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When, evidently, unity in Christ is not enough

Some bloggers are having an argument right now. (What a surprise.) I’m really hesitant to name some of the parties or link to them, because up to this point they’ve mostly ignored me (with one exception), and I’ve really enjoyed not being on their radar. More than that, I am really reluctant to give any of them referral traffic. Rather, I will link to this person, already on my blogroll anyway, who is discussing the matter rather succinctly (and accurately, I think). You can find a link in his post that will take you into the heart of the conflict.

(Metropolitan Kallistos Ware at some point explored the implications of treating monasticism as a track of apostolic succession parallel to the episcopate; I am wondering if perhaps we have reached the point where we need to posit yet another parallel track, that of the blogger who has taken it up on himself to exercise the prophetic office. But I digress.)

I’ve met a lot of people during my time in Orthodox circles who have absolutely no problem being hostile, implicitly or explicitly, to other Orthodox Christians. I’ve met “ethnics” and “cradles” who have absolutely nothing but contempt for the American who presumes to convert; I’ve met converts who think that it’s okay for them to be dismissive of “ethnics” as being Christ’s lost causes. Thankfully, there are fewer of either type than many might assume, but those who are out there are disproportionately loud and obnoxious, and I don’t mean exclusively in blogdom. I have had the misfortune of having to spend large amounts of time with people of both types, and have had to experience their open and very real hostility, either towards me or towards others.

The implication from either side that somehow there’s a second class citizen status among Orthodox Christians depending, positively or negatively, on heritage, is simply astounding to me. Is there a Christian birth certificate other than baptism?

To move to another facet of the problem for a moment, it has been suggested that part of why it’s acceptable to hostile to converts is because they aren’t really Orthodox Christians; they’re Protestants playing dress-up according to things that they’ve read in books rather than actually receiving a lived tradition of Orthodox Christianity from a living source. Presumably this line of reasoning is how such people justify showing disrespect to ordained clergy and consecrated bishops by calling them things like “Mr. Paffhausen” or “Mr. Freeman,” for example.

While I would concede that there’s a real problem being identified in such a statement, the extremity of the response to the problem reveals another problem or two.

There’s an ancient heresy called Donatism. You can look it up for yourself, but I don’t think it’s misstating the position to say that it was basically a macho movement within the Church gone horribly wrong; e. g., “If you’re not at least as rigorous or pious as we are, you’re not really a Christian, and there’s not any room for error.” They reserved the right for themselves to judge the validity of Mysteries of a priest or bishop whom they deemed less rigorous than they were; in effect, much like certain parties today, they were big on saying, “We’re more Orthodox than you.”

Origenism and Arianism were also early heresies (although, in the interest of full disclosure, I acknowledge that it was not until he had been dead for three centuries that Origen’s “fabulous” and “monstrous” views were anathematized), and the trouble there can perhaps be summed up as Origen and Arius trying too hard to make Christianity palatable for the educated elite of the day — to make it possible for a respectable philosopher to be intellectually honest with himself and be a Christian at the same time, in other words. For God to truly be God in the worldview of Greek philosophy, one could not meaningfully discuss the homoousios of the Son with the Father; Christ had to be something fundamentally other than God, however exalted he might otherwise be, or else God was not God.

Now, be these as they may, there is not necessarily a fundamental error of intent in either case. Being rigorous is not in and of itself a problem; neither is trying to have a Christian intellectual culture. Monasticism is perhaps one of the correct expressions of a rigorousness that might otherwise be inclined to Donatism, and without Origen, our tradition of Scriptural exegesis would be much impoverished. The trouble is the extent to which these intents are realized; the Donatists could not stand to be in a Church where there might be worse sinners than themselves, and Arius and Origen ultimately were catering to a target demographic.

One can legitimately argue that learning the Orthodox Christian faith from the works of Schmemann and Ware, the Popular Patristics series, and maybe even Pelikan and Rose for that matter, is, as a substitute for receiving a lived tradition, rather thin gruel. There is a problem there that is most certainly worth discussing, a problem which perhaps lends itself to Origenistic or Arian developments down the road — an overly-intellectualized Christianity that finds itself at variance with the actual faith. However, to then determine that problem invalidates at a sacramental level the chrismations, ordinations, and consecrations of individuals itself suggests an issue of Donatist proportions.

At a practical level, that attitude assumes that there are alternatives of which the “konvertsy” simply hasn’t availed himself, when that’s just not the case, many times. It’s not exactly like there are large ROCOR or Serbian parishes or monasteries everywhere one goes (and even that’s not necessarily a guarantee of “real” Orthodoxy, evidently, given a particular person’s ongoing disdain for Fr. Seraphim Rose and anybody who ever had anything to do with the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood). A particular person commented to me yesterday that of course I was the “bad kind” of convert, since “I’m Antiochian.” Now, in all fairness, I acknowledge that this exchange was intended to be humorous, but as I told this commenter, it’s just not funny right now. It’s not funny coming from this particular individual given the kinds of negative comments they’re typically inclined to make (however cleverly and humorously formulated), it’s not funny given some of the current issues facing the Antiochian Archdiocese, and it’s not funny for the simple reason that actually, no, I’m not “Antiochan”; I’m an Orthodox Christian who happens to go to an Antiochian parish because that’s all there is locally, and I do so in spite of whatever reservations I may have about the AOCNA. Bloomington, Indiana isn’t exactly a hotbed of traditional Orthodox ethnicities and activity; all there is is the little group of people trying to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. There’s a little bit of everybody — Russians, Romanians, Arabs, Greeks, and us “konvertsy” — but not enough of anybody to constitute any kind of a critical mass. I guarantee you there are individuals in every ethnic group in this community would be more comfortable with a church of “their own people,” but that’s a luxury nobody can afford. It’s All Saints or nothing. I’d go so far as to say that our situation is absolutely fantastic relative to that of, for example, Fargo, North Dakota.

I am disheartened by people who jeer at Americans who are trying to live out their faith doing the best they can with what they’ve been given by Mother Church, which in many cases is next to nothing. I am not amused by those people when they insist that those Americans trying to do this or that in order to live out their faith and their calling more fully are not in fact Orthodox, but then refuse to offer any kind of a practical alternative. I can only conclude such people really mean that the Americans they are deriding are simply “not as Orthodox as they are.”

At the same time, I am disheartened by Americans who regard people of Greek or Russian or Arabic or whatever heritage with suspicion automatically, claiming that all of our problems stem from “foreign bishops” and culturally unintelligible practices, and assuming that such people probably don’t pray, don’t fast, don’t confess, don’t commune, don’t go to Vespers daily, and most importantly, don’t buy books or liturgical music recordings, and are only in the Church by an accident of birth, rather than Having Truly Grappled With the Big Questions the same way that they, being Godly Americans in a Godly Country, have done.

I am disheartened by people who would say that American converts are rigorous about all the wrong things and can never understand what Orthodox Christianity actually means in a lived cultural context, and use that as an excuse to disrespect the Mysteries those converts have received; I am just as disheartened by Americans who seem bent on proving exactly those points in order to demonstrate they’re better than the so-called “cultural Orthodox”. At some point, the sides start insulating themselves from each other, and then the snake is eating its own tail.

All of these things dishearten me because it would appear that unity at the Chalice, unity with Christ through Communion with Him in His Church, is simply not enough. It is evidently so meaningless as to in fact have it’s very existence be something that should be denied.

Tell me, why are we Orthodox Christians so inclined and eager to judge other Orthodox Christians so quickly? Are we not already small and scattered and minimized in this country, that it is necessary to try to splinter ourselves from each even more?

Is that love?

Is that Christlike?

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7 Responses to “When, evidently, unity in Christ is not enough”


  1. 1 Christopher Orr 15 October 2009 at 9:23 am

    Bravo.

    I think we are inclined to do this because we often wall ourselves off from each other. Some of this is practical (language), some is simply choice (culture, whether ‘American’, Greek, Russian, ‘educated’, ‘liberal’, ‘traditionalist’). This is exacerbated by the overlapping jurisdictions that in some sense force parishes to serve a particular demographic rather than all Orthodox and non-Orthodox in that place. We don’t have to struggle with the difficulty of loving and sacrificing for another, we get to have churches in exactly our image apart from others.

  2. 2 Laura 15 October 2009 at 9:49 am

    Thank you. I’m equally convicted and encouraged.

  3. 3 rwp 15 October 2009 at 10:10 am

    I haven’t run into the cradle-convert conflict in real life, but when I encounter it online, I pretty much ignore it. It just isn’t worth the frustration to talk to such people.

  4. 4 David 15 October 2009 at 10:16 am

    I am coming to believe that this is what salvation looks like. There’s simply no way of putting down our self-will on the coffee table and walking away. In the death throws of the flesh, we are compelled to stab at others, ourselves and ultimately God.

    Our pride does not want to go quietly into that good night. More than that, it does not want light shed on it, so even the efforts we make at merely “responding” when we are attacked come to not and pride preemptively strikes out. I suppose pride is inherently paranoid.

    Matuska, my priest, our reader and I were sitting around last night talking about the fall and Florovsky’s summation of St Athanasius. He describes this turning from contemplation of the Other to the self, which is ultimately a contemplation of death and a descent there of. The intellect’s proper function to receive by perceiving the imprint of the Word, was darkened and the passions arose.

    All these people (even the ones I agree with, even you and I) are busily contemplating the self. This only fuels the fire of pride and I think regardless of who’s “correct” we’re missing the forest for the trees.

