Friday, December 12, 2008

Orthodox Christian Faith in the Public Square

Fr Richard John Neuhaus has an interesting—and as usual, insightful—essay on the relationship (or lack thereof) between Christ and culture in the American context. Fr Neuhaus's reflect center on those

Christians who, knowingly or unknowingly, embrace the model of "Christ without culture"—meaning Christianity in indifference to culture—are captive to the culture as defined by those who control its commanding heights. They are not only captive to it but are complicit in it. Their entrepreneurial success in building religious empires by exploiting the niche markets of the Christian subculture leaves the commanding heights untouched, unchallenged, unengaged.

What I find interesting here is how well this model of the relationship between Christ and culture expresses how most Orthodox Christians here in America understand the Church's relationship to the larger culture. Whether "cradle" or "convert" in my experience at least, there are a surprisingly large number of Orthodox Christians are content to live in an Orthodox ghetto—at least on Sunday morning.

Whether the content of the ghetto is Greek or Russian or a crude imitation by lay converts of monastic life, I suspect that the vast majority of Orthodox parishes—like their broadly evangelical Christian neighbors—what cultural products they produce is one that "typically cater to the Christian market." The fact that a local Protestant congregation does this with Evangelical praise music and witness wear and the Orthodox do it with ethnic food festivals, by making sure we keep the parish for "our" people, or by dressing in the latest 19th Orthodox Christian peasant chic is a matter of little consequence. In all these case the Orthodox parish is contentment "with being a subculture."

But, as Neuhaus writes,

Christianity that is indifferent to its cultural context is captive to its cultural context. Indeed, it reinforces the cultural definitions to which it is captive. Nowhere is this so evident as in the ready Christian acceptance of the cultural dogma that religion is essentially a private matter of spiritual experience, that religion is a matter of consumption rather than obligation. Against that assumption, we must insist that Christian faith is intensely personal but never private. The Christian gospel is an emphatically public proposal about the nature of the world and our place in it. It is a public way of life obliged to the truth.

Having spent more than a little time with the recent sociological studies that examine the attitudes of Orthodox Christians, I can confirm that for a significant percentage—and in some cases, a majority—of Orthodox Christians draw their understanding of morality not from Holy Tradition but popular American culture.

As with our brothers and sisters in western Christian traditions, many, even most, Orthodox Christians too "have uncritically accepted the dichotomy between public and private, between fact and value, between knowledge and meaning." For all that we might imagine that we are preserving Hellenism or the "other worldliness" of monastic life, we live lives structured on the same "dichotomies [that] are deeply entrenched in American religion and culture and are closely associated with what is often described, and frequently decried, as American individualism."

In other words, our rhetoric notwithstanding, having withdrawn from the work of engaging the culture has not preserved Orthodoxy but surrendered it to American culture.

And so whether I understand my faith as an Orthodox Christian is "conservative or liberal, orthodox or squishy," the important point "is that it is my religion, certified and secured by the fact that it is mine. By the privilege of privacy, it cannot be publicly questioned, and it is forbidden to publicly question the preferred beliefs of others."

Bring our faith as Orthodox Christians into the public square not only in debating the great issue of our day but also in active philanthropy, can only happen if we are willing to shed the notion that our faith is private, merely a preference. This doesn't mean that people will agree with us. Far from it.

But what will happen is that the more I enter with my faith into the public square, the more I will be challenged by others and by events to repent of my own faith will be purified and (hopefully) strengthened. But this purification will not happen without my having to surrender my own fantasies, my own ideas about how the Gospel "ought" to be lived. But taking on this challenge cannot but strengthen not only my personal faith, but our faith as a Church.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

p.s., Sigh! I'm still in Charlotte—my flight is now leaving a hour late giving me 30 minutes from airport to presentation. Your prayers please for a successful retreat according to Christ's will not my own.


On the Road Again

Assuming that US Air can get its act together (a dicey proposition at the best of times), I'm off this morning to preach a retreat at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Phoenix, AZ where my friend Fr Andrew J. Barakos is the priest. Because I'm flying US Air I've brought lots of work to do, things to read and extra clothes (my last US Air flight from Phoenix got me a night at the Crowne Plaza—lovely but something I could do without).

I'll post more on the retreat later—for now let me say that I am speaking on theological anthropology and Christian vocation.

In honor of my travels, let me leave with Willie Nelson singing "On the Road Again."

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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