For Monday

Some years ago an online acquaintance of mine suggested that one of the attractions of Roman Catholicism for converts is that it provided something like “philosophical certainty” in a radically uncertain world. In short, if you can’t handle the soft nihilism of mass consumer culture or the more full-throated nihilism embedded in any number of mainline academic disciplines, then the Church is the place for you. I was Orthodox at the time he pitched this idea to me, but even then I thought he was probably onto something. I don’t think Eastern Orthodoxy enjoys such an “exalted” status. Without trying to pass over all of the genuinely good things Orthodoxy provides to those who enter her doorway, I think it’s safe to say that “philosophical certainty” isn’t one of them. In many respects, Orthodoxy, whether it intends to or not, merely reaffirms the popular fideism which runs through large currents of conservative American Christianity. The suspicion of reason which, if pressed far enough, becomes the denigration of thought, plays nicely into certain myths about what an “authentic Christianity” ought to look like. For more “sophisticated” types, intoxicated with the ways and means of postmodern thought and positively indignant toward the idea that unaided human reason can tell us much of anything, the “mysticism” of Orthodoxy provides something resembling stability. In other words, it makes one’s religious solipsism look grounded.

Catholicism, of course, is a mess. Those pursuing “philosophical certainty” within her walls are bound to come up disappointed unless they have the intelligence and drive to tether themselves to an orientation of Catholic thinking which is today considered to be “old hat.” It doesn’t take much looking to discover that one can adopt the garb of a new-age spiritualist, a quasi-Eastern monastic, or an ironically detached smartass and find “their place” in Catholicism. Some say that’s Catholicism’s virtue, but only because they don’t see any real virtue in Catholicism at all. A Catholicism of one’s own making is as silly as a “life of one’s own making” or a “philosophy of one’s own making.” If people have entered the Church to escape all of that, then surly they are having ye olde buyer’s remorse right about now.

Some neo-Catholics will, naturally, poo-poo this observation. Instead, they will triumphantly proclaim that new souls enter the Corpus Mysticum because it’s true. And then, from that truth, people can find all kinds of healing, medicine, good feelings, joy, etc. That is to say, instead of finding some sort of “mere mental stability” or “epistemological surety” in the Church, they instead get to undergo a spiritual-emotional (more emotional than spiritual) transformation which, if the payoff is right, will make them into “better human beings.” The Church becomes a gigantic psychotherapy mill that churns out healthier and happier human beings who have learned to love more, forgive more, feel more, and “be more” in their personal and professional lives. Worldly success becomes a sign of grace and the ability to cast one’s eyes away from concrete crises and frightening dilemmas is both the proper indicia of spiritual transformation, but also evidence that one is a “good Catholic.” “Good Catholics,” as the story now goes, are faithful and obedient Catholics—faith and obedient to whatever the marching orders of the moment are out of Rome or in their diocese or what they hear during the last five minutes of Catholic Answers on EWTN.

Some Orthodox will snicker at this, and rightly so. I snicker at it when I am not fretting about it. (But at least if I am fretting about it, I am still a few steps back from the pit of despair.) I shouldn’t fret, but not because the neo-Catholics say I shouldn’t. When they tell me not to fret or to cause myself undue spiritual harm, what they mean to say is don’t let the word out that the prices have joined the emperor in not wearing any clothes. “Keep your mouth shut, and a thousand around you shall be saved.” (My apologies to Seraphim of Sarov.)

No, I should not fret because regardless of what happens, it will still be the Church. Or, I should say, there will still be a Church. I actually know nothing of the future of this “it” of which I speak. That “it,” the idolatrous “it” which confines the Church to a place and an appearance, strikes me as a very frail foundation. However, I have to remind myself constantly that for some, perhaps for many, it is the only foundation they have left. No, the Church is not now nor shall ever be “invisible”; that’s a heresy and a lie. A visible Church, however, is not made “more true” or “more right” by the trappings which attend to that visibility. There is much, much more which could be said about what is eternal and why that must remain visible as well.

8 comments

  1. I thought you’ve said that Orthodox problems are more along the lines of ethno-nationalism or some such hyper-ghetto Greco-slavic-syrian redneckiness; imagine my surprise that we’re now so imbedded in American culture as to merely reaffirm “the popular fideism which runs through large currents of conservative American Christianity.” How’d we leapfrog into that so fast? Does that mean we get to trade in our gyros for chili-dogs?

    1. Long time, no see. Now, let’s turn to what I wrote: “In many respects, Orthodoxy, whether it intends to or not, merely reaffirms the popular fideism which runs through large currents of conservative American Christianity.”

      How does that in any sense say that Orthodoxy is “imbedded in American culture”? In fact, what it actually says is that it — perhaps unintentionally — reaffirms elements of American Christian culture.

      That’s nothing new, and I have used that line before. So I am not sure what you are so agitated about, nor do I see this seeming contradiction of which you speak. In fact, I have been attacked on here in the past for being too supportive of the ethnic nature of Orthodoxy, at least in America. What I have a low tolerance for are converts looking for their next boutique religion. Maybe it won’t amount to much, but it seems like Orthodoxy is going to experience its next wave of such converts — “Emerging Churchers” and such who are, unsurprisingly, burned out after a decade or so of religious posturing.

      1. Hmmm….maybe. Lotsa new faces in the spots I frequent, so you may be onto something. Still, the barrier to entry into Orthodoxy is higher than most places, for better or for worse. To paraphrase Woody Allen, that, er, paragon of something, 90% of anything is showing up. Given as there is a lot in Orthodoxy for one to show up for, it can take a while.

        1. Still, the barrier to entry into Orthodoxy is higher than most places

          Yeah, the Gnostics made that claim, too. Takes a while to master that Secret Gnosis. ;)

          Also kind of reminds me of Calvinism: The Few. The Proud. The Elect.

          Or, as the old commercials used to put it, “Are you tough enough for Grape-Nuts?”

          Now, whether Christians should turn the catechumenate into an elite exclusive obstacle course is another matter. “Come to Me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden…and I will pile on a bunch of additional burdens before I will qualify you to rest in My arms.” Hmmm…..

      2. “Emerging Churchers” and such who are, unsurprisingly, burned out after a decade or so of religious posturing.

        Hah! Hipsters from Mars Hill flocking to Eastern Orthodoxy? Maybe so. But ugh! That would make the Internet Convertodox-sphere even more unbearable than it is now.

    2. I think that they are American when it comes to their love of making money, and often hating the country that has given them the opportunity to do so; the Greeks come to mind; although I have seldom, if ever, heard a ROCOR Russian say anything nice about America either. Also, they love to hobnob with the rich and famous; watching on youtube the Greek Metropolitan oozing up to President Obama is actually quite ill making.

  2. The Church becomes a gigantic psychotherapy mill that churns out healthier and happier human beings who have learned to love more, forgive more, feel more, and “be more” in their personal and professional lives.

    Gosh, Gabriel. Do you really know Catholics who think like this? I don’t.

    Oh, right. Neo-Catholics. Well, I don’t know any of them, either. Just Catholic-Catholics.

    But seriously. Even the gushiest converts I know recognize that the Catholic Church is a mess. Of course we’re a mess. We’ve always been a mess. Wheat and tares. So, what else is new?

    As someone said once (forget who), the question is not whether the Barque of Peter can avoid picking up a lot of barnacles. The question is whether she’ll arrive at her destination, barnacles and all. She will. That doesn’t mean there won’t be some rough seas during the journey. But she’ll make it home. That guarantee comes from Christ Himself, after all.

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