By Fr. Stephen Freeman, May 27, 2016
Nothing is equal because nothing is the same. All things are unique and unrepeatable. This is especially true of persons. Understanding this helps us deal with reality. But the mindset of our modern world suggests in a very seductive manner that things are quite different. It suggests that all things are indeed equal and that wherever inequality exists, it should be overthrown or corrected. Elsewhere, I have called this the “sin of democracy.” I do not mean that political arrangements that are democratic in nature are wrong. However, certain ideas in our modern world go far beyond political arrangements and suggest things about the nature of how things are. It is in these suggestions (and our accepting them as facts) that the “sin of democracy” can be found.
A quick note on positive aspects of democracy. I have always understood the political advantages of democracy as the ability to vote someone out of office – it is a protection against tyranny. It is not, however, a guarantee of good government, the best government, or wise government. It just means that with the vote, I can organize and vote something out that I want to change (maybe). Having said that, I want to give my attention to the spiritual aspect of what I mean by the “sin of democracy.”
The law wisely treats everyone as equal. Everyone should have equal rights before the law. But that will not make them equal. Medical personnel will likely have more accurate information about health matters than a six-year-old child. They are not equally qualified in medical matters. And that we recognize someone’s expertise does not mean we despise the less-qualified. However, we would be seriously insane if we treated all opinions as having equal weight.
What I mean by the “sin of democracy” is a sort of “interiorizing” of certain cultural assumptions and habits in such a manner that they become the matrix of our spiritual understanding. For example, the Scriptures make clear that not all people are spiritually “equal.” Some in the Kingdom of God are greater than others (which implies that some are less).
There are also celestial bodies and terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differs from another star in glory. (1Co 15:40-41)
This passage, treating the question of the resurrection of our bodies, has traditionally also been seen as a reference to differences in eternity between one person and another. Christ Himself speaks of some as being “greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven,” or as being “least in the Kingdom of Heaven.” In the same manner, He speaks of some as having a “greater condemnation” than others, implying greater and lesser sufferings in hell.
These distinctions undermine the legal framework of salvation taught by many who hold to a disordered understanding of salvation. There is an extreme version within the legal model that holds that we are saved by grace alone, with no regard whatsoever to our works. If our salvation is truly a legal matter, if God “considers” us righteous simply because we believe (and that’s the end of the matter), then why indeed would He consider one more righteous than another. Thus, a kind of equality of grace is argued because anything else would seem unjust (if there is no merit involved whatsoever). But in the classical model of salvation, “grace” is not God’s “unmerited favor,” (simply a matter of how God thinks about us), it is, quite literally, the Divine Life, the Divine Energies. It is the life and power of God given to us in order to change us and conform us to the Divine Image through our union with the Crucified and Risen Christ. And though no individual can possibly save themselves (because we cannot ourselves manufacture the Divine Energies), nonetheless, for varying reasons, some yield themselves more fully and completely to this work within them. Some, indeed, become great saints.
I say that this is for “varying reasons,” because we really cannot pierce within the mystery of each individual. There is doubtless some role played by the unique intention of God for their lives, but there are other mysteries which we cannot know. However, it is clear that “one star differs from another in glory.” For example, the Church says of the Mother of God that she is “more honorable than the cherubim, more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim.” This is clearly related both to her unique role in our salvation, as well as to her unique and total yielding of herself to God (“Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to Your word”).
The perversity of the democratic force within the spiritual life, however, reveals itself in our unwillingness to accept that someone might be greater than ourselves or more deserving of honor. Researching this matter, I ran across a question someone posed asking, “How can I be happy if someone receives more reward than I do?” I understand the question, but it is born of the perverse spirituality nurtured in a democracy that seeks to rule heaven itself.
The Kingdom of God (and all of reality) is hierarchical by nature. But its hierarchy is just that – a “sacred” (hieros) “order” (arche). In the case of Mary, we can see how this hierarchy is not that of the world with its competition and violence. Mary sings, “You have exalted the humble and meek and the rich you have sent away empty.” The mere “arche” of the world is measured by power (and its frequent abuse). The hierarchy of the world (sacred order), however, is a hierarchy of grace in which self-emptying love is the greatest thing of all.
The devotional habits of the Church seek to inculcate in our hearts a proper regard for this sacred order. The veneration given to the Mother of God, described as “hyperdulia” by the Fathers (“extreme honor”), teaches us not that she is equal to God, but that she is greater than I am. For strangely, when I refuse to grant that any other creature is greater than I am, then I am slowly drawn towards a heart that will not grant that the Creator Himself is greater. This gives us the refusal of the contemporary culture to acknowledge the limits of its own creature hood. We imagine that we can be anything we want to be and that we are the creators of our own reality. Such a “creator” can only be found in the mirror.
There is a legend, widely cited in the Tradition, that in the great Council of heaven, before the creation of humanity, the archangel Lucifer saw the Theotokos and the dignity to which she would be raised. It is said that this sight stung his pride and provoked his rebellion. He could not bear to think that a creature who was mere dust could be greater than all the hosts of heaven (including himself). In his rebellion, his anger was directed less at God and more at us, for we were the cause of his humiliation. Thus, he became a “murderer from the beginning” (Joh 8:44).
That same spirit, unrecognized, breathes in our culture and its rebellion against the true hierarchy of heaven. The saint less equality of a democratic heaven is, strangely enough, only a colony of hell. There, only the private light of self is allowed to shine, no other being permitted to eclipse it.
I like living in a democracy for certain reasons, but I do not imagine it as the only way to live, nor do I want it to infect my heart such that I cannot bear to be less than another. The Kingdom of heaven calls us to become the least of all. And even that paradoxical excellence escapes me.
Most Holy Mother of God, save us!
~Fr. Stephen Freeman, Glory to God for All Things, https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2016/05/27/democracy-kingdom-god/.