Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Convert and Cradle, III

Fr Alexander Schmemann, no enemy of mission, writes:
[T]there are those who believe that the old pattern of national and religious unity can be simply applied to America. The Church is Greek in Greece, Russian in Russia, therefore it must be American in America—such is their reasoning. We are no longer Russians or Greeks, let us translate services in English, eliminate all "nationalism" from the Church and be one. Logical as it sounds, this solution is deeply wrong and, in fact, impossible. For what, in their cheerful but superficial "Americanism," the partisans of this view seem completely to overlook is that the rapport between Orthodoxy and Russia, or Orthodoxy and Greece, is fundamentally different from, if not opposed to, the rapport between Orthodoxy and America. There is not and there cannot be a religion of America in the sense in which Orthodoxy is the religion of Greece or Russia and this, in spite of all possible and actual betrayals and apostasies. And for this reason Orthodoxy cannot be American in the sense in which it certainly is Greek, Russian or Serbian. Whereas there, in the old world, Orthodoxy is coextensive with national culture, and to some extent, the national culture (so that the only alternative is the escape: into a "cosmopolitan," viz. "Western" culture), in America, religious pluralism and therefore, a basic religious "neutrality," belongs to the very essence of culture and prevents religion from a total "integration" in culture. Americans may be more religious people than Russians or Serbs, religion in America may have privileges, prestige and status it has not had in the "organic" Orthodox countries, all this does not alter the fundamentally secular nature of contemporary American culture; and yet it is precisely this dichotomy of culture and religion that Orthodoxy has never known or experienced and that is totally alien to Orthodoxy. For the first time in its whole history, Orthodoxy must live within a secular culture. This presents enormous spiritual problems with which I hope to deal in a special article. What is important for us here, however, is that the concept of "Americanization" and merman Orthodoxy is thus far from being a simple one. It is a great error to think that all problems are solved by the use of English in services, essential as it is. For the real problem (and we will probably only begin to realize and to face it when"' everything is translated into English) is that of culture, of the "way of life." It belongs to the very essence of Orthodoxy not only to "accept" a culture, but to permeate and to transform it, or, in other terms, to consider it an integral part and object of the Orthodox vision of life. Deprived of this living interrelation with culture, of this claim to the whole of life, Orthodoxy, in spite of all formal rectitude of dogma and liturgy, betrays and loses something absolutely essential. And this explains the instinctive attachment of so many Orthodox, even American born, to the "national" forms of Orthodoxy, their resistance, however narrow-minded and "nationalistic," to a complete divorce between Orthodoxy and its various national expressions. In these forms and expressions Orthodoxy preserves something of its existential wholeness, of its link with life in its totality, and is not reduced to a "rite," a clearly delineated number of credal statements and a set of "minimal rules." One cannot by a surgical operation called "Americanization" distill a pure "Orthodoxy in itself," without disconnecting it from its flesh and blood, making it a lifeless form. There can be no doubt, therefore, that in view of all this, a living continuity with national traditions will remain for a long time not only a compromise meant to satisfy the "old-timers," but an essential condition for the very life of the Orthodox Church. And any attempt to build the unity of Orthodoxy here by opposing the "American" to the traditional national connotations and terms will lead neither to a real unity nor to real Orthodoxy.
Excerpted from his essay "Problems of Orthodoxy in America: The Canonical Problem," which always bears rereading.


Esteban Vázquez said...
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Esteban Vázquez said...

This is Father Schmemann at his best, is it not? It is tragic that this, his best scholarship, is neglected by militant Americanist Orthodox, who invariably prefer his weakest publications (for instance, on liturgical theology).

Kevin B. said...

Fr. Schmemann's _For the Life of the World_ was the first Orthodox book I read, and I was hooked. I've read little else by him; all that comes to mind is a few smaller books of radio sermons he preached on Radio Free Russia. I thoroughly enjoyed all of it.

Fr., I listened recently to the talk given by Bp Kallistos Ware (pardon me if I have titled him incorrectly; I'm still learning how to refer to our Bishops, etc.) in Detroit. In it, if I remember correctly, he said something to this effect: "There should not be American Orthodox Church, or Russian Orthodox Church, or Greek Orthodox Church. But, rather, the Orthodox Church IN America, IN Russia, etc." I hope I have recalled that closely enough. That made sense to me; I wondered if this is what some of you would also hold? This seems to me, at least at first glance, to hold quite closely to the language and thought of St. Paul, as he addressed the various Churches under his care.

