A Secular Orthodoxy

jonah-s1Within Orthodox Christianity, the faith is generally “encultured.” It does not exist apart from the culture, but within – transforming, shaping and making the faith of Christ incarnate in the world. Christianity first expressed this model in the context of first-century Judaism. The disciples in Jerusalem met together on Solomon’s Porch. Small asides in St. Paul’s writings and in the book of Acts, show that despite dropping the requirement for circumcision, early Christians continued to observe many Jewish practices (St. Paul, for example took a Nazarite vow for a time Acts 18:18). The same can be said for the Church’s encounter with the broad culture of Hellenism. The Hellenistic language of Platonism provided the vocabulary (though the meanings were altered) for most of the theological expressions of the great doctrines. The vestments of the Church, and some sense of its ceremonies, clearly reflect both the Church’s roots in Judaism as well as the life of the Roman royal court.

This is not only how things should be, it is utterly inevitable. Our faith is not lived on a planet or world apart from the one on which we live. The language of the culture, the deeper, unspoken ethos of the world in which we live, will find its way into the life of the Church. Normatively, the inner life of the Church finds its way into the greater culture as well. This is probably the true meaning of symphonia, the theory often used to describe the relationship between Emperor and Church (not all cultures have emperors).

The modern world presents new challenges to this model. The secular construct of the world, the hallmark of the modern age, offers perhaps the most cogent and pervasive alternative to traditional Christianity since the Hellenistic period. More complicated still, is the fact that this construct is itself a product of certain expressions of Christianity, and thus has something of an acquired immunity to classical Christianity. In the modern world, Orthodox Christianity encounters the secularized God, the secularized Church and the secularized sacraments. The tragic results can occasionally be a secularized Orthodoxy. What does this mean?

The secular worldview (in its meaning in this article) is one that does not deny the existence of God, but distances Him from the everyday world. Human beings are seen strictly in individualized terms, communities only existing through the sharing of ideas and practices. Religious groups can exist in abundance in such a setting, but largely as expressions of individual choices. The world (and culture) are understood to be religiously “neutral” territory – places in which the presence of religious concerns is inherently unnatural. God is a preference, a choice, but never truly integral to daily life.

In secular cultures, Orthodoxy becomes a choice: “I am Orthodox because I like it.” This sounds perfectly normal (why else would someone be Orthodox?), but it is a subtle shift within the mind and heart of a believer. The kind of cereal we eat in the morning, the kind of beer we drink in the evening, are equally choices – products of our preferences. In the modern secular world, particularly in its current dominant form of consumer secularism, the believer consumes his religious preference. His God, his community, his set of practices, are subtly diminished to the set of consumer decisions. The result is often a lifestyle that is largely indistinguishable from that of other consumers. The pressures of Church on the culture of believers is rebuffed: the culture wins. In America it often means an Orthodoxy that is similar to surrounding secularized groups. Church attendance becomes sporadic, limited to Sunday mornings, prayers in the home diminished (if present at all), and the liturgical rhythm of the year reduced to Sundays, Christmas, Lent and Pascha.

These observations are not made in order to criticize or judge. They are made in order to describe the outlines of the modern cultural challenge. The nature of all cultures is marked by their unconscious nature. If you live in a culture and are part of it, you don’t have to think in order to be at home. An unconscious Orthodoxy, in the modern context, is likely to become a secularized version. The modern culture in which we live is a secularized culture – thus we have no choice but to think about what it means for the faith. How do we enculturate the faith in a culture that inherently spurns the nature of that faith?

The largest non-Protestant group in America that successfully resisted secular culture for a time were the immigrant Catholic groups who came into the U.S. from the late-19th century to the early 20th century. Needless to say, the secularism they faced was weak, and still “churchly.” However, they resisted the lures of assimilation through strong Catholic neighborhoods, Catholic schools, orphanages, hospitals and other institutions. They survived by creating something of a parallel culture. Today that parallel culture has been deeply depleted. Once strong school systems have been devastated in many places, both by increasing costs, decreasing vocations for the religious who once staffed the schools, and the dispersion of Catholic populations.

The movement to “mainstream” Catholic culture, following the Second Vatican Council, hurried this process along, just at the time that the secularization of the culture was gaining speed. Plummeting Catholic Church attendance, and rejection of Church teachings have accompanied the process. In many areas, Catholic populations are indistinguishable from the surrounding culture – existing as secular Catholics.

Orthodox immigration never gained the cohesion or the force of numbers of their Catholic neighbors. Those meager numbers have declined steeply as a result. Without large numbers of converts, Orthodoxy in America would be in an institutional crisis. But the conversion of parents by no means secures the adherence of children (or grandchildren). Raising Orthodox families, and creating an authentic Orthodox cultural expression, have yet to succeed in America (with obvious anecdotal exceptions).

Mission strategy in the modern world would do well to think about long-term models. Much of Orthodox mission in modern culture follows a pattern similar to Protestant Churches – including some of their worst aspects. Parishes are commuter communities. My own parish is one of three that serves a large metropolitan area. We have some members who drive an hour or an hour-and-a-half to get to an Orthodox Church. Our experience is not unusual. Success for a parish is often marked by its ability to pay its bills, pay a priest (though these are often part-time positions), and eventually construct a building. “Success” is not marked by the enculturation of the faith in the lives of the faithful.┬áMuch of this is the result of necessity. Commuting consumers is the default position of religious believers in America.

What I am describing is the essential character of the present arena of our salvation. Because secularity is cultural it will often be invisible – simply part of the way we do things and the way we think. Fr. Alexander Schmemann thought that secularism was the great heresy of our day. It will not be enough to write about or discuss it (let the reader take note). It is the personal and communal struggle of the faith. The non-Orthodox, our brothers and sisters, would do well to pay equal attention, for the secularism of our culture is eating away at us all.

The Catholic solution, as remarkably successful as it was, is not realistic today. We live in commuter suburbs (often) in a dispersed manner. Institutions such as schools require enormous capital and populations. Many parish communities have managed to create “micro-institutions,” an important and God-blessed effort. But the effort to live an integrated Orthodox life requires struggle – and most will likely fall short.

That struggle will be an unrelenting offering of the self to God. To be shaped by the life of the Church, rather than finding a place within our consumption for Church “activities,” will often seem obsessive. It will feel counter-cultural in a faith that is not inherently contrarian. Those who keep the prescribed fasts at any time of the year easily feel that all they ever think about is food. How can you fast in a fast-food culture?

The small, lesser disciplines (observing the fasts, keeping the feasts) will seem light in comparison with the greater struggle for the transformation of the inner life. The primitive Church was in a situation not unlike our own. Though in a matter of centuries Christians would change the face of the Roman world, when St. Paul wrote Christians were living within the belly of the beast. He said:

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God (Rom 12:1-2).

May God give us grace!