Pentecost, Lincoln and the American Experiment

One of the things that interests me a great deal is the relationship between the Tradition of the Orthodox Church and the founding political philosophy of the American experiment. At the risk of appearing overly critical, or even dismissive, I think the failure of Orthodoxy in America is our not having engaged theologically and critically the American experiment on its own terms. Instead we have been willing to use America without necessarily seeing ourselves as obligated to contribute anything to her.

In this the Church has allowed herself to become merely one interest group among others. The Orthodox Church has not engaged the American experiment as yeast in the dough. We have contented ourselves instead merely to fit within the broad, and decadent, framework of modern identity politics.

This failure is more than simply a matter of our presenting ourselves as an ethnic, albeit religiously themed community. Even when the religious character of the Church is focal, it is often the religion of mere morality.  Not without cause have some complained that some in the Orthodox Church seem to want to put the Church’s patrimony at the service of the political and social agenda of the Religious Right.

These criticism I think are rather beside the point however.

The moral tradition of the Church is, in the main, no different then the classical moral teaching of Western Christianity. I suspect the attraction of some Orthodox Christians to the Religious Right reflects more a love of this shared tradition and a real concern for the moral health of American society than a grab for power as such.  Further I suspect that those Orthodox who criticize their brethren’s  involvement in conservative politics do so from a desire to see the Church support (if only passively) their own more left leaning politics. But whether from the moral, cultural or political, right or left these criticism are, to repeat myself, are different then my own concern.

The American experiment is I think best expressed by Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address. Reflecting on the horror of the war tearing at the fabric of the country, President Lincoln looks back to the historical and philosophical founding of the Nation: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The challenge facing the United States in Lincoln’s time (and ours) was not war as such, but whether the American “nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

Reading over the years the work of the late Catholic theologian and political philosopher John Courtney Murray, I have come more and more to appreciate the wisdom of Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg. Unlike other countries that are united by land or blood, a shared culture or language, America and Americans are, or should be anyway, united by an idea, the fundamental equality of all human beings.

While it has not always done so well, or even at all, at its best what the American political experiment asks of us is not to surrender our language or culture. Rather as a nation of immigrants, we ask each other to put the riches of our respective cultural and ethnic heritages at the service of the common social good. Granted in our short history there are times when we have honored this idea more in words than deeds. But even when honored in the breech, if there is a unique American culture or mindset it is that enduring faith in the equality of all human beings and the centrality of committing ourselves to the common good of all.

Contrary to her critics harsh words our failure to be faithful to our own ideals is to be expected. It is to be expected not simply because we are sinners, but and again as Lincoln points out at Gettysburg, because the American experiment is always an unfinished work. Whether in times or war or peace, it remains for each generation to answer in the affirmative Lincoln’s challenge to his listeners on that not so long ago battlefield:

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

So what does this have to do with the Orthodox Church? Two things I think.

First, internally, if the Church is to be a real, indigent Orthodox Church and not simply a pale copy of the Church in Greece or Russia, we need to take seriously the challenge of America that in the neither the City of Man nor the City of God do we have to lay aside language or (to the degree it does not contradict the Gospel anyway) our culture. Let me go further.

On Pentecost Sunday I reminded my own community that the work of salvation, while it is directed at human beings certainly, also results in the deification of culture. Just as Greek culture was Christianized and became the carrier of Eternal truth without losing its own character as either Greek (or so ontologically and historically contingent) so too American culture can be Christianized, become itself a means of communicating what is Eternal in and through the contingent and limited structures of culture and language.

Part and parcel of the Christianization of American culture is I think demonstrating, and this speaks to my second point, that E pluribus unum is not simply a political motto. It is also at the heart of all human community. More than that, it is also at the heart of Church.

We sing at Vespers on Pentecost:

The Holy Spirit gives all things: makes prophecies flow, perfects priests, taught the unlettered wisdom, revealed fishermen to be theologians, welds together the whole institution of the Church. Consubstantial and equal in majesty with the Father and the Son, our Advocate, glory to you.

The Church is a pneumatic community of unity and diversity not in opposition but in harmony. So too while at its best it falls short of this, this is what America aspires to be. The Church offers America a glimpse not only of  her own biblical foundations but of the Eucharist which is both a reminder of that towards which America aspires and the standard against which she must also evaluate her own actions, domestic and foreign.

The American Experiment is for me as an Orthodox Christian a real, if imperfect, icon of the Eucharist. Or to borrow from Hebrews, if the Eucharist is an image of the Kingdom which is to come then the American Experiment, seen in light of the Eucharist image, is a shadow of the image. And it is as a shadow, as something which points beyond itself to the image, even as the image points beyond itself to the Reality which is to come (see Hebrews 10.1) that Orthodox Christians can and should not only engage but wholehearted love and support the American Experiment.

If we have as Orthodox Christians have been seduced by the identity politics that has come to so mark  contemporary American political discourse on both the left and the right, this doesn’t mean that we have to remain bound by our shared failure. Rather we can, if we only decide to do so, return not only to ourselves but return in a way that we can serve the common good of both the City of God and the City of Man.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory


  1. NeoChalcedonian :

    Fr. Gregory,

    Great post, these are certainly questions that need to be addressed. Ethics concerns the construction of a true description of what is and an appropriate response to it. Our conception of what constitutes an appropriate response will be shaped by our experience, our historically conditioned understanding of what constitutes human flourishing and what grounds merit. The interplay between the static and dynamic poles of moral reasoning is as important as it is forgotten; the supposition of continuity and difference between two moral viewpoints must include it or accept a considerable margin of error.

    St. Paul, St. John Chrysostom, you and I all believe in the right of persons to life, liberty and equality, but we have culturally informed and historically conditioned understanding of what constitutes an adequate response to that reality. St. Paul and St. John Chrysostom did not believe that human equality demanded the abolition of slavery per se but rather the fair and just treatment of those slaves. Their conception of male headship and the distinction between the sexes had social implications that seem foreign and even offensive to us. It’s just “obvious” to us that women can work outside the home and should be able to vote, but for them women’s equality in the image of God was attached to a culturally-informed and historically conditioned definition of what constituted women’s proper place. Christians have generally had a conception of religious freedom also, but it could not become truly robust to those who had experienced no alternative to a coercive pagan state and formally Christian nation.

    Now I do not believe that right and wrong are determined by people’s feelings, except when they are. Moral principles are eternal; the assimilation and manifestation of those principles must always occur within a specific context, a concrete situation. Our way of life does not change the ultimate definition of good and evil, but sometimes our collective conscience and experience informs us that some things, which might have been permissible at one time, are evil and that other things, which might have been impermissible at another time, are good. St. Paul’s commentary on food sacrificed to idols is applicable here:

    “As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean.” (Romans 14:14)

    “So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. (1 Cor. 8:4-7, 9)

    Abortion will always be evil as it is the unjust termination of another person’s existence. We are also obligated to treat everyone with kindness and respect, but what constitutes sufficient kindness and respect with differ somewhat from culture to culture and a Christian in that situation should not seek absolutes but respond appropriately to their situation. Our Holy Tradition has its roots in the Christian experience of divers times and conditions; there is one sense in which we are called never to depart from it, there is another sense in which we cannot follow or return to it, but only contribute to its formation. May we acquire the discernment to make the distinction.

  2. George Michalopulos :

    Fr Gregory, a very apt analysis. Over the last few years, I’ve been trying to come to grips with my own deficiencies but also the culture. Although I’m not a nostalgic, one of the things that impressed me about Western history pre-1950 was the moral universe that 90% of all people inhabited. I remember my mom telling me about how the US Senate to a man condemned Ingrid Bergman back in 1948(?) because she bore Roberto Rossellini’s child out of wedlock. This was Democrats, Republicans, Christians, Jews, secularists. Try to imagine that now. (There are other examples, I don’t want to get hung up on the sexual stuff, but things like the disdain for government handouts, etc.)

    So how did we lose this Christian concensus? I think part of the problem lies in the propensity of men to do evil. As long as the Churches were quasi-orthodox, and the majority of the people at least paid lip service to Christianity, then we were mostly out of the woods. In this context, we American Orthodox could be forgiven for “hiding our light under a bushel” because everybody else was “Christian” and/or at least strived to live an upright, moral life. And of course we were as poor as church-mice for the most part, so evangelism and mission work were something for the big, rich Protetstant churches.

    We were happy to live in our ghettos where at least we had comfort. In the end, because of our sense of cultural inferiority, we divorced our ethos from the American experience which is a darned shame. The more I read about the Founding Fathers, the more I realize how much they were infused with the concept of Christendom. I think we could have arrested the secularist/libertine trends that are probably irreversible by now.

  3. Michael Bauman :

    Barring a miracle, the time for Christianizing this culture is long gone. It is a rotting corpse completely bereft of any intrinsic virtue heading for a recapitulation of Soviet Russia. It will only be by the blood of the martyrs that America is Christianized. Will any be found amongst the Orthodox of this land?

    We have mostly replaced faith with various brands of ideology and romantic triumphalism. The Antiochian bishops returning to this country are practically swooning over just being able to spend time with the Patriarch. There is no engagement by the hierarchy of anything other than their own power and how to control ‘their’ people. We are not ‘their’ people. We play into their little game by giving them any mind at all. They deserved to be ignored. We are Jesus Christ’s people or we are nothing at all.

    What are the prevailing expression of “Orthdoxy” in this country: 1) the ethnic social club; 2) little fiefdoms run by monarchial bishops for their own benefit; 3) Pharasitical legalism that applied to ‘their’ people not the FOBs (friends of bishops). There is never instruction in or modeling of a genuine spiritual life and struggle. The sacraments and canons meant to give life are used merely as a means to exercise control and tryanny. It seems that any one who wishes to live an Orthodox life must do so as a defacto hermit-at odds with a culture who hates us and the hierarchy who has abandoned us.

    If I had to make a bet, FOCUS will deteriorate into the saem type of social do-gooderism that dominates the rest of Christianity in this country, the bishops and the good-ol’ boys will see to it.

    All this while the Church herself remains a rushing torrant of grace. We do not take advantage of the grace and do everything in our power to make it unpalatable to those thirsty for the life giving waters–hiding it away beneath truly dispicable posturing, rhetoric, and archaic mannerism.

  4. Fr Gregory Jensen :

    Let me first offer my thanks to Fr Hans, John and everyone here for their kind welcome of me. As for the comments above, they are thoughtful and thought provoking. Thank you for that kind gift.

