26. 2006 Trip, Part Three: Forming Authentic Eastern Orthodoxy in the West

As I flew West from Greece I got to thinking about the experiment we are conducting here in America and everywhere in the West. We are taking an Eastern form of Christianity and trying to express it in a way that is accessible to the Western world. Let me give some background to that thought.

Christianity’s Middle Eastern Roots

Christianity has two chief sources, the first of which is Middle Eastern, Semitic. Obviously Christianity came out of the Middle East. The Bible is a Middle Eastern document. All the Old Testament figures, Christ and his Mother and the twelve Apostles were Middle Eastern, Semitic people. In order to truly understand it and them we need to have something of a Middle Eastern mindset. Since I have been Orthodox I have been perplexed as to why so many Western Christians (including me in years past) think  Orthodoxy is unacceptable because it is “foreign”, “ethnic”, “Eastern”. Where do they think Christianity came from? The United States? Where do they think the Bible came from? England? I think many of the difficulties of Western Christianity, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, have developed because Western Christians did not have the ability to see Christ and the Holy Scriptures in a Middle Eastern way. I think this applies to modern Western Protestant fundamentalism in particular, but I won’t “chase that rabbit” now.

Christianity’s Greek Roots

The second source of Christianity is Greek. This also is no secret. From the first century on, Christianity was channeled through Greek culture and language. The New Testament was written by Jews (except possibly Saint Luke who may have been Greek), but they wrote it in Greek, and there is no way to access Christ and the apostles except through the Greek language. Early Christians used the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Some of the early Church fathers were semitic, but the great majority of them spoke and thought and wrote in Greek (even Saint Athanasios in Egypt), were culturally Greek, part of the eastern Greek-speaking Roman empire. Christian doctrine and the Creed were formulated in terms taken from Greek philosophy. Many words we still use to describe our faith are taken directly from the Greek without translation: Christ, Theotokos, Trinity, Person, Bible, Baptism, Eucharist, Liturgy and many more. There have been Protestant scholars who have tried to disentangle Christianity from its Greek roots. It can’t be done. Christianity’s second source is Greek.

Eastern Orthodoxy

I was thinking about this as I was flying West on that long, long trip across the Atlantic, where we start in early afternoon, fly ten hours and arrive in the evening.

Orthodoxy is Eastern. We came out of the East. We  are universal, certainly, but we are Eastern Orthodoxy. And Eastern and Western Christians, while we have much in common, function very differently in many ways.

Take something as simple as sheep and shepherds, how we see the role of the Christian pastor and of laypeople. In the Western world shepherds traditionally have driven their sheep from behind. Some years ago Khouria Dianna and I watched this one evening at sunset in a narrow valley in Wales, with shepherds pushing and dogs rounding up the sheep from behind, barking at their heels, getting them safely into the barn just before nightfall. It was a lovely pastoral scene in its way. Nevertheless, this conjures up an image of clergy whose job as shepherds is to drive laypeople on. One can think of many examples of this in Western Christianity, and occasionally unfortunately in Orthodoxy – pastors who rule by authority, by pushing the flock.

In the Eastern world, anciently at least, shepherds have gone first, leading their sheep, and because they know and trust the shepherd, the sheep willingly follow. “The Lord is my shepherd: he leads me beside still waters.” (Psalm 22/23)  “He goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” 

Do any of you recognize the language in this video?.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” (John 10) Christ the Good Shepherd goes ahead of us even into death. That is a very different approach. The Orthodox pastor is to lead, first setting the example for his people.

(Just in passing, I’ve never seen this in Greece, maybe because at herding time, I tended to be in a taverna. I have seen a goatherd walking in the midst of his goats, yelling things at them which I don’t wish to include in this tasteful Blog site! But as you’ll recall from Matthew 25, goats are different from sheep.

If you’re thinking of becoming a goat herder, think again.

On Crete on this trip, early in the morning as I headed down a back road to Preveli Monastery, there was a large flock of sheep blocking the road, and I thought: Ah! Maybe now at last I’ll get to see shepherding Eastern style. What I actually got was a guy in a Dodge pickup pushing them from behind! Oh well. OK. Enough with the sheep and goats. Back to the story.)

