The Orthodox Reality: Culture, Theology, and Ethics in the Modern World
Allison Backous Troy is an independent scholar and essayist.
Every Easter season, a popular meme from The Simpsons circulates around the social media pages of Eastern Orthodox Christians in America. The meme depicts the citizens of Springfield leaving an Easter service, and a lone Orthodox clergyman, complete with a bishop’s staff (adorned with a gold-gilded mustache, in comic homage to the opulence of Orthodox liturgical artifacts), holding up a sign that proclaims, “This is our Palm Sunday!”
The other characters ignore the marching bishop, and the Orthodox Christians sharing this meme find it both hilarious and affirming. Being a recognized, but not dominant, religious group in the United States, such an image encompasses many unspoken predispositions that Orthodox Christians in America, with our ethnic ties and our discomfort among the larger swathes of American Christendom, hold closely. What delights the sharers of this image—its irony, its proclamation of the Church’s “true calendar” (often a week or two behind the calendar of Christian feasts celebrated by Protestants and Roman Catholics), and the bishop’s quiet, possibly smug ease in proclaiming his religious difference to other Christian worshippers—would trouble scholar Vigen Guroian. But it would also prove him right. His collection of essays, The Orthodox Reality: Culture, Theology, and Ethics in the Modern World, spans his entire corpus as a scholar of Orthodox history, theology, and cultural engagement. And what that body of work points to includes the very problems that the creators of The Simpsons, in that one image, satirize so perfectly: ethnic isolation, religious triumphalism, and, as Guroian describes it, “a secular pilgrimage” (64).
A secular pilgrimage? What does this mean for Orthodox faithful in America, whose families emigrated to avoid Communism, fascism, and economic decline? How can the words “secular pilgrimage” be applied to a group of Christians whose spiritual lives are anchored in the most ancient forms of Christian worship, and whose liturgies culminate in the offering of bread and wine, which we claim to be the literal and mystical body and blood of the resurrected Christ? How can it be that Guroian sees Orthodox Christians in America as a people who are “habituated to legitimating culture” (65) when our prime vehicle for engaging our neighbors involves our yearly ethnic festivals and when our primary pop culture references are “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and a decades-old Simpsons scene?
Despite these attributes, Guroian’s assessment of Orthodox Christians’ cultural engagement in America—that we are on a secular pilgrimage—is true. His body of work as a scholar of religious history, ethics, morality, and theology (at the University of Virginia) points to a life spent as a voice in the wilderness; he has tried to identify what a robust Orthodox engagement with the academy, with political structures, and with the religious plurality that both weaves and fragments Christianity in America, sounds like. And what his collection of essays presents is an assessment that has been long-coming: “Even today, the Orthodox (in America) have not articulated a clear, public vision of their identity and purpose vis-à-vis the other major religions and American culture at large” (68). For Guroian, that voice has been hard to catch because it has not just been too quiet—it has not spoken at all. Or at least, when it has tried to speak, it has held too little weight, despite our rich theology, our powerful spiritual traditions, and our historical precedence in the Christian world.
I say “our” because, as a convert to Orthodoxy myself, I find these claims regarding the religious tradition that I and my family not only belong to, but minister within, to be true; my husband is a Greek Orthodox priest, and our life is marked by navigating these tensions and traditions. Guroian, an Armenian Orthodox Christian himself, also has spent his life measuring the truths of his religious heritage and identity against the increasingly fragmented nature of Orthodoxy in America. Notice the clear distinction: Orthodox Christians in America vs American Orthodox Christians. Orthodox Christian identity in America, decades (and centuries) after emigration, is still bound to the jurisdictional identities of the immigrant groups that settled in America: Russian, Greek, Slavic, and Antiochian (representing Orthodox Christians from the Middle East), among others. It is an identity shaped by diaspora, as many religious identities in America are; that notion of “the old country” still shapes the ethos of many second and third generation Orthodox Christians, regardless of their jurisdiction’s ethnic background. Even as it becomes more popular to identify as “Orthodox,” rather than “Greek Orthodox” or “Russian Orthodox” (68), the absence of an American Orthodox church is still gapingly present. The mission to create an entirely American Orthodox Church, one that does not fall into the “denominationalism” that Guroian sees in American Protestantism (54), feels impossible for the various Orthodox communities that have spent over 100 years living on American soil. For Orthodox scholars, clergy, and laity, this is often blamed on the continued identification with being one’s ethnic identity, and with the “old world,” as the primary locus for understanding and practicing Orthodoxy in America.
