The Side of American Orthodoxy that Orthodox are Loath to Admit

A recent Pappas Post article has highlight that 90% of people in America with Greek heritage are no longer Greek Orthodox.  It has been making rounds amongst Orthodox and seems to be stirring up some amount of surprise.  Frankly, I’m not so sure it should surprise us.  It may surprise us because in many Greek parishes Greek heritage is emphasized.  It may also surprise us because Orthodox literature since the 1980s has tended to overemphasize (in some cases simply exaggerate) the movement of converts entering into American Orthodoxy.  Converts have been a significant movement within Orthodoxy.  Given my most recent book on this very topic, I would be the last person to deny that.  However, if one reads the introduction even in there, one will realize that Orthodoxy brings in about as many as it loses.  Our growth, to be blunt, seems statistically insignificant.  That there is growth may be a good thing, but we also need to be honest about the losses.  So, if we’ve done our research, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn of losses.

So, what seems to be happening?  Well, one factor mentioned in the article was the high percentage of Orthodox marrying outside the Orthodox Church.  In America, marrying someone of another faith, especially of another form of Christianity, is quite common.  So that this happens shouldn’t surprise us either.  If one reads the article carefully, one will note that what starts out blaming inter-faith marriages turns into a call for Orthodox to make our parishes more open and loving to inter-faith families and to find a way to engage the contemporary world.

This is most certainly true.  My own anecdotal experience includes a similar observation.  I have filled in temporarily at various churches during my career, so I won’t say where I saw this, but I know of one church where several middle aged children dropped their elderly parents off for Liturgy.  They told me they left the Orthodox Church when they married Catholics because they felt Catholicism was more American.  If we Orthodox can set aside our triumphalism for a few moments, I think we’ll find that what is happening in such cases speaks to a truth.  I also think that we have before us the elephant in the room.  People are leaving our church and are leaving in droves.  My prediction is that unless we get another large convert movement into Orthodoxy, we will find our gains in the 1980s and 1990s were simply the “one step forward” to our “two steps back.”  We even have a seminary of a particular jurisdiction with a monastery and I have been told that in terms of numbers and participants, it is a shadow of what it used to be (even while still functioning well enough over all for the moment).  This is not just a Greek problem.  It is an American Orthodox problem and the solution is not to make Orthodoxy an increasingly niche religion.

One immediate response might be to instigate an ad campaign, along the lines of Catholic Come Home.  In fact, I have heard this suggested by both older priests and by Evangelical converts to Orthodoxy.  I’ll spare the reader my opinion on advertising church for the moment simply to say the Catholic ad campaign has not worked as intended.  A quick fix won’t work, especially since the problem hasn’t been an immediate and recent one.  As the Pappas Post notes, Greeks have been leaving since the early 20th century, but earlier on, immigration influx obscured this reality.  Nor is the solution going to be a political fix.  I am aware of internet bloggers who nearly equate Orthodoxy with a particular political party.  God forbid!

The solution is one that requires at least three things, I think:  prayer and fasting, a willingness to engage society rather than retreat from society, and deeply patient love, so that we love all around us and our fellow Orthodox and have patience for discernment as we move forward.  I have some concrete thoughts on various aspects, but I’ll end here, promising I’ll say more about American Orthodox pastoral realities in the future and inviting people to enter into a dialogue.  If you’re Orthodox, what do you think we can do that would truly address (and not retreat from) this problem?  If you are not Orthodox, what would you recommend?

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.

Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Religious Studies

In this essay, we are honored to post a reflection by Christopher D.L. Johnson, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Dakota (which, for those who are unfamiliar, is just over an hour north of Fargo, ND, in Grand Forks, ND).  Johnson is the author of The Globalization of Hesychasm and the Jesus Prayer: Contesting Contemplation (Continuum, 2010). Johnson poignantly problematizes the current situation of Eastern Orthodoxy within the Religious Studies discipline.  I think some of what he says is actually pertinent to the study of Eastern Christianity more generally, including from the vantage point of history and theology.  Indeed, I must admit that the few times I’ve seen a position opening that highlighted Eastern Christianity, it was concentrated on the Byzantine or early Christian periods.  So, as one who has worked on Orthodoxy in the modern and American contexts, I find much that resonates with me in this piece.  Enjoy!