Though Christianity first took root in cities, society still was predominantly rural. People saw many shepherds. I think the difference in how shepherds herded their sheep is one reason among many why the basic mindset of Eastern Christianity is different from the West. Western Christianity’s pastoral care has often consisted more of pushing people: authority, laws, obedience (“pay, pray and obey” as someone put it!) – which results often in rebellion against authority. Eastern Christianity has usually functioned in a very different free-flowing way which is hard to put your finger on, with the clergy leading people in love, the people following in love. We are more of a “peoples’ Church” than anyone would guess at first glance. When did you ever hear an Orthodox pastor command his people to be in church because it was “a day of obligation”? And the Orthodox system works: How many goatish rebellions do we have in the Orthodox Church? How much liturgical and theological disunity is there among us? You know the answer: almost none.

Orthodoxy in America

So Orthodox Christianity is Eastern. But we live in the West and we converts are culturally Western, as now are many of our second and third generation old country Orthodox. How do we develop an expression of Orthodoxy which is both genuinely Orthodox, true to our  roots, and also understandable in terms of American culture? There is no easy answer. Can we earn from the successes and failures of early Christians in Western Europe who tried to find a way to have Celtic or Latin Orthodoxy? In the case of Latin Orthodoxy, some things obviously went awry. Why? We can learn from Eastern European Orthodox who a millennia ago faced the same problem. How were they to express Orthodoxy in terms of Slavic or Romanian culture? This was more successful. Why? I don’t have the expertise to delve into this. I’m just throwing out possibilities to think about.

I’ve tried to think of an image which typifies Orthodoxy in America, but we’re so diverse I can’t think what it would be.

None of this tells us exactly how to form authentic Eastern Orthodoxy in America, where our culture today, while no longer unfriendly to Orthodoxy, certainly doesn’t function in an Orthodox way. (Do we really think that passing more laws will solve our national problems?)

First, let me point out that we have made enormous progress in making Orthodoxy accessible to those who speak English. When I first felt drawn to Orthodoxy 50 years ago there was almost no Orthodoxy literature in English. Now we have a treasure house of excellent Orthodox books. Try Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Bookstore, Light and Life Publications, or the Ancient Faith Store. Not to mention Ancient Faith broadcasts and podcasts and blogs, of course. I find this thrilling – there’s no other word for it. And, so far as I can tell, our seminaries are doing a fine job of preparing clergy and laity as leaders.

However, most Orthodox churches in America are still mono-ethnic: composed chiefly of Middle Easterners or Greeks or Russians or Serbs or whoever, with only a few members who don’t fit ethnically into the pattern. There are also many new American Orthodox congregations which tend to be composed chiefly of converts, with only a few members of native Orthodox background.

The first sort of old world ethnic congregations easily preserve their Orthodox roots, but it is hard for them to relate to American culture – which is why many of them attract so few converts.

Convert churches relate easily to American culture, but they find it difficult to get the authentic “feel” of Orthodoxy. We converts often know lots of facts and figures, but Orthodoxy is more than facts and figures: there is an Orthodox culture, an Orthodox style, a way of life that you can’t get out of the books, which it’s hard for convert churches to get into. That’s one reason why I, as a convert, have liked to spend time in an old-world Orthodox country: to try to get the “feel” of the Church there.

For one example, converts can easily become legalistic, not understanding that Orthodox rules are maximalistic, setting the ideal, while Western church laws are minimalistic, setting the minimum that must be done. Orthodox never ask the traditional Western minimal question: “What is necessary for salvation?” I know of a convert congregation whose people felt they must follow the Holy Week fasting rules to the letter, and when they got to Holy Wednesday people began to pass out!

Orthodoxy in Cedarburg

In my home parish, Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg, from the first Sunday we have been blessed with about a 50/50 mix of “cradle Orthodox”(Middle Easterners mostly born in the old country, Greeks mostly born in America, plus a few Slavs and Romanians) and converts. We have a balance of people who have a natural feel for the 2 major sources of Orthodox Christianity, and people who are culturally Americans. Our converts have shared their excitement and often their hard-won book knowledge about Orthodoxy. Our “cradle Orthodox” have taught the rest of us how Orthodoxy actually “works”.