But what troubles Guroian is not simply the continued presence of Orthodoxy’s ethnic ties, but its desire to be, as Russian Orthodox scholar Fred Lewis described, a fourth “Great Faith” alongside Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Judaism (54). Drawing from his own mentor, the Jewish religious scholar Will Herberg, Guroian traces the dangers of Lewis’s desire: if Orthodoxy were simply a “Fourth Great Faith,” a religious tradition that held a comfortable, yet distinct, position among the popular modern religions of twentieth- and twenty-first-century America, how would that help Orthodoxy retain its true nature? How could Orthodoxy be counter-cultural if its public status was only recognized by major federal holidays and public parades for its feast days? How could it break the “idols” of the “American Way of Life” (65), its crass adoration of capital and prestige, while still proclaiming to be the unbroken succession of Christ’s apostles on Earth?
The answer is obvious: it cannot, and it will not, for the very forces in American life that could provide Orthodoxy such a comfortable spot are the same forces that put Orthodoxy in America on this “secular pilgrimage,” one that Guroian (in homage to Wendell Berry) describes as living in a world “void of a vision in which God heals a world wounded by sin” (64), one where our religious institutions are empowered by the heresy of the very worst of American pluralism: “an absence of the kind of experience that human beings require in order to truly thrive, not merely as animals but also as spiritual beings” (64). For a faith tradition marked by the “organic” presence of “venerated holy places, churches, ancient shrines, and monasteries” in its mother countries, it is disorienting and false for Orthodox Christians to desire the powers that American religious pluralism bestows on its great, accepted faiths. It is tempting, but as Guroian describes it, it is also poisonous, a refusal to “open up” the spiritual richness of Orthodoxy to America while “instead everywhere [hindering] a life-giving and redemptive comprehension of what it means to be Orthodox in America and a mission for it in a new world” (64).
This is one of the major pulses of Guroian’s work, and as someone who was deeply formed by the Reformed emphasis on cultural engagement and God’s kingdom encompassing “all of life,” it is exciting and deeply affirming. There is much to be shared between the Reformed tradition that shaped me intellectually, with its Kuyperian desire to proclaim Christ in every square inch, and in what Guroian articulates so well here:
If the Orthodox were to move their icons beyond the church building into the culture, is it possible that the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit within the icons … awaken those who hold up the icons to a new religious mission in a post-Christian America? (66)
The image of the icon procession, which occurs with regularity within Orthodox services, is one that would grab the attention of critics like James Davison Hunter, whose 2010 book To Change the World (to Guroian’s chagrin) barely references the Eastern Orthodox tradition (68).1 During Lent and Holy Week, Orthodox priests will process after liturgy with particular icons that are connected to the various feast days. A particularly wrenching procession occurs on Great and Holy Friday, where Orthodox worshippers lament Christ’s death after his crucifixion. A kouvouklian, a carved wooden canopy, covers a bier decorated with flowers; inside sits the epitaphios, an embroidered icon of Christ’s mourners holding his dead body. The whole church will process with the bier outside the church and through the neighborhood of their parish, singing songs of lamentation for their dead Savior: O Life, how canst Thou die? How canst Thou dwell in a tomb? Yet Thou dost destroy death’s kingdom and raise the dead from hell.2 To picture a group of Christians singing a funeral dirge in the middle of a busy city intersection (as St. Mary’s Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA, does, for example), or processing down a quiet neighborhood street in Cheyenne, WY, provides a liturgical image whose richness should strike awe into the hearts of worshippers along Christianity’s spectrum.
