Fr. Alexander F. C. Webster: Transfigure or Die Trying

US Capital

NOTE: The complete article can be found here.

American Orthodoxy in the Public Square

In the next issue of Touchstone Magazine, Fr. Alexander Webster offers a stinging but thoughtful critique of the decline of American culture to describe how the “sacrificial ethos of the eucharist” can transfigure personal life in ways that can restore and strengthen it.

Fr. Webster writes:

The prevailing political and cultural elites in America are succeeding, steadily and surely, in plunging our society into a post- Christian vortex that bears a striking resemblance in many ways to the formative centuries of the ancient Church. Faithful early Christians had to endure an inhospitable culture and a decadent ethos, as well as a hostile state.

America is arguably at the mercy of militant secular progressives hell- bent on subverting the cherished moral virtues of life, family, chastity, work, responsibility, and piety. Reaping an unprecedented harvest of more than 55 million legally aborted babies since 1973, our society is drowning in a sea of idolatrous self-worship, pursuing its own modern version of “bread and circuses” through increasingly violent and vulgar forms of entertainment and self- expression, a permanent welfare state from cradle to grave, unrestricted sex, artificially constructed sexual identities, and a push for publicly sanctioned “marriages” between persons of the same sex—a contra naturam abomination that even ancient Rome at its worst moments never imagined.

It’s a penetrating essay that reflects the seriousness with which prominent Orthodox thinkers and commentators are addressing our cultural decline. The drink deeply from the well of the Orthodox Tradition, particularly anthropology. Many of the cultural conflicts — feminism, confusion about the value of unborn life, sexual-identity construction, homosexuality — are anthropological in character. All these movements, debates, and conflicts ask a single question: What does is mean to be human; what is male and what is female?

These conflicts call for what Fr. Webster defines as a “transfigurative moral witness.” We need “bishops with muscle” and men not afraid to speak the truth.

Unfortunately we cannot reproduce the entire article except for the first two paragraphs although they are compelling and should encourage you to subscribe to Touchstone Magazine so you can read the entire essay. The only other option is to wait until after June, 2015 when the essay will be archived and open to the public.

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  1. James Bradshaw says

    “America is arguably at the mercy of militant secular progressives hell- bent on subverting the cherished moral virtues of life, family, chastity, work, responsibility, and piety.”

    Not exactly. These values have just been reframed. I work in tech for a mid-size company in a relatively liberal city. I’d say these folks are about as “middle of the road” as it gets. By and large, people look down on those who would rather do nothing than work, neglect their familial responsibilities, cheat on their wives or who are generally inept or lazy as employees. Most companies around here are quite active in various charities and make participation with them an unspoken expectation. Church life is vibrant. Meanwhile, we also have one of the most open gay populations in America. There’s an entire district where rainbow and HRC flags are prominent. It’s also one of the wealthiest.

    If abortion occurs, no one talks about it. Divorce is not all that common.

    Frankly, everything looks great from my vantage point. Why do you suppose this is? Are we all still simply benefitting from a culture that has, until recently, been a predominantly Christian one? If you wish to assert that all of this “good life”, with its conventionality, materialism and bourgeois attitude is unsustainable without an authentic faith underpinning it, then that would be a more interesting thesis. Even more interesting would be a statement of how this all impacts the surrounding neighborhoods where people may be less educated and less affluent.

    • Christopher says

      This framing of “the good life” is of course a material one (which you admit), and is thus “worldly”. When you are laboring for your last breath, suffering and dying – which is of course your lot in life – the “conventionality”, “materialism”, and “bourgeois attitude” you support will be seen for what it is. Pray that some common sense comes before that!

      And yes, you are standing on the shoulders of giants – those who came before you and actually suffered for the ideas and in the conflicts that allows such a faithless and ungrateful use of (it’s not really “enjoyment” is it, for I think even you would admit to a lack of true joy – comfort yes, but not joy) your material abundance. It is precisely this that will be this artificial bubbles undoing (as it always is)…

  2. Ronda Wintheiser says

    Everything looks great from your vantage point?

    Are you being sarcastic, or are you actually serious, Mr. Bradshaw?

    I can’t tell.

    • James Bradshaw says

      Ronda, I re-read my post, and it was not the most coherent. Let me try again.

