Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Who We Are: Responding to the PAOI Study “The Orthodox Church Today”

Fr. Gregory Jensen

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In his 2008 study, “The Orthodox Church Today: A National Study of Parishioners and the Realities of Orthodox Parish Life in the USA,” Alexei D. Krindatch makes a fascinating, if potentially disturbing, observation. The research, sponsored by the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute (PAOI), surveyed almost “one thousand respondents from 103 Orthodox parishes situated in various parts of the country,” (p. 5) argues that while the Church in America has been able to maintain a dogmatic unity, or agreement about the “big questions” of the faith (p. 3). This dogmatic unity, however, has not protected us from the “increasing fragmentation” of the “American Orthodox community.” As he describes the situation (and this certainly matches my own pastoral experience) there is a “growing conservative-liberal gap” in the Church that arises as “Orthodox teachings and established traditions are personally and communally interpreted.” These “local interpretations” are important because they “shape the social and religious behavior of American Orthodox Christians clergy and laity and the culture of American Orthodox congregations” (p. 4).

What follows is offer a brief overview of “The Orthodox Church Today.” This will include a discussion of the methodological limits of the study itself and what these limits mean for how we use the study. After this I will look at the Krindatch’s framework for understanding what he calls the increased fragmentation of the American Orthodox Church. Whether psychological or spiritual, pathology is a parasite, it feeds off of that which is healthy. As I will argue, concealed within fragmentation we see is call for the Church in America to more systematically, dare I say intentionally, take up the work of spiritual formation for both the laity and the clergy.

The Limits of the Study - or - Is This Really the Orthodox Church Today?

Unlike other earlier and more generally studies of religious life in America (for example, the Pew Religious Landscape Survey), “The Orthodox Church Today,” looks specifically at American Orthodox Christianity. Together with his earlier studies of the American expression of Orthodox Christianity Krindatch's work give us an empirically sound snapshot of the Church in America. As with all social scientific research, “the Orthodox Church Today” is only one part of the larger work of understanding and guiding the American Orthodox Church. It is neither the first word nor the last word about the Church. It is rather an instrument for focusing an ongoing conversation. We've all had the experience of entering into the middle of a conversation and know it can be frustrating it can be. This need not be a problem, however, if we remember that there is more to what's going on than what we know at the moment. It is only when we assume that we know everything there is to know that conflict ensues.

So what is Krindatch's study about?

“The Orthodox Church Today” seeks to address “three general questions” about the American Orthodox Church:

  • Who are the members of the two largest American Orthodox Churches (denominations)?
  • What do the church members think about the everyday patterns of life in their local parishes (congregations)?
  • What are their general religious attitudes and approaches to the “big” Church related issues such as future of Orthodox

Christianity in America, the role of laity in the Church, ordination of women, relation to the outside non-Orthodox community, etc? (Krindatch, p.2)

It is relative “to these broad questions, [that] special attention has been paid to the differences among various generations of American Orthodox faithful, between the ‘cradle’ Orthodox and ‘convert[s]’ to Orthodoxy, and between those who identified their theological stance and general approach to the Church life as either 'liberal,' 'moderate,' 'traditional,' or 'conservative.'” (p. 2)

Building on his earlier study, “Evolving Visions of the Orthodox Priesthood in America” (Krindatch, 2006) these three broader questions are posed in order to begin to answer two, more narrowly defined, questions that the study’s author (rightly I think) describes as “crucial for the Church's future” here in America:

  • To what extent do the social and religious attitudes of American Orthodox laity reflect those of their clergy?
  • What does it take to be a “good Orthodox parish priest” at the beginning of a third millennium from the perspective of the ordinary “people in the pews?” (p. 3)

Stated another way, do the clergy and laity have a shared vision of the Church, her pastoral situation, and her future in 21st century pluralistic America?

While these are important matters to be sure, the study does not seek to answer them through a global survey of all Orthodox Christians in America. Nor is the study presented as an examination of the whole American Orthodox Church. The study’s aims are more modest.

