Daily Reading 1/22/2021

Malcolm X at prayer

I recently finished Manning Marable’s 2011 biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention and watched Regina King and Kemp Powers’s One Night in Miami, which portrays Malcolm at the moment he was deciding to break with the Nation of Islam. Malcolm’s role in American culture is usually framed in terms of the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s and the rise of Black Nationalism and Black Power. When I started reading Marable’s biography, however, I was equally interested in studying Malcolm as a spiritual leader, one whose journey took him from a heretical Islamic sect in the United States to a more global, orthodox Islamic identity. For reasons that should be obvious to my readers, this journey has particular resonance with me. I began my religious life as a conservative Pentecostal at one of those megachurches that displayed not just the “Christian” flag, not just the U.S. flag, but the Israeli flag near its altar; now I’m a politically liberal, theologically moderate Orthodox Christian (I’d call myself an “Orthobro,” but I’m tolerant of other traditions and I shave regularly).

A few observations: as I gear up to read Rod Dreher’s Live Not By Lies (later this month or early February), I couldn’t help but think of his Benedict Option when I read Marable’s account of the Nation of Islam. In recent years, Dreher is increasingly preoccupied with matters of race. He’s one of those conservative writers who frets about the “Wokescenti” (to borrow a term from Meghan Daum) and Cancel Culture. Dreher is particularly nervous about how the Woke police discourse surrounding race, and increasingly seems to think that one’s ability to live as a Christian in the United States hinges on one’s ability to speak hard truths about…race. Why secular discourse about racial politics should be a hill worthy of death for American Christians is a question he doesn’t ask nearly enough; for me, it’s just another instance of a local political issue (i.e., race in ‘Murica) that culture warriors want to infuse with universal spiritual importance. As I’ve argued elsewhere, for the parties involved, the life or death of Christendom seemed to hinge on whatever the Guelphs and Ghibellines were arguing about, too. Such are the issues of affirmative action or unisex bathrooms for contemporary culture warriors.

Anyway, the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad was, in many ways, the ultimate Benedict Option community. Like Dreher, Muhammad was deeply conservative. Muhammad felt that African-American existence was incompatible with U.S. society in much the way that Dreher feels Christian existence is incompatible with liberal society. Muhammad’s solution, like Dreher’s, was to forge an insular, self-sufficient society-within-a-society. Blacks would have their own businesses, police their own communities, make their own laws, and live according to a strict religious code. Integration, for Muhammad, was a doomed project. In the 1950s, plenty of whites wanted segregation, and Muhammad argued that segregation could benefit both races. By the multicultural 1980s and ’90s, when integration was viewed as a successful and popular policy, Muhammad’s vision seemed regressive and bizarre. After the racially explosive last few years, however, I could forgive some observers for thinking that Muhammad had it right all along. The Nation of Islam: a Benedict Option for Blacks?

Of course, I’m not a segregationist; I’m not a Benedict Optioneer, either. I’m an Orthodox Christian who wonders why the future of Christianity seems to hinge on theories of race and debates about political correctness. But I can sympathize with the logic of the Nation of Islam and certainly see its appeal for many African Americans who, in the 1950s, witnessed de jure segregation in the South, struggled with de facto segregation in the North, and endured levels of harassment and poverty that few whites could imagine. Add to all that the charismatic appeal of someone like Malcolm X, and you’ve got a powerful alternative to the liberal dream offered by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other integrationists.

But Malcolm ultimately chose another path, one on which he could acknowledge the universal dignity of all people while still fiercely insisting that specific injustices be redressed. One of Malcolm’s most compelling late-in-life projects was his push to build a pan-Afro-Asian alliance that would bring the U.S. before the United Nations on charges of human rights abuses. At a time when South Africa was gradually becoming a pariah among nations for its newly conceived apartheid regime, charging the U.S. and the Jim Crow South with such abuses hardly seems radical.

Malcolm’s ultimate vision of universal human dignity is almost wholly attributable to the catholicity of his orthodox Islam. By the end of his life, he had become a celebrity in the Muslim world and would have remained a vital global leader of Muslims if not for his assassination in 1965. Marable’s epilogue charts some of the territory Malcolm might have explored had he lived, including uniting Muslims against the fanaticism of Wahhabism and other extremist movements in the Middle East and south Asia. His death is our loss and is still deeply felt.

No sooner had I put down Marable’s Malcolm X than I picked up Eugenia Constantinou’s new book, Thinking Orthodox: Understanding and Acquiring the Orthodox Christian Mind, recommended to me by my priest. This book deals with the Orthodox phronema, or mindset, and I will discuss its content more in upcoming Daily Reading posts. A few early observations: Constantinou is amusingly and appropriately harsh on what she calls “internet theologians”: online commentators, bloggers, redditors, et al, who seem to think that a little knowledge of doctrine, tradition, and the Scriptures is all it takes to offer comprehensive answers to complex theological questions.

Constantinou minces no words about the harm caused by such internet theologians, especially those who lack the credentials that come with actual theological study and the responsibilities that come with pastoral care. I felt a pang of conviction reading Constantinou’s early chapters, so I should make clear once again: I am not a theologian. I am not a priest. I don’t aspire to be. I’m just an Orthodox layperson with a WordPress account. I don’t speak for anybody but myself and I don’t claim to definitively answer any difficult (or easy) questions about faith, tradition, doctrine, or Scripture. I call my blog Orthodox Diary for a reason. It’s a diary, written with all the authority of a diary. I can speak definitively for myself and no one else.

Constantinou speaks of her childhood growing up as an Orthodox Christian in a Catholic-Protestant society (southern California) and describes how she acquired the “Orthodox mindset” very early in life. This is difficult for newcomers to Orthodoxy, she writes, including (and perhaps especially) those who engage in on complex theological debates online. Too often, Orthobros bring a hardcore scholastic or rationalist approach to Orthodox discourse. The packaging of such discourse may seem Orthodox, but the substance is still Catholic and Protestant. It’s difficult, writes Constantinou, to be Orthodox in America and escape “the Catholic-Protestant dichotomy.” Her book offers advice for escaping this dichotomy and developing one’s own Orthodox phronema.

I for one know what it’s like to be caught in the Catholic-Protestant framework while trying to be an Orthodox Christian. If anything, I tend to overcorrect: unlike the Internet theologians who want to apply scholastic precision to mysteries of the faith, I run too far into the mysteries without allowing any room for reason. I also tend to dismiss points of overlap between Orthodoxy and Catholicism/Protestantism. This tendency to abandon the Catholic-Protestant dichotomy is every bit as much a convert’s mistake as approaching hesychasm with the intellectualism of a Calvinist. In truth, we live in a Catholic-Protestant society. We can’t, perhaps shouldn’t try to, escape the Catholic-Protestant framework in which we live. One of the beautiful things that Catholicism and Orthodoxy share is their ability to take root in and adapt to different societies. Each Catholic and Orthodox culture reveals a different configuration of the ancient truths those traditions possess. It’s totally unavoidable that we in America view those truths through a Catholic-Protestant lens. We shouldn’t try too hard to fight it—that only leads to overcorrection, to cosplaying Orthodoxy. Let’s not cosplay our faith.

Finally, I’m struck by the beauty of Constantinou’s account of the Orthodox mindset. This marks a strong contrast with Dreher, for whom authentic Christian belief and practice are under assault in Western societies. In reality, we are always free to practice our faith—astoundingly free. Whatever shape society takes, be it pagan or Christendom or secular, we are free to practice our faith. Because to practice our faith is as easy as professing Christ and loving others. And we’re always free to do that.

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