On Divisive Christians I: On Earth as it is in Heaven

It seems to be a common refrain among the Evangelical leaders that they are tired of the Orthodox picking off their youth. I have heard several express their frustration with the Orthodox converting people from the Universities and Evangelical Churches instead of the street corner and the Wal-Mart.  When one starts looking at the stats and hearing the anecdotes it is understandable that pastors and professors would complain about the Orthodox undertow that seems to be undercutting their institutions, programs, and movements. As an Orthodox Christian, and as an recent convert from an Evangelical school I sympathize with the feeling, but I have to argue that the charge that these such complaints raise against their Orthodox “opponents” will fail to gain traction and only stultify an appropriate and truly Evangelical response to the Evangelical college exodus.

I have said that the response from Evangelical leaders is understandable, but is also fallacious. While it may be true that some Orthodox lay people are satisfied (or even may find perverse enjoyment) bringing Evangelical kids to Orthodoxy, it is certainly not the case for the majority of lay people. Moreover you will find no Orthodox leaders who target these demographics, plotting to eat from the crop of another. Rather you will hear people like the Antiochian Director of Missions and Evangelism, Fr. Peter Gillquist, come real close to complaining about the number of Evangelicals and Anglicans beating on his door: he can’t seem to find time to do anything else! As I’ve entered the Church I’ve heard more and more priests and Bishops using the Evangelical Exodus as a means of chastisement and exhortation to convert those who don’t believe in Christ. Most notably Fr. Pat Reardon exhorted the entirety of the Archdiocese to build a unified American Orthodox Church that has a global mindset, lauding parishes that send missionaries to other continents. The candid responses from his fellow priests were encouraging to me, though his exhortation was received with some indignation. The priests mentioned their already existent work in their cities; reaching out the poor and the homeless, and expressed the frustration of an already domestically missional parish: “how can we run to foreign countries to help the poor when we have so many in our backyard”?

Of course the priests are emoting past Fr. Reardon’s point, that we should be globally minded in our American Orthodox identity because its a) Christian, and b) the way to avoid an ingrown and state nationalist church.  The overwhelmed response from the Antiochian priests show that they have their plates full with missions work in the community – and they are not quietly sniping off young, enthusiastic college kids by dangling the attractive ornaments of tradition in front of them.  Instead they are fighting for the Kingdom of God, obeying the Bible and fathers like John Chrysostom who continually exhort them to constantly care for the poor.

If I were to whine about the good work done by Protestants in the community or if I were to disparage a small Non-Denominational church that quietly helped those around them, I should obviously look like an Unchristian fool.  To complain about people and communities who perform any such works I must have a separate and legitimate issue, and even then I must cautious not to harm the will of the Father done on earth as it is in heaven.   I must respect the old ladies at the soup kitchen, the men building houses in Mexico, and the teens who help the raise money for Katrina relief – they, like Christ, are sacrificing for the life of the world.  If there is dogmatic heresy it will be talked about apart from the Christian work that is done, pure dogma is not the basis of our salvation.

Are the Orthodox parishes in America the epitome of these Christian deeds?  Sadly, no.  However, listen but a little and you will hear Orthodox clergy and lay people encouraging their parishes and jurisdictions to act in a commendable way like the Evangelicals have done.  Of this matter there is no Orthodox disparagement of Evangelicals, but a godly envy. You won’t find Orthodox copying the institutional structures or methods of serving, but you will find a healthy respect of the service and good work done to the glory of God.  I saw this respect, and I saw a good deal of what it unique and right in the Orthodox Church.

I am no longer an Evangelical, but I do care a great deal for my Evangelical brethren and their ministries, and it is precisely for this reason that I find their misunderstanding about Orthodox growth so frustrating.  The reactions I have seen from them (and I am now seeing the same disappointing reactions from Catholics) are harmful to everyone, but I believe those primarily suffering from these poor responses are the reactionaries.  I do not know what the best Evangelical response should be, but there are some obstacles I would like to point out that hopefully will help enable people avoid some of the more common fallacious reactions. 

First one should understand the Orthodox life in the parishes that your former parishioners are now attending, and then listen to the hierarchs and clergy that give direction to the flocks.  Are the parishes a hotbed of traditional and intellectual pride?   Should you demean the work done by the parish?  If you cannot, then speak kindly of them as they are speaking kindly about the godly work you do.  Are the Bishops and hierarchs plotting against you?  There is sin in the parishes of the Orthodox Church, but I think that one might see what the converts are seeing with a little patience and investigation.  In my short time in the Orthodox Church I have come to realize that seeing the Church – what it stands for, what its life is – is like getting to know a large family.  Institutional newsletters and websites will not fully convey it.

