By: Fr. Gregory Jenson
In his 2008 study, “The Orthodox Church Today: A National Study of Parishioners and the Realities of Orthodox Parish Life in the USA,” Alexei D. Krindatch makes a fascinating, if potentially disturbing, observation. The research, sponsored by the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute (PAOI), surveyed almost “one thousand respondents from 103 Orthodox parishes situated in various parts of the country,” (p. 5) and argues that while the Church in America has been able to maintain a dogmatic unity, or agreement about the “big questions” of the faith (p. 3). This dogmatic unity, however, has not protected us from the “increasing fragmentation” of the “American Orthodox community.” As he describes the situation (and this certainly matches my own pastoral experience), there is a “growing conservative-liberal gap” in the Church that arises as “Orthodox teachings and established traditions are personally and communally interpreted.” These “local interpretations” are important because they “shape the social and religious behavior of American Orthodox Christians clergy and laity and the culture of American Orthodox congregations” (p. 4).
What follows is offer a brief overview of “The Orthodox Church Today.” This will include a discussion of the methodological limits of the study itself and what these limits mean for how we use the study. After this I will look at the Krindatch’s framework for understanding what he calls the increased fragmentation of the American Orthodox Church. Whether psychological or spiritual, pathology is a parasite, it feeds off of that which is healthy. As I will argue, concealed within the fragmentation we see is the call for the Church in America to more systematically, dare I say intentionally, take up the work of spiritual formation for both the laity and the clergy.
Unlike other earlier and more generally studies of religious life in America (for example, the Pew Religious Landscape Survey), “The Orthodox Church Today,” looks specifically at American Orthodox Christianity. Together with his earlier studies of the American expression of Orthodox Christianity, Krindatch’s work gives us an empirically sound snapshot of the Church in America. As with all social scientific research, “the Orthodox Church Today” is only one part of the larger work of understanding and guiding the American Orthodox Church. It is neither the first word nor the last word about the Church. Rather, it is an instrument for focusing an ongoing conversation. We’ve all had the experience of entering into the middle of a conversation and know it can be frustrating it can be. This need not be a problem however, if we remember that there is more happening than what we see at the moment. It is only when we assume that we know everything that there is to know that conflict ensues.
So what is Krindatch’s study about?
“The Orthodox Church Today” seeks to address “three general questions” about the American Orthodox Church:
- Who are the members of the two largest American Orthodox Churches (denominations)?
- What do the church members think about the everyday patterns of life in their local parishes (congregations)?
- What are their general religious attitudes and approaches to the “big” Church related issues such as future of Orthodox Christianity in America, the role of laity in the Church, ordination of women, relation to the outside non-Orthodox community, etc? (Krindatch, p.2)
It is relative “to these broad questions, [that] special attention has been paid to the differences among various generations of American Orthodox faithful, between the “cradle” Orthodox and “convert[s]” to Orthodoxy, and between those who identified their theological stance and general approach to the Church life as either “liberal, moderate, traditional, or conservative.” (p. 2)
Building on his earlier study, “Evolving Visions of the Orthodox Priesthood in America” (Krindatch, 2006), these three broader questions are posed in order to begin to answer two, more narrowly defined, questions that the study’s author (rightly I think) describes as “crucial for the Church’s future” here in America:
- To what extent do the social and religious attitudes of American Orthodox laity reflect those of their clergy?
- What does it take to be a “good Orthodox parish priest” at the beginning of the third millennium from the perspective of the ordinary “people in the pews?” (p. 3). Stated another way: Do the clergy and laity have a shared vision of the Church, her pastoral situation, and her future in 21st century pluralistic America?
While these are important matters to be sure, the study does not seek to answer them through a global survey of all Orthodox Christians in America. Nor is the study presented as an examination of the whole American Orthodox Church. The study’s aims are more modest: “The Orthodox Church Today” is the “first nationally representative and comparative [emphasis in original] study of the laity—non-ordained ordinary church members—in the two largest American Orthodox jurisdictions (denominations): the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (GOA) and the Orthodox Church in America (OCA).”
