Friday, June 12, 2009

Freedom and the Church's American Exile

Both on the AOI blog and my own, my post, “Pentecost, Lincoln and the American Experiment,” brought some very interesting and thought provoking comments. Your thoughts have helped me think a bit more deeply about the relationship between the Tradition of the Orthodox Church and the American Experiment. For this I thank you all.

And even more importantly, your words were very much in mind as I read Michael Baxter recent review of American Babylon: Notes of A Christian in Exile, by the late Fr Richard John Neuhaus.

As is no doubt clear from what I wrote, I do not see Orthodoxy and the American Experiment as necessarily in opposition to each other. Or maybe it might be more accurate to say, that the differences between Orthodoxy and America are certainly no wider or deeper than what one would expect between that between God and Caesar, between the City of God which is to come and the City of Man which is here and now.
Be that as it may, however, my interest in political philosophy is motivated by the intuition that—for better and worse—the City of Man conditions the pastoral situation of the Church until the Kingdom which is to come.

I have not yet had the opportunity to read Neuhaus's last book. Having been a faithful reader of First Things and a follower of the work of its parent organization, The Institute for Religion in Public Life, I have good sense of the argument that he is likely to make and so I was interested to read Baxter's review in the National Catholic Reporter (a publication together with others which, as Baxter puts it, has “bore the brunt of [Neuhaus's] sardonic, scathing, at times unfair attacks”). Together with the work of John Courtney Murray, Neuhaus (and again this probably does not come as much of a surprise) has always served as a touchstone for my own thinking about the inter-relationship and inter-dependence of Church and State in the American context. Far from being merely my own idiosyncratic view, I would argue that this inter-dependence of Church and State is part of the teaching of the Orthodox Church. We can see this, for example, in the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom.

In and through the Liturgy we join ourselves to Christ Who offers Himself as a sacrifice to God the Father. And we do so not with but also on behalf of the “forefathers, fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics, and for every righteous spirit made perfect in faith,” the Most Holy Theotokos, “Saint John the prophet, forerunner, and baptist; . . . the holy glorious and most honorable Apostles . . . ; and for all Your saints, through whose supplications,” we ask God to bless us.

And just as in the Liturgy we intercede on behalf of “all Orthodox bishops who rightly teach the word of Your truth, all presbyters, all deacons in the service of Christ, and every one in holy orders” and acknowledge our dependence on their faith, holy prayers and service, we likewise stand before God and intercede on behalf of “all those in public service.” We ask God to “permit them, . . . to serve and govern in peace” so that “through the faithful conduct of their duties” in the civil realm, “we [the Church] may live peaceful and serene lives in all piety and holiness.”

Owning to her conciliar nature, the different orders in the Church each have their own areas of authority and concomitant competency. Modeled on the Most Holy Trinity, in the Church authority and competency are intrinsically personal and reflect not only the unique role of the different orders of the Church but also the personal vocation of each Christian. As such these differences ought not be opposed to each other; nor can one order advance at the expense of the others anymore than one person can (or should) advance at the unjust expense of another. It is rather the case that each progresses only with and through the other orders of the Church. To borrow from Benjamin Franklin in a not wholly different context, “We all hang together or we all hang separately.”

In like fashion while the authority of Church and State are different, difference need not mean opposition even if (I would argue) the State is not a Christian state but (as in the case of America) a secular one. Back now to Baxter's review.
Nuehaus's American Babylon, writes Baxter, “is about being Christian in the United States. The title is an allusion to the Babylonian exile after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.” While in exile “God, through the prophet, called upon the Israelites there to build houses and plant gardens, to make families and multiply.” I imagine that to an exiled people who understandable viewed their overlords, as well, their overloads and enemy, God command “to 'seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare' (Jeremiah 29:4-8)” came as something of a surprise. God counsels captives not simply to forgive but to actively cooperation, support and even enrich their captors. According to Neuhaus both the “New Testament and patristic authors” understood this to mean two different, but related things.

