31, I started teaching myself to draw. It has revealed to me that there are ways of thinking, especially those most closely related to the intuitive and the non-linguistic, which are utterly lost within the education of most people. All for the sake of the ostensibly practical disciplines of STEM.

    These aren’t bad things. They’re very good things, but neither should art and literature and music and all those other disciplines which require the creative mind be thought of as mere hobbies or “inessentials”. They are essential!

    I’m of the mind that were we to create a society which placed greater value upon the individual pursuit of art, that we would much more readily see God.

  45. Christopher Avatar

    “…Even the idea of a religion of atheists is not a threat, but more of a challenge to examine the elements of church structure that possibly result in alienation of very some very intelligent persons..”


    While there might be good reasons to “examine the elements of church structure”, I am confident that the existence of “atheist religion” and their usual complaints (inquisitions, pedophilia, and all the other sin) is not one of them. For starters, one has to have skin in the game before one is given the “right” to complain (and that’s just for starters) 😉


    Thanks for the reading tip – it does look interesting and counter-cultural in a good way (he after all has a “master of business admistration”).


    Reading Chaucer was sort of eye opening for me years ago. The pornagraphy sort of bursts any bubbles you might have had about a pure “romantic” middle age.

    ” If “christianity is about being nice to those less well off” (Fareed Zakaria), then it’s not essential and a matter of life and death, but something we can choose to “accessorize with” – or not, and to many, clearly not worth the trouble.”

    Exactly what Fr. Schmemann was saying – which is why the “being nice” and “improving the world” small ‘c’ “christianity” is dying (I put it in quotes because it is not Christianity to begin with). As Fr. Schmemann says, their are other religions (and modernism bills itself as one) that do the “being nice” thing much better than Christianity. In fact, Christianity is not nice – it is not nice at all, for at the very center of it is a Roman instrument of torture and control and death…

  46. Byron Avatar

    Joe, I have a graphic arts degree–the kind that they gave out before everyone started doing stuff on computers. I can say it takes a different mind, not just a different talent, to draw well. I no longer have that mind and I very much want to learn it again! I have no doubt that it will help me to live closer to God.

  47. Alan Avatar

    Great thread. Thank you Father.

    Thank you Gregory Manning for your comment yesterday at 8:08 and to Bryon for your comment this morning at 10:25. Both of those were very helpful to me.

  48. Joe Avatar

    Absolutely Byron!

    For my part, I used to be deeply “rational” and believed in some sense in the supremacy of the mind over all other personal aspects. When I became sick however, I spent 3 years sleeping fewer than 3-4 hours a night (and even then not particularly well. I still don’t sleep more than 5 or 6 hours a night and perhaps never will again, but at the end of it all, I’ve found that my mind is slow and my memory poor. In short, not at all like what it was before.

    However, I’ve come to reckon this as being necessary for my salvation because there was a great deal of ego involved in what I perceived as having a sharper intellect than many of the people I was surrounded with. The other interesting aspect of this is that as my rational mind decreased, the creative, the intuitive and the emotional side of me awoke in ways I couldn’t have guessed, most especially in the art.

    I don’t particularly miss what I’ve lost. I feel more like a regular person now (in the way Fr. Hopko spoke of it in his maxims). With the drawing itself, I find my mind in a more settled place. Hopefully its not too stupid of a thing to say, but I find it remarkable that in the end even a simple pencil might be a tool of salvation.

  49. Joe Avatar

    By the way, I thought I’d throw this out there. My wife brought this quote to my attention this morning as were were talking about this article. This is from C.S. Lewis:

    “Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than minority of them – never become conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?”

  50. Matt Avatar


    I can say it takes a different mind, not just a different talent, to draw well. I no longer have that mind and I very much want to learn it again!

    This seems like the right time to link to another post on this blog: An Artist’s Eye and the Kingdom of God


    I’d be very interested in the atheist-to-orthodox “take” on this sort of discussion.

    Not even sure if I count, since I was brought up as a Christian before I became an atheist (de facto in my teens, explicitly in my twenties), but my response (which is of course not “the” but “a” specific take) sufficiently grew in the telling that I’m posting it to my own blog instead to avoid clutter. tl;dr seems Joe and I have in common at least that we found the means of salvation through our own brokenness.

  51. Albert Avatar

    Christopher, I appreciate your question about reexamining church structures.

    The term was a poor choice on my part. I wasn’t thinking of organizational forms, or of important church teachings. I am concerned about perceptions some have of Orthodox attitudes and practices. I am concerned about our church being welcoming, even inviting. So I was trying to point to  behaviors that might result from certain “thought structures” (e.g, Orthodoxy is right; the fathers are the most reliable guides; ritual and liturgical practices, including what priests wear and what they look like– monastic included– should adhere strictly to traditional forms). Not questioning here the truth of these thought structures, not at all. I’m simply suggesting that they can result in verbal behaviors and liturgical styles that are sometimes perceived as unwelcoming, aloof, even proud.