In “The Orthodox Reality,” Guroian attempts to offer this kind of image for Orthodox Christian life in America, a procession more in step with the heart of Orthodox Christianity—one bent on pilgrimage, as Chaucer might say—than the bishop protesting placidly in Springfield. He shows with great detail how the hymnody of Orthodox worship is a direct expression of its theology, particularly in his analysis of St. Constantine and Byzantine “exorcisms” of empire (with an engaging narrative describing Guroian’s relationship with the scholarship of John Howard Yoder and Peter Leithart). He examines the various fractures between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, with particular attention to the 2016 Pan-Orthodox Ecumenical Council, where those jurisdictions who refused to attend illuminated the ongoing breaks between global Orthodox communities (especially in light of developments in Ukraine). And he provides an examination of the ways that an Orthodox understanding of the Trinity impact what Guroian sees as the most immediate, demanding relationships: marriage, family, and surprisingly, childhood, which, rather than being a blank slate for moral instruction, is “emblematic of what kind of person the adult Christian needs to become so he or she might inherit the kingdom of heaven” (161). This falls in line with how Guroian defines culture itself as not simply a historical progression, or a collection of privileged artifacts, but something “personal,” a mysterious reflection of God’s Holy Spirit animating and breathing life into us (9). If Guroian were to offer a “model” of culture, similar to Reinhold Niebuhr’s “fivefold typology” (9), his would focus on the way that “culture, in its highest expression, (has) the capacity to elevate society above and beyond its natural form to a truly human status of personality and communion.” It is communion, rather than domination or appropriation, that Guroian sees as the primary beat of Orthodox cultural engagement (11).
What Guroian names in his critique of Orthodoxy’s engagement with public, and also private, life is also a proclamation of how Orthodoxy in America can rest in the Holy Spirit as new life is breathed into conversations regarding cultural engagement, presence, and vocation. In describing his own intellectual formation, his guiding questions, and his answers to those questions, Guroian himself provides a generous accounting for Orthodox intellectual life in America. He summarizes, with clear authority, the problems he faced as a lonely Orthodox Christian in the study of American religion. He recounts, with great pain, what it meant for him to offer his heritage as a marginalized person (in connection to the Armenian genocide) in conversations where his theological conservatism thrust him to the side. And he enumerates, with humble consideration, the works of modern Orthodox scholars whose scholarship has been largely ignored by American Christian scholars and seminaries: Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Georges Florovsky, Vladimir Lossky, John Meyendorff, Paul Evdokimov, John Zizioulas, Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, Aristotle Papanikolaou, and others. He offers himself as a public historian of Orthodoxy’s scholarship in its American churches and the academy, even listing his syllabi on Orthodox theology, history, morality, and other topics as an appendix to the essay collection. It is generous, and for Guroian, necessary: he has mapped out not only his life’s work, but the other voices he heard crying out in the wilderness of Orthodoxy’s American experiment.
In this collection of essays and lectures, interviews and reflections, Guroian is established as one of Orthodoxy’s primary scholars on Orthodoxy in America. And this reader, whose life is deeply invested in seeing Orthodoxy thrive publicly and personally in a polarized religious and intellectual landscape, is grateful for the maps that Guroian has drawn for those of us who desire, perhaps, to embark on a new pilgrimage in America, one where the markers of Orthodox Christianity, rather than being projections of an Old World, or appropriations of the New World, could be “a life-giving and redemptive comprehension” of what Orthodox tradition, in its liturgy and its processions, offers and proclaims.
Cite this article
- James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
- From the Lamentations Service for Great and Holy Saturday Matins; it is worth noting here that, during Orthodox Holy Week, services are celebrated according to liturgical time, not the day of the week. Holy Saturday Matins is celebrated the Friday evening of that week.