Combatting Orthodox Caricatures of Western Theology

A recent post by Fr. Stephen Freeman reminded me of just how common it is for we Orthodox to paint with a broad, reductionistic brush when it comes to the West.  He opened his post on “An Illegal Christmas” by saying:

“The great advantage to thinking about God in legal terms, is that nothing has to change. If what happens between us and God is entirely external, a matter of arranging things such as the avoidance of eternal punishment or the enjoyment of eternal reward, then the world can go on as it is. In the legal model that dominates contemporary Christian thought, the secular world of things becomes nothing more than an arena, the stage on which we act out our moral and psychological dilemmas, waiting only for our final grades to be issued when we die.

In the contemporary world-view, Christ’s death and resurrection change nothing within the day-to-day world. Their effect is entirely and completely removed from this world and reserved for the next. This is a great advantage for Christian thought, for everything of significance becomes theoretical, removed from the realm of practical discussion. Not only does Christ’s work change nothing in this world, it changes nothing within us other than by moral or psychological suasion. And we therefore need argue or labor for nothing other than abstractions. The inert world of secularism is left intact.

This is to say that if “accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior” only brings about a change in my eternal disposition, then it is largely meaningless in this world. Everything Christians do in this world would be but tokens of eternity.

But this is not the teaching of the New Testament or classical Christianity.”

Frankly, I don’t think it’s the teaching of anyone, though the “once saved, always saved” crowd probably does come close to this.  Yet, I don’t think that crowd alone is meant by the “contemporary world-view.”  That’s left undefined, unfortunately, but it seems to apply to “other Christians” or even “the other Christians.”

But Fr. Stephen Freeman is not alone.  Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick makes a slight error in how he presents Luther as well in a recent post on his site also.  He gets Luther partially right.  Luther was reacting against a system that encouraged the likes of Tetzel, who went around selling time out of purgatory.  And yes, Luther does speak and write in places about faith as opposed to works, but if that’s all one gets out of Luther, one read him way too quickly (if at all).  Luther himself actually saw good works as flowing out of faith and as free will even existing in this kingdom (his “two kingdoms” approach also applies here–read up on it if you haven’t encountered this before).  Fr. Andrew wrote, “Luther was wrong that the story was “faith versus works.”  No, it’s “faith and works” on both sides of the question.  The real difference is which faith and works you’re going to follow.”  Thing is, Luther would have agreed with the second and third sentences too. Although a full treatise of Luther’s faith and works is beyond the bounds of my writing here, this extract might help produce a more appreciative view of what Luther was trying to get at.

The two Frs. Stephen are not alone nor is it just an Orthodox blogger problem.  I’ve mentioned Orthodox Constructions of the West before on this site.  It really should be a must-read.  In fact, at some point soon I’ll write a post giving a list of “must reads” for Orthodox Christians.  One of the upshots of that book is that it shows just how prevalent our caricatures often are.  Popular Orthodox writers can tend in this direction regardless of whether they are blogging about it.  It can also happen around the coffee hour table. For example, how easy is it to find simple dismissals of Augustine and Anselm by Orthodox, even well known Orthodox writers?

Now, I am standing on the belief that such reductionist generalizations are not good and appropriate, at least not when perpetuated by people who are educated leaders and influencing the way others interpret fellow non-Orthodox Christians around them.  So, in light of that, what are some things we can do?  Well, one will be to read the books I’ll list in my next post.  Reading those will provide one with a more nuanced and informed view.  Another thing we can do, though, is easy, and if done by the likes of Frs. Stephen and Andrew and other Orthodox bloggers and writers, could be quite effective.  We could articulate our theology and spirituality primarily as standing on it’s own, not needing a heretical “foil.”  So, in Fr. Stephen’s post, his discussion of “transformation” was good and enlightening and a positive expression of what our Orthodox faith is (at least in part) about.  Fr. Andrew’s discussion of good works and faith works quite well without needing an overly simplistic view of Luther thrown in.  Both blogging priests have good things to say to us, as do other Orthodox bloggers and writers.  Heck, now and then, even I might hit the mark (and I hope I am here).  I think if we present Orthodoxy as a positive rather than as a reaction to something, it will help us.

Take fencing.  I mentioned “foil” above, so I hope this will work.  If my whole strategy is only to parry your attack and riposte it, and that’s all I ever do, you’ll pick up on it.  You’ll notice I have a rather simplistic approach to fencing.  You’ll even believe that if that’s the only action I ever do, I don’t even really understand fencing and you’ll want to be instructed by someone else eventually.  On the other hand, if I add attacks and feints and counter attacks and indirect attacks, you’ll see I have a more complete understanding of the sport.  You’ll have to fence me more carefully and, if you’re learning the sport, you might just stay with me as a coach.  Yes, even in fencing, one has an “area of expertise,” and that area might well be certain parries, but to be succesful, one needs to be able to create situations that lead to those parries succeeding.  Right now, we Orthodox need a more complete game.  It’s too easy to find caricatures of the West in popular Orthodox writings, whether online or in print.

This hurts us, for it gives us a reputation as ignorant, uneducated, knee-jerk, chip-on-our-shoulders, etc. At least educted and informed non-Orthodox will conclude that and why shouldn’t they? We’d conclude something similar if we encountered simplistic dismissals of Orthodoxy. It also hurts us because it means we are not preparing ourselves or our fellow Orthodox for real meaningful encounters with non-Orthodox. It hurts us because it limits our audience. We end up preaching to the Orthodox choir. To take the two blogs I just mentioned, for example, I highly doubt Ancient Faith wants its podcasts and blogs and such only heard and read by Orthodox (but maybe I’m wrong here). It also hurts us because we set up converts to deconvert later if they come to see their reasons for converting as simplistic and even false. If we truly believe our church has a rich tradition and a spirituality that is open and beneficial to all, why risk that?

Book Reviews

In the recent months, book reviews have come out on my book Turning to Tradition and I think I have mentioned most of them here on the blog.  One I haven’t mentioned yet is this review by Dr. Amy Slagle in Review of Religious Research.  She highlighted how my book noted the variances in what “tradition” could mean as well as its importance for African American religious studies.  Her concluding paragraph reads:

“Of appeal to specialists of American religions and Eastern Orthodoxy as well as

educated lay readers, this study fills a lacuna in the historical scholarship of American

religions since few studies solidly devoted to Orthodox Christian history in North

America have been produced. This monograph enhances our understanding of Orthodoxy

in the United States as well as the standings and perspectives of traditional Christianity as

it is found in twentieth-century America.”

Morality without God?

I return, finally, to my exchange with humanist Jon Lindgren, emeritus professor of economics for NDSU and former mayor of Fargo.  The delay was entirely my own fault.  These last several months have been hectic, so finding the time to put together a short essay even proved difficult.  Nonetheless, I have done so.  Here we each give our take on the matter.  I argue, of course, for a relationship between morality and faith and Jon Lindgren argues rather for a consensus approach, providing an ecological example.

Belief in God and Morality

Morals without God

Eastern Orthodox Advice on a Roman Catholic Problem: Divorce, Annulment, and Remarriage

Recent discussions and debates and political brokering in Rome has centered on relational ethics, including the question of divorce.  Although most non-Roman Catholics probably look to papal infallibility as the main stumbling block to uniting or converting to Roman Catholicism, I must confess, as a pastor, the Roman Catholic approach to marriage has always struck me as significantly vexing and problematic. Sometimes I even see it as a bigger problem than Infallibility, which, if it requires a council, doesn’t seem impossible for the two Churches to navigate at some point.  Over dinner during this past weekend’s Image and Spirituality Symposium, I told Adam DeVille that I thought the solution might be for Rome to look to Eastern canon law, which is technically within its own tradition.  Whether that’s viable or not, I don’t know, but seemed to me to be an available “out” if it can be “legislated” correctly in Western Canon Law (and that I cannot say for sure as I’m no Roman Catholic canon lawyer).  Into the foray enters Andrew Cuff, a Ph.D. student at Catholic University (from where he has already earned an MA).  Mr. Cuff seeks to articulate formal distinctions around different kinds of adultery and offers that as a solution–a unique suggestion, with an Eastern Orthodox utilizing Western categories as a means of aid and suggestion:  adultery and the synod on the family

Primitivism and Restorationism as Orthodoxy’s Siren Call

In my book Turning to Tradition, I argued that restorationism lied at the heart of Orthodox convert movements throughout the twentieth century in America.  Interestingly, that same impulse toward a primitivism, which can inspire resorationists, those who wish to “restore” what had been lost, is something that has been presented as a reason to look toward Orthodox Christianity in a recent article entitled “Scotland the Brave,” which may be found in Orthodox Canada: a Journal of Orthodox Christianity as well as republished on  The article has started gaining some renewed traction, though it was originally written in 2007.  What makes it so interesting is the broad-brush attempt to link current Canadians to an “Orthodox” heritage.  First, the author claims that Scottish heritage has a pint or two of its own running through Canadian heritage.  Then the author noted the Cross of St. Andrew as hearkening back to an “Orthodox” Celtic Christianity.  To bolster that claim, the author claimed, “What is very clear, Celtic Christians had far less in common with the free-wheeling nature worship one might find in certain Protestant or Roman Catholic circles than it did with the spiritual life of Greek monasteries in Byzantium. This shouldn’t surprise us: the Greeks and the Celts had the same faith and liturgical life, while the Christian Celts and the modern western confessions, distorted by the Great Schism and the Protestant Reformation, do not.”  To support such a claim, the article noted the resistance to centralization on the Roman bishop as a Western development and artistic similarities to Christian art found elsewhere, such as Africa and parts of the Eastern Empire.  Liturgical similarities such as women wearing veils and the priest facing the altar were also noted, and led to the conclusion: “It should not surprise us to find these similarities, since in comparing the Celtic Church to the Church in Byzantium, or to Orthodox Christianity today, we are in fact comparing the Church to itself. The Orthodox Christianity of the Apostles, of the Ecumenical Councils, of the Byzantines, the Slavs, the Arabs, and the Celts – it is one faith, not many. The Celtic Church was astonishingly similar to Orthodox life today – because it was Orthodox.”  Making such an argument allows the Orthodox to leapfrog over a Presbyterian heritage to return to something that is actually found, apparently in toto, in contemporary Orthodox Christianity.

There are reasons for Orthodox to slow down a bit when making such restorationist appeals, however.  First, the connection found in art is one that one has to evaluate much more carefully.  Artisans traveled in the Roman Empire.  Artistic styles could travel and, perhaps more importantly, early Christian art was shaped by preceding art (such as Roman reliefs and Egyptian funerary art).  A good source to consult o this would be Robin Margaret Jensen’sFace to Face: Portraits of the Divine in Early Christianity.  The claim of an early iconostasis is one that should also be taken with some care.  The iconostasis as we know it today is a late addition (“Medieval”) development.  Sure, it had its roots in earlier architectural dividing points and then screens and Christians (and Jews!) were using art from late antiquity onward, but one needs to be careful that one does not perform anachronism.  Indeed, that is the general weakness of restorationism writ large.  It is anachronistic.  This leads to a second problem: the liturgical similarities could be cited for many other areas of the Christian world as well and fails to note for liturgical variation.  What one sees in Christianity of the first millennium is not actually the Byzantine Rite as we know it today, nor even simply little variations of that rite.  What we see are rites, in the plural.  The third weakness I wish to point out is that in making errors along the lines of these first two that I noted, the author is more easily set up to make the kind of exaggerated attacks on non-Orthodox.  Sure, it is only “some” Protestants and Catholics who are into “nature worship,” but the problem here is Protestantism and Catholicism is treated as though it has a part of its faith-essence that is “nature worship.”  That’s actually not true.  When Protestants and Catholics turn to worship nature, they turn to worship another God.  Reducing whole movements and churches to the extremes of some within the movement is grossly unfair.  The same could all too easily be done to the Orthodox.  Frankly, maybe it should be, though ideally by those from within, who are willing to stand for the Gospel over and above things such as ethnocentrism and bizarre “interpretations” of marriage that lead to sexless lives, etc.

In the end, Orthodox would do well to do better than mere restorationism.  Restorationism distorts the faith.  Orthodoxy is not simply a liturgical time-warp.  Art has changed.  Liturgy has changed.  Theology has changed.  In fact, all three have–yes–developed!  Now, I know that’s anathema to those who wish to claim Orthodoxy does not uphold development of doctrine but the reality is, these things have changed.  What should concern us is not whether change has occurred, but whether the changes have been natural, consistent developments.  Is there a natural, consistent development from mosaics of Christ the Good shepherd to the icons on an iconostasis/templon?  I think so, but I would never claim there’s no development.  To reject development in favor of seeking a primitive church that can be restored (or somehow managed to survive hardly or completely unchanged) is to reject tradition, ironically.

Do I think Canadian Orthodox of Scottish heritage should not look back and see connections to what still exists in Orthodoxy?  No, but I do think they should be careful in how they understand those similarities and the kind of conclusions they might draw from them.

Upcoming Symposium: Image and Holiness

The connection between “image” and “holiness” is one that has been at the heart of Christianity since it’s beginning (Christ is the “impressed image” or “character” of the Father).  This October, I am honored to be one of two main speakers at an upcoming symposium on this interrelationship.  If you are anywhere in the area of Ft. Wayne, IN October17 -18, please do attend!  Fr. Nazari Polataiko will be the other speaker.  St. Nicholas Orthodox Church and the University of St. Francis partner to do this each year.  I will post a little more on this in the future.  For now, check out the poster and feel free to pass it around to others.


