Father James Bernstein
“We are in the midst of the post-Christian era”, it has been repeated to us since Nietzsche decreed or rather found that “God is dead”, rather in the human hearts. The post-Christian spirit enters boldly also among us, the Christians, in our communities, in our families, in our minds and hearts, every day and every moment of our life, whispering to us not to take ourselves seriously as Christians, in fact, to stop living the life of the Church.
Father James identifies forms of the “post-Christian” spirit in the Church and our world and urges us to become Christians again, to learn Christianity again from ABC, to return forcefully to the springs, to the Spring itself. (Tatiana Petrache)
Father James, you are head of a family, father of four children and grandfather. Indubitably, you faced throughout your life different problems in your family life. What do you advise those who want to live an evangelical life in their families, in a society that is increasingly hostile to Christianity and the family?
What is required of us today is the same as what has always been required. To seek to be in a state of prayer as much as possible by maintaining a sense of being in God’s Presence. We need to cling to the Faith, Doctrines, Morality and Life of the Church – the One Holy Catholic, Apostolic Orthodox Church, participating in her worship, sacramental life, and ascetic discipline. These are the essentials that by God’s Grace is able to preserve us regardless of time, locale or circumstances. The Church provides us with all of the tools needed to gain spiritual health and holiness. We need to all the more embrace what she provides in her teachings, practices , morality, spirituality and life. Only by doing so energized by the Grace of God can we be prayerfully, loving, wise, sensitive, patient, generous, encouraging family members. Only then can fathers and mothers provide role models and support and encouragement to their children and grandchildren.
“There isn’t any simple formula”
Can we further raise Christian children in the contemporary society? Why do many children raised in Christian families end up leaving the Church at the age of adolescence or maturity? How did you manage to keep your children close to the family and the Church?
Some children leave the Church even though their parents are perfect role models and on the other hand there are children who remain Orthodox even though raised in dysfunctional homes. There is no guarantee that any child will gain personal ownership of the faith. I like to remind people that despair for their children even though they are good role models and are authentically pious and loving – that Adam and Eve had the best parent in the world but still fell away. Nevertheless, the chances of remaining in the faith does increase when parents are spiritual.
Father James and his family, his wife Martha, and their children, Heather, Holly, Peter și Mary.
How we managed to keep our children in the Church is only by the Grace of God! I would say that it was in spite of me as in many ways I was deficient. There isn’t any simple formula. If I had to provide a few guidelines I would say in addition to praying for them is to develop personal relations with each in which authentic friendship, intimacy and mutual respect can develop. Not to be too pious or too demanding with them. To give them lots of slack as it is like fishing, if the line is held too tight the fish will break the line and be lost. Or if too loose they will drift away. I cannot over emphasize that we teach more by our presence, demeanor, by what we don’t say than by what we say in instructing and correcting. It is important to be quick to ask forgiveness of them and to grant forgiveness. To admit personal weakness and fault. To be humble. Because I am a priest and my wife a choir director they already knew that God and the Church were our priorities. So we needed to be especially understanding with them because in some ways it is difficult to have a priest for a father!
“A unity of the heart and the spirit”
How can the Christian woman fulfill her calling in a world dominated by aggressive feminism? What is in fact her specific role?
I asked my wife Pesv. Martha to answer this question. She says: Of course, as Orthodox Christians, we need to respect a woman’s right to be treated with kindness, love, respect, and non-violence. But I think the most important thing is that we strive to live the Christian life we are all called to, both men and women. If we are striving for humility, mutual submissiveness (Ephesians 5:21), obedience, repentance and trust in the Divine intervention of God, the issues will resolve themselves. If we try to be like Christ (“Who being in the likeness of God, taking on the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men” Philippians 2:6), we will be willing to bend our will to the other, thus becoming, little by little, like God.
Archimandrite Zacharias puts it beautifully in his book, The Engraving of Christ in Man’s Heart: “If a couple competes, each striving to do the will of the other more perfectly, then their life will be enriched and established in the antechamber of paradise. As spiritual fruit they will enjoy unity of heart and spirit, and not just psychological unity. Everyone who has learned this competition, to humble oneself more before the other, is spiritually reborn.”
What is her specific role? Sadly, the Christian way is unpopular in today’s society. I think a woman should seek to be modest and moderate as the scripture instructs us. (1 Timothy 2). She should seek to be Godly and to do good works and continue in faith, love and holiness, with self-control. Within the Church, I think a woman can apply these qualities in as much as she possesses them, combined with her natural femininity and the nurturing nature of a mother (even if she has no children) to help build up the Church. A woman cannot be a priest, but she can possess these qualities of holiness which, as the Theotokos, can change herself and her sphere of influence in her family, work environment and in her Parish.
Father James and his wife, Martha, at their wedding, on 5th of July 1971.
“No pain, no gain!”
What is the essence of the crisis in today’s couples? How do you see this from the perspective of American society?
There are so many factors that impact a marriage. Many books have been written on the subject. As an Orthodox Christian priest I have my own views I pray that are formed by what is called the Orthodox fronema, ethos, mind set. The essential teaching is that we as individuals are spiritually sick, damaged, broken. That we desperately need to be spiritually healed, made whole. This effort involves humility, repentance, sacrifice, prayer and love. The Orthodox Church provides the necessary tools by which to individually be purified, enlightened and move towards deification. I present in my book some of the tools as relating to church sacraments, worship and personal asceticism. Particularly focusing upon humility.
What is necessary for an Orthodox Christian marriage to do well is if both husband and wife take seriously the spiritual life. Then they can build together the foundations of a solid marriage and family. This effort is truly a martyric effort as it only works if each seeks to gain true humility, sacrifice and love – permeated by prayer. So the saying with regard to exercise, “no pain no gain” is true in the spiritual realm as well. A peaceful and loving relationship can only be gained with much effort and sacrifice. It typically doesn’t come easily or naturally.
The crisis today among couples results from a secular worldview that instills a motivation in individuals of seeking above all personal fulfillment, satisfaction and pleasure in marital relationships. This does not include room for God, His grace and the pursuit of a deeper spiritual life. The crises impacts Orthodox Christians as well as non- Christians as secularism is pervasive in academia, and the political, social, media and entertainment arenas. There is great resistance in pursuing the spiritual life. It is difficult to find holy roll models.
In terms of the American society this all applies. We have the additional disadvantage of not having a strong Orthodox Christian culture to reinforce our efforts. We here in America clearly live in a post-Christian era. In fact virtually everything in our culture works against us. Our culture is in free fall, descending from bad to worse. The whole hearted embracing of a secular culture, essentially anti-Christian, has resulted in Christians being increasingly alienated and marginalized in America. Many professing Christians that are prominent are either nominal or theologically liberal. So the public has virtuously no exposure to Orthodoxy. And when it does it typically is presented as “Greek,” “Russian,” “Romanian” or something else.
A secularistic, materialistic and syncretistic mentality has developed in the Orthodox Church as well. This greatly impacts our Orthodox families. A secular mindset and world view has taken hold of many Orthodox who desire to be viewed favorably by non-Orthodox Western elite. In America in the political realm liberal “progressives” accuse everyone who disagrees with them of being racist, “hateful”, prejudiced. It has become an obsession. Typically they view white Christian men as most racist.
“Being labeled a fundamentalist”
In the Church we have a parallel phenomena. Increasingly those who take the Orthodox Faith seriously in a traditional way and want to live a more rigorous spiritual life are at risk of being labeled a fundamentalist. There is a real danger in my opinion of a split/schism occurring within world wide Orthodoxy. This is not just an ecclesiological issue (as per the Ukraine) but a deeper spiritual issue. It involves the essence of Orthodox spirituality and how it should be lived and expressed, by Orthodox individuals, married couples, and families living in the world.
Orthodox individuals and families are labeled as fundamentalists by liberal, progressive Orthodox for innumerable reasons. Positions that may be identified as fundamentalist are among the following: Holding that: there is only ONE true God (John 17:3); that the gods of other religions are false; that there is only One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church; that other churches including the Roman Catholic Church are false; if you are wary of the ecumenical movement and fear a betrayal of Orthodoxy in order to unite with other churches. You may be labeled a fundamentalist if you go frequently to services, confession and visit monasteries, and if you take ascetic practices seriously. If you expect communion to be strictly closed and only for Orthodox Christians in good standing; if you hold that there should be clear canonical requirements for being in good standing. You may be labeled a fundamentalist if you have lots of children; if you home school them. If you adhere to a more literal interpreting of Scripture. Or believe that converts from other churches should be received by baptism as a norm rather than by chrismation or profession of faith. If you believe in the existence of toll houses. If you hold to the traditional understanding of Orthodox Christian sexual morality and believe that abortion is murder, and if you want to actively lobby against these practices in the prevailing national culture.
There are many other issues as well. What binds these issues together is a deep and intense desire to pursue a life of purification, illumination leading to deification / theosis / transfigurment. This driving motivation is what the spiritual life is all about and what is able to bring marriages and families together in love. Those Orthodox who demean this effort as irrelevant to modern life and issues are on a different spiritual path. And really, sadly to say, undermine the Faith and misrepresent Orthodoxy to the world. Here in America youth and others convert to Orthodoxy not because they are looking for progressive church experience that is “sensitive” to the prevailing culture and its decadence, but because they are looking for authentic spirituality firmly rooted in the historic Orthodox Church.
Unfortunately we see not just laity embracing an increasingly liberal, secular, syncratistic and “inclusive” world view but also clergy and hierarchs. Even in the highest levels. This cannot but threaten the stability and spirituality of individuals and families as those who we would expect to be defenders of the historic Orthodox Faith undermine it. And laity become confused as to what we as married couples with families should believe and practice. So there is a real spiritual war not only outside the Church – but in the Church as well.
Though there are differences within Orthodoxy – with regard to many practices, traditions and customs, there has always been a mainstream understanding of what are essential beliefs and practices. The serious concerns that I have are not in the existence of superficial differences but in the undermining of and compromising of what is central to our Faith. The times in which we live challenges us who live within democratic societies of descending to the lowest common denominator of morality. That can be very low. Democracy only works if you have a people that aspire to a higher level of morality. Otherwise democracy breaks down and fails. Leading to anarchy and then totalitarianism.
“Choosing Mammon (wealth/money) over God”
Romanians have been confronted lately with a new phenomenon, namely LGBT propaganda in school and society. What is the most accurate approach towards this phenomenon?
I am so sorry to hear this. But it is to be expected. The decadent Western ethos has been exported throughout the world. The enticement of Western materialism and wealth has caused many East European and Balkan nations to compromise their moral standards in order to be accepted into Western economic associations. In a sense choosing Mammon (wealth/money) over God. (Matthew 6:24).
It is my belief that any specific culture, society can only be preserved, have cohesion and prosper if it has as a basis, foundation, a commonly accepted morality, ethical standard, Faith. That is, if there is a consensus, with the populous accepting and seeking to live that Faith. Once a society’s assumptions shift and become more diverse, inclusive, relativistic, confused, this non-Christian mentality will become ever more present and manifest in official policy, education, media, and even among religious leaders. The process is virtually impossible to reverse once started. I think in a post Communist, Christian culture such as you have – specifically Orthodox Christian, there will be an a great temptation to open up the society to increasingly diverse thoughts and practices combined with a desire to be more “democratic” and tolerant, non judgmental. This is true particularly with regard to same sex unions, pornography and abortion. Once these non-Orthodox world views make significant inroads they spread like cancer and become increasingly aggressive and intolerant towards traditional Christians. And turn upon you.
Father James and his son, Peter.
So for example, in the U.S. sex education is now beginning at the very earliest of grades – in which children are being given options of choosing what gender they want to be and are taught to embrace sexual deviancy. It is official policy. If you speak out against it you may be accused by so called progressives of engaging in a hate crime. Which is illegal. In the past Christians and others could have their children opt out of these sex education sessions. But now there is a movement to not have this option. This in turn causes many devout Christians here to withdraw their children from the public school system for which they pay taxes and enroll them in expensive private school systems or even to do home schooling. Home schooling takes great personal effort requiring that one of the spouses stay at home (not work). Among Christians that I know here in the wider Seattle area a goodly number have their children home schooled – which is legal to do here in the U.S. Children here that are home schooled seem to maintain their Christian Faith, ideals and morality better than those in the public or even private school system.