Today I have had the pleasure of being in Jacksonville, Fl, for the Diocese of the South’s annual clergy retreat. Our speaker is Fr. Michael Oleska who teaches in Alaska, and is probably the foremost authority of the history of Orthodox missions to America, as well as Orthodox missions in general.
Our lecture this afternoon was excellent, particularly connecting the fairly well-known work of early missions in Alaska, with the larger history of Orthodox missions in general. One of Fr. Michael’s distinctions was interesting, if only for the generalization it drew of a difference between the East and the West in Christianity (one should never push that distinction beyond its limit) – but I thought his remarks were well on target.
He noted that there is a general line of demarcation in Europe between East and West, between that part of the world whose legacy is owed to Byzantium and that part of the world whose legacy is owed to Rome. He noted that the Eastern world had been forged in the military conquests of Alexander the Great, who, to the largest degree, conquered civilizations that were older and more advanced than his own Macedonian/Greek world. Areas such as Persia, India, Egypt, were all very old, revered civilizations.
The Western world, on the other hand, was a conquering of Barbarians. The general result of which was to define “civilizing” as making them like the one “civis” Rome. Thus the learning of Latin was a key part of learning to be civilized. In the same way, later supplanters of Roman civilization, the Nation States of Western Europe, defined their own colonizing role as that of making foreign peoples like the people back home. Thus areas of the world “civilized” by the British play polo and cricket, no matter how foreign, or even silly such games should have been in their own culture. The point was to make “Englishmen” (or “Frenchman”, etc.) of the colonies.
This difference in attitude, Fr. Michael noted, comes over in the difference between missions in East and West. The East was far more comfortable to take what it found and leave as much intact as possible – using native language and custom as the bearer of the Christian faith – while the West tended to want to make of converts a repetition of the capital (wherever that might have been).
I thought long and hard (and am still thinking) about what this might mean to Orthodox missions in America, and in the American South where I serve. I have no firm conclusions, but much to think about. I ask the prayers of St. Herman and others who have gone before and brought Christianity to peoples without thinking that they need to make those people into someone they were not. A fitting meditation.