Sunday, April 22, 2007

Orthopraxy, Not Orthodoxy

It turns out that what I am seeking is orthopraxy, not orthodoxy. As a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church, I am confident that that which is taught and that which I believe is orthodox as well as Orthodox.

Orthodoxia: Right belief. Right praise.

What I seek is right practice.

I don't think I am alone in this search. My brother, a Baptist pastor, is devouring books on the holiness movement of the Puritans, on the theologian John Owen ... and this is part of the same need, I think. He wants to be holy, and he wants to know how to get there. We live in a culture where moral absolutes are dead, where the Church (or church) can and will no longer teach us how to live. It wouldn't dare.

This theme is not going to disappear lightly. I have been thinking about this for months, if not years, and I am dissatisfied. [At the end of this post I will offer a solution, but it is a weak one.] I know too many converts who glory in their knowledge and in their Orthodox Christian wisdom, and too few that actually desire to embrace Holy Tradition and live a radically Orthodox life, not merely a Protestant or Catholic one in Orthodox vestments. And I know too many priests who are unwilling to tell people how to live their lives ... too gentle? too pastoral?

Sheep are herded away from danger, away from the wolf and cliff, back into the flock. Even they have an orthopraxis, if you will. Where is the small dog yapping at my heels and nipping my flank to keep me from danger, to show me the right path to walk?

In the weeks since I posted on this theme, I have heard from and I have talked with numerous people.

Les of Whippleshire tells me that I should become the book I seek, the book that teaches this aforementioned orthopraxy. This is well and good, but it hardly serves to help me here and now. Another friend asked me if my discernment wasn't good enough. Well, no. It took Israel from the time of Moses to the time of John Forerunner to prepare itself culturally for the reception of Christ. It took Rome and Greece untold thousands of martyrs for the land to become fruitful enough to embrace Christianity. It took Russia hundreds of years to become fully Orthodox, to establish a working orthopraxy for tsar, boyar, peasant and serf. Can I replicate 3000 years of history in the 50 years or so I have left to live? Can I suffer deep enough, pray powerfully enough, read thoroughly enough, understand myself and God well enough, and yet remain humble enough to gain the wisdom of the Church in one short lifetime? Again, no.

I don't mind becoming the book I seek, but I want the Church to be the hand that writes the pages.

Les, whose thoughts I always appreciate, then takes the issue over to his own blog, where he too wrestles with it. He gives it a uniquely Catholic spin, and points the finger at the unfortunate tragedy of the post-industrialized hyper-technological anti-pastoral rat-race that is modern "civilization". True enough, but tangential. More pertinently, he writes:

But this is the paradox, is it not? We know we are saved by grace yet we find comfort in parameters. Even the “free” Evangelical falls into this practical way of living often without even realizing it. It is natural for us to desire freedom and at the same time we desire authoritative boundaries. The problem with boundaries is that if we don’t set them ourselves, sooner or later we will see them as someone else’s boundaries and begin to chafe against them. In the Protestant world this usually results in a new denomination. Dissension and fragmentation has been raised to an art form, if not a virtue. Yet in practice, the layman defers to an authority, despite the fact that ultimately his theological position is that the Scripture is his only authority.
We need more than an open field. We need to have some parameters. I am not a "free Evangelical" like my brother, but I see him struggling with the same pastoral landscape without a pastor to pastor us.

Les makes the intriguing claim that part of our problem in trying to live rightly is that our culture is post-Christian as well as post-lapsarian. That orthopraxy stumbles upon the scandal of a world that displays banner-like the tattered remnants of Christendom but is militantly and aggressively anti. The problem with this diagnosis is that, accurate as it is (and it is woefully so), the Orthodoxy that I know has no orthopraxy to stumble with. That I struggle to find the border between field and forest, that my co-religionists and I are confused between canine and lupine, between the flank-nipping safety of what is right and the moral confusion of all that is secular and predatory.

We need catechesis.

Happily, I found this, which is part of a larger series by Fr. Jonathan Tobias [thanks, Lifespark, for the reference] - I urge one and all to read the entire series, and this article in its entirety:

[...] In the most important ways, the Christian ethos typified by the Beatitudes is the adult culture into which our youth must be assimilated. That maturational process of spiritual assimilation is precisely the catechetical work of what is known as “youth ministry.” At least, it should be.

But there are other concerns and “folk-ways” that are not addressed explicitly by the Beatitudes, the Apostolic Witness, or the corpus of Holy Tradition. I am thinking here, in particular, of what a common culture really ought to offer – concerns that are as basic as what to wear and what (and how) to eat … how to celebrate feasts and how to observe the fasts … how to celebrate truly happy events and how to mourn at tragedies … how to become an adult, and make the transition from passionate teenage to wise adult. Moreover, a common "adult" culture ought to identify who should lead, and how they ought to be followed.

[...] Our memories (whether accurate or not) of the Byzantine Empire or Tsarist Russia do not contain the DNA by which we can clone an alternative to pop culture. Neither can the monastery be used as a model for such an alternative culture: many well-meaning Christians attempt this, but it is not right. Monastic spirituality is for all of us, but not its typicon. I hate to bring up this disappointing news, and I’m sure there will be some who will take umbrage, if not offense. But the fact remains that these ideas are not “real cultures” – they are romantic ideals, but they do not provide what a culture needs to provide.

And yet, at the very moment I dismiss the ghosts of Great Empire and contravene the appeal of the skete, I immediately hasten to suggest that there is a providential reason why God brought to America the great mass of Orthodox people when He did.

One can argue that after a thousand years of uninterrupted progress, the advance of Western Civilization lurched to a grinding halt in 1914, right before the Great War. [...] It was the time when the adult culture of the West all but disappeared, and wisdom fled into ivory towers, old wives’ tales, and little houses.

It was in this season, in these decades, that God brought to America the Orthodox people who were not only Orthodox, but were people from intact adult cultures – cultures that still knew how to fast and feast, how to mourn together and dance in groups, how to marry and embrace adulthood and old age as a good and not regrettable thing.

I suggest here, in not so many words, that God brought these same people not only to bring Orthodoxy to America, but also to bring their culture.

So for us “youth ministers,” I suggest these things [...]:

  1. We must catechize simply and clearly from doctrine.
  2. We must criticize culture sharply, while encouraging youth to enter adulthood.
  3. We must utilize our own ethnic culture as a Divine gift – even for those of us transplants who are “grafted in” to these ethnicities – which can replace and complete that which is lacking in today’s pop culture. It will have to be an ethnic culture as transmitted primarily in English, for that is the only way in America that an ethnic culture should survive.

For myself, this means that I look to the Carpatho-Rusin culture as a providential storehouse of wisdom and folkways for my parochial young. For others, that would mean the use of Greek culture, or Russian, or Serbian, or Syrian, or Ukrainian.


Youth ministry requires an Orthodoxy unashamed, and an embrace of the ways of naši ludi ["our people" --- V].

What Fr. Tobias tells us in one of the omitted portions is that we are all youth, that our culture is youth enshrined, and that this catechesis is necessary for one and all.

A catechesis from doctrine - excellent.

A sharp criticism of our culture - I think our Churches are terribly weak on this point.

A plundering of the storehouse of wisdom and folkways from ethnic culture to replace and complete pop culture - and here I mourn. Here, at the crux, the climax of his post, I realize that I am still without a tutor.

Here is the solution, but it is a weak one (at least for me, as I must needs re-personalize this post). For it requires second- or third-generation Orthodox immigrants who are still practising their culture and their Orthodoxy and it requires access to these people. Where I live, the second generation threw off their Orthodoxy and became Protestant or non-practising and there is no third generation.

[Still to come, Boutique Orthodoxy.]

- V.


elizabeth said...

a challenging search.

i was talking with a good friend of mine who is from a ethnically orthodox country and came to faith as an adult, as her country was communist, etc... and we discussed that converts (such as myself) have no cultural memory of orthdoxy, of the church - and so we lack basic understandings that those, who perhaps rarely if ever went to church, still had because they grew up in an orthodox country.

it can be shocking for me to realize that i have no cultual memory of the Church that is becoming my home; and the assimulation into it, (spelling?) is a long process...

yet i do not fully dispair. i see in one of my favourite english authors various parts of the truth that i see in orthodoxy (the little i know) and even though she got mixed up on some things, she was given a great deal of understanding...

for me i want to understand what i have joined and still also understand what i have left...

to live in these times, it is a great challenge.

may God have mercy on us...

V & E said...

Yes, indeed. A challenging search, and a struggle towards hope. May God indeed show us His lovingkindness and His mercy.

I am curious, however - Elizabeth, who is this "favourite english author" that was given a great deal of understanding of truth?

For myself, I feel that the most Orthodox non-Orthodox writer was George MacDonald - may the sod lay light upon him, and may his memory never fade.


elizabeth said...

Elizabeth Goudge

_the scent of water_ by her changed me ... a change that i hope is similar to the change that_phantastes_ did within CS Lewis...

when i finished reading this book the first time, when i was 19, i looked out the window of my dorm room and realized the flowers outside my window looked brighter.

it plunged me into a deep reality that has never stopped; as if it was part of my baptism, 18 plus years later...

i read her _the middle window_ when i was in my early to mid twenties and learned about faith and darkness

when i was soon to become enveloped into the orthodox church, but did not know it yet, her _Green Dolphin Street_ was used to bring me to a state of weeping for home - it was a line about the dead knowing us more than the living - that brought me to this state... i was in the church within half a year later...

she knew a lot and i think she knew it from the heart, not the mind. she did not get everthing right, but her books for me contain great riches.

Anonymous said...

I thank God and cry out to Him almost involuntarily "I love you!" at those precious times when the Holy Spirit has moved me to see or feel a deep insight that may be almost inexpressible in words, and as you say, the beauty around us is enhanced so vividly, and we can see Jesus in the people around us. Perhaps this is a glimpse of heaven?
Thanks for the consideration of my comments. I felt they were quite inadequate to your quest.
From a Catholic perspective, and as one who is learning the culture I have noticed that there is a lot more to this enculturation than I had realized. It happens in small ways.
For example, I was reading an article about Benedict XVI as a youth. Young Joseph Ratzinger told of Easter morning going at dawn to Mass. The windows of the church were all covered from the inside with dark cloth and at the point of the Liturgy when it is announced "He is Risen!" the cloths were torn from the windows and the bright morning light would stream in. I can picture that. What an appropriate and striking visual emphasis.
But nobody I've talked to about the practice has ever heard of it. It may have been peculiar to that parish in Germany or perhaps to Germany itself.
I guess my point is that we have a great leeway in terms of culture within the Catholic Church. That practice in Germany is no-where written in the official Roman liturgy. It is the same with devotion to saints in some parishes and feast-days of the parish namesake. In some ways it is up to the local community.
I think that orthopraxy must be both "orthodox" and "practical." By that I mean that it has to take the local culture and economic realities into account. A community of farmers will operate on a different schedule that a community of city-dwelling office workers. And at times the individual finds it difficult to fit into the community schedule if his particular occupation does not mesh well. I find this has been my experience from the day of my conversion. I'm gone 12-14 hrs per day and at unpredictable hours. Virtually any mid-week church activity is a non-starter for me. My primary God-given responsibility is to my family, and the community comes second. But on weekends, I'm there with bells on, helping any way I can.
Another example. A woman in our parish had a relative, a soldier, killed in Afganistan. Because it was important to her she started a devotion, a rosary prayed at 4 o'clock every Saturday for the soldiers killed. She brings their photos and many people come out early for 4:30 Mass to pray. She just felt the call, checked with Father and did it. Sometimes that's how things get started.

In terms of catechesis, feel free to borrow from the Catechism of the Catholic Church on line. It is Roman, of course, but in terms of doctrine, aside from some glaring differences, it can have some useful approaches to issues. I look at it this way, if the Protestants have a good idea, I'll borrow it and certainly, what reading I have done from the Orthodox perspective has shed light on subjects in a way that I find enriching.

Anonymous said...

I have to say v, I understand your quest better the more times I read your post.
I would add, whatever you find in terms of a tutor or source, the end result will be a synthesis of the old and new. Having said that, I hope you do find that authoritative source for not only the practical catechesis but the culture as well, right down to the minute and mundane details.
Roots and tradition have been given a bad name by our popular western culture, probably because holding onto the past is not profitable in a consumer market in which products are changed for the sake of inducing sales.
Think about this, even the Apostles had a traditional context to their liturgy and practice. They were on a steep learning curve, albeit empowered by the Holy Spirit, but their liturgical context was the Jewish synagogue.
This was highlighted for me one day listening to a Jewish woman who converted to Evangelical Protestantism and from there to Catholicism. She said that the first time she saw the Mass, she recognized it. She said that it was distinctively Jewish, but with the Messiah included. So that heritage has stayed for 2000 years, shaped, formed, renewed but in essence the same, formed by the Apostles, all of whom were Jews. The Orthodox liturgy has no doubt carried that same continuity from its earliest beginnings.
I know that you are looking beyond the liturgy, but we have a saying in the Roman Church, "lex orandi, lex credendi" so that the prayers are the first instructor of the faith.

Anonymous said...

V, you said: "I know too many converts who glory in their knowledge and in their Orthodox Christian wisdom, and too few that actually desire to embrace Holy Tradition and live a radically Orthodox life, not merely a Protestant or Catholic one in Orthodox vestments. And I know too many priests who are unwilling to tell people how to live their lives ... too gentle? too pastoral?"

And its a Protestant problem too...except we don't have a tradition to embrace, which complicates things considerably.

Although Protestant, I recognize the need for roots, and I deeply value tradition - but which one?

For Protestants, especially, there is no easy answer. Which voice will we listen? Which pastor/teacher/tv - evangelist? Which book or author?

Indeed, there seems to be no end to the possibilities...and in our day so few with that prophetic voice... and the consequence: so little holiness.

For orthodoxy and for orthopraxy I have turned to the Puritans... more than most, it seems, they understood orthopraxy.

But is that the answer? What if I tell my parishioners how to live? And how do I live?

Perhaps the answer does, indeed, start with us - that so often our leaders are unwilling to speak holiness because they are unwilling to live holiness... I for one am afraid of speaking on something that has not yet made its way into my heart and life.

I am getting a handle on Puritan orthopraxy - my mind at least is there... but my heart and my life are far behind.

So pray for your priest and pray for us pastors - even if Protestant... we surely need it.