Friday, November 21, 2008

Missio Dei & Pietism

Whatever ever else we might say about "missio Dei," it is I think an attempt to overcome the deep strains of pietism that have become the norm in American Christianity (including Orthodox Christianity). The Greek Orthodox ethicist Christos Yannaras has written extensively on pietism as an "ecclesiological heresy." In his book The Freedom of Morality, he writes that:

Pietism made its appearance as a distinct historical movement within Protestantism, at the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries, around 1690-1730. Its aim was to stress "practical piety," as distinct from the polemical dogmatic theology to which the Reformation had initially given a certain priority. Against the intellectualist and abstract understanding of God and of dogmatic truth, pietism set a practical, active piety (praxis pietatis): good works, daily self-examination for progress in virtues according to objective criteria, daily study of the Bible and practical application of its moral teaching, intense emotionalism in prayer, a clear break with the "world" and worldly practices (dancing, the theatre, non-religious reading); and tendencies towards separatism, with the movement holding private meetings and distinguishing itself from the "official" Church.

Rightly he points out that in pietism, "experience" (very narrowly defined as a particular kind of experience) becomes paramount. "For pietism, knowledge of God presupposes the "rebirth" of man [i.e., a "born again" experience --web ed.], and this rebirth is understood as living up to the moral law of the Gospel and as an emotional experience of authoritative truths. Pietism presents itself as a mystical piety, and ultimately as a form of opposition to knowledge; as "adogmatism," in the sense that it ignores or belittles theological truth, or even as pure agnosticism cloaked in morality."

Though pietism arose in Protestantism, it has had a great effect of "the spiritual life of other churches, to this day" including he argues the Orthodox Church. As a result, and in "combination with humanism, the Enlightenment and the 'practical' spirit of the modern era-- the spirit of 'productivity' and 'efficiency'-- pietism has cultivated throughout Europe [and the US] a largely 'social' understanding of the Church, involving practical activities of public benefit, and it has presented the message of salvation primarily as a necessity for individual and collective morality."

We see the consequences of this in the increasingly common "utilitarian institutional mentality" that has come to infect "has led many churches and Christian confessions" resulting in what Yannaras describes as "a fever of anxiety." Lost in all this is the "miracle of repentance," of even the remembrance that we can experience a "transfiguration of sin into loving desire for [a] personal communion with God." As a result the " Gospel message is 'made void'," having been "emptied of its ontological content" in our desire to honor "the principle of keeping up appearances." And when appearance matters most of all " the Church's faith in the resurrection of man is made to appear vacuous," and we no longer understand that the Church is the epiphany that makes manifest that in Christ we are offered salvation "from the anonymity of death."

For Yannaras, the symptom of what has been lost—not simply in Western Christianity but also (as his criticism make clear) also in the East—is that rather than being prophetic events that announce the victory of Christ not simply over death, but over death in me, "the sacraments takes on a conventional, ethical character." And so, for example, "Confession turns into a psychological means of setting individual guilt-feelings at rest" the reception of Holy Communion a "reward for good behavior-when it is not a scarcely conscious individual or family custom bordering on magic" And, as I can attest from my own pastoral experience, even Baptism is robbed of its eschatological and soteriological content becoming instead "a self-evident social obligation, and marriage [as Fr Alexander Schmemann never tired of point out simply] a legitimization of sexual relations without regard to any ascetic transfiguration of the conjugal union into an ecclesial event of personal intercourse or communion."

Missio Dei is an attempt, I think, to rediscover a living sense of what Yannaras calls the "ontological truth of Church unity and personal communion" that has become ever more elusive in Protestant Christianity. But again, pietism has also had an effect on the pastoral life of the Orthodox Church such that the three forms of "sectarian" Orthodoxy I summarized above are simply taken as the norm, and even a desirable way of forming the life of the parish.

I would wonder, by way of conclusion, if missio Dei might not be a fruitful avenue of ecumenical conversation between Protestant and Orthodox Christians?

As always, your comments, questions, and criticisms are not only welcome, but actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Tradition as Hermeneutic and Mission

Fr Deacon Steven Hayes raises some interesting points in response to my earlier re-posting on the notion of "mission Dei." In response to my observation that Holy Tradition is (or should be) a hermeneutic by which we come to understand ourselves and the world of persons, events and things, Father writes: "That's what I understand by "Orthodox worldview" or Orthodox "fronima" -- trying to understand the world and other people and things around us in the light of the Orthodox Christian faith." I certainly agree with on this. In fact part of why I became Orthodox was because I became convinced that, as embodied creatures, human beings only know anything in light of a shared narrative, a tradition. This being the case, which narrative I followed, which tradition in which I stood, became very important for me.

Looking around I found that the Tradition of the Orthodox Church helped me make the best sense of myself and my own experiences. But this wasn't all. In addition to it subjective value (i.e., the value of Holy Tradition "for me") I also saw the objective value of the Tradition of the Church. Holy Tradition is a rich source of insight to help me understand the world of persons, events and things in which I found myself.

But Fr Steven also helped put into words my own discomfort with "missio Dei" as it has come to be articulated in the Emergent Church movement. Specifically and again returning to the words of the good deacon, "The problem I have with 'missio Dei' is that I can't see what else it could be. The proponents of 'missio Dei' seem to think it is a new thing, something no one has ever thought of before. But it seems to me that it is something that underlies all Orthodox assumptions about mission – 'as the Father sent me, so I am sending you'. It seems axiomatic." He then I think puts his finger right on the matter when he says perhaps the problem he (and I) have with "mission Dei" is that "Protestant ecclesiology is different."

Let me offer some random and somewhat unstructured thoughts on the theme Deacon Steven raises.

Maybe it's an American thing, but here in the States one often see Holy Tradition approached as an objective standard to be fulfilled rather than a hermeneutic. While these are not necessarily in opposition (and in my experience they are not only not opposed, they converge), it is not uncommon to see people here approach the Tradition in a neurotic fashion—as an abstract, rarified image to which people must conform—rather than a light that illumines human life and shows the traces of grace in the life of the person or community.

As a pastoral matter, this results in the life of the parish being constructed according to a personal ideology. By this I mean that when we fail to see the hermeneutical character, we build our lives around an idea that we have abstracted from the Tradition. As a consequence, we end up valuing some elements of Holy Tradition and our lives over others. In a word, our life often internally coherent, is not catholic (kata, +holos), or whole.

Typically this lack of wholeness takes one of three forms:

  1. A tacit, and sometimes explicit, assumption that the parish is for "our" people. "Our" people might be either a members of a particular traditional ethnic community (Greeks, Russians, Arabs, etc.)
  2. A group that prides itself on being "not-ethnic." This is often, though by no means exclusively, a community composed of converts. Interestingly, in the OCA (and I assume this is so inn other jurisdictions) one finds cradle Orthodox for whom anything of their own ethnic tradition is consistently minimized or rejected
  3. Among some communities there is a frank imitation of monastic life. In these communities, the life of the community does not so much center around liturgy as much as it is reduced to liturgy. I should point out that, as with the other two examples, the attachment to monasticism is ideological. Monastic life is a great blessing for the Church. Those communities that purport to adopt a monastic model

In all three of these deformative approaches to Tradition and the life and mission of the Church, our vision becomes increasingly narrow and sectarian, our style of relating to one and other becomes increasingly chaotic and authoritarian (the first symptom of this is the administrative life of the community decays).

As always, your comments, questions, and criticisms are not only welcome, but actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Let us never forget the Ottoman genecide against the Armenians, Greeks, Kurds and Assyrians.


MSNBC is doing a survey whether the Armenian Genocide should be recognized or not. As of a few minutes ago the numbers showed Yes 20%, No 80% !

The Turks have mobilized a global campaign to shift results towards "No" but we can let them. The Armenian Genocide is a historical fact, along with other many other crimes against humanity of behalf of the Turks, and it should be recognized.

Please vote ' YES ' at the below link and send it to everyone you know.

Despina Axiotakis
General Secretary
Cyprus Federation of America
Phone: 201-444-8237
Fax: 201-444-0445
Cell: 201-981-5764

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]