Upcoming Fordham Conference on Orthodox/Catholic Encounters

Those interested in such things, and especially interested in how tradition, secularism, and fundamentalism are features of this, should check out the upcoming Patterson Triennial Conference at Fordham in June.

Primitivism and Restorationism as Orthodoxy’s Siren Call

In my book Turning to Tradition, I argued that restorationism lied at the heart of Orthodox convert movements throughout the twentieth century in America.  Interestingly, that same impulse toward a primitivism, which can inspire resorationists, those who wish to “restore” what had been lost, is something that has been presented as a reason to look toward Orthodox Christianity in a recent article entitled “Scotland the Brave,” which may be found in Orthodox Canada: a Journal of Orthodox Christianity as well as republished on pravmir.com.  The article has started gaining some renewed traction, though it was originally written in 2007.  What makes it so interesting is the broad-brush attempt to link current Canadians to an “Orthodox” heritage.  First, the author claims that Scottish heritage has a pint or two of its own running through Canadian heritage.  Then the author noted the Cross of St. Andrew as hearkening back to an “Orthodox” Celtic Christianity.  To bolster that claim, the author claimed, “What is very clear, Celtic Christians had far less in common with the free-wheeling nature worship one might find in certain Protestant or Roman Catholic circles than it did with the spiritual life of Greek monasteries in Byzantium. This shouldn’t surprise us: the Greeks and the Celts had the same faith and liturgical life, while the Christian Celts and the modern western confessions, distorted by the Great Schism and the Protestant Reformation, do not.”  To support such a claim, the article noted the resistance to centralization on the Roman bishop as a Western development and artistic similarities to Christian art found elsewhere, such as Africa and parts of the Eastern Empire.  Liturgical similarities such as women wearing veils and the priest facing the altar were also noted, and led to the conclusion: “It should not surprise us to find these similarities, since in comparing the Celtic Church to the Church in Byzantium, or to Orthodox Christianity today, we are in fact comparing the Church to itself. The Orthodox Christianity of the Apostles, of the Ecumenical Councils, of the Byzantines, the Slavs, the Arabs, and the Celts – it is one faith, not many. The Celtic Church was astonishingly similar to Orthodox life today – because it was Orthodox.”  Making such an argument allows the Orthodox to leapfrog over a Presbyterian heritage to return to something that is actually found, apparently in toto, in contemporary Orthodox Christianity.

There are reasons for Orthodox to slow down a bit when making such restorationist appeals, however.  First, the connection found in art is one that one has to evaluate much more carefully.  Artisans traveled in the Roman Empire.  Artistic styles could travel and, perhaps more importantly, early Christian art was shaped by preceding art (such as Roman reliefs and Egyptian funerary art).  A good source to consult o this would be Robin Margaret Jensen’sFace to Face: Portraits of the Divine in Early Christianity.  The claim of an early iconostasis is one that should also be taken with some care.  The iconostasis as we know it today is a late addition (“Medieval”) development.  Sure, it had its roots in earlier architectural dividing points and then screens and Christians (and Jews!) were using art from late antiquity onward, but one needs to be careful that one does not perform anachronism.  Indeed, that is the general weakness of restorationism writ large.  It is anachronistic.  This leads to a second problem: the liturgical similarities could be cited for many other areas of the Christian world as well and fails to note for liturgical variation.  What one sees in Christianity of the first millennium is not actually the Byzantine Rite as we know it today, nor even simply little variations of that rite.  What we see are rites, in the plural.  The third weakness I wish to point out is that in making errors along the lines of these first two that I noted, the author is more easily set up to make the kind of exaggerated attacks on non-Orthodox.  Sure, it is only “some” Protestants and Catholics who are into “nature worship,” but the problem here is Protestantism and Catholicism is treated as though it has a part of its faith-essence that is “nature worship.”  That’s actually not true.  When Protestants and Catholics turn to worship nature, they turn to worship another God.  Reducing whole movements and churches to the extremes of some within the movement is grossly unfair.  The same could all too easily be done to the Orthodox.  Frankly, maybe it should be, though ideally by those from within, who are willing to stand for the Gospel over and above things such as ethnocentrism and bizarre “interpretations” of marriage that lead to sexless lives, etc.

In the end, Orthodox would do well to do better than mere restorationism.  Restorationism distorts the faith.  Orthodoxy is not simply a liturgical time-warp.  Art has changed.  Liturgy has changed.  Theology has changed.  In fact, all three have–yes–developed!  Now, I know that’s anathema to those who wish to claim Orthodoxy does not uphold development of doctrine but the reality is, these things have changed.  What should concern us is not whether change has occurred, but whether the changes have been natural, consistent developments.  Is there a natural, consistent development from mosaics of Christ the Good shepherd to the icons on an iconostasis/templon?  I think so, but I would never claim there’s no development.  To reject development in favor of seeking a primitive church that can be restored (or somehow managed to survive hardly or completely unchanged) is to reject tradition, ironically.

Do I think Canadian Orthodox of Scottish heritage should not look back and see connections to what still exists in Orthodoxy?  No, but I do think they should be careful in how they understand those similarities and the kind of conclusions they might draw from them.

New North Dakota Orthodox Christian Temple: a Pastoral Reflection

Orthodox Christianity in North Dakota is on the opposite end of the demographic scale from Lutheranism, so when an Orthodox mission plant grows enough to purchase its first building, it ‘s a big deal.  Currently, there are only two Orthodox Church in America (OCA) parishes in North Dakota.  There is a parish in Minot that has existed since the early twentieth century and a parish in Fargo, which started in 1987 but didn’t experience serious growth until 2007.  It has taken seven years since that time, but this past Sunday, Holy Resurrection Orthodox Mission Church moved into its new building at 1604 52nd Ave South:

For a small mission that has been living out of boxes, this is a big deal yet it is important for mission plants to remember just why it is important as they develop and grow into more established parishes.  Obtaining a building is a calling, it is not an end in itself.  This might seem to be a trite statement, but we all have seen situations with established parishes and cathedrals (of any tradition) that have become bogged down with fights over issues relating to “the building.”  New carpet versus new windows, for instance.  Or balancing the budget on the back of the priest while expanding the building.  These things happen.  When they do, they are signs of parishes that have begun to lose their way.  Buildings are callings because obtaining one provides opportunities.  How these opportunities will be fulfilled will vary from place to place but they will be there, such as:  inviting outsiders in for dinners, ministries, etc., having a place to produce and provide food for those who are hungry, having a safe haven for prayer, etc.  A building builds a parish to the degree it serves the parish’s entry into a deeper relationship with God and a deeper love for one’s neighbor.  May the building in Fargo be seen as an opportunity and not an end in itself.

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.


Tradition, Traditions, and Racism

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Orthodoxy for the Whites-1

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 www.everydayasceticism.com.