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The American Religious Landscape and the Orthodox Churches

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Aug 29, 2011

Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Clapsis

How has the North American context and experience influenced the lives, faith commitments and practices of the Orthodox churches?  What is the mixture and balance of beliefs and practices in being Orthodox in this country? Reflecting on these questions could lead us to a new appreciation of the identity(ies) of the Orthodox church  as evolves in this country.  The radicality of the changes that the identity(ies)  of the Orthodox churches has undergone can only be comprehended as we reflect their history and their growth in this country.

The arrival of Orthodox Christianity in the Western Hemisphere was relatively late compared to other Christian churches. The first sizable wave of immigration from Greece to the new world began in 1880’s, and it continued until the imposition of quotas in the twentieth century. Similar patterns of immigration held for persons belonging to other traditional Orthodox ethnicities, such as those who emigrated from Russia, Romania, Serbia, and the Middle East. Orthodox immigrants left their homes largely for economic reasons. While they brought their faith with them as an indispensable aspect of their cultural identity, by and large they did not bring their Churches with them at first. The founding of Orthodox parishes, and the establishment of organized ecclesiastical bodies occurred well after the emigrating laity had set down roots in their communities across the United States. Multiple Orthodox parishes united in faith and worship were established belonging to separate ethnic jurisdictions (Greek, Russian, Albanian, Lebanese, Jordanian, Romanian, Serbia, and Ukrainian). Such an arrangement from an Orthodox theological perspective was neither normal nor desirable and significant steps have been taken to address this matter moving towards an administrative unity. The ethos of the ethnic Orthodox churches in this country had been initially shaped by the religious and social needs of the first generation immigrants who were primarily concerned to preserve their language, their ethnic culture and religious tradition hoping that one day they would return with their families to their birth countries. The parishes were initially led by priests mostly imported from abroad and they lived mostly an isolated life within ethnic enclaves celebrating the Orthodox faith and cultivating the language and culture of their ethnic origin.

The establishment of the Orthodox seminaries (Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 1937 and St. Vladimir’s in 1938) marked a turning point in the history of the Orthodox Churches in America, which began a slow but very complex process of adjusting through socialization into the greater culture of this country and thus finding their place in the American religious landscape. Most of the immigrants instead of returning to their motherland made this country their living space and developed an American cultural identity without denying their ethnic origins and religious heritage. The relationship between their American cultural identity, their Orthodox faith and ethnic heritage has undergone different stages of integration, disintegration and re-integration reflecting contextual realities that modernity has posed to traditional formations of religious and cultural identities.

Remembering the immigrant origins of the Orthodox communities is helpful to understand the depth and the extent of the influence of American culture in the life, thought and moral beliefs of the Orthodox Christian Churches in this country. It is important now to turn our attention to the present actual state of the Orthodox people: who they are, their economic rank, education, political preference, moral choices and state of religious belief and practices.

The Orthodox churches have been by now fully integrated into the American religious landscape and they are facing exactly the same challenges that other communities of faith in a religious and culturally pluralistic context. The US Religious landscape survey of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in 2008 provides some helpful insights on who the Orthodox faithful are and how integrated they are into the American religious landscape.

The Orthodox people are estimated to be approximately 1% of the American population and ranked according to their income to the middle and upper middle class by either meeting or exceeding in some instances the national averages. 28% of them are college graduates and 18% hold a post-graduate degree while 22% have received some college education. 58% are married but only 30% have one to three children. 45% of the Orthodox people consider themselves as moderate in their political ideology while 30% view themselves as conservative and 20% as liberal.

As far as their faith is concerned, 71% percent have a strong faith in God but only 56% consider their religious faith important for their lives. 60% pray to God daily and the rest either weekly or seldom. Most of the Orthodox people go to Church once every month or few times a year while 26% attend services regularly once a week. Scripture is considered literally the Word of God only by 26%, while 33% believes that it is not the Word of God word by word and 29% that it has been written by men. In interpreting the Orthodox faith, 68% believe that there is more than one way to interpret it and only 28% believe that there is only one way to understand the teachings of the Church. Furthermore, 70% of the Orthodox people believe that many religions can lead to eternal life and only 20% believes that only the Orthodox faith leads to salvation. 43% of the Orthodox people think that the government should do more to protect the moral fabric of American society while 48% view that the government is too involved on legislating morality. Most of the Orthodox people 60% believe that stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost while 30% have an opposing view on this matter. On the issue of homosexuality, we have surprising numbers: 48% believe that it should be accepted by society while 30% that society should discourage its practices. On abortion, 24% (18% national) believe that it should be legal in all cases, 38% legal in most cases and only 20% illegal in most cases.

I have extensively quoted the US Religious Landscaping Survey of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life in order to establish my belief that the Orthodox people are fully integrated into the religious and moral landscape of this country. The depth of their beliefs, religious practices, and moral choices reflect the mainstream American religious life repertoire. Furthermore, it is evident based on the view of multiple interpretation of their faith, their belief on salvation through other religious traditions, and their moral attitudes on homosexuality and abortion that a significant portion of the Orthodox people in this country have differentiated to some degree their religious and moral beliefs from the formal teachings of the Orthodox Church. They have done so not by denying the importance of their faith in God and even of their tradition but mainly because of the contextual realities in which they live, their level of education and their appropriation of God’s love for all people.