“The Orthodox Church Today” is the “first nationally representative and comparative [emphasis in original] study of the laity—non-ordained ordinary church members—in two largest American Orthodox jurisdictions (denominations): the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (GOA) and the Orthodox Church in America (OCA).” The question you might as at this point is this: Why is the studied limited to these two jurisdictions?

The author indicates that he has done so on the basis that, combined, “the GOA and OCA account for more than half of all American Orthodox Christians and parishes” in America. For this reason “the outcomes of the 'Orthodox Church Today' study reflect the 'profile' of the American Orthodox community at large.” (p. 2)

This is probably the least problematic assumption in the study. While accurate numbers are—as Krindatch's earlier studies have demonstrated—somewhat difficult to come by, it does seem likely that the OCA and GOA together comprise more than half of Orthodox Christian faithful in America and account for better than half of all the parishes.

More problematic is the assertion that the GOA/OCA accurately reflects “the American Orthodox community at large.” While I don't dispute this, it seems to me that this is more of an intuition on Krindatch's part (albeit, an empirically informed intuition) than an empirically validated fact. Until we have a more accurate statistical picture of the other jurisdictions in the US, it will be difficult to determine how closely the GOA and OCA mirror the more general pattern of Orthodox Christianity in America. Additionally, I think we also need to be careful how we use the GOA/OCA as a template in our understanding of the other Orthodox jurisdictions. To do so unwisely risks confirmation bias, that is, of focusing on features of, say, the Serbian and Antiochian experiences in this country that simply ratify of the patterns laid down in the GOA and OCA. For example, while both the Greek and Serbian communities are generally seen as communities within which ethnic identity (e.g., culture, language, history, etc.) play a more prominent role in the life of the parish, we ought not to assume that the experience of one’s ethnic identity is the same in both community. Nor should we conclude that ethnicity serves the same function in a Greek parish as it does in a Serbian parish. Likewise, while both the OCA and Antiochian Archdiocese are seen as more open to new Orthodox Christians it is not all clear that, experientially, being a convert is the same thing in both communities.

Truthfully, these are relatively minor cautions that touch only tangentially on the integrity of the study. Where we need to take the most caution approach is in our understanding - and application - of Krindatch's study itself. The survey does not present a picture of rank and file Orthodox Christian laity. “The Orthodox Church Today,” represents the view of a much narrower segment of the laity. Unlike, for example, those in the Pew survey, participants in Krindatch's study were not randomly selected but where chosen by their parish priests for the study.

Rather than a study of the rank and file, what we have in “The Orthodox Church Today” is a survey of those members of the laity identified by the priest as active participants in the life of the parish. For example 90% of the participants attend services at least once a week; 27% attend service several times a week (p. 7). For Orthodox Christians as a whole, only 26% attend services at least once a week (U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, 2008) While 55% of those surveyed were “not in a leadership position currently,” 45% currently serve in parish council, teach Sunday school or sing in the choir. Some are currently serving in multiple volunteer ministries (p. 8). In other words, a significant number of the participants are formally or informally in leadership positions in their parishes and are significantly more invested in the liturgical life of the Church then the average Orthodox Christian.

To be sure, the study's author is clear about this: “the survey tells us [about] who are the active and regularly involved members in the GOA and OCA parishes.” It is certainly reasonably that, “in each participating parish, the survey participants were chosen by the parish clergy who, in turn, were given instructions on the selection of respondents.” The methodological advantage of this is “the chances are great[er] that most of our respondents were persons participating in church life regularly and actively, thus, being more likely available to the clergy [and so] to complete the questionnaires” (p., 7). While this selection criterion is certainly legitimate we need to be careful that we do not base our view of the laity as a whole on the study group. I am concerned that those who make use of his findings have a clear understanding that (for good or ill) the study was intentionally limited to lay participants selected by the clergy. Why does this matter?

Asking the clergy to solicit volunteers for the survey is not inappropriate, and I can see the practical advantage of doing so. Nevertheless, having done so, the survey reflects not so much the view of the laity, but of those laity who have meet the unarticulated standards of their parish priest for inclusion in the research.

