Friday, June 08, 2012

Two Views of American Orthodoxy

I recently came across Rod Dreher’s Eastern Right:  Conservative Minds Convert to Orthodox Christianity in the current issue of The American Conservative.  Let me say that I am a fan of the magazine.  The conservatism espoused there hearkens back to a much older way of thinking, and would be anathema to all but a tiny segment of today’s GOP. Primarily, I read it for their foreign policy insight.   They have been a consistent voice--opposing American adventurism abroad and the neo-conservative agenda of both political parties, as well as asking the hard questions of our unthinking American Exceptionalism.  I particularly enjoy the writings of Daniel Larison and Andrew Bacevich.      One article by the latter is generally worth the subscription price.  I am less enthusiastic when their attention is turned to domestic policies and politics, or some social issues, as I am generally distrustful of libertarianism. 
And so, while I was certainly interested to read Dreher’s article on American Orthodoxy, it is not what I open this magazine to read.  And yet, the concerns of the Orthodox faith in this country are such a small affair in our broad culture that one part of me is a bit proud that the piece reached a national audience (though admittedly, the TAC readership does not exactly blanket the nation.)

Dreher notes the importance of Roman Catholicism in the history of American intellectual conservatism, and suggests that Orthodoxy now also offers an increasingly attractive alternative.  He suggests that a number of intellectual conservatives have already opted for Orthodoxy, and others are considering it.  Perhaps.  I do not see any empirical data that indicates a trend in this direction, just as there is none for the population at large.  Converts will climb aboard here and there, and no doubt some of them are “intellectual conservatives.”  I hope the Holy Spirit proves me wrong, but I doubt that Orthodoxy will ever be “the next big thing” in this country. 

The piece may serve some purpose, in a very general way, for readers ignorant of the Orthodox faith—such as my friend from years ago who described the monks at one of our monasteries as “dirty Catholics” (this years before I converted.)  For such people, who think of the Orthodox as just some sort of quasi-Catholic offshoot, then this piece could hint at the real and substantive differences between the churches.  The Orthodox rightly emphasize the unchanging nature of the faith.  To the general reader, Dreher offers some insight into why (broadly speaking) this is not idle boast.  In this regard, a quote by an unnamed “Orthodox professor” is instructive-- “It’s not true that Catholicism is conservative. It is, in fact, the mother of all religious innovation, and has been for more than a millennium.”

Dreher observes that the conservative intellectuals he spoke with expressed their appreciation that the Orthodox Church avoided the “Republican Party at prayer” feeling that characterizes Evangelical churches.  Ideally, when we are at our best, this is certainly true.  The problem is that often we are not at our best.  If you look around, evidence of Movement Conservatism is not hard to find in American Orthodoxy.  Some jurisdictions are more susceptible than others.  From my own observations, the Antiochians are rife with it, but I fear the OCA is not far behind.  Mind you, I believe Orthodoxy is for everybody—intellectuals of any stripe, cranks, malcontents,  screw-ups and misfits, know-it-alls and know-nothings—come one, come all.  The problem can be, however, when converts view the Church as a comfy place to park their social conservatism (or liberalism.)  Approached thusly, Orthodoxy can be viewed through the prism of a particular ideology, instead of the other way around.  Considered here and there, it is not such a bad thing, as Orthodoxy has plenty of room for quirkiness.  But if such attitudes start gaining critical mass and become normative, then we Americans have done what we do best—changing that which should not be changed and restyling according to our preferences.

Dreher quotes from Frederica Mathewes-Green, whose conversion story is familiar to many.  I know there is more to the story, but his accounting makes it sound as if she considered Catholicism, but then chose Orthodoxy as it was a more comfortable fit for their social conservatism.  Like I say, I know there is more to their story—I’ve read it before—but casting it in this light is a bit dangerous, if it encourages people to embrace Orthodoxy for that reason.  There is only one reason for anyone to become Orthodox—it is because that is where you find Jesus Christ and you come to believe the claims the Church makes of herself.  I had an early friend in Orthodoxy who converted shortly before I did.  He was brilliant in a number of areas, including history.  But his attraction to Orthodoxy was all on an intellectual plane.  He did not stay long and moved on to Catholicism.   I have seen others come and go as well, leaving me wary of some peoples' motivations for becoming Orthodox. 

I fault Dreher for a totally unsubstantiated and unnecessary swipe at St. Nicholas OCA Cathedral in D.C. –a cheap tactic meant to drawn Orthodoxy into the public fight over homosexuality.  I believe that overall, the Church’s low key approach has worked quite well, thank you very much.  This reference mars the piece as a whole, leaving a nasty aftertaste. 

