Clarifying Caricatures

It seems my last post has caused quite a stir, from some internet chatter pro and con to an active comment thread to at least one email thread wherein it became open season on me for a while. In light of all this, I find Fr. Stephen Freeman’s comments here on RRO to be the ones most useful to respond to. The email thread I’ll completely ignore for now. You know who are 😉

I think some clarifications might help underscore what is and is not at issue. In order to do this, first and foremost, I am thankful to Fr. SF for being willing to comment on this recent post of mine. Such can, I hope, be the beginning of fruitful dialogue and exchange rather than the beginnings of spite and vice.

With regard to his comments, I’d like to clarify a few things:

1) I never once questioned his credentials. I’m not sure why he felt obligated to lay claim to “serious work” done with the blessing of hierarchs and his book. Indeed, I would further note that the book was published by Conciliar Press and that he studied at Duke, earning a terminal masters rather than completing the doctorate. I’m not sure how mentioning that helps us in this exchange, but the key line might be when he said, ” I have generally not been charged with being ignorant, uneducated or uninformed.” For the record, I never accused him of such. Though I admit I am ignorant of the extent to which he is engaged with the Orthodox and non-Orthodox theological academy, I did not make such a statement. I don’t know how he read that into my post and I hope no one else did either. RRO is not about “whose CV is bigger.” It’s about Eastern Christianities engaging the West (in a myriad of ways).

2) He is concerned I misunderstood him and made a straw man. To the first, I concede an extent of misunderstanding but that in itself does not create a straw man. It creates a miscommunication. There is a difference.

3) What did I misunderstand? I thought (honestly) that he meant to reduce American Christianity to a particular version of Evangelical Christianity, one that I wasn’t so sure represented even all Evangelicals and Baptists.  I also think I missed a bit of the way he was opposing Schmemann to popular level evangelicalism.  The Baptists I’ve engaged would encourage reading the likes of Dallas Willard (who critiques “once saved always saved” quite harshly) as well as Russell Moore and Al Mohler.  The ethical implications are important to them and so relationships between believers as well as believers and creation are changed by Christ’s redemptive work.  I can see better now what Fr. SF was wanting to articulate even while there remain points of legitimate disagreement.

4) Therefore, I concede that in his comments, he was simply responding to a particular sub-set of American Christianity in that particular post and doing so by utilizing Schmemann’s sacramental (“ontological”) view.  For this reason alone, I am thankful Fr SF commented here.

5) It is important to keep in mind that in my original blog post I was not defending Evangelicals specifically, nor specifically the once saved always saved types (as indeed, I noted they seemed to be the only types who would hold to the kind of views he seemed to me to be reducing all non-Orthodox too).  Nor was I attacking certain bloggers specifically, even while giving a couple recent examples, but was rather aiming at the common Orthodox practice of presenting Orthodoxy in polemical terms – and it always being some one or another Western expression of Christianity that becomes the target of what Orthodoxy *is not* so as to affirm what Orthodoxy *is*. My point was simply – Why not affirm what Orthodoxy is without trotting out some impoverished Western version of Christianity that Orthodoxy *is not*?

6) The risk in this more polemical approach is twofold: it risks mischaracterizing the named impoverished version of Christianity, and it risks mischaracterizing Orthodoxy itself by means of introducing an unnecessary and possibly untruthful false dichotomy.

7) Connecting Fr SF with other Orthodox bloggers who make extended use of such a polemical approach is warranted, based on a reading of his blog and his own words describing what is at the foundation of his own thought. So, from:

“My own belief is that the Fathers see something to which we are largely blind – that our historicized view of the world is extremely limiting and skews everything in our minds. One way that I have pressed this question has been to ask, “If the bread and wine of the Eucharist truly become the Body and Blood of Christ, what kind of world do we live in?” What is unique in this question is my assumption that it tells us something about how the world is.

