Combatting Orthodox Caricatures of Western Theology

A recent post by Fr. Stephen Freeman reminded me of just how common it is for we Orthodox to paint with a broad, reductionistic brush when it comes to the West.  He opened his post on “An Illegal Christmas” by saying:

“The great advantage to thinking about God in legal terms, is that nothing has to change. If what happens between us and God is entirely external, a matter of arranging things such as the avoidance of eternal punishment or the enjoyment of eternal reward, then the world can go on as it is. In the legal model that dominates contemporary Christian thought, the secular world of things becomes nothing more than an arena, the stage on which we act out our moral and psychological dilemmas, waiting only for our final grades to be issued when we die.

In the contemporary world-view, Christ’s death and resurrection change nothing within the day-to-day world. Their effect is entirely and completely removed from this world and reserved for the next. This is a great advantage for Christian thought, for everything of significance becomes theoretical, removed from the realm of practical discussion. Not only does Christ’s work change nothing in this world, it changes nothing within us other than by moral or psychological suasion. And we therefore need argue or labor for nothing other than abstractions. The inert world of secularism is left intact.

This is to say that if “accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior” only brings about a change in my eternal disposition, then it is largely meaningless in this world. Everything Christians do in this world would be but tokens of eternity.

But this is not the teaching of the New Testament or classical Christianity.”

Frankly, I don’t think it’s the teaching of anyone, though the “once saved, always saved” crowd probably does come close to this.  Yet, I don’t think that crowd alone is meant by the “contemporary world-view.”  That’s left undefined, unfortunately, but it seems to apply to “other Christians” or even “the other Christians.”

But Fr. Stephen Freeman is not alone.  Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick makes a slight error in how he presents Luther as well in a recent post on his site also.  He gets Luther partially right.  Luther was reacting against a system that encouraged the likes of Tetzel, who went around selling time out of purgatory.  And yes, Luther does speak and write in places about faith as opposed to works, but if that’s all one gets out of Luther, one read him way too quickly (if at all).  Luther himself actually saw good works as flowing out of faith and as free will even existing in this kingdom (his “two kingdoms” approach also applies here–read up on it if you haven’t encountered this before).  Fr. Andrew wrote, “Luther was wrong that the story was “faith versus works.”  No, it’s “faith and works” on both sides of the question.  The real difference is which faith and works you’re going to follow.”  Thing is, Luther would have agreed with the second and third sentences too. Although a full treatise of Luther’s faith and works is beyond the bounds of my writing here, this extract might help produce a more appreciative view of what Luther was trying to get at.

The two Frs. Stephen are not alone nor is it just an Orthodox blogger problem.  I’ve mentioned Orthodox Constructions of the West before on this site.  It really should be a must-read.  In fact, at some point soon I’ll write a post giving a list of “must reads” for Orthodox Christians.  One of the upshots of that book is that it shows just how prevalent our caricatures often are.  Popular Orthodox writers can tend in this direction regardless of whether they are blogging about it.  It can also happen around the coffee hour table. For example, how easy is it to find simple dismissals of Augustine and Anselm by Orthodox, even well known Orthodox writers?

Now, I am standing on the belief that such reductionist generalizations are not good and appropriate, at least not when perpetuated by people who are educated leaders and influencing the way others interpret fellow non-Orthodox Christians around them.  So, in light of that, what are some things we can do?  Well, one will be to read the books I’ll list in my next post.  Reading those will provide one with a more nuanced and informed view.  Another thing we can do, though, is easy, and if done by the likes of Frs. Stephen and Andrew and other Orthodox bloggers and writers, could be quite effective.  We could articulate our theology and spirituality primarily as standing on it’s own, not needing a heretical “foil.”  So, in Fr. Stephen’s post, his discussion of “transformation” was good and enlightening and a positive expression of what our Orthodox faith is (at least in part) about.  Fr. Andrew’s discussion of good works and faith works quite well without needing an overly simplistic view of Luther thrown in.  Both blogging priests have good things to say to us, as do other Orthodox bloggers and writers.  Heck, now and then, even I might hit the mark (and I hope I am here).  I think if we present Orthodoxy as a positive rather than as a reaction to something, it will help us.

