|Why I Believe|
Book Talk By Archpriest Andrei Tkachev, Translated by Erich Makarov
This translation is different than the previous few as it is not a sermon. It is taken from a conference on Father Andrei’s newly-published book, ‘Why I Believe — Simple Answers to Complex Questions’. A note on the translation: certain quotes and passages are omitted as they require a thorough knowledge of Russian literature and language on the part of the reader. The highly idiomatic nature of certain quotes makes their translation practically impossible.
“I will begin with an anecdote. Before I do, I want to make it clear that I genuinely believe that everything interesting, everything fiery, sweet, savory, upwards-looking, everything that leaves a mark, and everything head-spinning, and everything giving meaning, and everything untying knots in hearts, and everything bringing people together — sometimes tearing them apart in different directions — in short, everything good in the world and as Pasternak wrote in his poem Christmas Star, ‘All the Christmas trees in the world, and all the colored tinsel’ — all of it is born out of religion. Where there is no interest in religiosity, where there is no taste for religious questions, where there is no desire or ability to discuss religious topics — there can be nothing beautiful. That is my sincerest conviction. Because everything great is either directly religious or quasi-religious.
I am speaking of religion in general. Of course, I believe that Orthodox Christianity possesses a unique truth and that all other religions are closer or further from this truth. I firmly believe that if life is dull and tasteless, if your stare is blank, and if you do not understand why you need to keep going forward — then either your inner religious lampada (icon-light) has been put out, or it was never lit in the first place, or something is wrong in your relationship with God. And so to the promised anecdote — it is more of a parable than an anecdote, an illustration of what I have already stated. Once upon a time, there was an atheist — a man who sharpened his rhetorical skills and intellect through years of merciless debate with all sorts of scholars. He had a terrifyingly great knowledge of history and theology. He had a very profound understanding of the canons of all major religions and especially the weaknesses inherent in any given denomination. And in numerous relentless discussions with religious individuals, he left no chance of success to those who wanted to defend their faith. He was feared by priests, rabbis ran from him, and mullahs crossed the street to avoid encountering him.
One day, a young man decided that he wanted to learn from this famous atheist and came to him saying,
‘I want you to be my teacher — I am fascinated by everything you say, and I share your convictions. I simply do not possess the breadth of knowledge that you do. But I agree with you, and I am also an atheist. I absolutely couldn’t care less about afterlife and the dogma that comes with it.’
To this, the older atheist replied, ‘Wait, I must ask you a few things. Have you ever heard a choir of nuns singing during an all-night vigil?’
‘No you must have misunderstood me — I have no interest in such things. I do not go into monasteries.’
‘Have you ever seen the faces of people who are committing the Hajj or returning from the Hajj?’
‘No, you misunderstand. I don’t care about the Hajj — I am an atheist.’
‘Hold on. Have you ever spent a night in a cell next to a monk and listened to his tear-filled prayers all night? Have you met a single ascetic in your life?’
And the young man continues to reply with the same flustered response. The older atheist continues to question him.
‘Do you know long, on average, a Rabbi spends reading holy books in a day? Why so many of them need glasses and why so many of them lose their proper sight so young? Or how much they are required to read?’
‘Do you know how long the Köln cathedral took to build?’
‘Then you are not an atheist, you are an idiot. Your atheism is not built upon any foundation.’
I think this parable is a very useful one. It takes many different forms, but overall it reflects the very same idea that we began this discussion with — that everything beautiful and glorious springs up from a religious seed. In fact, these seeds are often very small and difficult to notice at first. One only has to look at the history of Trinity-Sergius Lavra and its vast church complex that surrounds the monastery, and its beautiful walls, and the wonderful seminary that exists on its lands and will continue to exist. One only has to imagine the waves of people which rolled into it in the past, and continue to frequent it to this day. And having pictured this, one must go through a brief mental exercise and remember that several centuries ago, this land was as an impassable, wild forest.
These forests were so cold and wretched that no-one lived in or around them — until one young man with a shovel, hatchet, and a Bible named Bartholomew (later Sergius)decided to begin a life of solitary prayer. His older brother, who had originally joined him, could not endure the the difficulties and ran away. Bears, rather than people, would come to Sergius as guests. This young man put up a cross, built his monastic cell, and put himself to work. What kind of work? His life was focused on conversation with God and very careful learning from the one or two holy books he had brought with him. It is well known that he read the akathist to the Theotokos every day, and that she sent him a vision of numerous white birds. These birds symbolized the many souls that would come to be saved in the Lavra and that Mary would not leave this place to its fate.
And so, decades and centuries pass, and on this remote land — one that was avoided for its unforgiving cold and infertility — an entire city springs up, a city of monks, a well of church scholars, a fertile plot for numerous saints. The city that springs up is one that saves Russia from the invasions of the Poles in 1612. And this all began when one young man pushed through thicket and made his home in the wilderness. Since today we have a tendency to view things in a cinematographic fashion, it would be much easier for us to imagine the history of the Lavra as a very short film. And if we take this 700-year history, from the 14th century to the 21st, and condense it into a 30-second film, then we will see a paradoxical thing. Barely two second would be taken up by the life and work of Saint Sergius, and then immediately afterward churches and walls would rise up from the ground amidst bustling activity. And then bang, at thirty seconds we’d see a massive Lavra — the one we see today.
This applies to all things. It is not only the case in Russia, although Russians do play very unique and privileged notes in the spiritual symphony of humanity. This, of course, does not mean that other peoples are deaf and do not contribute to the symphony in their own way. Different peoples have different parts in the greater composition — and some have already sung their parts, while others have yet to sing them. Religion is the driving force behind the contribution of any given peoples. Those peoples that lose their religion, also lose the metaphysical justification for their existence. All nations must have some form of metaphysics backing their being and their actions. If this metaphysics is taken away, or lost, or thrown out, then the nation loses the justification for its existence — no more, no less. I am not being hyperbolic, I am merely stating a fact. All you have to do is lose the metaphysical justification for you existence, and you might as well sign in the book of Life that you have no reason to live. You would be signing your own death sentence. This applies to individuals, nations, and civilizations.
This is what I would like to discuss, because the theme of God is in many ways a taboo. It is a topic that many people are afraid or embarrassed to discuss. ‘Please, let’s just talk about something else. How about weather?’ Yes, you may talk from dusk till dawn about the weather. However, we have warm homes, warm clothes, warm boots, and ample food — we are not fishermen — weather is a serious topic of conversation only for those who must regularly interact with it.
What other topics of conversation are there? Politics. Politics is also a very sensitive topic, as modern life is highly politicized. Some even get into fistfights over it.
What else is there to talk about? Let’s take the average person living in our country today — one that doesn’t read a whole lot. What else is there — movies. Movies are exceedingly becoming redundant, there is nothing unique to say about any given movie. Each new blockbuster is the same as the one before it — the only difference is the name of the director and occasionally the actors. This is what Job was speaking about when he stated, ‘Can that which is tasteless be eaten without salt, or is there any taste in the slime of the purslane?’ Today’s movies are mash, they are pig feed, they are prison food.
And once again we return to the question — what is there to talk about? Why not God? Because for some it is daunting to speak about God, for others it is embarrassing, for others it is difficult, and the rest simply have nothing worth saying. This situation really bothers me, and it most likely bothers you as well because of how sad it is. Why is it that our society cannot find the words to engage in conversation on the greatest possible topic?
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov said that a person needs to either have faith or search for it, otherwise he is an empty person. We know, of course, that Anton Pavlovich was not the model pious Christian — he had a very interesting path: a very devout childhood, and a very detached adulthood which united to shape his entire life. He associated his childhood and religion with his tyrannical father who made the children pray many times a day and strictly follow the Lenten calendar. The children grew up, and having escaped the household, lost their religion. But he said these words — a person needs to have faith or search for it, otherwise he is an empty person. This is true.
He also said that the distance between faith and faithlessness is not an arm-length but the distance of a great field. In order to go from faithlessness to faith, one must walk a great distance, and vice versa because such a path also exists. As we know, there are books about ‘Why I believe’ and many books about ‘Why I do not believe’. The West is voraciously consuming the works of individuals who explain why they do not believe. Whether this is an artificial demand created behind closed doors or the genuine direction of Western souls, the Western literary scene is dominated by books explaining ‘Why I do not believe’. And this field between faith and faithlessness is not a plane, but rather an uneven landscape with numerous ups and downs. And trekking on this path can take up your entire life; however, this is the most important journey one can take in life. It is the human life.
