Orthodoxy and the Global Threat

RISK-boardThe peculiar approach of Orthodoxy to the peoples of the nations is often a point of criticism. The so-called “national Churches” are seen as hotbeds of cultural intransigence and sources of division. The modern difficulties between Constantinople and Moscow echo the ancient rivalry of Constantinople and Alexandria (a primary source for the schism with the “Oriental” Orthodox). These national Churches, with their deep-seated natural loyalties of language and custom appear to be inherent obstacles to unity and commonality. When these natural affinities are carried over into the New World the result is hyphenated Orthodoxy (Greek, Russian, Serbian, Antiochian, Ukrainian, etc.). Outsiders tend to view this as a hopeless ecclesiology, destined to hamper all Orthodox efforts towards a common voice and little more than the seedbed of future schism.

But the historic Orthodox approach to nations, languages and culture is rooted in its theology. It goes to the heart of what it means to be human, and it is an understanding of the human that is currently under deep assault. That challenge is frequently described by the single word: globalism. Together with ecumenism (as the Orthodox use the word) it is easily the greatest danger to the ancient Christian faith in the modern world. Why this is so is not immediately obvious.

How do people relate to one another? How do they belong? What manner of relationship is most proper to human beings?

The first and most immediate answer to these questions is found within the family. Ties of kinship are easily the strongest and the most natural both within the human family and the animal family as well. We have an instinctive love for our own. Human beings care about people in general, but about their own in particular above all else. Motives for generosity and kindness, justice and equanimity are most easily identified when the subject is family.

This same instinct can be expanded locally. We care about “kith and kin,” neighbors and family. Those with whom we share the most common interests are our most likely allies and most likely to understand and sympathize with our needs.

The obvious character of such natural associations requires little elaboration. But as our circle of association grows, such natural associations become rather tenuous. There were strong admonitions concerning the care for strangers in the Old Testament. Strangers fall outside our natural boundaries and require special attention.

This special attention is, at heart, the problem of globalism.

The life of the modern state is, to a great extent, built on the work of Thomas Hobbes (English, 17th century) who described the nature of the “social contract.” Human communities, he reasoned, work best when the rights of the individual are respected and there is an agreed upon social contract that governs our interactions.

Like all rational systems, Hobbes’ thought is accurate and useful when applied in a certain manner within congenial circumstances. However, the less “natural” human relations become (the less familial and local) the more abstract contract comes to the fore.

I never had a “contract” with my parents or my siblings. We fought, disagreed, negotiated and solved a host of problems. Sometimes relationships were quite strained. Nevertheless they were always resolved amicably as kinship and kindness prevailed.

My father would have gladly loaned me money (had I needed it and he had it) without giving a thought to signing papers. He would likely have been offended had such a thing been suggested. But I would not expect the same from the strangers at the bank.

In a society of strangers, however, papers become essential. Indeed, in a society of strangers, the drive to greater and greater regulation and legal description of all manner of relationships is almost irresistible.

In time, the relationships themselves can be submerged to the larger interests of the regulations and the regulators themselves. Society becomes a mass of laws and the unique aspects of human existence suppressed as legal conformity takes center stage.

The drive of the modern world is towards productivity and consumption. That individual rights are also championed is perhaps an upside, but the effect of mass culture is homogenization. The more we consume, the more alike we become. Modern production is capable of tremendous variety, but the streets of Bangkok, Beijing, and Berlin all present the display of America’s ubiquitous blue jeans. We could be different, but we’re not.

Of course, the globalization of blue jeans is of little consequence. But it is symptomatic of a deeper homogenization. For we are not merely exporting fashion, we are exporting people. In a global economy, workers are expected to follow the work. The European Union moves ever forward towards a homogenous Europe. “Multiculturalism” and other popular monikers make such mobility and destruction of local cultures seem not only fashionable, but desirable.

But is it good for the human project?

The modern project, and its latest iteration, globalism, has come to largely define human beings in economic terms. Freedom, understood as the ability of the individual to choose and shape their own lives and destiny, is enlisted as an ally of maximum productivity and profit. If it is more productive to place a factory in Belgium, but to hire workers from Romania, then, uprooting communities (or just individuals) that have been stable for centuries, and moving them across a continent for work is not seen as destructive – rather it is hailed as opportunity. If a factory in a city is no longer as productive as it once was, closing it and moving it somewhere else (with tax incentives and lower wage costs) is considered normative. The destruction of a city with stable neighborhoods, families and schools is simply the price of doing business.