Looking a little deeper, the study’s findings suggest a correlation between active participation in the life of the parish and a close relationship with the priest, on the one hand, and a generally positive view of the parish on the other. For example, when asked, 59% of the laity surveyed said their parish will grow in the next 5 years (p. 20). Likewise, when asked to identify the three most important aspects of the parish (p. 22), 91% indicated that they valued participation in the Eucharist; 51% saw “spiritual guidance/care by the priest” as important; 33% identified preaching (sermons/homilies) as a priority.

But all is not necessarily well with this group. As we read in press release, “Not all Orthodox are equally “Orthodox.” While 90% of those surveyed “cannot imagine being anything but Orthodox” it is not clear what, if anything, it means for our lay leaders to be Orthodox since for the majority of those asked “regular Church attendance, obeying the priest and observing Great Lent” are all not essential for one to be a “good Orthodox Christian.” For all that we see in the survey that might comfort us, the reality is that those surveyed have a skewed view of the Orthodox faith. Those lay people who most value for themselves an active role in the life of the Church—for example, regular, weekly attendance at Liturgy, serving in volunteer lay ministries, obedience (within limits to be sure) to the priest as the leader of the parish community and as their the spiritual father—do not see these as normative for other Orthodox Christians, As I will argue below, the most active and committed Orthodox Christians have privatized the Christian life. In so doing, they accepted for themselves an understanding of the Christian life devoid of content. But if the Christian life does not consist in a life of worship and service, in what else is it except an expression of personal sentiment?

More worrisome than this general lack of content to the Christian life among the laity surveyed is their clearly articulated desire for uniformity in the parish. It is worth quoting here from the summary offered in the press release:

More than two-thirds of the respondents say that they wanted to belong to parishes that “require uniformity of belief and practice and where people hold the same views.” That is, American Orthodox Christians have quite different (“liberal-moderate,” “traditional,” “conservative”) personal approaches to Church life, but they prefer homogenous “like-minded” parishes. Only one in four respondents favor “big-tent parishes that tolerate diversity of beliefs and practices, where people hold different views and openly discuss their disagreements.”

Uniformity in the Church is a tricky thing. It can, and I think often does, reflect an appreciative obedience to the tradition of the Church. But it can also—sometimes even at the same time logical consistency having never been the hallmark of fallen humanity—reflect an attempt to dominate others. Is this what is happening here? In large part I don't thinks so. But it is a possibility that we must at least entertain, if only to guard against. There are two reasons why I say this?

First, contrary how it has been presented, the study is not a study of the rank and file of the laity. For understanding practical reasons, the research choice to focus his attention on only a very small subgroup composed of only the most active members of the laity. For this reason, I think the study might more accurately be characterized as a study of the views and practices of relatively small segment of approved laity. Whether the findings can be generalized to the laity as a whole is open to question.

Second, granting that the survey does not represent the actual views and practices of “rank and file” American Orthodox Christians, I wonder how well, if at all, it reflects the views of otherwise active laypeople who (for whatever reason) dissent from the views of their priest? That is to say, how well (if at all) does the survey reflect the views of those active laity who (for whatever reason) might not met the expectations of their parish priest? Obviously there is no way to answer this question within the confines of the study, but as recent events in the Church have demonstrated “active” and “dissenting” are not necessarily mutually exclusive categories.

What does seem to be the case is that (at least within the context of the study) those laity who would seem to have a close, mutually trusting, personal relationship with their parish priest optimistic about the current state and future of the Church. Are these views more generally applicable to the broader parish? While the study doesn’t provide me with evidence to either support or deny that they are more generally applicable.

Are there active lay people from whom we didn’t hear in the study? For example, what about the views of those active lay members of the Church who for one reason or another are at odds with their parish priests? And what about those lay people who center their spiritual lives not in the local parish but say a monastic community? Where do they fit in to the life of the Church? I don’t know. At a minimum, I have to wonder whether or not those surveyed by Krindatch reflect the views of the majority of the Orthodox lay faithful.

Fragmentation of the Church

A central concern of “The Orthodox Church Today” is what Krindatch and others describe as the increasingly fragmented character of American Orthodox Christianity. If these divisions are less pronounced than in Catholicism or mainline Protestantism, it is not true (as some well intentioned but erroneous apologists claim) that these divisions do not exist. Indeed, as most parish priests can attest, these differences are very much present in most Orthodox parishes. For all that, our differences are often so narrowly drawn they can be just as bitter as those we see among Western Christians. Debates about the use of the Old Calendar versus the New Calendar, the place of monasticism in the life of the Church, and the myriad polemics pertaining to the Church's participation (or not) in the ecumenical movement are just three examples that come to mind.

While both non-Orthodox and Orthodox Christians see the Church, “as essentially [theologically] homogeneous,” this unity is expressed only “in terms of orthodoxy as a doctrine” or on the level of what Krindatch calls “macro-theology.” When our interest is in theology – that is, historical, patristic, biblical, and liturgical” theology – and seeks to answer the “big questions” of faith,” there is a high degree uniformity among Orthodox Christians. It is only the level of Orthodox dogmatic unity that is typically stressed in our catechetical and apologetic literature.

Formal agreement on creedal matters is not the whole story for Orthodoxy in America. The unity of “big question” theology exists side by side with what Krindatch calls the diversity and disagreements in “micro-theology,” or the individual's “self-definition as being theologically either 'conservative,' or 'traditional,' or 'moderate' or 'liberal'”(p. 161).

Borrowing from Vrame’s (2008) work Krindatch makes use of a four-fold typology to “at least partially” help his readers understand the different micro-theologies we encounter in the typical Orthodox parish. Key to the different categories is “the willingness of Orthodox individuals and communities to accept changes and to adapt to life in a culturally and religiously pluralistic society.” (p. 4; those familiar with the distinctions within contemporary Judaism, will notice a parallel with Vrame’s distinctions)

The four micro-theologies are (p. 4):

  1. Conservative (Fundamentalist) Orthopraxy. It rejects changes and emphasizes the exactness of once and forever developed practices in spite of changing local contexts. It also separates itself deliberately from the mainstream American culture.
  2. Traditional Orthopraxy. It strives to observe Orthodox tradition and cherishes church heritage immensely, but accepts evolutionary changes, permitting praxis to evolve slowly over time.
  3. Moderate (Reform) Orthopraxy. It supports intentional changes and is willing to “fit in” and be “accepted” by the wider American society and by mainstream American religious life.
  4. Liberal (Reconstructionist) Orthopraxy. It seeks to introduce “innovative” practices, to generally “rethink” orthopraxy and to develop a new expression for America.

These distinctions certainly reflect my own pastoral experience both the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and the Orthodox Church in America and are seen both among “cradle” and “convert” Orthodox Christians. My informal conversations with both other Orthodox clergy and members of the laity, lead me to think that the vast majority of clergy and lay leaders would also recognize these categories if not in their own parish then within the broader Church. And again, if the differences in micro-theologies are not as wide as those we see in Western Christian communities, I think Krindatch is correct when he assert that these point to a “significant diversity” in how the faithful approach the tradition of the Church (p. 3).

The existence of diverse micro-theologies while risky is not necessarily a bad thing. I would disagree with Aristotle Papanikolau ‘s assertion that, as Krindatch summarizes it, “the inability to adapt to American cultural pluralism has led to an increasing fragmentation of the American Orthodox community.” (p. 179) Yes, as Papanikolau himself says, within the Church we see “diverse interpretations and appropriations of the tradition that lead to diverse theologies that span the spectrum of the extremes of the so-called ‘Culture Wars.’” (quoted in Krindatch, p. 179) But one could also argue that the diversity of personal and parochial adaptations of the tradition are part of the normal process of experimentation that the Church must undertake if she is to fulfill her evangelistic responsibility in America. Much like the role of the States in the American system of governance, the parishes are “laboratories” – though not of democracy but of pastoral care. There are two ways in which this otherwise healthy process can be short circuited. The first is to misunderstand what this process of adaption means to those who are in the midst of it. The second is for Orthodox Christians to refuse to engage American culture. Let’s look at the second of these first.

