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.”

 

Is Orthodoxy Christian Enough to Call White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis in Her Midst to Repentance?

Yes, the title is serious.  This week we have been blessed with an essay from Inga Leonova who raises this real problem, a problem that has, unfortunately, come to light across Facebook and so is now a real, live issue.  Given how preposterous this might sound, I should note, here, that  although I cannot verify every detail,  I have seen the threads that indicate she is correct and I trust her work here–and pray that something is going to be done about this soon on behalf of the Orthodox Church, for this is now a scandal.  As a church historian, I must admit that there is a real deep and abiding irony here.  Think of Desloge Missouri.  Or Greeks in Nebraska.  Or any other number of events in the history of American Orthodoxy when the KKK and others caught up in anti-immigration and racist sentiments ran Orthodox out of town and committed atrocities.  Perhaps I should post on such things in the future.  For now, though, I prefer not to side track us.  Everyone is made in the image of God.  Maybe not everyone will pursue the likeness of Christ, but everyone is made in God’s image.  Leonova’s essay brings home that point if nothing else (and that’s under selling it–I hope you read it).  I present it here in PDF for easier reading and dissemination:

Orthodoxy for the Whites-1

Hypocrisy, Converts, and a Sectarian Journey

For today, I thought I would pick up where I left off in my last post.  In my last post, I mentioned that I would return to Owen’s insight that many who take up Orthodox practices become worse people, not better, and that seeing this can drive a person away.  I do think some Orthodox who take up Orthodox spiritual practices are the worse for it.  I also think seeing this in others and experiencing their judgment and fanaticism can drive a person away.

I would like to suggest that when it comes to Orthodox converts, the practices are often part and parcel of the package.  In my book Turning to Tradition I highlight how it is that American Orthodox coverts ironically portray that most American phenomenon known as restorationism in their conversions.  No, I’m not claiming that is true for 100% of all converts, but it has been true for the leaders of convert movements and those who were influenced and led by them.  That’s no negligible number.  Chapters four and five, which deal with the Evangelical Orthodox Church demonstrate this.  Once Orthodoxy becomes identified with that primitive Christianity that is to be restored or, as the converts soon come to conclude, found, the adoption of Orthodox practices go hand-in-hand with it.  In such cases, “Eastern” sources actually become an aspect to this restorationism–restoring what was “lost” by “the West.”  Think also of the various Orthodox converts who engage in syncretism of sorts before becoming Orthodox.  We start praying before icons before even becoming catechumens.  Or, maybe some of us start fasting and buy prayer ropes and such.  I can’t claim to have done all that but I will publicly admit that I did purchase an icon before we were catechumens and it hung on our bedroom wall.  So, I would caution against thinking people become Orthodox and then start adopting practices.  It’s often an organic, fluid process, and one that starts right from the time Orthodox Christianity is of interest (which is why we have Lutherans and Episcopalians, for example, who use icons in their prayer lives even though they have no intention of “converting”).

If we keep this in mind, I think it is fair to say it is not necessarily the practices themselves, but the way in which they are being utilized in conversion journeys that become problematic.  When various assorted practices become identified with the essence of the conversion itself, then there is a natural set up for the practices to lead to all kinds of arrogance and judgmental attitudes.  Further, in such cases, the more a person does them, the worse it would get as it would tend to reinforce those vices.  Something similar happens with regard to the whole notion of “feeling spiritual” or trying to see the “divine light.”  It becomes a downward spiral.

So, although I do not think the problem runs as deep as Owen (for I don’t think the practices themselves are inherently bad—my words, not his—my extrapolation–so maybe I misunderstood him), I do think he has placed his finger on something important.  Now, please bear with me in this.  Part of what I’m doing in these posts is trying to express and respond to how certain spiritual peculiarities are often connected to a journey that is (or at least becomes) inherently sectarian.  This is not easy, but I have seen the two go hand-in-hand too often, so that is the part of Owen’s post that resonated with me.  It’s there in our American Orthodox history and it continues today.  Some day, I need to sit down and do a more serious outlining of this phenomenon.  With that said, I think there are several lessons to be learned from all this:

1) One shouldn’t dismiss Orthodoxy because some (or even many) converts (and “cradles”!) are getting all harsh and anal retentive about spirituality and utilize Orthodox praxis as a means to differentiate themselves from the rejected other.  That’s dismissing the whole for the part.

2) At the same time, we Orthodox (especially us clergy) absolutely need to change how we are bringing in converts.  When we encourage the quick adoption of Orthodox practices, we are often encouraging a path that will lead  to spiritual destruction, not health.  It actually IS worse for a convert-to-be to take on fasting and the Jesus Prayer as means of creating a new identity right from the get-go, especially when that identity uses Orthodox praxis as the basis for differentiating him/herself from the rejected other.  Potential converts and catechumens need to be talked through this and guided through this.  Perhaps the principle of 1 Corinthians 3:2 should be in play here:  give potential converts and catechumens and new converts “milk” (that is, what they need to nurture their faith in Christ) before giving them “meat” (that is, the various liturgical and spiritual tools they can use to further their spiritual life in Christ).  They will have already begun picking up and using those tools, so we need to slow them down and show them proper use and discuss misuse.  They need to see that these are tools, not essential markers of identity change.

