We are returning to an entry I posted a few weeks ago about Robert P. George’s article “The Pagan Public Square: Our Christian Duty to Fight Has Not Been Cancelled.” In conclusion there I stated that I wanted to “sketch out how Orthodoxy may fruitfully respond” to George’s article. Well, I believe I still need to focus on assessing Orthodoxy in North America…so my sketches will be postponed until I feel I have adequately drawn up some of the challenges facing the Orthodox Church as we engage with the North American public square.
Assessing George’s “Call to Arms”: Orthodoxy Transcending North America
One of the challenges of assessing Robert P. George’s “Call to Arms” is bound up in the identity and narrative of Orthodoxy in North America. It is common to hear that Orthodoxy provides a position or vantage that transcends the dialectic of Western Christianity (Protestantism vs. Catholicism) or Western culture. Or, another version of this, Orthodoxy is not at all invested in the West because these issues are not our issues or problems. 1 In either version we are working with the assumption that Orthodoxy somehow stands outside of and beyond the struggles of Western Christianity or Western culture. How can we adequately assess George’s challenge if we believe that Orthodoxy either transcends these issues and/or has nothing to say to these issues?
A Short History of Ethnic Ghettos and the Narrative of Transcendence
I once had a traditional Anglican Bishop (APA) tell me that “Orthodoxy is just 50 years behind the West. All of the things that tore Western Christianity apart in the 20th century will sooner or later bubble up in Orthodoxy.” My response was, “Well, you’re right. Our time has come.” Whatever insulated Orthodoxy against the corrosive effects of late modern North Atlantic society has been worn away. Unless one has placed their head underground, it is not hard to run up against some incredibly heated debates within Orthodox circles. Issues of sexuality do tend to top the list of hotly debated topics. Close behind this then comes the torrent of related issues of how exactly one must situate one’s self vis-a-vis modernity. Debates rage about “fundamentalism” and “progressivism”, for some these seem to closely mirror the debates of the Western Christian communions, and yet, we seem to have some of our own flavor. For example, developing views on Russian monarchism or the retaking of Constantinople suddenly seem pressing. Perhaps more realistically comes the deeper challenge of struggling with just how exactly the Church should relate to the liberal American social order.2
More than likely the insulation for Orthodoxy in North America was the ethnic “ghettos” so decried by the late Metropolitan Philip.3 At first, there is nothing particularly odd or challenging about being an “ethnic enclave”. The Church was of course going to be made of particular people from particular places who will bring with them those particularities. The challenge for the first generation or so was survival, adaptation, and attempting to heroically build Churches and some semblance of ecclesiastical life in a world so distant from home. Over time the successive generations struggled with faithfulness to Christ against the various sedimentary build up that challenges every body of Christians in every generation.
One of the realities of the significant immigrations of Orthodox Christians in the 20th century is the sudden intense interactions with Western Christianity. Here and there in the “old country” Orthodox Christians had to navigate other Christian communions, e.g. Austro-Hungarian Empire and specific border regions. But the particular shape of American religious freedom and Protestant inflected public square were quite shocking. In another form we see this happening in many of the writings of the Russian emigre theologians of the mid-20th century. Orthodox theologians and believers in reaction to the sudden submersion in Western Christian climes began to describe how Orthodoxy transcended the issues of Western Christianity. Orthodoxy was something that was either immune or simply stood above the particularities of Western Christian theology, politics, etc. They did this sometimes to underline the different emphases of Orthodoxy and modes of doing theology in Orthodoxy.
This was of course also fed by Western theologians and believers who were suddenly immersed in texts, liturgies, and arts that they did not formerly know. By providence this coincided with a general trend in the West to a “turn to experience” – think of existentialism and phenomenology of the mid-20th century. The buzz words? Mysticism, icons, and asceticism. One did not have to go further East than Constantinople or perhaps the pillars of old Syria. Orthodoxy was exotic, different and therefore of great interest. Even today one still encounters this phenomenon, e.g. most non-Orthodox seminarians in the West, if they read anything from Orthodox Christians, encounter the writings of Metropolitan John Zizioulas and Fr. Alexander Schmemann.
