On package deals

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


10 Responses to “On package deals”

  1. 1 melxiopp 29 April 2011 at 1:32 pm

    I agree about the wholesale EOC (and other Protestant) conversions en masse – especially in the Antiochian Archdiocese, it seems. Same goes for quickie ordinations to converting ministers and quickie baptisms/chrismations to inquirers cum catechumens.

    Where I would disagree is in the idea that a given ethnicity is somehow inherently Orthodox, either in the old country or in immigrant communities here. (In fact, I would argue that the identification of Orthodoxy with a given culture is part of what made it so easy for Middle Eastern Christians to convert to Islam and for Slavic Orthodox to ‘convert’ to atheism.) For all the real piety and holiness, a clear-eyed look at not only the Greeks and Slavs who don’t go to church or who have converted (a vast majority), but to the semi-churched Greeks and Slavs who do go to Orthodox churches is enough to understand that Orthodoxy is not an inherited trait. Any bishop and priest will admit that their people often know very little about their faith and practice it very little apart from the little-t traditions. These clergy all admit that the more important, Big-T Tradition teachings and practice are little known or cared about – and they lament it. Besides, most ethnic Orthodox in America have themselves purposefully discarded (or added alien elements to) their own little-t traditions in ways unheard of in Orthodox Orthodoxy back home, i.e., long-lived americanization was undertaken by older ethnic Orthodox first and they are its most fervent defenders. It’s become the fashionable deflection to then point to how important the context of little-t traditions are to the faith. But, this is not the case in the tradition of Orthodox evangelism, though it has a great deal to do with Orthodox dhimmitude and persecution. It’s interesting to note the exact same arguments are put forward regarding these little-t traditions in discussions concerning the acculturation of their ethnic brothers and sisters (again, the vast majority of immigrants and their descendants). This isn’t a mistake, it’s a confusion of kinds.

    Such arguments are also the reason no one trusts the ‘other’ bishop. Greeks assume Moscow will russify, Americans assume Greeks will grecify, etc. They’re all correct, and that’s the problem. We haven’t come up with a way of understanding tradition that isn’t beholden to culture.

    My personal view is that love finds the way through rather easily, but love requires a relationship and relationships require friendship and interaction and these require us to not be hived off in our variously chosen (and defended) enclaves of likemindedness. That is, we need to worship, pray, teach, learn, work and be together. That’s the whole purpose of the canons against bishops/priests serving more than one liturgy on one altar a day – but we’ve sidestepped that by simply building separate churches under separate bishops thus breaking the canon we prefer to break. Until we worship in communities where one ethnicity is more equal than all others because they own the Church (we all know it’s not God’s church, don’t we?), there won’t be answers. In loving parishes dedicated to being Church for all Orthodox (and all non-Orthodox) in that place, the answers will arise naturally and organically about how the common Big-T Tradition and the multitude of little-t traditions of various peoples are married becoming one flesh.

  2. 2 melxiopp 29 April 2011 at 1:38 pm

    Correction: “Until we NO LONGER worship in communities where one ethnicity is more equal than all others…”

  3. 3 melxiopp 29 April 2011 at 3:37 pm

    An interesting parallel to this kind of a discussion is one of transmission, generally. My favorite example is language. For instance, what is ‘pure English’? Is it the Received Pronunciation and grammar of the Queen, is it the more generalized London English, what of the other accents around England and where do Irish, Welsh and Scottish English fit? More to the point, is the mother tongue English spoken by the majority of non-English Americans properly speaking “English”? What of the mother tongue English spoken in the various former British colonies around the globe? Is South African English spoken as a mother tongue by those of black or Dutch ancestry inferior to English English?

    There were and always will be ‘accents’ and traces left on a convert’s life and faith. Paganism was still widespread in Russia up to the Bolshevik Revolution, and similar pre-Christian and non-Christian relics can be found in Greek, Romanian, Georgian and Christian Arab cultures. The same is true of cross-cultural ‘leakage’ over the centuries whether from the RC West, the Protestant West, the Enlightenment West, Islam, India, African cultures, secularism, American culture, Native Alaskan culture, etc. This is most obvious in how ‘not Greek’ and ‘not Russian’ the Greek and Russian immigrants in the US are when compared to their peers back in Greece or Russia. My immigrant father is simply American when he visits his homeland, but he’s always an accented immigrant in America from somewhere else. That’s just the reality of the immigrant experience – both for immigrants and those living with immigrants. We have to stop pretending that the ethnic Orthodox in America are somehow even purely their own ethnicity, first, and that the little-t traditions they so easily and arbitrarily pick and choose from are somehow necessary as a whole for the convert to be truly converted.

    What is necessary is that we love one another, and that is not what we are doing in our multiple ghettos of likemindedness (yes, that includes the various ‘styles’ of convert culture from uber-liberal milquetoast to quasi-Evangelical smarm to traditionalist playacting of the Orth-Ren Fest sort).

  4. 4 Richard Barrett 29 April 2011 at 6:41 pm

    I actually don’t think we’re disagreeing all that much; I don’t think I describe Orthodoxy as an “inherited trait”, nor do I allow for one ethnicity being “more Orthodox than the other.” However, as I’ve said before, I do think that the only way out of a situation where cultural pluralism is contributing to confusion and chaos is that something is going to have to be a protos, as it were, in terms of guiding how practice is received. Language, which you bring up, is an interesting way to look at this. English is a Germanic language, but it is recognizably not German. Schwyzerdütsch is recognizably German, but it is recognizably not Hochdeutsch. When you learn German, you have to start with one dialect, and it’s usually Hochdeutsch. You can’t set out to learn “Germanic” and expect that you’ll actually have any usable facility with German, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, English, and so on, to say nothing of all the various dialects of each of those languages, if you just throw yourself into the hodgepodge. With Greek and Romance languages, you can spend time learning ancient Greek and Latin and it will help you learn the modern forms of these languages more quickly, but they’re still not the same thing, and you have the same problems.

    I’ve been there for weddings when a convert priest concelebrating with a cradle ethnic priest stares wide-eyed as the cradle ethnic priest arranges the rings are to be set on a silver platter with candied almonds, and explains what it means. “But that’s not in my book,” the convert priest says. “Well, that’s how it’s always done,” the cradle ethnic priest replies. I’ve been there when clergy who grew up in EOC communities say that it wasn’t until they got to seminary that they ever saw anything like the herbs and flower petals strewn around the church on the Liturgy for Holy Saturday. These are the kinds of things we lose by trying negotiate our way around culture, and frankly, when we lose those things, we lose the people for whom those things are part of what they look for when they’re trying to figure out if they belong there or not. I’m just not at all convinced that a “salad bowl” approach can work — the attempts I’ve seen all make everybody equally unhappy rather than successfully blending anything, and it’s because it’s a necessarily reductive exercise. “Okay, you guys get this, and they get that, and we’ll get this.” You’ve just established a scenario where everybody’s looking at each other suspiciously saying, “If they get ice cream, that means I get some too.”

    And, frankly, as some of my Greek friends say, you’re not going to get everybody willing to be under the same roof as long as there are 50-60 thousand people trying to pretend that 2 million people don’t matter.

    I agree with you wholeheartedly that loving parishes dedicated to being the Church for all Orthodox are what are necessary. You know which parish I’ve seen do that most successfully? St. Irene in Athens, Greece. They’re packed to the gills every Sunday (or at least they were when I was there); their liturgical language is Greek; they follow the Greek typikon to the letter; they do everything in fully-realized Byzantine chant with two choirs singing antiphonally. It’s also an incredibly cosmopolitan, international congregation; I saw Russians, Romanians, Arabs, and other Americans there when I was there two summers ago, and the priest didn’t bat an eye when I came up to the chalice. They were unapologetic about what they were, and did it as well as they possibly could. That, I suspect, made it feel like home even for those who weren’t Greek. If it comes across as playing dress-up awkwardly and badly, my experience is that people aren’t going to feel as welcome.

  5. 5 melxiopp 6 May 2011 at 1:43 pm

    St. Irene’s sounds like a wonderful parish, exactly what one would expect in the capital of a traditional autocephalous Orthodox Church.

    Questions of language and little-t traditions are, I think, different when you are dealing with a non-traditional Orthodox land with a profusion of local Orthodox traditions and amazing linguistic, cultural and religious diversity in the local non-Orthodox population.

    It should also be worth noting that the numbers you provided inflate Greek numbers and deflate non-Greek numbers. Alexei Krindatch’s Orthodox census is helpful in this regarding (though I still sense the Greek numbers are skewed based on how my own past GOA parish inflated its own “adherents” and “regular church attendees”. The GOA had 476,900 adherents (only 23% of which were regular attendees). The non-Greek, Chalcedonian and canonical population in the US is 322,500 (with an average regular attendance of 23%, as well). (There are 40,300 non-Greeks under the EP, including the obviously inflated or highly nominal Palestianian vicariate’s numbers.)

    That’s without noting how the OCA, for instance, has more of an obvious mission bent given it exceeds the GOA in numbers of parishes. Altogether, the non-Greeks have 1330 parishes for the GOA’s 525.

    To paraphrase, we’re not going to get everybody willing to be under the same roof as long as there are 400,000 people trying to pretend there are only 4,000 other people that don’t matter. And that’s purposefully forgetting the real number we should be concerned about is 307,357,108, the number of non-Orthodox in the US.

    • 6 Richard Barrett 6 May 2011 at 2:04 pm

      I suspect we’re going to have to agree to disagree. As I’ve said before, I just haven’t seen it work. I’m familiar with “pan-Orthodox” parishes where it very explicitly DOESN’T work, where the plainest shoebox possible was built for a church because the only fair thing to do was make everybody equally unhappy, and you’ve still got people biting each other’s heads off and threatening to leave over what icons are going to go on the royal doors. If everything is perceived as being up for negotiation in the name of “being pan-Orthodox,” then people are just going to argue, and/or take their ball and go home when they don’t feel welcome anymore.

      I’m also not entirely sold that the OCA has a more obvious mission bent given numbers of parishes. As far as the “real number” we should be concerned with — I’m not at all convinced that these are mutually exclusive considerations. For my part, I didn’t become Orthodox because of a self-conscious American mission effort that tried to paint Orthodox Christianity in as “American” of terms as possible. The more I was exposed to Orthodoxy, in fact, the less appealing such an idea became. Eight years after the first time I darkened the door of an Orthodox church, I find the whole notion appalling.

      On the other hand, as I’ve said before, I’m a former opera singer. I’m used to having to function within cultural and linguistic contexts that aren’t necessarily my own, and it doesn’t make me uncomfortable. No doubt my perspective is very different from that of somebody who doesn’t have that background.

  1. 1 Package Deals Postscript « Ius Honorarium Trackback on 29 April 2011 at 1:33 pm
  2. 2 Is there any more militant “anti-” than an “ex-”? « Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Trackback on 6 October 2011 at 12:21 pm
  3. 3 Fr. Oliver Herbel’s Turning to Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox Church and other thoughts about West being West and East being, at the very least, “not West” | Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Trackback on 11 December 2013 at 7:39 pm
  4. 4 Fr. Oliver Herbel’s Turning to Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox Church and other thoughts about West being West and East being, at the very least, “not West” | Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Trackback on 11 December 2013 at 9:03 pm

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