Take fencing.  I mentioned “foil” above, so I hope this will work.  If my whole strategy is only to parry your attack and riposte it, and that’s all I ever do, you’ll pick up on it.  You’ll notice I have a rather simplistic approach to fencing.  You’ll even believe that if that’s the only action I ever do, I don’t even really understand fencing and you’ll want to be instructed by someone else eventually.  On the other hand, if I add attacks and feints and counter attacks and indirect attacks, you’ll see I have a more complete understanding of the sport.  You’ll have to fence me more carefully and, if you’re learning the sport, you might just stay with me as a coach.  Yes, even in fencing, one has an “area of expertise,” and that area might well be certain parries, but to be succesful, one needs to be able to create situations that lead to those parries succeeding.  Right now, we Orthodox need a more complete game.  It’s too easy to find caricatures of the West in popular Orthodox writings, whether online or in print.

This hurts us, for it gives us a reputation as ignorant, uneducated, knee-jerk, chip-on-our-shoulders, etc. At least educted and informed non-Orthodox will conclude that and why shouldn’t they? We’d conclude something similar if we encountered simplistic dismissals of Orthodoxy. It also hurts us because it means we are not preparing ourselves or our fellow Orthodox for real meaningful encounters with non-Orthodox. It hurts us because it limits our audience. We end up preaching to the Orthodox choir. To take the two blogs I just mentioned, for example, I highly doubt Ancient Faith wants its podcasts and blogs and such only heard and read by Orthodox (but maybe I’m wrong here). It also hurts us because we set up converts to deconvert later if they come to see their reasons for converting as simplistic and even false. If we truly believe our church has a rich tradition and a spirituality that is open and beneficial to all, why risk that?

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.

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, 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.

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:

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.

When Orthodox Were Told to Become Episcopalians:

One of the Orthodox responses against ecumenical relations that one hears now and again may be that “all of church history” or “all of the tradition” weighs against joint “non-sacramental” services (e.g. an Akhathis or even Adam’s suggestion of joint participation in Forgiveness Vespers) and “praying with heretics” (where “heretics” is applied to all non-Orthodox, even other Trinitarian Christians).  If one is to appeal to all of Orthodox Church history, though, one will find that the responses toward non-Orthodox have varied quite a bit.  In North Dakota, one such variance occurred in the early twentieth century.  Although many people might not know this, North Dakota actually received a small influx of Syro-Lebanese immigrants in the late nineteenth century.  There never was a Syro-Lebanese Orthodox Church established anywhere on the plains of North Dakota, from what I’ve been able to learn thus far.  What happened, instead, was a more “circuit-riding” approach, of priests (and once a bishop) who traveled now and then into the area.  North Dakota was fairly remote at the time and travel would have been a long one, with clergy coming from Minneapolis/St. Paul, Sioux City, Iowa, and once, apparently, Nebraska.

In 1914 an “archbishop” and a “priest” held a liturgy in the rural school of Reno Valley Township, south of Rugby, ND.  The bishop in question informed the faithful that they should attend the Episcopalian churches and that is also the message the faithful seem to have received from priests who would visit as well.  So, who was this bishop and why would he do such a thing?  Isn’t communion with non-Orthodox against the whole of tradition?  Well, we should keep in mind that at the time, the relationship between the two churches was close, much much closer than today.  It wasn’t perfect, though, and the case of Fr. Irvine shows that quite clearly (Irvine was a converted Episcopalian priest and his ordination in November, 1905, to the Orthodox priesthood caused a stir across the Protestant Episcopal Church at the time).  So, this bishop in question knew the complexities and yet still gave the recommendation he gave.  One could, of course, point to exigencies, but still, he could have insisted on the founding of an Orthodox parish.  There are enough people in a picture from the event to justify such a demand.  Yet, the demand was not made. In fact, the practical consequence of what they were told was that they became Episcopalians, and it would seem the bishop had to know this would be the case.

I am unsure who this “archbishop” was.  It is difficult to tell from the photograph.  It was not Archbishop Alexander (Nemolovsky).  It likely was not Metropolitan Platon, as he left for Russia on June 2nd of 1914.  I must also admit the pictured bishop does not look much like Metropolitan Platon to me anyhow (but I cannot share the picture due to copyright concerns at the moment).  It is possibly St. Raphael (Hawaweeny), who did take a trip through Minneapolis in 1914.  Did he journey into North Dakota?  I haven’t had the time to research, but it seems likely, especially since he was already in Minneapolis.  It’s not like there were many Orthodox bishops on American soil at the time and if not Bishop Alexander or Metropolitan Platon, St. Raphael is the next logical choice.  The Greek bishop, Metropolitan Meletios wouldn’t arrive in America until 1918 and I’m not aware of bishops other than those from the Russian Orthodox Church being in America at that time.