Does Eastern Orthodoxy end with Byzantium?: The value of a Religious Studies perspective of Eastern Christianity


The first thing that scholar of Eastern Christian Studies notices when reviewing the yearly round of faculty job openings is that there are precious few jobs that relate to Eastern Christianity. Many, like me, end up teaching in more general areas such as World Christianity or World Religions, or else face a change in careers. The second thing that quickly becomes apparent is that, out of the handful of positions that do relate to this area, almost all are in Byzantine theology and history and are located at religiously affiliated schools. I consider this a step in the right direction and applaud schools and seminaries for opening up such positions. Yet, despite the religion’s continuing influence in the lives of over 200 million individuals and their societies, it is quite rare to come across an ad for a relevant job opening at a public university and almost unheard of to spot a position that deals with the contemporary practice of Eastern Orthodoxy as a living religion rather than simply a historical curiosity or an exotic theological system. I make note of this trend not simply to grumble (okay, partially) about the difficulty of finding suitable employment for myself and others like me who have Religious Studies degrees that focus on contemporary Eastern Christianity. Instead, here I would like to consider why this trend might be the case, what it says about perceptions of Eastern Christianity more generally, why this is a bad thing, and how to correct this.

If the job market were to be trusted, one would have the impression that the development of Eastern Orthodox Christianity ended with Byzantium. This is simply another way of stating what is actually a very commonplace and widespread idea – that Eastern Christianity as a religion has been frozen in time since the loss of Constantinople to the Ottomans, or even before. Those mainly concerned with doctrinal purity may view this as a good thing, while for Enlightenment-inspired progressives it could be interpreted negatively, yet it is a view that cannot be taken seriously. As any scholar in the field knows, there have been many important modern and late modern developments that also deserved to be researched. It is my suspicion that this idea of changelessness (not doctrinal fidelity) has its origins in caricatures of the silent, passive, mysterious Orient, which then influenced American and European descriptions of ‘Oriental’ Christianity. I have several articles forthcoming on this topic, one to be published later this year in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Another of these articles shows that Eastern Christianity is described in some 19th century sources as a primitive ‘survival’ and ‘Oriental Other’ in relation to Western Christianity. This description often seems to have been internalized in Orthodox apologetics and conversion narratives that describe Orthodoxy as primarily defined by its theological stasis and mysticism. If this misperception prevails and Eastern Christianity is seen as having undergone no substantial changes since Byzantine times, then it makes sense that research should stop there and have no need to continue into more recent times. But one cannot fully understand Eastern Orthodoxy by only accounting for what happened five hundred or more years ago. Only recently has Byzantine Studies truly begun to grown into its own, but the field is still often disconnected from its historical legacy. Yet, most contemporary Eastern Orthodox Christians see themselves as inheritors of this Byzantine theological and historical legacy to various degrees. My guess is that traces of these stereotypes can still be seen in the types of positions typically available in Eastern Christian Studies, though there may be other factors also at work. To respond to this tendency, there must be a push for serious scholarship that considers Eastern Orthodoxy as a living religion in which individuals and communities are still responding to new situations both traditionally and creatively.

