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3.19.11 From his blog: Religion and Other Curiousities

March 2, 2011

Our Lady of Kazan and American Pluralism

The icon of Our Lady of Kazan (also known as the Black Virgin of Kazan) is one of the most famous in Russian Orthodoxy. One of the Virgin’s two feast days coincides with the Day of National Unity. This is appropriate. Kazan occupies an important place in Russian history. Its conquest and destruction in 1552 eliminated the last stronghold of Mongol power in what since then has been southern Russia. The Mongols of that region, descended from the mighty Golden Horde, had long before converted to Islam. Thus the conquest of Kazan (which was followed by a massacre of its civilian population) is also a highly symbolic marker of the conflict between Orthodox Christianity and Islam, which still reverberates today along the southern perimeter of the former Soviet Union. The association of the Virgin with national unity is symbolic as well. It evokes the so-called sinfonia—the close unity of church and state—which characterized Russia from the beginning of its national history to the Bolshevik revolution. It would be an exaggeration to say that the Putin regime has once again established Orthodoxy as the state religion, but it has come close to doing so. Thus Our Lady of Kazan again bestows legitimacy on the Russian state, including its foreign policy, which has been supported by the Patriarchate of Moscow. The state in turn has supported the policy of the Patriarchate to re-assert its authority over previously independent Russian Orthodox churches abroad. The long shadow of the Black Virgin has extended to America.

According to the Atlas of Global Christianity (a very useful source, edited by Todd Johnson and Kenneth Ross, and published in 2009), there are 6,200,000 Orthodox Christians in the United States. This figure has been challenged. If it holds, the number of Orthodox is more than Episcopalians, still regarded in the media and public awareness as an important denomination, and roughly comparable to the number of Jews, whose cultural influence has been enormously larger. (Can one imagine speaking of the role of Orthodox Christians in Hollywood? Or in American humor?) Despite its place in the religious demography of America, Orthodoxy is still widely perceived as marginal and exotic. I don’t know just when Orthodox priests, with their black robes and elongated black hats, first appeared with Protestant, Catholic and Jewish clergy at important national ceremonies such as presidential inaugurations. But it would be a mistake to deduce from this some great political or cultural influence.

The explanation of this paradox is simple. It is what one may call the ethnic captivity of Orthodox Christianity in America.

The history of Orthodoxy in America began in 1794, when eight Russian missionaries arrived in Alaska. They converted a number of native Alaskans and set up some churches. After Alaska came under American rule Protestant missionaries did their best to “reconvert” the Orthodox converts. There has been no significant Orthodox presence in Alaska since then. But a significant presence developed in the American mainland due to sizable immigration from eastern and southeastern Europe. Greeks were the largest group of Orthodox immigrants.

The ecclesiastical organization of Orthodoxy in America was complicated from the beginning. The Russian church appointed an archbishop when Alaska was part of the Russian empire. His jurisdiction was wonderfully described as covering “the Aleutian Islands and North America.” This jurisdiction was objected to, by Greek theologians and others, after the end of Russian rule in Alaska. Those who objected cited canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon (which met in 451 C.E.), which states that “the Archbishop of New Rome” (later known as the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople) had jurisdiction “over all barbarian lands.” Since at that time this geographical entity covered any territories outside the then existing Roman empire (presumably both known or unknown to the delegates to the Council), Americans and Canadians should certainly be subsumed under the category of barbarians (if only for purposes of Orthodox ecclesiology).

This situation became even more complicated after the Russian Revolution. Orthodoxy in Russia was brutally persecuted and cut off from churches abroad, not in a position to exercise any authority whatever. The authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople was (as still is) largely ceremonial. This was not much of a problem for the so-called autocephalous churches, such as the Orthodox Church of Greece. (The term means, literally, churches “with their own heads”—that is, self-governing, not under the authority of any historic patriarchate). It was a big problem in North America (I don’t know whether it was among the undoubtedly vast Orthodox masses on the Aleutian Islands). The practical consequence, in disregard of the Orthodox principle of one-country-one-jurisdiction, was that Orthodoxy in the United States and Canada came to be split up into homogeneously ethnic churches, each linked to the national church “back home”—Church of Greece, Church of Serbia, and so on. The Russian church in America also split in practice, one segment retaining a (tenuous) link with the Moscow Patriarchate (which, ironically, had been re-established by the Soviet regime, reversing its abolition by Peter the Great). The other segment rejected such a link, because it perceived (correctly) that the Moscow Patriarchate was under the thumb of an anti-Orthodox regime. In 1970 the Russian metropolia of North America was granted “autocephaly” by the Moscow Patriarchate—an act not recognized by many other Orthodox churches, because of the dubious relation of the Russian church with the Soviet government, but also because the right of Moscow to exercise any authority in North America was denied—including the right to bestow autocephaly. Be this as it may, the metropolia renamed itself the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). No ethnic identity was included in this name, and soon the liturgy throughout the OCA came to be conducted in English. Because of the lingering notion of one-country-one-jurisdiction, the autocephalous status of the OCA was resented by other Orthodox churches in America—notably by the Greek church, by far the “biggest boy on the block”—because it was seen as a claim to exclusive authority over all Orthodox in the territory of the metropolia, and of course because its autocephalous status was deemed to have been illegitimately bestowed. To this day American Orthodoxy is beset by conflicting interests of the ecclesiastical authorities in Constantinople, Moscow and Athens.