So, it seems that when it came to facing the realities of Orthodox on the plains, rather than tell Orthodox immigrants to found parishes, St. Raphael did the prudent thing and told them to go to Episcopalian parishes.  Nor was this unique, by the way, as Orthodox immigrants elsewhere did this as well.

This helps remind us that sweeping generalizations against inter-confessional prayer involving Orthodox do not hold up upon close examination.  In fairness, the opposite extreme should also not be concluded from this.  My point, here, is not to champion ecclesiological relativism.  Rather, my point is that we do possibly have a saint who sought to balance a faithfulness to Orthodoxy with a willingness to see what was good and true in a non-Orthodox Church, to the point of telling his flock to go to that other church.

I dare say this is in contrast to the knee jerk (“all of tradition” or “all of church history”) reactions to Adam’s more recent post.  Given that it’s Lent, I thought Adam’s point worth praying over more thoughtfully.  Those who wish to so pray might be encouraged to know that it is not simply a perspective found only here on this website in the twenty-first century, but one that can be found in other times and places as well.  Hopefully, in the future, I can post on some of those other times and places (lest someone conclude this is merely the “one” exception that proves the rule).  Times have changed and the Protestant Episcopal Church has certainly changed, to the point where telling Orthodox to commune at Episcopalian churches would be highly questioned.  Nonetheless, perhaps with other traditional, liturgical Christians, we Orthodox have more to draw on from our Tradition than merely a dismissal of serious interactions and joint prayer.

The Problem of Fear

Today we’re pleased to offer an engaging reflection from Inga Leonova on the question of fear in theological and religious discourse.  Inga Leonova was born in Moscow and moved to the US in 1991 to pursue graduate studies in architecture. She is a practicing architect and armchair theologian. She teaches a course on monotheism and sacred space in Boston Architectural College and writes on theology and church architecture.

Please note:  The author wishes to thank Fr. Robert Arida for his invaluable editorial help and inspiration with this article.


Reflection on the words of Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

“Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent.” – Acts 18:9

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33

    In the June of 2000 Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh gave a long interview in London, part of which was published several days later by the Parisian Russian-language newspaper “Russkaya Mysl”. In that interview, Vladyka Anthony pondered the atmosphere of internal fear which was beginning to permeate the Orthodox Church:


I have a very clear or rather gloomy feeling that as we enter the third millennium we are entering some obscure and complex and, in a certain sense, unwelcome period. As for devotion to the Church, our faith must certainly retain its integrity, but we must not be afraid of thinking and expressing ourselves openly. Everything will eventually settle into order, but if we keep just endlessly reiterating what has been said long ago, more and more people will drift away from their faith (I mean not so much Russia as the world as a whole), not because everything that was stated before is erroneous, but because the approach and language being used are all wrong. Today’s people and the time they live in are different; today we think differently. I believe one must become rooted in God and not be afraid of thinking and feeling freely. ‘Freely’ does not imply ‘free thinking’ or contempt for the past and for the Tradition. However, God does not need slaves. ‘I no longer call you servants, I call you my friends…’ I think it is extremely important that we think and share our reflections with Him. There is so much we could share with Him in this new world we live in. It is so good and so important to think openly without trying to conform. Intellectuals with great receptivity must come to the fore by their thinking and writing.


The Church, or rather clergymen and some of the conscious churchgoers, are afraid to do something wrong. After all these years when people could not think or speak openly with each other and thereby outgrow, as it were, the nineteenth century, there is much fear, which leads people to be content with mere repetition of what has been adopted by the Church long before and what is known as Church language and Church doctrine. This has to change sooner or later.[1]


For Metropolitan Anthony, this developing fear of open discourse stood in sharp contrast to the years of his formation in Western Europe in the atmosphere of active and open Orthodox and inter-confessional dialogue. The ensuing years have shown that this concern went far beyond the Church of Russia which was the subject of Metropolitan Anthony’s remarks. As the Church is being drawn deeper and deeper into the thick of the so-called “culture wars” and challenged with the expectations to respond to contemporary issues at the speed and within the format of tweets and blog posts, its reaction, more often than not, is to retreat behind the safe walls of familiar formulae. Yet, as events everywhere seem to demonstrate, this approach does not appear to either further the Church’s evangelical mission or nurture the development of internal and external theological discourse. In the eyes of the world it seems to present, tragically, an image of a fearful tyrant on the defensive instead of a fearless witness to the Truth.