The Janus Face of Sectarianism and Secularism

In Roman mythology, the god Janus guarded the doorways of homes and buildings. As the god of entrances and exits, he was typically depicted with two faces turned in opposite directions. The two minority forms of orthopraxy that Krindatch identifies, Conservative, or fundamentalist orthopraxy and Liberal, or reconstructionist, orthopraxy might at first seem diametrically opposed to one and other. They are, but in the manner of the god Janus.

While they look in opposite directions, both would have the Church avoid engagement with the broader American culture. The fundamentalist position does so by refusing to engage the culture and instead undertakes a sectarian withdrawal from American culture. Reconstructionists, on the other hand, do not withdraw from American culture, but embrace it at the expense of the Church’s tradition. We might call this the secularist wing in the Church. Sectarian, or in Krindatch’s typology, Conservative, Orthodox Christians turn inward; secularist Orthodox Christians turn outward. What is missing I think in both is a balanced response to the demands that arise naturally, and providentially, from the convergence of Holy Tradition and American culture. Though in different ways to be sure, for the relationship between Christ and culture is framed not as reconciliation and redemption, but in terms of power and dominance. And both embrace (albeit for different reasons) the notion that the Church is, and must be, absent from the larger cultural.

Fr Richard John Neuhaus help us understand the necessity of intentional cultural engagement that “The Orthodox Church Today” identifies as the majority position within the Orthodox Church. In a December 2008 article, “The ‘American’ Religion,” Neuhaus is concerned with those...

Christians who, knowingly or unknowingly, embrace the model of “Christ without culture”—meaning Christianity indifferent to culture—are captive to the culture as defined by those who control its commanding heights. They are not only captive to it but are complicit in it. Their entrepreneurial success in building religious empires by exploiting the niche markets of the Christian subculture leaves the commanding heights untouched, unchallenged, unengaged.

This is not simply something limited to conservative Evangelical Christians. It is also, surprisingly, a model that expresses well how most Orthodox Christians here in America understand the Church’s relationship to the larger culture. Whether “cradle” or “convert,” or whether on the cultural left or the right, there are a surprisingly large number of Orthodox Christians who are content to live in an Orthodox ghetto—at least on Sunday morning.

Even for Orthodox Christians who reject the option of an ethnic enclave or a crude imitation of monastic life, I suspect that what is “cultural” is seen as that which “typically cater[s] to the Christian market” – much like their broadly Evangelical neighbors. The fact that a local Protestant congregation does this with praise music and “witness wear” and the Orthodox do it with ethnic food festivals, or by making sure we keep the parish for “our” people, or by dressing in the latest 19th Orthodox Christian peasant chic is a matter of little consequence. In all these case the Orthodox parish is contentment “with being a subculture.”

But, as Neuhaus writes,

Christianity that is indifferent to its cultural context is captive to its cultural context. Indeed, it reinforces the cultural definitions to which it is captive. Nowhere is this so evident as in the ready Christian acceptance of the cultural dogma that religion is essentially a private matter of spiritual experience, that religion is a matter of consumption rather than obligation. Against that assumption, we must insist that Christian faith is intensely personal but never private. The Christian gospel is an emphatically public proposal about the nature of the world and our place in it. It is a public way of life obliged to the truth.

As have our brothers and sisters in western Christian traditions, many Orthodox Christians “have uncritically accepted the dichotomy between public and private, between fact and value, between knowledge and meaning.” Despite imagining that we are preserving cultural riches of Hellenism or the spiritual riches of monastic life, we are, in fact, betraying our vocation if (as many of us do) we form our lives around the “dichotomies [that] are deeply entrenched in American religion and culture” and accept for ourselves and our parish “what is often described, and frequently decried, as American individualism.”

Whether we embrace sectarianism or the secularism, to withdraw from the work of cultural engagement does not preserve Orthodoxy but surrenders it to American culture. And this is true as well when we fail to confront those who would lead from the extremes and instead passively accept the leadership out of a misguided sense of loyalty. The place of our cultural engagement is with a challenge to those outside and inside the Church who care not whether the Christian faith is “conservative or liberal, orthodox or squishy,” but that it remains private. As Neuhaus argues the besetting sin of the American approach to religion the tendency for even otherwise devote believers to accept the privatization of religious belief. As Orthodox Christians the notion that “my religion, [is] certified and secured by the fact that it is mine” is heresy pure and simple. Yes, by “the privilege of privacy, it cannot be publicly questioned, and it is forbidden to publicly question the preferred beliefs of others.” To embrace this, however, is to reject Christ and the Gospel.

