Saturday, April 12, 2008

Cradle and Convert

A strange and corrosive myth has arisen in North America: namely, that all Orthodox Christians can be divided into two discrete categories: "converts" and "cradles" (or, more dismissively, "ethnics"). It is my contention that such categories are not only useless but deeply and unnecessarily divisive.

We are all converts. Whether one was Baptized as a child or received into the Church as an adult, at some point one has to undergo a conscious conversion to Orthodox Christianity. At some point, however, one has to mature from simply being a convert to simply being Orthodox.

We are all ethnics. While being an American is not a matter of ethnicity, it is a matter of nationality. To insist that Orthodoxy must take an American form of expression, or that Divine services must be conducted in English, is as culturally chauvinistic as to insist that Orthodoxy must be either Greek or Russian, or that Divine services must be conducted in Greek or Slavonic. We all tend to be blind to our own ethnic, national, and linguistic prejudices.

There is no such thing as American Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy Christianity, of course, exists in America; likewise, there are undoubtedly a great many Orthodox Americans. This, nonetheless, does not add up to American Orthodoxy. Orthodox Americans sometimes cannot comprehend why people would refer to themselves as Greek or Russian Orthodox, arguing that such designations undermine or overshadow their Orthodoxy. What this objection overlooks, however, is the integral interplay of faith, language, culture, and history that exists in traditionally Orthodox peoples (e.g., Greek, Russian, Romanian, Georgian, Serbian, etc.). One cannot, for instance, write a history of Greece or Russia without devoting a great deal of attention to the history of the Orthodox Church; conversely, one couldn't write a history of the Orthodox Church without speaking of the history of Greece or Russia.

Many Fathers speak of how God, in his Providence, prepared the Roman Empire for the reception of the Gospel by means of the Greek philosophers. Not only was the New Testament written in Greek, but our theological language is entirely derived from Greek. The Slavs received not only the Gospel from the Greeks, but their entire culture; much the same could be said of mostother traditionally Orthodox peoples. Each of these peoples have an Orthodox cultural, linguistic, historical, monastic, and spiritual culture that has grown and developed from generation to generation through the centuries, nearly always under the tutelage of another Orthodox culture. The Russian Orthodox Church received its autocephaly from the Patriarchate of Constantinople only half a millennium after its conversion.

Orthodox Christianity in North America is very, very young and immature. Although its origins are normally traced back to the original Russian mission to Alaska just over two centuries ago, the overwhelming majority of Orthodox in America are either immigrants who brought their faith with them, or their descendants. Conversion to Orthodoxy for reasons unrelated to marriage was extremely rare until the 1960s. Indeed, a number of people who converted at that time have told me that it was possible at that time to read every Orthodox book that existed in English. Large numbers of Evangelical Protestants began to enter the Church less than twenty years ago. It may be that, in time, an American Orthodoxy will in fact develop, but even that would likely be little more than a religious subculture.

The point of all this is to argue that one can only become Orthodox by having it "traditioned" from an existing Orthodox culture, be in Greek, Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, or what have you. (Please see my remarks here.) One cannot simply change the tune of Evangelical Protestantism and expect the Orthodox to dance to it.

Let me be very clear about what I'm not arguing. I'm not defending ethnocentrism or phyletism. I'm not against the use of English as a liturgical language. I'm not in any way attempting to denigrate Orthodox Americans. I'm not arguing that Russians and Greeks are "more Orthodox" (whatever that means) than Americans. I'm not suggesting that Orthodoxy can only exist in a Russian or Greek expression. I'm not arguing that American Orthodox need to pretend that they are something other than what they are.

I myself am a proud US citizen. I grew up in a parish that used English. I am Orthodox first and Russian second. That said, to deny that I am Russian Orthodox would be to reject my spiritual patrimony.

What I am arguing is that all Orthodox Christians are one, regardless of when or how they "converted" to a consciously Orthodox Christian life. I am arguing that there is no reason to make an artificial division between "converts" and "cradles" (or "ethnics"). And I am arguing that Orthodox Christians in America, if they want to live wholly within Orthodox Tradition, must apprentice themselves to a mature expression of Orthodoxy, one from which they can receive this Tradition. At present, there is no indigenous American Orthodox culture (with the possible exception of Alaska); therefore, one must be enculturated within an existing, mature Orthodox tradition. There should be no scandal in recognizing that such traditions exist largely in "ethnic" expressions.


Simka said...

In principle, of course, it is impossible to argue with your point of view since we truly are all one in Christ. Presumably, the farther up each of us travels on the great ecclesio-metaphysical ladder - from point-zero in the Church Triumphant on his/her day of Baptism all the way up to that point of infinite bliss of Theosis (which most of us will probably only experience after several million eons going from glory to glory in the Church Triumphant), the closer we will approach the ideal where "there is neither Jew nor Greek." But until that time, while we are here in this fallen valley of tears, it is just as unrealistic to pretend that a Russian cradle Orthodox is the same as an American convert, based on the Paulean injunction of equality, as it is to pretend that the fact that there is "no male or female in Christ" means that women should be allowed behind in altar, or even to become priests and bishops. Just as our genders have no significance in ultimate terms, but are extremely consequential in social terms both inside and outside the Church, so do our ethnicities, races, and (dare I say it) even levels of intelligence and consciousness carry certain duties and resonsibilities, demand different responses, and result in a variety of effects that are endemic to the natural characteristics with which we were created. The "corrosive myth" that you mention only becomes dangerous when it is assumed that our differences are prior to what (or rather Who) unites us. Race, ethnicity, gender, and breadth or depth of experience in the Church do matter, but only to the extent that they serve to enrich and accentuate the multifarious manifestation of the Glory of God, Who is wonderous in His saints. While God may be one, His Trinitarian nature (I assume) adores variety (or "diversity" as we American liberals put it). If this were not so, he would have not made a world with so many beautiful religions, languages, races, nations and human temperaments. But all of these differences are only beautiful when they harmoniously complement one another because they are in accord with the overarching unity that God Is.

Eric Jobe said...

Thank you so much for saying this. If there is every a distinction to be made, it should only be made by a parish priest in personal catechisis and confession. Outside of these two very private and individual settings, making these distinctions only serves our own pride and ego.

Gabriel said...

You've made some good points here. I largely agree with you, though I confess I still use the cradle/convert distinction to set my orientation when I walk into certain parishes. I used to analyze the whole matter to death because I once believed one could get an adequate "read" on the trajectory of a parish by the composition of its members. In some ways I am sure that is still true, though more than anything I believe the priest sets the tone. Of course, if said priest doesn't try and set the tone or feels inclined to keep back from the proper one, then all bets are off.

Personally, I'm all for "ethnics" insofar as I appreciate a bit of sobermindedness with my Christianity. ("Sobermindedness" not being the same thing as apathy.) I've heard enough emotive bubblings and conversion stories to fill a book and, not surprisngly, none of them are quite as inspiring as St. Paul's on the road to Damascus. I don't care for convert literature because it tends to be watered down, trite, and set to appeal to the sort of American religiosity which--pardon my harshness--reduces much of Christianity to a feeling at best and a bad joke at worst.

Iyov said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Trevor said...

And I am arguing that Orthodox Christians in America, if they want to live wholly within Orthodox Tradition, must apprentice themselves to a mature expression of Orthodoxy, one from which they can receive this Tradition. At present, there is no indigenous American Orthodox culture (with the possible exception of Alaska); therefore, one must be enculturated within an existing, mature Orthodox tradition. There should be no scandal in recognizing that such traditions exist largely in "ethnic" expressions.

Your proposition here makes sense to me, but I wonder if you could expand a bit on what this looks like. Consider, for the sake of argument, a parish that forms in some remote American community--the only parish, say, in a drive of 75 miles. As the only Orthodox parish around, it attracts folks from various ethnic backgrounds--some Greeks, some Russians, some Arabs, some Serbians, etc.--as well as some converts. There is no clear ethnic majority, except perhaps that over time the population of converts from Western origins gets to be about half the size of the whole parish.

How, in such a situation, do the Orthodox receive the Tradition from a "mature expression of Orthodoxy?" Is it best for them to arbitrarily adopt one historically Orthodox culture, which is at best the culture of a small subset of the parish population? Should they choose the culture of whatever group has the most people willing to tutor others in Orthodox lifestyle? Or is there room to combine the represented cultures in some fashion?

It seems to me that what a lot of people mean by a distinctively American Orthodoxy looks something like this last option, or at least an attempt at such. And I have heard several people say that if the Church in America ever gets its act together administratively, it should not obliterate the various ethnic Orthodox cultures; rather, what is most American is to have all those cultural expressions existing side-by-side, each attesting Orthodox Tradition in its own way, until such a time as America might grow its own expression. I'm not saying whether or not this would actually work or be the best option or any such thing. I'm just trying to get a better sense of how you see these interactions playing out.

the student said...

The terms “convert” and “cradle” seem to be helpful when defined specifically but not generally and when applied for an understanding that seeks to educate those in each camp that are disconnected from the Tradition. That these phenomenon exist as well as those called “crazy converts” should not be to belittle them as Simka and Eric point out but instead to understand them in order to learn how we may bring each other into the fullness of the Tradition by communicating to each others' understanding.

Felix, you point out the almost uselessness of generalizations in your comments on the “Paris School”. Other's critique the OSB saying that many on the Board were converts, as though this points out a doom to failure. This is not so. As you say it is the lack of connection to the Tradition that doesn't allow one to embody the Orthodox ethos, not because they are “cradle” or “convert”

Felix Culpa said...

Thank you all for your insightful comments. This post was indeed painted with broad strokes, so I’ll attempt to fill in the picture and try to define more terms more carefully, particularly what I’m encouraging, what I’m rejecting, and what’s motivating me to write about all this.

The force of my remarks was intended more to reject the division between convert and cradle than the terms themselves. There really is no way to avoid use of the term convert, and to recognize that converts have their own particular experience within the Church, at least until they’ve matured to the point that such a label becomes meaningless. One doesn’t go through one’s life being a convert. At some point one has to move from the present tense (I am a convert) to the present perfect (I have converted). The term “cradle” I find simply silly and patronizing. “Ethnic Orthodox” I reject wholeheartedly, since it assumes that there are some Orthodox who have no ethnicity; many Americans look at their own nationality as simply neutral (as, I suppose, do people of all nationalities; it’s always the other people who are foreigners. But even this term is difficult to avoid. There really is no way to avoid either these terms or the realities that they embody, but they are deeply superficial (!) and unnecessarily divisive.

I should also try to define more clearly what the sort of “American Orthodoxy” is which I’m busy denying. What I mean is that one cannot speak of American Orthodoxy in the same way that one can speak of Greek or Russian or Serbian Orthodoxy, in which faith, culture, history, and language are integrally combined. Certainly Orthodoxy exists in America in forms found nowhere else, and one could use “American Orthodoxy” as an umbrella term to cover multi-ethnic parishes, churches made up exclusively of American converts, and so on. But this is the way (or ways) that Orthodoxy is present in contemporary multi-cultural America, and not American Orthodoxy per se.

I hope this explanation covers the main points of comment and objection. I’ll now reply to more specific points.

Trevor’s comments and questions are especially well taken, for he’s asking how I’d imagine my propositions would play out in reality. I agree that one shouldn’t simply choose an ethnic tradition randomly. Not everyone has the opportunity or desire to join a strongly ethnic community. I do think, however, that nearly every parish in North America follows one local tradition or another, and it would seem reasonable to attach oneself to that expression. The OCA, for instance, for all its claim to be American, is based on the Russian tradition (although, of course, it has Romanian, Bulgarian, and Albanian sub-dioceses). My own impression is that the more OCA parishes recognize and try to embody a given “national/local/ethnic” tradition, the healthier they become. In any case, however, one can learn from anyone – clergy, monastic, layman – who himself has absorbed the Orthodox tradition, regardless of ethnicity or whether they are “convert” or “cradle.” I’m not sure how practical this response really is. Perhaps I’m trying to say that almost anywhere one can find mature Orthodox Christians, and its from them that one must be, so to speak, “traditioned.”

It seems that Iyov has unfortunately deleted his comment, which I read yesterday but to which I didn’t have time to reply. He, too, objected to my denial of American Orthodoxy, pointing out places like St Vladimir’s Seminary and some examples of Orthodox (Christian) and Jewish dialog. Again, it’s true that St Vladimir’s really does represent something new and unique. But it, too, is based on a Russian template. All the deans except Fr John Erickson were of Russian descent (as is the current dean, Fr John Behr, who himself comes from a long line of Russian Levites).

Iyov also observed, quite insightfully, that there must really be something behind this post. There certainly is quite a lot behind it, most of which I won’t go into here. Essentially, I feel that many Orthodox Americans are both cheating themselves from, and being cheated of, a full expression of Orthodoxy. There’s a sort of spiritual and psychological stripping of the altars going on, in which anything that’s judged “external” or “ethnic” is simply rejected – ostensibly because they overshadow the true inner nature of Orthodoxy. Fasts become optional, services are radically abbreviated, pious practices are pooh-poohed, traditional dress (especially for clergy) is done away with, etc. All of this really and truly makes the absorption and incarnation of Orthodoxy much more difficult. I’ve seen far too many Eastern Rite Protestants insisting that they alone know the real essence of Orthodoxy. The Evangelical Protestants who entered the Church in the last decade or two were rightly excited to have discovered Orthodoxy, and their missionary zeal is impressive and humbling. I often get the feeling, however, that they think there were the first people ever to discover Orthodoxy and that it is now their responsibility to spread it not only to the non-Orthodox, but to the Orthodox themselves, often becoming combative when Orthodox object to pamphlets with titles like “Facing Up to Mary,” accusing them of fundamentalism. (There was even a primer written at some point in the 1990s in which nearly every traditional expression of Orthodoxy were rejected as fundamentalist.)

What prompted me to write this post in particular is the appearance, and embrace of, The Orthodox Study Bible. I’m simply astonished by the vehemence with which many have embraced the OSB. I, for one, am deeply offended by the OSB. The claim seems to be that the publishes have for the first time made a resource available by which the Orthodox can learn about Orthodoxy, like they’ve finally rescued the Church from ignorance, rescued the Orthodox from themselves. Not only is the OSB really shoddily done, but it approaches Scripture in a fundamentally Protestant way, as if one were to learn about Orthodox doctrine by studying the Bible rather than the other way around. It’s very often implied that anyone who in any way criticizes the OSB somehow doesn’t “get” Orthodoxy, that such a person isn’t living in America in the 21st century, that he doesn’t have any interest in missionary work, and is simply nitpicky and superior. So, Iyov, stop deleting your comments!

Esteban Vázquez said...

Father, this last comments of yours deserves its own post!