Monday, February 01, 2010

Well, They Do Paint Nice Pictures

There is a certain kind of Lutheran -- middle-aged, clerical, probably male and often, although by no means always, educated in St. Louis -- who has a sort of fetish for Orthodoxy and its trappings.  He wears a beard, maybe even a little ponytail, as a reminder that he is part of a distinctive counter-culture.  His office is appointed with a couple of icons (often hand-painted, perhaps even by himself).  On vacation last year, he fulfilled the lifelong dream of a pilgrimage to Mt. Athos.  He reads a good deal, is eager to talk about the Cappadocians and seems surprisingly familiar with the works of St. Maximus the Confessor.  At synod assemblies, or even in casual conversation, when faced with an unpalatable theological proposition he will take refuge behind a pious murmur to the effect that "I don't know how the East would feel about that," or even, "well, not without a true general council."  He's a nice guy, and probably a good pastor.

We can't take that guy seriously.

There are many reasons, the most pressing of which is that we are by our own nature and upbringing so thoroughly Latin.  Our vision of the Church, including its worship, its theology, and its life in the world, is irrevocably shaped by the traditions of Western Christianity.  (Give us "soberness and sense," every time and against all competitors).  And specifically, our understanding of Lutheranism, of what provoked its Confessions and how they should be read -- what they mean -- is rooted in the Latin experience.  Take that away, and we would need a different set of confessions.  We would be somebody else entirely.

This is, of course, Eastern Guy's whole point.  To him, our insistence on muttering the filioque is a sign of unreflective narrow-mindedness, a captivity to one small part of the Christian experience.  He was taught to think of Lutheranism as "an ecumenical proposal of dogma," and later intoxicated by the no-longer-new Finnish scholarship, which tries to connect Luther's understanding of faith to the Eastern idea of theosis.  (All good stuff, by the way, in its own place).  Either because of an unshakeable cultural no-popery, or because he was disappointed by the the seeming closure of papal ecumenism under JPII, he is unable to settle for the usual high-church Protestant romanizing.  And so he has spent decades fantasizing about a different kind of Lutheranism, one which bypasses Latinity (much less Germanness!) and connects directly to what he likes to think of as the Old Church, an "authentic" Christianity unmessed-with by the Middle Ages or Enlightenment.

And there's the second reason we can't take Eastern Guy seriously.  His vision of Orthodoxy, largely the same one with which Orthodoxy tries to grace its dimmest adherents, is patently false.  It is as false as the idea that Roman Catholicism is "essentially" unchanged from the days of Peter, or that Lutherans "follow" Luther.  (Worst-case scenario:  Baptists who say that their version of Christianity is older than Jesus, because it descends directly from John the [First] Baptist.) Sophisticated believers of all stripes know this is just silly, but Eastern Guy has allowed his own sophistication to falter, just in this one case.

And it's easy for him to get away with this because, honestly, he lives in a place where the Orthodox churches are few and small and play virtually no role in public life.  By making friends with a few priests, taking a monastery retreat now and then, he is able to welcome the stranger and sojourner in the land, and enjoy the frisson of exploring a foreign church culture, without ever confronting its depths.

For this fellow, we heartily recommend a few months as part of the once-dominant, now-dwindling Latin minority in what has become an overwhelmingly Orthodox nation.  Because the situation is quite different.  The Eastern churches, when they are in the majority, relish the opportunity to work hand-in-glove with the civil authorities, and to link religion with nationalism, in a way that most of us thought went out with Franco or with Muller's Deutsche Christen. If you don't believe us, check out Putin's Russia.  ("Essentially, the Orthodox Church is one of the only Soviet institutions that has never been reformed," said one priest, who declined to be identified", runs one cheery line in a Telegraph article).

And then there's ecumenism.  Now, we are the first to admit that the ongoing discussion of Christian unity has made for some empty gestures and hollow symbolism.  But we consider the discussion important enough to continue, even at risk of a little hugger-mugger.  

It was our honor to organize the kick-off service for a local observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  To our surprise, this is a pretty big event in our area -- at least among the Latins.  And "Latin" here is used loosely, to include Reformation Protestants (Lutheran, Reformed, and Unitarians in the distinctive Transylvanian sense), post-Reformation "Neo-Protestants" (Baptists, Charismatics), as well as the obvious Roman and Greek Catholics.  We were especially delighted, in fact, to meet the local Unitarian pastor and the Jesuit provincial, much less to see them pray side-by-side.

But the big dogs, the church to which the vast majority of our neighbors belong, was not represented at this or any other service.  Although it was once open to some modest interconfessional activity, that door was apparently slammed shut a few years back.  And we do mean slammed.  Priests and laypeople working for the church are strictly forbidden to participate in any official capacity in non-Orthodox events.  More than that, the church decided to celebrate the Week of Prayer in its own distinctive way, by issuing a statement.  It's linked above, in Romanian, but we'll translate -- very roughly -- a few of the highlights:

WEEK OF ECUMENICAL PRAYER -- or seven days of the Antichrist's Babylon?

... an exercise which wants to be charismatic, but which has one goal:  to unite the Orthodox Church with its catholic, protestant and pagan "brothers."  During this whole period, they make solemn processions through the street, which promote the deception of unity; they have alternative services with litanies and prayers in the Orthodox churches, then in catholic and protestant places, winding up with sermons either by heretics to the orthodox, or by Orthodox priests to the heretics.

Jolly  stuff, huh?  And then there's this:


.... One fears that [literally, "from sin"] the protestant and roman-catholic cults do not give heed that the Church of Christ already exists, and that it exists beyond them.  These are not "churches"!

You get the idea, right?  The word "heretic" is thrown around pretty freely, too.  That's always helpful.

We don't mean to be all that hard on the Orthodox.  Like the rest of us, from the Papacy to the smallest dirt-road snake-handling conventicle, they have the right to make and enforce their own church rules, and to mark off their church boundaries as carefully as they want. Ultimately, we all suspect one another of heresy, loosely defined, or we wouldn't be separated.   But geeze, guys -- do ya have to be so nasty about it?  And more to the point, what good is served by this sort of nastiness -- except to beat up on minorities, both ethnic and religious, as means to encourage adhesion within your own body?  To which we say:  Ick!

Anyway, we're just saying:  Eastern Guy should hang in our hood for a while.  We'll see how long that pony-tail lasts.


mark said...

Can't help but note that your "Eastern Guy" was educated in St. Louis. Does that mean he is of an age to have entered "your" synod by the back door? In fact, your description of the Orthodox in your new 'hood sounds something like the old synod where "Eastern Guy" had his roots. Would you like all of the Eastern Guys to turn their ponytails around and head home? :-))

C.N.I. said...

Well, Romania, Transylvania included, was never, as far as history can ascertain, "Latin" religiously, but is Latin linguistically.
Then, in Transylvania, we Orthodox, were persecuted for centuries by an alliance of the "Latin" churches: Roman, Calvinist, Lutheran and Unitarian.
Perhaps that is why some Orthodox do not feel very inclined to recite largely theologically empty, yet PC prayers.
Whom do the Unitarans pray to?
Not to our God, for certain.
A 100% Romanian Transylvanian both by birth and ancestry.

Father said...

This is an interesting response, largely because it demonstrates how close to the surface the pain of these long ethnic struggles still remains. I have conversations like this one almost every day. And it really is painful, for all sides (and we haven't even mentioned the Roma). It is truly heartbreaking for an outsider, particularly one who finds the Romanian language and culture so fascinating.

The point to my post -- which this response throws into sharper relief -- is to ask whether this Eastern history (and continued practice) of nationalism in league with religion is really something that American Christians, who of course have a different set of histories, and a dramatically different notion of how church and state should interact, benefit from appropriating.

As for Eastern Guy with his LCMS roots, no, I wasn't suggesting that he go home, in any sense of the word. I was just trying to locate him theologically and sociologically, and hint that he is a little naive. Okay, a lot naive.

mark said...

Oh, and did you see this one?

Pastor Joelle said...

That's very disappointing. Cuz sometimes I am like that Eastern Guy. Without the beard.

You aren't the first to knock a chink in my Eastern romanticism. I was a conference many years ago and the speaker was Russian Orthodox saying neato stuff until someone had the nerve to ask him about women and he was downright nasty and defensive. It was just a question. Geesh. He was more defensive about patriarchy than many roman priests.