Monday, July 28, 2008

Site News

A little over a year ago I had surgery on my left elbow for nerve damage. As result, typing can be well, rather painful for me. As a result of all the work that I've been doing here on the blog, I've had a bit more pain in my left hand. At the suggestion of one of my loyal readers, I went out today and bought Dragon Naturally Speaking 9.0. This is a marvelous speech recognition software that I will be using in the future to compose entries for this blog. While the software does an amazing job in recognizing my speech I need to get some practice in learning how to do dictation. Frankly, I'm used to just sitting down typing reviewing editing, and then posting.

Using the software requires that I learned some new skills and my hat and I learned a new way of relating to my own ideas and to the text that I compose. I think there will be a little bit of a learning curve for me. Somewhat ironically, the software is significantly "smarter" than I am; it has learned to understand me. Now I must learn to understand it and select how to use it effectively.

So posting for the next several days in possibly several weeks will be a little bit more intermittent. I ask your indulgence and your prayers. To be honest I really do not want to go back and have surgery on my arm. The last time I had surgery, had to lie on the couch for the better part of three weeks. It was painful it was miserable I do not wish to do it again. So to avoid doing further damage to myself. I'm going to shift how I do composition. For this block, ask your patience, and hopefully I will be up and running with the software very soon.

In Christ,

+ Father Gregory

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ABC’s of Preaching & Teaching

3-D logo used since 2006.Image via Wikipedia


I learned of these three things years ago in my charismatic days.

A testimony, so we were told, had to be audible, brief and Christ-centered. As with the last post on consistency, a very basic framework to be sure, but a good one on which to build ministry.

But because ministry is always serving people in concrete life situations, keeping in minds some very simple practical and theological basics has been very helpful for me. Like Israel in the desert, it is often best when following God to travel light and live in tents. Sometimes we simply try and do too much, we think we need to use all the tradition or all our education.

But why?

Ours is a 2000 year old tradition—if we model our approach to ministry on conformity to that tradition, we will fail. We none of us can put into practice everything that was done by everyone at all times and in all places. Take the liturgy for example. A friend who is a monk of the Monastery at Valaam tells me that every day the monks not only chant every word of the liturgical hours they also celebrate Divine Liturgy. Chanting quickly, and assuming that it is not a festal or penitential season, it takes the monks 8 hours to complete all the services. If Valaam is the standard of success, then what parish isn't a failure?

The standard though is not Valaam or any human being or community that we might theoretically be able to imitate but can't practically. No the standard is always and everywhere, at all times and for all people, Jesus Christ. With Christ as our standard we all of us fall short, but in so doing our unique differences are radically relativized and so there is room for a healthy diversity.

So back to the ABC's.


Our preaching and teaching needs to be audible; if people can't hear what we are saying it doesn't matter. For me that means, and my wife is always reminding me of this on Sunday morning, I need to remember to speak up! In my sermons I tend to let my voice get softer and people have trouble hearing me. Many Orthodox church buildings are not well designed for preaching. If this is the case then the parish needs to invest in the best professionally designed and installed sound system they can afford. This is not a luxury but a pastoral necessity. In addition, people need to not talk during the sermon or come in to church in the middle of the sermon (or the readings for that matter).

So too classes, whether for children or adults, whether continuing education or for members of the catechumenate, need to be held in an environment where people can hear what is being said.

Audible is not an end in itself, it service comprehension. Sermons and lectures (and they are different, I touch on that later) need a content that is appropriate to the listeners. Preaching and teaching are done for the listeners and so the content needs to be gauged for their needs.

This more extended sense audible as in the service of comprehension, is applicable to liturgical language. While in an American context most Orthodox Christians only speak English, there are many for whom the use of languages other than English, especially in the Divine Liturgy, helps them personally connect to the services. The absence of Greek, or Arabic or Slavonic, for example, makes the experience less than what it could be for these people. So audible preaching and teaching, may mean the judious use of languages other than English.


The average adult attention span for auditory stimulus is 45-50 minutes. This not a goal for the length of sermon; this is the upper limit beyond which I am certain to have lost of my listeners. As an average though, I can be certain to lose people well before the 45 minute mark. Put these same people into a liturgical context of Sunday morning , have them stand for 30 or so minutes before the service, add a child or two or three (theirs or someone else's), and expect them to not have eaten breakfast in anticipation of receiving Holy Communion, and that upper limit drops quickly.

When I preach I try and stay between 7-12 minutes (though recently I've done more sermons that are 12-15 minutes and I'm working to bring myself back into line). With this as time frame I am reasonable certain to not lose people's attention. It does mean that the sermon leaves a great deal undeveloped, but so what? This is where coffee hour, adult classes and personal conversations can pick up the slack.

For class, I can go longer than say 15 minutes (though even here, a 15 minute mini-lecture can be fruitful)—especially if I have a group that likes to ask questions. But again, even in a lively class, briefer is better. Always leave them wanting more, not wondering when you're going to stop talking!


A priest friend of mine says that in his parish people talk quite a bit about the parish, somewhat less about the goings on in the Orthodox Church, still less about Orthodoxy, and the Christ and the Gospel hardly at all.

In all that we do, in our preaching and our teaching, the goal is always to tell people about Christ, to help them come to know and follow Him as His disciple. It is not, I hasten to add, to tell them about the parish, or the Orthodox Church, or why those who aren't Orthodox are wrong. Yes certainly, there is a place for all these things (and more besides). But always in the service of bring this person, or this community, closer to Jesus Christ and through Christ and in the Holy Spirit, to God the Father.

Centering our teaching and preaching on Christ means necessarily committing ourselves to the work of spiritual formation. Granted this isn't a term Orthodox use frequently, but as I hope to show in my next post, helping people shape their lives according to Christ's will for them is not only the very heart of pastoral care, it is also the hermeneutical key to the Tradition of the Church and the content of our evangelistic calling.

Next, individual and group spiritual direction.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory
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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Powerful, Responsible, and Accountable

Sunday, July 27, 2008: 6th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST—Tone 5. Holy Greatmartyr and Healer Panteleimon (305). Bl. Nikolai Kochanov, Fool-for-Christ, at Novgorod (1392). Ven. Anthusa, Abbess of Mantinea in Asia Minor, and her 90 sisters (8th c.). Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Clement, Bishop of Ochrid and Enlightener of the Bulgarians (916), and with him Ss. Angelar, Gorazd (Horasdus), Nahum, and Savva, disciples of Ss. Cyril and Methodius.

So He got into a boat, crossed over, and came to His own city. Then behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, "Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you." And at once some of the scribes said within themselves, "This Man blasphemes!" But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, "Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven you,' or to say, 'Arise and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins-then He said to the paralytic, "Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house." And he arose and departed to his house. Now when the multitudes saw it, they marveled and glorified God, who had given such power to men.
One of the great struggles I had when I was first ordained to the priesthood came to mind when I sat down and read the Gospel for this Sunday. The struggle, and I should hasten to add though less intense is still present, was (and is) how to exercise the extraordinary power given to me at ordination.

This struggle is not one which is unique to the priesthood. Indeed it is one that is common to all human beings but especially to those in positions of authority. How do I as a person in authority exercise wisely and justly the power that God has granted me?

As I said, this is not simple a problem for priest. It is a common human struggle. We have all of us been granted some power. As Christians though, we have been entrusted with the power need to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus' at the beginning of His earthly ministry sum up not only Our Lord's ministry, but the work that has been entrusted to each of us.

After His own baptism in the Jordan by John and after His own period to preparation in the desert, we read in Luke's Gospel Jesus

came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:

"The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me,

Because He has anointed Me

To preach the gospel to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,

To proclaim liberty to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To set at liberty those who are oppressed;

To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD."

Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." (Lk 4:16-22)

Again and again, both as recorded by St Luke as well as by St Matthew is this morning's Gospel, people marvel at His "gracious words" (Lk 4: 23) and at "God, who had given such power to men" (Mt 9.8). As with Jesus, so too with us, we too have been give in baptism and chrismation the power to speak gracious words that can be for others a source of liberation from sin.

But sometimes it is difficult for us to act on this promise, on this great gift. Like those who heard Jesus in the synagogue, we are sometimes to familiar with ourselves, too familiar with our brothers and sisters in Christ and so can't see the great work of God that they, and we, are. It is easy for us to say, or at least, some variation of the words spoken about Jesus: "Is this not Joseph's son?" (Lk 4.23) Familiarity can breed if not contempt, then a temptation to minimize and overlook the gift that God has given us.

What I know though from own experience is that minimizing the gift, overlooking it, ignoring it, doesn't do away with the gift. It only means that I misuse what I have been given for my salvation and yours.

For some of us the hesitation to act on what God has been given us is the fruit of a misguided humility. "Oh, Father, I'm not important. I can't do anything. God hasn't given me any great gifts."

For others there is quite the opposite temptation. While some would refuse the gift and the power that comes with it, there are those who refuse the gift, but hunger for the power that comes with it. These individuals, and I should add they are not always clergy, live as if the power that comes at baptism and chrismation was their private position that they are free to exercise as they wish.

In both cases, though, there is a root problem: Whether we want the power or not, we refuse the gift because we know, even if we cannot put what we know into words, that with the acceptance of the gift comes a great responsibility.

Responsibility and so the responsible exercise of power and authority is an odd things. Just as happiness is not something we can seek, but is rather the by-product of human excellence in some realm, so to responsibility and the responsible exercise of power and authority is a by-product. I do not so much choose to be responsible as I learn to be responsible by accepting that I am accountable. Responsibility and the responsible exercise of power and authority is the fruit of accountability, to learning that it is not about what I want, even if what I want is good.

Look at Jesus. He was obedient to the Father, but He also lived under the authority of Mary and Joseph. He was respectful, even when unjustly tried, of the authority of the High Priest and of Rome's agent Pontius Pilate. His willingness to be accountable, to be obedient, cost Him His Life and earned us our salvation.

Learning to be accountable is a life-long task.

Priests are accountable to their bishop, but also (if in different ways) to their brother clergy and their parishioners. And all of this is taken up under a more fundamental and basic obedience to God the Most Holy Trinity.

Whether I am a priest or a layperson, whether a bishop or a simple monk, whether to my wife, husband, mother, father or child, having been made holy by God, set apart for His service, I must 'always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks [me] a reason for the hope that is in" me, and so "with meekness and fear." (1 Pt 3:15)

My brothers and sisters in Christ, we are each of us set aside by God as sacraments of His Kingdom, we are each us prophets and martyrs called in the concrete circumstance of our lives to bear witness by word and deed to God's will for us and the whole human family. We are called to be priests who will offer "ourselves and one another" and the whole creation to Christ our True God.

And we have in Baptism, Chrismation and Holy Communion been given the power and authority to accomplish all of this. To fulfill the great marvel of our vocation, we must learn to be accountable to one another—to be every willing, in meekness and fear, to give voice to the great hope that lies with our hearts.

And in the moments when we are without hope? When we would not, for whatever reason, accept the gift that God has given us? It is here that we might learn truly what it means to be accountable, responsible—because it is here when our bishop, our priest, our husband, wife, father, mother, child, friend or brother or sister in Christ may have to come a "speak a word" to us that we might live by returning once again to the path that we have accepted when we accepted the call of Christ for our lives.

God has given us power and authority above all to care for one another and, in so doing, bear witness to His love and mercy and forgiveness for the whole human family.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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Saturday, July 26, 2008


Psychologically, we develop a sense of self and our own value through our parents' trustworthiness in meeting our basic physiological and emotional needs as infants. In a parish this translates into the central role of consistency. In simplest terms, "today" needs to look like "yesterday," and "tomorrow" we promise will look like "today." This is why liturgy is so important in the development of our own Christian identity. The liturgical cycle of the parish is in my experience the single most important element in establishing a sense of consistency in a parish.

The rhythm of the Church's daily and festal liturgical cycle, the periods of fasting and feasting, the times set aside for regular confession, and the annual cycle of more domestic events—not only house blessings, but the other blessings of the created world in the Church's liturgical life—set a pace to community's shared life. And this is why it is important that the parish liturgical life not only be consistent, but manageable for the community as a whole. Too much liturgical prayer is as bad, if not worse, than too little.

Again developmentally, a health self-image requires not simply consistency, but consistent success. Abuse can, and often is, also consistent. Too full a liturgical cycle and people simply don't attend. They get in the habit of not praying liturgically, not seeing themselves as part of the shared liturgical life of the Church.

Simply scheduling a service because we can is bad idea. Better, for example, to serve the Hours and say maybe the Pre-Communion Prayers before Liturgy that people are likely to attend on Sunday before Liturgy than say, a Matins (Orthros) service that people don't.

