There is almost nothing more beloved on the Internet than a listicle, and since I’ve been online for over 25 years now, and around Orthodoxy online for more than 22 of them, I thought I would mention some things I’ve noticed over the years.
So, to start off 2020, here is my Top Sixteen List of realistic observations about Orthodox Christian life on the English-speaking Internet:
1) Most people think that the aspect of Church life they love best is the key to fixing most problems in the Church.
I’ve seen this over and over. Whether it’s proper liturgics, proper music, proper preaching, proper monasticism, etc., whatever someone is drawn to will be the secret ingredient that will finally restore Orthodoxy to its former glory, that will convert America, etc.
Let’s face it, though: We’re weak in a lot of ways, and I don’t think there is a silver bullet. (Never mind that the silver bullet metaphor is about killing werewolves…) So what can we do? Serve wherever and however God gives you to serve, but don’t privilege your way of serving over the service being offered by others. They have their ministry, too.
2) The Orthodox Western Rite is a way more popular and visible topic on the Internet than it is in 3D space.
I know that it’s kind of controversial, but I personally love the Western Rite and my brothers and sisters who worship with it. At the same time, at several dozen parishes at most, we are talking about a community that is a tiny, tiny speck compared to the whole plenitude of the Orthodox Church. It’s important to keep this perspective.
That doesn’t mean the WR is not important, but the way in which it’s important is not, I think, the way that it’s often discussed.
3) Eastern Catholicism is a way more popular and visible topic on the Internet than it is in 3D space.
It’s no wonder that Orthodox Christians are interested in Eastern Catholics. They look like us, they sound like us, and they have a historical origin in us (well, mostly).
But especially when we’re discussing our relationship with Roman Catholicism, we should recall that Eastern Catholics make up just 1.5% of Catholics worldwide. Their speck in Catholicism is bigger than the WR’s speck in Orthodoxy, but it’s still kind of a speck.
That said, this doesn’t mean they’re not important, but we should recall that they have very little presence in worldwide Catholicism. So especially when we’re trying to understand the Pope’s church, we have to look at the whole for what it really is.
4) Fasting is a way more popular and visible topic on the Internet than it is in 3D space.
I think this is because it’s so unfamiliar to most converts that it gets talked about all the time online, especially because converts are so over-represented in online Orthodox fora.
It is definitely important, but again, not in the way we often discuss it. There is a reason that many people who encounter the Orthodox online think we’re obsessed with rules or that our religion is about rules, and this is probably the foremost example of why. Fasting discussion needs to get moved much more firmly into “ask your priest” territory.
5) The church calendar is a way more popular and visible topic on the Internet than it is in 3D space.
Most parishioners just follow whatever calendar their parish uses and don’t think too much about it. But on the Internet, we constantly bump into people whose traditions and commemorations are different from ours. The differences are interesting and worth discussing, but we should recall that (contra the schismatic movements) the calendar is not something truly worth having arguments over. It’s also not more interesting than the gospel — is it?
6) There are more people interested in teasing out difficult passages in St. Maximos or St. Dionysios and using them to hammer others than there are in teaching what the gospel is and how to live according to it.
Maximos and Dionysios (and whoever else, but these seem to be the favorites) are great saints whose theology is important for the Church, but they are not as important as the Scriptures, and they would agree.
And they would also agree that, if there is no soteriological motive in teaching theology (that is, if there is not a way that this affects the actual Christian life), then it is being taught wrongly. If you know more — or, let’s face it, think you know more — about the Ambigua or the Celestial Hierarchies than you do about Genesis, John or James, you have a problem.
7) The Google School of Theology is often assumed to trump real theological training and pastoral experience.
In America, we love the idea of the self-taught entrepreneur, but in Orthodox Christianity, theology is something passed on in living tradition and experience. A self-taught theologian is basically a self-taught Christian, and he has himself for a spiritual father. Yikes.
This is not to say that seminary degrees or ordination mean that everything one says is truly Orthodox Christian, but those means are certainly far more reliable as general rules of thumb than some guy who gets his theology from people on Facebook and from Google searches. I’ve even seen people saying that one should hold one’s pastor accountable based on stuff they find online. Again: Yikes.
The Google School of Theology can leave enormous gaps, due mostly to the Dunning–Kruger effect. You don’t know what you don’t know, and with no one qualified to tell you, you won’t even figure out that you don’t know it. And you will likely place undue weight on some issues that don’t deserve it.
In general, people who have actual care of souls are more likely to steer you right than those who have no responsibility for anyone but themselves.
8) International ecclesiastical politics is a way more popular and visible topic on the Internet than it is in 3D space.
Yes, it can be really distressing, and sometimes it actually can create local problems out here in the “diaspora,” as well, but if we spend more time thinking about what various patriarchs are doing to each other than we do about how to be engaged in serving our fellow Christians and the world, then we have a problem.
Again, this doesn’t mean this is not important and even very serious, but we have to keep these things in perspective. The history of the Church is filled with schisms, and most of them are temporary. Let’s pray current ones are temporary, too.