    NeoChal, you make a number of interesting points about attending to the embodied nature of all moral judgments. Where I might disagree with you is on (what seems to me anyway) your model of ethics. If I’ve understood you correctly, the model you present above is more the current secular model that owes its origins to Kant’s attempt to ground ethics in abstract first principle. This model is in stark contrast to the historical Christian (and for that matter, Aristotelean) model that was concerned with the cultivation of virtue. While I would not dismiss Kant, my own concern is less to find a convergence of ethical principles between the Tradition of Church and the American Experiment and more to find the virtues that both seek to foster. A virtue ethic, unlike a deontological ethic, does not see the concrete historical or social situation as diminishing or compromising the moral good but rather being the context within which virtue is to be fostered and acquired. So, to take your example, Chrysostom was concerned with slavery as a social and political institution, but his concern was how to foster virtue in both the slave and the master. In doing this (or so I would argue) Chrysostom (like St Paul before him) effective undermines the institution of slavery. (While I can’t go into it here, it is important to remember that slavery in Chrysostom’s time was a rather different thing than slavery in America. Not that you have done this, but when reading Chrysostom—or any of the fathers for that matter—on slavery we need to be cognizant of these differences). Does this respond to your concern or have I missed the point?

    George, as always, it is good to hear from you. Thank you for your kind words and your comment about Christendom and the Founding Fathers. Yes many of them were not, even by the standards of the day, orthodox Christians. Much less were they Orthodox Christians as we would understand the term here. But they were men who, for all that they may have disagreed with us and among themselves on matters of ecclesiology, Christology, Trinitarian theology and sacramental and liturgical matters, they were united in their appreciation of the centrality of a virtue for the maintenance of a free and civil society. For our Founders, we must be a free people so that we can be a virtuous people. But we are only a free people if we are a virtuous people. The separation of Church and State, as other have argued better than I could, is meant to protect religious communities as well as the religious and moral conscience of the individual from the coercive power of thee State. Why? Because virtue requires the free assent of the person and absent this free consent, the State—with all its coercive power—cannot maintain the public order. In this sense, America is Augustinian; we the City of Man self-consciously embracing its own limits and surrendering authority to communities and institutions other than itself. Prime among these other cities are the family and the religion.

    Michael, of all the comments posted here, your own words move me most. I think you give voice to the frustration, disappointment and pain that many Orthodox Christians (and not only Orthodox Christians) both here and overseas feel. We want our leaders to be models of virtue and not simply men (or women) of expediency. Much less do we want our religious or political leaders to be driven by naked self-interest. When they are, it undermines the confidence of the community. And again, this is true in both the political and ecclesiastical arenas. I think the boldness of the American Experiment is our willingness—honored more today in the breach—to self-consciously limit our own authority. At its best, there is a real humility at the core of American political philosophy that (speaking simply for myself) I find both personally edifying as I reflect on my own spiritual life and of great practical value in my own ministry as a priest. If I may speak this way, I think the contribution of America to Orthodoxy is the American habit of leaders who are both personally self-effacing as well as appreciative and hopeful witnesses on behalf of the virtues of the community. (Matters of policy aside, I think President Reagan, like President Kennedy before him, is a good example of what I mean here.)

    Again, thank you to everyone for your comments. I look forward to hearing from you again.

    In Christ,


  5. For those interested, I wrote a second part to the post here. You can find it on my blog ( and will post it here when I get a chance (and figure out a bit more how to use WordPress!).

    In Christ,


  6. George Michalopulos :

    Fr Greg, bless. Thank you for your kind words.

    I was recently sent a link of Congressman Forbes who described the orthodox Christian/Trinitarian founding of our nation. Although you are right, a couple were deists (Jefferson, Franklin) and others had problems with the concept of the Trinity (Adams), the fact remains that everybody else were Protestants in the orthodox mold. I’ll try to find it.

  7. Fr Gregory Jensen :


    I look forward to the link from Congressman Forbes.



  8. George Michalopulos :

    Fr, please be patient with me. I’m trying to relocate it from my inbox.

  9. The Modern state (including America) is far more jealous of its prerogative than was Caesar. It permits no authority but its own. If our founding myths were as you describe them perhaps it wouldn’t be a problem. But Nisbet and Deneen tell the more believable tale, and it’s a cautionary one:

    Accept the “enlightenment” that our culture preaches and you’re left with the lone individual seeking truth, ranting against all authority, that American Protestantism (and apparently certain Libertarian-tainted Orthodox) are devolving into.

  10. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Paleocon, good article overall. My only critique is that the historical analysis does not go far enough. Rosseau and Marx are mentioned, but no Burke, or in more recent times, Kirk. The idea of mediating communities or organizations is not new of course (Toqueville for example), and while the critique of Marx and Rosseau is valuable (and appreciated), I think the author locates the reasons for the present calamity into the past a bit too, well, mechanistically — the cause and effect here works with a bit too much utility. Not enough awareness of the moral culture here, particularly the interplay between religion and culture apart from the such comments like the hyper-individualism of the present have theological antecedents in Protestantism (which is true). His approach is in fact bound to the kind of estrangement he critiques. How else to explain the rather weak exhortation that conservativism must be aware that it stands for more than being against something that concludes the piece? He sees conservativism as a cultural force, but only in terms defined by the last 100 years, and never alludes to the deeper values that shaped it years before that, the kind of analysis you would find in Burke for example.

