We have been thinking together here on these pages about the parochial ministry of the Orthodox Church in the United States. In the December 2007 issue of First Things, I came upon the following observation (and caution) in an article written by the historian Mark Noll. In “America’s Two Foundings,” (subscription required) he writes:
the strength of religion in American history has been its voluntary organization, religious organizations would be well advised to guard carefully their voluntary character while they carry out their religious and social missions. With the prospect of government assistance to faith-based organizations in view, churches and other religious bodies would be wise to adopt the advice of A.B. Simpson, which he offered to his Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination when it faced the question of speaking in tongues. Simpson’s advice was to “seek not, forbid not.” The strength of America’s voluntary religious heritage is not imperiled by a small measure of government funding, but it will be imperiled if religious groups insist on that funding and come to rely on that funding for their existence. Religion in America flourished when it was most acutely aware of corruption from state entanglement; it has always exerted its most beneficial public effects in the shape of the NGO.
While many Orthodox theologians, notable the late Fr Alexander Schmemann, have criticized the volunteeristic character of Christianity in America, such complaints, in my own opinion, miss the mark almost entirely. Let me explain.
I would concede that there is a great danger in assuming that we choose the Gospel in much the same way we choose to purchase this automobile rather than that one. The Gospel is not simply one consumer product among many—but is in fact the way of salvation and a participation in the divine life. So with Schmemann I would say, no, we do not (strictly speaking) choose the Gospel anymore than we choose Christ. Rather, Christ chooses us, He chooses me, even as He calls me to commit myself to the Gospel, to take up my cross and to follow Him.
What Noll is concerned with in the passage cited above, is with religious institutions (and not simply Christian churches) surrendering their independence to federal and states governments through an institutional alliance between church and state. The best way for churches, as he says, to exert “beneficial public effects” is to remain free from “state entanglements.” It is in this second sense that, at its very best, American Christianity is described as volunteeristic. In the American experiment, religious commitment is free from civil compulsion.
The hallmarks of American Christianity—and I think of an American approach to all things religious and spiritual—emerged in the first half of the 19th century. Noll writes (with my emphasis):
The American religion that flourished so luxuriantly in the first sixty years of the nineteenth century was republican: It had internalized the fear of unchecked authority and the commitment to private virtue that drove the ideology of the first political founding. But it was also Christian republican: The virtue that the United States’ energetic itinerants promoted was not classical manliness but humility in Christ. The religion that came to prevail was more antiformal than formal. It did not trust in ascribed authority or inherited bureaucracies but rather in achieved authority and ad hoc networking. It was populist or democratic, championing the ability of any white man to assume leadership in any religious assembly. And it was biblicist, speaking of the Scriptures as a supreme authority that trumped or even revoked all other religious authorities.
While some aspects are now suspect (specifically the “championing of any white man to assume leadership in any religious assembly”) in the main the events that unfolded the first half of the 19th century have come “to shape all of American society by the standards of evangelical religion. Most remarkably, evangelicals even conquered the South, where an honor-driven culture of manly self-assertion had presented a far less propitious field for labor than regions to the North where the Puritan leaven survived.”
Looking at Noll’s analysis, and reflecting as well on my own experiences as a Roman Catholic, I find his words most instructive for me now as an Orthodox priest. If an Evangelical mindset could conquer the “honor-drive culture of manly self-assertion” of the American South of the late 18th and early 19th century, is it reasonable to assume that it will not make inroads into the contemporary Church? Indeed, hasn’t Orthodoxy here in American, as with the Roman Catholic Church for that matter, already taken on many of the qualities that Noll’s associates with Evangelicalism?
Voluntarism was a mind-set keyed to innovative leadership, proactive public advocacy, and entrepreneurial goal setting. Voluntarism also became an extraordinarily influential practice that began with church organization and then mushroomed to inspire local and national mobilization on behalf of myriad social and political causes. Voluntarism also became a foundation for the strength, and weakness, of American society as a whole. Local civilization would be built as local groups and individuals enlisted to address local needs. Not government, not an inherited church, not the dictates of big business, but enterprising connections—forged voluntarily—built American civilization in the decades before the Civil War.
Reading Noll’s I can’t help but think—as more than one Orthodox seminarian has mentioned to me—while the Orthodox Church has maintained a connection with an incredibly rich past we are rather consistently failing in our ability to connect that past with our present situation. Ours is a sublime theology entrusted all too often to ministers who social and interpersonal skills fall far short of the poetry of faith. This dissonance between content and character is pastorally fatal in an American context.
American culture is marked by a real humility. Granted sometimes this humility takes on an unhealthy form (for example, a moral or theological relativism/indifference, superficiality, an uncritical egalitarianism, or an anti-intellectualism), but in the main American culture from the 19th century on has been marked by a combination of moral idealism and practical and personal philanthropy (think for example of the Peace Corps or VISTA). Many Orthodox, and including those who joined the Church as adults, simply misunderstand the anti-authoritarianism, the antiformalism, and populism of American culture. These “-ism’s,” are not inherently ideological. Rather they are in the service of American idealism and practical philanthropy.
For better and worse, American culture is concerned with the contribution that I can make personally. Are my hands dirty and calloused through service to my neighbor?
This “commitment to private virtue,” is not (necessarily anyway) a radical individualism. It is rather grounded in the anthropological conviction that any society, secular or religious, is composed of persons. Thinking about this for a moment, I realize how could it be otherwise? Whatever its immediate founding principles, aren’t all human society, more or less, a reflection of the Divine Society of the Holy Trinity?
That American evangelical society stresses private virtue does not mean that it is necessarily opposed to the tradition of the Orthodox Church. If anything it is precisely this radical rejection of “ascribed authority” and “inherited bureaucracies” in American culture that challenges the Church to recapture for herself the primacy of virtue in the life of the Church. At their best, American Evangelical sensibilities, the personal and cultural commitment to humility, volunteerism, idealism and commitment to practical philanthropy, will buy those in positions of leadership (and again, secular or religious, Christian or non-Christian, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant or Evangelical) a certain deference. But as recent history demonstrates, and again secular and religious, there are limits.
If leaders prove themselves hostile, or even indifferent, to virtues of American Evangelical character, they will simply forfeit all credibility with an American audience. And again, precisely because American culture is practical, words alone are not enough.
Indeed, words alone are suspect.
An enduring concern for the practical and the virtue of prudence in the American character is an echo of the second chapter of the Epistle James. After discussing the necessity of personal virtue, and above all showing no partiality toward the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and the weak (how very American!), the Apostle comes right to the point:
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also (vv. 14-26).
Reflecting as we have been on the life of the parish in the Orthodox Church, it seems to me we would do well to embrace—as a culture protoevangelium—the best of the American character. And not only that; just as the early Church’s willingness to embraced and then transfigured of Greek thought, allowed her to find new ways of proclaiming the Gospel that is “ever ancient, ever new,” might not American culture likewise provide us with new evangelical and pastoral opportunities?
Are we willing, as St Augustine was in his own way and in his time, to find that God is here, in America, waiting for us to discover Him and respond to His call to repent of our sins? I’ll leave you with that thought and Augustine’s own words from The Confessions:
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.