    Jesus challenged those who criticized him for expelling demons, eating with sinners etc, and not keeping the sabbath–but those critics were Jews. He wasn’t dealing with atheists or outsiders, so his verbal behaviors were appropriate (can’t believe I just said that!). Since Paul and the others were dealing with both Jews and outsiders (non-Jews, many who might have been atheists) they faced the challenge of teaching what they had learned without altering or watering it down. But they also needed to try to make that teaching appealing (I think), or at least welcoming and not private or exclusive.

    I’m not saying that is how we intend to appear; I’m only talking about how we may be perceived by some (certain of my friends, for example, and even members of my own family). Why the long elaborate rituals, they say. Why pony tails on priests, and shaggy beards and flowing gowns. Why no chairs in church. Why the use of a language other than our own. I don’t try to give the answers because it would engender more arguments, such as, you people are not able to relate to the community, you stay in an enclave and your name, Orthodox,  implies what? that everyone else is unorthodox (I. E., different), and then you are Russian or Syrian or Bulgarian or Greek or. . .

    See what I mean? To some it seems like a pretty exclusive club. I don’t believe that or feel a need to defend my choice. On the contrary I am proud of it–not the best word to use here, but– and wish I could interest others in visiting. And I know a few atheists who might be as surprised and fascinated by early church history as I was initially, after I got over my own feelings of concern about the above questions–it took an accidental meeting with a very intelligent, wise, and experienced priest to make me curious and want to explore. One of my first questions was, how can I stand that long? He just laughed and said, there are benches on the side and in the back. Sit down whenever you want. If you need to leave, or go out for fresh air, go ahead.

    I have extended invitations. But not everyone gets lucky enough to meet a priest like that. I am only wishing that bishops could provide a kind of leadership tone (and style) that would be positive and welcoming and that would then sift down throughout their dioceses. Eventually maybe persons like me (back when) and like my family and friends, including atheists, would feel encouraged to inquire. And even more eventually some bishops might begin to examine things like short form liturgies. I recall hearing a priest quote a highly respected monastic who said that sometimes you have to stand for four hours before you can begin to pray. But if that priest had not explained the meaning behind that quotation, I would have thought, “OK, enough of this. I’m out of place here.”

    I was told recently that eating smaller meals, but more often if needed, is more conducive to healthy living. There’s an idea that might apply. I have learned to love our liturgies, but it took a long time, and they were all in English. I would never have made it in an ethnic-centered parish like many in my city. Persons I know and love would probably respond to my invitation they thought it wasn’t an all-morning commitment. And I could more easily attend additional liturgies or prayer services like vespers, molebens , vigils, etc if they were offered. I have learned to love those too, but time away from my family is purchased at a certain price. This may be especially true for individuals who might wish to investigate but are constrained by time and responsibilities.

    Long story short: the church can modify and adapt without changing. I believe that is why Paul and the others were successful, especially with non-theists (other than of course that God was in their midst).

    Note to Fr Stephen : Sorry to go on about my own issues. I don’t mean to distract from the theme of your post or to criticize. I’m still learning.

  52. Christopher Avatar

    “Long story short: the church can modify and adapt without changing.”

    I think this is true. I also think it is quite rare, and more often an “accommodation” of some sort is what actually takes place (which means it is a failure). Much of what you say (the length of services) for example is an “accommodation” to our busy, secular lifestyles where work, work, and play and consumption comes first.

    Rather than accommodating the American Way, I submit that Orthodoxy needs to rather stand apart as a say “no, you don’t have to worship mammon, you can devote a Sunday morning to God – even the whole thing!”

    I am all for meeting people halfway, just not meeting them all the way where they don’t actually do anything at all and the Church simply reflects where they are at – not where they should be.

    The fact is (and it is a fact) that American Orthodoxy is quite accommodating, at least in the English speaking parishes (i.e. those that are non-ethnic or on the road to being non-ethnic). In our mission parish, we butcher the English language to try to sound “modern”, we have vesperal liturgies way too often to accommodate are work schedules, and most every sermon is an attempt to explain ourselves.

    I suppose I am saying that there is only so much one can do to “manage” perceptions (i.e the perceptions that Orthodoxy is foreign, closed, unwelcoming, etc.). In a way, this can’t be helped because Orthodoxy is Tradition, and Tradition IS foreign and “unwelcoming” to the demands of the secular American Way. If it was not, then it would not be Tradition or Christianity.

    It is my experience that when people are actually ready (and this is God’s work) then the quibbles about standing, length of services, etc. are actually quite minor things. When they are not ready, then they are ready excuses.

    Now, the inward ethnic parishes are a whole different ball of wax, and I agree this is a situation. On the other hand, I don’t want them to accommodate (thereby losing the Tradition) either. My experience in ethnic parishes is that they are already compromised in serious ways and thus a deft hand in the “change” department is needed. I actually think this is one area where the various bishops/synods are on a whole doing much right (intentionally or by accident, I can not tell).