3) How to guide such people?  Well, for starters, we clergy need to deemphasize the “trappings,” if you will.  We need to quit acting like those practices are the essence of Orthodoxy.  For example, the more we ourselves look like social odd balls, the more we reinforce that creating an Orthodox identity means becoming a social and spiritual odd ball.  We also need to encourage converts to keep the spiritual practices they had that do not contradict Orthodox dogma, not just tolerate that those practices might continue, and certainly we should not castigate those practices.

4) It follows, then, that we should emphasize some things.  What should we emphasize?  Well, I think we can emphasize honest historical continuity first and foremost.  This would do two things: a) give us something positive to proclaim, for we can trace a spiritual path back to the Apostles in a direct way, but b) that path is a meandering one, one that has changed during the course of the centuries, so let us not try to restore some past glory, whether that be the eighth century or the nineteenth or twentieth.

5) We should also emphasize beauty as a means to deeper communion with God and greater love for humanity.  The Byzantine liturgy is a beautiful work of art and is something we should emphasize as people seek to enter our church.  Furthermore, we should highlight how it connects us to God and proclaims the Gospel of Christ.  In so doing, it inspires us to virtue and therefore builds a parish community and makes us mindful of our neighbors around us.

6) We should emphasize theological and relevant homilies.  Priests should cease having filing cabinets with the homily for that Sunday in them.  I’ve seen this—more than once.  Be engaged!  Work at developing a new homily every time!  Make them real teaching moments.  This also means homilies should not drone on about “the uncreated light” (heard this) or politics (heard this too), but be morally and culturally engaged (without being moralistic or too given to or against pop culture–I’ve heard all that too).

7) Develop and maintain social ministries and get new converts to engage in them.  Ours is a hurting world, a world in pain.  Ours is a world in which we are seeing the middle class shrink, in which the disparity between wealthy and poor is increasing at an increasing rate.  St. Maria of Parish is an example to keep in mind here.  If our faith does not do this and does not emphasize this, then we run the risk of the devil actually rejoicing in all our prostrations, prayer ropes, vigils, distinctive appearance, etc.

If we do these things, it will help converts and potential converts put things into perspective.  They will come to see fasting and Orthodox prayers as things that are to lead us to Christ.  They will realize they can enter into Orthodoxy without feeling compelled (or even implicitly encouraged) to adopt the “look” of a monk they are not.  They may be less judgmental because they will have found the Jesus Prayer and fasting and prayer rules to be things that are tools, not things that must be legally kept, much less things that are markers of “the truth faith” against the heretical, evil heterodox.  After all, vestments, fasts, hairstyles, prayer rules, prayer ropes, liturgics and the liturgical calendar were made for humanity, not humanity for vestments, fasts, hairstyles, prayer rules, prayer ropes, liturgics and a liturgical calendar.

Abusive Hierarchy and Breaking Orthodoxy

Many have seen the series “Breaking Bad.”  I’ve only see parts of a couple episodes.  It never stuck with me, but the premiss is simple enough:  a man (chemistry teacher) is driven to desperation to “break bad” and start making meth.  In the last two days, there have been three posts that come together in my mind that relate to people who “break Orthodoxy” or leave for another expression of faith:  Fr. Richard Rene’s post looking at why some leave Orthodoxy, Adam DeVille’s post regarding bishop qualifications,  and Owen White’s response to Fr. Richard.  The first two may be seen on this website.  Owen’s post may be found here:

http://theochlophobist.blogspot.com/2014/03/there-is-post-on-my-old-friend-fr.html

There are elements of all of this that need to be unpacked and so I thought I’d write this post as a way of unpacking (a little) a couple dimensions relating to scandal and abuse with regard to Orthodox hierarchy.  It is difficult to think of something more comical, silly, or downright strange than Orthodox hierarchy, from priests to bishops.  Honestly, let’s be real about it.  It is.  I’m not ripping on hierarchy per se (for I am in the military, after all).  What I am saying is the presentation and modus operandi of Orthodox hierarchy (at least in America and the West) is greatly problematic and does relate to why people leave the Orthodox Church.

In his post, Fr. Richard did not get into this aspect but it is true.  This can be a factor on the ground in parishes.  Priests can, at times, be abusive (primarily emotionally and verbally, I’m not suggesting it is common for priests to get physically violent).  This can happen.  I think priests actually have to fight this temptation because we often see ourselves as the “answer man” of our community and, to be fair, a good number of parishioners also see us this way.  Also, some priests have so bought into the notion of “hierarchy,” that they operate their parishes as mini-fiefdoms.  Some priests express this by micromanaging every little detail in the parish.  Or a priest might not trust parishioners with any real sense of leadership.  Some priests might even see some of their parishioners as “the enemy,” inasmuch as parish life revolves around a priest-versus-paying (or not) laity.  To be fair, I’ve seen laity whose behavior all but forced some priests into that position, so the problem with fiefdoms is not just centered on the priests.  Other ways a fiefdom can happen is the priest controls all the decisions.  One of the worst ways one can have a fiefdom can be abusive use of the sacrament of confession and spiritual guruship (if I may so coin such a term–I’m sure someone already has anyhow).  This can be seen when priests overemphasize the teachings of Ephramite monasteries and begin to dictate sexual behaviors within a marriage–and I don’t mean deal with pornography and adultery, but literally dictate parishioners’ sex lives.  A priest is responsible before God for the ministry of the parish but that should not entail mini-dictatorships.

