One Thursday night last fall I had the opportunity to sit on a panel with other college chaplains at the University of Pittsburgh. The panel discussion was sponsored by Campus Crusade for Christ and included a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, the Campus Crusade for Christ staffer, a major from the Salvation Army, a Roman Catholic priest and your servant. For the better part of an hour my colleagues and I answered questions submitted in writing by the students.
I left the event with two thoughts. First I was rather disheartened with the lack of seriousness of both the questions from the students and the answers offered by my colleagues. It would not be an overstatement to say that the questions were trivial and the answers painfully relativistic.
Again and again students were told to find a church home where they were comfortable and with which they were in doctrinal agreement. After committing ones life to Jesus Christ (which we Orthodox would do well to emphasize more firmly--but thats a topic for another day) for most of my colleagues the whole of the Christian life seemed to be simply a matter of taste or opinion. The truth of worship, the truth of doctrine, the truth of what it means to be human and live in a civil society, all of these were up for grabs.
But, and this is my second thought from the evening, in my conversations with people afterwards I discovered that--just underneath the surface--both the students and the chaplains were dissatisfied with the relativism that was espoused that evening.
In the case of the chaplains, breaking through the relativism and bring to light their dissatisfaction will be tough. Once they realize that the objectivity of the Christian life extends to areas beyond our initial repentance, they will have to confront the lack of historical and doctrinal foundations of their own ministries. Put somewhat differently, once they shed their relativism they will ask questions the answers to which will lead them either to the Orthodox Church or to the Roman Catholic Church.
Because in the main they are good people, once that happens they will have to make some painful decisions. The question I have is how ready are we as Orthodox Christians to help them in their transition to New Life in Christ? While we have done a little, and frankly relative to interest to say nothing of need we have done almost nothing for these Protestant clergy. Yes, the Antiochians and the OCA especially have been welcoming--but even in this is only a drop in the bucket.
Why haven't we done more you ask?
Because conversions in any significant number would rather seriously disrupt the Church's life--or rather what we think is the Church's life, but which is really our own religiously justified sense of comfort. And I say, thank God and please hurry with the disruption. I wonder are we willing to accept the challenges that our rhetoric invites? I don't know if we are.
The students who I spoke with afterwards were also quite interesting. Though professing Christians, they are as scarred by cynicism and the effects of cultural and theological relativism as any of the non-Christian street kids I knew in California.
The California kid were sexually promiscuous, often drank heavily, used drugs and dabbled in the occult. Gang bangers, vampires, witches, Goths, Ravens and Crows all of whom had no use for Christ and the Gospel. And yet, in their own way, these kids were better off then many of the Christian students I met one Thursday night last fall.
It is easy to forget in our "Christian" society and groups that paganism, witchcraft, drunkenness and sexual immorality, were all sins that God used as symbols on Israels infidelity. The actions of the California kids were certainly different--and not at all to be recommended--dying by degrees, homeless and on street of AIDS or Hep C or hunger or as a result of a beating is an evil way to die. But, at the same time, their lives remind me of the consequences of the relativism that I saw one Thursday night last fall.
Having surrendered to the cultural relativism that surrounds them, the students I talked with are indifferent and cynical and this in spite of all their Christian talk and activity. In fact, they remind me of drug addicts--they use the drug to feel better and for a while it works. But then life breaks through the drug and they discover that the drug has made them less able to resist the pressures of life. So what do they do? They get high again and in feeling better, destroy themselves a bit more.
Likewise, these young people flee the destructive culture around them only to discover that the Evangelical and Protestant ministries they have fled to are just as relativistic, just as destructive to human freedom and dignity, as the culture they fled. Some leave, some try harder, most surrender to the relativism, but all of them are scarred and are worn down by disappointment, failure and guilt. If nothing changes in their lives, the cynicism will make them hard and ever more resistant to God's grace.
But, and Ive seen this again and again, especially when dealing with college students, the desire for real faith, the desire for true and lasting repentance, is just underneath the surface. We simply need to be there for them and offer them, to paraphrase the desert fathers, "A word so they might live."
The question for me is whether or not I am willing to speak that word and if anyone in the Church will speak that word with me. To speak this word means that we will change the desert into a city. But todays desert is not a desert of sand, but the desert of our parishes and seminaries that are not transformative of the lives of men and women. In all of our jurisdictions (and it is important to remember that they are "ours" not Christs--He willed the Church to be His Body here on earth. We have exchanged a Body for jurisdictionalism) I have seen parishes torn apart when they grow--when new people, new Christians come in and they come wanting, needing, to participate in the liturgical life of the Church. The desire, the need, to be philanthropically and evangelistically active as a consequence of their conversion is not always met with support. And at times it is greeted with active hostility.
A systematic and well planned ministry to the people I met one Thursday night last fall would destroy our comfortable parishes, seminaries and diocesan headquarters. The hard part about the desert is not the loneliness or the demons, it is the well-meaning (and sometimes not so well-meaning) Christian from the city who comes and tempts the monk to return to a life of comfort. Like the Hebrew children in the desert, we are always longing for the "flesh pots of Egypt," for a soft bed and a quiet life as Pharaohs slave.
But there is something better. And that is to reach out to those people I met one Thursday night last fall.
Let me tell you a secret--those people I met, they are us--and we are them. Their sins, their struggles, are the very same as ours. They are trapped because we are trapped. But we are trapped because, though we have the Keys to the Kingdom of God, we refuse to open the gates and enter in because we know that once we enter in we will be called to go out again--even as Moses ascended the mountain only to descend again in imitation of the Son of Man Who was to come.
I cannot in my heart condemn the people I met on that one Thursday night last fall because, even lame, they run the race that we Orthodox Christians refuse to run and at times even prevent others from running.
Ah, but if we would only enter the race--what a victory we would have.