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?

19 Responses

  1. GC

    “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.”

    Frankly Father, it is the teachings of many Protestants, especially Evangelicals. I really don’t appreciate how you are taking upon yourself to correct your brother priest on a blog. Did you contact them directly?

    You speak negatively about how some are painting a broad brush about Western Christians, but aren’t you doing the same thing to those you are criticizing?

    1. Hmmm. I’ve not met a single evangelical or baptist who thinks Jesus work and or our conversion leaves the world untouched. Perhaps I haven’t met the “right” ones. As for your correction concern, this is the nature of blogging. Blogs respond to one another. And it’s not a broad brush to point out that we have caricatures of culture and non-Orthodox Christians at play.

  2. While Fr Freeman does undoubtedly collapse “the West” into the type of Christians he encounters in East Tennessee, he very accurately describes the sort of religion that I’m familiar with from growing up in that part of the world.

      1. Well, I don’t think it’s as small as it seems from the Upper Midwest… the kind of Southern religion that Fr Freeman describes is one of the more vital strains of American religion and something that is frequently and zealously exported abroad.

        1. Where the work of Christ or conversion means no effect on the world? I know Baptists who’d disagree. But either way my point isn’t that no one anywhere holds it. Rather that you can’t reduce al others to that (though conveniently it allows for Orthodoxy to ride in on its white horse and save the day). A nice spaghetti western could be had.

          1. The standard sort of Gospel that is preached in many parts of the South is very much centered on the centrality of getting saved and once saved always saved, in such a way that basically nothing else matters.

            Coming from a very different orientation, Matthew Sutton’s book “American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism”, which is about to come out but I’ve seen a review copy of, also talks about the sort of predominant American religion in which “the work of Christ or conversion has no effect on the world” and the political implications of this.

  3. Protodeacon Michael

    Ah! Father Oliver has given me an opening to continue my “recovering Lutheran” anxieties, a discussion that started when he visited us in Fort Wayne last month! He likely rues the day………………

    In considering Fr. Oliver’s piece and the responses I’d have to say (on experience at least) “both/and.” A big part of the story, rather poorly dramatized in Thrivent Financial for Lutheran’s movie production of Luther’s life but certainly not untrue, is that the medieval German DID believe in a rather inarticulate “salvation by works.” No one was telling Tetzel to get lost, whatever the scholars might have found offensive in his “tent meetings.” Officialdom, both secular and ecclesial, might have been uneasy with Tetzel’s carnival, but the lucrative payoff cash-wise seems to have had the unfortunate side effect of convincing the rank and file that, indeed, coins-a-ringing led to a similar payoff in terms of souls-a-springing. I’ve not read it for a number of years, but what struck me about the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent was that there was a great deal of corrective effort spent there to clear up what had been, officially and otherwise, “taught,” which seems to imply that while some sort of works salvation may not be current teaching, it certainly seems to have been in 1519.

  4. Timothy Olson

    This isn’t just a good warning for everybody.

    If self-appointed apologists across the religious spectrum used the time they spent making straw-men to engage in real debate, we would be much closer to the unity Christ prayed for.

  5. I think you are mistaken about the make-believe character of my argument. I live in the deeply Protestant South, was raised in the Southern Baptist Church. What I described is actually quite common in my experience.

    I did not characterize this as “the West.” It is descriptive, however, of much of American Evangelicalism, something with which I am quite familiar and fluent. And American Evangelicalism is perhaps the most dominant form of contemporary Christianity in American culture. The so-called mainline Churches are moribund and a very distinct minority. Perhaps my Southern experience differs from yours.

    But, it seems to me that you have mischaracterized my article and made of it a straw man of your own. I respect the work in Orthodox Constructions of the West, though I think it makes mistakes. I studied under a student of Florovsky (whose work formed part of my doctoral studies). Florovsky’s analysis of the “Western Captivity” is a much more serious work than is found in blogdom. But the deconstruction of the West (and modernity) are themselves part of the Western theological world. They were important in the thought of Nietsche, for example. I worked with a number of Post-Modernists (and Marxists) at Duke. Their critique of the West and Modernity would make the average Orthodox blogger blush.

    I think that bloggers would serve themselves well to actually slog through Florovsky’s volumes on the history of Russian thought. I think that without reading him, the conversation is seriously lacking.

    I suppose my complaint, in part, is being lumped in with all Orthodox bloggers. I do serious work with the blessing of the hierarchs of the Church and I stay pretty regularly in touch with Orthodox faculty and scholars. I have engaged plenty of non-Orthodox. I have generally not been charged with being ignorant, uneducated or uninformed. Indeed, I find things to be quite the opposite. But my experience might be quite different from your own.

    I think that I will probably write at some point down the road about Orthodox Constructions of the West.

  6. An additional thought…

    You failed to understand my point about “no effect on the world.” By this, I am referring to a juridical rather than an ontological view of God’s work. The “effect” is elsewhere, not ontologically in the believer. There might be – might be – a moral effect as a result of conversion – but this is not considered a necessary requirement in salvation. The distinction between juridical and ontological understandings of salvation is valid and correct. My book, Everywhere Present, treats this in a much larger fashion.

    What is at fault here is your own understanding of what you’re reading, and jumping to false conclusions. I can see that some of your readers understood this as well. I agree that there are some very facile caricatures out there – all across the board. That’s American religion – “2000 miles wide and 2 inches deep” – in the words of the late Martin Marty. I was an Episcopal priest for 18 years. It’s interesting (since it’s a denomination that prides itself on education) that I found its clergy woefully ignorant in theology and many other things – particularly when compared to the average graduate of St. Vladimir’s or Holy Cross. I’ve found the same thing among many contemporary Protestants, from Mainline and Evangelical groups. And, I even meet some Orthodox clergy who strike me as poorly trained and poorly read. We live in a time of decreasing education – college degrees just aren’t what they used to be.

  7. GC

    It is really unfair for you Fr Oliver to lump Fr Stephen into a certain category. Is that not painting with a broad brush when you do that?

    One can nick pick over minutiae details over who is saying what exactly over on this blog or what not, at the end of the day, The East and West take very fundamental different approaches to salvation. Sure, you can find an exception here and there, but that’s exactly what they are, exceptions, not the norm.

    In my experience with Evangelicals living in the mid-Atlantic/North East, it was exactly the type of Protestantism/Evangelicalism that preached one must be saved and one is saved for all of eternity if they accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

  8. James

    As a former evangelical, I find them a hard lot to pin down. I read Fr. Stephen Freeman and I find him insightful and edifying, personally. But if I were to show the same posts to my dad, he’d say, “no, that’s not what I believe”. Even though I can assure you I have heard what Fr. Stephen opposes while growing up in the church of my youth and from multiple sources. So mainly I do not show that kind of stuff to my family or other evangelicals, but it settles things in my mind a lot better. And since becoming Orthodox, I have seen that Protestantism is diverse enough that I could “piece together” (as evangelicals feel quite free too) a very Orthodox theology, if I was that well-read and had such discriminating sensibilities…

  9. James the Thickheaded

    I am thankful for Fr. Stephen’s writing and at his best, he helps us see through the thickets the mind uses to obscure the heart, and he keeps pushing after a mini-breakthrough here or there to NOT rest at the immediate easy place after our exertions. Yet I’ll admit that while the welcome sunlit meadow in the midst of the black forest is still far from the promised land… I (we?) often make precisely this mistake.

    So I don’t think he’d disagree with you that there are many in each place, each denomination, who are in fact our allies – though whether they’re “shallow” or “deep” isn’t the point so much as I think you intend to suggest here (I think we’re each both shallow and deep btw)… that maybe we’ve misread them… or mistaken a breadth of cohabiting views for a monolith of the loudest among them… and that the other more conducive folks within can be strengthened and in turn strengthen us if we allow it. Equally, there are many within our church who aren’t all roses either (me!)… and need strengthening as well. And as you are fond of pointing out, we aren’t necessarily a monolith either as much as we’d prefer to paint ourselves in this way.

    I sense that Fr. Stephen’s target audience has come through a bit of the thicket… and struggles at the edge to keep pushing ahead with the day-to-day slog while your writing seems more focused on a strategic look at where collectively the church is headed and whether we’re being as helpful with this slog by our leadership as we can. These are related, but different focuses.

    There is a place and time when it will be less about my Orthodoxy (or yours), or my brother’s version of christianity, and more about our common life in the Kingdom, but for now, for today …there are in fact real differences… and these can be quite striking and even puzzling. Each of us are like missiles in different silos that have become so coddled to the sound of our own voices that we find it hard to listen to what we hear from others…. even and at times, especially other christians. Truthfully, I find it really challenging to try to apprehend, understand and simultaneously square these differences with our Orthodox senses but equally… with just my geezing fatherhood … I find a tendency in myself to dismiss much variance as youthful enthusiasm that will pass. Yet as much as the Bible Belt itself has morphed, media renew ALL its strands… and we very much remain a young country and much more remains the same than the myths of our progress and unity would suggest.FWIW, shallowness can have its virtues if it leads to easy and real forgiveness rather than hardened and bitter memories.

    I’m not a teacher, yet as much effort is expended in blogdom, I’d wish there were more that were helpful at seeing beyond these ….and recognizing that through it all, my non-Orhtodox brothers and sisters still love Christ.. and recognize that it’s not my ego, but the Holy Spirit and the prayers of the Theotokos that will lead us to deepen our love with time to a point where “progress” isn’t some collective fiction (Fr. Stephen’s point) but a personal (path) life in Christ (which I think Fr. Stephen implies in beating that drum). The problem is that this is a two-step or three-step dance in a one-beat blog, and it’s hard to make more than one point well, keep it short, and still get it read.

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