Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Pentecost, Lincoln and the American Experiment

One of the things that interests me a great deal is the relationship between the Tradition of the Orthodox Church and the founding political philosophy of the American experiment. At the risk of appearing overly critical, or even dismissive, I think the failure of Orthodoxy in America is our not having engaged theologically and critically the American experiment on its own terms. Instead we have been willing to use America without necessarily seeing ourselves as obligated to contribute anything to her.
In this the Church has allowed herself to become merely one interest group among others. The Orthodox Church has not engaged the American experiment as yeast in the dough. We have contented ourselves instead merely to fit within the broad, and decadent, framework of modern identify politics.
This failure is more than simply a matter of our presenting ourselves as an ethnic, albeit religiously themed community. Even when the religious character of the Church is focal, it is often the religion of mere morality.  Not without cause have some complained that some in the Orthodox Church seem to want to put the Church's patrimony at the service of the political and social agenda of the Religious Right.
These criticism I think are rather beside the point however. 
The moral tradition of the Church is, in the main, no different then the classical moral teaching of Western Christianity. I suspect the attraction of some Orthodox Christians to the Religious Right reflects more a love of this shared tradition and a real concern for the moral health of American society than a grab for power as such.  Further I suspect that those Orthodox who criticize their brethren's  involvement in conservative politics do so from a desire to see the Church support (if only passively) their own more left leaning politics. But whether from the moral, cultural or political, right or left these criticism are, to repeat myself, are different then my own concern.
The American experiment is I think best expressed by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address. Reflecting on the horror of the war tearing at the fabric of the country, President Lincoln looks back to the historical and philosophical founding of the Nation: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The challenge facing the United States in Lincoln's time (and ours) was not war per se, but whether the American "nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
Reading over the years the work of the late Catholic theologian and political philosopher John Courtney Murray, I have come more and more to appreciate the wisdom of Lincoln's words at Gettysburg. Unlike other countries that are united by land or blood, a shared culture or language, America and Americans are, or should be anyway, united by an idea, the fundamental equality of all human beings.
While it has not always done so well, or even at all, at its best what the American political experiment asks of us is not to surrender our language or culture. Rather as a nation of immigrants, we ask each other to put the riches of our respective cultural and ethnic heritages at the service of the common social good. Granted in our short history there are times when we have honored this idea more in words than deeds. But even when honored in the breech, if there is a unique American culture or mindset it is that enduring faith in the equality of all human beings and the centrality of committing ourselves to the common good of all.
Contrary to her critics harsh words our failure to be faithful to our own ideals is to be expected. It is to be expected not simply because we are sinners, but and again as Lincoln points out at Gettysburg, because the American experiment is always an unfinished work. Whether in times or war or peace, it remains for each generation to answer in the affirmative Lincoln's challenge to his listeners on that not so long ago battlefield:
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
So what does this have to do with the Orthodox Church? Two things I think.
First, internally, if the Church is to be a real, indigent Orthodox Church and not simply a pale copy of the Church in Greece or Russia, we need to take seriously the challenge of America that in the neither the City of Man nor the City of God do we have to lay aside language or (to the degree it does not contradict the Gospel anyway) our culture. Let me go further. 
On Pentecost Sunday I reminded my own community that the work of salvation while it is directed at human beings certainly.  Salvation also, however, results in the deification of culture. Just as Greek culture was Christianized and became the carrier of Eternal truth without lossin of its own character as either Greek (or so ontologically and historically contingent) so too American culture can be Christianized, become itself a means of communicating what is Eternal in and through the contingent and limited structures of culture and language.
Part and parcel of the Christianization of American culture is I think demonstrating, and this speaks to my second point, that E pluribus unum is not simply a political motto. It is also at the heart of all human community. More than that, it is also at the heart of Church. 
The Holy Spirit gives all things: makes prophecies flow, perfects priests, taught the unlettered wisdom, revealed fishermen to be theologians, welds together the whole institution of the Church. Consubstantial and equal in majesty with the Father and the Son, our Advocate, glory to you.
The Church is a pneumatic community of unity and diversity not in opposition but harmony. So too while at it best it falls short of this, this is what America aspires to be. The Church offers America a glimpse not only of  her own biblical foundations but the Eucharist which is both a reminder of that towards which America aspires and the standard against which she must also evaluate her own actions, domestic and foreign.
The American Experiment is for me as an Orthodox Christian a real, if imperfect, icon of the Eucharist. Or to borrow from Hebrews, if the Eucharist is an image of the Kingdom which is to come then American Experiment, seen in light of the Eucharist image, is a shadow of the image. And it is as a shadow, as something which points beyond itself to the image, even as the image points beyond itself to the Reality which is to come (see Hebrews 10.1) that Orthodox Christians can and should not only engage but wholehearted love and support the American Experiment.
If we have as Orthodox Christians have been seduced by the identity politics that has come to so mark  contemporary American political discourse on both the left and the right, this doesn't mean that we have to remain bound by our shared failure. Rather we can, if we only decide to do so, return not only to ourselves but return in a way that we can serve the common good of both the City of God and the City of Man.
In Christ,
+Fr Gregory

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