It is time for Orthodox Christians to be realistic and not panic about life in an increasingly post-Christian culture. We are a tiny minority in the West and have never had much direct impact in shaping how the larger society in which we live has addressed any issue, controversial or otherwise. It would be strange for a miniscule Orthodox minority to expect a privileged position in our time and place. If current trends have opened our eyes to points of tension between God’s Kingdom and the present order, we should be thankful for the wake-up call.
Our calling is surely not to become yet another interest group that competes with others through conventional political means, or even to think of success in those terms. Instead of pursuing what the world recognizes as power or affirmation, our vocation is basically the same that Christians have always had: to be a distinctive, holy community with a way of life that shines in brilliant contrast to the ways of the world and draws others to the life of the Kingdom. But in order to have any hope of becoming such an icon of salvation, we must actually live out what we say we believe. Ethnic food bazaars and mouthing slogans about the culture wars will not suffice.
As hard as it is do so, we must actually embrace the spiritual disciplines of our faith in ways that are very much in tension with the dominant trends of the larger culture. We must live our lives in stark contrast to the current societal celebrations of violence, hatred, gluttony, vanity, greed, sexual immorality, and pornography—just to name a few examples of the challenges that we face. The greater the distance between what we say we believe and how we actually live, the more ammunition we will give to “the cultured despisers of religion.” The more coherence others see between our creeds and our deeds, the more seriously they will take our way of life as a realistic alternative to the darkened patterns of the world.
Even as athletes must take their disciplines seriously and follow the guidance of those more skilled in their sport in order to play well, we must embrace prayer, asceticism, generosity to the poor, forgiveness, self-denial, and other spiritual disciplines according to the teaching and example of the Saints and our spiritual fathers and mothers. Through the catechism of converts and ongoing education in the parish, all Orthodox must be taught about the challenges of living faithfully in our culture. We must model faithfulness for one another and provide accountability and support to our brothers and sisters. The larger society supports athletics and education (usually in that order and often not very well), but we cannot expect it to help us in forming people whose character and actions should be so different from those celebrated by the dominant ethos. To say the least, it will appear increasingly odd in our culture: to see Christ in the unborn child, the terminally ill patient, the refugee, and the immigrant; to deny ourselves in order to be outrageously generous with the poor and needy; to refuse to let race, class, politics, ethnicity, or any other human division blind us to the humanity of our neighbors; to love even our fiercest critics; to pursue chastity in the relationship between man and woman; to see marriage as a sign of the complementarity of the opposite sexes in God’s image and likeness; and generally not to make the world into a false god.
If we bear witness in these and other ways, we should not be surprised at charges of bigotry and fanaticism for being so out of step. Perhaps such charges are simply reflections of a truth that we have too often refused to see. Despite the very positive dimensions of American culture, both historically and in the present day, it is not and has never been the Kingdom of God. Like all societies, it presents temptations and tends to serve its own interests rather than the Lord. It would certainly be a clearer path to immediate popularity simply to go along with social trends at all costs, but to do so would require worshiping a false god, namely, the world. Here we must remember the Lord’s warning: “Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you, for so did their fathers to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26) Of course, harmony is not always a bad thing. If it is the result of spiritually healthy beliefs and practices permeating the larger society, then there is cause for rejoicing. If, however, that harmony is the result of Christians accommodating their beliefs and practices to those of the larger society in an effort to gain power or simply make life easier for themselves, then it is time to mourn. Too much American Christianity fits—and, as best I can tell, always has fit– into the latter category, regardless of whether it passes for “liberal” or “conservative,” for “mainline,” “evangelical,” or anything else. This is an equal opportunity temptation, and all the more subtle and dangerous for that very reason.
Amidst our current challenges, we must remember that Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world, as the example of the martyrs from the origins of the faith to today makes quite clear. Nonetheless, faithfulness is not the same as abandoning the world or those who live in it. There is no need to fall into a Manichean-like dualism that would see everything outside the visible boundaries of the Christian community as simply evil. There is no need to fall into a Gnostic escapism that would flee the broken realities of life in the world as we know it for an illusory realm of spiritual perfection. There is a great need, however, for Orthodox Christians soberly to remain faithful amidst the strong points of tension between our way of life and dominant trends in contemporary culture.
As mentioned earlier, that should not be surprising because Orthodoxy has had no direct impact on the West for centuries. And at least since the Enlightenment, a grave temptation of western culture has been to make the world its god with, at best, a watered-down “religion within the limits of reason alone.” Our culture increasingly knows no higher standard than recognizing the rights of isolated individuals to pursue well-being however they may define it. Freedom is a good thing, and I personally would much rather live in the current cultural climate than in one characterized by crusades, pogroms, and witch hunts; the present order certainly provides far more religious liberty than life under Communism or ISIS. We should want as much religious liberty as reasonably possible so that people may believe, worship, and live in accordance with their faith, whatever that may be.
Nonetheless, many temptations lurk beneath the surface of the increasingly popular assumption that questions of religion and moral decency are necessarily matters of arbitrary personal preference that have no place in the public sphere and nothing to contribute to conversations about the common good of a social order. There is grave danger in societies privileging an anemic civil religion that completely relaxes the tension between God’s kingdom and the kingdoms of the world. That is true of both right and left-wing versions of political idolatry.
Granted, there is great variety across the US in how these matters are handled in practice. Where I live In West Texas, Christianity is certainly not in hiding. Indeed, some versions of the faith are so public that some feel that they need to hide from them—and perhaps sometimes for good reason. Such Christianity is often a domesticated civil religion that serves agendas that have more to do with preserving idealized manners and morals than with enabling people actually to grow in holiness as they take up their crosses. Too often in my region, what passes for Christianity merely provides a thin veneer of spiritual or moral respectability to political and social projects that have little direct connection to the salvation of the world and which obscure vital dimensions of Christian belief and witness. As such, increasing numbers of people recognize that such versions of the faith require nothing of substance from them and offer even less in return. As a result, they do not take religion seriously at all, for it seems like a matter of irrelevant personal preference often associated with hypocrisy. Or they reject Christianity because they disagree with whatever political or social agenda has been uncritically identified with it.
In our current cultural context, the true witness of Orthodox Christianity has an opportunity to become more clear, distinctive, and compelling. There are advantages in not bearing the burden of sustaining a religious ethos for an increasingly irreligious and decadent society. No one is asking us to guide the legislative process, propose policies, or otherwise take on the responsibility of articulating an ethic for a deeply fragmented and confused social order. Consequently, we are able to focus our energies on being salt and light. Our witness is not to pretend that the Church or the larger culture is something that it is not; instead, it is to be deliberately and intentionally faithful as Orthodox Christians in the areas of our lives that are up to us and to discern prayerfully how to navigate the challenges posed by areas that are not. The rest we leave in God’s hands.