The question we might ask is: Why is the studied limited to these two jurisdictions? The author answers that, “the GOA and OCA account for more than half of all American Orthodox Christians and parishes” in America. For this reason, “the outcomes of the ‘Orthodox Church Today’ study reflect the ‘profile’ of the American Orthodox community at large.” (p. 2)
This is probably the least problematic assumption in the study. While accurate numbers are—as Krindatch’s earlier studies have demonstrated—somewhat difficult to come by, it seems likely that the OCA and GOA together comprise more than half of Orthodox Christian faithful in America and account for better than half of all the parishes.
More problematic is the assertion that the GOA/OCA accurately reflects “the American Orthodox community at large.” While I don’t dispute this, it seems that this is more of an intuition on Krindatch’s part (albeit, an empirically informed intuition) than an empirically validated fact. Until we have a more accurate statistical picture of the other jurisdictions in the US, it will be difficult to determine how closely the GOA and OCA mirror the more general pattern of Orthodox Christianity in America.
Additionally, I think we need to be careful of how we use the GOA/OCA as a template to understand the other Orthodox jurisdictions. We run the risk of confirmation bias, that is, of focusing on features of, say, the Serbian and Antiochian experiences in this country that merely ratify the patterns laid down in the GOA and OCA. For example, while both the Greek and Serbian communities are generally seen as communities within which ethnic identity (e.g., culture, language, history, etc.) play a more prominent role in the life of the parish, we ought not to assume that an individual’s experience is the same in both communities. Nor should we conclude that ethnicity serves the same function in, say, a Greek parish as it does in a Serbian parish. Likewise, while both the OCA and Antiochian Archdiocese are seen as more open to new Orthodox Christians, it is not clear that the experiences of converts is the same across both jurisdictions.
Truthfully, these are relatively minor cautions that tangentially touch the integrity of the study. Greater caution should be exercised is in our understanding–and application–of Krindatch’s study itself. The survey does not offer a snapshot of the rank and file Orthodox Christian laity. Rather, because participants in Krindatch’s study were not randomly selected but where chosen by their parish priests for the study, it examines a much narrower segment of the laity.
“The Orthodox Church Today” is actually a survey of those members of the laity identified by the priest as active participants in the life of the parish. For example 90% of the participants attend services at least once a week; 27% attend service several times a week (p. 7). Only 26% of Orthodox Christians as a whole however, attend services at least once a week (U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, 2008). Further, while 55% of those surveyed were “not in a leadership position currently,” 45% currently serve on parish councils, teach Sunday school, or sing in the choir. Some are currently serving in multiple volunteer ministries (p. 8). In other words, a significant number of the participants are formally or informally in leadership positions in their parishes and are significantly more invested in the liturgical life of the Church then the average Orthodox Christian.
Kindritch is clear about the sampling: “The survey tells us [about] who are the active and regularly involved members in the GOA and OCA parishes.” It is certainly reasonable that, “in each participating parish, the survey participants were chosen by the parish clergy who, in turn, were given instructions on the selection of respondents.” This has a methodological advantage: “The chances are great[er] that most of our respondents were persons participating in church life regularly and actively, thus, being more likely available to the clergy [and so] to complete the questionnaires” (p., 7). Thus, while this selection criterion is certainly legitimate, we need to be careful that we do not base our view of the laity as a whole on the study group. I am concerned that those who make use of his findings have a clear understanding that the study was intentionally limited to lay participants selected by the clergy.
Why does this matter? Because the survey reflects not so much the view of the broader laity, but of a select laity who have meet the unstated standards of their parish priest for inclusion in the research.
Digging a little deeper, the study’s findings suggest a correlation between active participation in the life of the parish and a close relationship with the priest on the one hand, and a generally positive view of the parish on the other. For example, 59% of the laity surveyed said their parish will grow in the next 5 years (p. 20). Likewise, when asked to identify the three most important aspects of the parish (p. 22), 91% indicated that they valued participation in the Eucharist; 51% saw “spiritual guidance/care by the priest” as important; 33% identified preaching (sermons/homilies) as a priority.
But all is not necessarily well with this group. As we read in press release, “Not all Orthodox are equally “Orthodox.” While 90% of those surveyed “cannot imagine being anything but Orthodox” it is not clear what, if anything, the phrase means for our lay leaders since the majority responded that “regular Church attendance, obeying the priest and observing Great Lent” are not essential to be a “good Orthodox Christian.” The reality is that the respondents have a skewed view of the Orthodox faith.