So at Saint Nicholas we have had all the resources to develop what I was first talking about: “authentic Eastern Orthodoxy in the West”. And I think we are doing it – by the grace of God, not that we often know what we are doing. After 28 years as an American Orthodox priest, I certainly do not have all the answers.

What are we doing? First, I feel sure that our old Metropolitan Philip (of blessed memory +) had it right: Be absolutely traditional in theology, morals, worship, but have worship in the language of the people, with music simple enough the people can sing. We have used traditional Orthodox music, both Byzantine (sometimes simplified at bit so we could handle it) and Russian – but all so people can sing it, and they do. We have classic iconography, replacing printed icons with genuine ones as we are able. For what we experience at worship is what we believe, and what people sing goes directly into their hearts and minds. We are slowly try to “Orthodoxify” our 125 year old former Lutheran building. Someday maybe we should replace this tower with a dome? but first we’re working on the interior where we worship. 

We have concentrated on teaching the faith. (I’m afraid I have heard too many Orthodox sermons wasted on nothing much.)  I’m sad and glad to say that many cradle Orthodox have

This is Holy Friday some years ago before we had a kabuklyon (bier) or festival icons on the screen. Note that people are singing.

told me that at Saint Nicholas they have understood the words of our faith for the first time, and they say “How beautiful it is!”

To repeat, we certainly don’t have all the answers, but I think our approach is working. We have continued to draw both cradle Orthodox and converts, and we have managed  to hang onto most of our youth as they’ve become adults. What we are working out in our small way, I think, I hope, is a microcosm of the future of genuine Eastern Orthodoxy in the West.  I hope you are doing the same thing in your way in your parish. This is the task of all of us American Orthodox.

Well, this Blog Post has got long. Maybe that’s because I was thinking about this for a long time on that very  l o  n  g   plane ride from East to West.

Next Week: What I have learned in 79 Years. (It’s my birthday.)

4 thoughts on “26. 2006 Trip, Part Three: Forming Authentic Eastern Orthodoxy in the West

  1. Dear Fr. Bill, I love your blog and all of your fascinating stories! However, as an Indian Orthodox Christian, I have to contest the following statement: “there is no way to access Christ and the apostles except through the Greek language.” This is historically not accurate.

    In the years before Christ, there was a Jewish community in Malabar, India, involved in the spice trade. They spoke Hebrew, not Greek. (Alexander of Macedon tried to conquer India, but failed. Thus, India was never Hellenized.) St. Thomas knew about the Jewish community, and following the apostolic pattern, came to India to preach to the Jews first. Because the Indian Jews didn’t know Greek, he brought a copy of St. Matthew’s Gospel in Aramaic. For all of these centuries, the theological terms used by the Indian Orthodox Church have been Syriac (which is closely related to Aramaic), not Greek. (For instance, for Holy Communion, we use the term “Qurbana,” not “Eucharist.”)

    Of course, we are a Pre-Chalcedonian Orthodox Church (“Oriental Orthodox”), so I’m not sure what you think of us. Nonetheless, because I’ve benefited from your writing, I wanted to comment. I am a simple layman: for more information, you can visit the official website of the Indian Orthodox Church: http://mosc.in/the_church/syrian-heritage


    1. Abraham, thank you for the kind words. I discover that Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius and others in the West (well, west of you!) also held that Matthew had written a version of his Gospel account in Hebrew or Aramaic. If so, I wonder how it compares with our Greek text, and what Semitic insights it might give into our Lord Jesus Christ. I am no Biblical scholar. Can anyone give us more information about this?

      Here’s what I think of you Oriental Orthodox: A man from my parish recently did a thesis on the 20th century talks between Eastern and Oriental Orthodox scholars. Their conclusions were 1) that most of our division in the 5th century was caused by linguistic misunderstandings, and 2) that, though we still sometimes disagree on terminology, both Oriental and Eastern Orthodox now seem to believe the same things about Christ’s humanity and divinity. I dearly wish we could be united again. That is my personal opinion.

      God bless you.

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