Dreher may be on to something.  Perhaps there is a movement (as yet imperceptible) in our direction.  I pray that this is true.  Just leave your ideology outside the narthex, please.

A favorite site of mine is Fr. Jonathan Tobias’ Second Terrace.  I love the way he writes—his clarity and gift for getting at the heart of things.  In a recent post, he addressed nationalism, American and otherwise.  And along the way, he looks at the state of American Orthodoxy--past, present and future.  You might say that he sees our prospects in a different light than does Dreher. 
He opposes American nationalism and exceptionalism with a “simple neighborly and land-loving patriotism.”  Fr. Jonathan reminds us that it is “never good to count ourselves blessed at the expense of other nations” and that “The Church -- not the nation -- is the city set upon a hill.”  Indeed:

Jesus is not going to use America to shape an end-times narrative. He is not using it now to defeat Islam and other religions. He is not utilizing America to fend off trends of immorality and secularization. Current experience presents something of a conundrum for nationalists who believe fervently in such divine fending-off, because they would like to wave their civil religion flags against Muslims and gay pride parades at the same time: at even a cursory level of comparative theology and ethics, such simultaneous flag-waving comes off as at least mildly inconsistent. Jesus is not using America as an instrument of safeguarding a Biblical faith: preachers can throw up the American flag behind the pulpits and powerpoints all they want, but America is not the hope for the nations. The Rapture is just as much part of the American dream as is the hope of building so many new barns for rich fools -- who, when they discover the reality of the soul only at the late moment when it is “required” of them, find that the Rapture and the Dream were mere spectral fantasies indeed.

America did not bless Christianity. Christianity did not improve when it got to these shores.
God, as Creator and freely distinct from His Creation, does not need America.

America, surely, needs God, and the reality of His Church.

Orthodox Christianity did not improve, either, when it got here. .
Fr. Jonathan also has some thoughts on our future in America:

I am note sure whether America ever occurred to Orthodox prophecy. If there is a place for America in a real eschatology, it will be that in this civilization, America is where history goes to die. (emphasis mine)

America said it wanted a respectable and successful religion.
Orthodoxy tried too much to give America what it wanted, and in doing so, it failed to give America what it needed.

“Need” is the only business of true religion.
“Want” is ever the stuff of the imperial cult, throughout the ages.

Let me utter a simple prophecy here. In this decade and the next, Orthodoxy will become more and more solitary. The coalitions may or may not survive, depending on whether the other groups become more or less Orthodox.
And Orthodoxy will move from its uncomfortable associations with imperial religiosity and become more like it was before Constantine. The Constantinian age is drawing to a close, with the complete rise of this a-historical and anti-sacral civilization. The eschaton, as it draws closer, will scour away the unrealities that are now clogging and burdening the church.

And you will see, as clear evidence of this scouring, the signs of clearer proclamation from the Church. Its language will become more Christological and Trinitarian and less the marketing speech of the agora. Its critique will become more continuous with the prophets about justice, in defense of the poor and the powerless. Its leaders will lead to deification largely through their own experience of deification: as in “imitate me, as I imitate Christ.”
In the light of that day, the Orthodox American may patriotically and faithfully say “God bless America,” and know in his heart that He has, surely, through the presence of his Church.

Fr. Jonathan's future is bleaker and more sobering to our American sensibilities--but it has the ring of truth to it.


Kirk said...

Thank you, John, for reminding me what an idiot Rod Dreher is. Not that it is an easy fact to forget, mind you; but I enjoy periods of time when his existence never crosses my mind, and for that I am truly grateful. A couple of thoughts on his publicity piece:

1. Rod loves to consider himself part of the conservative intellectual crowd. By writing this article, he gets to tacitly add his name to the "growing list" (eyeroll) of conservative intellectuals who have left Rome for Constantinople. It would be one thing for, say, a Baptist to write about all of the conservative intellectuals who have joined the EOC; but it is another thing entirely for a member of the EOC to opine thereon. (Yay, us!)

Hey Rod, I get it. It is neat to think of the EOC as a hangout for the RSP--Really Smart People, kind of like the Chess Club in junior high. But what you are really engaging in here is a bit of self-confirmation. It goes like this, "I am smart; I believe the EOC is right; other smart people have joined the EOC, too; and that further confirms that I am right!"

Whether he realizes it or not, Dreher is a bit of an elitist, believing that Orthodoxy is for people "in the know" and that it couldn't possibly attract uncouth liberals and the uneducated. Maybe we can justify to ourselves that American Orthodoxy's lack of growth is because it is an acquired taste, much like caviar and Pate', and that we can't expect Joe American to appreciate such cultured experiences.

Kirk said...

2. About whom is Rod referring when he discusses the "tradition-minded conservatives [who] have found themselves looking past Rome to the churches of the ancient East"? Let's count: 1) Dreher; 2) Larison; 3) ???. Is it these other people he has quoted in his article, the people I have never heard of (not that I am anybody)?

We know that six U.S. Supreme Court justices are Catholic; how many are Orthodox?

If Orthodoxy is so compatible with elite intellectual conservatism, then there must be a great number intellectual conservatives who are cradle Orthodox, right? Name a few for us, Rod. What's that I hear? Crickets?

The article reveals a great deal when it acknowledges Frederica Mathewes-Green as "perhaps the best-known American convert." I've read a few of Frederica's books; I've listened to her podcast; and I've even corresponded with her. I would hardly call her a household name. (But maybe she is among intellectual conservatives, how would I know?) And the other thing is, I would hardly call her a conservative. In my book, she is quite liberal. Sure, she is pro-life, but is that all there is to being conservative these days?

Kirk said...

3. Understand this: Dreher's motivation for this article is his self-justification for leaving the Catholic Church. He shows his true colors in the out-of-place swipe at St. Nicholas OCA Cathedral for allegedly promoting a pro-homosexual agenda. Fault me for judging, but I don't consider Dreher a true Orthodox convert so much as he is a displaced Catholic. According to him, he became a displaced Catholic when he studied the priest sex-abuse scandal in the early 2000's.

If you've read Dreher like I have (I used to regularly follow his Crunchy Cons blog when he was in Dallas), you'll know that Dreher has an obsession about sex. I don't know whether the attitude about sex is merely a hang-up, or some form of Puritanism, or merely homophobia. I suspect it is more than homophobia, because he would regularly rant about Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus; although it could be that he is fixated on them in the same way that some gays have have fixations over Judy Garland.

But whatever it is, Rod spends an inordinate amount of time dwelling upon what other people do in their own bedrooms. And I don't just say this as a mild curiosity: sexual purity is the primary reason that Rod Dreher attends the Orthodox Church today. That, and the fact that the Really Smart People worship under the onion dome.

Terry (John) said...

Kirk, don't hold back--you need to learn to speak your mind-ha! I am largely in agreement. The article is self-serving and inconsequential. But what a contrast it is to what Fr. Jonathan Tobias writes. That's mainly why I used it. Hope things are going well in Coldorado.

Kirk said...

John, I'm going to look at Fr. Jonathan's position next. In the meantime, I commend to you Meletios Webber's "Bread & Water, Wine & Oil," which was recommended to me by the local priest. Fr. Stephen Freeman recently quoted the book in his blog, and he describes Webber's distinction between the mind (thoughts and emotions) and the heart better than I can. See

Kirk said...

By the way, why does your friend Owen hate Ron Paul so much?

Kirk said...

John, I read Fr. Jonathan's post, and I have to agree with you that his thoughts are superior to the other guy's. I realize that you are not a defender of Dreher's writings and ideas. I've subscribed to Tobias on my GoogleReader, and I will make an effort to more closely follow his writings.

Things here in Coldarado (ha) are picking up. You'll be glad to know that the local CoC doesn't have any religious symbols in the auditorium, other than the American flag, of course. (snicker.) We had a talk a few weeks ago about whether it was okay to wear crosses around your neck. Alas, the discussion never made it to flag lapel pins. Take care.

Terry (John) said...


I am embarrassed that I have not yet read Fr. Meletios' book. It has been on my "to read" list for some time.

You will have to ask Owen about Ron Paul. No doubt he will tell you why. (I greatly appreciate RP when he is in "bring the troops home" mode. Once he turns to domestic issues, his doctrinaire libertarianism leaves me as cold as most ideologies do.)

Glad to hear y'all are tackling the big issues at the CoC up in CO. How did they come down on wearing crosses? (Let me guess--it was kinda sorta okay, as long as they were not seen, maybe.) BTW, is one of the elders named McGinty?

Chris Jones said...

I should probably let Owen speak for himself (I think he follows this blog), but it's pretty clear why he doesn't like Ron Paul: Owen is a Marxist and there is not too much common ground between Marxists and libertarians.

Ochlophobist said...

Abba Poemen the Ubermensch said...

Thanks for the post! Enjoyed it.

Owen, I wish you lived in NE, so I could make an afternoon trip to buy you a few rounds. Really.

Anonymous said...

When I visit fellow Orthodox parishes in the United States I am fascinated by the politics, although the few I've been to are exemplary in keeping politics in the background.

I'm under the impression that the strong political atmosphere in the United States may be an advantage. The suffocating atmosphere of politics has made some Orthodox Christians so desperate they've given up on everything but their faith.

With good results!

If one can retain a sense of humour there are few people I like visiting more than my fellow Orthodox Christians in the United States.