Put another way, the lay people who highly value for themselves an active role in the life of the Church—for example, regular, weekly attendance at Liturgy, serving in volunteer lay ministries, obedience (within limits) to the priest as leader of the parish community and spiritual father—do not see these characteristics as normative for other Orthodox Christians. As I will argue below, the most active and committed Orthodox Christians have privatized the Christian life. In so doing, they accept an understanding of the Christian life that is devoid of substantive content.
If the Christian life does not consist in a life of worship and service, then what else is it except an expression of personal sentiment? Even, more worrisome is their desire for uniformity in the parish. Quoting from the summary offered in the press release:
More than two-thirds of the respondents say that they wanted to belong to parishes that “require uniformity of belief and practice and where people hold the same views.” In other words, American Orthodox Christians have varying (“liberal-moderate,” “traditional,” “conservative”) personal approaches to Church life, but they prefer homogeneous “like-minded” parishes. Only one in four respondents favor “big-tent parishes that tolerate diversity of beliefs and practices, where people hold different views and openly discuss their disagreements.”
Uniformity in the Church is a tricky thing. It can (and often does) reflect an appreciative obedience to the tradition of the Church. But it can also (even at the same time) reflect an attempt to dominate others. Is domination happening here? In large part I don’t think so. But domination is a possibility that must be considered if only to guard against it. There are two reasons for my assertion:
First, the study is not a study of the rank and file of the laity. For practical reasons the researcher chose to focus his attention on a small subgroup composed of the most active members of the laity. For this reason, I think the study is more accurately characterized as an examination of the views and practices of approved laity. Whether the findings can be generalized to the laity as a whole is open to question.
Second, if the survey represents the views and practices of a subgroup and not “rank and file” American Orthodox Christians, then how well does it reflect the views of active laypeople who either dissent from the views of their priest or don’t meet his expectations? Obviously there is no way to answer this question within the confines of the study. Moreover, as recent events in the Church have demonstrated, “active” and “dissenting” are not necessarily mutually exclusive categories.
It appears (at least within the context of the study) that the laity who have a trusting personal relationship with their parish priest are optimistic about the current state and future of the Church. Are these views more generally applicable to the broader parish? The study can’t say.
Are there active lay people from whom we didn’t hear? For example, what about the views of active lay members who are at odds with their parish priest? And what about the lay people who center their spiritual lives in places beside the local parish but, say, a monastic community? Where do they fit in to the life of the Church? I don’t know. Thus, I wonder whether those surveyed by Krindatch reflect the views of the majority of the Orthodox lay faithful.
A central concern of “The Orthodox Church Today” is what Krindatch and others describe as the increasingly fragmented character of American Orthodox Christianity. These divisions seem less pronounced than what we see in Catholicism or mainline Protestantism, but nevertheless exist as most parish priests attest. Further, our differences are often drawn so narrowly that they can be as embittering as those we see among Western Christians. Debates about the use of the Old Calendar versus the New Calendar, the place of monasticism in the life of the Church, and the myriad polemics pertaining to the Church’s participation in the ecumenical movement are just three examples that come to mind.
While both non-Orthodox and Orthodox Christians see the Church “as essentially [theologically] homogeneous,” this unity is expressed only “in terms of orthodoxy as a doctrine” or on the level of what Krindatch calls “macro-theology.” When our interest is in theology–-that is, historical, patristic, biblical, and liturgical” theology–and seeks to answer the “big questions” of faith,” there is a high degree uniformity among Orthodox Christians. This dogmatic unity that is typically stressed in our catechetical and apologetic literature. Yet, formal agreement on creedal matters is not the whole story for Orthodoxy in America. The unity of “big question” theology exists side by side with what Krindatch calls the diversity and disagreements in “micro-theology,” or the individual’s “self-definition as being theologically either ‘conservative,’ or ‘traditional,’ or ‘moderate’ or ‘liberal’”(p. 161).
Borrowing from Antony Vrame’s (2008) work, Krindatch makes use of a four-fold typology to “at least partially” help his readers understand the different micro-theologies we encounter in the typical Orthodox parish. Key to the different categories is “the willingness of Orthodox individuals and communities to accept changes and to adapt to life in a culturally and religiously pluralistic society” (p. 4; those familiar with the distinctions within contemporary Judaism, will notice a parallel with Vrame’s distinctions). The four micro-theologies are (p. 4):
- Conservative (Fundamentalist) Orthopraxy. It rejects changes and emphasizes the exactness of once and forever developed practices in spite of changing local contexts. It also separates itself deliberately from the mainstream American culture.
- Traditional Orthopraxy. It strives to observe Orthodox tradition and cherishes church heritage immensely, but accepts evolutionary changes, permitting praxis to evolve slowly over time.
- Moderate (Reform) Orthopraxy. It supports intentional changes and is willing to “fit in” and be “accepted” by the wider American society and by mainstream American religious life.
- Liberal (Reconstructionist) Orthopraxy. It seeks to introduce “innovative” practices, to generally “rethink” orthopraxy, and to develop a new expression for America.
These distinctions certainly reflect my own pastoral experience both in the GOA and the OCA. They are seen among both “cradle” and “convert” Orthodox Christians. My informal conversations with other Orthodox clergy and laity lead me to conclude that the vast majority of clergy and lay leaders would agree. And again, even if the differences in micro-theologies are not as wide as those we see in Western Christian communities, I think Krindatch is correct in concluding that they point to a “significant diversity” in how the faithful approach the tradition of the Church (p. 3).
The existence of diverse micro-theologies can be risky, but not necessarily bad. I disagree with Aristotle Papanikolau’s assertion that “the inability to adapt to American cultural pluralism has led to an increasing fragmentation of the American Orthodox community” (p. 179). Yes, within the Church we see “diverse interpretations and appropriations of the tradition that lead to diverse theologies that span the spectrum of the extremes of the so-called ‘Culture Wars’” (quoted in Krindatch, p. 179). But one could also argue that the diversity of personal and parochial adaptations of the tradition are part of the normal process of experimentation that the Church must undertake in order to fulfill her evangelistic calling in America. Much like the role of the States in the American system of governance, the parishes are “laboratories” – though not of democracy but of pastoral care.
There are two ways in which this otherwise healthy process can be inadvertently truncated. The first is to misunderstand what this process of adaption means to those who are in the midst of it. The second is for Orthodox Christians to refuse to engage American culture. Let’s look at the second consideration first.
In Roman mythology, the god Janus guarded the doorways of homes and buildings. As the god of entrances and exits, he was depicted with two faces turned in opposite directions. The two minority forms of orthopraxy that Krindatch identifies, Conservative or “fundamentalist orthopraxy,” and Liberal or “reconstructionist orthopraxy” at first seem diametrically opposed to each other. They are, but in only the manner of Janus.
While both forms look in opposite directions, they are similar in that they counsel the Church to avoid engagement with American culture. The fundamentalist undertakes sectarian withdrawal. We can call them the sectarian wing. Reconstructionists embrace culture but at the expense of the Church’s tradition. We can call them the secularist wing. Sectarian (in Krindatch’s typology “Conservative”) Orthodox Christians turn inward; secularist Orthodox Christians turn outward. What is missing in both is a balanced response to the demands that arise naturally–and providentially–from the convergence of Holy Tradition and American culture. Albeit for different reasons, both approaches frame the encounter between the Church and culture not in terms of reconciliation and redemption, but of power and dominance. Thus, both embrace the notion that the Church is, and must be, absent from the larger culture.
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus helps us understand the necessity of intentional cultural engagement that “The Orthodox Church Today” identifies as the majority position within the Orthodox Church. In the December 2008 article, “The ‘American’ Religion,” Neuhaus writes,
Christians who, knowingly or unknowingly, embrace the model of “Christ without culture”—meaning Christianity indifferent to culture—are captive to the culture as defined by those who control its commanding heights. They are not only captive to it but are complicit in it. Their entrepreneurial success in building religious empires by exploiting the niche markets of the Christian subculture leaves the commanding heights untouched, unchallenged, unengaged.
