Combating Secularism's Most Serious Sin: Indifference
By Fr. George Morelli
In several articles I have written, I incorporated a quiz. The quiz encourages self-reflection. It shows us answers to questions we may have taken for granted, and reveals how we perceive the world around us and the values we hold that sustain those views. Psychologist Albert Bandura (1987), summarizing social behavioral research, noted that people "act in terms of their value preferences." Bandura's research affirms wisdom given long ago: "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man." (Matthew 15: 19-20)
Thus, a quiz: What is the greatest sin being committed now among mankind? Try to look into your own minds and hearts and answer the question in terms of your self.
As a pastor and clinical psychologist I find that most people give answers based on a subjective evaluation of the severity of an act. For example, some would say abortion is the worst sin, due to the sheer number of human lives lost by murder. Based on the same principle of lives lost, others would saythe Armenian, Stalin, Nazi, and Idi Amin genocides or current day atrocities like Somalia or the Sudan. Orthers may focus on the visual brutality of a crime like a murder involving a graphic dismemberment of the human body. Some may focus on the vulnerability of the victim such as a sexually abused young child or crimes against the aged or handicapped.
None of these answers are wrong. I suggest however, that these answers are second-tier. A core sin underlies them all.
The core sin
A sin that underlies much sin is indifference. St. Thalassios gave us a definition of indifference: "Listlessness is an apathy of soul; and a soul becomes apathetic when sick with self indulgence." (Philokalia II) Indifference has two effects; it either allows us to commit the sins mentioned above, or paradoxically, not to view such sins as sins at all. St. John of the Ladder viewed indifference as "insensitivity." He wrote: "Insensitivity is deadened feeling in body and spirit and comes from long sickness and carelessness. Lack of awareness is negligence that has become habit. It is thought gone numb...." (Philokalia II)
St. Luke (11:23) records Christ's instruction to his disciples: "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters." The holy apostle and evangelist John wrote the words of Our Lord who came to him: "'I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked." (Revelation 3:15-17)
St. Diadochos of Photiki wrote of the spiritual effects of indifference (which he also labeled listlessness). It prevents us from "feeling any strong desire for the blessings prepared for us in the life to come...it depreciates spiritual life itself." St Diadochos also saw the tragic earthly effects of this pernicious sin, saying it "seeks to disparage this transient life excessively, as not possessing anything of value." (Philokalia I)
The Apostles and Fathers said that if we do not remember God, we do not value spiritual things. We will not value the world God created and will see no value in mankind whom He created in His image and likeness. With this level of indifference, why not murder, steal, rape and observe all such horrors being done to others around us with no care on our part?
A spiritual genealogy of indifference
St. Gregory of Sinai established the spiritual genealogy of indifference citing delusion as its immediate predecessor. Delusion works by making us "unaware there exists a God." (Philokalia IV) The progenitors of delusion are arrogance and mental derangement. Arrogance in particular can ensnare a person by "images and fantasies which can lead to beguiling, diabolical, licentious intoxication." St. Gregory of Sinai spoke about the world he lived in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries which was a simpler and more bucolic world than contemporary society. The lifestyle of one of the most impoverished groups in medieval times is described by one historian: "Serfs had simple diets and traveling minstrels and entertainers came to the manor. Serfs rarely left the manors, knew almost nothing of the outside world, and usually didn't rebel." (See http://mr_sedivy.tripod.com/med_hist2.html.)
I cannot imagine St. Gregory contemplating the stimulants for ensnarement that exist in today's world in which almost no sensory experience is spared and is even pushed to the technological frontier: highly amplified laser strobe lights, booming cacophonous sounds, vivid odors, graphic touches, and all the permutations and combinations thereof. Now we have computer-generated virtual reality using all of the above so that one can fight war, commit the most dastardly crimes (murder, mayhem), or engage in orgiastic sex in the comfort of one's home.
Indifference as forgetfulness
In discussing the petition in the Prayer of St. Ephraim which states, "Take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk," Olivier Clement noted,
'Sloth,' in this instance, is not of the kind we experience on a lazy summer vacation. Sloth means forgetfulness, to which the ascetics refer as 'greatest of all sins.' Forgetfulness means the inability to be amazed, to marvel or even see.... It is a frame of mind in which the only relevant criteria become utility, profitability and the correlation between price and quality...an over-crowded agenda...where every activity leads to another...violence, drugs...forget God and His creation...forget death and possible meaning beyond it...[it becomes] a spiritual neurosis...the means of forgetting....