My personal desire is that we speak more frequently about our Lord. My desire is that we include Him at least with humble and simple mentions in society, such as in our national anthem: ‘ The land of my birth protected by God’. This lyric is completely harmless to people of any religion — a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian can all hear the reference to God and be happy with it. Even such modest references to the All-Mighty ‘for to You belong all glory, honor, and worship’ as is said in the Great Litany of the divine liturgy. He is entitled to our discussion of Him. It is essential that people discuss and share their understanding of faith or faithlessness.
The famous sixth chapter of Isaiah discusses how the Seraphim sing their thrice-holy song — ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.’ They are not singing this song to God, but to each other. They are not singing to God that He is holy, there are other such prayers. In this case, they are singing to each other: ‘Holy is the Lord!’ to which the reply is ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord!’ In other words, they get pleasure from repeating this well-known fact to each other. Who knows better than the Seraphim that God is holy? One might wonder, why then are they repeating it so many times? But that is a silly question. Take, for example, people who say, ‘Oh, I’ve read the Bible,’ — implying they’ve read it and have nothing more to learn from it. They think, ‘Why would I read the same thing twice?’ And they are extremely misled if they believe this. It turns out that even the most banal of proclamations need to be repeated and revisited, because there is no such thing as banality when it comes to the Holy.
Everything that pertains to God and His laws immediately loses its banality. Every time his precepts are repeated they take on new meaning. This concept is the source of major debates among preachers, since so many preachers function under the assumption that their listeners already know certain basic concepts. Thus, the preacher always wants to find something new and groundbreaking to share with his audience — he does not want to tell them the same thing in every sermon. And yet, the cycle of our Sunday liturgical readings is constructed so that we read the same thing every single year. This genuinely frustrates many of our preachers — some even believe that no priest should be attached to the same parish for more than five years. This is based on the idea that in five years, he would be able to rehash his ideas so much that his sermons would be redundant.
Some might ask, ‘Why do I need to be told over and over again not to steal. I know that it is a sin.’ But when you stop to think that stealing can also apply to concepts such as time, honor, glory, reputation — you realize that there are numerous forms of theft that require exploration and explanation. There are as many ways to steal as there are to murder. Often all that is required of a preacher is to return to something seemingly simple — to pick it up off the ground where it has been lying in dust, to wash it, and to present it to the listener with newly-found wisdom and zeal. And a good preacher can do this year after year.
This is one of the main motivations behind my work. It always seems that I have nothing more to contribute, but each time I sit down to write something new appears. If two people decide to paint their fences using the same brushes, paint, and wood, the result will nevertheless be different. Two people working on the same task will never produce identical results, and neither will two preachers, and neither will two writers. And in general, no two people working in the intellectual and theological spheres can truly plagiarize. Because if you have encountered someone else’s ideas, discussed them, understood them, and shared them, then you have not stolen — you have fulfilled the purpose of that material in the first place.
I will also add that I see the discussion and exploration of God as both warfare and a great pleasure. Reading, discussing, assessing, searching for a forum for sharing ideas, and finding ways to incorporate into our lives that which we learn (actually that’s a false dilemma as it is very easy to incorporate that which you love into your life — once something enters your heart it will always reveal itself in your actions). And I find that this activity is a pleasure on one hand and a war on the other. There are many forms of warfare — just as there are many forms of theft — and warfare is eternal. Internal warfare, for example, is a constant in our spiritual lives. As Paul said, our thoughts both condemn and justify us — they are at war with each other. Soul and body are constantly in a state of war — the soul wants things displeasing to the body, and the body wants things displeasing to the soul. Each one of us knows this war: it is a real war of the person with himself. And the front line goes right through the heart. Men and women are in a state of war, and will not be able to reconcile until Judgement Day. Man wants something from woman, and woman wants something from man, neither truly understands what the other wants from them. It is like an argument between a blind and a deaf person. They are constantly aggrieved by each other, and blame each other for their problems. This is war.
Not to mention the fact that the Devil is at war with us. When we were baptized, we rejected him — we spit at him. It is important to remind yourself that baptism involves spitting in the direction of the Devil, a symbolic spit westward meaning that if he were standing there, you would spit on him. And as harmless as this custom may seem, you must understand that the Devil received a spit in the face from every single baptized person. He will not forget this act. Our war with him is to the death, you can be sure of this. Either he will return to his place in hell or he will consume us entirely. And there can be no reconciliation — a Christian cannot reconcile with the Devil. This is also a war.
