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: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:
“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.
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.