In this post, I thought I’d combine a couple of angles into one. First, of course, continuing with this series, I wanted to explore some minor ways in which Orthodoxy is significant for the American Religious scene. Second, I want to pick up on a recent joint-reconciliation statement from the Russian Orthodox Church and Polish Catholic Church. Believe it or not, there is thematic overlap here. The overlap is that the best sort of future for Orthodox Christianity lies in engaging the other, rather than merely renouncing the other or (worse yet) withdrawing into our own communities and completely ignoring the other.
At the start of the twentieth century, the Eastern Catholic landscape in America changed significantly. I realize this was a small segment of the population but, nonetheless, Eastern Catholics numbered in the tens of thousands. Orthodox Christianity proved very significant for them. In short, America provided Orthodox Christianity with a context in which a pan-Slavic approach to evangelization could bear fruit. Orthodox pan-Slavicism generally sought the unification of all Slavic peoples around Russian Orthodoxy. This idea had wide-ranging effects in Europe, going beyond the borders of the Russian Empire. In America, the Russian Mission was able to act out of this approach. St. Alexis Toth converted from Eastern Catholicism to Orthodoxy and then proceeded to evangelize fellow Eastern Catholics. Moreover, Eastern Catholics became the central focus of evangelism to non-Orthodox in America. Sure, there were exceptions to this in the early twentieth century, but by and large, Orthodox missionaries ministered to Orthodox first and Eastern Catholics second.
Tens of thousands of Eastern Catholics, in fact, became Orthodox during the early 20th century. The Toth movement even spread back to the Carpathian mountains in Europe. The future of Orthodoxy was greatly enhanced through this engagement with non-Orthodox.
Fast forward to today. We live in an America that is increasingly growing secularized. The numbers of people claiming to be agnostic or atheist increases, as does the number of those who are “spiritual but not religious.” Europe is farther along this secular path than America. In the midst of this, the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches have begun some discussions concerning Europe. Into this context, one should probably plug the recent statement on reconciliation between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Polish Catholic Church:
Although this is a different kind of engaging of the non-Orthodox other, it is a healthy engagement and not all engagements need be evangelism. Yet, whether evangelism or reconciliation, engaging other faith groups, especially other Christian groups, is a sign of a healthy church. To whatever degree Orthodoxy has a healthy path forward in America and Europe, it seems to me it must continue to be based on fruitful engagement. Moreover, I believe it needs both healthy poles from our history–evangelism and reconciliation/appreciation. They both belong together. We must hold to our truth claims while simultaneously doing so in peace, love, and hope.