Lest someone think these are simply the observations of a modern spiritual writer, reflect on the words of our holy Spiritual Father, St. Mark the Ascetic (early 5th Century):
For when the soul is overcome by pernicious forgetfulness, by destructive laziness, and by ignorance, the mother and nurse of every vice, the afflicted intellect in its blindness is readily enchained by everything that is seen, thought or heard. For instance, when we see a beautiful woman, our intellect is at once wounded by sensual desire. (Philokalia I)
St. Mark went on to describe what follows: memories occur of past behaviors incited by "impassioned pleasure," sinful images of unchaste behavior come to mind, and the body is "now moved to lust." (Philokalia I)
The spiritual cure: remembrance of God
St. Diadochos of Photiki taught that "To avoid this passion...we must confine our mind...devoting ourselves solely to the remembrance of God."(Philokalia I) St. Hesychios the Priest wrote in Philokalia I:
The life of attentiveness, brought on by fruition in Christ Jesus, is the father of contemplation and spiritual knowledge. Linked to humility, it engenders divine exaltation and thoughts of the wisest kind. The prophet Isaiah said: "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings and soar aloft through the power of the Lord." (Isiah 40:31)
St. Diadochos taught that remembrance of God can only be accomplished through prayer. "When we have blocked all [the intellect's] means of the remembrance of God, the intellect requires some task which will satisfy its need...we should give it nothing but the prayer 'Lord Jesus.'" The saint then explained these words can only come "in the Holy Spirit." (I Cor. 12:3 says, "No one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit.") With this meditation, they can come to see the light of the name of Jesus "burning up all the filth which covers the surface of the soul." It is just this filth that allows us to be indifferent. Those who are indifferent are spiritually blind. The prophet Moses told God's people of His First Covenant: "For the Lord your God is a devouring fire." (Deut. 4: 24) Not only can we see the "light that is God," but the relation of all creation and especially all mankind to Him. Indifference becomes impossible as zealous love of God and man replaces it. St. Maximus the Confessor reminds us: "He who has realized love for God in his heart is tireless, as Jeremiah says (cf. Jer. 17:16), in his pursuit of the Lord his God...never thinking the least evil against anyone." (Philokalia II)
This call to prayer is also counseled by St. Mark the Ascetic who so veraciously described forgetfulness as noted above:
With the help of God...descend into the depths of the heart, and search out these three powerful giants of the devil--forgetfulness, laziness and ignorance.... Take up the weapons of righteousness what are directly opposed them: mindfulness of God, for this is the cause of all blessings...and drives out of itself the darkness of ignorance.
In previous articles I have pointed out how important it is for parents and child caretakers to "practice what they preach." This advice is based on the copious research on child development indicating the crucial role of modeling in influencing child behavior (Bandura, 1986; Morelli, 2005a,b, 2006). In another article I point out the efficacy of the various models children are exposed to which significantly influence their behavior:
If a parent capitulates to the culture, then the culture will assume the teaching authority of the parent. Several decades ago research psychologists demonstrated that there was no real difference between real life and mediated models (cartoons, movies, books) in terms of their effect on a child's perceptions about sexuality and other important moral issue. (Morelli, 2007)
This same behavioral research demonstrates that modeling has an important effect in shaping values. Values can be produced or altered vicariously by the child observing favorable or unfavorable experiences of significant valued others (models). (Barnwell, 1966)
The importance of values in influencing behavior cannot be over-stressed. Bandura concludes: "The degree of change in evaluative reactions predicts the amount of behavior change." This means the role of parents, child caretakers and other authority figures is of crucial importance in determining the values of children. Two factors have to be considered: their roles as models in terms of the behavior they themselves are displaying, and the role of other models to which they allow their children to be exposed.
As an example, two high-profile lifestyles prevalent in modern pagan secular society can be given. Bandura's conclusions again are important: Sexual modeling creates more favorable attitudes toward sex, especially less familiar practices that have previously met with disapproval.... In the area of aggression, exposure to televised violence increases preferences to aggressive solutions to interpersonal conflicts...." Modern society is not indifferent to sex and aggression, modern society is indifferent to Christ and His teachings.
Parents as teachers of Christ
Both the spiritual and psychological elements related to our current societal malaise point to the critical role of parents in shaping the values of their children and being at the forefront of the fight against the serious core sin of indifference to Christ and His teachings.
Measuring our values
In a multiple choice quiz identifying religious affiliation, most readers of this article would probably indicate that they are a Christian of some sort. Of course my prayer and thanks to all who may read this who are not Christian, but are of "good will," as in the prayer of St. Luke (2:14) says: "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of good will." Let all, however, take a much deeper quiz. This is a quiz without prompts and is open-ended. In behavioral research it would be called a "Sentence Completion Test." First take it yourself:
"When thinking about myself, I see myself as ___________________?"