You can count many more fronts on which the cannons of spirituality are firing. And if the war on these numerous fronts is lost, or even goes unnoticed — for example, someone listening to me right now might think, ‘What is he talking about? What war? I am just living my life, just go to the movies, just watching TV, just listening to the news, just eating a sandwich, just picking my nose, just taking a shower — what war?’ — if a person does not notice the war, or acknowledges it and loses it, that’s when we see the final war. This is the war that we are all accustomed to. There is genuine bloodshed, genuine fighting — but this war only occurs after the internal war has been lost or ignored. Real wars, with their beheading, refugees, tortures, bombings of civilian areas — these wars begin only when every single internal war that came before has been lost. The internal wars in society, in the church, in culture, in the heart, in the family, between generations — once the problems in these fields reach a certain point, they boil over into a real war, only then.
So, when you read books, you prevent this war from occurring. I don’t necessarily mean the book that I have written — take even a simple childhood poem. You’ll find yourself involuntarily smiling — it’s almost like a prayer. I am being serious, everything that is kind and filled with love is useful to us. And when you are reading a book, or discussing a book with someone, or engaging in some form of cultural activity, or helping someone figure something out, then you are battling. You are experiencing a great and refined pleasure from wisdom that most people do not possess. Many people do not understand how good this wisdom is. Saint Augustine received his baptism at the age of thirty-two. When he spoke about God, he would say, ‘Late have I loved you, beauty so ancient and so new!’ He chose very beautiful and tender words to describe his relationship with God. Augustine went on to write in the Confessions where exactly he was at various points in his life, and where exactly God was. Very few people realize how sweet it is to see God in your life, how grand it is, and how difficult it is.
I must emphasize that it is important to read. Reading books is essential, because it is vital that an Orthodox person be an educated person. I believe it was Vladimir Soloviev (a Russian philosopher) who stated that the Christians of the future had to be educated. In our modern times, the simplistic, watered-down, custom-centered Christianity of the past is no longer enough. You know the one: ‘Mister are you a Christian?’ ‘Well of course, I was born in Ryazan.’ This kind of Christianity is not good enough. In other words, Christianity as a matter of geographical location, Christianity as a matter of a baking kulich (pascha) on Easter, Christianity as a matter of coloring eggs on Easter — and I am not saying these things are inherently bad — but Christianity that limits itself to these cultural factors is not going anywhere. And Soloviev predicted that to survive the onslaught of the many nuanced attacks on Christianity — nuanced and aggressive — it was essential to be an educated person.
Thankfully, we can say that we are moving in that direction. For example, let’s compare an average Russian Orthodox congregation to an average Protestant congregation. By the way, I am not passing judgement on Protestants. I know that many Orthodox converts even learned to read the Bible from Protestants, and for that we must be thankful. We must pray for them. But what makes our churches different from their’s is that in one service we can have a renowned professor and a college freshman standing side by side. In other words, professors — people with colossal amounts of knowledge — are not turned off by our services. Intellectuals, being exceedingly talented and intelligent, encountering various other worlds in their own scholarly spheres, find exactly what they want in our churches. And it is very difficult to imagine a distinguished and aged professor happily standing in a service with a ‘worship team’ playing guitars and singing about how much they love Jesus. Our church collects all kinds of people — we have many educated individuals, and this trend must be continued.
Since everyone knows how to read today, we must read as much as we can. We must strive toward greater education. And if there is one thing we can thank the Soviet regime for, it’s that it taught us how to read. It defeated illiteracy for the first time in history on the territory of the largest nation in the world. And with all the downsides of that regime, this one unambiguous advantage. So now we can read, and we must. Who knows what the future holds. Maybe reading will become the domain of society’s elites. Maybe education will become completely privatized and everyone will have to pay. Maybe our children will be like those in certain third world nations — polishing people’s shoes and delivering food, while only 5–6% of the population will read and hold meaningful professions. Who knows what the future will look like? But in the mean time we have access to a great source of wealth. All the treasure chests of the world lay open before us.
In the mass of educated, intellectual people living in the world today, the majority need to be Christians. I firmly believe this. And the reason I write these books and continue to preach is that within each and every believer there is a great potential. In the kingdom of man there is nothing simple. But as long as people are writing books, reading books, and thinking about God, we have a future. I want all of us to have a future, and this is worth working for.”