      The city I live in is progressive. It has actively worked to ensure that even those who don’t uphold a very narrow and rigid definition of sexuality or gender are able to thrive. Women hold leadership positions in churches and in some of the many corporations here. Gays are given legal protections in employment, housing and in the form of domestic partner benefits. I think it would be a detriment to this city to work to upend these values. No place is perfect, of course, but I don’t see extremism here, by and large. Folks are generally neither religious fanatics nor anti-religious zealots.

      In other words, a little progressiveness seems to be a good thing from the evidence I see.

      What I’m not certain of is whether this relative stability is because of progressivism itself or due to some other stabilizing factors (affluence, the influence of education or even religion).

      Make sense?

      • Michael Bauman says


        • Pdn Brian Patrick Mitchell says

          He’s comfortable. That’s all he’s saying. He likes the world he lives in and doesn’t care if others don’t.

          • Michael Bauman says

            Pdn Brian, yes he clearly is comfortable, yet if that were all would he continually post messages contra the Orthodox teaching here and elsewhere? It appears to me that he doesn’t want anyone else to rock his boat and would be far happier if there were no contention at all. That is what I meant by the “lukewarm” comment also referring to Revelations.

            He seems to take the classic passive-aggressive stance of: “Can’t we just all get along.”

          • James Bradshaw says

            Mr’s Mitchell and Bauman: My intention isn’t to silence anyone. Frankly, I enjoy discussion with people who don’t see things exactly as I do, and ideological disagreements alone have never been a cause for me terminating a relationship with anyone as far as I can recall.

            Let me also make it clear that we agree on several important things: the intrinsic value of human life from the womb to the grave being one of them. I also find devotion and dedication to one’s family of critical importance as well. These ideals have some religious underpinnings, but I’d like to think that I’d retain these values even without those.

            What I’m having an issue with is where you think the solution lies.

            Let me be more direct, though, because I fear that the point of my posts has been missed entirely.
            1) Will marriages be more likely to remain intact if women are discouraged from seeking higher education and employment?
            2) Do children fare better when their parents subscribe to very traditional gender roles? For example, is a child more likely to have certain psychological, developmental or behavioral issues if the father raises the child and the mother works or the father is more “nurturing” while the mother is more responsible for discipline?
            3) Can the way government regulates civil marriage have an impact on marriage itself? For example, would rolling back no-fault divorce keep marriages intact, or would it just result in increasing (and false) claims of serious misconduct or even abuse so as to provide an out for the marriage?
            4) Is society “better off” in some measurable way when gay men and women are kept at the fringes of society and unemployable? If so, how?
            5) Is society somehow better off when gay men and women marry heterosexuals? Has this generally been a successful endeavor for them, their spouses and any resulting children?

            • M. Stankovich says

              It seems to me you have conveniently forgotten where “we” actually believe the solution lies:

              6) Is society somehow better off when gay men and women turn to the Church, and choose the narrow path of repentance, chastity, obedience, and singlemindedness to which we are all called?

              “Today, salvation has come to the world! Let us sing to Him who rose from the dead!”

              • Fr. Johannes Jacobse says

                Yes, but…

                One of the first things necessary is to break free from the self-identification as “gay.” I tell the men I talk to that they are baptized sons of the living God. Orientation, whatever the passion that creates it, is not ontology.

            • Fr. Johannes Jacobse says

              James, your calculus is always utilitarian or egalitarian, as if cost-benefit calculations about such things as the absence of conflict or material benefits can adequately predict the changes that the abolition of natural marriage within the culture will cause.

              Unfortunately real life does not work that way. Who would have predicted the collapse of the Black family resulting from the Great Society programs when those ideas were first floated (although Daniel Moynihan shouted an early warning)?

              Let’s look at your questions one by one.

              1) Not necessarily although childbearing will be delayed and many children have an absent mother. No problem for parents who can afford a nanny. A big problem for parents who cannot — latchkey kids and so forth.

              2) All the social science we have indicate children do much better in two parent, male – female, families. Further, mothers (females) are much better at the ‘nurturing’ dimension of parental responsibilities than fathers (males).

