Who are the “barbarians”?

H/T to Romanos for this post on Barbarians (here):

Sóson Kýrie ton laón Sou
Kai evlóghison tin klironomían Sou
Níkas tis vasiléfsi katá varváron dhoroúmenos
Kai to son filáton dhía tu Stavroú Sou politévma

Save, O Lord, your people
And bless Your inheritance

Grant victory to the princes

Against the barbarians

And protect Your commonwealth

By Your Cross

‘Contemporary’ translations of this, one of my favorite Greek hymns, the hymn of the Holy Cross, changes ‘the princes’ to ‘the faithful’, ‘the barbarians’ to ‘the adversaries of the faith’, and ‘Your commonwealth’ to ‘Your people’. There is actually another entirely different wording altogether which was pushed on my local parish for four years by the then ‘proistámenos’ who has now been removed and is no longer a presbyter in the Church. Thankfully, we’re back to using the version of the hymn quoted above, and sometimes we even sing the correct translation, but there is still a tendency to sing the modern paraphrase. It all depends on who’s leading the choir. I sing only in Greek anyway.

Like the Word of God, I believe our ancient Greek hymns should not be politically or culturally updated, but translated as they are. Better yet, people could, if they wanted to, enter into the real meaning of the Word of God and the hymns if they tried to understand Greek, but I won’t push this. To each what his heart desires.

Back to the topic, barbarians.

An Orthodox priest, Fr Gregory Jensen (OCA) recently wrote,

According to the PEW survey, the majority of Orthodox laity agree that abortion and gay marriage should be legal. It may surprise you, then, that the problem isn’t Schaeffer – it’s us; specifically, it’s the clergy. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, we clergy are not effectively communicating the moral tradition of the Church to the laity. Or, if we are, the laity aren’t listening—which would imply that the clergy are willing to tolerate the laity ignoring the Gospel.

We see the same prevalence of pro-choice, pro-gay marriage positions among Orthodox politicians. This kind of a consistent pattern of belief does not just happen. As in the Catholic Church, we see in the Orthodox Church evidence of a significant pastoral failing. This appears to be more than just a widespread lack of sound moral education for the faithful. It appears to be an embrace of, or at least resignation to, the influence of secularism in our parishes.

This is a very serious problem. This isn’t a debate about the practices of potentially faithful followers—as can be the case when addressing, say, Old Calendar or New Calendar, or the issue of women wearing headscarves, or whether priests should have beards and wear cassocks, or whether we have pews or not, or whether to use an organ to lead the choir. This goes much deeper—to the heart of Christian discipleship. It seems that we have simply lost sight of the beauty and power of Christian virtue; perhaps worse, it seems that we have given over leadership to moral barbarians.

I know that sounds like a harsh judgment, but what else can one call it? A barbarian isn’t a bad person. A barbarian isn’t likely to love his wife and children any less than you or I. He isn’t necessarily an atheist or polytheist. In fact, many barbarians believed—and believe—in Christ, though for the same reason that they believed in the old gods: to secure power for their people.

John Courtney Murray writes in his introduction to The Civilization of the Pluralist Society that “the barbarian need not appear in bearskins with a club in hand.” Instead he…

…may wear a Brooks Brothers suit and carry a ball-point pen with which to write his advertising copy. In fact, even beneath the academic gown there may lurk a child of the wilderness, untutored in the high tradition of civility, who goes busily and happily about his work, a domesticated and law-abiding man, engaged in the construction of a philosophy to put an end to all philosophy, and thus put an end to the possibility of a vital consensus and to civility itself.

In Murray’s view, the perennial “work of the barbarian” is “to undermine rational standards of judgment, to corrupt the inherited intuitive wisdom by which the people have always lived.” He does this not “by spreading new beliefs” but…

…by creating a climate of doubt and bewilderment in which clarity about the larger aims of life is dimmed and the self-confidence of the people is destroyed, so that finally what you have is the impotent nihilism of the “generation of the third eye,” now presently appearing on our university campuses. [This was written in 1958!] (One is, I take it, on the brink of impotence and nihilism when one begins to be aware of one’s own awareness of what one is doing, saying, thinking. This is the paralysis of all serious thought; it is likewise the destruction of all the spontaneities of love.)

In the modern world, then, “the barbarian is the man who makes open and explicit rejection of the traditional role of reason and logic in human affairs. He is the man who reduces all spiritual and moral questions to the test of practical results or to an analysis of language or to decision in terms of individual subjective feeling.” By these criteria, it seems that we live in an increasingly barbarian world—even in our own parishes.

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8 thoughts on “Who are the “barbarians”?

  1. Hmmm. Not sure what happened here, Romanos. It was an honest question. You may understand my thought processes, but I was trying to learn more about yours and what you would say to that objection. Although I cannot be sure, it seems you are offended. No offense was intended and so I shall respect your desire not to say anything more.

  2. Dear “frontier orthodoxy”,

    People think differently, sometimes incredibly differently, even when part of a common language and culture zone. Often it’s a generational difference, sometimes an educational one. Myself, I understand the nuts and bolts of your thought process and your question, as I said in my previous response, but I don’t think just for the fun of it, and so have nothing really to respond to your question of “what the point would be…”

  3. My apologies, Romanos. I didn’t notice the attribution to you under the picture of the Cross. My apologies to you, too, Fr. Milovan.

    The “tension” I was trying to highlight, and I wasn’t sure at the time how clear my writing really was, might be outlined like this:

    1) I prefer older translations that are more correct in terms of the older word used (e.g. barbarian instead of adversary)

    2) I accept the newer redefinition of barbarian

    3) the newer redefinition of barbarian is similar to the reason for the newer word (adversary, which is more general and more open, possibly to interpretations like that of Fr. Gregory)

    Therefore:
    I am wondering why one would hold strongly to 1) given 2) and 3) are acceptable. That’s what I was attempting to ask. Also, by asking, I’m not intending any fight, here. I was really just having trouble seeing how 1) was not in tension with 2) and 3).

    In other words, I’m sure what the point would be to holding to a more “literal” word usage if you allow for a redefinition of that word anyhow. I hope that’s clearer.

  4. Fr Milovan, it seems that ‘Frontier Orthodoxy’ is addressing a question to me with regards to the issue of translations, but addressing his comment to ‘Father’ which can only be you, since I am not a priest. So there’s a bit of confusion there.

    I am a little lost on his points regarding translation, but I think I understand him. If I may make my point a bit clearer, it is that I prefer more literal translations over politically and culturally updated ones, though I do appreciate paraphrased translations for what they are worth in practical terms—modern English paraphrases of the Bible, for example, can be used sometimes to help us get to the points in the original—but best is to use the original or a faithful translation, in order to respect the freedom and the intelligence of the reader to come to his personal application of the same.

    To ‘Frontier Orthodoxy’, I don’t particularly see any tension between my stated opinions and Fr Gregory’s and/or his excerpts from the book by Murray, but perhaps I am just too simple to see it. I am not learned nor an intellectual. I am just a man of the heart who gropes, sometimes wildly, for meaning using my flawed brain cells.

  5. Father,

    There is a tension between your desire not to see the hymns changed in translation and quoting from Fr. Gregory J’s definition.

    I have no problem with what Fr. Gregory said. It is a good post. Nor do I have any problem with you accepting such a definition. That all seems sober and good.

    The tension I see is that historically, “Barbarians” would have meant those outside of the Byzantine/Roman Empire, understood as the Oikoumene. Yet, that’s not the same as Fr. Gregory’s definition. So, using the word “adversaries” may not be any different from redefining “Barbarians.” Yet, if both maneuvers are similar (changing to “adversaries” or keeping “Barbarians” but redefining along the lines of those who are adversaries of Christian teaching), why the objection to the newer translations?

    Do you see what I’m asking and the tension?

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