Eastern Orthodox Church

Death to Death to the World

Things slow down this time of year. If you don’t believe me, then click over to the pop-culture website The Outline which ran a story last week on Death to the World (DTW), the Orthodox zine that comically blends superficial Eastern Christian content with a hardcore-punk aesthetic. Started in 1994 in association with the then-schismatic St. Herman of Alaska Monastery in Platina, California, the zine’s name, which in substance means detachment from “all earthly cares,” is meant to appeal to angry, disenfranchised, and largely uneducated young men for whom “death to the world” means a nihilistic disdain for all humanity. More grotesque still is the zine’s frequent use of skulls, graves, and other dark imagery not for the purposes of memento mori, but simply to look “cool.” In many ways DTW’s cheap antics are similar to numerous anarcho-punk and crust bands using pictures of war crimes and other atrocities on their 7” sleeves, ostensibly to “send a message.”

Missing from The Outline’s overview of the zine is any mention of the numerous problems associated with St. Herman’s, not the least of which being its willingness to shield its abbot Gleb “Fr. Herman” Podmoshensky from accusations of sexual impropriety. St. Herman’s and DTW are also shameless propagandists for Fr. Seraphim Rose, a homosexual Eastern spiritualist-turned-Orthodox monk who is best known for penning a series of intellectually fraudulent books on everything from UFOs to a literalist interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Rose, more than any other Orthodox crackpot writing in English, is responsible for anti-Catholic prejudices among American Orthodoxy’s convert culture and the cult of worship that surrounds him still has frustrated any sincere inquiries into his alleged holiness. It is telling that Rose’s home jurisdiction, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, has yet to canonize him despite the circulation of icons, akathists, and other pious practices in his honor.

As for DTW itself, despite failing to attract many subscribers in the 1990s, it now enjoys a second life as a web-zine while peddling clothing clearly meant to imitate the attire of black-bloc anarchists. How much of an impact DTW still has is difficult to measure. American Orthodoxy has a time-honored tradition of artificially inflating its numbers even though it is missing an entire generation of adherents due to intermarriage or apathy. While noble efforts have been made over the past several decades to turn Orthodoxy away from being a boutique religion for bored white people and/or an ethnic social club, the sad fact remains that Orthodoxy in America remains splintered along cradle/convert and nationalistic lines. As for giving Orthodoxy some intellectual gravitas in the Anglophone world, it should come as little surprise that the scholarly efforts of the late Frs. Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff are often held in contempt by those associated with DTW and its followers. For them, Orthodoxy is a pseudo-rebellious religious posture with candles and exotic pictures; nothing further need be known.

Instead of being the subject of a positive news article, DTW ought to be derided by serious Orthodox Christians who have no interest in having their religion reduced to a fad. Those who find their way to Orthodoxy through DTW and other similar resources are likely to enter with a woefully incomplete and despicably inaccurate picture of what the Orthodox Church is. This is not what Orthodoxy needs, particularly in the United States where fervent religiosity often takes the shape of barking-mad hysterics. Of course, Orthodoxy is not alone in suffering through attempts to blend its character and traditions with disposable convictions and self-important posturing. I used to listen to Pedro the Lion after all.

Some Brief Words on the “Orthodox in Communion with Rome” Phenomenon

It’s probably not worth dwelling too much on the phenomenon known as “Orthodox in Communion with Rome” (OICWR), an initially well-intentioned reorientation of how Greek Catholics understand their relationship with Rome which has—at least in certain online forums—degenerated into a cafeteria ecclesiology. Although there are several variants of OICWR, the most extreme (and seemingly most vocal) wing takes the position that the Greek Catholic churches need not treat as ecumenical or binding any “Roman council” held between the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicaea II) and the Second Vatican Council. Not even Florence, which transpired with the participation of the Greek Church, is seen as binding due to its eventual repudiation by the Orthodox. By radical OICWR reckoning, Purgatory, the Immaculate Conception, and Papal Infallibility are not settled dogmas for the universal Church but rather Latin doctrines that amount to little more than theological opinions which can, and perhaps ought to be, critiqued in the light of the Byzantine theological tradition. Instead of seeking a shared understanding on the perennial truths of the Catholic Faith, the OICWR extremists revel in the apparent divisions that allegedly separate East from West. And, like all good ideologies, these individuals are quick to disparage their critics, including their Greek Catholic critics, as “Latinized” or “Uniates.”

Needless to say, the OICWR—moderate and extreme alike—claim to take their bearings from the Vatican II declaration Orientalium Ecclesiarum despite the fact that no less an authority on things Orthodox than Fr. Alexander Schmemann, an observer at the Council, found the document unsatisfactory in certain respects. The extremists also point to the “sister churches” ecclesiology promoted by Vatican II, albeit in splendid isolation of the 2000 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Note on the Expression Sister Churches.” Moreover, for reasons that remain vague and underdeveloped, the far reaches of the OICWR seem to believe that the perilous project of “reclaiming their tradition” (as if the historic Greek Church only had a single tradition) means imitating the theology, spirituality, and liturgy of the contemporary Orthodox Church, as if it that communion, both before and after the “Great Schism” of 1054 A.D., was monolithic and without change. The pursuit of a “magic moment” of “purity” in the fog of history often results in pick-and-choose “reconstruction” which, in the end, bears little resemblance to how things ever were.

None of this is to say that the Greek Catholic churches (Ukrainian, Ruthenian, Melkite, etc.) shouldn’t take proper and prudent steps to remove accretions from their liturgy that undermine its integrity nor ignore the rich Eastern theological patrimony in favor of Thomism. Greek Catholics have been rightly encouraged to maintain their identity in recent decades. However, there is a wide gulf between maintaining one’s identity and taking up positions that are openly hostile to the Catholic Faith. It seems that the fringes of the OICWR movement are more interested in appeasing the worst circles of Orthodoxy rather than standing firm for true catholicity, that is, particularity within universality. No one today should seriously buy into the shopworn prejudice that “to be Catholic” is “to be Latin.” Still, that is not a warrant for rank doctrinal dissent and schism mongering.

Any Given Sunday

Somewhere in the world a Tridentine Mass was said without the servers reciting the second Confiteor and a Divine Liturgy served without the second antiphon. Millions of complacent Christians did their weekly duty of showing up to church, pretended to pray, and silently judged the proceedings with thoughts of football, fornication, or just about anything else besides Christ on their minds. And then, in the ancient city of Cairo, dozens of Coptic Christians—mainly women and children—were torn to shreds as a giant explosion ripped through St. Mark’s Cathedral.

As honest as the Western media may want to be when it comes to the state of Egyptian politics in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring,” the religious significance of the attack is all but lost on them. The Islamists who no doubt carried out this strike are already being referred to as “extremists” and the Copts themselves defined in terms of politics rather than religion. Lost is any sincere acknowledgment that from the days of the false prophet Muhammad, whose tragic birth is celebrated this day, millions of Christians have perished under the crescent moon.

Eastern Christians are, unsurprisingly, much more sensitive to this reality than their Western brethren. For while Latin Catholics may still give passing notice to events such as Lepanto or the Battle of Vienna, Easterners are forced to recall the fall of their ancient patriarchal sees, not to mention historical defeats at Constantinople, Kosovo, and many more. Regardless of local church affiliation or rite, the Eastern liturgical year commemorates numerous incidences of grotesque Muslim violence against the Christians of the East. It is hoped that the prayers of these holy martyrs will sustain what’s left of Christianity in the Middle East, though right now those prayers must feel unanswered.

Without discounting the deleterious effect secular liberalism has had on the West for two centuries, it is difficult at times like this to take the persecution narrative of certain Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants all that seriously. The day may come when the liberal order finally seeks to violently rid itself of the last remnants of Christendom, but that still seems a long way off when compared to the more immediate and savage violence that Islam continues to perpetrate all over the world against the followers of Jesus Christ. Western political leaders will, naturally, express some condolences before returning to business-as-usual, that is, ignoring the plight of the Middle East’s dwindling Christian population.

And what will the Church say? Should we expect an outcry followed by an outpouring of prayers for the deceased and wounded or some highly qualified statements meant to ensure everyone that the attack in Cairo, like the numerous attacks which preceded it in the past few years, was the work of “extremists,” a “fringe” not representative of Muslims generally? Shall we be scolded into accepting the lie that Muslims and Christians worship the same God? Heaven help us all.

If He Is Not Your King…

Over the course of the past few months I have been going in chronological order through the archived sermons of Fr. Patrick Reardon over at Ancient Faith Radio (AFR). The archive, which dates back over a decade, may be the most impressive audio collection of Eastern Orthodox homilies in existence. For though some have not always seen eye-to-eye with Reardon on certain subjects (e.g. the nature of Orthodox theology, liturgics, the role of the Old Testament in the life of the Church, sexual ethics, etc.), no serious person can deny that Reardon is one of the most learned Orthodox churchmen in the West and maybe the most Scripturally sound Eastern cleric in the world.

In a brief 2005 homily, simply entitled “Melchizedek,” Fr. Patrick makes the point that just as Melchizedek’s kingship cannot be separated from his priesthood, neither can Christ’s. And if we, as Christians, will not have the Lord Jesus as our king, neither can we have him as our priest. This is an unsettling lesson for modern man, being that we are so accustomed to rejecting both the need for a mediator and authority. Today, even those of us (Orthodox and Catholic) who are willing to accept the idea of a mediator tend to do so on our own terms; that is, in a largely private and circumscribed manner. Is it any wonder then that we see this play out as well with regard to Christ’s kingship? In the privacy of our homes and the silence of the pew, we may pay private homage to Christ the King, but not in public. In public we live as the world expects. Perhaps we try to be “nicer” than others, or take the Lord’s name in vain a tad bit less, but that is not enough. God does not call men to love and worship Him on their own terms; He calls us to total obedience, even unto death. How quickly we forget that.

If we live our lives as Christians, that is, in obedience to God, we will be rejected by the world. We will not “get along,” either in the workplace or at school or even among friends. This is a a truth that Reardon stresses — a truth most of us would rather not be reminded of. Look today at how Christians, specifically Catholics, are so eager to adopt the garments of capitalism or communism in order to win worldly approval and benefits while paying no mind to the divine teachings entrusted to the Church. See how Catholics chase after secular political leaders to be their kings or queens without paying any mind to Christ. We reject His Kingship and still believe we are entitled to his priesthood. We want His Grace, but not His Law. In the end, we love to be in the world and long to be of it.

Hart Contra Acton

I couldn’t say for sure, but were I a betting man I’d put my chips behind the possibility that David Bentley Hart doesn’t look kindly on the Acton Institute and its ongoing attempt to fuse social, political, and economic liberalism with Christianity. In a new article for Commonweal, Hart briefly reviews the fallout from his First Thing piece on Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ before going into detail why he believes capitalism and the Gospel are at odds. Here’s an excerpt:

The final stage of my work on [translating the New Testament] coincided with my involvement in a series of public debates that I initiated by writing a short column for First Things praising Pope Francis and his recent encyclical Laudato si’, and that I prolonged when I contributed another article to the same journal arguing for the essential incompatibility of Christianity and capitalist culture. My basic argument was that a capitalist culture is, of necessity, a secularist culture, no matter how long the quaint customs and intuitions of folk piety may persist among some of its citizens; that secularism simply is capitalism in its full cultural manifestation; that late capitalist “consumerism”—with its attendant ethos of voluntarism, exuberant and interminable acquisitiveness, self-absorption, “lust of the eyes,” and moral relativism—is not an accidental accretion upon an essentially benign economic system, but the inevitable result of the most fundamental capitalist values. Not everyone concurred. The most representative statements of the contrary position were two earnest articles in the Public Interest by Samuel Gregg, neither of which addressed my actual arguments, but both of which correctly identified my hostility to libertarian apologetics. And on at least one point Gregg did have me dead to rights: I did indeed say that the New Testament, alarmingly enough, condemns great personal wealth not merely as a moral danger, but as an intrinsic evil. No, he rejoined with calm certainty, it is not wealth as such that the New Testament condemns, but only a spiritually unhealthy preoccupation with it (the idolatry of riches, wealth misused, wealth immorally gained); riches in and of themselves, he insisted, are neither good not bad. This seems an eminently reasonable argument, I suppose. Certainly we have all heard it before, almost as a truism.

The Gregg pieces in question are typical Actonite rehashes of trick-down economic ideology; the glories of capitalism (and the woes of “crony capitalism”); and the compatibility of economic liberalism and Christianity. Hart — being Eastern Orthodox — is not bound to the social magisterium of the Catholic Church, though he arguably comes closer to following it than a professed Catholic like Gregg or Acton’s head-honcho, Fr. Robert Sirico. Where Hart is likely to raise some eyebrows is in his implicit suggestion that Christ’s teaching — and the witness of the Apostles — points to a form of Christian communism with wealth being condemned absolutely. Hart doesn’t have much interest in tethering himself to the development of Christian social doctrine nor, for that matter, engaging in that time-honored Orthodox practice of “appealing to the Fathers.” (He does, after all, have some brief but pointed words for St. Clement of Alexandria, who attempted to make the Gospel mesh with the conventions of his time.) Regardless, Hart’s retelling of the early Church’s admonishment of wealth is worth reflecting on, if only because it stands in such sharp contrast to the manner in which most Christians live their lives. Catholics like to speak a great deal about “avoiding the occasion of sin” but have almost nothing meaningful to say about doing so regarding riches. Instead, what we normally receive are finger-wagging reminders from men who make six figures a year about how even the poor today have it “better off” than the poor a century ago and even a man struggling to keep his family together working two jobs can also make an idol out of his earnings.

Robinson on Staying Orthodox

Steve Robinson, the great wit and honest soul behind the sadly defunct Pithless Thoughts web-log, returned to his Ancient Faith Radio podcast earlier this year. Robinson’s “re-debut” came accompanied with a moving, albeit general, account of where he had been spiritually for the past few years. His latest installment, “Staying Orthodox,” provides one of the best accounts I have ever encountered about why people convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church and how to stay there. Robinson’s reflection on these sensitive matters is open and non-polemical, which is as refreshing as it is rare. Many of Robinson’s thoughts can be applied to the experience of converts to Catholicism, particularly those who entered the Catholic Church during the comparatively steady reign of Pope Benedict XVI and now find themselves being thrown about in the sea of chaos which is the Pontificate of Francis. Some, however, are fairly limited to the unique challenges which attend to trying to be a first-best Orthodox Christian amidst a second-best reality.

Personally speaking, I cannot identify directly with Robinson’s book-based or intellectual conversion experience because for me, becoming Orthodox was more like switching teams between divisions after a prolonged period on the Disabled List rather than going from the American League to the National League (or even to another sport altogether). With that said, I quickly shared Robinson’s affinity for attempting to grasp the ways and means of Orthodoxy through thick theological tomes, collections of spiritual writings from ages past, and a scrupulous understanding of canons, customs, and cockamamie spiritual advice. Robinson, having seen much more of “on-the-ground” Orthodoxy than I ever did, fought the good fight to stay faithful to his conversion as long as he could before realizing that retreating away from the beauty and banality, greatness and grotesqueness, and surety and senselessness of the Orthodox Church was the only option he had left.

I’ll stop there. I don’t want to spoil Robinson’s account any further, and there is no way I can recreate the power of words which so clearly emanated from his heart. Although I share a different confessional commitment than Robinson, I can sympathize with what he has gone through and the great trials any man must undergo to follow their conscience amidst the confusion of the present age.