New North Dakota Orthodox Christian Temple: a Pastoral Reflection

Orthodox Christianity in North Dakota is on the opposite end of the demographic scale from Lutheranism, so when an Orthodox mission plant grows enough to purchase its first building, it ‘s a big deal.  Currently, there are only two Orthodox Church in America (OCA) parishes in North Dakota.  There is a parish in Minot that has existed since the early twentieth century and a parish in Fargo, which started in 1987 but didn’t experience serious growth until 2007.  It has taken seven years since that time, but this past Sunday, Holy Resurrection Orthodox Mission Church moved into its new building at 1604 52nd Ave South:

For a small mission that has been living out of boxes, this is a big deal yet it is important for mission plants to remember just why it is important as they develop and grow into more established parishes.  Obtaining a building is a calling, it is not an end in itself.  This might seem to be a trite statement, but we all have seen situations with established parishes and cathedrals (of any tradition) that have become bogged down with fights over issues relating to “the building.”  New carpet versus new windows, for instance.  Or balancing the budget on the back of the priest while expanding the building.  These things happen.  When they do, they are signs of parishes that have begun to lose their way.  Buildings are callings because obtaining one provides opportunities.  How these opportunities will be fulfilled will vary from place to place but they will be there, such as:  inviting outsiders in for dinners, ministries, etc., having a place to produce and provide food for those who are hungry, having a safe haven for prayer, etc.  A building builds a parish to the degree it serves the parish’s entry into a deeper relationship with God and a deeper love for one’s neighbor.  May the building in Fargo be seen as an opportunity and not an end in itself.

Anti-Religious Bias in the Workplace (Academic and Otherwise)

One thing I have encountered during my time in academia was an anti-religious affiliation bias.  That is, it wasn’t the study of religion per se that was the problem (the American Academy of Religion, for instance, is a large academic body to which I belong that is dedicated to studying religion).  The problem was if one came across as being too committed to a particular religion or even “too involved,” it would negatively affect one’s chances at anything from conference papers to job interviews.  Granted, this is not always the case, and there are differences between, say, applying for a theology position (or a theology panel) on the one hand and applying for a religious studies position (or a panel dedicated to religious theories) on the other.  Within the last year, though, I have received feedback that I am “too religious.”  My CV shows seminary education.  One of my recommenders mentioned my two different seminaries and affiliations to trump my ecumenical perspective, for example, but it backfired in that the dept. saw me as too committed.  In other cases, feedback has been that someone who is in ministry and/or has worn clerical collars at times to AAR and such is simply too inflexible.  I have even encountered a bit of this within Orthodox-Catholic circles from those who do religious studies stuff (though there are some notable exceptions, including someone I would now consider a good friend of mine who was just hired for his first tenure track position for this fall).

This concern, however, is not merely a problem within the larger purview of academic studies of religion (of any field).  It is also a problem everyone will need to navigate in the non-academic real world.  This article highlights this recent trend. It affects you no matter where you work or live.  If you mention volunteering or an involvement in a religiously based organization, you are less likely to receive an email, phone call, or interview.  The discrimination was strongest in the south but it is true even in the Northeast.  In other words, unless you are applying for a position at a religious non-profit, you are significantly hurting your chances of getting a job if you purposely (and I suspect even if you accidentally) let it be known that you have been or are involved with a religious organization.

I would highly recommend that everyone read the article.  Religious diversity seems to be one form of diversity that many of us fear, regardless of our geography, politics, and religious adherence.  If we do not fear it, a good number of our friends and neighbors will and do.  Those of us who work in religious sectors (academic or non-profit) need to be especially aware of this if applying for jobs outside of those spheres.

Perhaps this all seems trite, but I would submit it is a real issue that Eastern Christian parishes in North America need to address.  Most certainly the clergy do.  Many such clergy work part time, if not full time and have to live rather “schizophrenic” lives.  This is not always the case and most who do this were well aware of this difficulty before I ever thought of posting on it, but it is a factor.  Making sure we navigate this sphere correctly in the short term will be vital to sustaining parish ministries in many places.  For the long-term, we need to start advocating some kind of “Christian secularism.”  I don’t have all the pieces in place for exactly what I mean by that yet, but certainly a more wide-spread openness to religious conversations in the public sphere would be a necessary component.