    Having said that, Nisbet has been a favorite of mine for years. “History of the Idea of Progress” should also be in the “classic” category, IMO.

  11. Michael Bauman :

    I think the idea of an enculturating Orthodoxy that transforms everything is a dangerous myth. We are an ascetic faith who’s main goal is ontological union with Christ. Only by practice that faith and not some supposedly turbo-charged social morality can we have any genuine hope. The rest is fantasy.

    The world is ruled by and worships the un-holy trinity of sex, money/power and food. Only the grace of God acting on repentent souls in worshipful communities can change any of that.

    The myth of a Christian America is just that, a myth. To be sure, one can find Christian elements, but the founders were ruthlessly syncretistic. The idea was to be free to make money folks, to control property without reference to the Crown. To relate any of this to Traditional Christianity is ….well, I can’t even find a good description.

    American Christianity was just as syncretistic as the founders political economy, that is to say, heretical. Still is. Are we going to fall into the same soup?

  12. George Michalopulos :

    Michael, no nation or political system is by its nature “Christian.” Even Byzantium wasn’t. That is if we follow the true meaning of “Christianity,” which I agree with you, is “ontological unity with Christ.”

    That doesn’t mean however that a people, culture, nation, etc. can’t be “Christian,” perhaps by some less stringent definition. By this token, the American nation at its founding was most definitely “Christian,” albeit in a Protestant form. Many of the founding states were little theocracies (esp in New England). Seven of the 13 colonies at the ratification of the Constitution had established churches. All of them had religious tests for office holders (no atheists or libertines need apply). Pennsylvania, which was Quaker, was the most liberal in that its religious tests allowed any man who believed in an afterlife of rewards and punishments could hold an office (this theoretically allowed Jews and Deists to run).

    I for one, don’t believe we can go back to that type of society. We have become too licentious, but that can happen to even traditional Catholic or Orthodox societies (i.e. witness the pornification, abortion rate, etc., of most European counties.) It is a dangerous however to posit a counter-factual myth of the foundation of this nation as it suits the purposes of those who are anti-Christian. I agree that we shouldn’t say that the Founding Fathers were all involved in ascesis and meditating on the Uncreaated Light(although the Congress did authorize days of “humiliation and prayer” on more than one occasion), but we can’t paint every one of them with the broad brush of secularism simply because Tom Paine was a prolific writer and popular propagandist.

    Parenthetically speaking, this is the same problem I run into with those who state that Orthodoxy began in the US in 1908. But that’s another story.

    My other critique with people like Nisbett is, “OK you’re right, individualism is wrong and it comes from Protestantism. You’ve identified the problem, so why don’t you become Orthodox?” Another such trenchant critic is Theodore Dalrymple, reading him you’d think he was Chesterton and Lewis rolled into one. But, he’s an atheist. Again, I ask these people, smart though they are: “to what end?”

  13. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Dalrymple (who I think is one of the best cultural critics around) analyzes culture from a decidedly Christian perspective, a legacy of his childhood and culture — before it all went haywire (Church of England collapse and the rise of the welfare state essentially).

    You see the same with Christopher Hitchens. I listened to a debate between Hitchens and Dinesh D’Souza recently, and Hitchens, who actually was engaging, fair, and in some cases insightful, draws from the same legacy, which included a childhood influenced by Anglican Christianity. Hitchens has become an aggressive atheist, yet his moral critique owes everything to Christianity (a claim he disputes).

    This is true with Jewish social critics as well. Harold Bloom’s astute observations years back drew from a moral foundation that certainly was stronger than the culture that surrounded it (and the the way he lived), in his case the orthodox Judaism in which he was raised.

    The times were different a generation ago, and the loss of some foundational values have been catastrophic for the culture. Dalrymple and others see this.

    One other point:

    The myth of a Christian America is just that, a myth. To be sure, one can find Christian elements, but the founders were ruthlessly syncretistic. The idea was to be free to make money folks, to control property without reference to the Crown. To relate any of this to Traditional Christianity is ….well, I can’t even find a good description.

    Depends how you look at it. If the claim is made as some kind of contemporary justification in the Christian vs secularist culture conflict, than neither side can claim the pedigree of the Founders, although both try, especially the secularists.

    If it means that the Founders thought within a Christian worldview deeply shaped by Christian values, the claim is indisputable. They certainly weren’t Islamic values, or even secularist values as they were in the French Revolution which led to the Robespierre and Napoleon (the birth of totalitarianism).

    And I think you dismiss the control of property in reference to the Crown a bit too easily. The ownership of private property as a contributing factor to private and public virtue goes back as far as Aristotle. Even the monasteries, the centers of ascetic discipline, understand this. They would never turn over their property to the state.

  14. “He sees conservativism as a cultural force, but only in terms defined by the last 100 years, and never alludes to the deeper values that shaped it years before that, the kind of analysis you would find in Burke for example.”

    Those values are unhinged. They used to reside in social bodies that carried actual authority (the Church, local communities, families/clans, guilds, etc.) but no more. Authority is now allowed only to the State and we have been so shaped that the deeper values you speak of can only exist in the public sphere as opinion, a lifestyle choice, exactly as Deneen was speaking of them. To speak of the old conservatism is to reject the bounds of authority the State has accrued, really to reject the State itself.

    The secular order has thrived because the old Christian values were so deeply rooted in our society (as you rightly say) but by its nature it is destructive of those roots because it destroys all authority but its own. We seem to be nearing their exhaustion.

    “And I think you dismiss the control of property in reference to the Crown a bit too easily. The ownership of private property as a contributing factor to private and public virtue goes back as far as Aristotle. Even the monasteries, the centers of aesthetic discipline, understand this. They would never turn over their property to the state.

    That is not the same thing as the tradition of individuated and absolute right to private property (i.e. not only without reference to the Crown but without any obligation outside the self and private conscience) that began as Enclosure in Britain and emerged as ideology in the American experiment (one of many things, of course; it doesn’t define it). To echo Mr. Bauman, it is the victory of the powerful and ambitious over the restraint that had been imposed on them through centuries of Christian civilization.

  15. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Yes, they are unhinged, but I am not as convinced the nihilistic abyss is all that remains as you or Michael seem to think. This is why I think a deeper analysis would have been more beneficial although I have no argument with the assertion that moral relativism annihilates culture.

    I am not by nature optimistic, but I am hopeful. I agree with Solzhenitsyn that we stand at an anthropological threshold, but I am aware if the step is not taken, it will plunge us into a very dark age, mediated initially through totalitarianism. I do not believe however, cultural devolution is inevitable, or that a complete collapse into nihilistic brutality is determined. I do agree however, that the seeds of renewal are not evident, that they must come from elsewhere, but that word of redemption will echo with what Christendom once knew to be true, hence the need for history and not merely the recitation of cultural and social dynamics as valuable as it might be (my original complaint with the piece).

    Regarding private property, I’m not so sure that the American experiment regarded private property solely in the ideological terms. If it did, private property would have been out of reach to most ordinary people over time; we would have seen property amass to a small class of landowners, much of what like still exists in Central and South America — countries that still retain medieval legacies in culture and economics.

  16. I don’t find the gloom and doom reading of culture too persuasive or helpful. In part, because, as St. Theresa of Avila said, all times are perilous times. I have often found that if the past looks pristine, it is probably because we aren’t looking very closely. (I believe Chesterton, among others, had fun with the implications of that enduring posture.) More important, however, such a view fails to acknowledge that God is the enduring the foundation of reality. Grace is ALWAYS more creative and influential than sin (“for where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.”) Even the full force of totalitarian governments have not been able to unwind truth; thus, faith survived – albeit at great cost – even in the Soviet Union and Romania. In a different way yet for the same reason, the recent murder of one woman protestor may prove more effective than our past efforts in promoting change in Iran.

    What amazes me is how folks have gotten so used to Christian assumptions that they fail to recognize their presence; I suppose fish do not recognize the water they are in, either. Thus, as Father rightly noted above, while Hitchens and Dalrymple may claim otherwise, the assumptions upon which their values and judgments are based are, in the end, deeply Christian. Their criteria and valuations would hardly have been self-evident to a pagan Roman, ancient Egyptian or most other cultures. Of course, if we really believe that Christ is Truth Incarnate, it must be so. It is not that all roads lead to truth (the road, after all, is wide that leads to destruction), but that all truth leads to Christ.

    No individual or culture can long endure without SOME connection to what is true, good or just. (Even on a merely economic level, statist efforts ultimately lead to bankruptcy.) Or, to put it differently, most human evils are perversions of what is good rather than outright evil, the negation of the good. (Even a great evil like Marxism was, in the end, a kind of Christian heresy, an effort to establish the eschatological kingdom without the eschatological king).

    Recognizing corruption, failings and sin is very important, yes, but primarily in order to help us to turn our hearts more fully to grace. Focusing solely on sin(s), however, usually indicates some other agenda or a distorted perspective. In the same way, idealizing the past (whether America, Byzantium or even the early Church) can create a fundamentally false image that is then used to denigrate and reject the current culture – which is to say, our neighbor. In my experience, it is more helpful to focus on (and be grateful for) that portion of grace, which is ever present and ever active and ever redeeming. It is the grace evident in the lives of the saints that inspires us, the grace evident in the heroic sacrifices of our fore bearers that has given us the legacy we enjoy and the grace that is working relentlessly – as it always does – in our culture, communities and hearts (corrupt and unworthy though they undoubtedly are) that gives us hope. In the end, grace wins. The end of the story is resurrection, not crucifixion. Thus, while American culture will remain dynamic and changeable – and may even become increasingly corrupt, I can not believe that it is beyond the reach of grace – especially when so much upon which it was founded on assumptions and perspectives that emerged from faith. In the end, our hope for our culture, community or heart is likewise rooted in the fact that uncreated grace is the living foundation of every created thing.

  17. Fr Gregory Jensen :

    Yes, there are serious cultural flaws in America and our political life is not always what it could be, to say nothing of what it should be, even in this life. I think that Paleocon and Michael offer a need, critical voice to the conversation. But I think, on balance, I would be disinclined to affirm their criticism. I find it hard to escape the conclusion that the criticisms of American culture and the American Experiment that they offer while true enough in the particulars, often partake of an almost Manichean dualism. It is not relativism to acknowledge the virtues of our enemies, it is justice and reflects our own love of truth. Reading through the comments, I think Chrys has best summarized my own view of our debate here. All times are troubled and I ought not to forget that.