Speaking of Fr. Alexander, he provides an apt illustration of this phenomenon. Richard Mouw in his reminiscences about the signing of the Hartford Appeal points to the consternations of Fr. Alexander. Fr. Alexander felt out of place at “gatherings of conciliar ecumenism” because, as Fr. Alexander put it, ““All they seem to want from me is that I bring a Russian dish to their potluck. But they do not want to hear anything from me about what I think about the overall menu!” As a product of a mainline divinity school I can report this is standard. Orthodox theology is seen as an exotic and yet ancient faith which can be mined for whatever one desires. Again, mysticism? Check. Icons? Check. “Cosmic” theology? Check. And this phenomenon affects both conservatives and liberals.
The Right and the Left Escaping the West
The initial interactions and narratives drawn up by Orthodox and Western Christians encountering Orthodoxy then became one of the stock narratives for Orthodoxy. Next, they became the reason why people became Orthodox. Many people converted to escape the challenges of the West. And they did it for Western political, ecclesiastical, or theological reasons. And this has attracted those who are theological conservatives and theological liberals.
Orthodoxy has attracted and absorbed a significant amount of disgruntled conservatives from various former communions. This is a rather obvious observation. For example, two OCA seminaries, St. Vladimir’s and St. Tikhon’s, currently have top leadership who were formerly of the Anglican Communion. The conservatives who have come to Orthodoxy came for various theological and moral reasons. They desire tradition and the historic praxis of the Church to peacefully coexist without the turmoil of the 20th century. And so they hoped to escape the imploding and divisive Western Church situations and land in a peaceful eastern harbor. Similarly, those who grew up in the bosom of the Orthodox Church may become settled theological conservatives due to narratives of Orthodoxy that present Orthodoxy as being the answer to all of the West’s problems because it is not mired in any of the West’s theological, ecclesiological, or cultural travail.
At the same time, and maybe not as well observed, Orthodoxy absorbed and produced theological liberals. And often they articulate this in similar anti-Western sentiments. They seek to escape the rationalistic, legalistic, and moralistic West for a mystical and communal or person-centric East. So they may deplore the dualism of Western rationalism and exalt in Orthodox mystical thought and at the same time believe that Orthodox are not that concerned about sexuality, or, at least, should not be obsessed with arguing about it like the West. A similar narrative can even be found in those who grew up in the Orthodox Church and have become theological liberals. For example, they may ostensibly defend Christological dogmas enshrined in the Ecumenical Councils of the Church but reject the traditional teachings of the Church regarding sexuality and who may be ordained. Additionally, it is common that they then treat converts who enter the Church and wish to defend the traditional teaching of the Church regarding any number of issues as foreign interlopers bringing in “Western” theological categories or an “American culture war.” Orthodoxy should be hermetically sealed from theological conservatives finding a home in Orthodoxy so that the “cradle” may be able to escape the American religious scene on one front…and yet embrace it fully on many other fronts, e.g. embracing homosexual marriages, lauding transgenderism, and advocating for the ordination of women to the holy priesthood.
I also want to point out another group that may not map on to “conservative” or “liberal.” They still wish to escape the West in being Orthodox. They wish to dodge all of the controversies, histories, and challenges of being a Christian in North America. Who can blame them? From the Trump Worship and Christian nationalism on display at the recent Jericho March or Capitol Building assault / demonstration to the limpid and sentimental liberalism of so many mainline Christian groups, Catholic or Protestant. This can be rooted in a kind of Gen X angsty retreat from the “mainstream” to an airy wishful thinking that one can transcend one’s context by prayerful retreat. Hesychasm does not necessitate withdrawal and transcendence from the world one lives in. Being Orthodox, a decided minority religion in the USA, can become a desire to somehow rise above the fray of all that is besetting the West and simply escape.
Strategies of Retreat
The desire to escape, withdraw, or transcend the challenges of life in the ever growing post-Christian West is to formulate, knowingly or unknowingly, strategies of retreat. The problem with retreat is that it may be a tactic that can salvage what already exists, but is not a strategy for those not already firmly rooted. Specifically I refer to our youth and those who have not developed deep roots within the Orthodox faith. They will be lost in a strategy of retreat as they will not be able to withstand or fully process what is happening.
Our next post will be a further exploration of “strategies of retreat.”
- Different versions of this exist, from the theological, e.g. Vladimir Lossky’s claim that the filioque is the source of all the issues with Roman Catholicism, to the more “spiritual”, wherein the loss of asceticism is the key to the dissolution of Western Christianity.
- By liberal I mean the fact that much of the American order is dependent upon the thought of John Locke, an architect of classical liberalism.