First, “Christians, in whatever land they live, await their return from exile, not an exile from the earthly Jerusalem however, but from the heavenly Jerusalem.” As a result (and I must confess, Orthodox Christians have not always been faithful on this point), for those who follow Jesus Christ “every nation is Babylon.” Second, just as every land is Babylon, it is our duty in every land “to go along with the customs and seek the welfare of the city.” We must not simply suffer America, we must enrich her as I said earlier.

But, as Neuhaus reminds us, “there is a limit to . . . going along.” Again in Baxter's summary: “Like the Old Testament heroes, Christians are not to worship false gods or accommodate themselves to the ways of the city when it involves betraying their faith. Thus there is a tension or dialectic for Christians between their ultimate allegiance to God and their political allegiances, which are “penultimate.”

Acknowledging and honoring this tension is often easier in theory than practice but for that it is important not only for Christians but also all men and women of good will that we take on the ascesis of doing so practically and not only theoretically. If we don't then we are prone to two extremes that must be undermine the proper function of the State (and for that matter the Church). We must not succumb to either to “the twin dangers of direct governmental control of religion, as in a theocracy, and of privatizing religion, as in the militant secularism of many European governments since the French Revolution.” And again, as Orthodox Christians we have (I think) inadvertently helped set the stage for the latter by our unwise embrace of (or in America, nostalgia for) the former.

In like manner, much of the tension we see in the American Orthodox Church reflects I think our heretofore unwillingness, or at least inability, to grapple with the interdependence of Church and the American Experiment in a way that avoids on the one hand our nostalgia for a lost theocracy and our dread of oppression under a militantly secular (or Islamic) state on the other. Digging deeper I think part of the lesson we might draw from the Church's new American context is that just as our “allegiance to America is [as Neuhaus argues] provisional, not eschatological, limited yet substantial and real,” so too our allegiance to the other cultural and social settings and forms of government in which the Church found herself must be also “provisional, not eschatological, limited yet substantial and real.”

No matter how much these other cultural and social settings or forms of government might be rooted in Holy Tradition, and indeed even served to structure public life (for example) around the liturgical tradition of the Church they are not as such Christian. Yes, as I said in my earlier post, they have become carriers of the Eternal but they do so in a way that does not undo their character as limited and limiting. And how could they not remain finite? Their ontological and historical contingency is part and parcel of their character as human artifacts and we dishonor the past not only when we make it less than it is, but also more.

There are to be sure weaknesses in the American Experiment. Too easily does liberty become license; freedom of religion become indifference (and even hostility) to religion; and for more and more Americans, the pursuit of happiness become the mere search for pleasure and profit rather than the cultivation of the virtues essential for personal and civic excellence. Yes the media and secular forms of education have their role to play in all this. But first and foremost the cultural excesses that plague us reflect the failure of the Church to take seriously our responsibilities. As Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, (1990) in their book Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, put the matter, “All Christian ethics are social ethics because all our ethics presuppose a social, communal, political starting point—the church.” And is is through her “teaching, support, sacrifice, worship and commitment of the church, utterly ordinary people are enabled to do some rather extraordinary, even heroic acts, not on the basis of their own gifts and abilities, but rather by having a community capable of sustaining Christian virtue. The church enables us to be better people than we could have been if left to our own devices.” (p. 81)

We have, I fear, too often contented ourselves (as Orthodox Christians and American) to be anything but women and men of extraordinary and heroic virtue. And we have not simply settled for leaders (religious and political) who are themselves be no better than we, we have actively pursued this goal and punished them when they dared to see their service as requiring of them that they “be better people” than they would “have been if left” to themselves.

There is no question in my mind that in planting the Church here in America God has challenged us to a kenosis and martyrdom as real, if less bloody, as any the Church faced under Caesar, Islam or Communism. What we now face is the terrible temptation of our own freedom. Who will I become if I can become anyone I want to be? Who do I want to be?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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