The “Package Deals” piece over at Ius Honorarium has gotten some attention via the Google Reader circuit and whatnot; an Orthodox friend was chatting with me about it and asked, okay, if this guy’s right, what’s the point of being any kind of Christian, if there doesn’t seem to be any real way of doing it that isn’t completely self-engineered and self-directed? Why not just become a Taoist? He pointed out that many of the things they say plague what Esteban Vasquez calls “militant Americanist Orthodoxy” are things that have plagued cultural Orthodoxy from the earliest times — a cafeteria approach, syncretism, hyper-monastic zeal, and so on. Orthodoxy, this person argues, may be sold in our crass, marketing-language culture in a way that tends toward disillusionment for some people, but the core of the criticism isn’t new or patently American.
I have another friend, a philosophy grad student, a Christian who has occasionally and uncomfortably flirted with Orthodoxy like the girl your friends introduce you to whom you’re supposed to just instantly fall in love with, and you can respect all the reasons they thought you would like her, and you can see that there other people who just think she’s the most gorgeous woman there, but the more you look at her and talk to her the more you’re looking for the quickest and most direct way out of the room. Yes, it might be nice if there were another girl who looked sort of like this girl and who had some of her personality traits, but with this one in particular all you can think about is how it’s just not working for you. And, the thing of it is, it’s not just Orthodoxy that he’s like that with — he’s said that for him to do anything more than uncomfortably flirt with a communion or confession would be for him to acknowledge that communion or confession as something more than he feels able to do. In a pluralistic, postmodern world, he doesn’t feel that there’s any way to choose among the pre-existing options that is going to be any more than simply picking the set of traditions you like the most on a personal level, and he doesn’t see, as he says, how you get any more Jesus that way. His solution is, to use his own word, syncretist — “I want it all,” he’s told me before. “I want Orthodoxy and and Quaker meeting all in the same church. The way I see that we transcend the individual and create a new Christian community is by bringing together a bunch of things that are all intensely personal and then building something new out of that.”
My friend is also a C. S. Lewis devotee. At times when we’ve talked about his confessional wanderings, I’ve brought up the quote from Mere Christianity:
It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. . . . It is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable.
“Yeah, in the present day, Lewis is wrong,” my friend has said. “That presumes a default option, and there just isn’t one in our society. The modern American religious landscape is predicated on the lack of a default option.”
So, as Neo says, the problem is choice. Or, to put it another way, the problem is pluralism.
As I see it, American culture in modernity is fundamentally a culture of being uprooted. I have lived for the last eight years in small-town Indiana after growing up in Seattle, and when I’m at a parish council meeting talking about how we need to be reaching out to families who are actually staying put, I’m quickly told, “Those kinds of families don’t exist anymore.” We have people who commute to All Saints from an hour away or more, which makes trying to do certain things in a regular way very difficult, and I usually hear a speech about “the reality of our mobile society” about once a month. To the extent that this uprootedness is an issue on a personal level, the solution is then to try to construct a personal narrative that either provides one with “virtual” roots or establishes them going forward.
I maintain that for the Christian who is sensitive to such matters, the flaws of American Protestantism become really evident really fast. This can lead to embracing forms of Christianity that at least appear to have stronger historical roots than simply the America of the last fifty years (look at how some Evangelical churches define “traditional” services sometime). Anglicanism is one possibility that at least used to provide some of the trappings without challenging your existing beliefs overly much, if not so much anymore in a lot of parts of the country. Traditional Roman Catholicism, and Orthodoxy of course, provide these things while also challenging one’s existing beliefs (at least to some extent, depending on your resident apologist). Modern Roman Catholicism provides an abstract way of changing your affiliation and beliefs without changing your externals too terribly much.
Still, here’s the problem: if Orthodoxy is the path you choose (and of course implicit here is my own belief that that’s the right path, but we’re not talking about that right this second) you eventually find out one of two things:
- Not everybody there is there for the same reasons you are, and those reasons might not be mutually intelligible, and/or very difficult to translate across cultural barriers.
- You find yourself in a community of people who ARE there for the same reasons you are, but it’s for that exact reason there’s a kind of hyper-idealized vision that is individually held and to some extent mutually exclusive with the hyper-idealized vision other people have.
And, of course, there’s the simple fact that the “true church” isn’t the perfect church in an earthly sense. All of these points have significant implications; Rod Dreher’s insistence that ethnic parishes are little more than “the tribe at prayer” is a serious misunderstanding of what’s actually going on, but that’s a result of the first point, for example.
As regards the second point — well, in retrospect, let’s just say that I see the mass conversion of the EOC in their existing communities as setting a really dangerous precedent. Along similar lines, if you look at the mission guidebook for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, one of the things it mandates is that the initial group of families MUST be made up of a certain number of Greeks. The point seems to be, “We’re not going to let a bunch of converts who don’t know what’s going on just set up shop and go to town.”