Bring our faith as Orthodox Christians into the public square not only in debating the great issue of our day but also in active philanthropy and evangelical outreach can only happen to the degree that if we are willing to shed the notion that our faith is private, merely a preference. This doesn’t mean that people will agree with us, or even (as Krindatch shows) that we will always agree with each other. Far from it.

While I may not find agree what I will find is this, the more I enter with my faith into the public square, the more I will be challenged by others and by events to repent of own egoism. Hopefully this will in turn see my faith purified. Likewise this purification will not happen without my surrendering of my own fantasies, our ideas about how the Gospel “ought” to be lived. For all the real and substantial risks involved in bring my Orthodox faith into the public square, taking on this challenge is the only way to fulfill the evangelical commission and to strengthen not only my personal faith and our faith as a Church. And this brings us to central pastoral challenge of Orthodox fragmentation.

The Objective and Subjective Dimensions of Faith

While sectarianism and secularism represent a danger to the spiritual heath of the Church, there is I think a greater danger implicit in Orthodox fragmentation. To help us understand what Krindatch identifies as the growing fragmentation of the Church in America let me offer a key distinction in Thomistic anthropology that I have found very helpful in my own pastoral ministry is that of the two different but inter-related objective and subjective dimensions of faith.

Faith in an objective sense is what we believe as Orthodox Christians, or if you prefer, the content of the Church’s faith. The objective dimension of faith is the fides quae creditur or the “faith which” is believed. Pastorally it is helpful to distinguish faith in the objective sense from faith as a personal act. Faith in this second, inter-related sense, faith in its subjective dimension, is the fides qua creditur (the “faith by which” we believe). The Catholic theologian Fr Aidan Nicholas writes that “If the fides quae is objective faith, then the fides qua is the subjective faith, not in the sense of partial, individual opinions about faith, but the faith that pertains to me as an acting subject in my own right” (“The Shape of Catholic Theology,” emphasis in the original). While the Thomistic vocabulary is absent from the text of “The Orthodox Church Today,” the substance of this distinction is central to the study's understanding of one of the major questions facing the Church: “the issue of the 'conservative-liberal' divides in Church life” (Krindatch, p. 3).

Though not unrelated to faith in its objective dimension (fides quae), this four fold typology of orthopraxis is an expression of the subjective dimension of a person or parish’s faith (fides qua). Lose sight of this and we risk not only misinterpret Krindatch’s work, we also risk drawing very seriously misleading conclusions for the pastoral life of the Church. Right or wrong relative to the tradition of the Church, these different typologies reflect how people understand themselves, the Church and the work of both the local congregation and the larger Church in the American context.

For many Orthodox Christians and parishes, criticizing or rejecting their typology is tantamount to criticizing or rejecting them as Orthodox Christians. Let me be clear here, this is not simply a problem for those on the extremes—the conservative or liberal Orthodox Christian or parish—but it is also a threat to those in the middle categories, to those Orthodox Christians who (again, rightly or wrongly) understand themselves as traditional or moderate.

The four-fold typology that we have been examining is of great help in explaining the some of the pastoral challenges facing the Church at the beginning of the 21st century. So while I am do not wish to minimize the importance of what we have seen so far, I want to take the last part of this paper in a different direction. As a first step in that direction, I want to look critically at what has been our assumption about the nature of tradition and the relationship between the person and tradition that has guided us so far.

Claiming Our Baptism: Lay Spiritual Formation

Central to the study is the contention that there is an increasing fragmentation in the Church. As I said earlier, I certainly don't deny this. But we might want to ask, is this the only way to interpret the data?

