Letter to a Pre-Christian Nation

Part One: Narrow is the gate…

In my last post, I reflected on the wondrous breadth of Christianity and its stupefying diversity across the globe and throughout history. But if I am to be an Orthodox Christian, I should also pause to reflect on the Church’s narrowness. I confess my belief in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, and I believe that Church is not the Lutheran Church or the Presbyterian Church or even the Catholic Church but the Orthodox Church. Other churches have appeared from sets of unique historical contingencies and circumstances, and their appearances in specific times and specific places may have been necessary and divinely inspired. I regard Martin Luther and John Calvin as singular figures and serious Christians. I respect the countless reformers, saints, mystics, and philosophers of the Roman Catholic tradition. However, none of these Christian traditions (with the complicated exception, perhaps, of the Roman Catholic Church, about which I haven’t much more to say in this post) possess the fullness, catholicity, and apostolic authority of the Orthodox Church.

For an American, this reality, if one accepts it, is pretty ironic. Are all those different immigrant-community churches that number only a few per city (and virtually none in the country) with their round domes and provincial customs really the universal Church? Yes. For me to say otherwise would be to deny not only the claims of the faith I have discovered but to deny the legitimacy of the differences between Christian traditions. Like any truly good ecumenicist, I don’t wish to inadvertently invalidate the beliefs of my brothers and sisters in Christ by first invalidating my own, by starting from a position that differences don’t matter. Our differences do matter, and here is my primary difference with the overwhelming majority of Christendom: I believe the Orthodox Church got it right.

The Orthodox Church’s unique mixture of universal claims and particular expressions within various national churches is part of what attracted me to it. This dual register—universality, particularity—makes American Orthodox Christianity especially powerful. With no national Church, American Orthodoxy expresses itself through the individual communities it inhabits. It ties together local cultures, uniting in faith communities of immigrants and their grandchildren who have inherited the faith with converts from other traditions who chose it. In theory, this formulation neither suppresses and denies the relevances of cultural and national identities nor does it make them paramount. In practice, of course, many Orthodox churches can feel like cultural enclaves. But the potential is always there for an enriching admixture of the particularity of human experience within a specific nation, culture, and language to the universality of Christian faith.

Besides, many Roman Catholic churches in the United States feel like cultural enclaves, too. And many liberal Protestant churches suppress the key role that cultural and national identities play in human experience. And then there is the Evangelical Church, the de facto national Church, multi-denominational in theory but alarmingly uniform in practice and politics, where American flags appear sometimes as often as crosses. One cannot avoid the confines of culture or the issues that come with nationalism (whether it is opposed or supported) simply by avoiding the Orthodox Church. They will find you wherever you go.

Orthodoxy may feel like a narrow gate. Once passed through, however, its treasures are wide and brilliant. It offers communion with Christians not only across continents but across twenty centuries of Christian faith.

Part Two: Eastward Expansion

The first Orthodox churches appeared in the western hemisphere in Alaska around the turn of the nineteenth century. They were Russian, a geographical continuation of Russian imperial expansion and evangelization in the far east of Chukotka, the peninsula that stretches between Siberia and Alaska. In Alaskan communities like Kake, Orthodox crosses were famously situated alongside totem poles. Some Orthodox Christians utilize a combination of Orthodox iconography and indigenous Alaskan totem carving to this day. This early evangelization of Alaska produced Orthodox saints, including St. Herman of Alaska and St. Innocent of Alaska, who was the first bishop of the first American Orthodox diocese. The diocese eventually moved to California and then, only at the end of the nineteenth century, to New York: a trajectory of west to east that runs counter to the westwardly narrative of popular American history.

A Russian Orthodox Church in Anadyr, Chukotka, Russia.
A Russian Orthodox church on the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska, United States.
Sts. Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Church on St. Paul Island, Alaska, United States. About 500 people live on the island 775 miles west of Anchorage in the Bering Sea.
Kake, Alaska

I find this eastward trajectory of Orthodoxy in America useful as an object lesson, a means for conceptualizing how Orthodoxy runs counter to the history, ideology, and institutions of the United States. Americans and their faith value individualism; Orthodoxy, the communal experience of the Church. Playwright Israel Zangwill famously described the United States as a “melting pot” of cultures; Orthodoxy in America often remains stubborning committed to its founding communities and their nations of origin. American Protestants value a virtually unmediated relationship with God; Orthodox Christians experience God through the seemingly heavy mediation of liturgy, sacraments, prayer books, &c.

In other words, Orthodoxy is not a natural “fit” for the United States. But this is part of why I find Orthodoxy so attractive within an American context. It usefully corrects our national passions; it instructs us in virtues to which we are unaccustomed. It provides a path that is truly untethered from our geopolitical position. American Orthodoxy developed here organically, just as American Catholicism and American Protestantism developed here organically, but much more against the currents of American ideology and American history than those other traditions.

Some conservative Orthodox Christians look forward to a day when an American equivalent of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow or Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople will appear to lead a genuinely American Orthodox Church. This is probably a pipe dream, though I understand its appeal. With unity comes strength. But for now, the Orthodox of America must find strength in the jurisdictions that have developed here organically: Greeks and Serbs and Arabs from the east, Russians from the west.

Part Three: America’s Orthodox Future

I had originally entitled this entry “Letter to a Post-Christian Nation.” I’ve written about post-Christianity in the West in the past; the subject is an obsession among culturally conservative commentators. The title was inspired by Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation, the 2006 polemic that garnered much attention and inspired responses such as Douglas Wilson’s Letter from a Christian Citizen. For reasons I will explain in this final section, I changed the title to address a pre-Christian America. It may seem strange to address either a pre-Christian nation or a post-Christian nation and then write about the Evangelical “national church” or American flags in chapels. But there has always been something undeveloped and embryonic about American Christianity, particularly the modes of Christianity that aspires to speak for the nation. Christianity always seems to be in the process of taking form and maturing in the United States. It never feels quite fully developed.

A case in point: in a recent video, Steven Christoforou, director of Y2AM, recalled a poll that demonstrated American Christianity’s ignorance of the most basic principles of the Christian faith. Fifty-seven percent of American Christians agreed with the statement, “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God” (another poll found that an alarming 78% affirmed this principle). Fifty-nine percent believe that the Holy Spirit is “a force, rather than a personal, divine being.”

Are the majority of American Christians actually Arianists? I’m not as ready as Christoforou to suggest that heresy is widespread is the United States. Rather, I’d argue that little-“o” orthodoxy is just badly underdeveloped. Arianism was widely believed in the third and fourth centuries of Christian history. It has probably been the private belief of untold millions of genuine but uneducated Christians throughout the Church’s history, including big-“O” Orthodox Christians, who simultaneously confessed the Nicene Creed and imagined that, in some mystical sense, God “created” Christ. Are all of these Christians heretics? Only technically, I’d argue. (If that’s letting them off easy, so be it. Lack of education is rarely cured by harshness.)

But I believe that something far simpler than grave doctrinal ignorance and unwitting heresy is happening in the poll Christoforou cites. Americans (much, I suspect, as people everywhere) are famously illiterate. They read and write and comprehend language with short spasms of attention. When he is faced with the question, “Is Jesus the first and greatest being created by God?,” an American Christian will instinctively respond, “Yes! Jesus is great! Of course Jesus is ‘first’—Jesus is #1!” He misinterpreted the word “first,” he focused unduly on the word “greatest,” and his mind stopped paying attention by the time the verb “created” committed its heresy. Likewise, in the experience of most American Christians (like the experience of most Christians historically), the Holy Spirit is something akin to a “force,” not nearly as personal as God the Father or Jesus Christ. And besides, the sentence is complex: as a writing instructor, I can easily imagine an adult agreeing with both the claim that “the Holy Spirit is a force rather than a personal, divine being” and the claim that “the Holy Spirit is divine.” You’ve lost them at the phrase “rather than.”

Am I arguing that Americans are hopeless doctrinal idiots? Not at all. They’re just people, like people everywhere. Their private thoughts and experiences are wildly divergent from orthodoxy. I am willing to be wrong about this, but I wonder if those poll results would look dramatically different among Russian Christians, Greek Christians, or Arab Christians. What’s more, I believe that almost no Christian would cling so strongly to these private views that they wouldn’t submit to correction from their priest. When responding to the poll, they’re merely grappling with the complex experience of God: Jesus feels like the greatest part of God’s creation to them. The Holy Spirit feels like a force rather than a person. In reality, the Christians who responded to the poll were probably doing a lot of guessing.

Christianity in America has long been unconcerned with the particulars of orthodox Christian doctrine. The founding text of American Protestantism, “A Model of Christian Charity,” is positively bursting with Biblical references and allusions but is theologically rather slight. As Winthrop lamented in his journals, within a generation of the founding of the major Puritan settlements in New England, most settlers had drifted away from the fervent Calvinism of their fathers. This faith was renewed during those Great Awakenings, but with each iteration of spiritual revival the American Church became less and less dogmatic, less and less doctrinally sound, more and more individualistic. Christianity may be doctrinally unstable among the majority of Christians everywhere, but it seems especially so in the United States.

The second poll I cited above contains a more telling statistic than the one on Arianism: “A majority of US adults (58%) said that worshiping alone or with one’s family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church. Only 30 percent disagree.” This apparent willingness to reject the corporate nature of worship is, I believe, the reason American Christianity is perpetually underdeveloped, continually trapped in a cult of individualism that may not be technically heretical but is certainly spiritually poisonous.

As I wrote earlier, Orthodoxy offers virtues which can serve to correct our national vices. Whether the subject seems as technical as the specific relationship of the Trinity to Itself or as foundational as the nature of sin or the communion of the saints, Orthodoxy provides a straight path in which American Christianity, caught in kind of perpetual fetal state, can grow and mature.

As an American, I do not want to live in a society with a state religion. I bristle at the mere suggestion of a national church, or even a unified American jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church, as strongly as a conservative Russian Orthodox priest might bristle at the suggestion that his nation adopt Western-style separation of church and state. I do hope, however, to see American Christianity enfolded into greater Orthodoxy. American Christianity is always in a state of becoming. I believe that Orthodoxy—with its foundation in the catholic and apostolic Church—provides a noble, transformative end-point toward which American Christians can, and should, strive.

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