This issue is not simply one of an external caricature affecting the study of Orthodoxy. As I already mentioned, such stereotypes can be internalized and perpetuated by Orthodox themselves. But there can also be an allergic reaction on the part of some Orthodox Christians to any study of their faith that does not keep its focus at a safe historical distance or in the realm of theology and doctrine. Other methods of study beyond the theological and historical can be viewed with suspicion or disdain as innovations inimical to a traditional, meaningful study of Orthodoxy. Like proponents of the ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ movement, these critics see applying the largely secular (or at least non-confessional) lenses of fields like Religious Studies to Christianity as inherently problematic. Often, there may be a sense that the faith is profaned in being subject to critical scrutiny. As a scholar of Religious Studies, I am the first to admit that there are many important aspects of religion that are best understood theologically ‘from the inside’ and are unavailable to a strictly secular approach by its very nature (though this approach brings its own rewards). Yet, if Eastern Christianity continues to only receive scholarly attention in historical and theological programs at seminaries, the widespread popular ignorance about this largely invisible third major branch of Christianity will persist (and, yes, ‘branch’ is appropriate to use in this academic context). It will remain as something bizarre and exotic for most people and will continue to be defined in opposition to more familiar forms of Christianity, interesting only to those rebelling against these familiar forms or those with a purely historical interest but little appreciation for the living tradition. Eastern Orthodoxy cannot continue to be an esoteric domain of an educated elite or an obscurantist hideout for the religiously disaffected. The images of Orthodoxy that these outlooks project to the wider culture may not be completely wrong, but they are often woefully incomplete, like a damaged mosaic.

It is vital that Eastern Christianity should be presented as a complex, thriving, adaptive, and global faith to students in religion courses at public universities throughout the country to combat the appalling general lack of awareness of this major Christian tradition. For the instructor at such an institution, this aim involves conforming to a recognized academic standard in terms of a methodology that does not presume confession or religious adherence. At a public university, Religious Studies (or Comparative Religion, History of Religions, etc.) is the appropriate approach and so it plays a central role in presenting Eastern Christianity to classrooms full of students who only associate ‘Orthodoxy’ with Orthodox Judaism, if they associate it with anything. This aim of raising awareness in the public classroom also involves not sugarcoating the faith’s history or presenting a one-sided and simplified narrative. Besides its suitability for public education, the strengths of a Religious Studies approach lie mainly in its neutrality and its interdisciplinarity. Making use of many methodologies from the humanities, social sciences, and beyond, the field recognizes our inability to ever be completely objective but still strives to not engage in overt, intentional proselytizing, whether religious or atheistic. This approach to teaching should not be pursued for the sake of apologetics, though inevitably some students usually become more than intellectually curious about any given subject. In insists that there is a way to talk productively and meaningfully about religions in a non-apologetical, non-confessional, non-proselytizing way and that this is the appropriate method for teaching in the pluralistic sphere of public education. For scholars of Eastern Christian Studies who are also Eastern Christians, the need for a Religious Studies approach to Eastern Orthodoxy should not be seen as a threat to the traditional fields of theology or religious history (or to one’s faith), but rather as another lens with which to view the faith and discuss it in the context of public education and comparative study. The complete aversion to such an approach can certainly come across as more of a sign of doubt or fear rather than a sincere concern for preserving the truth.

One of the only exceptions to the historical and theological ‘Byzanto-centrism’ of Eastern Christian Studies jobs is found in areas such as Modern Greek Studies, Russian Studies, etc. The study of contemporary Eastern Orthodoxy is too often subsumed under such departments, which are very valuable in their own right but are not dedicated to the religious element per se. This fact of the job market is an indicator of more general views of Orthodoxy Christianity. As a way of organizing the study of Orthodoxy, such an approach presumes an ethnic fragmentation that may often be a reality on the ground from a sociological standpoint, but does not correspond to the unity of Eastern Orthodox Church as a single religious entity. Despite occasional rivalries and bad blood, this communion is the recognized ecclesial model of the church and (usually) how its members view themselves. There is a urgent need for academic positions in Religious Studies departments that study Eastern Christian lived experience, material culture, identity formation, and interactions with modernity not as an aspect of Russian culture or Greek history, but on the religion’s own terms as a major global religious tradition that continues to shape individuals and societies today, not just in the past. To avoid this confrontation of Orthodoxy with contemporary cultures and scholarly disciplines amounts to an attempt to bury one’s head in the sand and helps keep the study of Eastern Christianity isolated in an academic or sectarian compound. Hopefully, the field of Religious Studies will come to better appreciate the need for positions in Orthodox Studies and Orthodox Christians will come to better appreciate the need for a Religious Studies approach to Orthodoxy in public education. Until then, the working knowledge of the average American citizen about this tradition will likely be that it is static, bizarrely non-Western, and involves food festivals.