              3) Women initiate two-thirds to three-fourths of divorces. Couples in trouble that can endure five years of the trouble generally work through it and the marriages improve and grow stronger.

              4) “Gay” men and women have not been at the “fringes of society and unemployable” except for isolated cases. Previously the problem was handled with the “in the closet” methodology where the homosexual kept his private life private, and those who knew a person was homosexual largely ignored it. It wasn’t a perfect compromise but it worked. Incomes of homosexuals are largely good, and discretionary spending much higher than families because they have only themselves to support.

              5) Why would a homosexual marry a woman or a lesbian a male? However, when this occurs, it is much better to sacrifice and remain married when children are involved. To the child there is always the deeply troubling issue that dad broke up the family to have sex with other men. This affects boys especially. Gay-identified men have trouble understanding this because sexual orientation is the primary locus of their self-identity that they project back into family life.

              The unintended consequences could be catastrophic, especially for children and women. One question I have is whether the high disease rates among homosexuals will be transmitted into families? Another is will assaults by homosexuals increase? Already the increase in assaults by homosexual men in the military is proving to be a significant problem: Victims of sex assaults in military are mostly men and Retired Marine Reveals Secret Suffering of Male Military Rape Victims.

            • Michael Bauman says

              You frame your questions too narrowly as Fr. Hans indicates but:

              1. Women have always worked to support the family until the advent of the industrial revolution. The atomization of the family has much more to do with taking men out of the home for long periods of time as the “sole breadwinner”. The issue of marital abuse is much more critical than ‘gender roles’ whatever your concept of those might be. Men need to be better men. That means taking seriously the Gospel call to self-sacrifice for the sake of one’s family; to build up their spouse not tear her down. Such male deficiencies cannot be remedied by changing the woman’s role. Such male deficiencies however often make it necessary for women to take on such things simply for the sake of survival. To the extent that homosexual unions exacerbate that problem as it certainly will, women and children will suffer the most. The male deficiencies are ontological, moral and social.

              2. See Father Hans

              3. Adultery is the only Scriptural reason for divorce because it literally adulterates and severs the “one flesh” union that marriage is supposed to be. Abuse can logically be similar because the abuser is harming their own flesh in a self-destructive manner. No-fault divorce gives the impression that there is no fault and that divorces are easy and pain free. That is, of course, tragically wrong. Divorce harms all parties involved, especially children. No-fault divorce was the original counterfeit IMO that has led to increasing rates of co-habiting fornication and serial monogamy. It was the government’s regulation, or rather failure to uphold in law the foundation and purpose of marriage that helped foster this. It was, however, the polymorphous perversity of our culture and atomizing self-will that is its root. Legally approved homosexual unions are just another step in that continuum with the added problem of going further away from the ontological reality of human beings and the male-female synergy that entails.

              4. I have live around and worked with a high concentration of homosexual people in my life having been immersed in the theater and dance worlds for many years as a young man. Never saw any issue in either of those venues. I think it has become more of a problem with the advent of AIDS and the vulgar “in your face” attitude of many homosexual activists.

              5. Is society “better off” with homosexuals marrying heterosexuals? While I know this happens, there is no basis for making a judgment on that. Again, if the homosexual partner is a man, he needs to act like a man by living a life of self-sacrifice and support of his partner and any family they have. That would indeed improve society. Similarly if the homosexual member is the woman. If there is deception involved, that makes it more difficult. Certainly if adultery with same sex partners is involved, that is a real problem. In any case, I know of no one who is seriously proposing such unions as a general solution. It is simply a rhetorical flourish and not particularly edifying.

              The real solution is involved in something Fr. Hans mentions–stop identifying as “gay” or “homosexual” or any such thing combined with the #6 of Michael S. is the solution. It is not easy, but then allowing God to reorder any of our broken psyches is a struggle. Society, government and law are always a reflection of how well we are doing in that struggle collectively, but they are trailing indicators. As Michael S has said repeatedly if the Church and other Christians had been watchful and proactive 50 years ago, we might not have reached this stage at all. That does not mean we do nothing now, but it certainly makes our task much more difficult.

              All sin is death even if that death seems comfortable to us. Simply declaring it not to be so, as Satan in the Garden did, does not change the reality. Only by participating in the life of the risen Christ can we participate in His victory over death.

