To my surprise, David Bentley Hart’s 2017 Fordham lecture, “Orthodoxy in America and America’s Orthodoxies,” received very little attention despite being available for free on YouTube. (I confess that I didn’t take the time to sit down and watch the whole thing until last evening.) For those familiar with Hart, it contains much of what you would expect: a humorous anecdote concerning convert-itis; several references to Orthodoxy’s penchant for ethnocentrism and particularism over the universal mission of the Church; reservations concerning the dominance of neo-Palamism and the neo-Patristic synthesis; and frustration with Orthodoxy’s kneejerk anti-Latin/anti-Western mentality. Hart, a convert from high-church Anglicanism, has mixed feelings about the influx of Evangelicals into Orthodoxy, especially since they carry a peculiarly American-style religious sensibility into the Orthodox fold. (Oh, and just to rile the kids up, Hart declares Fr. Sergius Bulgakov to be the greatest systematic theologian of the 20th century.)
Hart’s relationship to the Orthodox world has always been a rocky one. His first book, The Beauty of the Infinite, received heavy praise from Catholic and Protestant theologians; the Orthodox either ignored it or, as in the case of the theologian Fr. John McGuckin, gave it a chilly reception. The word on the street in certain Orthodox circles is that Hart is not a true “Orthodox theologian” because he both leans on Western sources and opts not to tether his thinking to neo-Palamism. Perhaps this is why Hart has, either by his own hand or those of his publishers, been rebranded over the years as a religious writer, a cultural critic, a philosopher, and, most recently, a translator of the New Testament. Although certain conservative-to-reactionary Orthodox voices on the Internet continue to decry Hart, it is safe to say he now transcends his confession’s internal quarrels, at least in the United States.
In listening attentively to Hart’s lectures, I could hear echoes of Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s frustrations with Orthodoxy in America, such as its insularity, infighting, and internal divisions. Schmemann believed that for Orthodoxy to survive and thrive on this side of the Atlantic (or Pacific), it must shed its accidents and embrace in full the universal message of Christ. Today, nearly half-a-century after the controversial establishment of the Orthodox Church in America, that still hasn’t come to pass. What did come to pass after Schmemann’s all-too-early repose in 1982 was a grand flux of Evangelical Christians into the Orthodox fold. Hart notes that though the actual number of coverts to Orthodoxy remains quite small, the proportion of converts to cradles (i.e. those born into the Orthodox Church) is significant. Native Orthodox Christians wishing to hold on to their old ways, safe from the influence of outsiders, have lost the fight.
Hart, a frequent critic of American religiosity and the culture it helps uphold, is not entirely thrilled with this development even as he carries the hope that the kind of Orthodoxy rising up in the United States can shed itself of both Evangelical-inspired fundamentalism and the Old-World mentality that sees Orthodoxy as little more than a cultural expression, perhaps even an extension of the nation-state. Hart has no time for those converts who wish to cloak themselves in foreign garb by appropriating another culture in the hopes of being “authentically” Orthodox. American Orthodox must be Orthodox Americans, with their own peculiarities, but neither unmoored from the fruits of the Christian East (Divine Liturgy, Church Fathers, Eastern spirituality, etc.) nor beholden to any form of chauvinism.
Some of what Hart expresses reminds me of what a kind Orthodox priest (himself a convert from Catholicism) once told me, namely that God could not save him as a Russian for he wasn’t a Russian; God could only save him as an Irishman (or, rather, an American with deep Irish roots). Fascination with Orthodoxy’s ethnic tapestry is praiseworthy so long as it does not degenerate into idolization. To say that lesson has not been learned yet would be an understatement. For a certain segment of American Orthodoxy’s convert population, Vladimir Putin’s illusionary “Holy Russia” redux has become the Orthodox Mothership patrolling the globe ensuring purity of belief in Russia’s divine mission against the horrors of liberalism. That problem, that pathology, warrants separate and specified treatment, however.