This is a key point in the sacramental teaching of the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann. He carefully critiqued the traditional Roman Catholic approach to the sacraments as positing an “addition” to reality as we know it, whereas, he contended, in Orthodoxy, sacraments reveal something that is always true of reality. He said famously, “Sacraments do not make things to be different. They reveal things to be what they truly are.”

This has been perhaps the most foundational understanding of my Orthodox life and undergirds all of the writing that I have done.”

Note that last sentence… In his own words, the single most foundational understanding that he has of Orthodoxy is Schmemann’s assertion about Orthodox sacramental understanding, which is intrinsically tied to his view of Orthodox soteriology. Note also, though, that when explaining what’s been “the most foundational understanding of my Orthodox life and undergirds all of the writing that I have done” he is referencing what is framed as a criticism of “the traditional Roman Catholic approach to the sacraments”. With this in mind, if the very “foundation” upon which he builds is a “criticism” of what is believed to be “the traditional Roman Catholic approach,” then isn’t this foundation itself intrinsically polemical? There is, here, a mode for describing Orthodoxy that is inherently contra-West.

Here are a couple of examples of polemicizing specifically against “the West” categorically:

8) Finally, I think this is the beginning of a good self-examination for Orthodox. Fr. SF raised the work of Florovsky and the likes of Nietzsche. I hope to return to this angle at some point–in fact, plan to, since this is important and will help readers really get into core issues at play here. Fr. SF and I may disagree on the extent to which a foil is necessary to present Orthodoxy but that is precisely why this discussion needs to be had. I think there is a better way, a way that Fr SF does get at, when he expresses the positive aspects of Orthodox spirituality and theology. It is my hope to see more of this from Orthodox and less of needing to contradict the other, for that “need” often actually masks passions that are better left below deck rather than manning the helm.

28 Responses

  1. Why does anyone feel that Orthodoxy needs, or should be compared to anything. Why not just talk about, and teach what we believe and let other talk about, and teach what they believe?

  2. Fr. Oliver,
    You yourself are simply cherry-picking my work and creating your own polemic. How is it not possible that I take Schmemann’s insight on the sacraments to be foundational in and of itself. Whether Rome or anyone else agrees is their own problem, worth comment from time to time, but Schmemann stands on his own.

    A great deal of my writing is indeed a cultural critique and particularly a critique of cultural forms of the Christian religion. What I have in the case of my work is an effective ministry, through which hundreds (and quite likely more) have written that they were helped in their faith and many into Orthodoxy itself. Sorry that you think there’s a problem with that. Considering the fact that the culture we live in is going to hell in a handbasket, I cannot fathom any person of faith and prayer not engaging in some sort of critique.

    My purpose in the critique is not to attack the culture, but to practice discernment and sobriety. The culture will take care of itself and shake me off like a flea from an elephant.

    My credential remarks were in response to your hand-wringing about people thinking of the Orthodox as uneducated and such.

    Thanks for the attention. But I’m not really interested in a dialog about all this. I have other work to do for which this is simply a distraction.

    1. Father, I grabbed a few examples, one of which is what you claim to be your foundational approach. That’s hardly cherry picking. We have different approaches. I said nothing against the good you’ve done for people. No need to play the victim on that. To the contrary, I have noted that you’ve also said more positive things (rather than just polemical). In fairness, though, I am concerned that an overly polemical approach might not be the best influence for people. Straight up, because we have different approaches, I do have a different concern than you. I can appreciate now why you were concerned about showing you are educated but my comment was meant not toward whether we Orthodox actually have degrees but whether we are willing to portray our faith and other faiths with a level of appreciation and nuance that can be respected as educated by non-Orthodox. That’s what I meant. As for education itself, I think it is good whenever Orthodox clergy obtain an additional master’s degree and I am quite sure you and your work are all the better for having done so. The dialogue would have been good and helpful for us both, I think, but I can respect your position and I will do my best not to come across as merely picking on you. Such would hardly be the purpose of RRO. That said, RRO will continue to publish on when and how Eastern Christianities (Catholic or Orthodox) engage the West. That is the purpose here and our vision is one that is not foundationally polemical. What that will mean for future posts, I cannot say. So, if you are mentioned again in the future, and I don’t know if you will be, it will be in that context.

