My son, give me your heart…
When I was younger and more naïve, I assumed that when somebody identified as a Christian, he meant it. That is, I assumed that his professed faith shaped his entire life; that he sought, as did Elder Sophrony of Essex, to make God’s “commandments … the sole law of [his] being on this earth and in all eternity.”1 But in this age of lukewarm Christianity, many seem to live by some variant of the saying, “It’s good to have a religion, but one shouldn’t be fanatical about it.”
This common advice is quite reasonable, of course, depending on how one defines “fanaticism”. Consider how St. Porphyrios of Kafsokalivia employed the term:
“Fanaticism has nothing to do with Christ. Be a true Christian. Then you won’t leap to conclusions about anybody, but your love will ‘cover all things’…You will care for a Muslim when he is need, speak to him and keep company with him.”2
Here fanaticism seems to be understood as a tendency to judge or to withhold love from others, including nonbelievers, and it is certainly necessary that we resist these inclinations. But immediately prior to that excerpt, St. Porphyrios taught that “we should be zealots,” and he defined a zealot as “a person who loves Christ with all his soul.”3 When formulated abstractly, the principle that we ought to love Christ with all one’s soul is acceptable enough, but when we apply this principle in concrete situations, it inevitably strikes our more worldly friends and family as excessive, as “fanatical”. It is the zealous application of this principle that—in my experience, at any rate—is discouraged in the advice with which I began this essay. To be a fanatic, per this understanding, is to treat religion as an objectively true path to a transfigured life, instead of a safer, less transformative self-help strategy or recreation.
Now, why should you be a “religious fanatic” (or, if you prefer, a zealot)? For the simple reason—a reason with which no reasonable person, religious or otherwise, can disagree—that we should do all things well. We should work well; eat well; teach well; love well; and so on. For every area of life there is a specific set of standards by which we judge one’s conduct. The standards by which we judge a husband, as a husband, are limited to such things as whether he remains faithful to his wife; his performance as, say, a teacher has no bearing on whether he is a good husband. What makes faith different from these and other areas of life is that God is Goodness, itself; all that is good derives its goodness from Him. Therefore, conformity to, or union with, “consummate goodness”, which “belongs to God alone,”4 is the purpose for which all standards are to be set. I can simultaneously be a good husband and a lousy teacher, but I must strive to succeed in both marriage and teaching—and, indeed, all areas of life—if I wish to be, according to the specific (yet all-embracing) set of standards by which religious faithfulness is measured, a good Christian.
In short, to say that all things should be done well is to say that they should be done in a Godly way. If, by contrast, we were to compartmentalize life by changing this or that area but leaving the rest untouched so as to remain recognizable to our friends and family, then we would be living a pitiable, contradictory life. How great, though, is the pressure to conform to Lukewarm Christianity! Often times, when we ought to be criticized for selectively—and thus insincerely—practicing our faith, we are instead lauded for not being “excessive” in our piety. This reaction may be partly due to an apparent tendency to view such seemingly minor infidelities as transgressions against an abstract principle, not a divine Person. An impersonal principle cannot be “grieved” by our sins as a personal God would be (Eph. 4:30). I cannot offend veganism by occasionally eating dairy.
But no matter how lightly we treat the matter today, an inconsistent faith is not at all like cheating on one’s vegan diet, but is rather more like cheating on one’s spouse. Suppose that a woman discovered that her husband cheated on her one night last year. In his attempt to excuse his infidelity, he explains that it was “only” one night on which he committed adultery, and was thus faithful to her 99.7% of the year. He then asks, “Don’t you think you’re being a bit extreme by expecting me to be faithful 100% of the year?” She would be more likely to smack him upside the head than find his explanation remotely satisfying—and who could blame her? (As a side note, Christians should feel a profound sense of gratitude that, unlike most spouses, our Lord is perpetually willing to forgive us for our daily infidelity.)
I will close with a bit of advice for those beginning or resuming the spiritual life. As you attempt to ascend, as it were, the mountain of faith, friends and family may try to pull you back down, assuring you that it is better to settle near the foot of the mountain. Some may even insist that there is nothing up there, even though they do not speak from experience, as they have never attempted the ascent themselves. At that moment, ask them to survey the land around them, and challenge them to explain what, exactly, is worth returning to. Point to the irony of their efforts, as they suggest that this land of death brings more joy than that promised in the heights above, and yet all one sees down below are unhappy faces and people taking their lives in record numbers. Eventually, they may come to their senses and let go of you. God willing, some may even decide to join you in your ascent!