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Saturday, November 1, 2014

Orthodoxy in a pluralistic society

Good morning everyone. Time for the same old rant:

Orthodoxy and the Problem of Choice: Converting Out of Postmodern Pluralism. (Via Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy)

A convert, Richard Barnett, considers the problem of Orthodoxy in America, and is pleased to have arrived at a solution.
So, my suggestion is this. America is America. It is not an Orthodox country. It’s not even really a Christian country, although it is culturally Protestant. The Orthodox renaissance that Anglophone Orthodox would like to see happen in this country, if it is to happen at all (and I am dubious of that), is not going to happen because of our arguments. In my experience, you’re not going to convince anybody of anything that they aren’t already inclined to believe in some way, or without God’s intervention. Therefore, stop trying to convince people with arguments. To go back to Tertullian again, consider what he said about what made truth claims not just authoritative for the world in his day, but self-evident:

“But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how [Christians] love one another, for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how [Christians] are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves will sooner put to death." (The Apology 39.7)

If we Orthodox want to make an authoritative truth claim, if we want to say that we’re part of the church that Paul (or Nicholas, or Chrysostom, or Basil, or Tertullian for that matter) established we have to back it up with that level of love and self-sacrifice. If we’re not willing to do that, airtight rational arguments aren’t going to get very far.

Make your choice about Orthodox Christianity. Do so out of love for Christ, do so because you believe it is true, do so because you could make no other choice. However, having made that choice, remember that the Church is incarnational — She is the body of Christ on earth, in a very literal sense, and as one of Her members, your actions mean something in terms of witness to the world; you don’t need to look to externals to see Christ’s action, because you are part of His body. Shoring up your manner of disputation is an easy way out of that; acting accordingly out of love and self-sacrifice is much harder, but it is what will be more authoritative than trying to establish that your arguments are less circular than sola Scriptura.
This is a thoughtful and good essay. It is also sound doctrine. Let me now upend the brimming bucket of ice water-reality on it:

Richard's conclusion only returns us back to where we started. Every other Christian sect and, for that matter, every other religious faith, makes the same exhortation. Some of the most generous, friendly, family-centered people I've met have been Muslims. Islam actually has much to recommend it, especially for young men. It is robust, sure of itself, and when its adherents require a safe place where they can maintain the status of their males, their females' modesty and their support networks, then they simply occupy it, bolstered with the certitude that Truth is on their side. The message of modern Christianity, by contrast, is one of endless cession and accommodation to its illiberal enemies. The Catholics, just for an example, now have a Pope who is far more troubled that Muslims may not feel welcome in what was formerly Christendom, than that Christendom has been outlawed by Western democratic, secular governments.

To reiterate, I think Mr. Barrett's conclusion that proof of Truth via love and self-sacrifice is ultimately just as circular because 1) everybody else preaches it, and 2) everybody else seems to be winning. In the Middle East, Christians who have been there in a continuous line of baptisms since the very Apostles cannot halt their own physical extinction. In the less dire context of Lewis's 'mansion,' to my observation the Protestant tide just keeps rising and rising. While the mainline denominations may be dissipating, they are being replaced by extremely popular, well-funded evangelical 'churches' with careerist pastors. We also have the 'home church' movement--the old joke about the individual Protestant and his Bible is, well, no longer a joke. Then there's 'messianic Judaism.' This last one I take rather personally, as I have family members who like to wave it around as the ultimate fundamentalist trump card. Those modern innovators from 33 A.D. can't get more fundamental than the Abrahamic covenant, can they? I suppose not. Maybe I'll set up a pile of rocks in my back yard and start slaughtering sheep on it--I see your Abrahamic covenant and raise you a Noahide covenant, pal.

Christianity in the public square has just as appalling a record. We have lost all the major fights: abortion, pornography, sodomy (now sacralized by the State as 'gay marriage.') What sort of 'Truth' is this orthodox and catholic Faith, which cannot prevent its own displacement?

This is why I say (again and again) that the age of Christian evangelism is over. Everybody knows where to find us and as sure as we are of this Pearl of Great Price, to the non-Orthodox we're just another booth in the American Christian bazaar. (Or, what our friend The Kakistocracy might call the American religious carnival walk.)

I don't know why our bishops don't point out the obvious lifeblood of the Church: more Orthodox babies. Weddings and baptisms are how you make new Christians, not sterile preaching. It also requires a synodal consideration and statement on birth control. But all this in turn requires a community that helps its young people be good Orthodox: hooks them up for marriage and provides patronage and support so they can afford to start families.

Incidentally, I find myself able to debate any number of controversial issues with other Orthodox, and this position I take is the only one which has been met with overt hostility and anger, both on the Internet and in the real world. American Christians are absolutely obsessed with this messianic, exceptionalist vision of themselves in the Apostolic era, preaching on Mars Hill and speaking the truth to Herod Agrippa.

The most enduring religious institutions seem to be the ones that can help knock off some of the sharp corners of life for their adherents. That's sort of the whole point of community, isn't it? If you want to see how this is immanentized, I'd suggest looking to the Amish and Hasidim. For that matter, American Catholics have taken and are taking things in this direction, moving en masse to their parish's neighborhood and placing their children in the parish school. That is the only way in atomized American society to keep your family orbiting the Faith and living the cycle of feasts and fasts, instead of the priest telling everybody good bye and good luck until next Sunday. In other words, if you want your Tradition, you have to make your Tradition.

Fr. John Peck prophesied for this in his visionary essay, but he seems to have fallen silent.

It would be nice to conclude this rant by saying I'm doing my part to fill the pews with my offspring, but that opportunity has passed.