  3. steve

    Even those who are completely unchurched in the US have vague, distorted notions of what Christianity is, and, it seems to me, the ‘once-saved-always-saved’ born again Christian subculture is a far greater component of these notions than anything else in American Christendom. So it seems quite appropriate for Orthodox priests, theologians and bloggers to write the occasional ‘not this but that’ article to help clear up culturally based misconceptions. Particularly ones that come from the Evangelical side.

    Aside from works that everyone knows, such as Met. Kallistos Wares books, what would you recommend for inquirers? I’m thinking of modern works that do not compare East and West, favorably or unfavorably, but let Orthodoxy stand on its own, and nothing else.

    1. Great question. Note I’m not saying one should never ever compare and contrast. I’m simply claiming that it’s best if a polemic isn’t part of the foundational way in which we define Orthodoxy. I’ll by slowly working through books I’d recommend in future posts. Stay tuned!

      1. steve

        Do you have any opinions on, for example, the works of Olivier Clement? That is probably not a familiar name over here, since he was associated with St Sergius Institute Paris, and was a convert to Orthodoxy in a country where the Orthodox presence was and is miniscule. I think his writings might be more congenial to your project.

  4. GC

    Fr Oliver, you are cherry picking, painting a broad brush, and labeling people. You are also focusing on a certain phenomena that is really occurring on the internet and even then its still a very tiny minority of world wide Orthodoxy (a minority I would not put Fr Stephen and Fr Andrew in).

    This is really unfair. The fact of the matter is, the West and East take very different fundamental approaches to salvation, something I mentioned before, yet for some reason I feel the need to say it again. Why is that?

    And again, you can find exceptions to everything, but especially within Protestantism, with its myriad and more often then not, contradictory beliefs about just about everything under the sun. So what? It is still Not Orthodox!

    You have still to answer my question in regards to Fr Robert Arida’s essay.

    I really don’t see you actually responding to anything anyone writes here, except to the ones who agree with you.

    You job father is to teach, preach, and uphold the Orthodox Christian faith, and to administer the holy mysteries of the Church. Do you believe the Orthodox Church to be the true Church and she alone contains the fullness of God’s revelation to Humanity? Do you believe that sexual activity is only to take place between a man and a woman and it is to take place only within the bonds of holy matrimony? Yes or no will suffice for both questions.

    After that, we can then talk about how to engage the West or to engage our culture, but not without compromising the faith.

    1. We all are called to uphold our faith and we each must do it with full integrity to the best of our abilities. Using someone’s own published position is not cherry picking. I’m not sure what the concern is with Fr. Robert Arida. He raised good questions. I know others thought he implied answers or that he had given answers already in other formats, but I didn’t see that. I don’t engage all comments and do tend to ignore the ones that include insults. Sometimes, I simply trash the ones that are insulting (I try to discern the degree of willingness to dialogue rather than insult). You may read our comments policy. The others have the authority to trash comments too and may ignore as they so feel fit. Currently, they’re ignoring all comments. That is an option to consider. As for what I believe, I adhere to the Nicean-Constantinopolitan Creed. Not sure how an Orthodox could do otherwise. I don’t get the over emphasis on sex from you and others. There are other areas of life in which to sin and those other areas can cause even more damage. Sex is best fulfilled within a heterosexual marriage when it is loving and consensual. Just restraining it to marriage alone misses the point, too. A husband raping a wife is a sin even if “within marriage.” It would do us all well to think more holistically and less reactionary about this.

      1. Evgueni

        ***As for what I believe, I adhere to the Nicean-Constantinopolitan Creed. ***

        I am sorry, Father, but the vast majority of Protestants definitely “adhere to the Nicean-Constantinopolitan Creed”. As well as Nestorians, Monophysites, Iconoclasts. Do you have the same faith with them?