As the study points out, and as I mentioned a moment ago, the increasing fragmentation on the micro-theological level has resulted in emergence of parish communities that disconnected from each other. If we are not careful, parishes will come to reflect in an exclusive way the personalities and interest of the priest and a relatively small group of lay leaders. Already this has lead to a situation in which we not only risk dogmatizing legitimate differences but even dogmatizing our eccentricities.

For all the risk, fragmentation is also I think the byproduct of necessary and healthy experimentation. Experimentation is not a word that is generally associated with the Orthodox Church by those outside the Church and certainly not by those in the Church. Nevertheless a certain amount of experimentation is unavoidable. As almost 2,000 year old, the Orthodox Church contains within herself a rich pluriformity of spiritual, liturgical and pastoral practices. Holy Tradition is not static but dynamic and each new cultural or pastoral situation presents the Church with new challenges and opportunity to enter evermore deeply into the Mystery of Grace.

The potential growth and development the American context offers is just that, a potential. There is no guarantee that the Church in America will navigate successfully the pastoral challenges we face. At the same time we affirm that a certain degree of experimentation that must be part of our life, we need to also be aware that the taxonomy outlined in “The Orthodox Church Today” reflects unhealthy forms of pluralism and pragmatism that are dominate in American cultural discourse. In such a cultural context, a person or community’s “micro-theology” is often simply a form of emotivism. Micro-theologies do not have any necessary theological content and may simply be expressions of approval or disapproval of what people (rightly or wrongly) perceive to be normative Orthodox practice relative to American culture. And we ought not to forget that, “American culture” is itself a highly fluid event often devoid of any substantive content.

Looking at not only the whole of this study, but earlier studies both by Krindatch and others, it appears to me that the central pastoral challenge facing the American Orthodox Church is not primarily educational. Yes there is a need for systematic, Christ-centered catechesis for the laity and for continuing pastoral and professional theological education for the clergy. But theological information and pastoral technique without sound human and Christian spiritual formation is, to borrow from the fathers, a work of demons.

Pastorally what we need above all else in the Orthodox Church is a systematic approach to lay spiritual formation. If we don’t do this, then the rest of the work of the Church is for naught. That’s a bold statement I realize, but the reality is that ever survey of American Orthodox Christians show that a plurality, and even a majority, of our faithful (and we’ve got to include clergy here as well) are not forming our lives according to the tradition of the Church.

Unfortunately what currently passes for spiritual formation sadly is deficient. A bit of Church history a little instruction on setting up an icon corner, the rules for fasting or keeping a daily rule of prayer are simply not a sufficient basis for the Christian life. Given the challenges facing the Church in her current pastoral setting, limiting ourselves in this way is at best sentimentality and, at worse a commitment to managed decline. As other Christian and non-Christian communities are also discovering, the blessings of liberty are for the Orthodox Church a severe mercy. God in His great love for us and for the whole human family has established His Church in a religious and cultural environment marked by intense religious and cultural competition. While ultimately we live and move and have our being in the Most Holy Trinity, culturally and psychologically we have been called to minister in a religious and philosophical free market.

For example, relative to the overall number of Orthodox Christians in America, our parishes are mostly empty on Sunday morning. The vast majority of us do not see attendance at Liturgy as more valuable then whatever else we might do Sunday morning. But this isn’t all. The need for sound spiritual formation is also is reflected in the large numbers of Orthodox Christians, both cradle and coverts, who simply drift away from the Church. The over 50% of converts who leave are, I think, illustrative here. While people may have a reason to join, it seems that they few reasons to stay; if we cannot give adult converts a reason to stay, is it any wonder that those baptized as infants also leave?

I don’t think we can simply assume that the clergy, much less the laity, have solid spiritual lives grounded in a personal commitment to Jesus Christ and informed by the Tradition of the Church. Indeed one way to understand the increased fragmentation of the Church in America is as the playing out of the consequences of our neglect of sound human and Christian formation.

For most Orthodox Christians, human and Christian formation is a new idea. And given the generally conservatism of most of us, if a new idea isn’t a bad idea, it is at least a suspicious idea. But a sound human and Christian formation is one that has been of great effect especially and Catholic, and to a lesser degree Protestant, seminary education and pastoral care. In my own pastoral work, I make use of a very specific understanding of spiritual formation. Borrowing from the work of the Catholic priest and clinical psychologist Adrian van Kaam, I emphasize with people that the tradition of the Church has two foundational goals for their spiritual lives.