And, lest the reader think I’m picking on priests too much here, the bishops can do this 100 times worse.  Again, I’m not saying they all do this, what I’m saying is it can be expressed at a greater magnitude when it does happen because it directly affects so many people all at once.  Furthermore, there is little recourse except to pressure the other bishops to do something, and that pressure normally has to be removing funding.  With no emperor to counterbalance abusive bishops, the laity’s pocketbook seems to be the only counterbalance we have.

Another way priests and bishops can be abusive, however, is by leading poor lives.  Many Orthodox priests have crashed and burned.  No, not the majority, but a significant enough of a minority that anyone who is Orthodox knows a few stories (if not more).  Priest X stole money, slept with so-and-so, is an alcoholic, etc.  We all know this stuff.  It abuses people because it sets such a scandalous example.  No, it’s not a direct abuse (at least not physically and not when a parishioner is not the one the priest slept with or stole from) but often such priests act and behave in ways that take advantage of parishioners’ charity and that is a form of abuse.

Another way that Orthodox hierarchy is “abusive” is that it abuses the notion of hierarchy in the first place.  Hierarchy should allow for push back.  Hierarchy should be engaged and relevant.  Orthodox hierarchy is, too often, neither.  Push back has been met with anger and retaliation, especially from bishops.  Examples of this are not hard to find, much as I wish they were.  Oh, we have some good and loving bishops and have had such in the past, but we have also had more than our fair share of hardliners, who interpreted push back as threats (for if not a threat, why retaliate?).  When it comes to being engaged, so as to be effective, ask yourself: how often do my bishops seem to “get” the modern world?  Sadly, this could be asked of priests, too.

When converts first encounter some of these abuses, they normally write them off.  Oh, this doesn’t happen much or you cannot judge the whole by a small part.  I agree one shouldn’t dismiss Orthodoxy by a small part of its membership, but over time, the examples of abuse can become disconcerting and then later disgusting and overwhelming.  When that happens, some will leave.  Although Owen said he did not disengage from Orthodoxy because of the scandal of Metropolitan Philip’s behavior, some people do, and Owen did note that Orthodoxy did not seem to produce the kind of people its theology suggests it should. I think this latter aspect is actually just a side affect of abuse.  If we’re behaving in ways that actually make us worse (as Owen suggests) then we are abusing the faith once delivered.  I think Owen is right that getting too caught up in hyperdoxy can make a person worse.  Of course, Schmemann said this before Owen, so I hope Owen didn’t surprise us on this score.  Indeed, if a problem noted by Schmemann is still present, and present among converts to such a degree, what can be done?  Must we always be stuck with abusive views of hierarchy?

Well, I guess if the poor will always be with us, so too will the hyperhierarchical hyperdox, but as with poverty, we are still called to strive against it and do battle with it.  So, I’d like to make the following highly controversial suggestions for what we laity, deacons, priests, and bishops can do:

1) Get a hair cut.

Yes, you read that right.  Get rid of the Turkokratia Trappings.  The Turkish Empire no longer exists but its ghost continues to haunt the Orthodox Church.  The Turkokratia Trappings need to go.  Fathers, no more bowling in your cassocks.  Let’s cut the pony tails and get rid of the long beards hanging from our chins.  Prayer ropes are for prayer time.  There are other colors to wear besides black.

I know this suggestion will receive a lot of push back.  That’s OK, and some of the push back will come from clergy I consider friends and I truly respect, but I do mean this.  I think we make a mistake the more we show, by our dress and appearance, that we are different and strange.  I am fully aware that some will say looking odd leads to conversations about the Gospel.  I’m sure it sometimes does, at least when someone is brave enough to ask what church you go to or why you look so weird, but I find I have conversations about Christ and church without needing to look bizarre.  We need to be engaged, so that we will be heard.  Are we dressed to be engaged or dressed to look out of place?  This applies not just to clergy, but to laity and especially converts.  Schmemann too had picked up on this, with converts seeking to look like monks.  It’s not good and it’s not healthy and, I believe, encourages a guru approach to hierarchy.

There are two items of Turkokratia that also need to be rethought.  First and foremost is the hierarchical liturgy itself.  Really, people, the bishop is not an emperor.  Brandon Gallaher has, in fact, spoken to this in his article, “Ecclesiology and Episcopate in a Post-Secular Age.”  We have applied secular symbols of power to our bishops in a liturgical context.  A second item is venerating priests and bishops.  This is a serious thing.  Look, I get that it is sort of like the salute in the Air Force and you do it to show respect to the office, and not the officer per se.  I get it.  We venerate the office of the bishop/priest and not the priest per se.  However, I am aware of this being abused and to be blunt, every time a priest or bishop assumes this is how he is to be greeted, there’s a serious, serious problem.  Dn. Nick has commented on this in a  recent book chapter on pastoral principles.  I’m glad he has.  To be clear, if priests want to have an “image” or an icon of themselves to keep in mind, they should look at the icon of Christ entering Jerusalem.  We take center stage there, brethren!  We’re the ass!  Yep, there we are!  We need to keep this in mind.  We bear Christ.  So, I propose we rethink how respect is shown to the sacerdotal office.  Do people really need to be kissing our hands all the time?  I prefer a handshake and direct eye contact and a polite hello.  What if we tried that more often?

2) Get a “secular” job.  Look, the future of Orthodoxy in America is small parishes.  We need to rethink how we are holding diocesan meetings.  I’d like to see census numbers.  I bet most priests are working and use vacation to attend church gatherings.  That will become more common.  The notion of “chapel” will become more important and “mission” will change by definition.  The more we encourage this, the more grounded our hierarchy will be.  St. Paul made tents.  The rest of us can do something too.

3) Require regular psychological testing for clergy across the board.  Do it before seminary and do it before ordination.  We have nothing to lose and sanity to gain.

4)  Stop trying to make the parish into a monastery.  Married people have sex.  It’s a good thing.  They should confess pornography and fornication and adultery, but let’s not micro-manage the rest.  Likewise, quit trying to do 100 extra services and then complain about lack of attendance.  The parish will never have high attendance rates outside of Sunday morning.  Here in the upper midwest, Wednesday night runs a close second–not Saturday night (unless we’re talking about Catholics hoping to golf or fish or just sleep in on Sunday morning).  Doing too many services actually burns out clergy (and key laity).  Of course, if we follow point 2, we will address this to some degree anyhow.

5)  Bishops and priests need to see their jobs as facilitators.  Everyone has a gift (and likely giftS) of the Spirit.  We should act like it.  We should discern their gifts and find ways to help them flourish.  We are not the know-it-alls.  We do not have all the solutions.  Our parishioners are talented.  Goodness, a priest doesn’t even NEED to be the ONLY one who ever gives sermons or teaches adult education or even catechesis.  And parish councils should be real councils.  There are parishes where there are councils by name only.  That’s wrong.

6) Accept and welcome push back.  Bishops and priests should not go into retaliation mode or “woe is me” victim mode.  That’s beneath the dignity of the office.

7) Be brave and Christian enough to give push back.  Too often priests act as silent sheep in the face of bishops’ behaviors that most priests wouldn’t do.  Of course, if we’d all get “secular” jobs, this might help give us freedom here too.  But really, my fellow ministers in Christ, we should be standing up for the flock, not cowering before tyrants.  I’ve seen the latter.

8)  Bishops and priests need to have identities, friendships, and hobbies outside their parishes.  There must be more to Fr. X than “Hi, I’m Fr. X” or Fr. X is mentally and emotionally unhealthy.

These eight steps won’t cure everything, but they would be a start.  We have abusive hierarchy.  Our abusive clergy and scandals do cause people to leave.  It happens.  I believe most of our clergy are good at heart but we need to fess up.  We need to take ownership and we need to do what we can to correct it.

Leaving the Orthodox Church

Today, we are blessed to have a guest reflection from Fr. Richard Rene.  I expect this will lead to follow up posts!

 

As an Orthodox Christian priest, I am always interested in how people find and (sometimes) abandon their Orthodoxy. In a recent conversation with a close friend of mine, we found ourselves reflecting on friends of ours who have risen to prominence in parishes or theological or academic circles, only to ‘implode’ in a variety of ways, even going so far as to abandon their faith in God entirely.

As we speculated on these sad stories, we wondered if they shared something in common, and the conversation turned to the ways in which converts to Orthodox Christianity describe their encounter with the Church. We realized that in all of the stories of conversion, two metaphors are so prevalent as to be ubiquitous—that of the journey and the story. More than that, we saw the ways we tend to understand and apply the metaphors of story and journey have profoundly exacerbated (if not caused) the spiritual breakdowns we have witnessed in the lives of those converts who have lapsed from Orthodoxy.

In pre-modern societies, a person’s identity was forged almost entirely in relation to his tribe. In the context of family and clan, the metaphors of story and journey were well-defined and concrete. The story was the ancestral history—a collection of myths and customs by which the tribe identified itself—and the individual’s purpose was to assimilate himself into this pre-existing narrative. The journey was the process of assimilation, which also had a well-defined markers in the form of rituals of birth, coming-of-age, marriage, the making of war, the establishing of peace, and death.

By their communal nature, tribal societies guaranteed the safety of the metaphors of story and journey. Individuals journeyed into a story their community had defined, on a journey their ancestors had taken before them.

By contrast, modern societies have consciously abandoned the tribe as the locus of personal identity. Since the industrial revolution, the tie between the individual and their community has largely been severed. Detached from these roots, our understanding of the metaphors of story and journey have also become unmoored. While the tribal story was collectively known and understood and handed down from generation to generation, now we have no narrative to adopt, and are compelled to create our own myths from which to draw meaning. While the journey that one undertook to become part the tribal story was well-established in communal rites and rituals, now we must invent not only the destination (whatever constitutes personal fulfillment), but also the route and the markers of meaning along the way.

I think of myself as a typical example of this modern situation. Upon learning that I am an Eastern Orthodox priest, people have often asked whether I am ethnically Slavic. The question itself is telling: the assumption is that I entered the priesthood because it is my tribal religion. In reality, I was born in the Seychelles, raised in southern and eastern Africa, and immigrated to western Canada. I chose to attend an Orthodox Church independently of my family, who found my decision strange and alienating. Far from being an inevitable step in the fixing of my tribal identity—a Slavic boy following taking up the clerical family business—my entering the priesthood was very personal: my journey, a development in my story. In a pre-modern society, I could not have conceived of such a path. Modernity has allowed me to make the kinds of social decisions that led to what I have become.