Neuhaus’ critique is not limited to conservative Evangelical Christians. It also expresses how most Orthodox Christians in America understand the Church’s relationship to the larger culture. Whether “cradle” or “convert,” whether one is on the cultural left or the right, there are a surprisingly large number of Orthodox Christians who are content to live in an Orthodox ghetto—at least on Sunday morning.
Even for Orthodox Christians who reject the option of an ethnic enclave or a crude imitation of monastic life, I suspect that what is “cultural” is seen as that which “typically cater[s] to the Christian market” – much like their Evangelical neighbors. The fact that a local Protestant congregation expresses their cultural captivity with such things as praise music and “witness wear,” and that the Orthodox express it with ethnic food festivals, or by making sure we keep the parish for “our” people, or by dressing in the latest 19th Orthodox Christian peasant chic makes little difference. In many cases the Orthodox parish is content “with being a subculture.”
This is a dangerous identity to assume Neuhaus writes:
Christianity that is indifferent to its cultural context is captive to its cultural context. Indeed, it reinforces the cultural definitions to which it is captive. Nowhere is this so evident as in the ready Christian acceptance of the cultural dogma that religion is essentially a private matter of spiritual experience, that religion is a matter of consumption rather than obligation. Against that assumption, we must insist that Christian faith is intensely personal but never private. The Christian gospel is an emphatically public proposal about the nature of the world and our place in it. It is a public way of life obliged to the truth.
Like our brothers and sisters in western Christian traditions, Orthodox Christians “have uncritically accepted the dichotomy between public and private, between fact and value, between knowledge and meaning.” We imagine that we are preserving the cultural riches of Hellenism or the spiritual riches of monastic life, when in fact we betray our vocation by forming our lives around the “dichotomies [that] are deeply entrenched in American religion and culture” and accept “what is often described, and frequently decried, as American individualism.”
When we embrace the sectarian or secularist approach, we withdraw from the work of cultural engagement and surrender Orthodox Christianity to American culture. This failure is compounded when we fail to confront those who lead from the extremes and accept their leadership out of a misguided sense of loyalty. The locus of cultural engagement begins with the challenge to those outside and inside the Church who insist that faith remains solely a private affair. As Neuhaus argues, the debilitating sin of the American approach to religion is the privatization of religious belief. For Orthodox Christians, the notion that “my religion, [is] certified and secured by the fact that it is mine” is heresy pure and simple. It rejects Christ and the Gospel.
Bringing our Orthodox faith into the public square through debates, philanthropy, evangelical outreach and so forth happens when we shed the notion that our faith is private, a mere preference. This doesn’t mean that people will agree with us, or even (as Krindatch shows) that we will always agree with each other. Far from it.
We may not find agreement but we will find this: the more we bring our faith into the public square, the more we will be challenged to repent of our egoism. This can lead to a purification of faith and Church. The purification will necessarily compel the jettisoning of triumphalism, sectarianism, secularism, and other erroneous notions that keep the Gospel of Christ under the bushel. This challenge is the only way to fulfill the evangelical commission and strengthen the faithful and thereby strengthen the Church.
And this brings us to central pastoral challenge of Orthodox fragmentation.
While sectarianism and secularism represent a danger to the spiritual heath of the Church, there is a greater danger implicit in Orthodox fragmentation. To help us understand it, let me offer a key distinction in Thomistic anthropology that proved helpful in my pastoral ministry: the objective and subjective dimensions of faith.
Faith in an objective sense is what we believe as Orthodox Christians or, if you prefer, the content of the Church’s faith. The objective dimension of faith is the fides quae creditur–the “faith which” is believed. Pastorally, “faith” in the objective sense is distinguished from faith as a personal act. Faith as a personal act has a subjective dimension and is the fides qua creditur (the “faith by which” we believe). The Catholic theologian Fr Aidan Nicholas writes that “If the fides quae is objective faith, then the fides qua is the subjective faith, not in the sense of partial, individual opinions about faith, but the faith that pertains to me as an acting subject in my own right” (“The Shape of Catholic Theology,” emphasis in the original). This Thomistic vocabulary is absent from the text of “The Orthodox Church Today,” but the substance of this distinction is central to the study’s understanding of one of the major questions facing the Church: “the issue of the ‘conservative-liberal’ divides in Church life” (Krindatch, p. 3).
Though not unrelated to faith in its objective dimension (fides quae), the four fold typology of orthopraxis is in fact an expression of the subjective dimension of faith (fides qua). If we lose sight of this distinction, we risk not only misinterpreting Krindatch’s work, we also risk drawing misleading conclusions about the pastoral life of the Church. Even though the typologies might be right or wrong relative to the tradition of the Church, they nevertheless reflect how people understand themselves and the local and national Church in the American cultural context.
For many Orthodox Christians and parishes, criticizing or rejecting their typology is tantamount to nullifying their identity Orthodox Christians. Further, this is not simply a problem for those on the extremes—the conservative or liberal Orthodox Christian or parish—but it is also to those in the middle categories, the Orthodox Christians who understand themselves as traditional or moderate.
The four-fold typology explains some of the pastoral challenges facing the Church at the beginning of the 21st century. Moreover, while I do not want to minimize the importance of what the study reveals, I also believe we need to critically examine our assumptions about the nature of tradition, in particular the relationship between the person and tradition that has guided us so far.
Central to “The Orthodox Church Today” is the contention that there is an increasing fragmentation in the Church. I certainly don’t deny this. But is this the only way to interpret the data?
As the study points out, the increasing fragmentation on the micro-theological level has resulted in the emergence of parish communities that are disconnected from each other. If we are not careful, parishes will come to reflect in an exclusive way the personalities and interest of the priest and a relatively small group of lay leaders. We risk dogmatizing legitimate differences and even eccentricities.
However, fragmentation may also be the byproduct of necessary and healthy experimentation. Experimentation is a word generally not associated with the Orthodox Church, yet a certain amount of experimentation is unavoidable nonetheless. The truth is that the Orthodox Church contains within herself a rich pluriformity of spiritual, liturgical and pastoral practices. Holy Tradition is not static but dynamic and each new cultural or pastoral situation presents the Church with new challenges and opportunities to enter more deeply into the Mystery of Grace.
The potential growth and development that the American context offers the Church is just that: potential. There is no guarantee that the Church in America will successfully navigate the pastoral challenges we face. Yet, while we affirm that a certain degree of experimentation is necessary and even inevitable, we acknowledge that the taxonomy outlined in “The Orthodox Church Today” reflects unhealthy forms of pluralism and pragmatism that dominate American cultural discourse. Thus, the “micro-theology” of an individual believer or parish is often simply a form of emotivism. Micro-theologies do not necessarily have theological content and may simply be expressions of approval or disapproval of what people perceive to be normative Orthodox practice relative to American culture. We need to remember too that much in American culture is highly fluid and often lacks substantive content.
Thus, looking at not only at this study but also studies both by Krindatch and others, it appears to me that the central pastoral challenge facing the American Orthodox Church is not educational. Yes, of course we need a systematic, Christ-centered, catechesis for the laity and for continuing education for the clergy. But theological information and pastoral technique without sound human and Christian spiritual formation is, to borrow from the fathers, a work of demons.
What we need instead is a systematic approach to lay spiritual formation. Neglect this, and all other efforts will remain anemic and subject to failure. Yes, that’s a strong statement, but the truth is that every survey of American Orthodox Christians shows that a plurality, and even a majority, of our faithful (including clergy) are not forming their lives according to the tradition of the Church.
What passes today for spiritual formation is deficient. A bit of Church history, a little instruction on setting up an icon corner, the rules for fasting or keeping a daily rule of prayer, are simply not sufficient for the Christian life. Given the challenges facing the Church, the paucity of our teaching is sentimentality and best and merely managed decline at worst. As other Christian and non-Christian communities are also discovering, the blessings of liberty are for the Orthodox Church a severe mercy. God, in His great love for us and for the whole human family, has established His Church in a religious and cultural environment marked by intense religious and cultural competition. While we live and move and have our being in Christ, we are called to minister in a religious and philosophical free market.
For example, relative to the overall number of Orthodox Christians in America, our parishes are mostly empty on Sunday morning. The vast majority of us do not see attendance at Liturgy as more valuable then whatever else we might do Sunday morning. But this isn’t all. The need for sound spiritual formation is also reflected in the large numbers of Orthodox Christians (both cradle and covert), who simply drift away from the Church. Over 50% of converts leave. While people may have a reason to join, they have fewer reasons to stay. Moreover, if we cannot give adult converts a reason to stay, why are we surprised that those baptized as infants leave?