The result has been a growing shift of populations driven by economic concerns. Such shifts have happened throughout history, but often over multiple generations and in a more stable format. The modern speed of technology has quickened the pace of such change and overwhelmed the natural limits of human adaptation. We are left with very few “natural” bonds. We have kinsmen, but they often live at great remove. We live in communities with common economic concerns, but disparate religious and cultural background. Blue jeans and contemporary rock music make for a very thin cultural bond.

It is against this growing modern backdrop that Orthodoxy seeks to maintain the integrity of historical peoples and places. Orthodoxy is often Serbian, Russian, Romanian or Greek, etc., because people are naturally Serbian, Russian, Romanians or Greeks. There are peoples that most have never heard of outside of Eastern Europe (Ruthenians, Lemko, Gallicians, etc.) whose entire cultural identity would disappear were its religious customs homogenized. The preservation of the native peoples in Alaska (Aleut, Yupik, Tlingit, Inupiat) has been a careful work of Orthodoxy for the past two centuries. Today, there are many thousands of Mayan peoples in Guatemala who have been received into Orthodoxy, with a particular eye towards the preservation of their identity. This same pattern is true across the world. The Orthodox of Tanzania are distinctly African, and will remain so.

But respecting such natural affinities and cultures – particularly if they are given true worth and dignity, requires genuine deference and respect. The push towards various homogenizations of the Church (including the most sensible) can easily be driven by the same ideology that drives the general culture. We want an easily accessible Orthodoxy without cultural barriers and the inconvenience of kinship. The “strangers” from the mainstream modern cultures fail to see how foreign to the human project their own lack of kinship and local ties truly are.

The modern project will eventually fail. Ideologies that lack a grounding in nature will eventually crash under their own weight and the strange consequences of their ideas. The massive productivity that we presently enjoy will come to an end at some point. The  unnatural dislocations that we currently experience will cease. If we survive that collapse, the world that slowly rebuilds will likely have more natural affinities and practices. It is essential that the Church remember what it is to be human – for when we repent ourselves and seek to return – who else will know what it looks like?

In the meantime, we continue the work of God’s human project – restoring people to sanity and the holy Church of God.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



42 responses to “Orthodoxy and the Global Threat”

  1. Janis Schmidt Avatar

    This is an excellent article, percipient in its message. Thank you Fr. Stephan.

  2. James Blackstock Avatar
    James Blackstock

    This is interesting for me. I have been in Greek, Antiochian and OCA Churches. The cultural identities of some of these used to bother me a great deal. For instance; at a Greek Monastery during meals, a monk would read in greek. Only a small minority present at the monastery could understand what was being read. In response to my asking what was being read, they offered to start teaching me Greek! I am an American, and I really don’t want to learn another language. Now, I am no longer bothered by this, but, I don’t hang out in Greek Churches much anymore either. Away from the Church or monastery setting, I appreciate the bond of family and have many friends within the Greek Community. Unity in the jurisdictions seems but a distant dream. I just take the fellowship where I find it and don’t stress over it anymore. Church politics is just as bad as government politics.

  3. Elizabeth Avatar

    I am on the road to sanity, having been restored to a right relationship with my Jesus and am blessed to have been baptized into The Church only 3 weeks ago. Thank you Father, for all your posts and comments to questions which have been so very meaningful and even crucial to my formation as an orthodox soul.

    Lord, help me to stay always on the path of repentance and growth in virtues. Pray that my Husband and children will be drawn as I was to the True faith and church. I weep for them as for myself.