In one sense, then, we converts can be grateful for the breakdown of tribally-defined barriers that the modern ethos has afforded. For one thing, it has made it possible for us to discover a rich Orthodox spiritual heritage that would otherwise have remained sequestered in Slavic, Greek or Palestinian tribal ghettos. At the same time, the detaching of the individual from the tribal in the forging of spiritual identity has a dark side, and it is this that I would like to draw our attention to here. For the very same modern phenomenon that has permitted some of us to discover a faith that would otherwise have been concealed from us also contains within itself a set of assumptions that, as long as we ignore them, could lead us to abandon the same faith almost readily as we embraced it.

Consider the metaphor of the journey to faith. As long as we accept as axiomatic that the individual is on a personal journey whose destination is self-defined and determined, two assumptions follow. Firstly, we come to assume that every destination is equally valid. Secondly, because each individual is on his own journey, we assume that he must know the best way to get where he is going; to that extent, we tend to regard whatever path he chooses as the right one relative to him.

Similar assumptions may be made when we as moderns interpret the story metaphor. If we believe that the individual must conceive his own story, rather than simply appropriate the tribal story, then forging our identities primarily involves conceiving of and articulating a myth that is uniquely our own. Rather than asking how we fit into the story that we have inherited, we ask how our experiences fit into a story whose lines are necessarily in flux, developing according to our subjective inclinations. As a result, we make choices, not so that we can better approximate our place in the communal narrative, but on the basis of whether or not we believe that those choices fit into a narrative we have constructed.

These approaches to the metaphors of journey and story are potentially dangerous for the modern Orthodox convert. If every spiritual destination is valid, why should one’s encounter with Orthodoxy be the end point, and not simply a temporary stop along the way to somewhere else, equally fulfilling? And if every path one chooses is right as long as you consider it a part of ‘your journey,’ then Orthodox Christianity, which considers itself the fullness of the way to human salvation through Jesus Christ, is no more right than any other system that claims to offer spiritual guidance in human life.

Likewise, when we make our encounter with the Orthodox Church merely a part of ‘my story,’ we build in the possibility that the encounter may not be the ‘end,’ but rather just one chapter, to be followed by others. And if our life in the Orthodox Church starts to involve uncomfortable, inconvenient and even unpleasant experiences that don’t ‘fit’ our notions of how things should unfold; if our newly-adopted Orthodox narrative comes into conflict with other narratives, such as those of the LGBT or feminist communities—what then? Might we not tempted to turn the page on Orthodoxy and ‘start a new chapter’ in our lives, seeking to weave in the alternative plotlines we find so personally compelling?

In short, when we uncritically adopt the modern interpretation of these key metaphors, we unwittingly allow for the possibility of reducing Christianity to a purely subjective faith whose staying power depends on our fickle notions of ‘personal fulfillment.’ Planted in such rocky soil, our spirituality may quickly and joyfully spring to life when it suits us, but lacking a root, it may wither and die just as quickly.

The antidote to this malaise would seem to involve restoring a tribal basis for personal identity. However, this too is fraught with pitfalls. Too often, especially in convert circles, the return to tribalism has devolved into sectarianism as members, perhaps unconsciously aware of their modern spiritual fragility, adhere to communal rules that focus on externals (such as beards, head coverings and so on), while adopting a rigid formalism and literalism in their interpretation of liturgical and biblical texts. In this way, they hope to restore the understanding of journey and the story to its pre-modern state, containing the destructiveness of individual autonomy that modernity has unleashed.

The dangers here are relatively obvious. Aside from robbing a rich spiritual tradition of its depth and nuance, reducing it to a collection of mere forms to be observed unquestioningly and unthinkingly, such sectarian endeavours inevitably deprive the Gospel of its power to penetrate and overcome cultural, social, economic and religious barriers. Quite simply, the artificial and superficial restoration of tribalism that we see in many convert communities perverts the apostolic understanding of a Church and a unity in Christ where there is truly neither Jew nor gentile, slave nor free, male nor female.

Rather than applying such simplistic answers to the question of modernity, we must begin by confronting the extent to which modernity has shaped and continues to shape our sensibilities, regardless of whether we brand ourselves ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal.’ Second, we must actively engage in reclaiming the metaphors of story and journey, rather than simply adopting them wholly and uncritically. We can and should celebrate the power of modernity to break down barriers and allow the Gospel to flourish in places from it would otherwise be excluded; however, we should avoid its tendency to relativize and render all things equally valid (and therefore equally meaningless).

If we are to talk about a ‘journey of faith’ (and not to do so would be difficult), we need to consciously recall that the destination—the fullness of Christ—is a given, as is the way to get to that destination in the tradition of the one apostolic Church. The paths we take, therefore, are not all equally valid or good, but must prove themselves consistent with the path of the saints—those who have walked before us.

Similarly, if we must think of our journey as being a part of a larger narrative, we need to remind ourselves both individually and collectively this is not a narrative of our own making; it too is a given. Our responsibility is not to continually deliberate on how the events and experiences of our lives ‘fit’ into the myth we have created for ourselves. Rather, our task is to make the most informed and wisest choices in council with the Body of which we are members, and then leave the Head of that Body, the Author of lives to establish their ultimate significance in relation to His story, the story of universal salvation.

