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.

A Quick Update

I am going to take a page from fellow blogger Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick here from this post, where he states a comment policy that is quite appropriate.  BTW, the post in question is a response to the “anonymous” priest who wrote on behalf of Holy Trinity Monastery.  Readers who are interested in the topic should read the post.  Relying on Fr. Matthew Baker, there are some salient points.  Ok, the comments policy he instill emphasizes staying on topic and we here at RRO are going to add a similar line to our comments policy.  So, please note, you’ve been forewarned.  If you mistakenly think your lot in life is to go around to websites and blog and post (rail?) against gay marriage, priestesses, ecumenism, or anything else, you should move on.  Please make sure your comments are on topic.  This is not to say the other topics are not important or worthy of balanced, rational discussion, but that comments should stay on the topic of the post in order to maintain a balanced rational discussion of that particular topic.  Similarly, if someone is writing on topic x, but you don’t like that person’s position on topic y, you still need to keep your comments to topic x.  If you cannot, then go on to another site or type a post to your own blog or stand on the street corner and shout and protest (though the blog approach may be less disrupting to the public).  A more succinct version of this post has now been added to our comments policy page.

The Tired Cliche of Orthodox Sectarianism

Recently, the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Pope of Rome gathered together and delivered a joint statement.  The momentum of the event has led to an intended meeting of some kind to commemorate the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea (held in 325), planned for the year 2025.  Well meaning, conservative but ecumenically minded (at least with regards to the Orthodox) Roman Catholics have expressed appreciation for this and have asked me what I thought.  In sum, I have told them it is a step in the right direction but as long as Moscow and Istanbul remain in a spitting match and Orthodoxy (at least in America) continues to attract people who want to deny being Western Christians and continues to foster an anti-Western-Christian perspective in Eastern European countries, the refusal to pursue serious dialogue for change will remain a stumbling block within Orthodoxy.

Recently, an anonymous essay available on a ROCOR site, which Holy Trinity Monastery presents as it’s “response” to the patriarch and pope (see here), has fabricated such a stumbling block.  I realize from the outset, some of us will have positive or negative reactions, perhaps to slight extremes.  Some will want to hang on every word since it comes from a “monastic” source.  Others will wonder why a monastery even ought to offer a “response” the patriarch and pope. Isn’t that a bit impudent?  I think there are times when one can risk impudence so I don’t think we should dismiss it on its face and yet sometimes what comes from a monk or monks may be misguided, bizarre, or simply wrong.  In the case of this essay, I think it is misguided.

I agree with the dear priest that one should not remain at the level of cliche but should examine things theologically.  I also agree that we Orthodox should not want an ecclesiology that is destructive to church unity.  Sadly, that is precisely what the essay in question presents.  Here, a stark, dichotomy is drawn between “church” and “not church,” to the point that an ecclesiology of “fullness” is misrepresented (perhaps because it was first misunderstood).  If one is going to speak of a church as having a “fullness” to its faith that another church does not have, it does not mean: ” this ecclesiology allows for participation in the Church’s sacraments outside of her canonical boundaries.”  That simply doesn’t follow.  It could follow, and one could argue that another church body is so close to one’s own that intercommunion ought to happen, but intercommunion itself doesn’t necessarily follow from “fullness.”  One may see something precisely along this line within church history, as the distinction between schism and heresy developed.  For one might not rebaptize someone from church A but might (re)baptize someone from church B.  Herein lies the central problem to rejecting an ecclesiology of “fullness.”  One is left with an all or nothing ecclesiology.  Either it is fully “church” or it most certainly is not.  Within that framework, then, Roman Catholicism becomes seen as most certainly not and Orthodoxy is seen as entirely so.

As for stating that the church divided “in time,” the patriarch was simply making a historical statement.  Even on a most basic level, one cannot have a “schism” without a “tearing.”  The separation or division happened from within the church.  Schismatics are not people following a separate religion who do not join ours.  A schism occurs when there is a separation.  Nor does such a statement or “fullness” ecclesiology mean the Orthodox Church would be seen as no longer possessing “all the truth.”  Again, the one does not necessarily follow from the other.

