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I have received several private emails regarding my earlier posts on Orthodoxy in America.
One idea that seems to resonant with people is the America is an experiment. Thinking about that one person suggested to me that Orthodoxy itself is something of an experiment. As I thought about it, it made sense to me that—since the Christian life is dynamic (it is after all, life)—it would necessarily have an experimental quality. Think about it for a moment—how do we learn to pray, for example, except by trying out not simply different ways of praying, but different mixes of the different ways.
So I got to thinking, what comes to mind when I reflect on the possibility that the Christian life and the American life are both experiments?
It is somewhat ironic that, on the right, many would deny this outright. For these people, both the Orthodox Church and America are presented as a completed work to which people (usually other people by the way) must conform. For me at least, the great strength of both traditions is that they provide people with the “tools” need for self-discovery and self-expression. Granted in the political arena this most often means being left alone, but still the absence of coercion by civil authority and a broadly respect for the conscience of the individual is no small tool. In the case of the Church, we have the whole of Holy Tradition. Far from being an abstract standard to be fulfilled, it presents us with 2,000 years of wisdom and a theological and spiritual unity grounded in human and cultural diversity. Taken up in the service of our growth in self-knowledge, I find the Tradition to be a source of unimaginable richness. As I read more in Orthodoxy theology and spirituality, as I find myself facing new pastoral challenges as a priest, as I have conversations with people (both those who are and those who aren’t Orthodox), I discover not only new layers and depth in Holy Tradition, but new things about me.
Growing in my understanding of Holy Tradition and growing in self-knowledge and self-expression are not opposed. In my experience, they come together—in fact, I can’t seem to have one without the other.
Least I someone accused of taking sides, those on the left have their own characteristic way of denying the open end nature of both American and Orthodoxy. In this case the experimental nature of both becomes an end in itself. Yes, there is dynamism in both the American experiment and the Christian experiment. LIkewise there is room for, and even an expectation of, learning through what we might call trial and error (though strictly speaking we do not learn through error. It is only in coming, by trail, to know and understand the truth that we see the errors of our ways. But that for another day.) And above all in both there is a deep appreciation for personal uniqueness. BUT all of this is in the service of getting somewhere. The American experiment is in search of a more just and perfect union; the Church is a journey to the Kingdom of God (even if we are given that Kingdom proleptically in the sacraments, but that is for another day). America and the Church each take their meaning not simply from the past, therefore, but from the future. As Americans and as Christians, we remember the future—albeit futures with different, though not unrelated, contents.
Granted I have grossly simplified not only the “left” and the “right,” but also America and the Church. Let me then offer my words then as a typology rather than a normative description of either America or the Christian life.
When you have a chance, dear readers, I would be most interested in your thoughts on this typology.