Then have each member of your family take it in reference to the other family members.
"When I think of my (husband-father, wife-mother, son, daughter) I see (him/her) as __________________?
Adults and older children should give more elaborate answers such as a descriptive paragraph. Younger children, seven to eight years or below, are more likely to give one-word answers.
To score the quiz look at the key terms in the answers. "My husband is a good provider, a hard worker." "My dad loves sports." "He is a great golf player." "My wife always has supper on the table for me." "Mom never complains about driving me around." "My son is really great at wrestling." "My daughter is first in her class in school." When I have given this quiz, usually quite informally, in pastoral counseling, or in workshop or retreat settings, these are typical answers given. Even when asked to elaborate on their answers most often the answers have the same content. Note that in these answers the examples are not evil in themselves. What is noticeable is not what is said it is what is not said. In all these answers there is no notice of Christ. In other words: indifference.
Conversion: heart and works
Recall the introductory quote to this article: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Matthew 6 21). Consider Our Lord's words to the Pharisees: "You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: 'This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.'" (Matthew 15: 7-9) Apparently what we have taught one another about ourselves are the "precepts of men." Wives and husbands, fathers and mothers, their children see each other in terms of the values of the world. Where are the values of Christ? Where is reference to Christian holiness, virtue and sanctity? Where are answers like: I see (husband, wife, mother, father, child):
- With deep love of God
- Starting all activities with a prayer
- Demonstrating the kindness of Christ
- Having zeal to help all in Christ's name
- Accepting God's will
- Showing godly grief over the ills being committed in the world
- Always treating people honestly
- Teaching me I am to love God above all things
- Reading the scriptures and church fathers with us as a family
- Asking us what Christ would say about a news event or program on television
- Setting me straight, but always with the love of Christ
Let us recall that our primary purpose on earth is to know, love and serve God; eventually attain Him indwelling in us that we may "become partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4) We are called to be saints. Since we are called to be saints, let us look at the lives of three saints who grew up in Orthodox Christian homes. In his description of the upbringing of St. Dorotheos of Gaza, Wheeler (1977) writes that the saint's life experiences " ... would argue [for] a solid Christian home life." George Bebis in his introduction to the Spiritual Counsels of St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain (Chamberas, 1989) writes of the early life of the saint: "His parents were pious people...he was distinguished by his exceptional alertness, his industry, his labors and his love for religious and secular learning." Monk Paisius in describing the young life of St. Paisius Velichkovsky, (St. Paisius Velichkovsky, 1994), who revitalized Orthodox spirituality in the 18th century, tells us in his early years his "..soul and heart tasted the truth through the Church services, the writings of the Holy Fathers, and above all the Sacred Scriptures -- and he wanted the fullness of Christ's revelation." And later the biographer monk writes: "This distinguished St. Paisius from a 17-year-old of today. Having a foretaste of the life to come, he clearly knew what was being sought --- union with the Truth."
Many saints, of course, did not grow up in a Christian household and by God's grace were converted in their later years. The difference is that by a Christian marriage, parents have the grace and obligation to make saints of themselves and their children starting from birth. This is the talent given to parents by their marital grace. It behooves parents and all child caretakers to heed Our Lord's warning: "Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required..." Recall the consequences Jesus warned of in the parable of the servant who buried his talent: "For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth'" (Matthew 25: 29-30).
The holy fathers told us about "remembrance of God." It is all about God. It is all about Christ. Christ has to be the center of our hearts. I remember a television commercial some years ago. "First I buy my Calvins, then I pay my rent." I remember being scandalized by the perverted value inversion being promoted by secular society less than a generation ago: Buy your luxuries, before paying your obligations or purchasing necessities. Of course now it is worse, now it is the ultimate perversion: indifference to Christ: First I (or my child) play a game (or sleep in), then I may (or more likely do not) go to church.
The first step: decision for Christ
The first step in overcoming the core sin of indifference is for parents to make the decision to make Christ the center of their lives and the center of their homes. This decision by the leaders of the domestic church to reorganize their values and focus on Christ cannot be superficial. The remembrance of God, the centrality of Christ, must be in the center of their hearts. As St. Paul told the Ephesian community (Ephesians 3:14-17):
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from Whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory He may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts.
To see God one has to be pure in heart and mind
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." (Matthew 5:8) Nothing more has to be said except to understand what Our Lord meant by these words.