Additionally, consistency in the parish liturgical life means that services need to start on time. Sunday Divine Liturgy at 10:00 am should not mean Liturgy starting at 10:15 or 9:55. 10:00 am ought to mean 10:00 am. If Liturgy does not consistently start on time, then people are likely not to value arriving on time for Liturgy—and how can they since the start time isn't consistent?

Consistency is also important in the administrative life of the parish. Priest office hours (and his time off, weekly and vacation), regular parish council meetings, people's steward commitment (and the parish report on how well that commitment is being fulfilled) all need to be regular and predictable. I would also include here education classes that not only start and end on time, but also meet for a fixed number of weeks and only a publically announced theme.

When I was a college chaplain I would often say that I didn't schedule events with the expectation that students would show up. I scheduled events so that they kids knew when and where to find me before and after events.

Certainly consistency can become an end in itself and we always need to be on guard that this doesn't happen. But human beings need predictability. We will shape our lives and our identity around what we can reasonably count on happening. If I can reasonable count on Father being in his office on Tuesday afternoon, or taking Mondays off, I will come to see him, in small ways at least, as trustworthy. And human beings, being social creatures, tend to model our lives around those we trust.

Finally, and this has been for me something of a personal struggle, parishes need to plan. Too often we assume that a community can simply act spontaneously. Within limits that is true. Paradoxically though, healthy spontaneity must go together with healthy planning. Without planning, spontaneity is simply ego-driven inconsistency; planning without spontaneity will also become ego-driven. Without each other, spontaneity and planning become idols and the work of human hands. King David offers us a word of warning here about idols. He says of idols

They have mouths, but they do not speak;
Eyes they have, but they do not see;
They have ears, but they do not hear;
Noses they have, but they do not smell;
They have hands, but they do not handle;
Feet they have, but they do not walk;
Nor do they mutter through their throat.
Those who make them are like them;
So is everyone who trusts in them (Ps 115.5-8 NKJV)
Especially for more project-oriented planning (whether short or long term), I've found the following four questions helpful:

  1. What do we want to do?
  2. Why do we want to do it?
  3. What are the steps along the way from now to our goal?
  4. How do we know we have succeeded?
Elementary to be sure. But often all we really need to foster a health sense of consistency are elementary things, such as starting on time and knowing what we want in life and why we want it.

Next, the ABC's of Preaching and Teaching.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Friday, July 25, 2008

Why People Turn Away From Liberal Religions

As we discuss the pastoral future of the Orthodox Church I thought this clip from ER might be of interest:

H/T: Thinking On the Margins

A Pastoral Plan

When I lived in northern California I got to know well the different Orthodox Christian splinter groups. These included not only Traditionalist Orthodox Churches such at the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, and different Greek Orthodox Old Calendar communities that identified with themselves as part of the "Church in Resistance," but also a variety of non-canonical, pseudo-Orthodox and frankly cultic, communities that in one way or another appealed to the tradition of the Christian East (and occasionally the ancient Celtic Christian Church and the tradition of the pre-Vatican II and even pre-Tridentine Catholic Church). At one point, describing the various representatives of all of these different groups that floated in and out of my own parish, my bishop (only partially in jest) asked me if I was advertising for these people.

While these groups were different not only from the main body of the Orthodox Church, they were also different from each other. And while not all of them where in my view emotionally, much less spiritually, healthy communities, they did share one common characteristic that I found attractive. What united them is something that the economist of religion
Laurence Iannaccone identifies in his 1994 essay, "Why Strict Churches Are Strong" (The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 99, No. 5 (Mar., 1994), pp. 1180-1211).

In August/September 2008 issue of First Things, Joseph Bottum in his essay, "The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline," by summarizes this argument:

Iannaccone insisted that the stricter forms of religious life have benefits that looser and more liberal churches do not. Considered purely in economic terms, he wrote, religion is "a 'commodity' that people produce collectively." Precisely because the personal costs are so high, a strict church soon loses "free riders," the people who take more than they give. And the remaining members find a genuine social community: a tightly knit congregation of people who are deeply concerned with one another's lives and willing to help in time of need. They gain something like—intellectual community, as well—a culture of people who speak the same vocabulary, understand the same concepts, and study the same texts.

We need to be careful here.

Strictness does not have to mean punitive, harsh, authoritarian, perfectionism, or a group that values conformity over human uniqueness. Granted it often does—and this is certainly my experience with many of the splinter groups I've encountered over the years. Strictness in the spiritual and pastoral life of the Church can, and should mean, intentional and systematic and with an emphasis on helping people and communities discover and incarnate their own unique identity in Jesus Christ. In this sense, strictness can be joyful. Like the athlete who comes to love running precisely because it is hard and personal challenging, so to the Christian needs to be a challenge that bears the fruit in a life of joy.

This is a different approach, on the one hand, that what is typically done in Orthodox parish. More often than not, it is assumed that the simply explication or proclamation of the tradition is sufficient. The evidence from the Pew Charitable Trust Survey would suggest this is not the case. Simply presenting information does not change lives. One can be very well educated in the facts about the tradition of the Orthodox Church and still not be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

On the other hand, while this approach (which I have yet to outline I realize) is compatible with the tradition of the Church, it does suggest a radical re-orientation in how we approach that tradition. Certainly there is often piety and fidelity, but very infrequently is their the joy, the delight, that comes from striving to live a life worth living (if I may borrow from Bishop Fulton Sheen).

One of the great pastoral difficulties with splinter groups, and even parishes within the main body of the Orthodox Church, is that often our approach to tradition is one of external conformity. Ironically, to the degree this is the implicit norm in the main body of the Church, it is very difficult to offer a compelling argument to those in the more marginal groups. After all these groups (for a variety of reasons I don't have time to articulate here) are often better (in the sense of more highly conforming) at maintaining the externals of the tradition. It would seem that both mainline and splinter communities hold to the notion that if I simply do Orthodox things I will eventually (by grace?) become Orthodox. The road to sanctity, then, is very much an external road.

What I am suggesting is that we approach the tradition as a hermeneutic, a way of helping people and communities, understand themselves and their own experiences. Tradition is not so much that to which we conform, but rather that which illumines and deepens our appreciation of human experience in both its personal and social dimensions.

How might this happen?

In the next several posts I want to address three key elements:

  1. Consistency
  2. The ABC's of Preaching & Teaching
  3. Individual and Group Spiritual Direction
To be continued…

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Catechesis and Spiritual Formation for Christian Discipleship

In matters of morality and the faith that guides our morality, Orthodox Christians seem not overwhelmingly orthodox. We are instead rather more inclined to take guidance in matters of faith and morals from the more secular elements of American society. As I mentioned in an earlier post, a clear majority of Orthodox Christians favor legalized abortion and a plurality are supportive of homosexuality. While we can certainly debate the extent to which these questions were understood by the respondents, my own pastoral experience suggests that the views expressed in the survey accurately reflect the views I encounter in parishes. Sadly, I would have to include clergy among those who hold such opinions.

In the full report on religious beliefs and practices (the PDF of which you can download here) published by the Pew Charitable Trust, 95% of Orthodox Christians surveyed said that they believe in God or a universal spirit. 71% are absolutely certain in their belief, 19% are fair certain and 5% are not certain. Curiously 4% of all Orthodox Christians surveyed don't even believe in God. Looking a bit more closely, what do we see about the God that Orthodox Christians believe in?

When asked "Which comes closest to your view of God? God is a person with whom people can have a relationship or God is an impersonal force?" we discover that less than half of those who believe in God believe in a personal God (49%) while just over one third (34%) believe that God is an impersonal force. These numbers suggest that relative to both the general American population (60% of whom believe in a personal God) as well as Evangelical Christians (79%) and Catholics (60%), the a fair number of Orthodox are frankly less than orthodox.

One of the points made in the Pew Charitable Trust Survey is that it is "constant movement" that summarizes American religious experience. While Americans are a religious people, we are a promiscuous religious people. Creedal fidelity is not our strong suit. For example, among who join the Orthodox Church as adults, over 50% will eventually leave the Church.

Contrary to what we often say, the primary pastoral challenge facing the Church in American is not evangelization. It is (relatively) easy to "make converts." The real challenge is not conversion but retention. The regular and habitual participation of the faithful in the sacramental life of the Church (especially Holy Communion and Confession) together with a willing eagerness on the part of laity and clergy to conform one's life to Christ and the Gospel is the goal. As the number suggest, whether we are looking at the experience of "cradle" or "convert," this is simply not happening.

And it is not simply a failure in the Orthodox Church. Other Christian communities are also failing in like manner. Whether we are looking at the experience of the Orthodox or Catholic Churches, the historic Black churches, the Evangelical Christian or Mainline Protestant denominations, all are struggling to make disciples of their own members.

That said, let's return to the Orthodox Church. The numbers suggest (to me at least), that what is lacking among us, is the solid catechetical and spiritual formation of the faithful (laity and clergy) that is required to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. This work is often neglected because it is labor intensive. And how can it not be? After making disciples is a highly personal and idiosyncratic work. While catechesis can be more general, formation is always
personal because it is always vocational.

Catechesis, whether in sermons or adult religious education classes, tells me what we believe. Spiritual formation tells me—or better yet, helps me—answer questions such as "Who am I in Christ?" and "What is Christ asking of me?"

What might such an approach to the pastoral life of the Church look like?

To be continued…

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Biology Professor Desecrates the Eucharist

P.Z. Myers, a biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris, has published on his blog that he has fulfilled his threat to desecrate a consecrated host taken from a Roman Catholic Mass. His blog post is below.

I simply have no words to express how sick to heart and sad I am that this man would do something like this. My deepest sympathies to my Catholic brothers and sisters. May God in His mercy speak to Dr Myers and bring him to repentance.

Again, I am so sorry.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Yes, the sad little cracker has met its undignified end, so stop pestering me. The cracker, the koran, and another surprise entry have been violated and are gone. You\'ll have to wait until tomorrow for the details, what little of them there are. I must quickly apologize to all you good Catholics who were hoping to attend Mass, since you can\'t anymore — I have been told many hundreds of times now that cracker abuse violates your right to practice your religion. I guess you\'ll have to adapt. Secular humanism is a good alternative, if you aren\'t already flocking to join the Mormons.

Anyway, I\'ve got important things to do today. It\'s my oldest son\'s birthday, and I told him that as a gift to me him, I\'d take myself him to see The Dark Knight. I sure hope the world doesn\'t end before the movie does.

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“Orthodox” Moral Reasoning

There is an interesting conversation developing in response to one of my earlier posts, "Throne and Altar making A Comeback in Russian? (And not just there?)." You can read the comments either at the bottom of the post, or by clicking here (a new window will open in either case).

Thinking about this conversation as well as several others I have had in recent weeks (both online and face to face), there is in me a growing concern that most Orthodox Christians—both clergy and laity—don't seem to have a well formed conscience. Let me be clear, I am not suggesting rampant immorality here among the laity much less the clergy. What I am suggesting is that, in the main, Orthodox Christians tend to make moral and ethical decisions based not on who we are and are called to be in Christ. Rather, and this is something that is only a guess on my part and needs further study, as with most American, most Orthodox Christians implicitly subscribed to a type Consequentialism rather than an ethic based in Christian virtue. Moral reasoning then tends as well to be frankly utilitarian.

Saying this all I am saying is that, like most Catholics and Protestants, Orthodox not only hold moral positions contrary to the Gospel, they do so without a trace of concern and even justify their views by an appeal to the Gospel. This requires some explanation. Let me look, in this post at the first part and in my next post the later point.

The Pew Charitable Trust U.S. Religious Landscape Survey is helpful in demonstrating the widespread adherence among Orthodox Christians to a moral code drawn not from the Gospel but the values of the larger American society.

For example when asked by survey takers: "On another subject, do you think abortion should be (READ CATEGORIES IN ORDER TO HALF SAMPLE, IN REVERSE ORDER TO OTHER HALF OF SAMPLE) legal in all cases, legal in most cases, illegal in most cases, or illegal in all cases?" the majority of American think that abortion should be legal in all or at least most cases.

Where the findings are troublesome is that Orthodox Christians are even significantly more pro-choice than the general American population. Indeed, we are more inclined to support legalized abortion than either Evangelical Christians (33%) or Catholics (48%).

But this doesn't tell the whole story. Not only are we more inclined to be Pro-Choice than the general American population, Evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics, we are also less supportive of the Pro-Life position.

While 43% of the general American population would see abortion illegal in all (27%), or at least most cases (16%), only 30% of Orthodox Christians are Pro-Life. And even here the more moderate Pro-Life position (illegal in most cases) is held by twice as many of us as the more stringent position (20% say abortion should be illegal in most cases compared to only 10% who say it should be illegal in all cases).

And again, this make us more "liberal" than not only the general American population but also Evangelical Christians (51% of whom are Pro-life, 36% saying abortion should be illegal in most cases, 25% saying it should be illegal in all cases) and Catholics (45% of whom are Pro-life, 27% saying abortion should be illegal in most cases, 18% saying it should be illegal in all cases). On abortion, Orthodox Christians hold a position more similar to mainline Protestants than our own tradition.


% US Pop

% Evangelical

% Mainline

% Catholics

% Orthodox

Legal in all cases






Legal in most cases












Illegal in most cases






Illegal in all cases












Don't Know/refused






We see a similar finding on homosexuality.

When asked: "Now I'm going to read you a few pairs of statements. For each pair, tell me whether the FIRST statement or the SECOND statement comes closer to your own views -- even if neither is exactly right. 1 - Homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society, OR 2 - Homosexuality is a way of life that should be discouraged by society," most Orthodox Christians answered in a manner not compatible with our own moral tradition.


US Pop

Evangelical Christians

Mainline Protestants



Should be accepted






Should be discouraged






Neither/Both equally






Don't Know/refused






While there is not majority support for homosexuality among the surveyed Orthodox Christians, a significant number are supportive of homosexuality (48%) rather than not (37%). Somewhat more of a concern to me is that another 15% seemed either indifferent or ignorant of the Church's teaching (7% answered "Neither/Both equally, 8% said that they "don't know" or simply refused to answer the question).

While we need to careful about reading too much into these findings, when taken with other survey data about what many Orthodox Christians believe relative to the Creed, a picture begins to come into focus.

For now though, let me simply say that the Pew Trust survey suggest to me that something needs to change in Orthodox pastoral praxis. In my next post, I will suggest a possible solution.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Be Doers of the Word

Fr. Jay Scott Newman, a Catholic priest in the Diocese of Charleston and pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greenville, South Carolina, has an interesting post on what he terms "Evangelical Catholicism."  While here and there an Orthodox Christian community might want to change a word or phrase, it seems to me that Fr Newman's description might be a good foundation on which to build, say, a parish mission statement.  I have included the whole of Father's post below and would invite constructive and appreciative comments about how what he says might serve to help clarify the mission of an Orthodox parish.  My emphasis is in bold, my comments in red.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Elsewhere on this website, on the page called Catholics in the Bible Belt, I have offered a brief description of the term I use to unify everything we do at St. Mary’s. A fuller account of this concept is found in the Eight Principles of Evangelical Catholicism which I have drafted to help the priests and people of St. Mary’s think about the shape of our parochial life and guide pastoral practice. This list is not exhaustive, and I offer these eight simply as a catechetical tool in the service of living in its depth the dignity of our Baptism.

Evangelical Catholicism is not meant to be a movement within the Church, still less a sect or sub-set of Catholicism; it simply a way of understanding the vocation of every Christian and of thinking about the organizing center of the Church’s life. Evangelical Catholicism is a powerful remedy to the various counterfeit catholicisms (casual, cultural, cafeteria, etc) which afflict the Church in our time, and I offer these principles in the service of helping the people of St. Mary’s to follow the Lord Jesus ever more faithfully in the Way of the Cross through radical conversion, deep fidelity, joyful discipleship, and courageous evangelism.

The Principles of Evangelical Catholicism

1. The Lord Jesus Christ is the crucified and risen Savior of all mankind, and no human person can fully understand his life or find his dignity and destiny apart from a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus. It is not enough to know who Jesus is; we must know Jesus.

2. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is divine revelation, not human wisdom, and the Gospel is given to us in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition which together constitute a single divine deposit of faith transmitted authentically and authoritatively by the Bishops in full communion with the Bishop of Rome. We must surrender our private judgments in all matters of faith and morals to the sacred teaching authority of the Church’s Magisterium if we are to receive the whole Gospel. (It is worth noting that while the Orthodox Church does not use the term "Magisterium" nor would we identify a single bishop as such as the locus of unity for the universal Church, nevertheless we would agree that there must be a willingness to surrender our private judgements in matters of faith and morals to Holy Tradition.  If our approach is somewhat more fluid--and it is not as fluid as many outside and inside the Church might think, we also teach that there is a communal standard to which all Orthodox Christians must hold.)

3. The seven Sacraments of the New Covenant are divinely instituted instruments of grace given to the Church as the ordinary means of sanctification for believers. Receiving the Sacraments regularly and worthily is essential to the life of grace, and for this reason, faithful attendance at Sunday Mass every week (serious illness and necessary work aside) and regular Confession of sins are absolutely required for a life of authentic discipleship. (Yup, what Father said.)

4. Through Word and Sacrament we are drawn by grace into a transforming union with the Lord Jesus, and having been justified by faith we are called to sanctification and equipped by the Holy Spirit for the good works of the new creation. We must, therefore, learn to live as faithful disciples and to reject whatever is contrary to the Gospel, which is the Good News of the Father’s mercy and love revealed in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

5. The sacred liturgy, through which the seven Sacraments are celebrated and the Hours of praise are prayed, makes present to us the saving mysteries of the Lord Jesus. The liturgy must therefore be celebrated in such a way that the truth of the Gospel, the beauty of sacred music, the dignity of ritual form, the solemnity of divine worship, and the fellowship of the baptized assembled to pray are kept together in organic unity.

6. Receiving the Sacraments without receiving the Gospel leads to superstition rather than living faith, and the Church must therefore take great care to ensure that those who receive the Sacraments also receive the Gospel in its integrity and entirety. Consequently, before Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, and Marriage are administered, there must be in those who request these Sacraments clear evidence of knowledge of the Gospel and a serious intention to live the Christian life. (In all honesty, I would have to say I think typical Orthodox pastoral praxis is at least as far from this as is typical Catholic practice.  Even among converts, in both tradition, there is often a magical quality in people's thinking and participation in the sacraments.)

7. Being a follower of Christ requires moving from being a Church member by convention to a Christian disciple by conviction. This transformation demands that we consciously accept the Gospel as the measure of our entire lives, rather than attempting to measure the Gospel by our experience. Personal knowledge of and devotion to Sacred Scripture is necessary for this transformation to occur through the obedience of faith, and there is no substitute for personal knowledge of the Bible. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.

8. All the baptized are sent in the Great Commission to be witnesses of Christ to others and must be equipped by the Church to teach the Gospel in word and deed. An essential dimension of true discipleship is the willingness to invite others to follow the Lord Jesus and the readiness to explain His Gospel. (Where I think many Orthodox, and Catholics for that matter, get anxious here is that they assume that witnessing to Christ and explaing the Gospel means some variation of "knocking on doors" or asking intrustive questions.  It isn't.  Our ability to fulfill the Great Commission comes first of all from a faithful heart.  Out of that fidelity comes the words and deeds--not in imiation of others, but in a manner which is unique and personal.  That is, a witness that is truly and wholly my own and not my attempt to be like someone else.)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Mirror of Justice: Quotations on

Quotations on \"The Human Condition\"

Thinking about Christianity and law starts with, among other things, a moral anthropology, an account of human nature and the human condition. Here are a few thought-provoking quotes. An example, from theologian Helmut Thielicke:

The power of temptation is not in its appeal to our baser instincts; if that were the case, it would be natural to be repulsed by it. The power of temptation is in its appeal to our idealism.

The monthly \"Reflections\" section of Christianity Today, which provides such quotes, is always a good reason for looking at the magazine

Humility and Joy

From one of my favorite blogger, Sr Macrina of "Vow of Conversation," comes this from St Augustine:

You are to "take my yoke upon you, and learn from me." You are not learning from me how to refashion the fabric of the world, nor to create all things visible and invisible, nor to work miracles and raise the dead. Rather, you are simply learning of me: "that I am meek and lowly in heart." If you wish to reach high, then begin at the lowest level. If you are trying to construct some mighty edifice in height, you will begin with the lowest foundation. This is humility. However great the mass of the building you may wish to design or erect, the taller the building is to be, the deeper you will dig the foundation. The building in the course of its erection rises up high, but he who digs its foundation must first go down very low. So then, you see even a building is low before it is high and the tower is raised only after humiliation.

Saint Augustine, Sermon 69.2, quoted in Manlio Simonetti (ed), Matthew 1 - 13, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament Ia, (InterVarsity Press, 2001) 232.

Reading this brings to mind the observation, or maybe aphorism, of Carl Jung. He writes in I believe it is "Christ the Symbol of the Self," that no tree reaches up to heaven unless its roots first reach down to hell.

One of the things that is often misunderstood about the Christian view of transcendence, and here Augustine and Jung are instructive, is that transcendence—the movement beyond—is not simply an upward or outward movement. Rather in Christian spirituality the movement upward and outward toward God is also a movement inward and downward. God is not simply the object of my love and desire, He is also the Ground out of which that love and desire grows. He is also the Way that my love and desire must take.

For the Christian, personal transcendence is never a simple matter of a linear progression in which I leave the past beyond. It is rather a more dynamic movement by which I embrace evermore fully my life. But that life is always a Gift and a gift—that is, it is a life that comes ultimately from God, but always through other human beings and creation itself. My life therefore is always a "Gift" with an uppercase "G" because it comes from God even as it is always also a "gift" with a lower case "g" because it also always comes through the creation.

We tie ourselves up in spiritual and emotional knots when we oppose what the Medieval Latin Church called primary causality (God) and secondary causality (for simplicities sake, the laws of nature in the broad sense). Our knowledge of God is unmediated, but this does not mean divorced from creation. "God is not only beyond our knowing, but our unknowing as well," writes St Gregory Palamas. "We see something but in a way superior to negation." Or, as the Apostle Paul tells us, "now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known." (1 Corinthians 13:12, NKJV)

In this life, or so I would suggest, we can and do have glimpses, moments when we see God "face to face." There are time when we "know" God, our self, the creation just as are known by God. There is, or so I read the mystical tradition, a moment when we come to realize that what matters is not that I know God, not that I choose Him, that He is the object of my intention, or even that I love. Rather what matters is that God knows me, He has chosen me, that He intends me, that He loves me.

I am because I am loved by God and that loves is wide enough, pure enough, to embrace not only me, but all creation. More than that, it is a love that is strong enough, pure enough, humble enough, to make room in itself for all the other smaller, contingent loves that constitute my life.

Humility is the virtue that returns me to myself as I have come from all Eternity from the Hand of a loving God. And this virtue humility is such that it allows me to embrace the Gift of my own life in such a way that, in imitation of the Most Holy Trinity, I can embrace with gratitude the other, smaller gifts that make my life possible. What I am prone to call the conflicting goods in my life is the symptom of my pride, my lack of humility.

The I experience my life as conflicting goods, conflicting Eternal and contingent gifts, because I lack humility and instead am trying to create my life out of my own imagination rather than accepting my life as the convergence of Uncreated and created graces.

The solution is as Augustine and Jung counsel. I must turn inward, go downward. I must begin at the very bottom of my own life and only then move upward. But in making this journey to the lowest, I need to exercise great care that what brings me down is not despair or morbid self-hatred, but a cheerful detachment from my own plans and projects. To borrow from G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy, "Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly." He goes on to say:

This has been always the instinct of Christendom, and especially the instinct of Christian art. Remember how Fra Angelico represented all his angels, not only as birds, but almost as butterflies. Remember how the most earnest mediaeval art was full of light and fluttering draperies, of quick and capering feet. It was the one thing that the modern Pre-raphaelites could not imitate in the real Pre-raphaelites. Burne-Jones could never recover the deep levity of the Middle Ages. In the old Christian pictures the sky over every figure is like a blue or gold parachute. Every figure seems ready to fly up and float about in the heavens. The tattered cloak of the beggar will bear him up like the rayed plumes of the angels. But the kings in their heavy gold and the proud in their robes of purple will all of their nature sink downwards, for pride cannot rise to levity or levitation. Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One "settles down" into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness. A man "falls" into a brown study; he reaches up at a blue sky. Seriousness is not a virtue. It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice. It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one's self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good TIMES leading article than a good joke in PUNCH. For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.

Is there a contradiction here? Maybe, but I think it is better called a paradox and one which many of us have trouble grasping.

Yes, by all means let me take my direction from Augustine and Jung. But let me also remember that, for all their wisdom (and in Augustine's case, evident holiness) these wise men were still men and could not say everything at once. And so, let me also take counsel from Chesterton. Let me learn humility from one and joy from the other. Humility without joy is neurosis, but joy without humility is narcissism.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Kindness is the Key

Sunday, July 13, 2008: 4th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST—Tone 3. Commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the First Six Ecumenical Councils. Synaxis of the Archangel Gabriel. Ven. Stephen of St. Sabbas Monastery (794). St. Julian, Bishop of Cenomanis (Le Mans) in Gaul (1st c.).

Now when Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, saying, "Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented." And Jesus said to him, "I will come and heal him." The centurion answered and said, "Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and to another, 'Come,' and he comes; and to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it. When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, "Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then Jesus said to the centurion, "Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you." And his servant was healed that same hour.

(Mt 8:5-13)

For my own spiritual life these past few weeks I have been reading the Minor Prophets in Old Testament. In the ordering of the books in the Western canon, the Minor, or the Twelve Prophets, are the last writings in the Old Testament. In the Septuagint, or the Greek text of the Old Testament, used in the Orthodox Church, they come before, instead of after, the Major prophets. But where every they come, they are worth reading.

When I read the Scriptures or the Fathers or any text for spiritual benefit, I use a technique called lectio divina, or "holy reading." Basically this is simply a slowed down way of reading. This is a way of reading that is often used in monasteries—both East and West. The "mechanics" are pretty easy, and "have often been likened to "Feasting on the Word." The four parts are first taking a bite (Lectio), then chewing on it (Meditatio). Next is the opportunity to savor the essence of it (Oratio). Finally, the Word is digested and made a part of the body (Contemplatio)."

More concretely, after I pray, comes the first step, lectio, which "consists in reading the scriptural passage slowly." Next comes meditation, meditating or thinking about what I just read. Often my meditation is on a verse or two that captures my attention. After thinking for a time there comes more prayer, "oratio," a very simple conversation with God in which I ask Him a questions, or confess by shortcomings, or thank Him for what He's given me.

Finally, as in any conversation, there is point of any conversation—getting to know the person. And so the last stage, "contemplation." This has been described as "a simple, loving focus on God." This is the time when I try and let go of words and thoughts and simply enjoy being in the presence of God.

Whenever I read the Twelve Prophets, I always start with my favorite, Hosea. Beside what is recorded in Scripture we know very little about him. Scripture does say that he was called by God to marry a woman, Gomer, who was herself "a wife of fornication." (Hos 1.2) God tells Hosea to marry her as prophetic sign of Israel's own infidelity to God ("For the land will surely go a-whoring by departing from the Lord." 1.2). More importantly though, Hosea is to do this a sign that God will forgive Israel, and by extension, us.

Reading through Hosea, my attention is always captured by the sense of God's gentle mercy toward Israel. But this time through what stood out for me were some different verses. God cries out through His prophet:

"O Ephraim, what shall I do to you?

O Judah, what shall I do to you?

For your faithfulness is like a morning cloud,

And like the early dew it goes away.

Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,

I have slain them by the words of My mouth;

And your judgments are like light that goes forth.

For I desire mercy and not sacrifice,

And the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings." (6.4-6)

These verses came to mind as I read the Gospel reading from Matthew.

The Church, the parish, the Christian family, the heart of each Christian are to be place of healing and reconciliation. It is not unreasonable to say that these are all sacraments of healing and reconciliation. As I thought about the words of the prophet Hosea to Israel, I begin to realize what it is that is need for us to actually be who we are.

It is interesting to me that God seems to overlook so many of our failings as long as we practice mercy. The fidelity that God refers to above is hesed, sometime translated as "covenant love," or "loving kindness." At the risk of over simplifying, as God has shown a faithful loving kindness to Israel and through them to all of sinful humanity, we are expected by God to respond in like fashion. When Israel, or the Church or the parish or the family or I, fail to live out that loving kindness, everything grinds to a halt.

It is easy to think that with the right program a parish will thrive and grow. But that's not what Hosea is saying. Jesus heals the centurion's servant because there was in the man, for all that he was probably a man of great violence, a fundamental spirit of hesed in his relationship with his servant. Even his exercise of military might, I suspect, was inspired by his loving for the Empire, the Emperor and its people. Granted none of this was perfect, but the love was there, the kindness however ill expressed at times, was there.

As with the centurion, so to with us; personal and corporate progress in the spiritual life requires from us first and foremost requires from us kindness. That's very good news I think since, of all the Christian virtues, kindness is the easiest to fake. Even if I do not feel kindness, I can act kindly. The great about this is that, eventually, if I am faithful to my play acting, I will actually become kind.

It can often be hard to find the time to pray, to believe in the face of doubt, to hope in the face of life's anxieties, to love when we are hurt by others. But kindness, kindness is easy and there are always opportunities in life for at least small acts of kindness. I don't have to cut you off on the highway. I can let you go first in the grocery store life. I can say "please" and "thank you" to people. I can smile even if that smile isn't from the heart and never quite reaches my eyes.

All this, and you, came to mind as I read Hosea this week. The Apostle Paul, after calling us to repentance, concludes with very simple, practical advice. He writes to the Church at Ephesus, "Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. 32 And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you." (4.31-32)

Kindness. There really isn't anything easier.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Gospel, Secularism and the American Experiment-part II

In For the Life of the World Even Schmemann argues that when looked from the point of view phenomenology of religion (Religionswissenschaft), the world is sacramental in character—a means not simply of knowledge about God, but the place of a real encounter with God. For Schmemann, as for the Fathers and the Scriptures, the world points beyond itself to God Who is both the Creator and Goal of creation (including human beings). For this reason, even understood broadly, worship, to the degree that it is true worship, reveals to us God, creation and humanity. The key here is the adjective true in true worship. It is not simply any worship, but only worship that is—whatever its other differences—in fundamental agreement with Christian worship's "the intuition and experience of the world as an 'epiphany' of God." (p. 120) And so, a few pages later he writes: "It is indeed extremely important for us to remember that the uniqueness, the newness of Christian worship is not that it has no continuity with worship 'in general,' . . . but that in Christ this very continuity is fulfilled, receives its ultimate and truly new significance so as to truly bring all 'natural' worship to an end." (p. 122)

There is then for Schmemann (as there is for the Fathers and the Scriptures) a notion of "natural law." Not a natural law that is divorced from faith—a law known by naked reason divorced from faith—but one which can nevertheless be grasped (to return to Murray) by "the careful inquires" those men and women who, even if they are not Christians, are people of good will and who live lives that are "wise and honest." (p. 118) The argument that Schmemann makes against secularism is very much a "natural law" argument. Secularism, to repeat what I quoted in the previous post, "emphatically negates . . . the sacramentality" of humanity and the world and substitutes in place of the givenness of a sacramentality world, a view of the Christian worship that sees worship as an expression of human desire/need and as such subject to human manipulation.