    Paleocon (#9), I am quite intrigued by your comment that “The Modern state (including America) is far more jealous of its prerogative than was Caesar.” I am curious how you come to this conclusion. It seems to me that there is an unspoken moral argument being made here. What that argument is not clear to me and it would help me if you could flesh out what the argument is you are making? In other words, how do you come to say that America is more jealous than Caesar? And what do you mean by this?

    As for the Enlightenment, while I don’t think it is wholly good, I also don’t think it wholly lacking in goodness either. While a mixed bag to be sure, thanks to the Enlightenment separate of person and tradition I am able to be an Orthodox Christian.

    Michael (#11) yes, enculturation is dangerous but it is not a myth. Let me make that stronger, if in fact the Church is a visible community it will necessarily generate a culture and do so, at least in part, out of the raw non-Christian cultural material we find around us. To fail to do this doesn’t mean that there is no enculturation only that the enculturation we see is (at best) trivial and at worse a captivity of the Church to the surrounding culture.

    Will we transform the whole culture? No of course not. But then I have not wholly transformed myself and I will not be wholly transformed in this life or even, if St Gregory Nyssa is a trustworthy witness, in the life to come. The standard of our personal transformation is Christ. The standard of our communal transformation the Holy Trinity. Yes, the twin work of transformation always and necessarily will remain incomplete, and forgive me for speaking so directly, but I would argue that to sacrifice either the personal or the communal work of transformation is to fundamentally misunderstand the Gospel.

    Let me end here.

    In Christ,


  18. Michael Bauman :

    Fr. Gregory, I agree with you. When I say enculuration is a myth, I am speaking of the captivity of the Church to the surrounding culture produced by consciously attempting to form culture. Culture happens when we are doing something else, like attending to God and salvation within our communities. When we too self-consciously attempt to ‘change culture’ to relect our idea of what it should be, we are just another brand of ideolog.

    The early Christians did not set out to ‘create a culture’ they preached and lived the Gospel: worship, prayer, fasting, alsmgiving, repentance and marytrdom. They worked to live a holy live which put them at odds with the prevailing culture.

    I do not for a minute think that nihilism will triumph, but the cost exacted by it on Christians will be greater than we have yet seen. We in the United States will not be exempt. Russia had centuries of genuine faith and thousands of saints that helped her endure. We have
    “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and only a few native saints who we mostly ignore. It appears that we cannot rely on our bishops (any of them in any jurisdiction especially the Antiochian right now) to be interested in anything other than their own positions as money, friendship and power are more imporatant than truth and love. Except for Met. Jonah, the words of bishops are nothing but warmed over oatmeal and his are still too gentle IMO.

    Christianity is radical, it is not nice, it is not accomodating, it is counter-intuitive. To be a faithful Christian takes immense courage. We are fast becoming a nilistic state. Christianity can not cooperate with such a state even when it appears to do good. Likewise, we can no longer cooperate with bishops who are nothing but tyrants–no matter what good they appear to have done. A true and vital hierarchy like a Christian culture is the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and minds of the body of believers. Both are natural by-products of living a true and faithful life. We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard of faith and love. Playing the games of the world, won’t cut it. The nihilistic licentiousness is too deeply imbedded in our hearts–renewal will only come after the destruction the nihilists want. Time will tell how many survive as Christians or what state the official Church is in at that time.

  19. Dean Calvert :

    Dear Paleocon,

    I just wanted to let you know that someone appreciates your paleo-humor.

    best regards,
    (who was always called a paleo-paido by my greek school teacher – loses something in the translation)

  20. George Michalopulos :

    Dean, I was a bit of a “paleo-paido” myself. Michael, you’re right about most of our ethnic bishops. I believe it’s in Peter: “judgment begins in the House of the Lord.” They better get off the stick for their own sakes and stop playing these jurisdictional games.

    Of course, our laity are not without fault. Way too many laymen enforce the ethnic stereotypes, especially the ones with the big bucks. Supposedly, there’s $28 million (in pledges) for “Faith and Hellenism,” but couldn’t this money be used for seed capital for medical clinics and soup kitchens?


  21. Fr Gregory Jensen :


    Thank you for your insightful comment above (#20). I agree with you, I think, that we are not called to the business of culture building as such–rather, and again as you point out–an Orthodox Christian culture in America will arise out of our fidelity to Christ and His Gospel. And yes, I do think that this will require from us a certain martyrdom–though the form this will take is yet to be revealed.

    As for our bishops..two things come to mind. From St Augustine to the faithful at Hippo: With you a Christian, for you a bishop. And from St Paul “if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.” (1 Cor 12.26) I think some times that we view our bishops (and the lower clergy for that matter) more often then not through the lens of their function for us–a function that will pass away–rather then who they are with us (which is eternal).

    In other words what ever might be our theology, our practice is functional and reductionistic. One example comes immediately to mind. The one comment I hear from people when they can say nothing else good about a priest is, he serves Liturgy well. Honestly, I’m not sure what they mean and (more to the point) I’m not sure they know either. But it is illustrative of our tendency to reduce the service of the clergy to function.