Abusive Hierarchy and Breaking Orthodoxy

Many have seen the series “Breaking Bad.”  I’ve only see parts of a couple episodes.  It never stuck with me, but the premiss is simple enough:  man is driven to desperation to “break bad” and start making meth.  In the last two days, there have been three posts that come together in mind:  Fr. Richard Rene’s post looking at why some leave Orthodoxy, Adam DeVille’s post regarding bishop qualifications,  and Owen White’s response to Fr. Richard.  The first two may be seen on this website.  Owen’s post may be found here:

http://theochlophobist.blogspot.com/2014/03/there-is-post-on-my-old-friend-fr.html

There are elements of all of this that need to be unpacked and so I thought I’d write this post as a way of unpacking (a little) a couple dimensions relating to scandal and abuse–Orthodox hierarchy.  It is difficult to think of something more comical, silly, or downright strange than Orthodox hierarchy, from priests to bishops.  Honestly, let’s be real about it.  It is.  I’m not ripping on hierarchy per se (for I am in the military, after all).  What I am saying is the presentation and modus operandi of Orthodox hierarchy (at least in America and the West) is greatly problematic and does relate to why people leave the Orthodox Church.

In his post, Fr. Richard did not get into this aspect but it is true.  This can be a factor on the ground in parishes.  Priests can, at times, be abusive (primarily emotionally and verbally, I’m not suggesting it is common for priests to get physically violent).  This can happen.  I think priests actually have to fight this temptation because we often see ourselves as the “answer man” of our community and, to be fair, a good number of parishioners also see us this way.  Also, some priests have so bought into the notion of “hierarchy,” that they operate their parishes and mini-fiefdoms.  Some priests express this by micromanaging every little detail in the parish.  Or a priest might not trust parishioners with any real sense of leadership.  Some priests might even see some of their parishioners as “the enemy,” inasmuch as parish life revolves around a priest-versus-paying (or not) laity.  To be fair, I’ve seen laity whose behavior all but forced some priests into that position, so the problem with fiefdoms is not just centered on the priests.  Other ways a fiefdom can happen is the priest controls all the decisions.  One of the worst ways one can have a fiefdom can be abusive use of the sacrament of confession and spiritual guruship (if I may so coin such a term–I’m sure someone already has anyhow).  This can be seen when priests overemphasize the teachings of Ephramite monasteries and begin to dictate sexual behaviors within a marriage–and I don’t mean deal with pornography and adultery, but literally dictate parishioners’ sex lives.  A priest is responsible before God for the ministry of the parish but that should not entail mini-dictatorships.

And, lest the reader think I’m picking on priests too much here, the bishops can do this 100 times worse.  Again, I’m not saying they all do this, what I’m saying is it can be expressed at a greater magnitude when it does happen because it direction affects so many people all at once.  Furthermore, there is little recourse except to pressure the other bishops to do something, and that pressure normally has to be removing funding.  With no emperor to counterbalance abusive bishops, the laity’s pocketbook seems to be the only counterbalance we have.

Another way priests and bishops can be abusive, however, is by leading poor lives.  Many Orthodox priests have crashed and burned.  No, not the majority, but a significant enough of a minority that anyone who is Orthodox knows a few stories (if not more).  Priest X stole money, slept with so-and-so, is an alcoholic, etc.  We all know this stuff.  It abuses people because it sets such a scandalous example.  No, it’s not a direct abuse (at least not physically and not when a parishioner is not the one the priest slept with or stole from) but often such priests act and behave in ways that take advantage of parishioners’ charity and that is a form of abuse.

Another way that Orthodox hierarchy is “abusive” is that it abuses the notion of hierarchy in the first place.  Hierarchy should allow for push back.  Hierarchy should be engaged and relevant.  Orthodox hierarchy is, too often, neither.  Push back has been met with anger and retaliation, especially from bishops.  Examples of this are not hard to find, much as I wish they were.  Oh, we have some good and loving bishops and have had such in the past, but we have also had more than our fair share of hardliners, who interpreted push back as threats (for if not a threat, why retaliate?).  When it comes to being engaged, so as to be effective, ask yourself: how often do my bishops seem to “get” the modern world?  Sadly, this could be asked of priests, too.

When converts first encounter some of these abuses, they normally write them off.  Oh, this doesn’t happen much or you cannot judge the whole by a small part.  I agree one shouldn’t dismiss Orthodoxy by a small part of its membership, but over time, the examples of abuse can become disconcerting and then later disgusting and overwhelming.  When that happens, some will leave.  Although Owen said he did not disengage from Orthodoxy because of the scandal of Metropolitan Philip’s behavior, some people do, and Owen did note that Orthodoxy did not seem to produce the kind of people its theology suggests it should. I think this latter aspect is actually just a side affect of abuse.  If we’re behaving in ways that actually make us worse (as Owen suggests) then we are abusing the faith once delivered.  I think Owen is right that getting too caught up in hyperdoxy can make a person worse.  Of course, Schmemann said this before Owen, so I hope Owen didn’t surprise us on this score.  Indeed, if a problem noted by Schmemann is still present, and present among converts to such a degree, what can be done?  Must we always be stuck with abusive views of hierarchy?

Well, I guess if the poor will always be with us, so too will the hyperhierarchical hyperdox, but as with poverty, we are still called to strive against it and do battle with it.  So, I’d like to make the following highly controversial suggestions for what we laity, deacons, priests, and bishops can do:

1) Get a hair cut.

Yes, you read that right.  Get rid of the Turkokratia Trappings.  The Turkish Empire no longer exists but its ghost continues to haunt the Orthodox Church.  The Turkokratia Trappings need to go.  Fathers, no more bowling in your cassocks.  Let’s cut the pony tails and get rid of the bird nests hanging from our chins.  Prayer ropes are for prayer time.  There are other colors to wear besides black.