    When we speak out about being victimized we are shunning the Gospel which calls us to a life imitating Christ, the lamb who went quietly to the slaughter. All this need we have to correct, preserve, etc God’s Church is arising from the paranoia of self. The Holy Spirit holds the Church together in us. I’m not saying that no Saint should ever speak out against heresy or no Christian so ever defend a brother under assault, but rather we shouldn’t “worry” about such things happening or react from our passions.

    We should take on the victimization kenosis and count it joy to suffer for Christ’s sake and the sake of His Church. Times, places and responsibilities will fall on us more often than we would like. The Church doesn’t need volunteers, it needs suffering servants.

    Consider this person’s lot. A person who has suffered great loss of self and community, she romanticizes about things which are not. Longs for things which cannot exist and admits to consuming more alcohol than is good for her. I have to look at those on “my side” too. I respect John (Ad-O) but I can hear in his posts after searching so much and being “fooled” that need for an intellectual fortress (I share that need).

    Fr Herbel shows us something better, but Fr Stephen even better than him.

    In all these “scandals” I run into (more often than can possibly be spiritually good for me) because I live a significant amount of my time online, I never hear this simple plea. Let us turn from this stuff and contemplate God. Avoid such distractions. If we have faith, we will find that these things are in the hands of God. The results might not be what we’d prefer, but our preference for an outcome doesn’t make that outcome life.

    As long as we are contemplating the self, the agendas of the self and the “vision” of what should be or not be, or how Orthodoxy should or shouldn’t look, we are ultimately contemplating death and the nothingness.

    So all the various internet sites and posting-persons behind this latest round of caustic venom are ultimately for not and will never be anything, by definition they are unlife and will drag us into that unlife with them if we “participate” with them.

    I suppose my sadness at seeing some of my favorite bloggers dragged into this one are a warning to me that I had made idols out of my brothers. That’s understandable, I’m a convert, I’m looking to my older siblings. But I need to look at them truly and not through rose-colored stained glass windows. I need to love them for who they actually are and not misuse them to manage my own insecurities about my faith.

    No one is for my use of anything. And any crime committed against me is an opportunity for martyrdom and becoming more like Christ.

    Forgive me, a sinner. As I post out of pride on your blog. I pray for the salvation John (whom I love) and she (whom I must learn to love) and hope this post is enough out of the “stream” so as to not catch myself up in this anymore than I already am.

  5. 5 Christopher Orr 15 October 2009 at 10:35 am

    I wonder if it would be most useful to simply confess to each other. After being offended and hurt to the quick being in a very ethnic parish, I have found that simply sharing the pain without dwelling on it or expecting any change may be helpful. That is, we need to know when we are offending people and hurting them so that we can stop; we don’t mean to, but we are. Living apart from each other in parallel Orthodoxies in parallel, struggling parishes in the same small towns keeps us from offending all that much, but it keeps us from loving each other, too, and having to struggle together.

    Ethnic Orthodox need to understand each other, first. Greeks need to understand Russian and Slavic traditions and practices; Slavs need to understand Greeks and Arabs. A practice is often considered ‘western’ or ‘modern’, etc. when it is in fact simply a practice from another Orthodox tradition. Ethnic Orthodox should understand the pain that converts often face in cutting off ties to their previous communions and the difficulties this creates within families; there is also the pain of feeling purposefully excluded from understanding like when friends purposefully speak in a language only they understand (even when they also speak yours). Most often ‘ethnic’ is really just code for language – on either side of the debate. It isn’t about culture, but about whether we pray with understanding or not. My ‘ethnic’ parish is far more American in most regards than was my ‘convert’ parish – except for language and the Festival. Converts need to understand all sorts of things from (pious and lax) ethnic Orthodox – most of which I am still trying to identify and learn, so I can’t really enumerate them, yet. Converts also just simply need to find the proper balance between akrivia and economia when accepting Orthodoxy and the particular cultural ‘charges’ it has been delivered in: how to avoid only a partial conversion (e.g., ‘I don’t get all that Mary stuff’) or accepting the packaging for the present (e.g., converts in Russian peasant shirts). This is just going through spiritual adolescence, trying on ‘identities’.

    Of course, it is very easy to become obsessed with such things and to use them as a club against one’s neighbor, to have them become the focus of ‘religion’ rather than Christ. It’s like Met. Jonah’s recent comments regarding our over-focus on jurisdictional unity at the expense of the Gospel; or worse, a merging of the two.

  6. 6 jw 15 October 2009 at 4:07 pm

    Thanks very much for this, Richard.

  7. 7 fatherjamesearly 15 October 2009 at 10:18 pm

    Great post, Richard. It is easier to focus on the speck of dust in someone else’s eye than to try to remove the plank in our own. People who spend all their time on the internet questioning each others’ “Orthodoxness” would better use their time reading the Bible, feeding the hungry, or something else that the Church tells us to do.


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