Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Benefits of a Familial/Cultural Basis of Faith

As I argued in an earlier post, we need to exercise caution in our interpretation and application of the statistical findings of the Pew Charitable Trust, The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. What the findings suggest to me is that for many, and indeed most, the locus of one's identity as an Orthodox Christian is found more in family and culture than in one's participation in the liturgical life of the Church. This is not, I hesitant to add, to invalidate, much less reject, a familial/cultural rather than a liturgical basis and expression of the faith. To do so is not only to go beyond the empirical evidence, it also I think fails to appreciate the unique strengths of a familial/cultural basis and expression of the faith. It also fails to recognize the weaknesses inherent in a more liturgically based and expressed faith. Finally, it causes us to overlook the paradox that often what we assume is a liturgical faith is markedly individualistic in nature contrary to what those who stress the primacy of liturgy would have us believe, and what in fact they believe about their own praxis. In this post, however, I will focus primarily on the strengths and weakness of a familial/cultural basis and expression of faith.

Reflecting on his own initial experience of the uniquely American approach to Christianity that the PCT suggests is now very much the approach of American Orthodox Christians, Berger writes "I encountered this world of the mainline almost immediately upon coming to America not long after World War II. I was young, very poor, European and Lutheran, and wartime desperations had shaped my social and religious sensibilities. America constituted an immense liberation from all this, a deeply satisfying experience of normality. The Protestant world I met fully represented the same normality. It was thoroughly identified with American culture, sensible, tolerant, far removed from the Kierkegaardian extremism that had up to then defined Christianity for me." But for all his relief, nevertheless, he concludes, "It is hardly surprising that I had difficulties coming to terms with it."

For Americans—and this includes Orthodox Christians—their religious life is characterized by pragmaticism and tolerance on the one hand, and a suspicion of extremisms of any sort. So we see in the survey that as with the majority of Americans (68%) the majority of Orthodox Christians (68%) would say that there is MORE than one true way to interpret the teachings of the Orthodox faith. Likewise, and again like most Americans (70%), the majority of Orthodox Christians (72%) believe that many religions, and not just the Orthodox faith, can lead to eternal life. For all that Orthodox Christian argue among ourselves about the Americanization of the Church, statistically it would seem that this has already happened. In our beliefs and practices, Orthodox Christians are as American as any other religious group.

Adaption to American culture has not only been in the general adoption of tolerance for other religions. Educationally and economically, Orthodoxy has also done quite well in America. For example, the Orthodox Church is a young church in terms of the age of faithful. The majority of the Church (54%) is under 50 (17% are between 18-29 years old, 38% are between 30-49, 27% are between 50-64 and 17% are over 65 years old). Educational, most of the Orthodox Church have gone to college (Some college: 28%; College graduate: 18%; Post-graduate: 18%). In fact on average. Orthodox Christians graduate college and go on to post-graduate education in greater numbers than most of those surveyed (Some college: 23%; College graduate: 16%; Post-graduate: 11% ). Unsurprisingly given our relative educational accomplishments, we do as well, if not better economically than most of those surveyed:

Income Distribution

Orthodox Christian

National Average

Less than $30,000















By a number of measures, the Orthodox Church has successfully adapted to the American context. In large part, I would suggest, that success reflects the familial/cultural basis and expression of the faith. That said it is important to remember that successful adaption is always only relative. Adaption is never absolute and so Orthodox success in an American context means that—as with mainline Protestants—this success carries with it risks as well as rewards.

Again Berger: "America, despite its many faults, has been a remarkable moral experiment in human history; but America is not and never can be the kingdom of God. In other words, the key issue here is the transcendence of Christian faith: the kingdom of God is not of this world, and any attempt to make it so undermines the very foundation of the gospel." He continues:

What has changed is not the symbiotic church-society relationship of mainline Protestantism; rather, what has changed is the character of the society, more specifically of the middle-class society and culture that is the natural habitat of the Protestant churches. This change is, more or less accurately, formulated by the so-called New Class hypothesis. In America (and, incidentally, in all other advanced capitalist societies) the middle class has split. Whereas previously there was one (though internally stratified) middle class, there now are two middle classes (also internally stratified). There is the old middle class, the traditional bourgeoisie, centered in the business community and the old professions. But there is also a new middle class, based on the production and distribution of symbolic knowledge, whose members are the increasingly large number of people occupied with education, the media of mass communication; therapy in all its forms, the advocacy and administration of well-being, social justice and personal lifestyles. Many of these people are on the public payroll, employed in all the bureaucracies of the modern welfare, redistributive and regulatory state; many others, while working in private-sector institutions, are heavily dependent on state subsidies. This new middle class, inevitably, has strong, vested interests; equally inevitably, it has developed its own subculture. In. other words, as is the case with every rising class (Marx has taught this well), what is at work here is a combination of class interest and class culture.

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