Sunday, June 14, 2009

"Western" Approaches to Eastern Christianity

Gordon Atkinson, aka Real Life Preacher, has become something of a celebrity in Texas Orthodox circles after having blogged about his first contact with the ancient Christian worship at St. Anthony the Great church in San Antonio, TX as part of his sabbatical leave from Covenant Baptist Church, also in San Antonio.

Reading Rev. Atkinson's description of his first visit, I was reminded of the statement of Prince Vladimir of Kiev's envoy, after visiting the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in the late tenth century
We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere on earth. We cannot describe it to you; only this we know, that God dwells there among humans, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.

Seeing Orthodox worship new again through Rev. Atkinson's eyes, I was moved to tears at the overwhelming beauty of the Liturgy, as well as its strangeness to the western ear and eye. He did an outstanding job of relaying that sense of being part of something bigger than human scale, something that isn't necessarily easily comprehended by human intellect or senses, because its not intended or directed toward us.

Rev. Atkinson seems somewhat amazed at his reception and celebrity in Orthodox circles. Permitted to speculate, I think that he is seen as a convert on the brink. What we know that Rev. Atkinson might not yet understand is that once you start engaging the historic church, you either end up in an Apostolic communion, or leave Christianity altogether. We American Orthodox are particularly interested in high-profile stories of conversion because, like the consumer-driven lifestyles we lead outside of church, we are looking for celebrity endorsements of our own desires. (It's OK, go Google "Celebrity Orthodox Christians". I'll wait).

I was discussing this phenomenon with a friend several weeks ago, and we both felt that this trend was regrettable. To be clear, I'm always very happy when someone finds their way to the Orthodox church, but the emphasis on the high-profile convert seems antithetical to the conciliar heart of Orthodoxy. More to the point, the celebrity endorsement par excellence is the Pope. This economy of endorsement and reinforcement is Western in approach.

Finally, to get the point of this article (which ultimately has nothing to do with Rev. Atkinson, though he was a convenient vehicle to get to the point) is that I propose a different phraseology to delineate orthodox from non-orthodox thought. I fervently pray every day for the unification of Orthodox churches in America. I expect that this will ultimately result in an uniquely American expression of the Orthodox faith (as has been the case in Greece, Russia, Albania, Serbia, etc.). While an American church would encompass Canada and Latin America as well, certainly the United States will have a huge impact on that expression. I've long held that the U.S. is a system of government founded on economic freedom and entrepreneurship. Part of that entrepreneurship is adaptation and pastiche. U.S. culture is at its best when it has adapted and adopted beautiful cultural expression from elsewhere. I hope that an American Orthodoxy would do the same (as a very small example of this, my family has adopted the Serbian tradition of Slava to pay homage to a Christian heritage that was not Orthodox).

So, if there is to be an American Orthodoxy, it will be western, so "Western" is no longer as useful a term to denote something that is non-Orthodox. I would propose that most of what is antithetical to the Orthodox faith in western culture arises out of post-enlightenment thought, and so I'd suggest "Post-Enlightenment" as a useful substitute for "Western." Getting back to my example, a consumerist approach to celebrity "endorsement" of Orthodoxy is a post-enlightenment approach to faith. It begins in my presuppositional authority and looks for a faith that fits me, instead of my submission to objective Truth.

I'm guilty of this. My entree to Orthodoxy was Frank Schaeffer's Dancing Alone. I found it (and more importantly, read it) because Frank is Francis' son. I became intrigued by Orthodoxy because it satisfied my own longing for room in my faith tradition for the mystical. We American Orthodox, by and large, are protestant in the way that we approach the faith. We have an embarrassment of riches with respect to the number of parishes, and so we pick and choose (I like that priest, or I like the politics of this parish) where we will worship or even if we will worship (there isn't a church of my jurisdiction locally).

My hope and desire for Rev. Atkinson is that his struggles will pay dividends for his family and his church, and I hope that along the way, the blemishes of American Orthodoxy don't get in the way of simple Orthodoxy.

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