  4. Tim Avatar

    Father, thank you so much for your ministry through this blog. I read every post and have been much blessed by it. I certainly understand and appreciate your perspective on globalism and the experience of God in the relatedness of particular communities. I thank God for Greek and Russian and Antiochian communities. My struggle is finding a particularly genuine American community that is, of course, linked through Christ and Orthodox teaching to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. If Greek and Russian then why not American too? Perhaps I have not visited enough parishes to find that. I know cultural differences should not stand in the way of truth but it is a struggle for me and some of my friends. I would appreciate your prayers and advice.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes. There are many, many American communities, and an increasing number – it’s where the real growth is. We should be impatient in prayer, importuning God and the saints for this. Few things are as hard as successfully being part of a mission plant and growing a Church. It has been the primary work of my Orthodox life for the past 16 years. It has had up’s and down’s – joys and heartbreaks. But I would not want to do anything different. It is – my life work – by God’s grace when I finish my course I want to be buried here and remain part of this beloved community that has become my life.

    We must all be in this for the long run – the eternal run. We are sowing seeds and growing a work that will only reveal itself (very likely) after we’re dead. This is the real nature of true mission. We sow in hope – but what is seen is not hope. This is our great faith – to have offered a life for what we do not see because we long for a better home. I long for a better America, a better Europe and a single life is all I have to give.

    The modern project wants short-term results, but is begetting long-term disasters. The destruction of the family (extended family as well) is one of the most outstanding products of the modern project. It will take generations to repair the damage done. But that is our task (among so much else).

    But we don’t really do any of this for a better world – but in faithfulness to the Kingdom which is already coming. God give us all grace to stay the course.

  6. Corey Avatar

    I can agree to a certain degree Father. However, and I’m not certain if what you have said actually disagrees with this, parishes can’t become isolated enclaves of Greek-ness or Russian-ness. Historically, wherever the church goes it has adopted the local customs and speech. When Saint Cyril and Methodius went to the Slavs, among their first concerns was translated the services into the native tongue (even inventing an alphabet to do so in if I’m not mistaken). Granted, American parishes haven’t been missionary endeavors, and when all the early immigrants spoke Greek or Russian then speaking the native tongue made sense. But that’s not the case anymore. I’ve heard of some parishes being billed as “convert-oriented.” That’s a big problem. Every parish should be convert-oriented, at least in the sense that bringing people into the Holy Orthodox Church is a concern of theirs. I’ve known some of my convert friends to be met with stares of astonishment on the part of cradle-Orthodox when they learn that they converted. They’ve even been asked why they are Orthodox if they are not Greek or Russian. Obviously the native influences cannot be done away with, and I wouldn’t want them to. But at least the language barrier needs to come down. Far too many people end up turning away from the Church because they decide that they’re not welcome. Mind you, as I’m writing this I’m not sure if Father Stephen would disagree with me. If I’ve misinterpreted what you have said above, please forgive me Father.

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Americans in particular lack rootedness. We flit about on the top of things refusing to put down roots.

    Those that attempt to import their roots as if they were still where they came from are the same just the other side of the coin.

    The challenge is to put down Orthodox roots into this land out of love of it and the peoples. There is much to draw from, but there is no instruction manual.

    A friend of mine whose Orthodox heritage goes back to Apostolic times has told me: if you aren’t a convert, you aren’t Orthodox.

    No one is born Orthodox. Everyone has to be received; Baptized and Christmated.

    Americans are a hard people to love because we are so often unsure of our own identity. We more than most have been consumed by the modern.

    May God have mercy on us.

  8. Dino Avatar

    The knowledge that

    The modern project wants short-term results, but is begetting long-term disasters

    brings to mind that embracing the exact reverse, – i.e.:short-term pains for the sake of long-term results -, in our spiritual warfare as persons and as ‘Man’, can be done with more joyfulness and hope, despite the short-term difficulties.
    As joy will start to be felt as lacking in modernity, I think that Orthodoxy, rightly lived, will exert a greater attraction due to the joy seen in its joyous yet vigilant disciples.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    I do not disagree – at least in part. But one implication of what I’ve said is that we should see the implication of America as a dominant generator of the modern project. It’s almost a “devil’s bargain.” Lose distinctives, which are inherently human, in order to gain what could become a very homogenized inhuman Orthodoxy. Time and patience helps. But for generics like me, it is good to remember that many of these “ethnic” challenges are precisely challenges because of their humanity.

    It is a very difficult problem with genuine theological ramifications – not just mission growth and assimilation. My article suggests that we should step back and consider what is theologically at stake, then return with greater understanding and wisdom.

