Observations of Orthodoxy in America

I’ve now attended an Orthodox parish for four years, and I am still happy to have it as my Christian home. During this time I have had the opportunity to meet many other converts, most of whom have been interesting and wonderful in their own ways. Converts are often a blessing, bringing new light and life to parishes that had become ethnic enclaves; however, there are also many attitudes and trends within these circles that are concerning. What is especially concerning is that it is often the parishes in which these elements are thriving that are experiencing the most growth.

Orthodox Christianity is, in some respects, a safe haven from the world of vacillating ethics and values. Many inquirers and converts are attracted to it for this very reason. However, they often focus only on a select number of things from which the Church offers protection, which may or may not do justice to what the Orthodox way truly offers to the world. For instance, rather than seeing Orthodox Christianity as a place where one can work against the selfishness, consumerism, and objectification of the human person in Western society, attempts are often made to depict Orthodox Christianity as a sanctuary for the ideals particular to American conservativism, such as the preservation of gun rights and the reduction of federal powers. This perhaps stems from the reality that American citizens, and especially American Christians, are inheritors of American Exceptionalism, the notion that America and its ideals are divinely exalted above the world at large. Now, I don’t mean to say that a Christian should reject gun rights, or support a strong federal government, and I certainly do not wish to give the impression that American is without its merits. My main point is that the Orthodox Christian tradition has little to say about these and other ideals particular to American conservativism and it is disingenuous to perpetuate the idea that Orthodox Christianity is particularly fitting to individuals who adhere to conservative ideologies. The reality is that Christianity does not fit neatly into either American conservative or progressive paradigms. As Fr. Paisius (now Hieromonk Alexii) Altschul stated, (paraphrasing) “I am more conservative than conservatives and I am more liberal than liberals because I am a Christian.” By failing to realize that Orthodox Christianity isn’t at home in American conservativism we do a disservice to the Church’s tradition and its true mission, and we drive away those who don’t adhere to these standards.

Following the recent Orthodox gathering of bishops in Crete, a friend stated that Orthodox ecclesiology has become fundamentally schismatic. While I think this is an overstatement, my interactions with some Orthodox Christians, convert and cradle alike, allow me to understand the temptation of such generalizations. After all, the Ecumenical Patriarch has been condemned by many for merely referring to other Christian denominations as “churches” (I guess they haven’t read St. Basil!). Furthermore, the loudest of American Orthodox bloggers are increasingly defining their faith in negative rather than positive ways. What I mean by this is that one will often encounter an individual who explains Orthodox Christianity not by detailing its rich history, theology, and methods, but by talking about how it is different than and superior to alternatives. Rather than simply noticing differences, such individuals often seek them out. This sort of activity is fuels contention and divisiveness, and it often carries over into the way in which one chooses an Orthodox parish. A family may go out of their way to travel to the parish in the next town over because the local parish holds joint activities with the Catholic parish, has pews, because the priest believes in biological evolution, or any other number of reasons.  The drive for “correctness” has often landed individuals in schismatic parishes that aren’t even in communion with the greater Orthodox Church. I understand the importance of truth and right worship, and I understand the desire to be around like-minded people, but this isn’t what we are called to. Excessively focusing on these aspects risks turning the faith into an ideology rather than a way of life. Furthermore, it can lead to an escapist mentality that leaves deficient parishes to die when one should instead work along side the parish family to bring improvements and new life about.

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