Western Liberalism: The Water in Which We Swim

We are honored today to post a thoughtful reflection on “liberalism.”  Personally, I like his essay on it better than mine! ;-)

Western Liberalism: The Water in Which We Swim

Dylan Pahman

In effort to offer a nuanced and fairly positive introduction to the Western context in which many Orthodox Christians now live, I offer here a brief look at an intramural, Roman Catholic conversation as a springboard for the question of a liberal, Orthodox engagement with Western liberalism.

In a recent American Conservative column, Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame University highlights “A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching”:


On the one side one finds an older American tradition of orthodox Catholicism as it has developed in the nation since the mid-twentieth century. It is closely aligned to the work of the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, and its most visible proponent today is George Weigel, who has inherited the mantle from Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak. Its intellectual home remains the journal founded by Neuhaus, First Things. Among its number can be counted thinkers like Robert GeorgeHadley ArkesRobert Royal, and — if somewhat quirkier than these others — Peter Lawler.


He continues, a bit later:


On the other side is arrayed what might be characterized as a more radical Catholicism. Its main intellectual heroes are the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and the theologian David L. Schindler (brilliantly profiled in the pages of TAC by Jeremy Beer). These two figures write in arcane and sometimes impenetrable prose, and their position lacks comparably visible popularizers such as Neuhaus, Novak, and Weigel. Its intellectual home—not surprisingly—is the less-accessible journal Communio. An occasional popularizer (though not always in strictly theological terms) has been TAC author Rod Dreher. A number of its sympathizers — less well-known — are theologians, some of whom have published in more popular outlets or accessible books, such as Michael Baxter, William T. Cavanaugh, and John Medaille. Among its rising stars include the theologian C.C. Pecknold of Catholic University and Andrew Haines, who founded its online home, Ethika Politika. From time to time I have been counted among its number.


Thus, he sets up the showdown as a meeting of two conservatisms. He does so after dismissing what he terms “liberal Catholicism,” identifying it with “elite circles of the Democratic Party” and predicting that it “has no future” and “is finished.” The real showdown is not liberal vs. conservative, to him, but conservative vs. radical conservative.

Deneen’s discussion is worth highlighting for Orthodox Christians in the West for a variety of reasons, a few of which I offer here. The people Deneen lists are important Roman Catholic intellectuals who seek to engage contemporary, Western culture from a perspective faithful to their own tradition. They are people from whom Orthodox Christians looking for guidance for how to thoughtfully engage Western culture can find inspiration.

Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that at least one Orthodox Christian made the list: Rod Dreher. As a contributing editor at Ethika Politika, one might also read the reference to it as including me as well, though it need not be read that way (and should not, given that I am neither Roman Catholic nor a radical conservative).

On the one hand, I think that Deneen offers an interesting introduction to an important discussion with value beyond Roman Catholic intellectual circles. But on the other hand, I don’t find his framing of the question to be helpful.

First of all, his dismissal of the vast majority of Roman Catholics in the United States as nearly irrelevant and doomed to certain disappearance within a generation seems unfair, to say the least. What about all the Roman Catholics who read neither Communio nor First Things but rather America Magazine or Commonweal?

Second, in his effort to avoid a liberal vs. conservative dichotomy, he seems to misrepresent the second group of Roman Catholics. I cannot fault him for this, however, as he is simply following the conventions of American definitions of conservative and liberal, and I do not doubt that he knows this.