    This then brings me to George’s comment–thank you for acknowledging what too few lay people wish to admit. It just ain’t the bishop or the priest’s fault. If they are problem–moral or pastoral–that are not being addressed we need to look not simply at the clergy but the laypeople who collude and conspire with the clergy to let the problem continue.

    Another quick example, everyone acknowledges clergy sexual misconduct is not acceptable. But how many people want to fund the training need to help clergy understand human sexuality (theirs and their parishioners) or see to it that Father keeps to a reasonable schedule with sufficient time not only for prayer and study but also to be with his family? While not absolute, it has been my experience that people often act out sexually as a means of avoiding stress that they can’t seem to manage any other way. And think here, how often can clergy REALLY say “No” to an unreasonable request from their bishop or a parish council without penalty?

    All of this is to say, to get back to where I began this comment, is that we will create for ourselves a culture. That is not something we can choose–it will simply happen. What we can choose, I think, is the relative psychological and spiritual health of the culture.

    But before they are our bishops, our priests or our deacons, before they are our fathers in Christ, they are our brothers in Christ and that seems not to be in the equation for most of us.

    Here endth the lesson.

    In Christ,


  22. Michael Bauman :

    Fr. Gregory, what you say of the clergy and the bishops is quite true. The real tragedy of the ‘power’ model of hierarchy is it makes it impossible of bishops to succeed because it automatically breaks the dynamic and ontological link to the community that bishops above all must have in order to do their job properly. Without that link the insanity we see now is almost inevitable even in the best of men. There are too few bishops who are too separated from their flocks. The separation is both an error in ecclesiology and an abuse of authority on the part of the ‘courtiers’ as you rightly point out.

    I am not a leveler btw, hierarchy is essential to the life of the Church but it has to be a hierachy not modeled after the world’s ideas.

    A martyr is at the most basic level a witness to the Truth in the midst of the world. It does take many forms that do not require us to physically die. It can be as simple as abstaining from pre-marital sexual intercourse. However, as the government of the US lurches toward a more totalitarian, anti-Christian form, much more will be required of us. To quote Shakespeare: “If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it is not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come; the readiness is all”

    I have to ask myself if I am ready. Unfortunately, I get a resounding NO. I weep for myself, my parish, my priest, my bishop and my Church because we are so distracted by things that simply don’t matter. We work so hard to bring order to things out of our own will rather than loving God and allowing that love to create His order.

  23. George Michalopulos :

    Excellent insights, Fr. I think things would be better for Orthodox life in America if our parishes demanded more services from their priests and –get this–helped him liturgically accomplish this. I mean things like matins, vespers, the hours. It would be better if people knew that their priest (and a dedicated cadre of laymen) was in Church serving the hours. The laity would begin to get the idea that Church is about worship. If they needed to speak to the priest, they could speak to him afterwards. If they attend the service, they would be in a better frame of mind to discuss things. Also: Confession. I fervently believe that 90% of parish problems could be solved if Confession were obligatory, and on a frequent basis.

    I don’t mean wannabe monasticism here. I’m fully aware that there’s a difference between the parish and the monastery. Nor do I mean hyperservices. Perhaps the hours served daily, and vespers in midweek. Hospital visits could place during office hours. Baptisms and memorial services could take place before and after Sat Great Vespers respectively. Weddings after Liturgy on Sunday. What I’m trying to say is that parish life could be ordered around the services of the Church and accomodate the priest’s schedule. Obviously there’s room for flexibility from parish to parish as to how this would be. If the priest has a part-time (or even full-time) job, this should be taken into consideration as well.

    It’s important that the laity step up to the plate. Readers, cantors, grown men as altar-servers, etc. is what is called for. Dedicated retirees would be helpful. Mature women working in the church office are essential. By “cadre” I guess I mean laypeople who are willing to run interference for the priest so that he could celebrate the services consistently.

    I believe that there would be a transformation of Orthodoxy throughout the land if the majority of parishes were run in this way. It would begin to seep into the mind of the laity that Church is primarily for services which are efficacious vehicles of grace.

  24. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Note 21.

    And think here, how often can clergy REALLY say “No” to an unreasonable request from their bishop or a parish council without penalty?

    Not often, or at least not without getting chased or transferred out of his parish.

    In my experience, most priests are bound — if not initially then three or four years down the road — by no more than a handful of parishioners for whom the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the furthest thing from their minds. The reasons for their antipathy toward a priest are numerous, but all good priests who encounter this conflict (and I know many good priests who face this), enter a time of profound spiritual struggle, especially when their livelihoods are threatened, and equally as destabilizing but unfortunately all too often true, when their wives or children are attacked.

    Conflicts need to be resolved, and Bishops are the ones appointed to resolve them. Most could be resolved by applying the proper discipline to the miscreants, but, again in my experience, this is seldom done. Much of the time the priest gets blamed, and after experiencing the mishandling of problems in this way, the priest learns not to trust his bishop and, either capitulates to the abuse (many good priests are psychologically harmed this way), moves on to the next parish only to learn the dynamic exists there as well, psychologically distances himself from his flock as a means of self-protection, or falls into dysfunctional behaviors of his own as a means of relieving the pressure.

    Some of the laity are real Christians. Some are not. If the priest preaches the Gospel and light is brought forward in the parish, those who do not want the light rebel against it. The conflicts often point out who they are, but where there is no vision that the parish exists in order to find Christ, or where that vision is muted by other desires and goals, the abuse of the priest is justified in their minds, particularly if the Bishop fails to reprove them. The priest eventually leaves — either thrown out or moves on his own. Often, the light diminishes even more.

