Orthodoxy and the Culture: Tradition versus Politics

My last post discussed Rod Dreher and my impression that he is, somewhat artificially, importing the U.S. Culture Wars into Orthodoxy. I implied that certain issues that are highly politicized in the U.S. Protestant and Catholic Churches are not necessarily or naturally politicized within Orthodoxy. This might have surprised some readers who follow Orthodox discourse online, where many Orthodox commentators take strong and predictable stances on such issues. I wanted to clarify my argument a bit in this post and introduce my readers to a few Orthodox discussions that I’ve found helpful.

I’m still very new to Orthodoxy—when I receive communion, my priest refers to me as “Seraphim the newly illumined.” Consequently, I spend an inordinate amount of time reading blogs, watching videos, studying subreddits, and listening to podcasts related to Orthodoxy, and I’m still learning a lot from these sources. On the other hand, I’ve been perusing these sources for roughly two years now and I’ve become familiar with some trends, especially in the way politics is handled.

The culture wars have affected the conversations Orthodox Christians have with one another online more than they have affected conversations in my specific parish. Among the Orthodox Christians I encounter in the flesh-and-blood “real world,” politics only rarely comes up, and my priest is very careful not to frame political issues or political discourse as central to our faith (although he will firmly, if compassionately, describe the Greek Orthodox Church’s official stance on issues that frequently get politicized). Having grown up in an Evangelical environment, I am struck by what a secondary role politics plays in my fellow parishioners’ lives. This isn’t the case on the Internet, where the Orthodox conversations—although less overtly partisan and less fierce than comparable Protestant and Catholic conversations—frequently turn to hot-button political issues.

I’ve noticed two ways in which divisive political and cultural tensions enter Orthodox discourse. I would describe the first way as more “natural” or indigenous, as well as more global—these debates and issues affect Orthodox Christians everywhere, not just in the United States. Examples include debates about human sexuality and the definition of Christian marriage, debates about the relationship between the Church and the State, or conflicts between influential bishops. I would describe the second way in which political and cultural tensions enter Orthodox discourse as less natural—these are debates and issues that divide Christians in the United States and don’t naturally occur within Orthodoxy. They are often imposed on Orthodoxy by outsiders and, in many cases, converts like me. Examples include the debates about Black Lives Matter and racial politics, conflicts between political parties or ideologies, debates about how to handle the COVID-19 pandemic, debates about how one should vote, and debates about the regulation of abortion, the civil definition of marriage, or political correctness. Evangelical bugaboos like environmentalism, and their conspiratorial views toward internationalism and western Europe, also pop up here. I’m not saying that the Orthodox Church does not have something to contribute to these debates and issues, or that it doesn’t have its own bugaboos and conspiracy theories; but the way these debates and issues get framed in American Orthodox discourse usually aligns a bit too perfectly with preexisting Evangelical, Catholic, or liberal Protestant positions. The positions American Orthodox Christians frequently take on these issues do not seem to arise organically from Orthodoxy itself.

Take, for instance, the debates about Darwinian evolution and Intelligent Design in the United States: there’s no reason Orthodox Christians should adopt what is essentially an Evangelical/fundamentalist position on evolution. Fundamentalist and Biblical literalism are, as everyone should know, uniquely modern phenomena; the Fathers did not read Genesis as straight historical fact; Orthodoxy predates modern historiography and the whole idea of “straight historical fact.” The Orthodox Church also predates modern science and existed alongside several scientific revolutions without too much controversy; we have a two-thousand-year history of coexistence and compatibility with scientific discovery. From an Orthodox perspective, there’s no apparent need to adopt a literalist or fundamentalist view of Genesis or to deny Darwinian evolution. Yet many Orthodox Christians online espouse Creationist beliefs. When Orthodox Christians do this, they are usually taking their cues from Evangelical Protestants or smuggling in fundamentalist notions from their own (non-Orthodox) religious upbringings.

The subreddit r/OrthodoxChristianity’s FAQ page does a great job explaining this:

The development of modern science dates to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, so no ecumenical council has ever addressed how to integrate it with divine revelation in a coherent and consistent worldview. As a result, there is not a dogmatic treatment examining how to resolve conflicts, whether apparent or real, when scientific findings appear to contradict divine revelation. Many early fathers were happy to use the primitive science of their day to divine purposes, perhaps suggesting to modern Christians a compatibilist resolution to the question. Other fathers, however, clearly see conflicts and contradictions which they resolve in favor of their understanding of Christian revelation.

One also finds traces of the U.S. culture wars in oft-repeated online lamentations that the Orthodox Church risks “going the way of Rome” or “going the way of the Episcopalians” by becoming too liberal (as I wrote in my last post, it is somewhat absurd to imagine that an off-shoot of Anglicanism that includes a mere 1.8 million Americans can reasonably predict the fate of a sprawling and dynamic Afro-Eurasian creed confessed by some 220 million souls). These fears of Episcopalianization are typically generated by refugees from Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, who converted to the Orthodox Church in protest of the Nouvus Ordo mass, or guitars in worship music, or the decadence and elasticity of certain mainline creeds (belief in the Resurrection? optional! baptize in the name of…the Mother? why not!). For such converts, liberal theology leads to collapse—they see direct correlations between liberalism, increased secularization in North America and western Europe, and decreased church attendance in those places. Like a refugee from a totalitarian Communist state who sees the shadow of Lenin in every modest social democratic reform, these converts see a looming crisis for the Orthodox Church in every milquetoast statement about, say, global warming from the Ecumenical Patriarch.