I know this suggestion will receive a lot of push back.  That’s OK, and some of the push back will come from clergy I consider friends and I truly respect, but I do mean this.  I think we make a mistake the more we show, by our dress and appearance, that we are different and strange.  I am fully aware that some will say looking odd leads to conversations about the Gospel.  I’m sure it sometimes does, at least when someone is brave enough to ask what church you go to or why you look so weird, but I find I have conversations about Christ and church without needing to look bizarre.  We need to be engaged, so that we will be heard.  Are we dressed to be engaged or dressed to look out of place?  This applies not just to clergy, but to laity and especially converts.  Schmemann too had picked up on this, with converts seeking to look like monks.  It’s not good and it’s not healthy and, I believe, encourages a guru approach to hierarchy.

2) Get a real job.  Look, the future of Orthodoxy in America is small parishes.  We need to rethink how we are holding diocesan meetings.  I’d like to see census numbers.  I bet most priests are working and use vacation to attend church gatherings.  That will become more common.  The notion of “chapel” will become more important and “mission” will change by definition.  The more we encourage this, the more grounded our hierarchy will be.  St. Paul made tents.  The rest of us can do something too.

3) Require regular psychological testing for clergy across the board.  Do it before seminary and do it before ordination.  We have nothing to lose and sanity to gain.

4)  Stop trying to make the parish into a monastery.  Married people have sex.  It’s a good thing.  They should confess pornography and fornication and adultery, but let’s not micro-manage the rest.  Likewise, quit trying to do 100 extra services and then complain about lack of attendance.  The parish will never have high attendance rates outside of Sunday morning.  Here in the upper midwest, Wednesday night runs a close second–not Saturday night (unless we’re talking about Catholics hoping to golf or fish or just sleep in on Sunday morning).  Doing too many services actually burns out clergy (and key laity).  Of course, if we follow point 2, we will address this to some degree anyhow.

5)  Bishops and priests need to see their jobs as facilitators.  Everyone has a gift (and likely giftS) of the Spirit.  We should act like it.  We should discern their gifts and find ways to help them flourish.  We are not the know-it-alls.  We do not have all the solutions.  Our parishioners are talented.  Goodness, a priest doesn’t even NEED to be the ONLY one who ever gives sermons or teaches adult education or even catechesis.  And parish councils should be real councils.  There are parishes where there are councils by name only.  That’s wrong.

6) Accept and welcome push back.  Bishops and priests should not go into retaliation mode or “woe is me” victim mode.  That’s beneath the dignity of the office.

7) Be brave and Christian enough to give push back.  Too often priests act as silent sheep in the face of bishops’ behavior that most priests wouldn’t do.  Of course, if we’d all get real jobs, this might help give us freedom here too.  But really, my fellow ministers in Christ, we should be standing up for the flock, not cowering before tyrants.  I’ve seen the latter.

8)  Bishops and priests need to have identities, friendships, and hobbies outside their parishes.  There must be more to Fr. X than “Hi, I’m Fr. X” or Fr. X is mentally and emotionally unhealthy.

These eight steps won’t cure everything, but they would be a start.  We have abusive hierarchy.  Our abusive clergy and scandals do cause people to leave.  It happens.  I believe most of our clergy are good at heart but we need to fess up.  We need to take ownership and we need to do what we can to correct it.

Book Review of Turning to Tradition

For this weekend, I link to humbling book review by Dr. Adam DeVille, discussing my book Turning to Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox Church.

Have a blessed weekend and a Blessed Day on Sunday, celebrating Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the Temple.

Are Orthodox Christians Imploding Before the Great Commission?

The Orthodox Church has a venerable tradition of evangelism.  In many sectors of Western Christianity, it is largely unknown, despite its great success.  After all, Orthodox Christianity reached Alaska somehow and Christianity has existed in Eastern Europe and Asia since times before that.  Often, one looks to the work begun by Ss. Cyril and Methodios, putting the Gospel into the language of the Slavic peoples, but it was there before that.  There are, of course, complications in any narrative, especially when one realizes past societies did not share all of our values, but all in all, Orthodoxy was spread and spread well.  In some situations, it even spread through the work of Orthodox clergy and monastics finding creative ways to integrate with the local cultures (though flat out imperialism also occurred).

Unfortunately, in today’s era, we have additional complications.  Indeed, if one looks around the world, one might suspect our current narrative runs something along the lines of implosion.  I dare say such a suspicion would not be so far from the truth.  Here are some current examples:

http://theorthodoxchurch.info/blog/news/2014/01/letter-from-the-secretary-of-the-synod-of-bishops-to-the-chairman-of-the-assembly-of-canonical-orthodox-bishops-in-north-and-central-america/

The link above shows that ethnocentricism is alive and well (ROCOR exists to serve Russians abroad) and also shows that a good number of bishops do not want unity–they do not want to restructure dioceses, which would be required for administrative unity to happen.  Why is this important?  Well, because Orthodoxy has a LOT of problems and a lot of issues to address:  we haven’t yet fully come to terms with modernity, we duplicate institutions (like seminaries), we are very inefficient in our current diocesan structure, etc.  These might seem like minor problems to some people, but once one starts to think on the ripple effects, one realizes they are not minor at all and they do impact the mission of spreading the message of God’s love and holiness as his will for humanity.  Furthermore, I must say, it is sinful not to work together with your brother and sister in Christ to your utmost ability.  And yet, we Orthodox fall well short of that.  We definitely are missing the mark.