    I’ve heard a Bishop tell his priests, “I can’t move a parish, only a priest.” He thinks it is wise, but in reality it is profoundly destabilizing to the priests because it tells them that if a conflict arises, they are out. No long term stability can be achieved with this policy without some kind of grave compromise along the way, usually consisting of capitulation to antagonists (often only a handful). It also indicates that the Bishop’s self-understanding of his role as Chief Shepherd is woefully inadequate.

    There are capable Bishops, too. I know of one situation where the conflict was assessed by a Bishop, and the miscreants were told to get with the program or leave. He was not removing the priest. They left and the parish flourished as a result.

  25. Father Gregory and George: spot on. In Christ, we honor and love a Person, not a “role” – or we should. While we certainly honor the office, in each particular instance there is a specific person with specific gifts, a specific calling and specific limits. There is no team for which this would work as we try to make it work. Consider: God may have called a great southpaw to be a pitcher on His team, but the pitcher is too busy trying to play all the positions to do well what he was called to do. As a result, he is a lousy first baseman, outfielder, etc., and an exhausted pitcher. Nothing successful can come from it.

    I can not begin to identify all of the forces that led to the reduction of the laity from full, serving, gifted members of the Body to too-often passive (barely present) participants, or the elevation of the clergy to “everything” in the local parish. But when the laity do no fulfill their calling to be the Body, the leadership can not fulfill its calling either – and vice versa. In both cases, it effectively denies the specific gifts and calling of the particular people in our parish – yet these are the very real gifts that God gives to His Church. The result: we burn out our priests and frustrate the laity; no one is well served.

    For the same reasons, I completely agree with Michael: a bishop who is not overseeing a particular and manageable community or (small) group of communities is primarily an administrator – or a politician. Maybe we have the bishops we deserve (as the Russian saying goes) because we have created primarily political, not pastoral offices. But when the shepherds (priests) themselves have no meaningful shepherd (pastoral bishop), too much mischief – or distress – results. What manager can effectively manage his personnel when his contact is so incidental? The bishop may have many roles – but, he is above all the elder brother/father. (On the other hand, maybe this does reflect modern life, since more than a few are absentee fathers.)

    My key concern here is that we are settling for only a fragment of that to which we were called. It is the whole Body together, each offering its particular gifts in loving service that the whole is built up. A body that doesn’t “exercise” atrophies – and that, it seems to me, is too often where we are.

  26. Fr. Hans, I read your post after mine was sent. Wow. Though not the first time I have heard about such things, it is very, very disheartening all the same.

    I wonder how many of the “miscreants” are the major donors? (Are any?) How often are they just bullies? (Bullies seem to have a knack for finding their target’s weakness – in this case, it seems, the priests real lack of authority.)

    I wonder, too, what characteristics or experience made the difference between the bishop who responded productively to the issue and the others who did not?

    Perhaps Bishops should be required to do through some kind of leadership/management training. In the corporate world, bosses who abandon his/her employees to more problematic clients retain few employees – or have no experience with problematic clients. (This is not to absolve the employee, since a good manager will want to work through any contributing issues and help the employee improve, but it does recognize that failing to “back up” the employee lets the bully set the rules of the game.)

    Ironically, this is one of my key issues with so many public policy positions driven by good intentions: they create moral hazard, “rewarding” offenders and exposing or punishing the innocent. I wonder if it is even possible to speak directly to such unChristian behavior – not that they would want to hear it, but it seems that being gentle with bullies just means that everyone else suffers.

    As I said, hearing what you describe is very disheartening, yet it seems to be the lot of far too many priests (except for those who have strong connections with the “power brokers” in their communities; something is systemically wrong with that. How do you maintain the strength of heart you need to be move forward in the midst of such things?

  27. Fr. Johannes Jacobse :

    Chrys, these are problems that must be addressed internally if we seek to bring the Gospel to others. They exist. They are a scandal. But discipline must begin at home.

    How to maintain our strength in the midst of such things? You obey the call of God, which includes dealing with things as they really are. Then, as you travel that road, you see you are not alone. God reveals Himself, some Saints draw closer (often in very tangible ways) — in short you learn what it really means to live the life of the Cross. Then, as you persevere and ultimately conquer, you help others along that same road as well.

    I am convinced though that the trials are not without purpose. Something is happening in American Orthodoxy. I have sensed it for a long time, years in fact. I believe the time has come to shake off our slumber, our sloth, our self-satisfaction, our smug triumphalism — all the accretions that substitute for authentic encounter with the Risen Christ and the responsibilities it confers. The trials, I believe, serve two purposes: 1) personal cleansing and strengthening, and 2) preparation for the time when our Lord raises the Church to greater prominence for the salvation of others.

  28. George Michalopulos :

    Chrys, that’s why I like the idea of many, many bishops in North America, serving as close as possible over perhaps no more than 12 parishes. They have to know their priests very well and meet with them regularly. Not visit a parish only once in a blue moon and only when money needs to be raised.

    Monks are ideal to this. The monastery would provide the sustenance for the bishop and serve as a retreat for parish priests and spiritually attuned laymen.

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