  1. The Church’s tradition guides me in the process of self-discovery and growth in self-knowledge. To overly simplify the matter, the tradition does not so much helps me know facts about myself but to rather helps me give the right weight and place to those facts in my daily life.
  2. The tradition can guide me in the process of self-expression. That is to say, I have a vocation and that vocation is inscribed in my heart by the same Holy Spirit that has guide the Church from the beginning. As the history of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the Church Holy Tradition helps me live out my vocation in the concrete circumstances of my daily life.

If I do these two things consistently and at all well, people respond with great enthusiasm and with a marked increase in their commitment to Christ and the Church. Fail to do this and people drift away. All the data I've seen seems to me to point to the same thing, a failure in the spiritual formation of the faithful. In its place we offer mere morality (which ultimately isn't uniquely ours reflecting as it does simply the truth of the human), monasticism (which has come to supplant for many the ascetical discipline appropriate for those of us who are not monastic) or, well, nothing.

Guided and guarded by the Church's dogmatic and moral teaching, and nurtured by a life of prayer (personal and liturgical) and asceticism (especially fasting and care for the poor), we become ever more sensitive to what is Good, True, Beautiful and Justice. We see these first in the Scriptures and the lives of the saints, especially as they are communicated to us in the Church's liturgical life. And then, building on this foundation, we become ever more aware of the presence of the Good, the True, the Beautiful and the Just in ourselves and in the world of persons, events and things that constitute our everyday life.

This discovery that these are not simply abstract notions but embodied realities is not the end of the adventure. As I come to recognize for example the Good, the force of that recognition confronts me with the presence of wickedness, falsehood, ugliness and injustice first of all in my own heart and then in the world around me. As I never tire of reminding my own spiritual children, I do not learn from my mistakes. I learn what is true and it is only in the light of Truth, that I come to see I am mistaken.

Goodness, Truthfulness, Beauty and Justice, as with the Tradition that sensitize us to them, are not abstract philosophical constructs or historical curiosities. They are rather embodied realities. If because of Adam's sin these they are only more or less embodied in me, if my life is still disordered, or if Beauty (for example) is marred, this in no way detracts from the reality that it is the Church, the Body of Christ, that we find most fully (though not exhaustively) embodied what it means to be human in full.

Where we have gone wrong, I think, is we have rarified Holy Tradition. We have made it a thing, an objective standard to be imitated. In doing so we have lost sight of Holy Tradition as, to borrow from Vladimir Lossky, the Presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church as it leads and guides the faithful throughout history.

And it is this same Spirit which inspired not only the writers of Sacred Scriptures, but those who preach the Word. It is this same Spirit Who inspires the Church at prayer in the Liturgy and in the secret places of the human heart. And it is this same Spirit Who sustains and guides the saints who in every age and in diverse cultural contexts have struggled to remain faithful to the Word. When we see Holy Tradition as something external to the person, to the traces of grace in the human heart and our diocesan and parochial communities, we miss all this and the Christian life, the life of the Church, becomes (to borrow from Christos Yannaras) yet one more source of division in the human heart and family, albeit now a religious division.

Reading and reflecting on “The Orthodox Church Today,” I have come to realize that our parishes and our seminaries must become houses of spiritual formation for the laity and future clergy. It is not enough for us to know about the Tradition, we must know, believe and live the Gospel. If, as His Beatitude Metropolitan JONAH said recently, 60% of the Orthodox faithful are pro-choice, we have failed. Our failure is not absolute but looking at the statistical portrait of the laity in “The Orthodox Church,” it is hard for me to disagree with His Beatitude’s assessment of a widespread catechetical and spiritual failure. This is not an option, but essential the health of the Church.

The question now is this: Will we do this or not?

Rev. Gregory Jensen is psychologist of religion and a priest of the Diocese of Chicago and the Midwest (Orthodox Church in America). He blogs at Koinonia.

Posted: 15-Jan-2010

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