9) Church leadership tends to lag behind culture, especially Internet culture.
I do not think that most bishops have a clear or broad sense of what is going on on the Internet and may be taken by surprise when something from it spills over into their space. This may be a generational thing or a cultural thing, where the character and importance of local culture (often different from when or where he was raised) and the Internet may just not occur to a bishop, because it’s outside his experience.
I believe that it would be helpful if leadership would at least connect with people they can trust who are Internet- and culture-savvy and take what they say seriously. This will make them more effective shepherds for their flocks, who are, at least here in the Anglophone world, almost all online.
10) Authority is almost entirely inoperative online.
Almost no one — not patriarchs, bishops, priests, podcasters, authors, bloggers, academics, or even saints — is taken consistently as an authority whose words ought to correct our thoughts and/or actions. (See also: #7.)
This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s probably good that people don’t assume that a title or popularity mean authority, but on the other hand, it means that people who really do have authority aren’t being listened to. Everyone does what is right in his own eyes.
This is also largely a cultural phenomenon wherein authority and expertise are largely being questioned and contested at every level. I don’t know a cure for this problem other than to connect with people on the basis not of authority but of authenticity.
11) Orthodox media is headed for something big.
I think that we are on the verge of a stage of major growth and development when it comes to Orthodox media online, because there is coming to be a critical mass of creative people engaging in it and — this is especially important — collaborating with each other.
More and more people with talent, skill, knowledge and maturity are getting involved in Orthodox media, and it’s expanding way beyond the “Orthodoxy 101” stuff into numerous directions, almost suddenly, all at once.
Consider the past two decades, for instance, and the explosive growth in books, podcasts, solid blogging, video, etc. And with increased collaboration, instead of individual creators just seeking out platforms, there are now creators working together to make better and more engaging media all the time. I’m really excited about what’s happening and really happy to be part of it.
12) Online Anglophone Orthodoxy is a very, very small world.
We often react to things we see online as though they are the biggest thing to happen for — or, more often, to — the Church and represent a potentially enormous impact on it. But the reality is that we really are a very small minority of a minority. Not only are Orthodox Christians a minority here in North America, but English-speaking Orthodox Christians are a minority in the Orthodox Church.
It’s probably also worth pointing out that people who are famous in online Anglophone Orthodoxy are usually pretty unknown in 3D space. And that’s almost always a good thing.
13) Attempts at online mob justice make little or no impact in 3D space.
Cancel culture hasn’t dislodged many Church leaders. (Yet.) There are probably some exceptions you might think of, but they are not many, and certainly at the international level, we almost never see this. That said, we should not discount the possibility that this will come for us. And we should also not try to hasten the day. Mob justice is rarely justice well-served.
14) Attempts at altering the Church’s tradition will not succeed.
Whether through popular movements or intellectual influence, etc., trying to change the Orthodox Church’s doctrine, morality, etc., will always be limited in scope and will always fail, because no mechanism exists for actually changing the Church’s teaching.
Unlike Roman Catholicism, which can be radically changed via papal fiat (yes, I know some traditionalist Catholics would disagree, but the evidence is there) or like Protestantism, where whole churches can be changed via a vote, such a mechanism just doesn’t exist in Orthodoxy. And even where it has been attempted, the blowback is, well, effective.
Much damage may be done along the way, however, and it is worth guarding people against that. This is mainly where apologetics is useful.
15) “Ask your priest” is often said but often not followed.
It’s just easier to ask a group of thousands of strangers your most serious spiritual questions. But, let’s be honest: How good of an idea is that?
If you post something in a Facebook group with thousands of people in it, imagine standing up at a microphone in a massive auditorium or a sports stadium and asking everyone there what they think about how you should relate to your non-Orthodox spouse or how you should deal with your anger or loneliness. It’s just a bad idea.
Oh, and let me add this: Ask your own priest. Don’t ask just any priest. If he doesn’t know you, he will not be able to help you anywhere near as much as the pastor who actually is assigned to care for your soul. Also, that other priest you just asked who doesn’t know you has his own pastoral load to carry. Consider his flock and family, too. Are you really part of it?
16) Evangelism through cultural engagement is far more effective than through apologetics or culture wars.
Sadly, we tend to think that apologetics and culture wars are more effective. Those are what we see the most online when it comes to facing the world. But those things almost never work, despite the fact that one of those keyboard warriors will sometimes bear testimony that it was through the belligerence of another such keyboard warrior that their eyes were finally opened. What they don’t tend to bear witness to is the many people who walked away when they came across those online wars.
If we want people to be part of Christ’s Kingdom, then we have to bring the life of that Kingdom to them as much as we are able, showing them not so much what it can do for them (this is not a sales pitch) but rather what its beauty and truth are all about. This means connecting with the culture, knowing it well, and showing how it can be interpreted and used for the sake of Christ, Who came not to condemn the world but to save it.
What observations might you add?
This is not a complaint list, by the way, despite the criticism included in some of the observations. Let’s keep things as positive and constructive as possible.