A useful example might be the Novatianists, a schismatic church that actually supported the Orthodox party during the Arian crisis and eventually died out by way of being integrated into the Orthodox church.  It’s not a perfect example, as our current situation is not the same, but it is close.

Another thing the author of the article left out was the body of ecumenical statements concerning various theological issues, such as the filioque.  This is a glaring omission, for by ignoring more recent discussions, the author is able to appeal solely to earlier statements as though later discussions and developments do not matter.

In the end, while I agree some of us in favor of ecumenical dialogues do use cliche statement too often, the theology presented by this anonymous (and why be anonymous when pontificating?) priest is just as cliche.  Sadly, it is yet another example of cliche Orthodox sectarianism–burying one’s head in the sand regarding history (look only to the statements one likes and ignore development) combined with an all or nothing ecclesiology (assisted with an erroneous rejection of “fullness” ecclesiology).  Orthodoxy needs to mature beyond this point.  Our response to Roman Catholicism and the West should not be to shove our heads in the sand and flip the bird to the outside “Western,” world.  We should proclaim that we do believe we have the fullness of the Gospel and the faith within our tradition and yet we should also be willing to see light as it shines in the other.  A sectarian approach not only hurts unity.  It also hurts us, for it makes us less, for we do not have to engage our brothers and sisters in Christ in any meaningful way, but merely tell them “become exactly as I am.”  That didn’t ultimately work so well for Agent Smith in The Matrix movie series (despite initial successes) and won’t work so well for us either.


Atheist-Orthodox Dialogue, Post 4: What, if Anything, is Sin?

This month, we address the topic of “sin.”  What is it?  Jon claims that non-Christian religions do not have the concept and notes that when regarded as a breaking of rules, the definition was simply provided by those in power and used to control people beneath them.  See: What about sin-2:   I note other religions do have a sense of “wrong doing.”  I then highlight Western and Eastern emphases within Christianity, concluding that sin, from a Christian standpoint, can only be properly understood in light of Jesus as the Christ:  Christian Understandings of Sin.  I believe this is an important point, as Jesus and the primitive Church was hardly in a position of worldly “power.”

I think there are some areas of reflection that could easily be flushed out from these pieces.  For instance, does it change anything for Jon that religions other than Christianity also have a means of highlighting “right” and “wrong”?  On the flip side, what does it mean, practically, for me to say that “sin” is really only properly understood in light of Jesus?  In our next post, we’ll get at this second question a little by addressing a related topic that Jon has raised with me–can there be morality without God?  Of course, that topic won’t answer these two questions definitively, but it is a related and important topic.

Tradition, Traditions, and Racism

My last post led to some private messages and emails.  One priest’s wife was astounded that Matthew Heimbach was a member of the Traditional Orthodoxy (Canonical) group of Facebook and that that group has thousands of members, with not one saying anything about his presence.  To the best of my knowledge, the moderator certainly does not.  Another person thought the real question should not be whether Orthodoxy has the doctrinal basis for rejecting racism but whether it has the testicular fortitude (though this was stated a bit more crudely).  Time will tell on that.  Neither of these kinds of responses are what led to this post, though.

What I wish to build from is the realization that my last post struck a nerve with some “pro-white” types who think I’m “anti-white” and such.  The ad hominems came out.  I am for “McOrthodoxy” and I have a “crap goatee,” that sort of thing.  I have to admit, although race and ethnicity are not “funny” issues, I did laugh at the ad hominems.  Look, they were funny.  My racist opponents may be glad to know that the crap goatee is now no longer a problem.  I’m now clean shaven!  The McOrthodoxy charge is similarly ironic, but leads to a larger point.  Those who refuse to recant their racist statements and actions seem to have created a false dichotomy between being “pro-white” on the one hand and a supporter of “McOrthodoxy” on the other, wherein the latter terms refers to some sort of raceless, consumerist form of Orthodoxy.

This false dichotomy raises a few important angles.  First, regarding the “consumerist” aspect of Orthodoxy, I would recommend everyone reads the recent books published by Amy Slagle and myself.  Reading these works will help people see the larger American Orthodox and American Orthodox convert landscapes in a much more informed manner.  Only then should one enter into a discussion about “consumerism.”  Second, the idea of a “raceless” Orthodoxy is silly if one means trying to make one “race” out of all races or ignoring race and ethnicity all together.  As noted in the previous post, the 1872 statement was against exclusion based on race.  Including people of all ethnicities and races does not make something “raceless.”  It simply includes all and is open to all (though if this inclusion is what’s meant by “raceless” then YES Orthodoxy IS raceless).  That’s the Gospel’s transmission–neither Greek nor Jew–”Go ye therefore into all nations,” etc.  Third, there is the issue of Tradition that is raised.  For the false dichotomy is being championed as Tradition.  This is the point I wish to address briefly here.

Tradition is a multifaceted word.  Indeed, this youtube video from Princess Bride may well be applicable.  When it comes to the Orthodox tradition, is it best to continue with strict, exclusionary racial and ethnic boundaries or best to integrate them?  One could answer the former by highlighting our multi-jurisdictional situation today or how internationally, Orthodoxy is directly tied to nationalism, by way of name and structure (“Russian Orthodox Church”) if nothing else (and often it is tied in more ways that that).  The better answer would be the latter.  Why?  Well, the breakdown along national lines was a development of the history of evangelization (the tie to nationalism as we know it is a modern element).  It was a matter of getting the Orthodox faith into different cultures.  It began at Ascension (actually even before, with Jesus’ willingness to reach out to the Samaritans and non-Jews), continued into the early Church, as seen in Africa, for instance, and later India and even China (via the Nestorians).  Here in America, it happened notably amongst many Native Alaskans.  When this occurred, the primary, fundamental connection was not culture and certainly was not race, but was the Orthodox faith.  There is something very ironic about seeking to exclude races from the church, either directly or even indirectly (remove all “non-European” types from American borders, etc.) and then justifying it, at least in part, upon a history that shows the Orthodox faith to be something that is to be shared across racial divides.  Another reason is that integrating races and ethnicities within the Orthodox church is consistent with this in a new way in America.  Tradition does not mean merely repeating something from a father or a past time.  You cannot recover a “past time” anyhow (though we often try–read my book). Rather, tradition is a verb, not just a noun.  It is something that is living and ongoing and in America, the “new” continuation of the kind of evangelization our Orthodox church has done is fulfilled by making each parish fully open to all races and ethnicities.  Anyone who wishes to be a part may enter. This also means our parishes must be championing the kind of conditions that enable this.

That seems to be where my racist opponents object most fully.  They do not want the kind of conditions in America that would foster this integration within our parishes.  Yet, America allows for this integration in a special and profound way.  When we are sworn into the military, we do not take an oath to any person or carefully defined political ideology.  We are neither Nazi Germany nor the Soviet Union.  We take an oath to defend the Constitution.  The Constitution provides a vision that ultimately results in a country willing to be open to people regardless of ethnicity and race.  America has not always lived this correctly, to be sure, but it is so open and in being so open, it provides our church (and any other church) the opportunity to integrate all people and share the Gospel with all.  Ultimately, that is the real danger of those who wish to exclude (whether directly or indirectly) on the basis of race and/or ethnicity–one works against the spreading of the Gospel. That is certainly not “tradition.”


Has Orthodoxy the Doctrinal Basis for Addressing Racism?

The recent online uproar over Matthew Heimbach, once featured on national TV as a rising white supremacist, led to some discussions concerning phyletism and whether that applied here.  This is an important question.  What happened back then and does it at all provide a basis for combating racism when found within Orthodoxy today?  To get a snapshot of the ruling from 1872, I would recommend this link at orthodoxhistory.org, a site I was once directly affiliated with, when we were starting it up, and a site that has some helpful materials.  In 1872, a confrontation occurred between Greeks and Bulgarians and the Ecumenical Patriarch and Bishop Anthim.  Matthew Namee provided a six part series on this, using the Methodist Quarterly Review but the reason I have linked to the fourth part in the series is because Matthew provided the translation from the Quarterly in his post.  There are some notable things in that 1872 ruling.  First, it does not get into tit-for-tat politically but seeks to focus specifically upon racial differentiation.  That makes the synod’s statement more useful in future settings.  The main concern is the establishing of churches on the basis of race.  That is slightly narrower than simply making racial judgments and remarks.  So, does it at all help when encountering people who believe the Orthodox faith supports a racist view (whether “pro-white” or otherwise)?  I think it can and does.  For although the ruling itself may have referred to the establishing of a church on the basis of race and/or nationality, it seems to me that one cannot even seek to establish a church in this manner if one hasn’t already concluded that racial lines are worthy of excluding people, a priori.

The kicker in all of this is that we have Orthodox who believe precisely that.  I have met Orthodox across this country (including here in Fargo) who believe converts should not be entering the Orthodox church and/or that they are not “really” Orthodox because they do not have the “right” heritage.  Moreover, there are Orthodox who are sympathetic to Heimbach.  Heimbach, although told via his parish’s website to repent, has issued no such statement and yet is now a member of the Traditional Orthodox (Canonical) group on Facebook.  No one on that group has seemed to object to this.  Another example might be found in a rather well known Orthodox priest linking to an article that argues against an alleged discrimination against old white men (no I’m not making up the rhetoric here, that is the point of the article).  The article, though admitting white males have been privileged, then goes on to highlight only a few radical cries against white males in order to conclude old white men are under siege.  I don’t think anything is gained by responding to but a few examples from the extreme left by championing old white men is helpful, really, and it can send the wrong message to people such as Heimbach, his friends, and those in the Traditional FB group who are OK with such attitudes.  A better response would not be for an Orthodox priest to state he’s an old white man too and so are many others who will be celebrated on Father’s Day, but to have pointed out that a handful of extreme views from the left does not drown out the fact that people from all races and of either gender should be treated respectfully.  That’s all that needed to be said.  Whenever we play the role of victimization against a radical view, we risk encouraging radicals from the other end of the spectrum.

Orthodox clergy and laity need to make a clear stance on this.  We need to do so when encountering a rising white supremacist star.  We need to do so when discussing the relations between Orthodox internationally.  We definitely need to do so here in America, where we have jurisdictions that still hearken back to certain ethnic beginnings in ways that allow some of us to say converts aren’t welcome and/or aren’t “really” Orthodox.  A clear stance would be consistent with the ruling from 1872, even if the context is quite different.  The question is whether we’re willing to be consistent with that, whether we’re willing to say there is neither Jew nor Greek.

Enter by the Narrow Gate for Wide and Easy is the Path to Ecclesial Decline?

Following up, somewhat, to Fr. Oliver’s last two posts about ecclesial decline (particularly in PECUSA) I want to throw out an idea here that has become rather less fixed and certain in my mind over the last several years.

In 1997 as I was leaving the Anglican Church, I gave to several of my still-Anglican friends, who had a hard time understanding what I was doing and why, a copy of T.S. Eliot’s 1930 essay “Thoughts After Lambeth.” Eliot, an Anglo-Catholic, wrote in the aftermath of the 1930 Lambeth Conference which gathered the Anglican bishops of the world together in their decennial meeting. The 1930 conference is remembered for one thing only: it marked the first time that a major ecclesial body gave, albeit grudgingly, support for the use of artificial contraception.

After that decision, Eliot wrote:

There is no good in making Christianity easy and pleasant; “Youth,” or the better part of it, is more likely to come to a difficult religion than to an easy one. For some, the intellectual way of approach must be emphasized; there is need of a more intellectual laity. For them and for others, the way of discipline and asceticism must be emphasized; for even the humblest Christian layman can and must live what, in the modern world is comparatively an ascetic life. Discipline of the emotions is even rarer, and in the modern world still more difficult, than discipline of the mind….. Thought, study, mortification, sacrifice: it is such notions as these that should be impressed upon the young…. You will never attract the young by making Christianity easy; but a good many can be attracted by finding it difficult: difficult both to the disorderly mind and to the unruly passions.