In any event, where I think some of the disillusionment comes from is this — I think what happens is that there are people who convert thinking that it’s going to be all awesome sauce and incense and kissing chalices and domes and “Boy, people will just come in droves if they can just see what’s happening!” — the Russian Primary Chronicle all over again, only this time, in America. What happens, however, is that bishops turn out to be fallible, English translations of liturgical poetry tend to clank (let’s talk about the canon for Lazarus Saturday sometime), it becomes evident really quickly that the Episcopalians are able to pay their musicians a lot better, there are folding chairs in the middle of a nave that looks like an office building, and if you can convince your friends to come, more often than not, they are frankly mystified and manage to eke out a somewhat patronizing “Well, that was really interesting and I can see why you’re there” before running for the door. If you’re the kind to educate yourself more, you find that what’s happening in American parishes, even a lot of the ethnic ones, is pretty far removed from much of what happens in the old country parishes (what I think Owen White has called “Orthodox Orthodoxy” once or twice), and you realize that part of why the beauty of Hagia Sophia was able to convert the Russians is because the emperor could basically say “you’re converting” by fiat.
Then there’s the problem that i bring up here — people pick up on the fact that the people and places they hear about in our liturgical texts are called Demetrios and Ephesus, not Joe and Akron, Ohio. That can have a kind of mysterious, otherworldly appeal for awhile, but then you start to think, “Wow, is there really nothing of import in my faith to have ever happened where I live?”
But what the real problem is, and what isn’t comfortable to talk about in a culture where religious freedom is one of the fundamentals, is that there’s an extent to which Orthodoxy has to function in a public, popular way in order to really work, and it can’t do that here. How can you have a village or a city popularize a saint in this country when there are no villages or cities that are Orthodox? This is, I suppose, why the “let’s start Orthodox communities” idea is so popular among some converts, but that’s not really something that can work in this country without it being a synthetic utopia that will fall apart within one generation. Orthodoxy really isn’t intended to function as the boutique SWPL religion that Owen semi-accurately accuses it of being — it’s intended to be the local, popular, public church, and there’s virtually no way for it to be that in this country, not with either Orthodoxy or the USA in their current forms. The religious and cultural equilibrium in this country is, frankly, set up to make sure that such a thing doesn’t happen. Orthodoxy has the problem of being just one more Christian group among lots and lots of other Christian groups in this country, and being so in a country that in theory is already culturally Christian, as opposed to being the Christian group in a pagan country that is culturally pagan.
What’s the answer? I have said it before, but I genuinely think that the rabid insistence on divorcing “little-t” and “Big-T” Tradition turns Orthodox Christianity into an abstraction that one can mold into whatever form of Christian idiolect with Byzantine trappings that one likes. Orthodoxy as received by American converts tends to be reduced down into a palatable form, with certain teachings carefully restated so that they don’t actually say what they are, and various “ethnic customs” being essentially “flavors” that one can mix and match as they so choose. It’s an attempt to transplant Orthodoxy in a way that allows you to transplant yourself into it with minimal discomfort. But here’s the thing — all those distasteful ethnic “little-t” traditions come out of the fact that Orthodox Christianity is lived and received in a cultural context and a particular rhythm of life. Read Juliet du Boulay’s Cosmos, Life and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village for some sense of what I’m talking about. As much as we scions of American Puritanism are uncomfortable admitting it, dancing, feasting, and singing folk songs are as much a part of lived, received Orthodox practice in the parts of the world that are actually Orthodox as eight hour long services, monasteries, beards, chant and stone churches. (I will point out that a big point made at a recent rembetiki concert in Bloomington was that the vocal style of rembetiki is grounded in the technique and theory of Byzantine chant.) We want the asceticism and discipline because it helps us to feel something real in our world of ready-made plastic pleasures, but that doesn’t mean that we know what we’re talking about when we write off Greek festivals and haflis and poppyseed rolls as irrelevant, if not dangerous, externals.
If we want Orthodoxy to give us roots, then we need to watch and learn how Orthodox live their lives and not be so quick to judge or talk about how this or that “little-t tradition” “won’t work in America”. Otherwise we’re still Protestants. And if we’re going to still be Protestants, let’s at least be honest about that. I agree that this doesn’t have to mean monarchism, or sequestering ourselves into SCA-style reconstructions of Russian peasant villages, and that a “package deal” mentality is going to be rife with cognitive dissonance in the long run, but the whole experience of being a Christian in the present day is an exercise in cognitive dissonance in one form or another. And let’s be honest — it always has been, and always will be. Something about seeing through a glass darkly and being a folly to the Greeks comes to mind.