  10. Dean Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    Thank you for this excellent article. Speaking of homogenization of culture….I just heard that our government now wants to make preschool compulsory, taking our children away from family roots even earlier. Lord have mercy!
    I’m old enough to remember times not long after WWll. Our little church was an old war barracks on stilts, even had an old pot-bellied stove in corner. Most of the congregation was comprised of families from Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
    What a journey God has taken us on in the intervening years
    For the last 11 we’ve worshipped in a Greek Orthodox monastery. We see new people every Sunday from every corner of the globe (over the course of each year). What a wonderful experience this is to have brothers and sisters from so many ethnicities and nationalities! When we first went to the monastery I too was bothered by all the Greek seeing that we are in America. But this no longer causes me concern. What we gain in rooted Orthodox spirituality from a gerontissa from Greece and her wisdom far outweigh any language barrier (liturgies are in Greek and she has learned to speak English). So I thank our good God for true eucumenism in the best sense of the word. The Arkansas drawl still tugs at my heart but I too am now at home surrounded by a symphony of foreign tongues.

  11. Jeff Avatar

    Even tho it’s academic, all knowledge is situated, historicized, limited , fractured and partial and connected to our positionality., ‘ situated knowledge ‘ is inevitably autobiographical ‘, our knowing is always a view from somewhere, not ‘everywhere’ …., even ‘modernity ‘, ‘ pluralistic belief systems , globalism , ecumenism …, can be simple human endeavors , ..in their own right

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes. but. All human activity is, by definition, “human.” Tautologies rarely shed light. The “human” endeavor of globalism is, more or less, “Let’s see what happens if we decide that economics is all that matters – disregard family, history, and every form of inherited culture, and just define ourselves by our jobs and the market…” It’s “human.” But…

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    There is a great little book: The End of Indian Kansas which highlights the erosion of the native cultures and their connection to the land.

  14. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Off-topic. Fr Stephen,
    I am unable to access the blog except through my phone. There is popup for VIO player obstructing. I have scanned for viruses on my end. Happens only on this blog. Happens on 2 different computers . I read online that this could be a sign that the site is infected by malware. (Talk about global threat!) Just wanted to let you know in case it is a problem on your end.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think it’s on the website. I’ve alerted my IT person. Hope to have it cleared up tomorrow.

  16. Paula Avatar

    Interesting topic. I think, as globalism progresses, we will find that it will not actually homogenize human life, but will create a new context within which kinship organizations are formed and strengthened. Commercial globalism acts on a macro level while people live on a micro level. Financial hardships, depressed local economies and long-term unemployment happen BECAUSE people don’t move to where the jobs are for the most part.

    Having said that, I am the pivot point in my family tree. I moved away from my family, joined an OCA parish because my children and I do not speak Serbian, and have created the “new line” of Orthodoxy in my family for future generations. This could not have been successful without the strong ethnic roots that ground me, because I otherwise would not have been able to create that transition for my family. I am not turning the ship as protestant converts to Orthodoxy must, due to the profound differences in paradigm, but rather navigating the current. My kids are equally comfortable in their ancestral ethnic parish as they are in their American parish. I foresee the day down the road when American speaking parishes are purchasing the old ethnic churches and properties.

    It is nearly impossible, I think, for an ethnic parish to successfully evangelize an English speaking populace when they have done such a bad job of evangelizing their formerly communist brethren who have been unchurched for a couple generations and are now here in the US where religious freedom is one of our rights. The ethnic parishes have to move from a mindset of preservation for an embattled minority to schooling, education and evangelization for their own to bring them back to Christ.

  17. Joe Avatar

    I just don’t understand how there can be more than a dozen Catholic churches in my city alone, some of them even Korean or Vietnamese and yet only two small Orthodox churches, both of which are cultural churches (Greek and Russian). I have no ties to Greece and any ties to Russia involve Russians killing my ancestors in the camps. Not that I hold a grudge against all Russians for all time or even towards those in particular, but neither do I have a desire to become a part of these cultural churches and affirm the apparent laziness and insularity of Orthodoxy. It’s difficult for me because I felt as it I’d found something wonderful when I began reading Orthodoxy theology, but I am discouraged beyond measure that even after a century and more of being in America it remains so small and detached as to fill me with doubts about it’s very truthfulness.

  18. Ezekiel Avatar

    Interesting comments.

