Wednesday, April 30, 2008

My Interview on "Our Life In Christ" (Ancient Faith Radio)

Above: Our Life in Christ, program hosts Steven Robinson and Bill Gould,

Interview with Fr. Gregory Jensen on Psychology, Part One
Tuesday, April 29, 2008

From the program web page:

Steve interviews Fr. Gregory Jensen, an Orthodox priest and psychologist. Fr. Gregory discusses the place of clinical psychology within Orthodox spirituality, particularly as it relates to pastoral care and confession.

You download the interview as an mp3 by clicking here: Our Life in Christ.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

American Orthodoxy?

 An interesting post from The Ochlophobist in which he reflects on the difficulties of embodying the Orthodox faith in American culture.  He offers five comments that are worth reflecting on:

1. What authentic human culture existed in American locals in prior generations is now dead, even if it remains in caricature form. Thus Orthodoxy is not to "incarnate" into American culture, or to save or baptize American culture. There is no authentic American culture anymore. Orthodoxy in America must seek to create an American culture. There are certain local cultural "ingredients" which might be used, but what needs to be sought is a new cultural creation.

2. This can only be done by coming to terms with the secularism that rules American life and disabuses what would otherwise be authentic American cultural forms. Until we acknowledge the pervasiveness of secularism and its dreadful hold on virtually all aspects of our lives, we are simply playing the games of boutique religion.

3. The fundamental problem - if one seeks for Orthodoxy to become fully fleshed and blooded in America, completely embedded in the existential ethos of this place and people, how does one go about it in a pluralist society in which all things are sought (usually with success) to be commodified and delegated to a percentage of market share? How does one avoid, on the one hand, becoming a particularly placed fleshed and blooded micro-culture that is separationist (the Amish), or, on the other hand, how does one avoid becoming a religious movement which fully collaborates with secular materialist culture (Evangelicalism)? Assuming that we do not want to run to the hills, how do we fully confront and transform an ever morphing ethereal pluralist materialist ├╝bercommodified anti-culture?

4. Should we even be seeking the transformation of America at large? America is colossal, too big in any number of ways. Would it not be more modest, and might it not be more appropriate with regard to discernable human culture, to seek rather a Delta Orthodoxy, an Upper-Midwestern Orthodoxy, a New England Orthodoxy, an Appalachian Orthodoxy, a Pacific Northwestern Orthodoxy, a Canadian plains Orthodoxy, and so forth?

5. There must be no agenda. As soon as we have as our agenda to “win America for Christ” Orthodoxy style, we have become one agenda competing in a saturated market of agendas, and we have then condemned ourselves to petty market share. The American Orthodoxy of mission statements and evangelism strategies is simply more of the Evangelicalish-materialist banality. If there is to be a full existentially realized Orthodox culture in America, it must come to be because this is what Orthodoxy is, how she realizes herself in a place. There is a charismatic and fragile human element to this. Such will not be brought about because Orthodoxy has been marketed well. Ironically, those most concerned with religious market success doom Orthodoxy to cultural failure, precisely because they do not understand their own commitments to secularist materialism, and the fact that there can be no Orthodox-secularist culture that is truly a culture. Not to mention the pragmatically obvious – that in a pluralist-materialist setting, Orthodoxy will never rise above the fray of constant competition (a competition which assumes and implicitly teaches a fundamental relativism among competing truth claims) and the trite mechanisms associated with such an environment.

American Orthodoxy?
The Ochlophobist
Wed, 30 Apr 2008 11:49:00 GMT

My thoughts on the Ochlophobist's comments:

Thinking about my own experience of the Orthodox Church both in the "rust belt" and the West Coast, I think Ochlophobist is on to something in point 4.  The Orthodox Church on the West coast, and for that matter in much of the Pacific Northwest and old West, is relatively wealthy.  Unlike the midwest and middle Atlantic regions, small economically and demographically struggling parishes are relatively (though of course not absolutely) unknown on the West coast (and the Pacific Northwest and Old West).  Ethnic identity is also less intense in the western United States.

Point 5, the necessary of not having an agenda, is also on target, though I would prefer the notion of detachment to the phrase "no agenda."  For better and worse, the large number of ex-Evangelical Christians has set the tone for Orthodox witness here in America.  Again, while there has been some good from this, for exactly the reasons outlined by Ochlophobist,  I would be hard press to say that this infusion of Evangelical Christian sensibilities is a good thing. 

While yes, we must take Evangelical Christianity seriously as the religious language of American society, it often seems that it embodies a religious world view that as commodified as the wider American milieu.  And then there is the toxic convergence of  phyletism and Evangelical sectarianism that especially, though not exclusively, on the West coast takes the form of 19th century Russian peasant chic (i.e., let's all dress as we imagine the dressed and spoke in Holy Russian in the golden age of the 19th Century--think a rather distressing tendency of some converts to dress like Fundamentalist  Later Day Saints.)

Where I might disagree (and his and your comments are welcome on this point) from the Ochlophobist is with his assessment of American culture--or rather the absence of an American culture.  Here I think I would say that yes, on a popular level at least, American society is increasingly less humane--less humanistic in the best sense of the term.  But there is underneath this popular culture, a deeper, more humane, more humanistic culture grounded not simply in the Enlightenment, but also in some of the best of western culture (in is hard for me to read Thomas Jefferson and NOT hear echoes of Aquinas).  We see this deeper culture evident not simply in the classical works of American political philosophy (e.g., the Declaration of Independence and the supporting literature, but also the US Constitution and its apology in the The Federalist Papers,  and before that the writings of de Tocqueville) and contemporary thinkers in that tradition (for example, John Courtney Murray).  And then there is the range of American literature, novelists, short story writers and essays, as well as the arts, musicals and films to which we can appeal to as embodying the best of American culture as such.

All that said, I think Ochlophobist is on to something--we are not as a Church prepared to actually incarnate the faith in an American context.  This is not, I hasten to add, primary a matter of a deficient theological education.  No, it is not that we do not understand the Fathers (though there is much work that needs to be done there for sure), but that we do not understand the foundations of the very society in which we live.

As I have alluded to at other times, putting aside for the moment our interest in Orthodox theology, there is to my view of things, a very disturbing anti-Western, and really anti-intellectual, trend in the Church.  As a quick example, more often than I care to recount, I have sat with Greek immigrants and Greek-Americans who were quite proud of the Greek language, but woefully ignorant of classical Greek philosophy and literature.  More than once, I have found that I was the only one at the table who had read Aristotle or Homer.

What I'm getting at is this, to embody the faith in American means that we need to not only be well grounded in that faith, but also the deep cultural roots of America.  Sadly, and this is significantly weaker a word that I would like to use, for many Orthodox Christians the point of being in the Church (and this includes not only "converts" but also "cradle" Orthodox) is to NOT have to wrestle with the culture. 

In a word, for all our newly found evangelical enthusiasm, we remain sectarian.  We are more interested in  the "low hanging fruit" of unhappy Evangelical Christians, mainline Protestants and disappointed Catholic and Episcopalians then we are in really doing the work required to present ourselves as a credible alternative to secular culture.  To use a phrase I heard recently, we are concerned more with "nickels and noses" than in doing the hard work of transfiguring American culture.

So thanks to the Ochlophobist for his usual insightful and provocative obsevations.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory