Tuesday, April 28, 2009

American Christianity and the Ascetical Ideal

Back to my series on suffering, pain and the thoughts about the Orthodox Church here in America.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

American Pietism and the Ascetical Ideal. In the approach that has come dominate in American Christianity, moralistic therapeutic deism, suffering not only has no place it is the enemy and the sign that I have failed. For many contemporary Christians I should not suffer. Contemporary Christians, and again this includes Orthodox Christians, the Gospel (in the words of the study authors)

is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of sovereign divinity, of steadfastly saying one's prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God's love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, et cetera. Rather, what appears to be the actual dominant religion among U.S. teenagers is centrally about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along amiably with other people.

All of this flies in the face not only of the idea that suffering is part of the Christian life but also the idea that asceticism is an essential element of our life as disciples of Christ.

As an aside, until very recently, even the most dedicated Christian proponent of salvation by faith alone would have held to at least a broadly ascetical vision of the Christian life. If nothing else, there were simply things that you did not do if you were a believer. While traditional Christian asceticism is not really a matter of not drinking, smoking or dancing, the emphasis on these in some Christian circles kept alive at least a vestige of the ascetical life.

Asceticism is important because, as Christos Yannaras reminds us in his own work, it shifts the locus of my life from my virtue as mine to the life of the Church. Or, to use my earlier language, as virtue as something I choose as expression and satisfaction of my own ego and virtue as a gift that I receive. As a mode of pietism, moralistic therapeutic deism assumes that

It is not man's dynamic, personal participation in the body of the Church's communion which saves him despite his individual unworthiness, restoring him safe and whole to the existential possibility of personal universality, and transforming even his sin, through repentance, into the possibility of receiving God's grace and love. Rather it is primarily man's individual attainments, the way he as an individual lives up to religious duties and moral commandments and imitates the "virtues" of Christ, that ensure him a justification which can be objectively veri. fied. For pietism, the Church is a phenomenon dependent upon individual justification; it is the assembly of morally "reborn" individuals, a gathering of the "pure," a complement and an aid to individual religious feeling. (“Pietism as an Ecclesiological Heresy,” chapter 8 in The Freedom of Morality. St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY: 1984, pp. 119-136. Available online at the American Orthodox Institute .)

American Christianity, or maybe more accurately, the American approach to Christianity has become markedly individualist and is likewise, markedly devoid of any theological and ascetical content beyond the what is allowed by pietism that dominate our cultural conversation about religion.

I will post today the first of a two reflection on the psychological foundations (and risks) of the Orthodox Church's jurisdictional disunity here in America.

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

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory