The Zeal of the Convert

T.S. Eliot and friends

I’ve found myself reflecting lately on T.S. Eliot’s spiritual and religious development after migrating to England. In 1927, he converted to British citizenship and to a Romanized brand of Anglicanism with a zeal that alarmed even the most thoroughbred of English Catholic conservatives. “I am,” he is reported to have declared, “Anglo-Catholic in religion, classicist in literature, and royalist in politics.” (Compare this to the native-born Anglo-Catholic W.H. Auden, who migrated in the opposite direction—from the United Kingdom to the United States—and more soberly remarked that “liturgically, I am Anglo-Catholic, though not too spiky, I hope.”) A Unitarian from Missouri, Eliot embraced British customs and Catholic practices not generally followed by those born into either situation. Ironically, Eliot’s radical conservatism was least pronounced in his poetry, for which he is most well-known. It is slightly less pronounced in his literary criticism (which, though conservative, is far too original to be dismissed as reactionary), more evident in his politics, and perhaps most evident in his faith. Like many who swam the Tiber (or the Thames) before him, Eliot exhibited all the traditionalist fervor of a true convert.

I am reflecting on Eliot’s conversion because many Orthodox Christians on a number of social media groups I follow are terribly alarmed about recent converts to their faith, particularly those from the United States. Such converts, they worry, bring with them the beliefs and practices of liberal Protestantism and the supposedly liberal American way of life. They are particularly concerned about converts to the Greek Orthodox jurisdiction, which they perceive as particularly susceptible to liberalism. (They perceive the Russian Orthodox Church as, naturally, far less susceptible to these American heresies.) These concerns have been enflamed by recent events, which have seen numerous Orthodox bishops and synods make friendly remarks about the anti-racist protests that have engulfed the West following the murder of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Several conservative Orthodox Christians have used their social media platforms to loudly decry any recourse to “social justice.” As the administrator of one group I participate in announced, “The social justice gospel will not be tolerated here.”

I for one am not aware of any “social justice gospel” (I have faint knowledge of liberation theology, a Catholic concern), or indeed of any gospel except the gospel of Jesus Christ, but put that aside for the moment. It seems to me that these conservative Orthodox Christian’s concerns are fundamentally misplaced. The Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America, who issued a statement condemning Floyd’s murder, almost entirely comprises so-called cradle Orthodox Christians. (I addressed their statement in my previous post.) Converts from Protestantism don’t seem to be the problem. I would argue, in fact, that we’re far more likely to see radical reactionaries emerge from recent Protestant converts to Orthodoxy, many of whom are fleeing precisely the liberalism that these online critics bemoan.

Eric Hoffer’s 1951 study of twentieth-century radicalism, The True Believer

Many, though by no means all, of the voices who conspiratorially fret about the infusion of American Protestant values into Orthodoxy come from converts to Orthodoxy. This has prompted His Eminence Archbishop Alexander of Dallas to publish a letter this month from a priest in his diocese regarding the tenor of Orthodox rhetoric online. The priest writes:

I have waited a long time before writing anything specifically about our current situation because I am a simple parish priest, not an epidemiologist, not a theologian, and not a bishop. Therefore, I am, for the most part, unqualified to say too much about our current situation. Unfortunately, others who are at least as unqualified have not hesitated to speak their opinions, throwing around words like “heresy”, “blasphemy”, “untraditional”, and the like. 

Recently a priest whose canonical status is not easily discerned has posted videos trying to provoke schism and disobedience to the bishops’ directives in the wake of the pandemic. In one of the recent videos he interviews a so-called “Elder” who repeatedly calls the pandemic a conspiracy of the Zionists, Kabbalists, and Masons, and cites highly suspect Internet stories as evidence. Misquoting the Scriptures and the Fathers, he encourages people to disobey their bishops because, he says, the bishops are acting uncanonically (and then proceeds to quote a canon completely out of context in support of his false opinion).

I encourage you to read the entire letter, which deals at length with the strong reaction to the Church’s decision to briefly suspend offering the Holy Eucharist during the COVID-19 pandemic. I must say that the allusion to Zionists and Masons is all-too familiar to me having perused a wide variety of Orthodox rhetoric online; these groups are frequently invoked to undermine not merely the legitimacy of the government of the United States, but the faith of Orthodox Christian converts in the United States.

The letter’s author concludes: “I implore you: stay away from so-called Orthodox blogs, videos and social media posts that trade in conspiracies, fear, hatred and anger, ultimately leading to schism and the loss of faith.In so many instances people who have been Orthodox a matter of months or a few years set themselves up as experts in canon law, church history and theology and seek to teach and lead others. ‘Armchair bishops’ without the grace of the episcopacy are leading people to their spiritual ruin.”

That the author identifies recent converts as the source of the problem is not surprising. Of course, recent converts should be allowed to publicly address their faith; that’s what I’m doing on this blog. But I don’t position myself as an authority on patristics or canon law, and I’m certainly not trying to teach anyone anything special on this blog—I merely seek to provoke reflection. What I can say with some authority, having spent my life among devout Christians of various stripes, is that the loudest and most extreme voices in any religious group often do come from converts. This is not a universal rule, but it is a reliable one. Few are born into extremism. It is almost always adopted.

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