Blogging has been light for much of the last year or so. This has been because I’ve been, well, busy. Flesh of My Flesh was in Germany on an academic exchange from the middle of September 2010 to the middle of August 2011, and trying to maintain a two-person household and lifestyle as one person, while also being a full-time grad student, while also having some level of teaching responsibilities for the first time, while also still being responsible for musical duties at All Saints, while also planning a big to-do last fall, while dealing with some personal issues that required a good amount of attention (to perhaps be told someday in another blog post), while also making a couple of semi-lengthy trips to Germany myself, meant that every last second of my time was spoken for, and I had absolutely nobody around to share the load or to delegate to in any meaningful or consistent way. Granted, there were lots of people around for much-appreciated moral support, but by and large I was on my own.
Another reason why it’s been light, however, is because there have been things going on in the circle of blogdom of which I am some kind of marginal member that have prompted the thought, “Maybe I should respond to that,” and ultimately I’ve chosen not to. I don’t like blogging pissing contests; to my mind they don’t resolve anything, they engender bad will, and tend to create (to say nothing of harden) battle lines. I’m at the point where I feel like there are some things that need to be said, however, and while I want to be frank, I also don’t want to pick a fight, so I’m going to keep things reasonably specific but nonetheless as abstract as I can make it. If you know what I’m talking about, then you know what I’m talking about; if you don’t, a Google search on some of the issues I raise should be reasonably fruitful.
Converting to Orthodox Christianity is a tricky business, perhaps a bit moreso than Roman Catholicism. I’ve heard it said that getting married isn’t just saying yes to one woman, it’s saying no to all the others, and that seems applicable here. There’s a way in which it seems to me that converting to Roman Catholicism is saying yes to one communion while at the same time construing all the others as being more or less part of yours, so you’re not really deciding against them in the same way. Choosing Orthodoxy, however, involves some more serious overtones of rejection, I think; when I converted, I told myself that in Orthodoxy Christianity I found fulfillment of many of the ideals I had as an Anglican, and that had also led me to read some Roman Catholic apologetics, but there was nonetheless a line, I was choosing a side, and the only for me to un-choose it was to be for all practical purposes an atheist. From people I’ve talked to, that kind of “double-or-nothing” mindset is fairly common, and for my part, I don’t know what the alternative is that isn’t converting for what amount to warm and squishy reasons.
If that’s the case, however, and you find, for one reason or another, that you can’t stay in Orthodoxy, then I suppose it’s not all that surprising that some do effectively become atheists who are nonetheless left with a particularly dogmatic approach to their atheism. There have been some rather public (as far as this niche of the blogging world goes) departures from Orthodox Christianity recently where this has happened, despite an initial assertion that they were going to a different communion, what they really appear to have embraced is an atheism that allows them to maintain a dogma about the things that they’ve decided they really care about. The irony, inevitable though perhaps it is, is that these were some of the more militantly Orthodox bloggers in their day; calling out bishops, parishes, and whomever for not being Orthodox enough, reading all the Right Theologians and so on, and certainly putting on a show of fighting the good fight. The militancy remains; only the Orthodoxy is gone, and the vacuum seems to have filled itself rather violently with other things — secular metanarratives of Marxist-style class struggle and revolution (highly ironic, since in one case I’m thinking of the person, while Orthodox, famously claimed to despise metanarrative) being one significant example, and their new “orthodoxy” tends be tinged by an ongoing and rather world-weary intellectual dismissal of the Christianity they’ve found wanting.
You know, I can respect that somebody for whom Orthodoxy “doesn’t take” is left without a lot of intellectually honest options that actually retain some veneer of Christianity. It strikes me nonetheless that there’s something far deeper going on here, and what it really seems to boil down to is an issue with people rather than an issue with the faith. How in the world can people like that be allowed in by anything less than crawling over broken glass covered with cow excrement, the reasoning seems to go, when I have this other category that tells me we should treat them as undesirables, if not outright enemies? Why should it be acceptable that the people who are becoming Orthodox are people I don’t like? Surely that’s a flaw in the faith itself. But even that, I think, is to overthink it — what it really boils down to is that, whatever song and dance we like to put on about catholicity, we want to go to church with people like ourselves. When we don’t find people like ourselves in sufficient critical mass, then we assume that it’s not for us. If this happens after we’ve already made a spiritual commitment, then the road out seems to be paved with bitterness and sour grapes. Smash the icons, burn the books, it wasn’t what I hoped it would be, so it must be all bad and full of pathological wackos.
Let’s be honest — for all the jawing converts like to do about “ethnic enclave” parishes, converts often tend to function as their own ethnicity. And, since most converts are white (note I said “most”, not all), and it’s socially unacceptable to claim to be a “white” church in the same way that a Greek/Russian/Arab church can claim to be a Greek/Russian/Arab church, the unifying factor tends to be cultural class, subsequently and quietly reinforced by race. Ethnic parishes, from what I’ve seen, tend to be more “catholic” in terms of class, because the ethnicity is able to explicitly function as the glue. Yes, fine, the Christian faith is supposed to be the glue, but for converts and for cradles it’s more complicated than that. We converts are choosing something that is on some level countercultural, and we want to know we’re not crazy, so we want to see the people like ourselves who make it work without it being contrived, some kind of a put-on. I have a dear friend who has expressed being self-conscious in a lot of parishes just by virtue of the fact that he has red hair, immediately and unmistakably marking him as somebody who doesn’t come from a traditionally Orthodox heritage. For cradles, they come from a background where being Orthodox is simply the default option, and there is nothing to reinforce that in a North American cultural context except ethnicity. One way or the other, whether you most strongly identify with class or heritage, if you go to church and don’t see people you can identify as being like yourself in your preferred category, you’re not going to feel comfortable. I suspect that no matter how much we want to talk about “catholicity”, that’s just the reality of being human. We can be taught to like the idea of cultural or ethnic pluralism, but in the ordering of our own lives, that’s not going to be a practical reality most of us will choose to embrace. Catholicity, I suspect, is an ideal to be supported on a macro-level; on the local level, most people will choose homogeneity. If pressed, I think some people would even go so far as to say that catholicity is great, as long as it doesn’t include those people.
The stones the “ex-“es who are now “anti-“s choose to throw I must take with a boulder of salt. Surely we all know that just because a monk says it doesn’t make it necessarily a) so b) universally applicable even if true. Surely we all know that someone being proclaimed as a saint doesn’t necessarily make them perfect or not subject to various historical circumstances and forces, and I would hope that the easy categorization of “the friend of my enemy is my enemy” is something most people would see as deeply problematic from a Christian standpoint, any Christian standpoint, no matter how much critical theory and class struggle-infused rhetoric one tries to throw at it. The recent assertion by one such person that “a mature Christianity is a nominal Christianity” and that Orthodoxy constitutes “the Byzantine slammer” must be rejected with frankness, yes, but also seen as part of what, I think, is best considered a grieving process. A mature Christianity might well perhaps be a humble Christianity, but by the same token, a mature secularism must also be a humble secularism.
To wrap this up for the moment — I heard it said while I was converting that the trouble with thinking your way into a religion is that it’s then no difficult task to think your way right out when your premises change. It’s perhaps particularly easy to do when one finds that the reality on the ground is harder than the marketing materials may have suggested. For those of us who haven’t fallen prey to this, thank God, but I’ve seen enough people leave for such a variety of reasons, some surprising and some not, that you just never know what’s going to challenge you next.