When I lived in northern California I got to know well the different Orthodox Christian splinter groups. These included not only Traditionalist Orthodox Churches such at the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, and different Greek Orthodox Old Calendar communities that identified with themselves as part of the “Church in Resistance,” but also a variety of non-canonical, pseudo-Orthodox and frankly cultic, communities that in one way or another appealed to the tradition of the Christian East (and occasionally the ancient Celtic Christian Church and the tradition of the pre-Vatican II and even pre-Tridentine Catholic Church). At one point, describing the various representatives of all of these different groups that floated in and out of my own parish, my bishop (only partially in jest) asked me if I was advertising for these people.
While these groups were different not only from the main body of the Orthodox Church, they were also different from each other. And while not all of them where in my view emotionally, much less spiritually, healthy communities, they did share one common characteristic that I found attractive. What united them is something that the economist of religion
Laurence Iannaccone identifies in his 1994 essay, “Why Strict Churches Are Strong” (The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 99, No. 5 (Mar., 1994), pp. 1180-1211).
In August/September 2008 issue of First Things, Joseph Bottum in his essay, “The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline,” by summarizes this argument:
We need to be careful here.
Strictness does not have to mean punitive, harsh, authoritarian, perfectionism, or a group that values conformity over human uniqueness. Granted it often does—and this is certainly my experience with many of the splinter groups I’ve encountered over the years. Strictness in the spiritual and pastoral life of the Church can, and should mean, intentional and systematic and with an emphasis on helping people and communities discover and incarnate their own unique identity in Jesus Christ. In this sense, strictness can be joyful. Like the athlete who comes to love running precisely because it is hard and personal challenging, so to the Christian needs to be a challenge that bears the fruit in a life of joy.
This is a different approach, on the one hand, that what is typically done in Orthodox parish. More often than not, it is assumed that the simply explication or proclamation of the tradition is sufficient. The evidence from the Pew Charitable Trust Survey would suggest this is not the case. Simply presenting information does not change lives. One can be very well educated in the facts about the tradition of the Orthodox Church and still not be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
On the other hand, while this approach (which I have yet to outline I realize) is compatible with the tradition of the Church, it does suggest a radical re-orientation in how we approach that tradition. Certainly there is often piety and fidelity, but very infrequently is their the joy, the delight, that comes from striving to live a life worth living (if I may borrow from Bishop Fulton Sheen).
One of the great pastoral difficulties with splinter groups, and even parishes within the main body of the Orthodox Church, is that often our approach to tradition is one of external conformity. Ironically, to the degree this is the implicit norm in the main body of the Church, it is very difficult to offer a compelling argument to those in the more marginal groups. After all these groups (for a variety of reasons I don’t have time to articulate here) are often better (in the sense of more highly conforming) at maintaining the externals of the tradition. It would seem that both mainline and splinter communities hold to the notion that if I simply do Orthodox things I will eventually (by grace?) become Orthodox. The road to sanctity, then, is very much an external road.
What I am suggesting is that we approach the tradition as a hermeneutic, a way of helping people and communities, understand themselves and their own experiences. Tradition is not so much that to which we conform, but rather that which illumines and deepens our appreciation of human experience in both its personal and social dimensions.
How might this happen?
In the next several posts I want to address three key elements:
- The ABC’s of Preaching & Teaching
- Individual and Group Spiritual Direction
To be continued…