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Eastern Orthodox Cacophony in America - The American Interest

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Published on: February 10, 2016
RELIGION & OTHER CURIOSITIES

Eastern Orthodox Cacophony in America


PETER BERGER

In the American context, how can Orthodoxy cope with the


dynamics of the denominational systemessentially a free
market of religious options?
On January 22-23 there took place a meeting (technically called a synaxis)
of all Eastern Orthodox primates (presiding bishops or patriarchs in
different parts of the world). The meeting took place at the Orthodox
Center in Chambesy, near Geneva, and was presided over by Ecumenical
Patriarch Bartholomew, who (rather uncomfortably) resides in
Constantinople, now called Istanbul. This is the city that was called the
new Rome after the Emperor Constantine transferred to it the capital of
the Roman Empire in 330 CE. Needless to say, Old Rome, now the seat of its
bishop become the Pope, was not amused. The two patriarchs, after many
years of quarrel about who was to be superior to the other in the universal
Church, finally split and excommunicated each other in 1059 CE. They
knew how to do things in style in those days: in the midst of the liturgy in
the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople, the Popes emissaries
deposited the papal decree of excommunication on the high altar. The
reciprocal excommunication followed promptly.
Eastern Orthodoxy was represented in the ecumenical movement for
Christian unity almost from the beginning and has been part of the World
Council of Churches since its founding in 1948 and the sprawling
bureaucracy that spread around it in and around Geneva (of course it could
not replicate the splendor of the Vatican, but then it was in the soberly
Protestant part of Switzerland). Rome did not join, so the Orthodox
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Eastern Orthodox Cacophony in America - The American Interest

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presence was very useful to the Protestant leadership of the WCC in the
claim that this organization was really ecumenical/universal. The
Orthodox, with their icons and their tall black hats certainly contributed a
dash of exotica. The Evangelicals also mainly stayed away, so often the
Orthodox were the only ones that said no to the politically progressive
agenda pushed by the mainline Protestants in charge. Given the inanities
that were frequently proposed in this agenda, naysaying was probably a
rather useful function. But that inhibited the positive influence that
Orthodoxy might otherwise have had. The same goes for the Orthodox role
in America, in the National Council of Churches and other
interdenominational organizations. I think that this missing voice is to be
regretted.
The synaxis of Orthodox primates recently concluded was animated by a
move to end the almost bizarre structure of Orthodoxy, both
internationally and in the US, mostly based on national and ethnic criteria.
The meeting on the shore of Lake Geneva was to be in preparation of a
more ambitious meeting later this year, a Holy and Great Council of
Orthodox Churches which is to meet on July 16-27 at the Orthodox
Academy of Crete, where under the wings of the Church of Greece the
assembly should be protected from the contamination of un-Orthodox
ideas emanating from the Protestant-dominated World Council of
Churches. To make sure that the topic of Orthodox unity is not ignored,
those attending the meeting on Crete will have received a document
originally published in 2000 by an American organization, Orthodox
Christian Laity. Its title expresses the urgent wish for unity within the U.S.
contextAn Orthodox Christian Church in the United States, Unified and
Self-Governing. The purpose is to initiate, step by step, the creation of an
American church body free of ethnic divisions, and granted autocephalous
status (that is having its own primate directly recognized by
Constantinople).
In discussions of Christian unity there are typically two reasons given why
such unity is to be sought. One reason is Scriptural: because Jesus is
reported to have prayed for such unity just before he was arrested in the
midst of his disciples (John 17:20-23). The other is supposedly empirical:
because the Christian faith will be more plausible to non-believers if
believers are united. I leave it to New Testament scholars whether it is
likely that Jesus actually spoke these words just before the end of his life,
and if so, why this unity was important for him at that moment.
As to the empirical reason, as a generalization, I am skeptical. For example,
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Eastern Orthodox Cacophony in America - The American Interest