        ***Not sure how an Orthodox could do otherwise.***

        Yes, they can and should. The Orthodox faith is following the Holy Tradition – what the Holy Spirit has taught for 2000 years through Holy people. That does include the Holy Scripture and Nicean-Constantinopolitan Creed, but is not exhausted by it.

        *** Sex is best fulfilled within a heterosexual marriage when it is loving and consensual.***

        But this is NOT what GC was asking you.
        And what do you mean by “fulfilled”? The main purpose of sex is procreation – at least, that what the Church father taught.

        *** A husband raping a wife is a sin even if “within marriage.” ***
        Well, Apostle Paul clearly teaches us that the body of the wife belongs to the husband and vice versa. There is no such thing as “rape in marriage”.

        1. We don’t have any other statement of faith. Of course, we adhere to the Creed within the context of Orthodoxy, as defined by the 7 Ecumenical Councils. For anyone to think I do otherwise is to be mistaken or simply insulting, depending on the person I suppose. It reminds me of the times I’ve had “cradle” Orthodox tell me I’m not Orthodox because I’m a convert. Here, I have people asking what my faith is when I’m quite public on what it is. I won’t keep entertaining such ridiculousness. As for marriage, I won’t keep answering that. It is heterosexual by definition. This is the last time I’ll defend my belief in that. If people cannot take me for me word, then there’s nothing more I can do. Sex is not merely for procreation but that is a significant reason for it and procreation is to be within marriage. Sex is not merely recreation. Therefore, of course, sex is to be reserved for marriage and repented if not done so but I stand by what I said regarding people focusing way too much on it (unpastorally so) and that rape can happen within marriage. It can and, sadly, does.

    2. Evgueni

      ***I really don’t see you actually responding to anything anyone writes here, except to the ones who agree with you.***

      It is called “being Minnesota-nice” (if my memory serves me well). Of course, Father Oliver evaded to answer directly your very simple questions…

  5. Mome

    It seems to me that one can’t make a blanket statement that the polemical route is never the way to go. Some people are indeed turned off by that, meaning that it’s not always going to be the best way to dialogue with the culture, but some people find it quite engaging, which means that sometimes it is going to be a good way to dialogue with the culture. And some people find it engaging for a while before they eventually tire of polemics, but that doesn’t mean those polemics didn’t play a vital role in their (forgive me for using this term) “journey.” I’ve seen more than a few longtime Internet Orthodox converts who castigate other Orthodox internauts for their polemical style and critiques of the West and all that, despite the fact that just a few years earlier they were on the record as having been quite taken by those very same polemics and were perhaps even drawn into Orthodoxy by means of that very style. As I tried to hint at in an earlier comment that wasn’t approved on the earlier thread, behind a lot of critiques of the critique of the West, there seems to be a bit of hidden embarrassment and a bit of overcompensation for having previously bought into that same anti-Westernism so wholeheartedly. I can’t help but think that there are also a few Internet commenters who loathe the anti-Western critique less out of a true sympathy for this or that Western position but more out of a desire to distance themselves from the bumkinishness (or the newbie-ness) of many other West-bashers, as well as out of a desire to ingratiate themselves to the prevailing bent of theological academia.

    1. I think it’s always possible someone may be doing that (distancing from an earlier stance). Sure. But those I know who have concerns in this area have legitimate concerns. Keep in mind the point is not to say one can never compare and contrast. The point is ones Orthodoxy shouldn’t be defined by a foundational polemic. Orthodoxy does not “need” a Western foil, whether you’re Florovsky, Romanides, or an internet blogger. The comment on the theological academy is cute and smug but lacks proof. Rather than speculate about motives it’s best to stay on topic. I can’t remember what happened to your previous comment. Update: I found it. It was trashed for being too snarky. Please keep in mind the comments policy. As time goes on, I will become less tolerant of those who simply wish to make smug, insulting remarks. If one sees a potential weakness in an argument, that’s great, but attacking (presumed no less!) motives of myself or others or simply insulting and using ad hominem arguments will be less tolerated. Your comment was hardly the worst, trust me, not even close, but too snarky nonetheless. This more recent comment, though still containing presumed motives, is phrased much better and hence, was not trashed.