American culture war bugaboos have not merely infiltrated the Orthodox Church in North America. Conservative populism has proved to be a surprisingly international phenomenon, and conservative Orthodox clergy from North America, Australia, and western Europe have both influenced and found receptive audiences in the rest of the Orthodox world. For instance, the ultra-conservative U.S.-based World Congress of Families (WCF), whose world conferences are typically held in Protestant or Catholic nations, met in 2016 in Tblisi, Georgia. The choice of Tblisis was seen as an acknowledgment that a Orthodox nations, particularly those within Russia’s orbit, could serve as the new front line against the sexual revolution, particularly where LGBTQ rights are concerned: the WCF described the 2016 conference as their attempt to “establish a beachhead in the region.” Political Research Associates reported that, “in May 2013, as the queer community gathered[…]to commemorate the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia, the Georgian Orthodox Church hierarchy called for counterdemonstrations. Right-wing activists, including armed priests…responded to the appeal by attacking peaceful LGBTQ marchers, and smashing shop windows, heads, and minivans.” This is the environment the WCF chose for its first conference in an Orthodox nation. At this conference, the conservative Orthodox priest Father Josiah Trenham, an American convert from Reformed Protestantism, introduced his audience to language regarding the “LBGT tolerance-tyrant, this lavender mafia, these homo-fascists, these rainbow radicals….” Trenham implored his audience to tell LGBTQ activists “that they are not welcome to promote their anti-religious and anti-civilizational propaganda in your nations.”

I don’t mean to suggest that conservative Slavic Orthodoxy would not exist if not for a small group of American priests who appear to be little more than (to quote an Orthodox reddit user) “Evangelicals with beards.” But when influential conservatives in places like Russia, Hungary, and the Caucasus bemoan “political correctness,” you know that something uniquely American has been exported. The ultra-right in Europe and in the United States have formed a symbiotic relationship, and Orthodoxy has been one conduit through which that relationship developed. As someone who deeply resents the U.S. cultural civil war that has all but destroyed our public sphere, I regret Orthodoxy’s role in all of this.

Still, one of the aspects of Orthodoxy that I find most attractive is its natural resistance to culture war—or, more accurately, its ability to persist despite the culture wars that have surrounded and enveloped it for two thousand years. I return to the subreddit r/OrthodoxChristianity. One of the Frequently Asked Questions is, “What is the Orthodox position on X?” to which the editor replies, “A better way to ask this question is probably what is an Orthodox opinion on X, because there’s probably several opinions. A safe route is always to ask a priest you trust — whatever it is, they’ve almost certainly heard it before, so don’t be embarrassed to ask. While we are firm on dogma, there’s not a whole lot that falls into that category.” Regarding the cultural divisions in American Orthodoxy that emerge online, one very reasonable user wrote:

I’ve found there are two broad “camps” among American Orthodox commentators. Neither “camp” is heretical or anything, but they have different emphases. I’ll try to be as fair as I can here but it’s probably clear where my sympathies lie.

One camp sees the Church as fundamentally under attack from the outside world. Their posture is defensive, always reacting against new developments in culture and politics. If the culture has some new innovation, that’s what the sermon is going to be about this week. They feel that the primary duty of the Church is to witness to the culture on moral issues like gay marriage and abortion, and that the best way to do that is to make sure everyone knows very well what the Orthodox positions are on these issues.

The other camp sees the Church as fundamentally in pursuit of the culture. Their posture is one of engagement, because they see the outside culture not as something to be shunned, but rather transfigured by Orthodoxy. They feel that the primary duty of the Church is to baptize everyone and everything and that they are starting from a position of strength, because Christ’s victory is already accomplished, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church.

It probably goes without saying that I am pretty firmly in the second camp. Another person on the same thread usefully notes the “difference between being traditionalist or modernizing (from the Orthodox point of view) versus being right wing or left wing (from the American point of view).” I find that genuine Orthodox disagreements tend to emerge along the traditionalist/modernist axis, whereas disagreements imported from the outside world tend to emerge along the right-wing/left-wing axis. The trouble occurs when these axes are grafted on to one another (right-wing traditionalists vs. left-wing modernizers).

On that note, I want to share a quote from an Orthodox reddit user that really resonated with me:

Tradition isn’t a monolithic entity, and it certainly isn’t just being really strict about fasting or whatever. I’ve heard it said about Jewish tradition that it’s an ongoing argument, and I think Orthodox tradition should be thought of in the same way. Not that there aren’t things we have settled on and won’t argue about anymore, but there are many things, even commonly accepted things, that may still be open to debate very much in the spirit of “traditional” Orthodoxy. There’s nothing especially traditional about not honestly engaging with the current issues as if the fathers have answered every question for us already.

I strongly agree with this user’s comment, that Orthodox Christianity’s relationship with tradition, while hardly identical to Judaism’s relationship with tradition, is at least analogous to it. As Father Chris Margaritis of Denver once observed, Orthodox theology emerged from controversies, conversations, and arguments that were hammered out into a rough consensus. Father Chris compared this to scientific consensus: both tradition and scientific consensus emerge from debate and discussion. This consensus protects the institution against one person or ideology taking things too far toward any given extreme. I do not mean to downplay the role that revelation has played in Orthodox theology, tradition, and practice. But I would argue that this debate-hewn consensus is the primary mode through which God has revealed His truths. This how we learned the Gospel, how we got the liturgy, how we got Scripture. This is the mysterious way through which He works.

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