We must face the fact that much of our contemporary life in the Church is permeated by fear of thought, fear of questions, and fear of discourse. This fear divides and silences us, or gives rise to loud and vitriolic defenses and expositions which seek to alienate and stifle new and challenging voices. The era of open dialogue which has been associated in the West first with the “Paris School” and later with the luminaries of Russian Orthodox theological thought in North America, seems to have become a distant and almost fabled memory. No matter what issues we face: challenges of evangelization, liturgical reform, gender and sexuality, political and socioeconomic issues, etc., there seems to be no room for an open and respectful discourse, and self-censorship has become a sad norm.


“One must become rooted in God and not be afraid of thinking and feeling freely.”[2] The freedom that Met. Anthony refers to does not translate into irreverence to Tradition, contempt for Church history, or self-indulgence. It is rather the creative freedom of the spirit which is nourished, as in patristic times, by contending with reality and engaging the questions that grow from that encounter.


These thoughts appear in Met. Anthony’s writings and talks over the years as he wrestles with various topics that arise both inside and outside the Church. In May of 1989 he gave a series of talks under the general heading of “Man and Woman.” In them he both acknowledges the challenges of the time and describes, with characteristic sharpness, the failure of the Church to engage the challenges in a manner suited to its Tradition.


The subject of man and woman has become more and more essential in the course of the last decades, not only because a number of people have been very vocal about the situation of women both in the Church and in society, but because more and more, the Christian vision has ripened, deepened, and problems which did not exist a century ago have come to the fore – not only forced upon the Christian consciousness by circumstances, but coming from within the Christian consciousness.[…]


The Orthodox Church in the last decades has spoken. It has spoken with great assurance and without any ground either for the assurance or for the affirmation that she has made.[3]


These harsh words come from the well-founded frustration with the growing rift between the closed mind of the Church and the reality of the world in and to which it is called to witness. This rift, for Met. Anthony, is the fruit of the misunderstood, claustrophobic vision of Church Tradition and of the fear of engaging with the ever-changing culture.


What we call the tradition of the Church is something much less simple than how we see it. There is a great deal in the history of the Church that was the rule at a certain moment and has been discarded at an other moment or has been created.


We must give thought and ask ourselves whether the rules which we observe, the situation, which is ours now, is truly what the Gospel teaches and what Christ became man for.


[…] all the Orthodox and Orthodoxy as a body must begin to think, to think deeply, intensely, ask itself questions, question its own self before one can say radically yes or no to a question that has never existed in our Orthodox Church before.[4]


Repeatedly, Met. Anthony points out, the  Church reacted to contemporary challenges by rejecting them as “irrelevant” to its life, and by declaring certain questions off-limits for discussion. Yet one may ask whether the approach to ignore or label as irrelevant is antithetical to the very mission of the Church? For Met. Anthony, there are no forbidden topics and no irrelevant contemporary challenges. The Church is present in the world today just as it is present in eternity. It unifies the time of humankind with the time of God, and therefore its duty is to preserve and foster this connection rather than sever it.


I believe we must, all of us, think, study the Bible, look into the history of the Church, look into the context of the Church’s history in the secular world, try to see clearly what influences came upon the Christian community in different epochs. For the Church is at the same time a body in which God dwells and the Holy Spirit acts, but also it is a body of men and women who are deeply ingrained in the society, the history, the time in which they live and who therefore are influenced by a great many more factors than the action of the Holy Spirit or the sayings of the Holy Scriptures.[5]


But if the Church is present in its time, what causes this fear of engagement with the contemporary?


On the surface there is fear emerging from practical consequences of expressing a divergent or controversial opinion. How many can be expected to risk their livelihood and the well-being of their families, including, in the case of clergy, their parishes, in defense of an opinion? This fear is fostered and sustained by those in positions of authority throughout the Church, and is very effective. Ironically, the fear sustained by the Church unveils its own inner fear stemming from a lack of trust in the Spirit.


Intolerance of discourse is an inability to process the complexity of our relationships with each other – the human complexity which accounts for each person’s absolute uniqueness. To see the other as a person, rather than an object, engages the need to become vulnerable to the other, to interact at a level where we are unprotected by a defined system of values and standards and are only guided by the commandment to love each other. We must never forget that our values, canons, commandments and traditions are not the end in themselves. Rather, as Christians, we are called to “put on Christ” and interact with the other from the place of vulnerability of love rather than from the superiority and safety of the Law. This responsibility is terrible and terrifying, and it is the responsibility that we reject, preferring the safety of prescribed rules and regulations. The challenge of much of the contemporary discourse having shifted into the realm of online fora, where we have become accustomed to interacting with abstract avatars, where the nuances of emotion are lost, and the format does not permit careful exposition of thought, has helped further erode our ability to view each other as persons.


One of the greatest fears known to mankind is the universal, gripping fear of the unknown. This fear is born of not having recognizable boundaries within which our mind can always find a reference point. It is familiar to everybody – every one of us has to deal with it when we encounter a situation outside the realm of our frame of reference. Sickness, death, betrayal, crime – all kinds of crises challenge the boundaries of our experience and terrify us. This fear is personal and corporate. As a protective measure, the  personal and corporate mind desires to be sheltered in a safe circle of the familiar and explicable and to have an answer to every situation and every challenge.


The Church offers solace, healing, and protection. But that does not preclude wrestilng with doubt. To ignore doubt and therefore the possibility of conflict between the fixed ideal and the surrounding reality becomes unbearable and leads the way to a closed or sectarian mindset.


Yet Met. Anthony says that doubt is a good thing – it is the sign of the vitality of the human mind.


People are afraid of doubt, and they shouldn’t be, since doubt is born of the fact that we do not know the entire truth, and pose a question.


[…]When doubts appear in me it means that I have outgrown my incomplete idea of God, my imperfect knowledge of Him, and God is telling me, “Look, you have learned all this, and now look at Me – I am bigger than all of it. You cannot be satisfied with the picture which you have painted for yourself. It is as small as you yourself, your intelligence, your education, as your imagination. Open yourself and pose the question: What can the others think of this? What other answers may be there? And do not be afraid. I will not be insulted by you questioning Me, because you are not questioning Me as Me, but your notions about Me…[6]


What Met. Anthony seeks to stress is that as Christians what we seek in the Church should not be reduced to a system of rules of conduct that would allow us to live the “good lives.” As Christians we are called to be followers of Christ who tells His disciples that whoever follows Him will find the cross – that whoever follows Him will be naked like Him, homeless like Him, hated and persecuted like Him – all because those who follow Him make themselves vulnerable to each other. St. Paul writes that Christians are called to put on the mind of Christ which is not a system of moral conduct. If we follow the Gospel narratives, we see that time and again Christ transcends the Law but fulfills the commandment of love which is the foundation of the Law. Christ shows us that He sees everyone He encounters as His child, as His image, as a unique person, boundless, not fitting into a system or code of Law, and thus not as a “Jew”, a “Gentile,” or a “Samaritan.”


The challenge of encountering the other as Christ sees each and every one of us is fundamentally the challenge of overcoming the fear of our differences, the fear of how we challenge one another with our incomprehensibility, our unpredictability. Met. John Zizioulas has the following to say about fear of the other:


The fact that the fear of the other is pathologically inherent in our existence results in the fear not only of the other but of all otherness. This is a delicate point requiring careful consideration, for it shows how deep and widespread fear of the other is: we are not afraid simply of certain others, but even if we accept them, it is on condition that they are somehow like ourselves. Radical otherness is an anathema. Difference itself is a threat. That this is universal and pathological is to be seen in the fact that even when difference does not in actual fact constitute a threat for us, we reject it simply because we dislike it. Again and again we notice that fear of the other is nothing more than fear of the different. We all want somehow to project into the other the model of our own selves.


When fear of the other is shown to be fear of otherness, we come to the point of identifying difference with division. This complicates and obscures human thinking and behavior to an alarming degree, with serious consequences. We divide our lives and human beings according to difference. We organize states, clubs, fraternities and even Churches on the basis of difference. When difference becomes division, communion is nothing but an arrangement for peaceful co-existence. It last as long as mutual interests last and may easily be turned into confrontation and conflict as soon as these interests cease to coincide. Our societies and our world situation today give ample witness to this.[7]


The Church, therefore, if it is to overcome a communion of peaceful coexistence, has to strive toward fulfilling the commandment of love. If we “put on the mind of Christ”, we learn to love each other as we are and thereby acquire the unity of “sobornost” (catholicity), in which each one of us by rejection of self and accepting the other mysteriously acquires all others as part of his/her person.[8] Sobornost in the Church is the catalyst of creative thought, whereas the fear of otherness stifles personal ascent and transforms the community of persons into a faceless mass which can be easily turned into a mob. It is only in the unity of “sobornost” that we can truly become life-giving to each other:


Let us be aware of the extraordinary rich presence of God and of all those who have ever lived, in our midst, around us, together with us, because their life gives us life.[9]


Metropolitan Anthony echoes the words of St. Paul in the First Letter to the Corinthians: “for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”[10]:


I believe it is extremely important that we start thinking and sharing our ideas, even at the risk of falling into error. Someone will always correct us, that’s all.[11]


The conciliar mind of the Church is the living mind of the people inspired by the Holy Spirit, always wrestling with reality and coming to consensus as the body. If this work ceases, if we replace this work, as Met. Anthony said, with “endlessly reiterating what has been said long ago”, whether it relates to the ever-evolving nature of our experience of reality or not, then our true witness to the world will cease and we will turn into a museum of beautiful, perhaps even educational, but lifeless artifacts. When we eschew the responsibility of engaging with the challenges of the world, we risk becoming irrelevant not only to our surrounding culture, but also to ourselves, as we fall into the heresy of excluding the complexity and the boundlessness of each other and of all creation.


Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote in his journal entry on September 26, 1977: “Feast of St. John the Theologian. Early Liturgy. Apostle: ‘Perfect love casts out fear.’ (1 John 4:18). Love is contrasted not with hate, but with fear. How deep and true it is… Fear is, first and foremost, the absence of love, or rather that which, like weeds, grows where there is no love.”[12]


Manifesting Met. Anthony’s love and commitment to the essence of the spirit of sobornost, the transcript of the talks on “Man and Woman” ends with a very simple line: “Let us think together.” It is worth noting that while many of his talks and writings have become a staple of Orthodox bookstores in Russia, the key part of his legacy – the ever-present challenge of a living discourse – is summarily being neglected. If we are to be faithful to his spirit, we must assume the responsibility for furthering this work.

[1]         Met. Anthony of Sourozh, Excerpts from an interview to Russkaya Mysl, Paris, 18 June 2000.

[2]              Ibid.

[3]              Met. Anthony of Sourozh, Man and Woman, May 1989.

[4]              Ibid.

[5]              Ibid.

[6]              Met. Anthony of Sourozh, Mission. Head Scarves. The Choosing of Priests. Conversation with Valentina Matveeva, 18 April 2001.

[7]              Met. John Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness, Orthodox Peace Fellowship’s Occasional Paper nr. 19, Summer 1994.

[8]              cf. Fr. Georges Florovsky, The Catholicity of the Church. The Theanthropic Union and the Church. Chapter III of the Collected Works of Fr. Georges Florovsky, Vol. 1: Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View. Buchervertriebsanstalt, Vaduz, Europa, 1987, pp. 37-55.

[9]              Met. Anthony of Sourozh, Opening Talk at the Lenten Retreat, Ennismore Gardens, London, 1972.

[10]             1 Cor. 11:19.

[11]             Met. Anthony of Sourozh, Excerpts from an interview to Russkaya Mysl, Paris, 18 June 2000.

[12]             Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Journals.1973-1983, Moscow, Russkiy Put’, 2005, p. 386.

Kyiv Burns: How Should Orthodox Respond?

Today, the world observes a catastrophe in Kyiv. The conflict between the protesters and riot police at Independence Square has escalated irreparably, as at least 25 people are dead and over one-thousand injured. The reports coming from Kyiv are dreadfully frightening: police shooting at protesters, churches are converted into makeshift hospitals, and the city is on fire, the protesters’ attempt to continue the revolution with the hope of a new government displacing President Yanukovych and his cabinet. Media sources have depicted the conflict as a tug-of-war between Russian President Vladimir Putin and a tepid alliance of the USA and European Union. Those without knowledge about Ukraine are subject to gross distortions and emotional assignment of blame: “the protesters are neo-fascists and radicals from Western Ukraine who represent a tiny minority of the country”;  “Yanukovych is a criminal and thug who will sacrifice innocent life to hold on to power.” The strategic missives from Moscow and Washington perpetuate the blame game while people are beaten and die on the streets of Kyiv and the city burns.

Recently, Metropolitan Hilarion, first hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, called upon Orthodox faithful to pray for peace in Ukraine and especially Kyiv, the “mother of Russian cities.” His appeal followed numerous pleas and prayers for peace in Ukraine issued by numerous bishops, priests, and people. Metropolitan Hilarion’s appeal caused me to wonder, does this revolution have anything to teach Orthodox Christians?

I believe that the answer to this question is a resounding “yes,” but not because Kyiv is the mother of Russian cities.

Ever since this revolution began and the tension escalated, the Orthodox and Greek-Catholic churches in Ukraine have encouraged government officials and the opposition to compromise and find peace. The reader can assess each individual appeal for herself, but I would generally describe the appeals as conciliatory and careful. The largest and presumably most influential Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) even offered to provide a neutral space for the opposing parties to negotiate and end the conflict. Obviously, the scandalous violence and public witness of death on the streets of Kyiv witness to the failure of these appeals.

Why are Church leaders unable to stop the violence?

Church leaders are unable to stop the violence because they have not exercised their moral authority to influence political decisions in Ukraine. To be sure, the ecclesial appeals are fully Christian because they ask everyone to pray, and countless prayers have been offered for peace in Ukraine throughout the world. At some point, prayer should involve hearing and listening on the part of those who offer it, in response to God’s word. Prayer is a primary contributor to decisive action. Surely, in Ukraine, there are many instances of prayer shaping action, manifested by the temporary but necessary transformation of Kyivan churches to hospitals.

This conflict will not be resolved, however, until Church leaders present the government leaders with a more formidable challenge. It is not enough for Church leaders to ask again for restraint from violence, as many world leaders are echoing this refrain. Unfortunately, this appeal is falling on deaf ears. Church leaders must offer a more direct intervention by informing the president that his decision to use force is not only morally reprehensible, but also cause for him to step down. An Orthodox lay woman just issued an appeal in this spirit today, calling upon the Synod of the UOC-MP to anathematize President Yanukovych. A formidable statement will be unpopular in certain circles, but action will be empty if it lacks boldness, a boldness created by God’s response to prayers.

The larger lesson for global Orthodoxy is related. How often do we sit on the sideline and argue about the legitimacy of particular groups and figures while cities burn and people die? Our moliebens should lead to action. No, most of us cannot fly to Kyiv or Cairo or Damascus and take action in the center of a crisis. But we can have an impact from the periphery of catastrophe by speaking out about injustice and naming it, even if such action rankles other Orthodox Christians. We can form a loud, global chorus that invites our bishops to hold President Yanukovych and his government accountable for using force to quell a revolution. The streets of Kyiv are filled with the blood of martyrs; perhaps we are called to a new, related type of martyrdom that requires the courage to cry out about injustice and can contribute to the common good in Ukraine.  Lent is about to begin, an occasion for all of us to respond to the call to repentance. This year, let us consider how our prayer might form our actions.

Christmas in January? Orthodoxy’s Apparent Spiritual Schizophrenia

I have sometimes been asked why it is Orthodox celebrate Christmas on January 7th.  Sometimes I’ve been asked whether we celebrate it on December 25th or January 7th.  In either case, it soon comes across a bit perplexing that we celebrate both dates, depending on where one is.  Even within the same city, one might have different parishes celebrating on different days.  Recently, Oxford asked me to write a brief reflection and so I discussed this topic, which is now posted on their site today.  I encourage you to read it here:

Orthodox Chaplains and Prayers

As many, if not all of the readers of our parish blog already know, I have been commissioned as a chaplain in the Air National Guard.  I include a picture of that here:

My date is easy to remember: Valentine’s Day.

The OCA has recently posted some deployments by Orthodox chaplains serving the army and Marines (Navy chaplains serve Marines).  We shall keep these priests in our prayers and we ask others to do so as well.