    I don’t mean to simply disagree with you Albert – I mean my comments to be constructive. I think it is very very important to meet people where they are at to the best of our ability. I simply think the road is narrow, and in the end the folks have had to be “prepared” by Grace for a deeper understanding or “encounter” and then the rather surface things such as beards, dress, “style”, schedules, etc. become rather unimportant.

    All that said, I think there ARE areas where a more “preach on Mars hill” and a style more “modern” and “American” can take place – such as the internet. I think this is where ministries such as Fr. Stephens here are actually quite “progressive” if I may use the word, and should be supported. Often, when I am discussing “Orthodoxy” with the “average man”, I first point them here or some other faithful web ministry, rather than try to invite them to Liturgy (this might be controversial to some I recognize).

    Thus, if you have not already, go and click on the “Support the work” link and clear those cobwebs out of your wallet… 😉

  53. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Christopher and Albert,
    I believe the forms of Orthodoxy are pretty much part of the Tradition and need to remain. What many describe as “foreign” is not a real comment on Orthodoxy, only on how parochial American culture can be. I have a thriving parish of those who are new to Orthodoxy (for the large part). They do fine. There is nothing that being “less Orthodox” would help. It’s not necessary and would often be counter-productive.

  54. Tony Sova Avatar
    Tony Sova

    “What if the universe that exists as the work of a good Creator has as its Creator, the God who largely remains hidden? Can you imagine a reason such a thing would be true?”

    This is where I think many Atheists get stuck in their lack of imagination because it’s hard to imagine a ‘good’ Creator when creation exhibits a certain kind of malcontent towards life. Natural evil in the forms of disease, earthquakes, famine, and predation in the animal kingdom in the minds of many Atheists hardly reflects the handiwork of an omnibenevolent Creator which leads many to assume that existence must be accidental and consequently absurd. Darwin’s speculations about evolution came from a kind of negative theology that he used to distance God from the senseless suffering and waste he witnessed in nature which also formed the basis for certain ancient Gnostics like the Cathars construction of a theodicy that cast Satan as the creator of this malevolent ‘material’ world. I believe some of the lack of imagination that we see in Atheists today is a consequence of the lack of a theodicy in Christianity that adequately answers the problem of evil beyond what classical Augustinianism has failed to provide over the centuries.

    – Tony Sova

  55. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I agree. But it is a massive lack of imagination. There are any number of ways such a story could be told. The Christian account of God, the universe and everything, is quite cogent. That doesn’t make it necessary – but it is indeed cogent.

    It seems to me, on an evolutionary basis, that the ability to imagine transcendence would be an absurd handicap if it were not, in fact, true. Silly men.

  56. Tony Sova Avatar
    Tony Sova

    It is a massive lack of imagination indeed, Father, and quite tragic as you’ve pointed out so well in many former blogs. Life has been reduced to nothingness, absurdity, and consequently, despair. It does seem, however, that there is a certain hypocrisy involved with atheistic proponents of evolution who on the one hand criticize the theistic imagination while on the other giving license to their own imaginative faculties on how life ‘evolved’ over millions of years of time unobservable to the finitude of our own human life span. For our part at least we have the witness of the Church to depend upon whereas they demand the very kind of blind faith they both loathe and accuse us of.

  57. Sally Iloff Avatar
    Sally Iloff

    Besides all said about Einstein, one that is not very well known is that he really believed in God. In one book devoted to him an example of his student years is quoted. His professor, a prominent atheist tried to insult him knowing Einstein’s beliefs. He asked the entire class during a lecture if God created everything, that means He created evil as good. In other way there is no explanation for its existence. To this physicist Einstein answers that practically is quite opposite. Evil is when creatures reject God, evil practically is full absence of God, by the w I’ll of created. I personally fully agree with Einstein’s beliefs!

  58. Nicodemus Avatar

    One reason why Atheists do not believe in God, (and I don’t have answers for this myself) is why, if such a God do exist, He does not go and prevent disasters to happen? It’s easy enough to explain evils caused by war, famine, etc as man-made, caused by our free-will, but what about natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, etc? Atheists don’t see the logic why if there’s a God, He does not intervene and save innocent lives that will senselessly die for no reason.

  59. Robert Avatar


    Metaphysically speaking there is no distinction made between natural evil (i.e. earthquakes, floods, etc.) from that of moral evil (i.e. man made evil). The distinction only holds if humanity somehow is understood to be removed from nature, i.e. not part of nature, and that is quite unsupported by evidence. So, we are confronted with evil, and the question is – why does an all powerful God, who is love, and knows all, and who alone is fully responsible for creation (He created all out of nothing), allow and does not prevent, the occurrence of evil?

    The question arises then as to what it means to be free – for the cosmos, humanity and nature to be truly free. Here we make a distinction between divine and human agency. To consider everything in the cosmos to be divinely pre-determined and caused is to make God alone who wills and acts. It is to remove agency and to remove freedom. And so a distinction is made between causality, between Primary Cause (not as a first among causes) and Secondary Causes.

    Be it as it may, and something to keep in mind, if it was a matter of logic, atheism would be the very last choice.

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