July 4, 2013

The Spirit of American Society

The following message dates back to 2003 when America invaded Iraq, and is a response to those who opposed the war in Iraq with extreme slogans against America in Greece.

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

These days everyone is watching with deep sadness and existential pain what is happening in Iraq. Everyone struggled, each in his own way, to prevent what is condescendingly called a war, since it is an illegal invasion. I participated in anti-war events in my Metropolis. Unfortunately the war happened, despite an international outcry, and now we hope and pray the consequences are as few as possible.

At the anti-war events there were heard several slogans. One of them was the famous slogan: "Americans, murderers of the people". I would like to express some thoughts about this slogan, because as we shall subsequently see, this slogan should not refer to the American people, but to its leaders.

The "spirit" of America

First, it should be noted that America is a contradictory society. Within itself it has contradictory elements. There are people who are inspired by the arrogance of power and world domination, and there are people who possess psychological and existential insecurity who seek psychological and ontological support.

The American writer and filmmaker Frank Schaeffer in his amazing book Dancing Alone: The Quest for Orthodox Faith in the Age of False Religion, which was translated by Archimandrite Augustine Myrou, analyzes with exact and clear knowledge the spirit which underlies American society.

In the beginning of the book he expressively writes:

"America is a nation, whose citizens we say believe in God, while at the same time we live and behave like atheists. Judged even by the minimum criterion of traditional Christian conduct, Americans can hardly be described as a 'Christian nation'. Compared with other cultures, we Americans are perhaps the most materialistic and corrupt people on earth. But, according to what we say about ourselves, we are 'religious' and even 'good' people."

In this book he expresses the truth that in America there are two prevailing trends. In the first are included the majority of people who think they are religious people, but their religiosity is largely due to their "great faith in false religions". The second trend is of the so-called "Knowledge Class" in which reside the "highly intellectual, political and the social stratum of our society". And of course this "order of experts" largely determines the spirit that prevails in America today.

Generally, the current that dominates American society is dominated with Calvinist Puritanism, the European Enlightenment, and the Romantic movement. These principles have permeated the American dream of creating a society of eudaimonistic happiness that is absolute sovereign in the world. Eudaimonism became associated with "Christian doctrine", as it was carried over by Calvinist migrants, and this "Christian" spirit became associated with tempered enlightenment principles of liberty, democracy and humanism.

What Americans seek

While this is the general spirit that prevails in America, and while the leaders of America are inspired by what I just spoke of, American society is dominated by an insecurity and a search for authentic life. There are many who react against the "Knowledge Class". There is also a large portion of people looking for a more authentic life that satisfies their internal and existential hunger, which is why existentialism was previously accepted.

When referring to Americans we must keep in mind that many are immigrants from all nations in the world and they are not perfectly tied with the aspirations of their leadership. Besides we have seen these days in the General Media that many Americans visibly and publicly reacted against the war in Iraq. For example, there are people from Greece, the Balkans, Turkey, Russia, Africa, Asia, Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, etc. And when you think that all of these usually were part of "national religions" and "national churches", which is a big problem for American society, then you have to conclude that things are not so simple and we cannot condemn all Americans because they are Americans.

There is a large portion of people who are disappointed by Calvinist Puritanism, which makes man confined to an outward ethic. They are also disappointed with rationalism and the enlightenment spirit, because it does not satisfy their existential hunger. So there are many who seek a religious basis. Not surprisingly, from this point of view, many Americans embrace Buddhism because in it they feel an answer to the suffering of life, and they embrace Islam because many elements of Western Christianity resemble the Muslim dream. Indeed, the eudaimonistic spirit, the domination of the world, the sanctification of war, and individualism are common in both Western Christianity and Islam.

Adding my own personal knowledge, I would like to note that there are a large portion of Americans today who are disappointed by the ideological-religious currents prevailing in their country, and they seek to find Orthodox truth with its neptic tradition. I have been invited to participate in several conferences and seminars in Seattle, Atlanta, Chicago, etc, and I saw the thirst of Americans for the hesychast tradition, as expressed and voiced by St. Symeon the New Theologian, St. Gregory Palamas, and many other philokalic Fathers. They are very interested in the communal and therapeutic spirit in the Orthodox Church. About ten of my books have been translated in English and disseminated widely in American society, and they are certainly creating widespread discussion, as seen from the letters I receive.

Therefore, when referring to the reprehensible actions of American leaders, we should be careful to not condemn all Americans, because there are prominent politicians, intellectuals, and many other people who have a different perception on these issues. Unfortunately, the "Knowledge Class", with their entire mindset, have the ability to create the right climate as well as disorient a large portion of American people. I at least have hope that the American people, with the insecurity it has, the contradictions that distinguish it, the existential dissatisfaction that pervades, together with the search for the historical Church which characterizes it and the effort to find existential answers, will be quite open to authentic Orthodox theology with its hesychastic and communal spirit, with love towards the person and society.

It is precisely for this reason that it is not the responsibility of the American people alone against the world, but us as well, especially the Orthodox, who have the responsibility to what extent we will be able to satisfy this existential void.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Η αμερικανική κοινωνία", March 2003. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.