Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Controversies in Orthodoxy?

Excerpt from an Essay by Frederica Matthewes-Green On why the Orthodox Church Remains Untroubled by Such Issues as Women's Ordination and Gay/Lesbian Rights

How can we resist the cultural tides this way? I have a theory. I think it’s because you can only change something if you have the authority to change it. You have to be in a position of power, enabled to explain and define the faith anew; or you can battle noisily against those in that position, and make it awkward for them to use their power. In any case, faith is understood as something eternally under construction, responding to the challenges of each new generation.

But in the Orthodox Church, nobody has that kind of power. The church is too decentralized for that. Even those who are our leaders are a different kind of leader. Orthodoxy is less of an institution (like, say, the Episcopal Church) and more of a spiritual path (like Buddhism). It’s a treasury of wisdom about how to grow in union with God — theosis.

And that wisdom works, so people don’t itch to change it. It doesn’t need to be adapted to a new generation, because God is still making the same basic model of human being he has from the beginning. Practictioners of the way don’t find it irksome or boring; they just want to get into it deeper. For us, authority is not located in a person or an organization, but in the faith itself - what other Orthodox before us have believed.

Every question is settled by asking, What did previous generations believe? And since previous generations asked the same thing, the snowball just keeps getting larger. Against that weight of accumulated witness, a notion that blew in on the cultural breeze doesn’t stand a chance.

What’s surprising is that there is so little variation from culture to culture. As missionaries carried Christianity to new lands, each new outpost looked back to the "faith once delivered." So Russian, Greek, Romanian, Antiochian and other Orthodox all share the same beliefs. Even the Oriental Orthodox, the Armenians and Copts and others, who have been separated from us since the fifth century, still look an awful lot like us. They, too, are looking back toward the authoritative early faith.

So someone who wanted to challenge Orthodoxy would not be able to locate a building to hold a protest march in front of. The faith is too diffused. And what if a high-ranking hierarch attempted to enforce innovations? He’d be recognized as a kook and rejected. Anyone who disagrees with the inherited faith has stepped outside the building.

Although we don’t have innovation, we do have nominalism. Lots of Orthodox go to church every Sunday but don’t know much about the faith. Yet they know that there is something that they don’t know much about. They don’t try to redefine "Orthodoxy" to cover whatever they’re doing or not doing. If they’re dissatisfied, if they want something more contemporary, if they want to attend a more "American" church, there are plenty they can choose from.

And meanwhile, of course, lots of people are coming in the other door. The Dallas Morning News reports that, in the Antiochian Archdiocese, 78% of the clergy are converts. This means an infusion of parish leaders who are very well-informed about theological and cultural issues, and very intentional about why they have become Orthodox (sometimes at great personal sacrifice).

So instead of spending the last fifteen years fighting and worrying and being bruised in a hostile denomination, I’ve been able to focus on the face of Jesus Christ. I’ve been able to dig deeper into awareness of my own sinfulness, and take baby steps toward spiritual healing. I’m able to worship in an ancient communion full of awesome beauty, one that is now being blessed with quiet revival. My one regret? That I didn’t do it sooner.


Tony said...

I think what has also helped has been the Orthodox Church has never become, with a few exceptions, as political an entity as other religious sects. You don't see Orthodox Christians holding riots and launching massive protests like in Muslim countries, and though they meet political leaders or talk about certain hot topics, they never become as politicized as some Evangelicals or Charismatics do.

The side effect is that when you become involved in something, you need to survive within it. If you become involved in politics, you need to adapt to the political turmoil of your time. Hence why so many churches are falling back on what the past generation thought.

But I think it's quite beautiful when the author makes the statement that Orthodoxy is less of an institution and more of a spiritual path. It is a pity that so many people - who see our worship, ranks, and cathedrals and think we're "crypto-Papists" - cannot understand this.

Byzantine, TX said...

Though, this is also the reason why some longstanding issues related to jurisdiction, bio-ethics, and other topics sit as long as they do. On the one hand the decentralization insures that no novelty finds its way into the Church, but it also makes it difficult for Orthodoxy to speak with one voice on complex issues. Metropolitan Philip (Antiochian) gave a great talk on this subject earlier this year.

Fr. Gregory Jensen said...

Frederica Matthewes-Green's argument is as much empirical as it is theological.

What she asserts about the theology of the Church--our lack of a central authority analogous to the Papacy in the Catholic Church--is certainly correct.

Her empirical conclusion--or rather assertion--that we have some how by that fact avoided the great cultural conflicts is simply false.

Look for example at the Pew Charitable Survey on the American Religious Landscape. Orthodox Christians as pro-choice in significant greater numbers than the general U.S. population. We are also more inclined to espouse a pro-gay rights agenda than I for one would hope.

De-centralization does protect us from these issues, but not in they way Frederica Matthewes-Green suggests. I would argue that our decentralization takes the form of practical (if not official) congregational polity on the parish level. As a result, clergy and laity tend to self-select to be involved with communities that either (1) agree with their own views on cultural issues or more likely (2) do not challenge their thinking on these issues. And of course how can the community do so? A pro-life in a parish where most of the laity is pro-choice is unlikely to raise the issue save at the potential expense of his own livelihood.

To repeat: While she is right on her description of our theology, she is wrong on the empirical facts.

I should add that a centralized polity does not seem to produce significantly different views (e.g., among Catholic faith). As a social scientist this suggest to me that whatever the other value we might ascribe to our ecclesiology, it seems to make very little difference in the views on cultural issues held most Orthodox Christians.

In Christ,


Ioanna said...

While Fr. Gregory makes some good points in his comment, at the same time I do like how Frederica does a nice job of showing how for the most part we do manage to avoid the pitfalls and whims of what's going on in the world around us. Granted, she's going off of her own experience and knowledge though not necessarily empirical - but I think how she presents things does need to be out there so as to help those who are pro-choice be able to re-evaluate their position from someone that is not only compassionate, but even has more credibility as one who used to be pro-choice.

I like how by doing things in my own life and how I go about dealing with others and acting on my Faith - minds, hearts, and lives can be saved for Christ's glory and I've always liked how Frederica presents that reality. I've grown tired of Christianity being presented as one of myriad ways to be political, as opposed to simply being a way of life and by living our lives for Christ and letting Him do His transformative work in us we can be used to transform the world around us.

Not really empirical, no. Breath of fresh air - yes.