17 years ago that seemed exactly right to me, and it was a handy heuristic for trying to understand the appeal of Catholicism and Orthodoxy to the many new converts to both who were among my friends: we were tired of the constant cultural capitulations of Anglicanism (and other forms of Protestantism) and their endless, vulgar huffing and puffing to keep up with the Zeitgeist. We want a Church that scorns the easy road that leads to perdition. We want a Church that challenges us vigorously and unapologetically in everything–the bedroom, the boardroom, the workplace, the kitchen, the public square. As the Jewish theologian David Novak reportedly put it, “Any religion that does not tell you what to do with your genitals and your pots and pans is uninteresting.”

Such an approach, I was convinced, is precisely what the world needs, and was, many said, part of the real appeal of Pope John Paul II in his World Youth Days that reached scores of millions around the world with full-throated Christianity. Such an approach, I once thought, explained the appeal of Orthodoxy to those who entered in the 1980s with the late Peter Gilquist and others. Such an approach, I was confident, would lead to Catholicism and Orthodoxy experiencing explosive growth–in the event of the latter, the Gilquist-led conversions would be but the beginning of a flood that would go on and on until Orthodoxy overtook many Protestant denominations in size and influence in North America. As proof that Eliot was right, I looked to Dean Kelley’s sociological study, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing.

But I’ve since come to see that the picture is rather more complicated, as it almost always is. Fr. Oliver’s own book on converts to Orthodoxy has been tremendously illuminating here, as has Amy Slagle’s earlier book on coverts. So too have conversations been with my friends, the Orthodox priests Michael Plekon and Bill Mills, as well as the Orthodox scholars Nicholas Denysenko and Brandon Gallaher, and others involved in pastoral ministry. Finally, my own students have been deeply challenging here. When I started teaching my introductory course on Eastern Christianity in Indiana in 2008, I very romantically assumed that my students, who were required every semester to attend at least one Orthodox Divine Liturgy and then write about it, would all leave the church staggered just as the embassy of Grand Prince Vladimir was: “we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, but we know that God dwells there. We cannot forget that beauty.” I have been depressed, but no longer surprised, to report that at most 10% of my students have that response. Many others leave unmoved. Still others, the most vocal group, can’t get out of the church fast enough because it’s the strangest thing they have ever encountered, and don’t you know all that incense will give you cancer, all that fasting will make you diabetic, all that kissing of icons is unhygienic, and all that sharing of the same communion spoon is the most unspeakably gross thing in the history of the world and will surely be responsible for the next pandemic?

All of these interlocutors of mine have forced me to re-think Eliot’s idea that a vigorous, strict, ascetically demanding form of Christianity is not only the way to staunch ecclesial decline, but is precisely the means by which to build up huge parishes full of zealous converts who fast twice a week; become vegans during Lent; tithe; do missionary work; attend Matins, Vespers, Akathists, Pre-Sanctified, and Liturgy on every feast and its vigil and post-feast; work in the local soup-kitchen; serve on six parish committees; and lead exemplary lives of holiness with saintly families who are all heavily involved in the church. Strictness, in other words, equals “success,” where success is defined as having millions of new members every decade.

Now I’m not so sure about this because the evidence seems lacking. Have we seen massive growth in Eastern Christianity in North America? No. Are most people today really interested in a strict, demanding form of Christianity, or are such folks a distinct minority (and not always the healthiest of minorities, either)? Is there a balance somewhere between a latitudinarian approach of extreme laxity, on the one hand, and a quasi-monastic approach of hyper-strictness on the other?

I still deplore the tendency to try to make Christianity seem “relevant.” I still refuse to countenance the changes made by Anglicans and others in many areas. I still think an easy Christian life is indeed a betrayal of the gospel in crucial ways. But is strictness the answer? Will that bring the masses back, or keep them in? I have no clear answers here.Thoughts?