In the last thirty years, the profile of the Orthodox communities in this country has changed dramatically because of the social upward mobility of Orthodox people, their progress in education and above all their daily encounter and interaction with people of different religious, race, culture and ethnicity. Interchristian and interfaith marriages have increased. Currently in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese  60% of the marriages are ecumenical. For Orthodox young people neither ethnicity nor differences in religion or cultural background can be an obstacle from uniting their lives with their loved ones.   The Second and third generation orthodox people prefer the language of the guest country over that of their parents’ home country, and they speak better English than Greek, Arabic, Russian, or Slavonic, They view their Orthodox identity in a very different way than either their parents or they themselves did only two or three decades ago. They are decoupling the Orthodox faith from its cultural embodiments and they are in a process of recasting it into what is seen by them as a ‘pure’ religion based on isolated religious markers or American sensibilities. The principal authority in crafting their identity is the sovereign self. They mistrust or have moved away from the organizations, institutions, and causes that used to anchor their religious and cultural identity and behavior. Each person performs the labor of fashioning his or her own self, pulling together elements from the various aspects of Orthodoxy, Hellenic heritage, existential quests and present cultural sensibilities rather than stepping into an ‘inescapable framework’ of identity. Community is a felt need, even a real hunger for some but it is in my judgment subordinate to individualism.

The individualization of the Orthodox faith and its decoupling from its traditional ethnic cultural embodiments leads to the development of multiple orthodoxies within the Orthodox Church. The pluralization of Orthodoxy is a threat to the Church’s unity since the institutional aspects of Church life have limited capacity to persuade those who have embraced or crafted an individualized version of Orthodoxy about the need to correct, enhance or recraft their particular orthodoxy. Perhaps the Orthodox Church must learn to live with an internally differentiated Orthodoxy - multiple orthodoxies - that becomes united in the confession of the apostolic faith; the celebration of the Eucharist and the studying of the world of God as it was interpreted and continues to be in the history and the life of the church.

Let us reflect a little further on what the individualization of religion means and how we should cope with it based on observations of American philosopher Charles Taylor. Undoubtedly, the major cultural shift that late modernity has brought is what Charles Taylor has called “the massive subjective turn.” This notion refers to a turn away from the life lived in terms of external or “objective” roles, duties and obligations and a turn towards life lived by reference to one’s own subjective experience. The subjectivities of each individual become a (if not the) unique source of significance, meaning and authority. Here the “good life” consists in living one’s life in full awareness of one’s state of being; in enriching one’s experiences, in finding ways of handling negative emotions; in becoming sensitive enough to find out where and how the quality of one’s life  - alone or in relation – may be improved.  The goal is not to follow established paths, but to forge one’s own inner-directed, subjective life. Not to become what others want one to be, but to “ become who I truly am,” Thus, the key value for the mode of subjective life is authentic connection with the inner depth of one’s unique life-in-relation.

The massive turn to subjectivity has been described by some as the triumph of individualism, the exaltation of egoism that threatens all forms of collective life – religious, cultural, national, or political. Others consider the culture of subjectivity as one of the most important potentialities of human life. It points, for them, towards a more self-responsible form of life. Charles Taylor argues that the culture of subjectivity is neither to be rejected nor to be uncritically endorsed as it is. We need to persuade people that self-fulfillment, so far from excluding unconditional relationships and moral demands beyond the self, actually requires these in some form. This approach assumes that we do not subscribe to the view that people are so locked in by the various social developments that condition them that they cannot change their ways regardless of strong arguments against atomism and instrumental reasoning.

In a free democratic society, people have the potential to choose what they wish to be and with whom they want to associate. It is in the nature of this increased freedom that people through their choices can sink morally lower, as well as rise higher.  Nothing will ever ensure a systematic and irreversible move to the heights.  In a free society, the higher forms of self-responsible moral initiatives and dedications will coexist with debased practices. Charles Taylor points out: “ If the best can never be definitively guaranteed, nor are the decline and triviality inevitable. The nature of free society is that it will always be the locus of a struggle between higher and lower forms of freedom.  Neither side can abolish the other, but the line can be moved, never definitively but at least for some people for some time, one way or another. Through social action, political change, and wining hearts and minds, the better forms can gain ground, at least for a while.

This perspective breaks quite definitively with the cultural pessimism that has grown in recent decades. He suggests that the cultural pessimism is not only mistaken; it is also counter-productive. A way that might help us change people engaged in the culture of subjectivity would be to enter sympathetically into its animating ideal and to try to show what it really requires. When the ideal of subjectivity is implicitly or explicitly condemned and ridiculed along with existing practices, attitudes harden.  The critics are written off as pure reactionaries and no reassessment takes place.

Given the cultural significance of the subjective turn and its impact upon the religious landscape, it is certain that those forms of religion that tell their followers to live their live in conformity with external principles to the neglect of the cultivation of their unique subjective-lives will be in decline. By contrast those forms of religious life and beliefs that help people to live in accordance with the deepest, sacred dimension of their own unique lives can be expected to grow.  In practical terms, the Church in communicating the Gospel is compelled by the present social circumstances to give preeminence to its charismatic aspects without overlooking the institutional aspects of her life. If people embrace the Gospel because it meaningfully interprets their lives in the modern world, then the importance of the structures by which it is lived and communicated from generation to generation will not be overlooked.

Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Clapsis is the Archbishop Iakovos Professor of Systematic Theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology

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