Returning to the question of government, as part of the creation, there is a sacramental character to the human person. The tripartite character of the American experiment, "a free people under a limited government, guided by law and ultimately under the sovereignty of God," is I think a humble acknowledgement of the sacramentality of the human person. This is not to suggest that democracy is the only form of government that respects the inherent dignity of the human. Indeed, it is not to suggest that democracy in general, or American democracy in particular, does so flawlessly. Returning to Murray: " The American Proposition ["that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights"] is at once doctrinal and practical, a theorem and a problem. It is an affirmation and also an intention. It presents itself as a coherent structure of thought that lays claim to intellectual assent; it also present itself as an organized political project that aims at historical success. Our Fathers asserted it and most ably argued it; they also undertook to "work it out," and they signally succeeded." (p. xi)

That being said, Murray reminds us that the practical, "historical success" of the tripartite character of the American experiment "is never to be taken for granted, nor can it come to some absolute term; and any given measure of success demands enlargement of penalty of instant decline." (p. xi) Giving Orthodox critics here and abroad their due, does America seems to be flirting with the penalty of instant decline. American failure does not invalidate the truthfulness of the tripartite anthropology at the heart of the American experiment.

I would go further. There is a fundamental computability ("continuity" to use Schmemman's term) between Orthodox theological anthropology and American political anthropology. I would argue that it is the vocation of Orthodox Christians in America to articulate a critical and appreciative response to American political anthropology. Part of this means developing practically a style of Church governance and pastoral care that reflects the providential convergence of our theological vision of the person and the American experiment.

For example, I trust people to live their lives. I trust the people in my parish live their lives and administer the parish with minimal interference or direction from me. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, or their invitation, I trust people not only in "in fear and trembling" but also mutual love, respect and affection, to meet the demands made on them by of their vocations. Unless there is some compelling reason—a clear indication that someone has rejected the sovereignty of God or they ask me a question—I stay out of their lives.

The genius of the American experiment is practical. its offers us a balanced, humble vision for the use of authority. Yes, in its inception, that vision of authority's use was political; it just as applicable to the exercise of pastoral and administrative authority in the Church.

The question is not monarchy or democracy, but between the humble service and protection of human freedom and dignity, on the one hand, or the exploitation and degradation of the human on the other. As a theoretical matter, I can imagine a king or tsar defending the inherent dignity of all people, even as I can imagine a democracy, a priest, a bishop or a parish council failing to do so. In all cases it seems to me the key is the theoretical, practical and joyful acceptance
the freedom of all men and women. Further this must be embodied by the willingness on those in authority to exercise self-restraint in the authority of their office and to submit themselves to the demands of natural law.

The question now becomes for me as an Orthodox Christian, am I willing to take up the challenge laid at my feet by the American experiment?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Gospel, Secularism and the American Experiment-part I

So, based on the number and quality of the comments, it seems that there is great interest (here at least) in the social teaching of the Church. Thank you all for your comments and observations. I find them very helpful in clarifying my own thinking on the issue we are addressing. Let me offer some reflections

A common thread in most discussion about the relationship between church and state is the tacit--and at times not so tacit--assumption that the American experiment is a secular, anti-religious, and even anti-Christian movement. While certainly this was, and in many ways still is, the case in the French system of government it is not the case in America.

Yes, there is a strong strain of secularism in American culture—but an argument could be made that this represents a deviation from the founding principles. No, America was not founded on the Gospel—and certainly we are not an "Orthodox" nation—but strictly speak no government is, or for that matter needs to be so founded. Nations are called Orthodox or Christian only by analogy or as a reflection of an openness to the Gospel or (most crudely) because of the majority (or at least a plurality) of its citizens are Christian of one sort or another.

For Orthodox, the idea of America and American culture as secular (in a pejorative sense), that it is anti-Christian and harmful to our Christian faith, is something popularized but Fr Alexander Schmemann. He argues, quite eloquently and convincingly, that secularism "is above all a negation of worship. I stress: --not of God's existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms in a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is a negation of man as a worshiping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both 'posits' his humanity and fulfills it. It is the rejection as ontologically and epistemologically 'decisive,' of the words which 'always, everywhere and for all' were the true 'epiphany' of man's relation to God, to the world and to himself." (For the Life of the World, p. 118)

For Schmemann, secularism an anthropological heresy (remembering that heresy always implies a choice). At its core it denies that the worship of the Triune God is the act that both reveals and fulfills human nature (i.e., worship is both an act of ontological & epistemological self-revelation and self-realization). Further, it is a rejection of the idea that worship is the privileged means (again both ontological and epistemological) by which the communion of God, creation and humanity are realized. Implicit within this view of secularism is a rejection of the position of those, "quite numerous today, who consciously or unconsciously reduce Christianity to either intellectual ('future of belief') or socio-ethical ('Christian service to the world') categories and who therefore think it must be possible to find not only some kind of accommodation, but even a deeper harmony between our 'secular age' on the one hand and worship in the other hand." (pp. 118-119)

While his description of secularism is insightful, as often happens with his work, his use of the concept as a lens through which to see American culture is heavy handed. Yes, secularism is a central theme in American culture but, as the work of Fr John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, suggests secularism as Schmemann uses the term is not an inherent part of that ensemble of founding truths that "command the structure and the courses of the political-economic system of the United State." (p. 106) Commenting on Murray's work in the forward to We Hold These Truths, Walter J Burghardt, S.J., writes that "Reduced to its skeleton," the American model affirms as foundational the importance of "a free people under a limited government, guided by law and ultimately under the sovereignty of God." (pp. vii-viii)

If, as Schmemann and Murray each in his own way suggests, we have become fragmented as a society, it is because (as Murray points out) it is because we have lost that founding consensus. So, to take but one example, "the American university [has] long since bade a quiet goodbye to the whole notion of an American consensus, as implying that there are truths that we hold in common, and a natural law that makes known to all of us the structure of the moral universe in such wise that all of us are bound by it to a common obedience." (p. 40) In this, I fear, many Orthodox Christian—having read, but misunderstood—not only Schmemann's criticisms of America, but also the Father and indeed the Scriptures themselves, argue rather on the side of disintegration.

What do I mean?

I will in my next post, return to Schmemann's For the Life of the World to answer the question I've just posed.

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