An interjection: I hope that I got all these facts right. The organizational structure of American Orthodoxy is exceedingly complex, intriguing but hard to understand for an outside observer. It is more existentially intriguing for potential converts (who, as the saying goes, want “to swim in the Bosporus”): They have to decide where to look for a place in this (may we call it) Byzantine landscape of religious possibilities. This problem first came to my attention when I asked a middle-aged student with an impeccably WASP name about his occupation. He replied (slightly awkwardly, I recall), “I am an Albanian priest.”

The OCA represents the first intentionally non-ethnic, American Orthodox body. While I suspect that its founders would not have appreciated this term, the OCA took on the quality of a distinctively American institution, that of a denomination—speaking sociologically, a church that participates in the great game of American pluralism. Curiously, its intellectual roots are not in America but in France—specifically, in the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute, founded in Paris in 1925 by a group of Russian refugees from the Soviet Union. The Institute still exists. I don’t know what goes on there now. But for many years the “St. Serge school” represented the most dynamic engagement of Orthodoxy with Western theology and philosophy. (Note: In recent years, Michael Plekon, a professor at the City University of New York and an OCA priest, has tirelessly commented upon and promoted the distribution of English translations of the considerable body of publications of the school.) Some of the principal writers from the St. Serge group emigrated to the United States in the wake of World War II—notably George Florovsky, John Meyendorff and Alexander Schmemann. They were among the founding thinkers of the OCA. Florovsky became the first dean of St. Vladimir’s, the OCA seminary started in New York City and in 1962 relocated to Crestwood, New York. Here the “St. Serge vision” found its American footing. In his many writings and lectures, Schmemann expressed disdain for Orthodoxy as a “sect” or “ethnic museum.” Rather, Orthodoxy should become an organic part of the Western religious scene.

Throughout its long history, Christian Orthodoxy has existed in three institutional forms: As a state church—first in the Byzantine empire, then in Russia, then in the different national churches in eastern and southeast Europe after their respective countries achieved independence from the Ottoman Empire; As a minority body under Muslim rule, sometimes tolerated, sometimes persecuted—for example, under the Ottoman millet system, which, in good times, allowed a certain autonomy to religious minorities; And as a diaspora institution, founded by Orthodox immigrants to non-Orthodox countries. The relevant point here: None of these institutional forms prepared Orthodoxy for the dynamics of pluralism. And furthermore: What may be called the St. Serge-OCA vision has been a first step—first intellectually, then institutionally—toward an Orthodox engagement with pluralism.

According to probably reliable information I have, this vision of the OCA is now confronted with two challenges. The first is the growth of a fundamentalist understanding of Orthodoxy—dogmatic, intolerant, ipso facto uninterested in engaging with anybody or anything outside a narrowly confined community of faith. This, incidentally, is exactly what Schmemann meant when he spoke of a “sectarian” understanding of Orthodoxy. Much of this fundamentalism may be due to the influence of converts—converts to any faith are very often “more papal than the pope.” The second challenge is the campaign by the Moscow Patriarchate to return all originally Russian churches abroad to its own jurisdiction. The campaign reputedly has the support of the Russian state, which sees these churches as potential sources of its own influence abroad. I understand that there are voices within the OCA in favor of surrendering its autocephaly and returning to the welcoming embrace of the mother church. Fundamentalists within the OCA may also find this prospect appealing. While there are different voices in the Russian church, the messages coming out of the Patriarchate sound more fundamentalist all the time.

Should anyone care about this, who does not belong to the rather small community of the OCA (with a membership very likely well under a million)? I think so. Orthodoxy represents a rich tradition of piety and reflection, a very distinctive version of the Christian faith. This is a voice that should be heard amidst the vigorous cacophony of American religious pluralism. The voice, obviously, will not be heard if Orthodoxy is confined to various “ethnic museums.” That would be a great pity.

There are many ways of describing the distinctiveness of Orthodoxy, as against both the Roman Catholic and Protestant versions of Christianity. One way is nicely summed up in a statement by Paul Evdokimov, a lay member of the St. Serge school who did not move to America (he played a courageous role during the German occupation of France, among other things helping Jews to escape from the Nazis). Evdokimov suggests that Western Christianity sees the relationship between God and man as taking place in a courtroom—God is the judge, man is guilty, sentence must be pronounced, Christ takes the sentence upon himself, which allows God to forgive man. The entire transaction is judicial and penitential. By contrast, Eastern Christianity sees the relationship as taking place in a hospital—man is sick, sin is just part of the sickness, Christ is the victor over every part of this sickness (including death, which is the culmination of the sickness). The transaction between God and man is not judicial but therapeutic. It seems to me that this is a much more compassionate view of the human condition and its redemption.


Peter Berger is a Lutheran theologian, respected Sociologist, University Professor at Boston University and Director of its Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs. You can read his blog on the American Interest magazine site: here




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