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I doubt whether Americans are turned off from Christian faith because
there is this huge diversity of denominations. In the case of Orthodoxy in
America, I do think that its surreal diversity of ethnically defined church
bodies makes it harder for individuals without the particular ethnic
backgrounds to even have access to an Orthodox congregation let alone to
take its truth claims seriously. I was first aware of this problem for converts
(of which there are quite a few) years ago. I was then teaching at the New
School for Social Research in New York. A young man, with an American
accent and a very WASP name, came up after my lecture with some
questions. Since the New School had many older students who worked fulltime while pursuing a graduate degree, I asked him what he did besides
school. He replied: I am an Albanian priest. He smiled when he saw that I
was baffled, and explained: He was a convert with an Episcopalian
background and when he decided to study for the priesthood he was
advised that the Albanian Orthodox Church in America had a shortage of
priests and welcomed converts. I asked him whether he had to learn
Albanian; he said no, he might have to eventually, but most in his parish
spoke English.
Let me now have a closer look at this ethnic cacophony and how it came
about. Eastern Orthodox Christians are not a huge population in the U.S.
according to something called the National Orthodox Census the total in
2010 was about 1.5 million. I havent arrived at a conclusive count, but
there are around 14 separate churches, almost all ethnically defined. The
biggest is the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. The Greek government in
Athens naturally has a strong interest in this Archdiocese for any help in
matters where American public opinion or government are to be
influenced.
The Russians are next in size but much more complicated. In the
eighteenth century the Moscow Patriarchate sent missionaries to Alaska
(then Russian territory) and established a diocese in Sitka. But most
Orthodox Russians in America are descendants of the large immigration in
the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Their parishes were administered
by a Metropolitan of North America and the Aleutian Islands (nice title)
appointed by Moscow. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 refugees in
the West set up the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, but the
Moscow-run parishes continued separately. In 1970 the refugee church in
the U.S. became the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), shedding its
Russian ethnicity and gradually conducting its liturgy in English only.
Lately, with the growing intimacy between the Moscow Patriarch and the
Putin government, there have been some moves to re-assert Moscow
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control over the OCA.


There are ethnically defined churches for Ukrainians, Serbs, Bulgarians and
Romanians. Albanians have an Archdiocese loosely associated with the
OCA. There are parishes affiliated with the Patriarchate of Antioch in Syria,
most of whose members from the Middle East speak Arabic and whose
liturgical language was traditionally Syriac, derived from the Aramaic
spoken by Jesus. However, most Antiochian parishes use English, probably
because they have the largest number of non-ethnic American converts
(about the same number as the OCA). There is a sizable proportion among
the latter who used to be Evangelical Protestants, and (perhaps not
surprisingly) they now constitute a very conservative faction in American
Orthodoxy
As if this were not complicated enough, there are the so-called Oriental
Churches, Eastern churches that refused to recognize the doctrinal
decisions of the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE). The most important of
these are the Armenian and Coptic (Egyptian and Ethiopian) churches
derived from the Monophysite heresy. There is also the Malankara Indian
Orthodox Church, originally resulting from the Nestorian heresy that
flourished in the territory of the Patriarch of Antioch (the Monophysites
came from Alexandria in Egypt). The Nestorians founded the huge Great
Church of the East, which stretched from the Middle East to China; the
Malankaran outfits home church is in Kerala, in southern India. While
Rome and Constantinople have been making nice with each other, there is
the group of so-called Uniate churches, who recognize the authority of the
Pope, but who use Eastern liturgies and whose priests may marry.
There is increasing rivalry between Constantinople and Moscow (whose
Patriarch Kirill, encouraged by Vladimir Putin, would like to re-invent
Moscow as the Third Rome)
[DISCLAIMER: I have tried hard to get all this right, but I may have made
some big mistakes in correlating ethnic labels with heretical ones. In any
case, the above may be enough to support my view that the Orthodox voice
would be better heard in America if it were more united, less cacophonous.
As I write this, naturally, my very rudimentary Greek comes back: The latter
adjective comes from two Greek words: kakos/ugly and phone/sound.]
Eastern, Greek-speaking Christianity spread from the religiously very
pluralistic Asia Minor (which a Roman saying referred to as the vagina
deorum/the womb of gods). But after Christianity became the religion of the
Roman state, this affinity of pluralism and the new faith came to an end.
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Eastern Orthodox Cacophony in America - The American Interest

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Since then, Eastern Christian Orthodoxy has existed in three socio-political


forms: as a state religion in Byzantium, Russia and the Balkan states
emerging from the disintegrating Ottoman Empire; as a persecuted or
barely tolerated community under Islamic or Communist rule; and as a
diaspora community defined by ethnicity. None of these experiences have
prepared Orthodoxy for modern religious pluralism, especially if combined with
legally guaranteed religious freedom. In the American context, how can
Orthodoxy cope with the dynamics of the denominational systemessentially a
free market of religious options?
I think the Bolshevik Revolution marks an important turning point. Among
the refugees from Russia, there was an extraordinarily gifted group of
intellectuals who in 1925 founded the St. Serge Institute of Orthodox
Theology in Paris. Of course they had been familiar with European thought
while still in Russia, but in Paris they urgently grappled with the relation of
this thought with their faith. In other words, they consciously faced the
challenge of modern pluralism under conditions of freedom. The most
famous intellectuals in this group were Nicholas Berdyaev and Sergei
Bulgakov. Three of themGeorges Florovsky, Alexander Schmemann, and
John Meyendorffemigrated to America and founded a sort of mission
outpost of St.Serge, the St.Vladimirs Orthodox Theological Seminary in
Crestwood, New York. The only one of the three that I came to know was
Schmemann, who first impressed one as a worldly-wise, sophisticated
French intellectual. He spoke excellent English with a French accent. After
a while one sensed a profound piety that originated far to the east of Paris.
My teacher Alfred Schutz liked to tell the joke of the society lady trapped
sitting next to an insect specialist throughout a dinner party. The insect
specialist never tired of telling her about the fascinating creatures he
studied professionally. When, to her relief, she could finally leave the table,
she said to her neighbor: This is very interesting, if you are interested in
it. Schutz used this joke to illustrate his concept of relevance structure.
To whom are these Orthodox curiosities relevant? Put differently, Why
should anyone care?
Speaking for myself, I have never been tempted to swim in the Bosphorus
(a phrase to describe converts to Orthodoxy; to differentiate them from
those who go to swim in the Tiber). But I have many times been strongly
moved by attending the Orthodox liturgy. I recall the first time I attended
the Easter liturgy during my student days in New York. It was in the Russian
cathedral on East 2nd Street, which then was under the authority of the old
Russian Metropolia. When the service began late on Saturday evening the
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cathedral was dimly lit, all the hangings and the altar cover were black in
the color of Good Friday. Then the entire congregation went out into the
street and marched slowly around the block. It was very cold. When we
returned the cathedral was brilliantly lit and the color of everything was
very bright. Easter had arrived. The choir burst out with the triumphant
praise of the risen Christ, who trampled death by death, to bring life to
those in the grave (of course I didnt understand the words in Old Slavonic,
but an English translation had been handed out). Then something quite
startling happened: Very close to where I was standing, a side door opened
and out came an old man wearing the dress uniform of a tsarist officer,
crossed himself and stood reverently.
There is the probably fictional story of how Russia became Orthodox, but
one can appreciate it even if one doubts its historical accuracy. Vladimir the
Great (958-1015 CE), a pagan who ruled the first Russian state from Kiev,
decided to become a Christian (probably for strategic reasons). He was
unsure whether to pledge allegiance to Rome or to Constantinople. He sent
emissaries to both places. In the latter the emissaries attended the liturgy
in Hagia Sophia, the great cathedral (now a museum, a favored tourist
destination in Istanbul). The emissaries returned to Kiev and reported: We
knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such
splendor or beauty anywhere upon earth. Vladimir was impressed. But it is
not just a matter of aesthetic appreciation (one can enjoy the music of Bach
without becoming a Lutheran). Orthodoxy has created a very distinctive
version of Christian faith, sharply different from that of the West.
Paul Evdokimov (1901-1970) was one of the scholars teaching at St. Serge
in Paris. He wrote several books (all in French). Michael Plekon (a
sociologist on the faculty of the City University of New York, and a priest of
the OCA) has lovingly translated and published some of Evdokimovs
writings. In one passage there is, I think, a very insightful comparison of
Western/Latin and Eastern/Greek and Russian Christianity: In the West, the
encounter between God and man takes place in a courtroom. Man is sinful,
God cannot just forgive him, Gods justice demands that the penalty for sin
be paid. Jesus in his suffering has taken the sin on himself and pays the
penalty. By contrast, in the East the encounter takes place in a hospital.
Man is sick and sin is part of the sickness. This condition has ultimately
been caused by Satan, Gods adversary (not by pitiful, henpecked Adam).
The risen Christ has defeated Satan and thereby initiated the process of
cosmic redemption.
Put differently, the WestCatholic as well as Protestanthas a piety
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focused on Good Friday. Eastern piety is fixated on Easter. I think it is


important to understand that these are not differences that can simply be
resolved by doctrinal reformulations. A WCC-sponsored commission of
Western and Eastern theologians spent several years discussing one word,
filioque / and the Son, which a Latin medieval synod inserted into the
description of the Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creedthe Holy Spirit, who
proceeds from the Father and the Son. The East deemed this change
heretical. The commission finally concluded that the contentious word was
really not necessary and should be given up by Western churches for the
sake of Christian unity. I am not saying that this sort of doctrinal dialogue
has no value, but rather that one must ask what different core experiences
and ideas underlie the doctrinal formulations.
The same point was also made by a more systematic method called motif
research by Gustav Aulen, a Swedish scholar, in his book Christus Victor
(1931). The book contrasts two different understandings of the atonement.
There is the satisfaction theory (Evdokimovs courtroom transaction),
first formulated by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 CE) and then adopted
by all Western churches, Catholic and Protestant. But then there is the
Eastern idea of Christs victory over the adversary who originally spoiled
Gods creation, and still holds man captive to suffering, sin and death.
Aulen was one of a group of scholars at Lund University who developed
motif research as a method to differentiate the core experience of a
religious tradition from its more abstract theological interpretations. By the
way, Aulen (who was a bishop of the Lutheran Church of Sweden in
addition to being an academic) thought that Luther was closer to the
Eastern approach than to Anselms. I rather fancy that interpretation,
though Im not at all sure that it is correct. On the other hand, there was
the story that Luther threw an inkpot at the devil when the latter distracted
him from the work of translating the Bible into German

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