  6. M

    It would be nice to read articles about “orthodoxy” in non-Orthodox Christianity and other religions. What I mean by this is emphasizing the commonalities rather than the differences. It seems to me that “Orthodoxy” is more than what Orthodox think or perceive. An illustration…I was in the Orkney Islands a few years ago for a few days. Orkney is famous for its Neolithic sites. One of them, Maeshowe is a large mound tomb structure. One enters the mound through a quite low tunnel that is about 36 feet and then one is in a large chamber. It is thought that the chamber once held the dead. The experience was quite moving for I had a realization of how ancient the Orthodox paschal liturgical use of the epitaphios or bier of Christ is…in one part of the ceremony one has to stoop under the bier in order to enter the church for the paschal liturgy. One can also point to the use of sprouted wheat dishes as part of a memorial service. I’m sure there are other aspects that “pre-date” Orthodoxy and are orthodox in the wider sense. I think such an approach would result in less polemical separation and perhaps a greater unity.

  7. mome

    Yes, I knew that earlier comment was overboard so I’m actually grateful it didn’t get approved. And yes, I know it is virtually impossible to actually prove motivations. Who would admit he or she is overcompensating for his or her past excesses, etc. But I still think those motivations are out there in various degrees among various people. You called my comment about the theological academia cute and smug, and maybe that’s true. Sure, I can’t really offer proof on that point but I certainly know that I’ve seen a good share of what I’d call “academic grandstanding” in Orthodox dialogue among non-academic Orthodox people. But that, I suppose is neither here nor there. I think my main point is that, while I can acknowledge that there are legitimate concerns about the excesses and misrepresentations in Orthodox criticisms of the West, I detect a growing reaction to these criticisms that seems to want to pretend that most of the supposed differences between east and west are mainly imaginary or aren’t nearly as important as was earlier thought. This downplaying of the differences seems to me about as unhelpful to real understanding as the overplaying of them. And, as a quick final aside in response to the desire that Orthodox spend more time talking about Orthodoxy itself and on its own terms without resorting to a Western foil: I do think that is a good approach, in principle, but I also think that it eventually becomes necessary in many sustained dialogues with non-Orthodox people in America to discuss the differences between Orthodoxy and other more prevailing understandings about Christianity. In other words, we certainly don’t always need to conjure a Western foil, but often the Western foil appears in its own in the form of common presumptions (among other Christians or among those who have rejected Christianity based on presentations of it that they have encountered which we Orthodox would also reject, etc.). Someone like Fr. Stephen, for instance, has an audience full of people who comment and ask him questions over and over again on topics that basically demand that he discuss the differences between evangelical notions and Orthidox ones. It makes sense in that context that he would often anticipate such questions before they inevitably arise by discussing differences.

  8. Ioanna

    Evgueni had some incredibly disturbing comments about rape in marriage that I simply couldn’t ignore.

    *** A husband raping a wife is a sin even if “within marriage.” *** Well, Apostle Paul clearly teaches us that the body of the wife belongs to the husband and vice versa. There is no such thing as “rape in marriage”.

    Did everyone read that???

    Of course, I would never presume to know how St. Paul felt on that particular subject. Also, culturally, that was a very different time. I do feel that this comment about rape not existing in marriage is disgusting and disturbing. I imagine the husband has free reign to beat his wife as well, and vice versa. What about the numerous examples given my the fathers on the sanctity of the body? Fr. Oliver, could you please explain more on this topic in the future?

