Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Fr. Stephen Freeman on Florovsky and the West

Within Orthodox circles, the status of Western converts pops up from time to time on the blogs. Either converts are accused of being "Superorthodox" who somehow attempt to transform themselves into ethnic Russians, or contrarily, of bringing all our baggage along and, in effect, "Protestantizing" Orthodoxy. I have little patience with either accusation. As is usually the case, Fr. Stephen Freeman has the best take on this sort of thing, here.

The following paragraph contains the gist of his argument:

Today, Orthodoxy in America is quickly becoming “native.” Both converts whose roots have always been in the West, as well as the descendants of original diaspora Orthodox becoming “Westernized,” the Orthodox Church in many places in the West today can speak of itself as “Eastern” only as an historical artifact. Its converts have not become “Eastern” in the process of becoming Orthodox - we have not become citizens of a foreign culture. Deeply influenced and immersed in Eastern experience - yes. But I would contend that converts have become to a great extent individual examples of Florovsky’s original proposal. They are now Orthodox Christians who have personally experienced the “western religious tragedy.” As a result of that tragedy they have come to Orthodoxy, but never as a tabula rasa. Every convert who enters the Church brings with them, in some fashion, the inheritance of centuries - problems not of their own creation but inherent to the West and to the modern Western world. To a large extent the problems of the “West” have now become universal problems for the simple reason that Western culture has become the dominant culture of the world. Others have our problems whether they want them or not. As converts within the West or even just Orthodox living in the West the inner encounter between Orthodoxy and Western experience is unavoidable.

The comments are instructive as well.

11 comments:

Death Bredon said...

Sorry, no matter how much I enjoy Fr. Freeman's writing and usually find myself in agreement with him, I don't buy the American Orthodoxy notion. Most Orthodox are still hyphenated Americans at best, and the American converts are so few in numbers they could all gather in one small-sized arena. And what would be the distinctive attributes of American Orthodoxy as opposed to Greek, Salvic, Arabic, or Romanian Orthodoxy?

John said...

D.B.--Give us a little time! Your point is well-taken, though. Many Orthodox are still hyphenated Americans, though this is weakening with the passage of time. American converts are fewer, outside of the South and West, where they often predominate. In our small mission of 25-30 people, there is only 1 with the ethnic Orthodox background, but I think they are probably 3rd-generation American, so it hardly qualifies. The rest, including our priest, are converts. But I understand that this phenomenon is uneven, and not nearly as pronounced in other parts of the countries. As you say, we would have a hard time filling an arena.

One sometimes encounters whining about the problems converts supposedly cause within Orthodoxy: either becoming "SuperOrthodox" on the one hand, or approaching it as sort of a bearded Episcopalianism, on the other hand. The way I see it, there are good problems, and then there are bad problems. Such growing pains qualify as good problems. That's what I enjoyed so much about Fr. Freeman's article--he cut right through those types of superficial complaints.

Yes, the development of an American Orthodoxy is slow and uneven. No one will argue that. But it is taking shape outside of, though not apart from, the ethnic, hyphenated American community.

You ask: "What would be the distinctive attributes of American Orthodoxy as opposed to Greek, Slavic, Arabic, or Romanian Orthodoxy?"

Outside of language, I can't think of any substantive differences. And that is a good thing. Certainly there are specific cultural attributes to each, but that is not Orthodoxy. I have visited Orthodox churches in 5 countries, and have been at home in all.

Death Bredon said...

A little time?

Mormonism, a fabricated "religion," has outgrown the ancient, true faith in the New World from the day of it invention to the present day. Why? Because Mormonism targets its pastoral care (however twisted) towards Americans while Orthodoxy at best tolerates American converts that adopt EASTERN Orthopraxy in religious life (because no serious or thoughtful attempt at reviving Western Orthopraxy has been attempted.) Not surprisingly, Americans are staying away from EASTERN Orthodoxy in droves.

Don't get me wrong. I think it is a great outrage that dogmatic Christian Truth, which is preserved in its purest and most authentic form in the Eastern Christian dogmatic theology, is not being spread as widely in the New World as Mormonism. And I believe that is the case not only because of intra-Eastern philetism but also because of apathy towards WESTERN souls -- "let them become Eastern in religious practise or fend for themselves" is the de facto Orthodox policy.

Indeed, Great Orthodox thinkers such as Fr. Alexander Schememn wrote that WESTERN Orthodox was theoretically possible, but despite living most of his life in the West as a priest in Christ's Church, he did precious little work on any attempt to actualize that which is necessary here -- a revival of Western Orthopraxy. Instead, all attempts at Western Orthopraxy have largely been implemented without the assistance of the best minds, backing, and recourses of the Orthodox Churches. Just some very odd little lab projects by the Antiochians and ROCOR that are so bad that they don't really count even as serious "micro" attempts at reviving Western Orthopraxy.

Hence, contrary to what Fr. Freeman sees, the macro-statistics show that no Western Orthodoxy exists. Were the ethnic Orthodoxy to return "home," Orthodoxy would collapse completely here. And even with a consistent and constant trickle of Eastern Orthodox immigrants, Orthodox in America is barely avoiding an overall contraction as the third and fourth generation ethnic Orthodox become WESTERNIZED, they drift away from the EASTERN Church. Hardly surprising.

Perhaps one day a Western Orthopraxy will offered to the West, though I suspect some Phil-Orthodox Anglicans and Lutherans will have to develop it on their own. Indeed, Orthodoxy as a whole has not even managed to sort out its inter-ethnic squabbles, much less come to realize the need for real Western Orthodpraxy. Putting a handful of convert priests in Byzantine frocks and praying Eastern Masses in English to a few dozen American converts, otherwise doing there best to mimic Slav or Greek spirituality is hardly the budding of an authentic American Orthopraxy.

Death Bredon said...

John -- would the average nonOrthodox American feel at home in any Orthodox Church in the foreign countries you have visited, even were the service done in English? No.

Would he feel at home in an English Cathedral using the Book of Common Prayer? Much more likely. How about an English Cathedral using the completely Orthodox Old Sarum Mass (of which the Book of Common Prayer is but a modest pruning) in English?

John said...

Well, I disagree. I am a little hesitant to respond--I'm not much of a debater, and also, the last thing we need is another relatively recent Orthodox convert pontificating about Orthodoxy.

That said, I suppose we differ in our basic presuppositions: What, exactly, is the basic foundation underlying the development of an Orthodox West? I simply do not believe that genuine Western orthopraxy must be filtered through our Anglican heritage for it to have any authenticity. In my own family's history, we were divorced from such a religious heritage 400 years ago (Presbyterians, Quakers, Puritans, Restorationists)--it is as foreign to my own background as you suppose the Byzantine worship to be.

"while Orthodoxy at best tolerates American converts that adopt EASTERN Orthopraxy in religious life (because no serious or thoughtful attempt at reviving Western Orthopraxy has been attempted.) Not surprisingly, Americans are staying away from EASTERN Orthodoxy in droves."

Perhaps this may be so in your part of the country, but not around here. The closed-mindedness against converts is simply not the approach, attitude or practice in the Diocese of the South. And the adoption of EASTERN orthopraxy is not some burden the convert has to endure. But we don't come into Orthodoxy on our own terms. There are plenty of other churches out there that would let us do that.

"...because of apathy towards WESTERN souls..."

Well, this may be the attitude in certain ethnic churches--I can't speak for them. I just know that it is certainly not the case in my region, and this from experience in the Greek, Antiochian and OCA churches.

"let them become Eastern in religious practise or fend for themselves is the de facto Orthodox policy"

Again, becoming Eastern in religious practice is not an ethnic burden we converts must somehow endure--the exact oppposite, in fact. It is the richness of Eastern practice (as oppossed to the shallowness common in Western practices) that probably attracts many converts.

"Just some very odd little lab projects by the Antiochians and ROCOR that are so bad that they don't really count even as serious "micro" attempts at reviving Western Orthopraxy."

Why,exactly, must a Western Orthopraxy be in the western-rite mode you reference, or something that mimics the Anglican tradition?
Such a system was as foreign to me as was Eastern Orthodoxy. I found such a solution (and I experimented with it) was just the worst of both worlds.

"no Western Orthodoxy exists. Were the ethnic Orthodoxy to return "home," Orthodoxy would collapse completely here."

No, this is just wrong. I can't speak for the Northeast, but in the South, we would hardly know they left.

"Orthodox in America is barely avoiding an overall contraction as the third and fourth generation ethnic Orthodox become WESTERNIZED, they drift away from the EASTERN Church. Hardly surprising."

Again, Orthodoxy is contracting in some areas, flourishing in others. The lure of our western, secularized culture affects all who succumb to it, Orthodox or otherwise.

"Perhaps one day a Western Orthopraxy will offered to the West, though I suspect some Phil-Orthodox Anglicans and Lutherans will have to develop it on their own."

Well, good luck with that! Why does any Orthodox experience in the West have to come out of the Reformation churches? Speaking broadly, part of the appeal of Orthodoxy is the realization that the Reformation churches, in all their manisfestations, have been, in the end, a failed experiment. The appeal of an Eastern orthopraxy is not because it seems foreign and exotic, but rather because of its authenticity--it has withstood the test of time where ours hasn't.

"Indeed, Orthodoxy as a whole has not even managed to sort out its inter-ethnic squabbles.."

Honestly, we don't pay much mind to this sort of thing.

"much less come to realize the need for real Western Orthodpraxy. Putting a handful of convert priests in Byzantine frocks and praying Eastern Masses in English to a few dozen American converts, otherwise doing there best to mimic Slav or Greek spirituality is hardly the budding of an authentic American Orthopraxy."

Well, a harsh assessment, perhaps, but we'll see, won't we?

"would the average nonOrthodox American feel at home in any Orthodox Church in the foreign countries you have visited, even were the service done in English?"

Confused, certainly. But is that an indictment of the foreign Orthodox Church, or is it a reflection of the "average nonOrthodox American?"

"Would he feel at home in an English Cathedral using the Book of Common Prayer? Much more likely. How about an English Cathedral using the completely Orthodox Old Sarum Mass (of which the Book of Common Prayer is but a modest pruning) in English?"

Exactly the point I am making! For many of us, the answer is NO. For me and my tribe, the situation in the English Cathedral with the Book of Common Prayer would be extremely uncomfortable--and foreign. In my old church, the closest we EVER got to this sort of thing was our singing (badly) "A Mighty Fortress is Our Lord." The songleader knew I liked it so it would try to lead it once every couple of years.

For these reasons, I reject your premise that a Western orthopraxy must be along these lines. You are pessimistic because you do not see any signs of its development. I look at the same situation and am merely ambivalent.

1:07 AM

Anonymous said...

Gentlemen,

If I may clarify myself a little... I do not mean to say that Orthodoxy is becoming Westernized but was speaking in the context of Florovsky's description of the Orthodox task in America. I think converts are, in the crucible of their heart, whether they know it or not, bringing the "western religious tragedy" into dialog with Patristic Orthodoxy. We are still quite young in all this - not even a generation old. But it is happening. There are plenty of hyphenated Orthodox, but go to the seminaries, you'll see plenty of converts. At least half or more of both OCA and Antiochian and an increasing number among the Greeks. I do not predict or want a "Westernized" Orthodoxy, but I do believe that the encounter that Florovsky wrote about is, indeed, taking place, but not on the formal level. It is occurring in the hearts of converts and others, the encounter between Western Religious Tragedy and Patristic Orthodoxy.

Of course there is no independent Orthodoxy, nor should there be. I would be nowhere without the Russian heritage of the OCA, for instance. But that heritage, in my heart, has had to encounter the tragedy which is deep within me. Look beyond the surface of difficulties, and see what is happening in a number of hearts. Even a few hearts are very significant.

Fr. Stephen

Death Bredon said...

Amen, Fr. Stephen. The theological encounter between OrthoDOXY and even the Christian West is sooooooo important. And, it is THE important issue, I think we all agree. And, I cannot say that EASTERN Orthodoxy has not in fact done so much to initiate and sustain this encounter. But I am demanding and greedy!


I just believe that Orthodoxy's seemingly philetistic reluctance to explore Sarum-revival liturigical & spiritual praxis (which is MUCH broader than English -- it was the dominate usage in the British Isles, Scandanvia, Brittany, and parts of Northern Germany) unduly lessens its witness to OrthoDOXY in the New World. The "dialog" is not as far and wide as perhaps is could and should be.

But, don't get me wrong, if EASTERN Orthopraxy works for some or many in your patch, John, then I am all for it! My desire for an alternative Sarum-based Orthopraxy is entirely Evangelical as I think it would really "play in Peoria."

Jim H. said...

Interesting conversation...

I spent two months in Ukraine last summer and felt very welcomed at any church. They knew I was American, but were totally cool with my presence and I would say even slightly amused.

In one case I was approached by and enthusiastically greeted by a young Priest. I recorded some of my experiences here:

http://gettingthegirls.blogspot.com/2007/06/eastern-orthodox-church.html


However, my main reason for wishing to comment is that I noticed Anthony Powell and his "Dance to the Music of Time" as a favorite read. Recognizing that I don't read enough fiction, I gave this book a try after having heard so many superlatives. I managed to make it through the first book of the first volume, but I'm out of gas!

I get depressed if I quite on a book so I was hoping you could motivate me to put it back in my rotation.

John said...

Jim, thanks for stopping by. Yes, Powell's "Dance" is my favorite work of fiction. That said, it is something of an acquired taste. Powell is one of the most subtle and nuanced writers you will ever read. Nothing ever really happens (well, there was the Blitz...) Half of a novel may revolve around some minor incident at a dinner party. But his novels are perhaps the most realistic I have ever encountered. Friends and acquaintances circle in and out of the narrative, reappearing decades later, seemingly by chance, sometimes suprisingly, but actually just as predictable as the inner workings of a clock. This is how life is. And Powell's "Dance" is, in my estimation, the greatest fictional account of the 20th-century, in all its ignomy and decay. And having read through the 12 volumes, you feel as though you become a member of a rather exclusive little club.

My advice is to soldier on through the first book. That should do the trick.

jim h. said...

Thanks for the pep talk. Now that you've appealed to my manhood by advising me to "soldier on" I guess I've got no choice in the matter!

p.s. I like your description of being on the young side of middle age. It reminds me of a Victor Hugo quote:

"40 is the old age of youth; 50 is the youth of old age."

John said...

Jim h.--Well, I first posted that "young side of middle age" bit about 27 months ago. Even at that time, my wife and some of my friends snickered at that description! I probably wouldn't feel as confident penning those words today. But, I still think of myself as young, as I appreciate those of you who humor me in this delusion.