When Father Men was brutally murdered in September 1990, he left behind a rich legacy of pastoral counsel and Biblical preaching, and a cadre of young Orthodox priests and intellectuals who committed themselves to carrying on his ministry. Last month’s “Reflections” described Father Men’s background and his work as a dynamic parish priest, constantly under surveillance by the KGB. While his physical presence could be monitored and even constrained, the ideas he preached about were hard to control.
The Uniqueness of Christianity
Father Men was a brilliant scholar with a broad grasp of the history of ideas and world religions. One of his major works is a seven volume exploration of religion from pre-history through the Greeks, the Hebrews, ancient Asian religions and Christianity. This series, entitled The History of Religion: In Search of the Way, the Truth and the Life, ends with the volume “The Son of Man.”
This topic was a favorite of Father Men’s and he was often questioned about his beliefs about Christianity and how Christianity differed from other world religions. In an interview published in 1992, Father Men discussed this theme:
“. . . it seems to me that nothing proves the uniqueness of Christianity, nothing except one thing alone, namely Jesus Christ. For I’m convinced that each of the founders of the world religions speaks truth to us . . . But alone among all these teachers [Buddha, Greek philosophers, Mohammed] is one who speaks in his own person as if for God himself: “But I say to you,” or as John has it: “I and the Father are one.” Not one of the great teachers of the world’s religions ever said anything like that. That then is the only occasion in history when God revealed himself through a real person in some absolute fulness” (v. 31).
He continued his argument by criticizing the view that Jesus was essentially a preacher of morals. He would not have been crucified for discussing morality, Men argued. In his judgment, Christianity was distinctly different from other world religions. Here is how he summarized the difference:
“Every religion is a path towards God, a conjecture about God, a human approach to God. It is a vector pointing upwards from below. But the coming of Christ is the answer, a vector coming from heaven above towards us. On the one hand, an event situated in history, on the other hand, something quite outside history. That’s why Christianity is unique, because Christ is unique” (p. 32).
The Answer to the Crisis in Russia
When analyzing the difficulties that Russian society faced following the collapse of Communism, Father Men brought the same profound spiritual insights to bear. Unlike others who blamed the atheists for destroying Russia’s churches during the Soviet period, Father Men argued that “the real guilty ones were the false Christians” who refused to live in obedience to God’s commandments. The persecution of the churches under Communism was God’s judgment. “Nothing happens by chance in history,” Men noted, “What we sow, we reap”(p. 107).
In an interview that was not published until 1992, two years after his death, Father Men explained his views on the current crisis in Russia:
“A crisis of culture comes about when people lose their spiritual markers, when the moral ground slips away from under their feet, when they break with eternal values and hanker only for the latest trend. There are symptoms of this today in all the developed countries. And the symptoms are especially acute in Russia . . . Contemporary civilization may have no future at all unless it looks truth in the eye, unless it finds a firm foundation for moral principles . . . Our worst disaster is the erosion of moral values . . . Moral regeneration has always been based on spiritual and religious foundations” (pp. 140-3).
For Father Men, faith in Jesus Christ was the answer Russia needed. At his last public lecture, given the night before he was murdered, Father Men shared this insight:
“Anyone of you knows perfectly well how confused people are, how weak, how many complications and sins have taken root in us. But there is a power which Christ left on earth, which is given to us for free: it is called grace . . . You don’t have to work for it, it’s a gift” (p. 190).
He concluded his last address with these remarks:
“Christianity is the sanctification of the world, the victory over evil, over darkness, over sin. But it is the victory of God. It began on the night of the resurrection, and it will continue as long as the world exists” (p. 192).
NOTE: The quotes from Father Alexander Men were taken from a new book that has translations of some of his writings and speeches in English. I highly recommend the book Christianity for the Twenty-First Century: The Life and Work of Alexander Men, edited by Elizabeth Roberts and Ann Shukman, and published in 1996 by SCM Press Ltd. in London.