Saturday, July 16, 2016

"Neurotic" Orthodoxy in America

By Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Today's Orthodox young people do not have that immigrant mentality. Orthodoxy for them is not primarily the remembrance of childhood abroad. They will not keep Orthodoxy simply because it is "the faith of their fathers." Suppose we apply this principle to others: Then the Lutherans should keep the Lutheran faith, the Jews the Jewish faith, and finally, the son of an atheist should keep atheism because it was the "faith of his father." If this is the criterion, religion becomes a mere cultural continuity.

But our claim is that our Church is Orthodox, or more simply, the Church, and this is a frightening claim. It implies that it is the faith for all men, for all countries, for all cultures. And unless this implication is kept in mind and heart, our claim to be the true or Orthodox Church becomes hypocrisy, and it would be more honest to call ourselves a society for the perpetuation of the cultural values of a particular geographic region.

Our faith cannot be reduced to religious practices and customs alone. It claims the entire life of man. But the culture in which we live, the "American way of life," is something which already existed when we came here. Thus we find ourselves an Eastern Church with a total claim on our life, yet living within a Western society and a Western way of life.

The first problem can, then, be formulated very simply, although its solution is extremely difficult: How are we to combine these things? How can we live our Orthodox faith which claims the totality of our existence within a culture which also claims to shape our existence?

This is the antimony of our situation; this is where all our difficulties are rooted. Yet unless we understand it, we will always have wrong solutions. These wrong solutions--quite popular today--follow two basic patterns.

I will call one pattern a "neurotic" Orthodoxy. It is the attitude of those who, whether they are native Orthodox or converts, decide they cannot be Ortho­dox unless they simply reject American culture, who build their spiritual home in some romantic and idealized Byzantium or Russia, and who constantly curse America and decadent Western society. To them, "Western" and "American" are synonymous with "evil" and "demonic." This extreme position gives a semblance of security. Ultimately, however, it is self-destructive. It is certainly not the attitude of Saint John, who, in the midst of a violent persecution, said so simply, "And this is the victory that has overcome the world--our faith" (1 John 5:4). And further, he said, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment" (1 John 4:18). In the attitude of some, however, Orthodoxy is transformed into an apocalyptic fear which has always led to sectarianism, hatred, and spiritual death.

The other dangerous pattern is that of an almost pathological "Americanism." There are people who, when they hear in Church one word in Russian or Greek, react as if it were a betrayal of Christ. It is the opposite neurosis, the neurosis of those who want Orthodoxy to become American immediately.

In the first neurosis, Orthodoxy is reduced to a fanatical and negativistic sect; in the second one, "American" is falsified, for America is not at all a country which requires surrender, conformity, and the acceptance of the mainstream mentality as the "American way of life." What makes this country great and indeed unique is precisely the openness of its culture to change.

And who knows whether it may not be the real mission of Orthodoxy in America to change the American culture which has never really been challenged by a different set of values? No doubt Orthodoxy has an understanding of man, life, world, nature, etc., radically different from those prevailing in American culture, but this difference itself is a challenge for Orthodoxy rather than a justification for withdrawal, negativism, and fear. To avoid the two extremes, to be truly Orthodox yet fully American, seems to be the only real Orthodox tradition.

Source: From The Mission of Orthodoxy.

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