    We came home to holy Orthodoxy over 8 years ago. We are part of a Greek Orthodox community primarily because former parishioners of mine (I had been a Lutheran pastor for 33 years) returned to Orthodoxy just prior to my coming home to Orthodoxy. Since that time, in our travels, we have been in Greek communities, Antiochian parishes, OCA parishes as we’ve visited. We’ve rejoiced that in spite of some differing traditions, we are bound in one confession!

    Some years on returning from Pascha Liturgy, my wife and I were talking of the marvelous fact that around the world, the same prayers and Liturgy were served, albeit in different languages and lands.

    I would love to see Orthodox communities all over, to be sure — but our times militate against such a thing: it is the ancient faith. The early church was sorely persecuted, and not successful by certain current standards. We will be taking up our crosses, to be sure, and following Christ our God. The gates of hell will not prevail against His Church.

  19. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think your observations are “spot on” as the British say. America really has little choice than to proceed as you’ve described. My point was the larger subject, and to understand what the Patriarchs must grapple with in the issue of “globalism.” On the local level, we must be patient, but must evangelize and teach and get on with the task of being the Church.

  20. Dean Avatar

    I too pray for and long to see the Church grow here in the USA. I did read that during metropolitan Philip’s ministry and under his tutelage that the Antiochian Orthodox Church here in America grew from some 60 parishes to over 240. Growth alone cannot be seen as a measure of truthfulness of doctrine. If that were so then we might have to say that Mormonism is true since they have seen such growth in their history. You mentioned Catholicism. It has a much longer history than Orthodoxy here and worldwide is much larger. As Ezekiel noted above our faith is ancient and certain things do mitigate against rapid growth in our culture. I and a friend started an evangelical church some 35 years ago. We were “successful” because we needed only a guitar, a living room and outreach into the community. Within months we had over 40 in attendance. Starting an Orthodox Church is another matter indeed as those who have helped in Orthodox missions know.

  21. Dean Avatar

    I failed to mention that one reason for the growth of the Antiochian Church was that many were brought in en masse as whole congregations or groups.

  22. Karen Avatar

    Speaking as a former Evangelical, I do think we have to be mindful what culture we are importing into our American Orthodoxy. With respect to that, it seems the reception “en masse” of members of the EOC in the ’80s had its down side as well as the up, both of which need to be acknowledged and worked through. One of the things that drove me into Orthodoxy was the promise it held out for the full restoration of my sense of personhood and the meaning of salvation as our communion in Christ. After decades as an Evangelical, the repeated message that my purpose here on earth was not union with God so much as it was allowing myself to be His instrument to “win others to Christ.” In other words, there was a strong message that my value to God had to do with my “tool” value and performance, not my being a person created in His image for communion with Him.

  23. Jeff Avatar

    This is interesting , he keeps the subject very human


  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, would you say that it almost comes down to each parish building its own particular identity within the Holy Tradition? Working to keep its young people closer so that they don’t all move away forever?

  25. Eleftheria Avatar

    Forgive my intrusion. It’s not just each parish working together, on its own. For Orthodoxy to make deep roots, it requires intact families, extended families – all working together within the parish, and even from parish to parish…sigh. May the Lord grant that this be – not only back home, in the States, but everywhere.
    In Christ,

  26. Joe Avatar


    The trouble is that in many places you simply can’t find an orthodox church and even when you do, it often feels terribly unwelcoming. Unless you are absolutely certain that you want to become Orthodox, the obstacles to even exploring it can be harsh. This is not everyone’s experience obviously, but there’s a coldness amongst many Orthodox which is difficult to overcome or to even develop the desire to want to. Maybe it’s an Eastern European thing.

    For the most part I still feel enthusiastic about Orthodox theology, but the church itself is another matter. I have great difficulty and hesitation about moving forward. It feels like so much is an apologia over how the churches approach is right in all things and how it’s the surrounding culture which is wrong, but much like Basil encouraged his students to find the light in pagan literature, maybe the Orthodox would do well to find the light in whatever culture they find themselves in. It’s the whole light on a hill thing. There’s an Orthodox church 3 miles from me and in the 25 years I’ve lived hear I had no idea. That keep that light covered up well.

  27. fatherstephen Avatar

    There is little doubt that it is difficult to find an Orthodox Church in some places – and sometimes what you find is not what you want. It is sad but true – the mission work in America is still quite young.

    As for light – my experience is that the Church indeed finds light in the surrounding culture. That doesn’t mean that it necessarily imports it into its services. That would be another thing indeed.

    But there is far more engagement than some would think – I am sorry that your experience has not been positive.

  28. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Eleftheria, yes you are right, but it has to start somewhere and it takes time–decades just to get a good foundation. Time is something many of we ‘mericans are simply unwilling to give.

    If it doesn’t happen now, well, too bad. Trite observation but it is one of the major difficulties many who come to the Church later in life have.

    Joe’s experience is another: the behavior on the ground in real life does not seem to mirror the theology. He is correct of course. The Church is full of sinners.

    My initial reception into the Church was far from warm although not completely cold either. There was instances of ethno-centric hatred against my wife and I. It would have been easy not to go forward except for one thing: Jesus was in the Church, in the local community I entered.

    I’ve since moved across town to a parish that is much more of a fit for me personally even though I don’t really fit with the prevailing demographics. I hope I never get comfortable.

    Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

    It took the early Church roughly 700 years to assimilate and process and mine the Greek pagan culture. Then the Latins sorta threw out that work and started over again without the benefit of ever living in it.

    What is the American culture? What do we have to build on, refine and offer up to God for sanctification?

    The secular materialism that dominates today makes it difficult to find much of anything.

    What it does is make people hungry for the truth–eventually.

    We have to find our own balance point neither retreating into a false mythos of the “old country” or embracing a triumphalist modernism.

    In a consumer culture, the Church has no shelf space and is not an anchor at the mall of faith. It is the small boutique place that few have heard of that is off the beaten path.

    My parish has, over about 30 years, begun to build a foundation (with little to no help from me) that includes a daily services, catechumen classes that go on year around, works of charity with other Christian organizations and our own as well, an Orthodox school(expanding into 4th grade this year) and plans to build a monastery and more. We support mission parishes around us (but we are a cathedral parish with a dynamic bishop to set the vision).

    We are becoming visible after 80+ years in the town, but even so I am not sure most folks know we are Orthodox or what that means or why they should care. Forty years ago we were just another ethnic parish on the bad side of town known mostly for the bad behavior of some of the parishioners.

    Each of the parishes here in town has a distinct identity of their own while still remaining completely Orthodox. We are all Antiochian, so that helps but still, each is different.

    My son’s generation gets to continue to build, by the grace of God.

    Father Stephen’s parish is doing a similar work as is my brother’s in Indianapolis–which probably has more Orthodox parishes than any city between the coasts except Chicago.

    There is a lot to hope in but also a lot of challenges to carving out and living an authentic Orthodox life in this country. The more I find out about what folks are doing in various jurisdictions around the country, the more hopeful I become (an I am not a natural optimist).

  29. Dean Avatar

    I obviously do not know your situation. However, I have done so and I know of others who have traveled many miles each Sunday to find an Orthodox church (if the one nearby is not welcoming). One couple drove 140 miles each way for about 7 years before moving close to the parish. We drove over 70 miles for over 5 to help with a mission. However, each person’s circumstances and finances are different. I believe though that I found the pearl of great price in Orthodoxy. Karen’s comment about union with Christ instead of one feeling he/she had to perform echo much Of what I have found in the ancient faith. I sometimes tell others that I feel after each liturgy that I have been born again “again” ! I do know that churches can be cliquish but don’t be put off by the few. I have found great love and acceptance from many ethnic orthodox.

  30. drewster2000 Avatar


    I very much feel your pain. This has been my experience as well. Reading Alexander Schmemann and others made my heart burn within me: yes! Finally someone saying and writing what I’ve always felt to be true! But then searching for such a church seems to be just a frustrating pipe dream.

    What I’ve come to understand is that two things are true at once:

    Much is spoken of in books that is simply more an ideal than a reality, and even what is actually experienced does not necessary happen everywhere or all the time.

    I’m a product of my culture. I want it when I want it, where I want it – and in whatever form I ask for it. Real life simply isn’t like that.

    After the honeymoon period of discovering Orthodox theology, I slowly came to face the fact that (at least here in North America) one has to make a decision: live with the familiar crowd in public and practice the wonderful theology almost kind of in private, as it were, or throw myself at the feet of the group that seems to be as close as I can get – and be willing to wade through the tedious, the uninviting, the various frustrating roadblocks – with the mindset that it’s okay if it takes my whole life because what else is my life for anyway.

    I wish I had a better answer for you – because then I would have it too! God bless you in your search.

  31. James Blackstock Avatar
    James Blackstock

    Thanks Fr. Stephen, you took the words right out of my mouth! 🙂

  32. Joe Avatar

    I appreciate the various responses. I hear what’s being said. In truth for me, I’ve become weary, though not overly cynical I think. I’ve been searching for the answer to this question of the church since 2008. Even for the last three years I’ve lived with the strong suspicion that Orthodoxy was it, but I have no zeal left. I’m worn out from the search and the disappointments and just general difficulties in life with health and finances and loneliness. I’ve heard the church refereed to as a hospital of sorts, but even in meeting with a priest it seems like the grounds for ascetic struggle the likes of which I don’t know if I’m prepared to undertake. Not that I don’t want to in an ultimate sense, but I am just so tired by life. I’ve watched another friend rush into Orthodoxy only to emerge a year or so later as an atheist. I don’t want the same for me.

  33. Matt Avatar


    It might be good to find an Orthodox priest who

    a) speaks English fluently
    b) is reasonably well-versed in English-speaking North American culture and
    c) has dealt amicably with atheists from time to time,

    and talk to them (email if necessary) in private about some of the specific problems you’re having, without holding back the way one might have to on a moderated comment page. Your problems may not be quite as insurmountable as they may seem (to you or others, including priests, who may not have all the necessary context), and some of the problems you’ve encountered may be a matter of the other person assuming things about where you’re coming from.

    (It is for that same problem of making assumptions that I suggest you do this in private instead of hashing it out on a forum like this, where any one of us might end up prematurely responding with something well-intentioned but ultimately counterproductive.)

  34. Janis Schmidt Avatar

    You might consider coming to North Dakota, since there is a large population of Russian Orthodox here, having settled in North Dakota at the turn of the century.

  35. Bruce Newman Avatar
    Bruce Newman

    I truly appreciate this write. I am a Catholic who gets much out of Orthodoxy. This particular write answered very well for me the question that had been in my own mind about the binding of Orthodoxy with nationalities. Father Stephen, you promote understanding. Understanding is a precious buffer against hastiness and caprice. It’s a great and undervalued service.

    …to get understanding is to be chosen rather than silver. Prov. 16:6.

  36. fatherstephen Avatar

    Part of the courage of Antioch was to accept the evangelicals how came to them as a group. They first approached the OCA, the most logical place for them to have gone – but the OCA’s own newly granted autocephaly (and the controversy surrounding it) did not give them the confidence needed to deal with this novel situation. Constantinople blinked and Antioch took the ball and ran with it. For about a decade, those Churches were given a lot of latitude which brought much criticism. But Antioch was wise and patient and knew that time would take care of things. I think the extremely fluid situation in Syria (particularly between Orthodox and Maronite, etc.) gave them more confidence – plus an unassailable pedigree. Those parishes settled down and are bedrocks of Orthodoxy in America having brought talent, energy, vocations, and more than can ever be measured. They have been something of a “re-birth” or renaissance of Orthodoxy in America, certainly in a collateral manner. Met. Philip (memory eternal!) is owed much by American Orthodoxy.

  37. Brendan Avatar

    This is a very interesting article, Father — I’ve often thought of some of the same things concerning the general breakdown of ties of kinship in our almost overwhelmingly mobile way of life.

    I do think that, in the US at least and perhaps also in parts of the the European west, people are still “tribal” to some degree, but … their tribes are “choice tribes”. Of course, because these aren’t “givens” like family, ethnicity and so on, they fit more cleanly into the modern and post-modern emphasis on self-actualization, self-definition and so on. And in part it is that, but it’s also in part trying to fulfill a need — often badly — that people have to feel a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves — to fulfill that lose sense of connection to kith and kin in a world that can be dense yet full of strangers.

    I see a potential problem here for Orthodoxy in the US at least, in that we run the risk, with some newcomers in particular, of being another “choice tribe”. This can manifest in at least a couple of ways: one is the desire to create, almost instantly, an “American” Orthodox tribe which is not associated with a historical Orthodox ethnos, and another is the desire to inculturate (or “go native”) into an adopted historical Orthodox ethnos as a part of one’s Orthodoxy.

    I see each of these as potentially problematic. The first is fine as an ultimate goal, but the reality is that it is a work in progress and will be for a long time, while at the same time it must also be said that any authentically American Orthodoxy would of course embrace the “ethnic” churches that have been here for a long time, and which form the foundation of Orthodoxy in the West. The second is understandable from a personal point of view, but can lead to a sense of alienation from the larger culture, which can eventually lead to a great deal of tension, and perhaps disenchantment when the person tires, as many eventually do, of their inculturated ethnos (this happens less often in cases where the newcomer marries into the ethnos, of course).

    More fundamentally, however, I think the problem lies in Orthodoxy being for some (many?) newcomers are specific kind of “choice tribe” that is used to delineate themselves from the ambient culture. This is understandable (and is something non-Orthodox Christians seem to have a tendency to do in our culture increasingly as well), but it can also reinforce the kind of problem you are talking about here by reinforcing the kind of “self-defined tribe” idea that is a part of the acid corroding the cohesion of society from the inside out.

    Perhaps this approach is a “least worst” option in the context of a social order that appears bent on self-destruction, but perhaps also we would do well to understand just what is happening in terms of self-definition (i.e., how actually *consonant* it is, in many ways, with our modern/post-modern culture to do this), as well as the risk that the self-definition can always be subject to further development, including right out of this choice tribe and into a different one.

  38. Karen Avatar

    Brendan, good observations. “Choice tribe”–I’ve got another oxymoron to add to my list! 🙂

  39. drewster2000 Avatar

    As a member of one of the remaining EOC churches, I’m very attentive to discussions like this. Brendan says some good things on the topic, but his most important point is perhaps that there is no clear-cut answer to this dilemma.

    I agree, but I tend to go with the “grow where you’re planted” philosophy. This of course does not include staying in abusive or harmful situations; it’s simply speaking to the modern tendency to flit around like a butterfly to the next flower that suits our fancy – until a slight breeze makes us skittish enough (or bored enough or wowed enough) to take off for the next one.

    Fr. Stephen spoke above of Antioch’s wisdom and patience in letting time sort things out. This kind of thing is what I’m referring to. There are many motivations for change. Change is good – in the right time and place. I believe it was Schmemann who was famous for saying that “sometimes things must change to remain the same”.

    The saying lives on because it is so true, but it’s very interesting to watch people use it. Some focus exclusively on the change, while others on remaining the same. Neither is the complete answer; both change and remaining the same are healthy and necessary parts of life.

    I’ll stop pontificating now….

  40. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Brendan, many good observations. I think the one think that can prevent the “choice tribe” you describe within the Orthodox Church is the sacramental life and the real, deep communion that that life creates.

    A person has to give themselves over to that however and allow the time it takes to be reshaped. I was received by the Church 27 years ago, but it is just now that I’m beginning to feel part of her. My lovely wife was Christmated four years ago and its like, in many ways, as if she has been here all her life (but she is a unique and special lady). In the kitchen one day with a bunch of the Arabic sittis, she brought up the topic and was told in no uncertain terms she was one of them, an adopted sitti(grandmother).

    The American Orthodox Church will not be monochrome or mono-ethnic, it isn’t now. My home parish is, I think, an excellent example: Arabs(mostly still); Greeks, French, Romanians, Russians, Ethiopians, Copts(non-communing), plus Anglos, Native American, Afro-Americans and I’m sure I’m missing a few. The Paschal Season is rich with many different languages. We have the opportunity to draw on the entire Orthodox experience in ways that were simply not possible before to meet the challenges of this land and this time.

    Sociologically, one of the difficulties with a tribal culture has been its inflexibility and inability to adapt. The Church does not have that problem when She is acting in accord with the Holy Spirit.

  41. Dino Avatar

    I agree with Michael here. The measure in which all the solutions to all our problems fall more and more into place is according to the intensity of our union to Christ.

  42. Karen Avatar

    Dino, absolutely. That is the key.

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