This metanoia, or change of "the mind in the heart," cannot be accomplished if obstructed. God cannot be seen when He is blocked by the vision of jeans, jewelry or gadgets. God cannot be heard when He is drowned out by the cacophonous sounds of the modern world. Jesus told us: "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon." (Matthew 6:24) It is now our choice: secularism or God? Children are keen observers of parents. They know their parents' values by the choices they see them making.
Starting purification: pray always
There are two counsels of St. Paul to guide us: "Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication" (Ephesians 6:18); and "pray constantly." (1 Thessalonians 5:17) Parents have to commit, make a decision to follows these counsels. St. Theophan the Recluse (The Art of Prayer) explains to us what St. Paul's instruction to the Ephesians means. It means to pray "very ardently, with pain in the heart and a burning striving toward God."
Purity of heart (and mind) and prayer are synergistic. Synergy means that the combined effect of two or more practices is greater than either one alone. In this case, to see God with a pure heart we have to pray, to pray we have to see God. The more we pray, the more of God we see; the more of God we see, the more we pray.
This prayer is not accidental and confined to certain times of day. It is a world-view. It is putting on the lens of God through which to see the world. With parents as models doing this, recalling that grace builds on nature, children can acquire the same Godly zeal for prayer.
Acquiring a godly worldview
What is a Godly world-view? Let me list a few examples, with scriptural references, that may be helpful to parents:
The beauty of the world around us (a cloud formation, a flower) and the tragedy of its destruction (wanton killing of animals, global warming): "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day pours out the word to day, and night to night imparts knowledge." (Psalm 18:1-2)
God's love for us: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16)
"In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins." (1 John 4:9-10)
God died for us: "And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him." (Luke 23:33)
"But I am a worm, and no man; scorned by men, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me, they make mouths at me, they wag their heads...." (Psalm 21:6-7)
"Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!" And having said this he breathed his last." (Luke 23:46)
Thanksgiving to God for all things: "Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then said Jesus, "Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" (Lk. 17:15-18)
The world is vanity: "For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again." (Ecclesiastes 3: 19-20)
"For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits. Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him." (James 1:11-12)
Forgiveness: "And Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." (Luke 23: 34)
"Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; A disciple is not above his teacher, but every one when he is fully taught will be like his teacher. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?" (Luke 6:36-37,40-41)
Love, kindness and other virtues: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." (Luke 10:27)
"Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful." (Colossians 3:12-15)
To discern ills and evil (poverty, hunger, torture such as waterboarding): "Open your mouth for the dumb, for the rights of all who are left desolate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, maintain the rights of the poor and needy." (Proverbs 31: 8-9)
"'Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?' And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.'" (Matthew 25: 37-40)
Love means good actions: "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone." (Jas. 2:24)
Repentence: "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." (John 20: 22-23)
"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us." (1 John 1: 9-10)
Let all Orthodox Christian parents, indeed all Christians who want to overcome the pernicious evils of our times, especially the indifference to God, and what He is, meditate on these words of St. John: "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him." (1 John 4:16) Because the opposite of love is evil, darkness: eternal darkness.
Rather, as St. John tells us: "God is light and in him is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5). "Jesus spoke to them, saying, "I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." (John 8:12) As the priest lights the candles of the worshipers in the Orthodox Christian Paschal Service, he chants: "Come ye, take light from the Light, that is never overtaken by night. Come glorify the Christ, risen from the dead." We can reach out and be enlivened by the light of Christ: Eternal Light.
Jesus has never stopped, and will never stop, reaching out to us: "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love." (John 15:9) In this way indifference will be overcome. This combat has to started and be led by parents in their domestic churches and then the truth of Christ can be carried out to the rest of the world. In closing, let us further consider the beautiful theological poem of St. Ephraim the Syrian:
Truth and love are wings that cannot be separated,
For truth without Love is unable to fly,
So too Love without Truth is unable to soar up:
Their yoke is one of harmony.'"
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1. The Prayer of St. Ephraim is said by Eastern Christians in Church services and private prayer especially during the Lenten Season:
O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk;
Grant rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou unto ages of ages. Amen.
2. Vicarious Learning is a technical term in behavioral science indicating that what is observed as being felt or undergone by a model is being felt and/or undergone by the observer as if the observer were actually undergoing the experience or feelings of the model. Vicarious learning has been shown to be as effective as actually having the experiences oneself.
V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist, Coordinator of the Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling Ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, (www.antiochian.org/counse...) and Religion Coordinator (and Antiochian Archdiocesan Liaison) of the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion. Fr. George is Assistant Pastor of St. George's Antiochian Orthodox Church, San Diego, California.