Claude S. Fischer recently wrote an intriguing sociology of religion article for the Boston Review. The data is data that’s been well known for some time. The “spiritual but not religious” or the “nones” category is growing and growing fast. What is fascinating in this article, though, is that he correlates the rate of that group’s growth with political views. In sum, the more a church coheres with values of “the Christian right,” the less likely it is to attract members who believe in God but call themselves spiritual but not religious. In fact, the data suggests such churches not only fail to attract such people, but push such people away.
So, what does this mean for the Orthodox Churches in America? I think it means balancing between two extremes. One extreme may be found in many places online, on Facebook, and amongst seminarians and clergy: that of accepting nearly everything from the political right, especially as expressed by the Republican Party and the Religious Right, as “the” Orthodox position. Taking that extreme, Eastern Orthodox Christians would look at the data and thumb their noses at it, prideful to remain “the one true church” at the expense of demographics. The other extreme would be to reject all that exists in the political right, including the religious right, in order to bring in as many “nones” as possible, no matter what the cost to doctrine. Here one who thumb one’s nose at the right, taking pride in how progressive and enlightened one is.
Both extremes have their temptations depending on who we are and the issue(s) raised. The best approach, however, and the one that will prevent Orthodox Churches in America from reducing themselves to a High-Church sect, is the more difficult approach. The best approach requires discernment, a virtue I fear too many of us are lacking these days (because, frankly, it’s easier to demonize the other and run oneself toward one extreme or the other). What does this balance look like?
Well, I think it looks a little more like the essay Fr. Robert Arida wrote for the OCA Wonder Blog and less like the reaction it received. That reaction, btw, included taking down his essay and leaving up the negative comments. That reaction included the clergy in the Diocese of the West of the OCA finding it pro-gay marriage or some such and demanding Bishop Benjamin work to take it down. The Orthodox Church has never had a “gay marriage rite” and for the record I would not support creating a new marriage rite for gay couples, but the challenge Fr. Robert left us, which was simply finding new ways to speak to the surrounding culture on this issue as well as others, is a vital one.
I also think the balance looks less like the PTCD (post traumatic convert disorder) one finds amongst convert blogs decrying what one non-Orthodox Church after another is doing. It’s not just blogs. In fact, it probably happens more on Facebook, but the point is, this is a reactionary problem. So a Protestant church has contemporary services. OK. So a Protestant church gave dogs communion. Ok. So a Protestant church let Muslims pray in their worship space. Ok. All these things and others are what other churches did. They are not what our church did. Yet, it’s too common to expend a lot of energy criticizing what other churches are doing or have done.
A more balanced approach would not ignore traditional teachings on sexuality nor ignore what other churches are doing, but it also wouldn’t be so primed that it went off half cocked whenever cultural questions were merely raised. It wouldn’t devote nearly the energy and time to criticizing others (that seems currently devoted–you know, because of “culture wars”) but would turn that energy inward. We have problems–a lot of them. An obvious one seems to be that we prefer to critique non-Orthodox to an unhealthy degree.
Eastern Orthodox Christians need to take the sociological data very seriously. We need to turn our energy to working on our own problems. We need to turn our energy to finding new ways to engage our culture other than proof-texting from patristic sources. This will be hard work. It will mean we have to admit the Church is big enough house both Democrats and Republicans alike. It means we will have to bring together those who stand against a same-sex marriage rite and those who believe we are not doing enough to minister to those who are gay. It means we have to deal lovingly with those who think homosexuality is the touchstone issue in the first place.
Ultimately, it will mean we will have to have faith in the Holy Spirit, that Jesus’ words about him are true, that he will actually lead us “into all truth.” Truth is not something that only existed centuries ago. Truth is Christ Himself who is eternal. Truth is everlasting. A balanced approach to moral and political issues will engage the “nones.” True, many will still object and prefer to be “spiritual but not religious,” but for those who are open to being lovingly engaged, a balanced approach will be appreciated. For us within the Orthodox Churches, it will be a blessing as well, for balanced engagement that brings people in is the only thing that will prevent us from going down the road to being reduced to a High-Church sect in America, and a very small one at that.