7 comments:

Your Kakistocracy said...

It's funny. I clicked over, saw your post, settled in, and began to read. And as I did, a comment began to quickly coalesce...

Of course there is a way to rejuvenate your church. To cultivate its vitality and membership. The proven way. The ancient way. The only way.

You can encourage peacock displays of virtue provided those are understood to be for the edification of your own members.

But your doctrine is for your benefit and that of your organic community, not as an attractant to others. Perhaps they will witness it and be impressed. Most won't. Though it's not for them regardless. It's for you.

Your posterity
Your continuity
Your support
Your future: both on this plane and the next.

Only the dead rely on others to bear them forward.

But then I saw where you basically stated that.

Psykonomist said...

I've done some contemplating about this due to fatherhood, and I still cannot find or find it in myself to accept pageantry and tradition for its own sake. It feels inherently empty. Because of a school related assignment, I recently attended an Episcopalian service. The building was pleasantly historic in flavor, the music was nice, the message was, as always the case when dealing with the general public, completely disinteresting, and the whole ceremony surrounding the production was just so...why? I grew up independent Baptist, and their traditions, or lack thereof (relatively speaking) were offputting enough as it was.

Maybe the problem is that empty tradition cannot become full merely through strict adherence. You can't see through the emptiness of secular consumerism, balk at the mindless following of politicians, without applying the same thought processes towards other institutions.

I certainly don't know what the answer is in terms of generating real community, other than by people opting out of consumerism, but I don't think the solution is in retreading ultimately meaningless recitals and "pomp".

The Anti-Gnostic said...

Good to hear from you Psykonomist, and congratulations on your genetic issue!

I still cannot find or find it in myself to accept pageantry and tradition for its own sake. It feels inherently empty. Because of a school related assignment, I recently attended an Episcopalian service. The building was pleasantly historic in flavor, the music was nice, the message was, as always the case when dealing with the general public, completely disinteresting, and the whole ceremony surrounding the production was just so...why?

You're exactly right. If, in fact, it's just pageantry then stay home on Sunday. Do something with friends. Teach your children to shoot.

The Episcopalians have decided that they are indeed just going thru the motions. But according to my Church's catechesis, that ceremony is substantive, and required to lift the people of God up into the Divine plane, transforming their offerings of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of our Lord. Jesus said He was with us always, and He instructed the Apostles to partake of His Body and Blood. It's not a metaphor.

If you'd like to explore this further, read this book.

If this rendering is too fantastic or absurd, well, I agree; it sounds pretty over-the-top. I'm sure they've had people committed for less.

Parenthood is one of those things that causes a lot of people to do a doubletake on it all and contemplate the possibility, if they haven't before, that maybe there really is something above and beyond the purely material.

How you get from here to there, or even if you decide to take that journey, is up to you.

Ingemar said...

You can always evangelize by pain of mass murder. If it worked for the Muslims, it should work for us.

Anonymous said...

"This is why I say (again and again) that the age of Christian evangelism is over. Everybody knows where to find us... I don't know why our bishops don't point out the obvious lifeblood of the Church: more Orthodox babies. Weddings and baptisms are how you make new Christians, not sterile preaching. It also requires a synodal consideration and statement on birth control. But all this in turn requires a community that helps its young people be good Orthodox: hooks them up for marriage and provides patronage and support so they can afford to start families."

Of course, if Evangelization is still your thing, a cohesive self-supporting community is naturally much better at evangelization and winning converts- witness the small but steady trickle of white British converts to Islam, most of them fleeing the purposelessness and decadence of Council Estate anomie. Or, for that matter, look at Mormonism, whose aura of '50s wholesomeness attracts plenty of converts, despite absurd beliefs and doctrines arguably even less plausible than those of the Scientology space-cult. I doubt very much that most of these converts looked at the truth-claims of these religions and said "Yeah, I find these arguments intellectually compelling". Rather, they want a community in which they can socialize and raise their children in a healthy, non-depraved climate, and offer the same for their children when they grow up.

Prior to Vatican II, American Catholicism used to have that kind of support network and internal cohesion, and also won a lot of converts, either through marriage or force of conviction, from various Protestant denominations that were then in the earliest stages of implosion into weaksauce liberalism. For example, myself and my closest friends all identify as "Ethnic" Roman Catholics, yet all of us have at least a little bit of old-stock WASP ancestry through marriages or conversions. That support network more or less disintegrated starting with Paul VI, though I do see small parts of it slowly reemerging- for example, several parishes around here hold regular social events where twentysomethings can meet and greet and ask each other out on dates. It's a start, but a far cry from what used to be.

August said...

I used to say you could tell if a pastor was doing good work, if there were a lot of babies in the church, and they didn't look like the pastor. Unfortunately, in today's America, it turns out most of those families just drive across town to the slightly more traditionally minded church.
I suspect the overt hostility is due to the fact that most Christian women like trading their fertility for attention, just like their secular comrades.
Additionally, your ideas, like mine, would place the Church in competition with State- essentially the State has claimed too much scope for itself, and the Church has reduced itself- either to liturgy or evangelism, usually depending on one's political views. They both fear conflict and rather not take a path where there might be a whiff of it. I figure conflict is a given, and we should choose the right ground.

August said...

Dowries came to mind again last night.
A good chunk of capital might entice a young lady to get married now rather than go play at college. Surely there must be some way to structure the deal so that the appropriate incentives are in place- they should have to pay it back if they ever divorce. And then you'd probably want them to eventually fund future families too. I could see the clergy being hostile to this because it wouldn't be going to them.