My Thanksgiving over the past few years has mostly served as one of the few occasions for the gathering of extended family. Somethings are measured in these meetings – the passing of time – I am older; my parents are older – and now the children are increasingly the adults. I am beginning to assume my role as an elder (though not quite “elderly”). I’m sure many places across the world have their own holiday gatherings or other occasions that serve a similar existential role. Less of us were here this year. My father-in-law’s passing two years ago was a huge milestone in the life of our family. He was a great man of faith. His presence remains strong among us. But children are less and less students now, and with jobs and family come less mobility, and greater difficulty to join the clan as it assembles. Always a time of reflection for me.
To give thanks is not hard for me. I have very much to be thankful for. A family beyond anything my life would have deserved and a joy in gathering together. Often, the gathering of family means the increase of anxieties during the holiday. It is quite the other for me. It is one of my greatest joys.
But to the topic at hand and a reflection on this night of the holiday.
America is an unusual country among the nations of the world (I’m sure many of you could offer many observations on how that statement would be true). But most unusual about it was that its founding was the first to occur in human history in which an “idea” was the occasion for the founding. This idea, or the set of ideas that became “the idea,” are enshrined in such things as Declarations and Constitutions. The Declaration of Independence was as much a philosophical statement of some important ideas that had the ascendency in the late 18th century as it was political proclamation. The notion of individual rights, and the ability for individuals to pursue “life, liberty, and happiness,” were abstractions. These abstractions became the basis for a state with a government and an army. But they also became the basis for a culture in which abstractions would also hold a very high place. In political years (which seem to occur annually now) such abstractions become raised to very high levels indeed.
It is possible, in such a culture, to begin to think that this is normal or the way things are everywhere. They are not. Ultimately, to be an American, in this place, means to have accepted the ideas, or at least to live under the ideas as a way of life.
In many if not most places across the globe, to live and to exist is somewhat more organic. To be an Englishman, though it is rich with meaning and even obligations, is also to live in a somewhat organic way. There is no (written) constitution, no single document that enshrines the ideals that make one an “Englishman.” You could establish, I suppose, an “English” form of government, but it would not be an English government. The organic elements are just that – organic – and they are not easily uprooted and placed somewhere else – though many of us would gratefully acknowledge that many English ideas have given rise to much that is good in this land of America. I sometimes think the Constitution would not have worked here had we not already had such a rich inheritance from across the “Pond.”
To broaden this reflection a bit, it is also possible or even likely, for Christians living in this culture, to be greatly affected by the culture itself. It is likely that Christians in this culture may see themselves, as Christians, as Church, living under a set of ideas which make them uniquely Christian. Thus to have a Church with the 39 Articles, or the Westminster Confession, or any number of such documents seems quite normal in this culture.
It is also common for Churches, especially parishes, to resort to statements of purpose, or self-definitions of many sorts – seeking to give voice to the “idea” which unites them.
Here is where Orthodox Christianity stands in a uniquely different position, one, I might add, that makes it quite difficult for us to answer questions that call for a comparison between ourselves and other Christians around us. Orthodox Christianity, despite its involvement in the 7 Ecumenical Councils of the Early Church – does not define itself by the “ideas” of those councils. The Church is an organic (if I may use the term) matter. It has a life which is better described by Tradition (how else do you describe something that has lived for 2000 years and continues the same life and not simply a contemporary incarnation under the same name?). To be Orthodox is not unnatural, but it does force someone to think in terms that are not normally American.
An American is scandalized at the Greek who sees his own self definition as both Greek and Orthodox, and may seek to find a heresy lurking somewhere in such a self-definition, while the Greek is simply describing a life in which his identity by family, language, etc., are as organic as is his religion. These realities have lived so symbiotically for so long that they have a way of becoming enmeshed in one another. And this cannot be entirely wrong. For a Greek is not Greek as an American is an American. Nor is he a likely to be a Christian in a manner similar to other Americans (I could have used any number of Orthodox ethnicities for this example).
I give thanks this day as an American, but mostly as a human being who has a Creator to whom all honor is due, and from Whom all blessings proceed. And this would be true were I living in any other land in the world. It is not the unique inheritance of a set of ideas my ancestors came to live under some 250 years ago.
There need be no apology from the Orthodox that their religion seems to have come to them as a gift and a given rather than as an idea to which they now give loyalty. It expects us to believe certain things, and to live in a certain manner, but this “organic” life of faith will largely remain the same wherever it goes. It may enjoy freedom and bless God for its opportunities, but it may also endure persecution and give thanks to God that we survive. But the life will not change in either case. Or it should not change.
It is why, in reflecting on our conversations here on this Weblog, that really good arguments (one idea versus another rarely happen). An organic life (including the beliefs that are integral to it) cannot be reduced to ideas whether religious or merely political. To live as an Orthodox Christian is, among other things, to live an authentically human life – that is to become more human than I would have been had I not been Orthodox. This becomes possible because a life lived in conformity with the life of Christ is a life in conformity with the only authentic human life. All others are abstractions or deviations. Christ alone was fully man.
I have more to say than I can work with tonight. I sit in a parking lot outside a restaurant, which has kindly left its wi-fi on. Such are the depths a blogger may sink to in order to write. I hope (if you were in America) you enjoyed the holiday, and that the rest of you will be patient with us here as we pause to feast, and to give thanks to God for so much for which we have been such poor stewards.
If there are thoughts on the organic character of Orthodoxy, the fact that it is lived in Tradition, I would welcome them as comments and an aid to this traveling writer.
May we remember to give thanks for all things, especially these many things which were given to us, the gifts of a kind God and the generations of faithful Christians who loved God enough to be faithful to His commandments. Glory to God.