It is not sufficient to say that those who leave simply did not have a life grounded in concrete communion with Jesus Christ that was informed by the Tradition of the Church. Indeed, one way to understand the fragmentation in the Church (as Kindritch reveals) is that they are the consequences of neglecting sound Christian formation.
For most Orthodox Christians, spiritual formation is a new idea. Given the conservatism most of us share, if a new idea isn’t a bad idea, then at least it’s an idea we hold with suspicion and often we lay it aside. But Christian formation has had great effects in Catholic, and to a lesser degree Protestant, seminary education and pastoral care.
In my own pastoral work, I borrow from the work of the Catholic priest and clinical psychologist Adrian van Kaam to show people that the tradition of the Church has two foundational goals for their spiritual lives:
- The Church’s tradition guides me in the process of self-discovery and growth in self-knowledge. To overly simplify the matter, the tradition does not so much helps me know facts about myself but to rather helps me give the right weight and place to those facts in my daily life.
- The tradition can guide me in the process of self-expression. That is to say, I have a vocation and that vocation is inscribed in my heart by the same Holy Spirit that has guided the Church from the beginning. The Holy Spirit’s presence in the Holy Tradition helps me live out my vocation in the concrete circumstances of my daily life.
When I teach these two goals well and with consistency, people respond with a marked increase in their commitment to Christ and the Church. Fail to do this and people drift away. All the data I’ve seen points to the same thing: a failure in the spiritual formation of the faithful. In its place we offer mere morality (which can’t reveal more than general truths about humanity; it lacks the power to release self-knowledge), lessons about monasticism (which for many supplants the ascetical discipline appropriate for non-monastics), some history (which lacks concrete specificity to the present), sometimes some cultural training, and not much more.
Guided and guarded by the Church’s dogmatic and moral teaching, and nurtured by a life of prayer and asceticism (especially fasting and care for the poor), we become ever more sensitive to what is Good, True, Beautiful and Just. We see these first in the Scriptures and the lives of the Saints, especially as they are communicated to us in the Church’s liturgical life. And then, building on this foundation, we become ever more aware of the presence of the Good, the True, the Beautiful and the Just in ourselves and in the world of persons, events, and things that constitute our everyday life.
This discovery that these elements are not abstract notions but embodied realities is only the start of the journey. As I come to recognize the Good, the force of that recognition confronts me with the presence of wickedness, falsehood, ugliness and injustice first in my own heart and then in the world around me. As I remind my students, I do not learn from my mistakes. I learn what is true and only in the light of Truth do I come to see I am mistaken. The journey to Christ is the journey into a deep humanity as well.
Our problem is that we have rarified Holy Tradition. We have made it an object, a standard to be imitated rather than something that can be experienced within, something that transforms our thinking and ways of acting. To borrow from Vladimir Lossky, we have lost sight of Holy Tradition as the Presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church as it leads and guides the faithful throughout history.
We can call it, like St. Paul does, “living in the Spirit.” It is the Spirit that gave the Apostles their word, and inspired others to write them down. It is the spirit that breathes through our worship like the wind at Pentecost, and counsels the secret places of the heart. It is the Spirit that sustains the Saints and gives courage to the martyrs. It is Spirit that taught Christians in ages past how to live as Christians in cultures with dangers like our own.
This ways and the workings of the Spirit are congruent with the knowledge preserved in Holy Tradition. But if Holy Tradition is not internalized, if it remains an object of veneration only with no human penetration into its mysteries, it becomes on more source of division in the human heart and family.
And the Tradition can only be known by first believing and living the Gospel. If, as His Beatitude Metropolitan JONAH said recently, 60% of the Orthodox faithful are pro-choice, we have failed. Our failure is not absolute, but looking at the statistical portrait of the laity in “The Orthodox Church,” we must agree with His Beatitude’s assessment of a widespread catechetical and spiritual failure.
The question facing us is: Will we rise to the challenge?
Rev. Gregory Jensen is psychologist of religion and a priest of the Diocese of Chicago and the Midwest (Orthodox Church in America). He blogs at Koinonia.