Or, take this:

http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1350694?eng=y

One might wonder how this affects the great commission.  Isn’t this just internal debate about whether to dialogue with Rome?  Well, it is internal debate, but one that also affects whether we are about the Great Commission.  Internet chatter in support of Moscow has been rather sectarian, from what I’ve seen.  I won’t link to such discussions or call out anyone.  That’s not fair, but my read of it is that it has been sectarian.  It comes from some basic mistakes:  primacy is wrong (no, sorry, it’s not–just abusive forms of it); primacy led Rome into heresy (again, no, it did not–theological differences between Eastern and Western Christianity arose from factors other than Rome’s bishop being considered “first among equals” and this is a slippery slope fallacy if I ever heard one anyhow).  Sectarian infighting diverges energy best spent engaging the world around us.  Dialoguing with Rome is important and in light of the decreased Christian presence in Europe, getting Rome and Orthodoxy on the same page is not a bad thing and can help in spreading the Gospel.

But those are not all.  Take an honest look at Orthodoxy in many places across America.  There are some areas where we were once strong but have dwindled in size–significantly so.  We tend to emphasize the influx of converts in the 1980s and 1990s and my own recent book highlighted the importance of converts to Orthodoxy.  (http://www.amazon.com/Turning-Tradition-Converts-American-Orthodox/dp/0199324956/ref=sr_1_sc_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1389892248&sr=8-1-spell&keywords=turnin+to+tradition).  Despite this, in many parishes we have maybe 20-30 people showing up trying to maintain large physical structures.  Many a time, it is possible to see pictures of hierarchical liturgies, where the bishop visits and there seems to be as many attending clergy as there are people “in the pews”!  This is a problem and the longer Orthodoxy denies this, the more it will continue to implode.

Of course, this is not all.  We have priests who do not take advantage of the gifts of their flocks.  The priest does not need to be the one teaching every adult education lesson.  Nor does he even have to give every single sermon.  Many of our parishes have very talented, gifted teachers and speakers, who are committed to Christ.  Yet, in far too many parishes, you wouldn’t know that.  We also like to pride ourselves on our Orthodoxy, and poo poo the moral failings of some of our hierarchy and clergy (unless it makes the news and then we’re forced to bend over backwards to explain it away).  That is to say, we still fear transparency and accountability (but this is part of fearing modernity).

Ultimately, all of this overlaps and works together for a “perfect storm.”  It is difficult to produce strong social outreach and ministry if jurisdictions are spending $ duplicating efforts.  It is difficult to engage the poor neighborhoods around our parishes (at least the ones that didn’t flee to the suburbs) when we focus on trying to look as much like an imagined 17th c. Russian Cathedral or 12th c. Hagia Sophia as we can.  It is difficult to have the time and money and energy engaging non-Orthodox and creating relationships and alliances if we’re committed to fighting over whether we should even engage them.  it is difficult to unite if we prefer to turn blind eyes to serious moral misdeeds amongst our clergy and hierarchy.

Is the future necessarily bleak?  Do Orthodox just all want to implode?  I don’t think so.  I think there are bright spots, such as FOCUS (social outreach we do) or various theologians critiquing the the superficial anti-Westernism that often passes for theological profundity in Orthodox circles (sadly).  There are also some very committed priests who realize being a priest is not just about wearing fancy vestments and imitating a picture of an imagined past.  Rather, they are pastors, who seek to facilitate the gifts of their flocks and do work on the ground.  Many are selfless, subsidizing their local parishes by working full time or part time jobs themselves (or having wives who do).

Moreover, non-Orthodox churches have similar problems.  I am not saying Orthodox are the worst in all these categories.  We very well may be, but that’s not my point.  My point is that we have these problems, we have this implosion, going on.  Frankly, I think the first step we need to do is own up to them.  Do an AA sort of thing:  “Hi, we are Orthodox, and we’re more messed up then we have even admitted to this point.”  That’s step one.  It also fits with the Great Commission.  Many potential converts come to our parishes with their own views of an imagined, glorious past, with rose colored glasses clouded with incense.  One of the best things we could do for them, would be to adopt honesty and discuss the beauty of the Orthodox faith in the midst of the sinfulness of Orthodoxy institutionalized.

3 Things that can Help Your Children Stay in the Church

One of the realities of America is that there is absolutely no guarantee that any of our children will remain in the church.  Many, in fact, will leave.  In such cases, the best case will be that they join some other church.  Many will not even do that.  I have no statistical evidence or other evidence to back up what I’m about to share with you, so this piece stands or falls on its own merits alone, but I do think the three points raised here are worth considering and likely true.  So, if you want to know what makes for children that remain in the church, read on:

http://www.churchleaders.com/youth/youth-leaders-articles/159175-3-common-traits-of-youth-who-don-t-leave-the-church.html#.UdN_TITBwgk.facebook

Roeber and Mattox on Their Conversion Book

Recently, I highlighted a couple of books on conversion to Orthodoxy.  I thought I would now emphasize an interview with two co-authors of one of them:

http://easternchristianbooks.blogspot.com/2012/03/does-rhine-flow-into-tiber-bosphorus-or.html

Both had been Lutheran and now one is Orthodox and one Roman Catholic.  The interview is very good, and the questions asked are insightful.  Much of our own parish growth (though not all, with the numbers of refugees!) has been from Protestants becoming Orthodox.  This interview is a must-read.