Richard said...

I find this whole exchange to be perplexing.

What is most perplexing, I think, is that the points of view are talking past each other. There's a large part of it, frankly, that smacks of "I may be a convert like the rest of you, but I'm a convert who's *more* Orthodox than the silly people who might use or think that they've gotten some good out of [fill in the blank]", be the [blank] the OSB, some "ethnic" or "small-t" tradition, fasting, Ancient Faith Radio, or whatever.

I don't think there's any way the OSB could have come out with a 1.0 product that would have pleased everybody. It's clear that they were woefully underfunded and behind schedule from virtually day one, and they had to make choices based on their limitations. Perhaps, some might argue, the best choice then was to do nothing at all.

I get really uncomfortable when people draw a sharp line in the sand between "Big T" and "small t" tradition. To me, what it usually boils down to is, "Big T is the stuff that affirms what I already think, small t is the stuff with which I'm not comfortable which I'd just as soon write off as some weird ethnic custom." The alternative extreme, however, strikes me as no better -- this being that somehow the [pick a nationality] are *more* Orthodox than everybody else, and that the peculiarities of their national practice are somehow the "purest" form of Orthodoxy.

In the spirit of the comment made in the original "Convert and Cradle" post, I can't disagree for an instant that ideally, Orthodox Americans would humbly submit themselves to a Mother Church and learn their ways. You cannot teach yourself to be Orthodox; this much is clear. So, where is this Mother Church?

Is there a way an English version -- of the Scriptures, of the services, etc. -- can be agreed upon? Or is that ultimately a fruitless venture? Can we meaningfully insist, for example, that a day culturally understood in the English vernacular to be "Easter", be called "Pascha" or even "Passover" or somehow one is falling short of the Orthodox understanding, as I've heard some argue in all seriousness?

Is there a way to meaningfully engage American culture that will seem to all to be consonant with the mind of the Fathers? Or are we better off not trying? Arius' heretical jingles were fought with Orthodox hymns. What is the analogous scenario for our day? Is it true that this is mighty close to impossible, since "culturally American" effectively means "culturally Protestant"? Again, are we better off just not trying? If not, how do we do it without scandalizing some such as those posting here who are clearly scandalized by some (if not all) of these efforts? At the risk of sounding flip (such being not my intention), are we truly better off just being "the few, the proud, the Orthodox"?

Is there a way to actually have a conversation about this? Or is it doomed from the get-go to consist of "I'm Orthodox, you're wrong"?

In Christ,


Richard said...

(With the "I'm Orthodox, you're wrong" refrain being sung antiphonally in between sections of argument by two choirs, of course.)

Felix Culpa said...

Kevin: The remarks of Metropolitan Kallistos (he was raised to the rank of Metropolitan last year) are entirely correct. Churches are divided territorially, not ethnically. So, for instance, there's really no such thing as the "Greek Church"; rather, there are the Churches of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jersualem, Cyrprus, Sinai, Greece, and so on. One of the great problems of Orthodoxy in America (and for more on this question I'd direct you to Fr Alexander's essay) is the fact that so many different "old world" Churches have their own dioceses in North America, resulting in overlapping dioceses and, say, a dozen Orthodox Bishops of New York.

This is, strictly speaking, a canonical question. My point is more pastoral.

Richard: I fully agree with your comments about the "Tradition vs. tradition" nonsense since, as you write, it simply becomes a means to throwing overboard anything one happens not to like. What's completely omitted in this is any canon or criterion by which to discern which practices go into which categories -- resulting in whim.

As I responded above to Kevin b., I'm NOT arguing that we need a "Mother Church" in a canonical sense. What I am suggesting is simply that we do need to attach ourselves to, and enculturate ourselves within, a mature expression of Orthodoxy -- which, so far in the US, tends to be found among "ethnics."

As for attaining some sort of uniform Orthodox lexicon, we really have come a long, long way. Read any Orthodox work translated into English before, say, 1965, and you'll see what I mean. As for attaining an absolutely standard lexicon, for that we need a Tsar.

As for a means to engaging American culture in a way consonant with the mind of the Fathers -- how about blogging?

I think the way to have a conversation about all this is for ALL of us to go back to the sources: to absorb the Scriptures, study the Fathers, learn the services, take part fully in the sacramental life, visit monasteries and convents (especially in the old world) -- all to the end of learning just what the "canon" of Orthodoxy is from the inside. Once that's absorbed, I think a lot of things will simply sort themselves out.

In many ways, I feel that the best missionary effort is prayer. St Seraphim of Sarov famously said that one who has attained the Spirit of Peace will attract a thousand around him. People are naturally going to be attracted to prayer and holiness, they seek it, and know it when the find it. One prayerful service is equal to a million pamphlets, podcasts, and primers. I object to the "packaging" of much Orthodox missionary effort because so much of it is simply advertising -- and in bad taste as that. We can never convert or save anyone but ourselves.

I remember the late Metropolitan Vitaly was once asked what he most important to have in a diocese. His reply: one living saint.

Eric Jobe said...
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Gabriel said...


I am sure I and others have already said this, but I'll just restate it so I can be satisfied that the notion has been sufficiently promoted: The OSB is a disappointment not because it didn't "please everyone," but because it is simply not good. I can walk to my bookshelf and find numerous other Orthodox publishing efforts from the last 15 years which had less funding, less "expertise," and less publicity, and yet still did a towering job. I can't do that with the OSB. There's no excuse for it and the "apologetics" don't appear to address that reality in any substantial manner. That's where it sits.

The "T"radition/"t"radition distinction is troubling, though those who tend to lobby for a "de-ethnicized" or "American Orthodoxy" (whatever that means) are the fondest of making it. Of course, there are plenty who conflate the two in such an unreasonable way that you'd almost think the First Council of Nicaea ruled Slavonic as the Church's official liturgical language.

I don't suppose I see people trying to "out-convert" one another in these discussions. I do believe it goes without saying that the "easier" and more "watered down" you present Orthodoxy, the more converts you will get. That's always been true in Christianity or even in purely human enterprises as well. As others have already pointed out, making Orthodoxy accessible does not mean compromising it. Finding a balance is not tantamount to figuring out a way to get a en elephant across a tight rope while riding a unicycle. I'm not saying it isn't daunting at times, but for Heaven's sake, immediately running to already-proven failed models is not a viable alternative.

Richard Barrett said...

FC: What I am suggesting is simply that we do need to attach ourselves to, and enculturate ourselves within, a mature expression of Orthodoxy -- which, so far in the US, tends to be found among "ethnics."

Great. Sounds good to me, too. The problem I find with the "American model" many have proposed is that it winds up being a hodgepodge of things that were never meant to stand next to each other in one service -- a hymn in the Byzantine chant dialect followed by a hymn in the Kievan common chant, for example.

So, which one? And the big question -- what happens when "ethnic custom" conflicts with customs found in other ethnic expressions? Let's say, for example I move from an area where my local parish is an OCA parish where frequent communion (and frequent confession!) are common to an area where, say, it's a Greek or a Serbian parish where frequent communion might scandalize my fellow parishioners for one reason or another. What happens then?

To some extent, in this country we're running into the problem that the united Christendom hit in the late first millennium -- local variance in practice is great until you start trying evangelize to the same people. Then it can turn into, frankly, a pissing contest.

And how about blogging? I struggle with the idea of blogging as a means of evangelization, honestly. There's a part of me that feels like it's just more noise for somebody to ignore, unless there's a truly compelling reason for somebody to try to separate the wheat from the chaff.

I can look at the arguments against culturally American forms of evangelization and see the point of some that these are fundamentally Protestant methods which are therefore inappropriate for our use. Perhaps that's fair enough. On the other hand, if we truly believe that Orthodox Christianity is what we say it is, then why wouldn't we shout it from the rooftops in every way we possibly could? Is the Gospel so fragile that we should keep it to ourselves lest it be damaged?

Gabriel: Your opinion of the OSB is noted; I guess my problem is that I see nothing constructive and certainly nothing charitable in vast majority of the criticism I have seen. Shouldn't we be trying build up the efforts of our brothers rather than accusing them of near-heresy and bad faith? I half-expect to hear terms like "OINO" ("Orthodox In Name Only") start to be thrown about, not just about the product itself, but about the editors and contributors, and frankly, and about the Antiochians in general.

...making Orthodoxy accessible does not mean compromising it.

I agree wholeheartedly. So what does it mean, and why does it seem so difficult to have a productive and constructive conversation about it?


Gabriel said...


I am not unsympathetic to your observations, though we need to keep a few things in mind:

First, the hype/publicity around the OSB--hype which the editors and Conciliar Press certainly played into and even amplified--set the expectations pretty darn high. The wave of disappointment which has followed should not be altogether shocking.

Second, without being able to get into particulars, I can tell you that there is some degree of arrogance surrounding some elements of the OSB insofar as choices were made in nonsensical distinction from Orthodox translation efforts already available. To put it another way, "If X jurisdiction/monastery/publisher did it Y, we're going to do it Z...just because."

Third, some of the people involved in the development of the OSB have said questionable things in the past and have inevitably raised a few flags about what their respective points of view would mean to the OSB itself. Perhaps some are disappointed that their initial fears concerning this have come true.

As far as what can be said constructively about the OSB, I'm at a loss for any words except, "Start over." I am sure much can be learned from the first round of translations, but until the translation is from top to bottom based on the received text of the Church I really do not see the point in calling it an "Orthodox Study Bible."

Esteban Vázquez said...

[I]f we truly believe that Orthodox Christianity is what we say it is, then why wouldn't we shout it from the rooftops in every way we possibly could? Is the Gospel so fragile that we should keep it to ourselves lest it be damaged?

Naturally, the Gospel is not fragile; it is, after all, "power of God unto salvation." And it is further not a matter of keeping the Gospel to ourselves to preserve it unblemished. What makes "Protestant" methods so singularly inappropriate is that in the Church not everything is available to everyone, and that there are things that simply cannot be shouted from the rooftops. St Basil already makes this point when he distinguishes between dogmata (which are handed down en mysteriw) and kerygmata (the public teaching of the Church). As such, then, these methods are not only foreign, but indeed wholly antithetical, to the way in which the Church understands both its proclamation of the Gospel and the traditioning of its "household teaching"; therefore, it is best to pass over them entirely. After all, that they're "culturally American forms of evangelization" is of little importance, unless one is willing to impose them on the Orthodox Faith (to which they are antithetical) solely on account their cultural provenance--which is, of course, the very heart of ethnophyletism.

Richard Barrett said...

Fine, but we don't dismiss catechumens anymore (or in general tell certain categories of people to not even enter the nave). We don't have a three year catechumenate anymore. One can argue whether or not we should; the simple matter is that we don't. This leaves us with the practical question -- what do we do with the situation we have now?

Cultural adaptation is nothing new; it has occurred with language, music, styles of iconography, architecture, even in terms of how liturgical practice is realized; the Russians use pussywillows instead of palms, the Aleuts have the houses over their gravesites, Pope St. Gregory told Augustine of Canterbury not to tear down the pagan temples in England but transform them into churches. Nor is there anything new about fighting heresy using its own tools; again, the example of Arius' songs being matched with Orthodox hymnody. There is not even necessarily anything new about doing all of this while having to be pastorally sensitive to ethnic groups of Christians; did not St. John Chrysostom keep a parish for Gothic-speaking Christians in Constantinople?

The point is, it seems to me that either these have analogues to our present day or they don't, but if they don't, what is the alternative?

And, again, what baffles me more than anything is a reaction to sincere Orthodox, by other Orthodox, trying to use the tools the culture makes available to them to evangelize the culture, which strikes me as being nothing but hostility. We can disagree about local methods and practices and such (it's happened for centuries), but in all things charity, n'est-ce pas?


Esteban Vázquez said...

"The situation we have now" is the one we've had since the Church stopped practicing the disciplina arcani some 16 centuries ago, so it isn't exactly new. Most of the major missionary movements in the expansion of the Church have happened since then, and they seem to have managed respectably well in this situation.

While you're quite right that cultural adaptation is nothing new, such requires that what is being transformed (and not simply co-opted) for use in the Church be compatible with her faith and practice. Not everything can be so transformed, and those things that are antithetical to it, such as these methods which are grounded in a notion of the Gospel and its proclamation radically different from the Church's, certainly cannot be.

[As an aside, while some practices may have found an early start due to local circumstances (i.e., the use of pussy willows in Russia), "cultural adaptation" in the other matters you note (music, iconographic style, etc.) is an organic process that takes long, long centuries to fall into place. For instance, the Serbian Oktoikhos (with which I'm more thoroughly acquainted) was not invented by the Serbs in the time of St Sava simply because something Serbian was needed for the newly autocephalous Church, or in the VIII century because some distinctly Serbian was needed for the newly converted people, but it arose organically from the way Serbs sang the chant they inherited wholesale from the Greeks, influenced in time by their native sense of rhythm, harmony et al. (And also, their sense of harmony, rhyth, etc. being thoroughly influenced by this chant!) Most importantly, Serbian chant as we now know it did not arise use until well after the Turkish conquest, and was not standardized until the 19th century. However, the Serbs remarkably failed to feel that Orthodoxy was theirs in the intervening nine or so centuries since their conversion. And another aside: you're quite mistaken that Arius songs were "matched" by Orthodox hymnody: Arius' songs were pop songs, for all practical purposes; the Church's hymnody is decidedly not any such thing, from its music to the high register of its content. But you know this, of course, since you're a cantor.]

The reaction, by and large, is not to sincere Orthodox who wish to do the best they can, but to those who are bent on unnecessarily reinventing the wheel just for the sake of doing it in an "American" way. Such nonsense is rightly met with vehement opposition on account of the many dangers with which such an misguided enterprise is fraught (chiefly, the loss of an organic connection to the authentic practice of the Church), which I imagine may be interpreted as hostility if taken outside this context. But I assure you, such concern for one's brethren is eminently charitable.

Richard Barrett said...

While you're quite right that cultural adaptation is nothing new, such requires that what is being transformed (and not simply co-opted) for use in the Church be compatible with her faith and practice. [...]

That's fine, but it seems to me that there is a discussion to be had over just what exactly that means which can be had without rancor. I certainly have my own opinions about things such as Ancient Faith Radio, the OSB, etc. but I don't see that it's useful for me to present them as though they are fact.

Some cultural adaptations do take place over time, yes; the point is that it is hardly new for the Church to make use of what it finds in a given culture in whatever timeframe it sees as appropriate. (And, of course, it is also hardly new for others to oppose it in the name of Orthodoxy.)

My observation is that based on your framing of the matter, one might conclude that Orthodoxy can use more from paganism than it can from heterodox Christianity. That's not a new argument, I suppose, if that indeed is where you are coming from.

you're quite mistaken that Arius songs were "matched" by Orthodox hymnody[...]

I'm not entirely certain what you're objecting to unless it is my word choice; I'm not aware that the increase of Orthodox hymnody as a response to Arius' heretical jingles is in dispute.

...those who are bent on unnecessarily reinventing the wheel just for the sake of doing it in an "American" way.

Depending on who you mean, I don't necessarily disagree with you on this. Dr. Bradley Nassif is somebody who comes across, at least to me, as hell-bent on a total slash-and-burn of liturgical practice, at least, and while there are things he says with which I cannot disagree, most of the time I have to ignore him (and then pray for him).

On the other hand, there are others who sincerely want to use the cultural tools at hand in the service of a missionary effort to this country and to build an indigenous church. There can be a conversation, I suppose, about to what extent one can do this and what the best way to go about this is, and I think that's a conversation worth having, but I would think it is best had in a constructive and passion-free manner.

[My turn for an aside. I don't disagree for a second that there are culturally American modes of being which are antithetical to the Orthodox faith. You'll certainly never see me arguing for pews or rows of seating, I certainly don't agree it's not a theological issue -- how is a barrier from doing some of the physical work of our services not a theological issue? -- and it saddens me that priests and bishops in this country have almost entirely ceded this point. My tuning fork is the entirety of my parish's instrumental budget (which I donated). For a I don't believe a missions strategy that requires a certain number of pledging units before a priest can be assigned is exactly a marvelous model of evangelism. I look at that and see the inevitability of a "business model" being the result; it also means that these missions are, by economic necessity, often ill-suited geographically to reach people, and it means that the people who are least equipped to be missionaries are the ones doing the evangelism. On the other hand, I also can't deny that none of the jurisdictions in the USA can exactly afford to go with the "If you build it, they will come" model. The "business model" is therefore to our shame, not to our credit.]

Richard Barrett said...

Ever wonder what happened to your keystrokes?

For a I don't believe a missions strategy...

That should be, "For another example, I don't believe..."