It is also a common reaction to psychoanalyze converts and inquirers into Orthodoxy.  This reaction can very easily be hurtful, even if the analysis is true. The inquirer or convert has burning issues on his or her mind; the kind of questions that will not easily be diverted or numbed.  To deal with a convert well is to deal with the questions sincerely; as they are willing to make a courageous and radical change based on these questions. Treating these questions as the fruit of an immature or heated brain will only frustrate the conversation.

Quite commonly the issue between the Evangelical leader and the convert is the value and role of Tradition.  There is a commonly held belief that Tradition is a great “perk” of being Orthodox, Catholic, or Anglican; as if it were a means of bidding for our allegiance. This issue will have to be taken up later – but let me just say for the moment that Tradition is not all bells and whistles, and rest assured that any inquirer will discover this soon.  If Tradition seems scary to anyone, it is to the one who is about to take that yoke upon himself.

Are the Orthodox just being divisive Christians?  Is all the talk about being the “one true Church” just a form of Institutional pride? As I intended I have not answered this question in any comprehensive manner, but hopefully I have shown that the conclusion is far from simple, and that to pretend like it is an obvious question with an obvious answer is a simple and foolish response.

Orthodoxy has lived under the radar of most Americans.  This has carried with it the disadvantages of shock and misunderstanding, but has allowed Orthodox men and women into positions otherwise unattainable but for ignorance.  American Orthodoxy has gained momentum without much outcry or persecution because of its low profile.  Those days are coming to an end; Orthodoxy will have to withstand at least a part of the American spotlight.  This is an inevitability that the Orthodox have to come to terms with, however against the Orthodox nature it may seem: for there is no institution on earth less concerned with marketing and camera readiness – just look at the Orthodox websites.  The Evangelical leaders who are frustrated with the quiet exodus East must also reconcile themselves with this fact, for as the American exposure to Orthodoxy increases, a more fitting response will be required.

We Fast, You’re Furious

There was a lot to get used to coming to Orthodoxy. Certainly near the top of the list was the near constant habit the Church had of denying themselves of meat and dairy products. Pretty much every week in the life of an Orthodox Christian there’s going to be designated restriction on at least the kinds of food you eat: not to mention the encouragement of the saints and the clergy to refrain from the usual amount of food, sleep, and entertainment. Before coming to Orthodoxy I couldn’t comprehend how vegetarians lived without meat, and now I was spending about a third of my life as a vegan; a sudden and difficult yoke settled in on my shoulders; and though it isn’t always easy and light, this necessary Christian activity isn’t generally that bad.  In my experience in fact, it’s been quite good.

Though the transition was dramatic it wasn’t very difficult to talk me into starting it – the Bible talks all the time about fasting, and before the Church I had somewhere wondered where the forgotten practice was supposed to be in my Christian life. Back in the day I had organized a camping fast for a bunch of men, where we ate nothing and drank only juice and water for 24 hours. If you had asked me “why” I would have given you a strange answer, probably having something to do with Franciscan inspiration; but I didn’t know what to expect from it spiritually, and I certainly didn’t know how I thought it was to be part of my life.

So when I began to fast with the Church it seemed to me the obvious thing to do; a straight and obedient answer to the Biblical injunction. I expected others would see it as such too.

It was then that I stumbled upon a surprising strain of intense indignation. Some people were actually extremely offended by my involvement with Church’s fast. Christians, Bible preaching and believing Christians, were offended that I would deprive myself of meat and dairy. It was as if I had insulted their dearest political and moral convictions by engaging in the very Biblical practice of denying my flesh. True some people I knew just thought I was silly, or were offended because it called to mind my transition to the Orthodox Church; but I could never quite figure out why it seemed to offend some people so intimately. How is my fasting intruding on your life and your morals?

In Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self, a pivotal modern work in philosophical ethics, the Roman Catholic author begins to paint the ancestry of the modern ethic I had so accidentally offended. To summarize simply: The hero has disappeared from the modern life and the possibility of the heroic life has vanished from modern man’s horizon of possibility. This has occurred mostly from two sources: the shaping of the individual by the Reformation, and the disintegration of the frameworks of the meaning of life by the Enlightenment. These two sources not being independent, the various moral descendants of this marriage have been manifold and diverse; but they bear the same distinction: an abhorrence of suffering.

Before going much farther I think it is important to say that Taylor and I do not assume that there is no good or truth found in the moral ancestry that we share (yes we are moderns too). This is where I want to make an important distinction between two groups of people that Taylor terms “the affirmers of the ordinary life”. The distinction I want to make is between the Chestontonian Affirmers and the Nihilistic Affirmers. Chesterton’s sincere devotion to the Archetypal Man is not to be misunderstood as a devotion to the vulgar everyman, or the Marxist simple man. In other words, the Chestertonian hero is an ordinary man in that he is human; or, as modern expression would have it, The Man. Innocent Smith and Patrick Dalroy are giants only in as much as the vulgar man is a shrunken hollow mess; as the cosmos is concerned they are approaching the proper size. As Men they can enjoy Men-Stuff like the sun, moon, beer, poetry, and the occasional fist-fight. They can enjoy them because (if you remember The Flying Inn) they are occasional vegetarians. In “The Last Hero” the hero has spent his lifetime as a man, not wishing to be either god or animal. He has dealt with the immense pain that comes from human life (“You never loved a woman’s smile as I have loved her frown”), thus he can deal with pleasure and love, and consequentially he can deal heroically with death. “You never laughed in all your life as I shall laugh in death.” 

Oh death, where is your sting?

Chesterton’s image of the Heroically Ordinary Man is rather unique to Western culture: in part because he is so miraculously and paradoxically ordinary, and in part because he is a hard figure to discern from the hedonist.  I certainly don’t mean to say that Innocent Smith is a hedonist, but his childlike enjoyment of colorful wine labels, romance, and even burgling make him a pleasure-filled man.  Although he isn’t a hedonist he also doesn’t stand opposite from him.  The fact of the matter is that Innocent Smith is a bit of an ascetic – perhaps not a true ascetic – but a bit of one nonetheless, and without the ascetic ingredient Innocent Smith can’t relate to the hedonist at all.

For Chesterton “it is something to have been,” which means that his scaffolding of cosmic meaning had not been dismantled from the scientists and nihilists.  It is the Christian structure of the cosmic meaning that G.K. admits saved his soul and his sanity, and led him to the Catholic Church.  It is that the universe stands so wonderfully under the authority of God that drives Chesterton’s hero and Chesterton’s ethic.  There is meaning to life, but only because we can become more Innocent, more Holy, and more Human.

The Nihilist Affirmers look on such a framework with skepticism and doubt, and gives a very sensible reply. “If you tell me that I should be a man”, he says, “I can’t oblige you, for I already am.”  When Chesterton says “it is something to have been” they will say, “I have been… I am being… what now?”  While Chesterton stretches his poetic ability to the limit to try to describe childhood the Nihilist Affirmer can only respond that they too have been children, and found it boring.  Therefore the Chestertonian injunction to live everyday strikes redundant and empty to his Nihilist counterpart. Nietzsche looked at the two Affirmers and decided to make his own meaning, to live an extraordinary life – and one can understand why when such a disagreement exists about what it means to be ordinary.

The difference between the two Affirmers can be seen in this way: that one saw life as a thing to be entered into and progressed in, and the other saw it as static.  Chesterton could run with the Pevensies further up and further into the Life Abundant, he could confess at Church and eat Bread that was Body and Life and love his wife; and it would all aspire to something, namely more life.  To the Nihilist there is no progress; there is the inescapable river of life that we are caught up on until we’re coughed upon some foreign shore.

It is a characteristic of human nature that if you’re not moving forward you’re moving backward.  When the Nihilist Affirmers uttered their “no” to Abundant Life also said “no” to the elements of life they cannot help experiencing.  They marry and are given in marriage and the whole time there is cosmic stream of pleasure and pain that they desire to divert from themselves.  It is a Christian and Chestertonian ideal that says that those who suffer will be the ones who find comfort, and it is those who sell all they have will get it all, and those who search after the divine will inherit the fruits of the land.  The Nihilist Ideal is to avoid suffering, and feeling at all.  They are the conscientious objectors to life.

It is with sadness that I say that I have found many of these conscientious objectors in the Protestant camp.  These are the people that I offend when I deprive myself of sleep, money, time, and food.  Their objections reveal their ideal of the static life, which is, I sadly say, a life apart from Christ.  The Protestant denial of Baptism as a sacrament of innocence, of the Eucharist as a miraculous food, of Confession and absolution, and general progress into Christ, has led them to meaninglessness and hopelessness.  This is tragic, and this is a real hell of numbness and disorientation.  I know; I have been there. 

This is not the Kingdom of God.

But throughout this wild world things are tidying themselves up: the crooked paths are straightening, and the hills and mountains are leveling to the plains. “Repent, for Kingdom of God is at hand.”

“Tex-Mex Orthodoxy”

“A former Southern Baptist, Dmitri Royster is now a maverick of the Orthodox Church”

It’s not quite a ten-gallon hat; the soft, tall cap of black cloth could hardly cover a one-gallon milk jug. Fronted by a gold metal cross, the hat tops a Dallas clergy leader who looks more like a mountain man than a televangelist. Archbishop Dmitri Royster, 78, has a deeply lined face, and a full white beard spills over his black cassock. He has done the work of the Lord all over the country, and now he’s back where he started, in the great state of Texas.

When the archbishop was just a teenager in the small town of Teague, near Dallas, he was known as Robert Royster. He and his older sister were “strong Bible-believing Baptists, and very involved in our church,” he says. That church fostered in them a deep love of Jesus Christ and a hunger to study the Scriptures. In fact, Archbishop Dmitri says they wanted even more Bible than they were getting. Although Dallas is surely one of the most Bible-centered communities in the nation, the Royster kids still “felt they were leaving half of it out.” These were not typical teens.

The siblings began researching the original scriptural community and the roots of the early church. Eventually they showed up at the door of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, the only Orthodox church in Dallas at the time. Within those icon-covered walls, the worship was chanted, swathed with incense, lit with candles, and entirely in Greek. If the Royster kids were confused, so was the immigrant congregation, which didn’t often have American-born teenagers drop in to ask questions. The kids felt they’d come home, however, and soon both became members of the church.

The Global Texan

Robert, then 18, adopted the name Dmitri, after a young soldier (martyred by the Emperor Maximian), whose courage and faith he hoped to emulate. Today, Dmitri is to Dallas as “world music” is to country line dancing. Though he’s a true Texan at heart (with an affinity for Tex-Mex cuisine), his faith transcends the borders of American religion.

“There was an awful process whereby the Christian church was condensed into a ‘Western religion,’ ” he says. The mere fact of being an Orthodox bishop works against such an illusion, since a single week’s travels may bring him into contact with American Christians whose worship roots are in places as diverse as Lebanon, Siberia, Romania, Ethiopia, or Cyprus. (A facility with languages helps the archbishop here; he has been a professor of both Greek and Spanish, and during World War II served as a Japanese interpreter on the staff of General Douglas MacArthur.) At St. Seraphim Cathedral in Dallas, the archbishop’s base, services are offered in Russian, Spanish, and Serbian.

Yet Dmitri would be the last to encourage Orthodox believers in this nation to cling to divisive “hyphenated American” status. It was an accident of immigration history, he says, that caused the establishment here of a dozen separate ecclesiastical organizations—a Russian Orthodox church on one corner and a Greek Orthodox church on the next. Dmitri is among those American church leaders who advocate that these divisions be overcome and a united church emerge—a position that is still controversial. His own authority derives from the Orthodox Church in America, an autonomous body that was previously administered from Moscow.

The Orthodox do not yet have the knack of keeping great membership records, but it’s estimated that there are 10,000 Orthodox Christians in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and about a million in the Southwest overall. Though the archbishop has his offices in Dallas, his responsibilities extend so much farther than the city that his work is not really comparable to other local leaders. His “beat” covers 14 southern states and Mexico, so he is constantly on the road, and doesn’t get to have home-style Dallas cooking as often as he would like. Though he oversees the diocese’s mission work in Dallas, he must tend other flocks all over the South, and routinely makes the round of airports, slowed by the extra baggage necessary to carry the loads of vestments he must don for liturgical events.

The archbishop has observed that many visitors who come to his church say they were propelled by problems within their own mainline denominations. He has seen some of these controversies himself: “There is a weakness there, a denial of the divinity of Christ and of the integrity of the Scriptures.” He recalls an incident when he was teaching Greek to seminarians at Perkins School of Theology. “I asked the class how many believed in the divinity of Christ. After I defined it—not just that Jesus was a divinely inspired teacher, but that he was truly the Son of God—not one student in the class would agree.”

In terms of evangelizing in the Dallas melting pot, “We have our hands full with those who come to us.”

He cites some figures: When he founded St. Seraphim as a brand-new priest, back in 1954, he had five or six people attend each Sunday; currently there are 300—and 32 more are preparing to join the church. “Things are booming, and I quake to think what God will do next,” he says.

In the land of Texas-size megachurches, those figures seem laughable. How can 32 new members be “booming,” when a big church in North Dallas might add hundreds to the roll every week? Dmitri cites the rigor of Orthodox catechizing and practice, and contrasts it with the way he sees things done in the big, busy churches: “Becoming a Christian involves a whole change of life. You have to follow Christ. If there’s no follow-up, no accountability, that’s not likely to happen.

“When we worship at St. Seraphim, it has the scent of eternity, and that gives it gravity beyond what we could generate on our own,” he says.

“We are actually participating in the fullness of the faith, experiencing the kingdom of God here and now.”

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a regular contributor to CT and the author of The Illumined Heart (Paraclete).