That said, George Weigel et al. could be thought of, and often self-identify, as liberals as well. Indeed, one common thread uniting Deneen’s non-radical conservatives is their generally positive engagement with classical liberalism. The common thread for his radicals is their generally negative appraisal of the same.

Liberalism, historically, is a broad intellectual tradition including a large and disparate group of thinkers. The epistemological differences between John Locke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant do not stop them all from being liberals. In economics the range extends from Friedrich Hayek to John Maynard Keynes. In political philosophy, from John Rawls to Robert Nozick. For that matter, both the American and French Revolutions have liberal foundations, though often (and rightly) contrasted.

As Rev. Oliver Herbel recently pointed out in the context of clarifying Red River Orthodox’s “liberal engagement” with the West, a basic definition of the word liberal need not be wedded to American “left” or “right.” Rather, liberalism rests on a fundamental commitment to the reality and value of human liberty and equality, something that, I believe, fits quite well with Orthodox theological anthropology and to which the Orthodox tradition has much to offer.

More to the point, however, liberalism, understood in this broader, historical way, is the water in which we Orthodox swim in the West. I would rather frame the discussion as asking, “Which liberalism (if any)?” Whatever the case, liberalism, in various forms, stands at the foundation of nearly all Western societies and no engagement with Western society can ignore it.

And yet, Western societies are not strictly limited to liberalism either. The West also includes some illiberalisms, which range from French Roman Catholic nationalism to Marxism to the radical conservatism highlighted by Deneen. These minority strains of thought may deserve our attention as well.

One thing, however, is certain: for a responsible, “liberal engagement” with the West from an Orthodox Christian perspective, it will not do to dismiss anything we don’t like as Western and liberal and, therefore, wrong. As Solzhenitsyn put, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” And if that is true, then both East and West, including Western liberalism, have plenty of good and evil to go around.


Dylan Pahman is a research associate at the Acton Institute where he serves as assistant editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also a contributing editor at Ethika Politika and a fellow of the Sophia Institute: International Advanced Research Forum for Eastern Christian Life and Culture. He writes regularly on Christian spirituality at

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.

Spitting in Rome’s Eye: A Reflection on How Orthodoxy’s Sinfulness Prevents Reunion

In my previous post, I mentioned some of the internal problems besetting the Orthodox Church, causing dysfunction (which I termed “implosion”).  I noted how it affects the Great Commission and how our relationship with Rome is part of that larger picture (for a unified front between these truly-mega-churches would give strength in spreading the Gospel).  I noted how Moscow currently rejects the Ecumenical Patriarch’s (legitimate) claim to primacy, in wanting to convoke a pan-Orthodox council and in engaging in serious dialogue with Rome.  It doesn’t take a very long search for someone to see that many Orthodox Christians agree with Moscow, calling Rome heretical and, furthermore, expressing not a little invective (or at least heated rhetoric) when taking that stance.

An important factor in this is that the kind of careful historical and theological analysis (not to mention humility) that occurs within official Orthodox-Catholic dialogues is not seeping into the Orthodox groundwater.  Many Orthodox prefer to dismiss Catholicism and Protestantism as two sides of the same coin, as though Orthodoxy is completely separate from them.  If it weren’t for the fact that such an attitude is based on ignorance, it would be audacious in the extreme.  Take, for example the North American Catholic-Orthodox dialogue.  They haven’t skirted the issues that need to be addressed and yet they have produced helpful starting points, free from anti-Westernism (based, ironically, on rather Western models):

Moreover, there has been a real shift in attitude in Rome.  In the early 20th c., one could still easily find anti-Orthodox attitudes and statements.  Today, however, I believe Fr. Taft expresses well the currently dominant Roman Catholic view here:

“Vatican II, with an assist from those Council Fathers with a less naïve Disney-World view of their own Church’s past, managed to put aside this historically ludicrous, self-centered, self-congratulatory perception of reality. In doing so they had a strong assist from the Council Fathers of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church whose concrete experience of the realities of the Christian East made them spokesmen and defenders of that reality.”

He made this statement in the context of the notion of “Sister Churches.”  You may find it in context here:

Granted, a few of the comments to that link were Roman Catholics upset by what he was saying, so it is not as though Catholics are blameless “on the ground,” but I suspect Orthodox are more likely to oppose such a statement.  Certainly, in today’s climate, it is difficult to find Orthodox willing to take a position similar in humility to the statement above given by Taft.  We do have scholars doing this, though, and one starting point may be the newly published Orthodox Constructions of the West.  A great example may also be found in Adam DeVille’s work on this very ecumenical dialogue:  Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy.  Somehow, we have to get these perspectives “on the ground.”  A great step forward would be for our seminaries to start requiring these as reading materials.  Orthodox priests often (though not always) play key roles in shaping how laity read and understand Orthodox history, theology, and piety.  Humility has to start with our clergy.

Pastorally, there are good reasons for us to adopt the virtue of humility.  If ever reunion could happen, it could have practical, pastoral edification in the lives of many.  Recently, Fr. Stephen Freeman, a good (and popular) priest, commented on Catholics wanting communion at his parish, reducing their desire to a “Modern project.”  By this, he meant they wanted communion based on what they believed to be true (that in the Orthodox liturgy it is bread and wine and also body and blood).  He even emphasized the “I” when quoting them.  My point here is not to engage in culture war language nor to analyze a classical versus modern dichotomy, etc.  That would be a different series of posts.  Rather, what I would want to interject and say is that in my experience, a lot of Roman Catholics saying such things are not saying that what matters is their intellectual ability to create something in their minds.  What they are saying is that they recognize a sacramental presence in our services.  Sure, many Roman Catholics in America may have a superficial faith and just feel they can take communion anywhere, but that is not always the case and indeed, many look at Orthodoxy through thoughtful eyes and gracious hearts.  More than that, we have many “mixed marriages” and other situations where Orthodox-Catholic reunion could have a real healing and gracious effect.  In other words, as long as we don’t disregard issues of importance (which our official dialogues have not), the humility to engage Rome willingly and openly could beget some real grace “in the pews,” if you will.  At minimum, it would help us avoid reducing Roman Catholics desiring communion to some sort of modern neo-gnostic mentality.

My fellow Orthodox, let’s be honest here.  With regard to Orthodox-Catholic relations the humility struggles are primarily on our side.  They are evidenced in internet chatter, in parish dining halls, amongst our seminarians, publicly displayed in sermons by our clergy, and (indirectly, if nothing else) advertised for the world to see in official statements.  We Orthodox sure like to talk about the virtues, the Desert Fathers, etc., but when it comes to ecumenical relations, humility too often goes out the window.  I, for one, think it’s time to close that window.  The sectarian draft has a real chill to it.

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:

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:

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.  (  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.

Abortion as a Political, Philosophical, and Theological Issue: Connecting a New Society at an Orthodox Seminary with Orthodox Christians in North Dakota

North Dakota has recently passed legislation restricting abortion.  Although, in part, it draws a line at a “heartbeat,” which does not define when conception occurs and allows for “the morning after pill,” and certainly does not eliminate any and all(early) abortions, quite a few have reacted against it.  Likewise, there have been objections to the bill requiring an abortion doctor to have admission privileges at a local hospital.  Finally, there has been outrage even over the bill prohibiting genetic selection as a reason for abortion.  Such bills are at least consistent with Orthodox Christianity (though Orthodox do debate how and when to legislate on moral issues, including abortion).  Certainly, Orthodoxy’s canon law prohibits abortion or even causing abortion.

