Robert P George, of Princeton University, in his recent essay, “The Pagan Public Square: Our Christian Duty to Fight Has Not Been Cancelled,” sounded a “call to arms” to faithful Christians to stand courageously against a rising and newly aggressive progressivism. This is not a call to physical arms, but a call to “boldly bear witness to truths that are unpopular among those controlling the levers of cultural, political and economic power.” It is a call to arms which we are beginning to hear from many corners more and more, not just from the depths of the dying ‘Bible Belt’ but now even from the halls of Princeton.
How is this aggressive progressivism expressing itself? Historically liberal political philosophy operated under an ‘orthodoxy of neutrality’. The old orthodoxy assumed that in order for justice to prevail, law and government must be completely neutral to contested understandings of the human good. Under the current regime, where progressives have achieved hegemony in the elite sectors of the culture, neutrality is out and compliance and submission are the rule of the day. George marks that the successful march of progressive approaches to controversial positions can be seen all over our education, the educational and entertainment media, the professions, corporate America, and even in religion.
Where is the evidence? According to George we should look no further than the current ‘orthodoxy’ regarding sexuality. The institution of marriage and the historic and biological contours of human sexuality are not only passé but are actually seen as oppressive, and in some extreme corners, inherently so. No longer is there a vaunting of the need for neutrality in wrestling with controversy. Rather, as Mark Tushnet, of Harvard Law, states, “The culture war is over; they lost, we won.”1 The tolerant liberal status quo of the late last century is being swallowed up by a “hard-line approach”: “You lost, live with it.”
The Orthodox Church and the ‘Call to Arms’
How does the Orthodox Church hear this “call to arms”? In myriad ways. I think it fruitful here to review some of the ways in which contemporary Orthodox Christians in North America respond to the problematic laid out by George. Getting a rough lay of the land helps us to understand the strengths and weaknesses of all of these approaches before assessing whether we should be heeding this call and how we should be heeding it.
First, the Church triumphant. Some have been monitoring the trajectory of this movement towards progressivism and have holed themselves up in the bosom of the Church, looking to her clergy and others to lead a counter attack or to strengthen the ramparts. Some in these ranks will readily accept the moniker of “culture warrior” and glory in the debates which allow them to “own the libs”. Others who have hunkered down are hoping that Orthodoxy will not be like their last denomination and will stand true to the end. They may not be actively on the attack, but they are certainly zealous in their defense of true Orthodoxy.
There are strengths in this approach. The strength of certainty, the resolution to actually fight for something deemed worthy, and the virtue of standing firmly by the age old tradition and teachings of the Church. However, inherent in the militant language that accompanies this mindset there are definite casualties and wounds to account. The desire to fight can lend itself to an unhealthy bloodlust and desire for subjugating one’s perceived enemies. St. Paul tells us that we do not war with flesh, but so often our anger and desire sends us barrelling right into a person and not the ideas or ideology he is relaying. Additionally, truth proclaimed in such a manner generally falls on deaf ears. Our Lord hardly spoke when He was on his way to His glorious passion. And yet, we who are His ambassadors can look too often to the hard diplomacy of war rather than the suffering necessary in our role of pointing to the kingdom of God.
Finally, for those who desire to refresh and strengthen the ramparts there is a temptation to generally disconnect from the world and scorn the goods that are actually here. Rather than than the Church becoming a field hospital attending to all of us who have been wounded by sin, this mindset can lend itself to the erecting of impenetrable barriers and a insidious “us” vs “them” mentality that dimly reflects our Lord as we find Him in the Gospels.
There is then those of an opposite mind, the revolutionary Church. This subset rejoices in the change that has so quickly come and seek to apply it within Orthodoxy. They eagerly await the revolution of the past decade or so to happen within their synod, or, probably more reasonably, to eagerly bubble up from dissident laity and clergy who hope to speak prophetically against a ‘calloused and hateful’ past. Change must come and it could not come quickly enough. Those who are not on this wavelength are fundamentalists who are simply on the wrong side of history, lack love, and refuse to be reasonable.
One must applaud the desire of this mindset to see the Orthodox Church thrive and respond to contemporary realities. One can also discern that there have been injurious and damaging situations wherein those who are wounded by various sins have been grievously wronged by those within the Church. Righteous anger and a desire for sincere justice is a necessity in the face of these wrongs.
Often those of this mind are superficially rooted within the tradition of the Church, especially the dogmatic and ecclesiological ethos of our Fathers and Mothers in the faith. The piety informed and rooted in the dogma of the Church can be easily traded for a piety raised and solely shaped in the suburban climes. There the catechism is mostly social cues and niceties, not Nicea or the Thebaid. Heresy and false teaching are tantamount to being not aware of the current trends. Be nice, be inclusive, and tone down the particularities of Jesus Christ and apostolic teaching. In their zeal they can also be as vicious and oriented to “attack mode” as much as their greatly disdained and benighted “fundamentalists”.
Our third group is made up of those who have simply put their heads down and can not been bothered by these broader trends, at least not as far as the Church is concerned. For our purposes here I will call them the ephemeral Church. They are attempting a form of faithfulness but have not often thought about these challenges in any systematic manner. Perhaps dubbing this group as ephemeral is harsh. The appropriateness of the adjective ephemeral is found in the unsubstantial nature of the faith of this group. They may be coming on Sunday mornings…or at least most Sunday mornings. They identify as Orthodox and rejoice in some particularities, e.g. we call Easter Pascha, our Church never changes, my grandmother went here, or this is about the same as the Roman Church anyways, but they are not actively engaged with the life and teachings of Orthodoxy. So when it comes to these issues raised by George they are more driven and informed by the news and political antics of the afternoon than the teachings of the Orthodox Church. They are unable to heed the call to fight because they come to the field without the necessary armaments in the first place.
There is also a fourth way, that of caring deeply about the challenges facing our families, parishes and communities, and yet feeling powerless, unprepared, lost, or just plain tired. The ever-discerning Church. This is an attempt to capture those who are either just now awakening to the challenges of living the Orthodox faith in the 21st century through either being new to the faith or being recently renewed in faith. This is also the category that I have often encountered of those who are desirous of faithfully following Jesus Christ but who long ago grew tired of the culture wars of their youth. They genuinely see that there are serious trials ahead for faithful Orthodox Christians. And yet they balk at either the shrillness of those who cry “wolf” or memories of the carnage of past encounters that they are still recovering from.
Some may genuinely wrestle with how to relate to current problematics, themselves being naturally cautious or conflict averse. They wish to wait the trouble out or they see the challenge really being set for a generation or two later. The weakness here is that they can be forever discerning and forever inactive or unarmed for the battle. For the sake of the youth, for those confused about the teachings of the Church, for those who struggle with the teachings of the Church but who zealously seek to follow Jesus Christ, this mindset can be a serious stumbling block.
These are not exhaustive positions, but they do give us a rather a challenging landscape to navigate.
My next post will assess George’s call and then begin to sketch how Orthodoxy may fruitfully respond.