              • Fr. Johannes Jacobse says

                I like Michael Bauman’s answer to question #5. If a man struggling with same-sex attraction has kids, be a man and take care of the kids. Don’t dump your wife so you can have sex with other men.

                Not so sure about the Church being more pro-active fifty years ago though. Much of the cultural collapse has to do with the insufficiency of the Protestantized anthropology of American Civil Religion. It sees morality in juridical, rather than ontological terms, making the clash with concepts such as orientation (where orientation is perceived as ontology) inevitable.

                • James Bradshaw says

                  Thanks for the comments, all. I would also agree with #5.

                • Michael Bauman says

                  Father Hans, I was not suggesting that the Church should have been more public, just more proactive on teaching the faith and contrasting it to what was going on in the culture. Too much “fit in” mind set. Although that is entirely understandable. I know my priest started talking about it in adult education classes and an occasional sermon about 15 years ago. He has become more forceful recently.

                  Yes the clash would still have occurred, but we in the Church would be better prepared.

                  It is not as if it were at all hidden. I could see it beginning long before I became Orthodox, but I lived in San Francisco for awhile in middle 70’s. When I saw the clothing and grooming styles that had begun in the homosexual enclaves there popping up in Kansas a few years later, I knew that the clash was not only inevitable, but that the majority would go down without a fight. While in San Francisco one night I was on the front stoop of the building in which I lived (a Christian commune known as such in the neighborhood) not far from a lesbian bar. As a couple of the ladies stumbled home drunk, they took the time and effort to look up at me and shout loud curses at me for being Christian and hating them.

                  Interestingly enough the AIDS epidemic actually seemed to further the homosexual cause. Never have figured that one out.

                  But I suppose these sorts of things always seem to be sprung on the Church and her people. The question is how do we respond now: by acquiescing or with prophetic courage, grace and mercy.

              • Pdn Brian Patrick Mitchell says

                1. Women have always worked to support the family until the advent of the industrial revolution. The atomization of the family has much more to do with taking men out of the home for long periods of time as the “sole breadwinner”.

                I’m afraid this is a modern myth grossly misrepresenting the historical reality. In every age, the poor have done what they have had to to survive, but virtually all civilizations and societies have been based on a division of labor putting men to work outside the home and women to work inside it.

                The Industrial Revolution did draw men from their fields and their shops, but it also drew women and children out of their homes to work alongside men in factories. This caused such alarm that laws were passed in the late 19th century to limit factory work by both women and children. So the breadwinner model was not a product of industrialization but a reaction against it returning society to a more familiar order.

                • Michael Bauman says

                  I see your point certainly I over simplified. I was trying to get at the atomization. You did it better.

  3. Michael Bauman says

    Ronda, he is being serious. The only thing that would make it better is if the was no contention about anything. Thus the if “anyone has an abortion, they don’t talk about it”.

  4. M. Stankovich says

    On the one hand, it is impossible to disagree with Fr. Alexander – or at least with the sentiment of the excerpt offered – yet, on the other hand, at the Mid-Pentecost, can we have already forgotten the first Gospel of the Matins of Holy Friday and the Lord’s explicit instruction, “But these things have I told you, that when the time shall come, you may remember that I told you of them.” (Jn. 16:4)

    If the world hate you, you know that it hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love his own: but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you. Jn. 15:18:20

    I would hope that Fr. Alexander’s title and call for “bishops with muscle” and “men who speak the truth” also agrees with Fr. Florovsky’s comments in The Valley of the Shadow of Death (which he notes is little more than what is found in the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great): that we first and foremost repent; that we pray for peace within the Church and for the Episcopate; prevent schism; and quickly destroy the uprising of heresies. How will we speak the Truth from a House of chaos?

    My opinion is that we, as the harbinger and defenders of the Faith, are strongest when we follow the instruction of St. Paul:

    Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph. 6:13-17)

    which also includes the words of the Fathers and the Holy Tradition. Only with these are we truly prepared for whatever the society produces, and will continually recall the words of the Lord, “Truly, truly, I say to you, That you shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and you shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy.” (Jn. 16:20)

    I commend Fr. Alexander for boldly addressing this issue.

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