Interestingly, it is not just here in North Dakota where abortion has risen as a hot issue.  I have recently learned that at one of our Orthodox seminaries, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, a pro-life society has begun.  I provide a link to their blog here, which I’ll likewise include in the “Related Orthodox Sites” widget:

The work of Dr. Jeff Bishop (at SLU, from which I earned my Ph.D.) is very fascinating in this regard.  This society did not exist while I was a student at SVS, but it has encouraged and enabled some thoughtful discussions concerning this issue.  One talk may be found here:

Scroll down for the podcast entitled “St. Ambrose Society” for a talk given by Ian Jones, also an SVS alum, who is a doctoral candidate at Fordham.  It is a talk worth listening to and may be worth remembering as this issue continues to be debated and discussed in North Dakota, which will almost certainly happen in full force next year when voters decide on a “right to life” amendment.

Archaeology, History, Tourism, and Ideology

Past Horizons has a fascinating article discussing the employment of archaeology for ideology promotion (by Chemi Schiff):

Although the focus is on a site in the Negev, I think Mr. (soon to be Dr.) Schiff raises some very good points that hold across the spectrum of archaeology and history, not only regarding that of Israel’s history but history more generally.  Of course, noting that archaeology is used ideologically when interpreting Israel’s history is nothing new.  There are “minimalists” and “maximalists” with regard to whether we can accept much of the biblical witness surrounding ancient Israel and the United Kingdom.  You know, was David a chieftan more than a king–that sort of thing.  What I find the most helpful about this article, however, is not simply raising the question of to what degree can archaeology be “neutral,” but the reminder that history and archaeology are not strictly “neutral” at tourism sites.  I think this is a very salient point in an era characterized by a popular view of “history” that tends toward “entertainment” (as one may see on the History Channel).  I, for one, think archaeology faces the same challenge history does (even, perhaps especially, church history)–achieving a “neutral” view is an ongoing process rather than an objective reality.  That is, when one reads church history and the fathers, one needs to engage in an ascetic discipline.  One must struggle against one’s presuppositions and desires.  It doesn’t mean one will necessarily change all of one’s presuppositions, but it does mean one must honestly admit what they are and realize how it shapes one’s interpretation.  One must also struggle against one’s desires, just as one is to struggle against one’s passions.  We might WANT St. Justin Martyr’s description of the liturgy to be exactly what we think it is and might WANT to fill in gaps, but a more realistic stance would be to acknowledge that all he provides is a general pattern, or shape, and that for his parish in Rome.  Is it consistent with other liturgical patterns in the early church?  Well, that’s a question to be explored in that case, not presumed.  Struggling against our desires and presumptions might not be fun and certainly won’t be entertaining in the sense of yuk-yuk, nudge-nudge versions of “history” we can find on television, but it is something we must do.  Not to do it, means doing something even worse than what one can find in the Negev–like the museum of creationism or the publication of narratives of Orthodox “histories” that are purposely one-sided, one-dimensional, and omitting of any complexities and weaknesses (and if you haven’t seen those, you haven’t been reading).

Fr. Michael Plekon and Re-evaluating How Orthodox Canonize Saints

It is no secret to those who have followed my online work over the years that the question of canonization has been important at times.  I have argued that it would be imprudent and unwise to canonize Bishop Arsenius of Winnipeg at this time.(here are some links along this line:  I have also expressed public doubt that there was ever a martyr-saint known as “Peter the Aleut” (allowing for the possibility that one of the Aleuts captured in battle might have been named Peter.  I received the most criticisms for this argument, but that comes with the territory of historical investigation.  You may find some discussions of that here:

I no longer run the personal blog “Frontier Orthodoxy,” so you’ll have to rely on Matthew’s posts on the SOCHA site, but he handled the whole situation quite well and with an even hand (at least from my vantage point).

While my interest has focused on history and the role historical investigation ought to play during the early discussions and considerations of the question, Fr. Michael Plekon’s work has taken a different approach.  He has written extensively on sanctity and how we define it.  He has emphasized lived spirituality over miracles (though I can tell you he most certainly believes in miracles).  I think his approach needs to be read and considered by Orthodox (and even non-Orthodox, but certainly by Orthodox).  Here are some of his thoughts on this matter: