April 19, 2014

Eastern Right: Conservative Minds Convert to Orthodox Christianity

Illustration by Michael Hogue

Illustration by Michael Hogue

Source: The American Conservative | By Rod Dreher

- Since the Second World War, Roman Catholicism has had enormous influence on American intellectual conservatism. The postwar rebirth of conservatism had two sources: libertarianism—a reassertion of classical liberalism against statism—and cultural traditionalism. For Russell Kirk and other leading traditionalists of the era, the Roman Catholic church, with its soaring intellectual edifice and unitary vision of faith and reason, matter and spirit, was the natural conservator of Western civilization and the sure source of its renewal after the catastrophes of the 20th century.

The Catholic contribution to conservative intellectual life has been hard to overstate. It is impossible not to notice the steady stream of right-of-center intellectuals into the Roman church: Kirk himself, his libertarian sparring partner Frank Meyer, early National Review luminaries such as L. Brent Bozell Jr. and Willmoore Kendall, and many more. One does not—or should not, at least—convert to a religion for any reason other than one thinks it is true. But there is something about the intellectual culture of Catholicism that draws thoughtful conservatives, even amid an exodus of rank-and-file American Catholics from the church.

Prominent intellectual conversions have been notable among Evangelicals, many of whom find in the Roman church a more solid theological, philosophical, and historical grounding for their faith. As the Baylor University philosopher and former Evangelical Theological Society head Francis Beckwith told Christianity Today after his 2007 return to the Catholicism of his youth, “We have to understand that the Reformation only makes sense against the backdrop of a tradition that was already there.”

Much less well known is the small but growing group of American conservative intellectuals who embrace Christianity, but not in its Western forms—who are neither Catholic nor Protestant. There is a distinct set of conservative converts to Eastern Orthodoxy, which depending on your perspective either left, or was left by, Roman Catholicism in the Great Schism of 1054.

Since then, Western and Eastern Christianity developed separately, under very different social and cultural conditions. It is often wrongly assumed that Orthodoxy is little more than Catholicism without a pope, plus an ethnic gloss—typically Greek, Slavic, or Coptic. In fact, the differences with Catholicism are substantial and to a significant degree account for why these tradition-minded conservatives have found themselves looking past Rome to the churches of the ancient East, whose theology and liturgy centers on the thought and practice of Christianity’s first 500 years.

When I left Roman Catholicism for Orthodoxy in 2006, an intellectual Catholic friend said he couldn’t understand why I was leaving a church with such a profound tradition of intellectual inquiry—Scholasticism and its descendants, he meant—for one so bound up with mysticism. The comment was unfair, in that my friend didn’t understand that the Orthodox are not Pentecostals with incense and liturgy. Orthodoxy is about far more than religious experience; its theology is extraordinarily deep.

But his remark was accurate in that Orthodoxy is deeply skeptical of rationalism in religion. Orthodoxy always keeps before it the primacy of the mystical encounter with God, both through the sacraments and through the early church’s practice of hesychasm, or inward prayer.

University of South Carolina theologian James Cutsinger says that the point of all religion is “not only to experience God, but to be transformed into His likeness”—a process called theosis. For Cutsinger, a convert from Protestantism, the mystical theology of the Orthodox Church is far more important than Orthodoxy’s historical claims to be uniquely faithful to the apostolic tradition.

“Orthodoxy is alone among the Christian possibilities in offering its adherent the ancient treasures of a contemplative method, in the form of hesychasm,” Cutsinger has written. “Not that there aren’t Catholic and even Protestant mystics and sages, to say nothing of saints. That’s not in question. But which of them is able to tell the rest of us how to attain to his vision, let alone transformation? Where is there a step-by-step, practical guide to theosis outside the Christian East?”

Hugh O’Beirne, a corporate attorney in Princeton, NJ, was once an enthusiastic Catholic and fellow traveler of the conservative Opus Dei movement. He came to believe, though, that Latin Christianity is too bound up in legalism and philosophical speculation—a legacy of the Middle Ages. Though he remains an admirer of Catholicism, O’Beirne converted to Orthodoxy 12 years ago.

“Catholicism’s strong analytic ability overshadowed the primal religious experience,” O’Beirne says. “I think that’s a canard Protestants often level against Catholics, but there’s something to it.”

“I reject the idea that because you can talk about religious truths more exactingly that you have gained any more intellectual insight into them,” he continues. “Remember the mystical experience Aquinas had at the end of his life, which made him describe all that he had written as ‘straw’? After that, how can Catholics complain about our hesychastic approach?”

For most converts, Orthodoxy’s claim to be alone in its unbroken succession with the church of the Apostles—a claim also made by the Roman church—is a significant factor in conversion. Like Catholicism, Orthodoxy has an episcopal structure. Unlike Roman Catholicism, the Orthodox churches are not governed centrally, with power flowing downward from an ecclesial monarch (the Pope) at the center, but are run collegially, by bishops in council. The Orthodox view papal primacy as a Latin innovation driven by Frankish politics. As one Orthodox professor told me, “It’s not true that Catholicism is conservative. It is, in fact, the mother of all religious innovation, and has been for more than a millennium.”

Orthodoxy’s deep conservatism, for better or worse, has much to do with its ecclesiology. Little can change in Orthodoxy’s doctrinal teachings outside of an ecumenical council—a gathering of all the bishops of the church. Though there is some controversy among the Orthodox about when the last ecumenical council was, the last one everyone agrees on was in the year 787. Though some contemporary Orthodox theologians lament that Orthodoxy has no effective mechanism for updating doctrine, others see what innovation has done to Western Christianity—the chaos following the Second Vatican Council, for example, and the endless multiplicity of Protestant denominations—and count this procedural stasis as a blessing.

Baltimore writer Frederica Mathewes-Green, perhaps the best-known American convert, contends that Orthodoxy’s stability in this regard appeals to conservative Christians weary of doctrinal and liturgical tumult within their churches and traditions.

“The faith stays the same, generation to generation and from one continent to the next,” she says. “It’s kept by community memory, grassroots, rather than by a church leader or theological board. So someone who wanted to challenge it doesn’t have any place to start, nobody with whom to lodge a protest. I think this is a resource within Orthodoxy, a really central and indelible one, that helps it resist the winds of change.”

This is not to say that Orthodoxy exists in a bubble untouched by the cultures in which Orthodox Christians live. In fact, there is widespread agreement among believers that the worst problem Orthodoxy faces is phyletism—a heresy that makes the mission of the church perpetuating ethnic culture. This has a particularly troubling effect in the United States, blocking Orthodox unity and reducing parish life in some places to the tribe at prayer.

On a practical level, any conservative who believes he can escape the challenges of modern America by hiding in an Orthodox parish is deluded. All three major branches of Orthodoxy in America have suffered major leadership scandals in recent years. And while Orthodox theology does not face the radical revisionism that has swept over Western churches in the past decades, there are nevertheless personalities and forces within American Orthodoxy pushing for liberalization on the homosexual question. And in some parishes—including St. Nicholas OCA Cathedral in Washington, D.C.—they are winning victories.

Orthodoxy does, however, have certain advantages over both Protestantism and Catholicism. Men who convert often say that Orthodox worship and practice –especially the ascetic rigor—feels more masculine than the more emotional, consumer-driven atmosphere in the churches they left behind. “When I go to Russian churches, I see men; when I visit Protestant churches, I see a lot of men crying and holding each other,” says one convert. “And we don’t have Dunkin Donuts in the narthex.”

Although Orthodoxy lacks the administrative unity and strong teaching authority (Magisterium) of Catholicism, the theological and liturgical atmosphere in Orthodox parishes is usually far more traditional than in contemporary American Catholic parishes. Converts from Catholicism fed up with post-Vatican II liberalism frequently observe that Orthodoxy is what Catholicism once was.

When Frederica Mathewes-Green and her husband, now an Orthodox priest, realized that they could no longer remain in the fast-liberalizing Episcopal Church, they assumed Rome would be their new home. They were put off by the drab modern Catholic liturgy, which struck them as too irreverent. But there was more.

“We were also concerned that so much of American Catholicism, in practice, was theologically and socially liberal,” she says. “We were told that that was not important, the important thing was that the doctrine taught by Rome was correct. But it wasn’t enough for us. We could see that things every bit as strange as current Episcopalian doctrine was being promoted and taught all over American Catholicism. It did not look like a safer place for our kids to grow up.”

Though many vote Republican, nearly all the conservative intellectuals I spoke with for this essay express gratitude that Orthodoxy avoids the “Republican Party at prayer” feeling that pervades some Evangelical churches.

“Kirkean, Burkean conservatism finds its paradise in Orthodoxy,” says a professor who teaches at a Southern college. “It is non-ideological and traditionalist to its bones. It collects and preserves and quietly presents the organically grown wisdom of the past in a way that’s compelling and, literally, beautiful.”

Alfred Kentigern Siewers, a literature and environmental studies professor at a mid-Atlantic college, says the social teachings of the church fathers, as adapted by modern Russian Orthodox theologians, taught him to think of society “more as an extended household, and less as an impersonal economy, whether free market or socialist.”

“Orthodoxy taught me how Christian notions of human dignity are more central to being authentically human than impersonal notion of rights by themselves alone,” says Siewers. “I think Orthodoxy encourages an awareness of the importance of living tradition and community and the need for caution in embracing either free market or socialist economic models as social models.”

In part because Orthodox countries did not undergo the Enlightenment, the Orthodox way of thinking about social and political life is so far outside the Western experience that it can sometimes seem barely relevant to American challenges. On the other hand, Orthodoxy’s pre-modern traditionalism can be a rich new source of spiritual and cultural renewal.

Pope Benedict XVI, who has made generous and well-received overtures to Orthodox Church leaders, has said that the regeneration of Western civilization will depend on a “creative minority” of Catholics willing to live the Gospel in a post-Christian world. Whatever role Orthodox Christians in America have to play in this drama, it will certainly be as a minuscule minority. In worldwide Christianity, Orthodoxy is second only to Roman Catholicism in the number of adherents. But in the United States, a 2010 census conducted by U.S. Orthodox bishops found only 800,000 Orthodox believers in this country—roughly equivalent to the number of American Muslims or Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Yet converts keep coming, and they bring with them a revivifying enthusiasm for the faith of Christian antiquity. One-third of Orthodox priests in the U.S. are converts—a number that skyrockets to 70 percent in the Antiochian Orthodox Church, a magnet for Evangelicals. In the Greek Orthodox Church, around one-third of parishioners are converts, while just over half the members of the Orthodox Church in America came through conversion. For traditionalist conservatives among that number, Orthodoxy provides an experience of worship and a way of seeing the world that resonates with their deepest intuitions, in a way they cannot find elsewhere in American Christianity.

“From the outside, Orthodoxy seems exotic,” an Orthodox academic convert tells me. “From the inside, it feels like home.”

Rod Dreher is a TAC senior editor. His blog is www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher. 

Comments

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    cynthia curran says:

    Well, true its good the Orthodox are not in bed with the Republican Pary as much as Evangelicals but too many of the Orthodox are in bed with the Democratic party. And as Mark Krikorian who writes a lot on immirgation states those that feel like strangers and are not apart of American Culture tend to be Democratics which is probably a good reason why Orthodox as a group are Democratic and Democratics pushed for the progressicve agenda which means that Orthodox will be more interested in what the Green Patriach is doing. Also, I believe in some parts of the Us Islam is actually larger do to immirgation. And the anti-west feelings of Orthodox that see history as the Western Europeans as the Villians and the Orthodox areas as the heros makes Orthodox not that effective in conservative circles in the west or in the States. Not that I think you have to be always pro-west or pro-US but being anti- alot does not help.

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    Wesley J. Smith says:

    It is interesting that in my parish, where most of us are converts, there are about as many politically conservative people as liberal. But we all share a yearning for authentic Christianity, the Church as it was designed to be (if you will). And most of us are quite stunned that we were led to Orthodoxy.

    Thus, I think it is safe to say that while it is true that most converts are religiously conservative in that sense, that isn’t necessarily a synonym for politically conservative.

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    AC says:

    Father Johannes,

    You write in the article above:

    “And while Orthodox theology does not face the radical revisionism that has swept over Western churches in the past decades, there are nevertheless personalities and forces within American Orthodoxy pushing for liberalization on the homosexual question. And in some parishes—including St. Nicholas OCA Cathedral in Washington, D.C.—they are winning victories.”

    Wow — that is a big bombshell but there is no follow up. I don’t think you can write this in a prominent Orthodox blog site without any supporting or backup evidence or describe what you mean. Most of us have no idea what you even mean. For those of us who don’t live in DC or don’t worship at St Nicholas, what’s going on at St Nicholas and what are the victories that they are winning there?

    Thank you

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    M. Stankovich says:

    This is my third return to read this post in the hope of finding something to which I can relate personally, when I find the labels “conservative” and “liberal” contrived, self-serving, purposely exclusionary, and offensive. Now, times three, it just seems to get worse.

    I think about the excited words of Phillip to Nathaniel, “Come and see!” (Jn. 1:46); what the Disciples felt as they realized at Emmaus, “Did not our hearts burn within us, while he talked with us?” (Lk 24:32); the sheer violence of the Transfiguration that sent Peter, James, and John falling to their faces (Matt. 17:6); or the purely mundane “annoyance” of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, who scolded parents for removing a crying child from the chapel, calling it “holy noise,” and “for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 19:14). Instead, I read with a certain amount of awe at Mr. Dreher’s “gift” of the ability to serve up hesychasm without the stink of the monks and the Orthodox “way of seeing the world” without the bloody mouth of Maximus the Confessor who lost his tongue to opponents.Mr. Dreher offers up a sanitized Orthodoxy free of conflict, “innovation,” and presumably, “renovation,” and assumes the charcter of Theodore Metochites – “Everything that needs to have been said, has already been said” – probably for the better, because look what happened in the West. This would further suggest that if the West had just policed itself in the first place, the Orthodox could have quietly gone about their “ascetic rigor” under the radar; Mr. Dreher et al. would have continued, as the Service for the Reception of a Convert notes, in their “former delusion.” And what I find most disturbing about this essay is its smiling-jack appeal: “Conservatives, we are like you, and we think like you.” We are a good match. Nothing to offend your sensibilities here: everything Catholicism “once was,” no overbearing Papacy, and at least in DC, no homosexuals.

    My thought is that Mr. Derher was asleep at the wheel for Holy Week and Pentecost and missed the Orthodox Church at its most radical, demanding, and forthright: “real men” will be “crying and holding each other” as the Master, not mildly seated upon the foal of an ass, but as we also read for Palm Sunday, comes seated on a white horse in blood-soaked garments, “for the day of vengeance is in my heart, and the year of my redeemed has come.” (Isa. 63:4); when the Master is not attempting to engage us in a “mystical encounter” but disturb us: “”Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword,” (Mt 10:34) paraphrasing the prophet, “[In that day] do not trust your friends or have hope in guides; beware even her that lies at your bosom, and tell her nothing, for a man’s enemies are the men that are in his own house.” (Micah 7:5-6); and, as St. Chrysostom notes, He tells them “The violent take [the kingdom] by force” (Mt. 11:12) to stir them up to a force of mind, and also by saying, “He that has ears, let him hear!” Beloved Professor S.S. Verhovskoy taught that we are called, one and all, to be Ezekiels “with a bone in your hand.”

    This is not “a rich new source of spiritual and cultural renewal,” or “the organically grown wisdom of the past.” This is the radical, uncontainable, unrestrainable Energy of the Father that is and ever will be. And if St. Dionysius would say it is so beyond our comprehension that better we should say it is not, who would refer to it as “Conservative?” And but a week ago, we celebrated the Spirit, “Fire proceeding from Fire,” “acting, working, inspiring,” the means by which we articulate and re-articulate the gifts and wisdom and knowledge richly poured out on us. And while all gifts may have been “given,” it does not mean they are completed, accomplished, understood, exercised, or exhausted. “The Spirit goes where He wishes,” wrote St. Andrew of Crete, and our labels and categories are arrogant limitations to contain what will never be contained.

    We are radicals, Mr. Dreher, in every sense of the word, and our “theosis” will be accomplished every bit by force as by “ascetic silence.” If you need to sell, sell the whole package: “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever.” (Heb. 13:8)

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    James Hart says:

    When Eastern Orthodoxy cares more about the unborn child in the womb (When have you heard an Orthodox bishop or priest speak publicly against abortion -”Thou shalt not kill”?), the indissolubility of Christian marriage (the Orthodox Churches permit divorce and remarriage which was strictly prohibited by Jesus – Gospel of Mark, Chapter 10.), and the sinfulness of same sex marriage, then we’ll talk.

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      Fr. Johannes Jacobse says:

      Many priests and bishops defend life in the womb and are outspoken against abortion. Just google “Orthodox Christians abortion” (look here).

      I’ll answer the divorce topic later.

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