    1. Evgueni

      What the apostle meant (if you really read his text) is that one spouse does not have a right to deny sex to the other spouse. Abstaining from sex can be done only by the mutual agreement (for example, during the fasting periods). Of course, I never implied that one spouse has a right to force himself/herself on the other one if the other spouse refuses; however, the refusing part commits a sin (from the Christian point of view; non-Christians can do whatever they like).

      ***Also, culturally, that was a very different time.***

      I agree. But this fact does not speak in favor of our culture – particularly in the respect of family and marriage issues.

      ***I imagine the husband has free reign to beat his wife as well, and vice versa.***

      Well, the Holy Fathers especially warned us against “imagining”. There is even a saying in Russia: “If you imagining something make a sign of Cross”. Needless to say that Apostle never say anything about permission to beat someone (whether it is your spouse or not), and such actions are against the law.

  9. Patrick Henry Reardon

    “I’m not sure what the concern is with Fr. Robert Arida. He raised good questions.”

    No, he didn’t. He raised a contrived inquiry about matters that has long been settled.

  10. GC

    “Really? All the questions were settled? Not just “sex” but economics, ecology, etc;etc?

    When, where?”

    Holy Tradition within the life of the Church (both Old and New Testaments) over the course of thousands of years, that’s when and where!

    Its really not that complicated people!

    1. M

      Well, if all these questions were “settled” so long ago. then why aren’t the “solutions” being applied? Don’t give the easy excuse of fallen human nature etc;. For instance, I’d like to know the “solution” to the technological/economic impasse we’re in at present, ( income/wealth inequality with the top 1% earning 20% of income and having 50% of wealth as an illustration). that Holy Tradition has. I have yet to see the Church apply it, have you?

      1. Evgueni

        This issue has been settle in the Gospel:

        14 “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants[a] and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents,[b] to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.[c] You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

  11. GC

    “then why aren’t the “solutions” being applied?”

    Well, that question needs to be ask first and foremost when we are standing in front of a mirror, after answering it, then can we go and ask others that same question.

    As for the application or lack thereof, well, we have the lives of the saints as proof of the solutions being applied and working. That’s why they are commemorated on the calendar everyday, we compose hymns in their honour, and ask for their intercessions. And by the grace of God, there are those who are applying the solution to their own lives right now, sometimes, we have to search them out, we may need to travel a bit from time to time to see and talk to them, but, it is possible.

    1. M

      Yes…well, I do stare at the mirror everyday…and I try to do my little bit…it’s not much and I’ll admit I’m just as much of a sucker everyone else as far as being a consumer…after all, I turn on the lights, turn on my computer and read comments such as yours that depend on….gasp….a huge energy expense, plus a technology developed by, gasp!!! non-believers, and well, my health status is due to medical discoveries made by, gasp!!!, non-believers and I drive many miles, leaving a huge carbon footprint in a machine and roads made by gasp!!!!, you know the rest.
      Meanwhile, I read of an Orthodox Patriarch wearing a $30,000 watch and millions of dollars, ( billions of rubles) given to monasteries and financial hanky-panky with Mt. Athos etc;etc; and this is only a small, small part of it. I read an interesting manifesto issued by the Russian Orthodox Church on economics issued in a country full of individuals who’ve made billions of dollars from cronyism…all the while supporting that Church with the Patriarch with his watch.
      Those saints you mention are fine…they are necessary…they keep the universe from collapsing, ( the Jewish legend of the hidden Tzadikim applies here just as does the Buddhist notion of Boddhisatvas), but I see a grand disconnect, a cognitive dissonance, between what is uttered and what is practiced. It’s this dissonance that needs to be addressed and I, so far, have not seen an attempt to address. from the institutions that need to do so.

      1. Well the need is even more profound than that. This is not 335 nor even 1350. We have a much different science, much different view of humanity, and quickly developing technology. If we won’t answer new questions with creativity then not only will people go elsewhere but we will be failing to do what St Paul was so willing to do–present the Gospel through the means by which some were ready.

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