I am often asked questions about the culture of Orthodox Christianity. When this happens I usually have to clarify the question by asking, “Do you mean… ethnic culture, spiritual culture, administrative culture, etc.?” It’s a very difficult question to answer without considering the bigger picture. First of all, Orthodoxy is not a compartmentalized culture. It is a culture of integration: faith with life and life with faith. I believe we all agree that ideally God should be included in all aspects of our lives. But is He? This is a real question which, when answered, gives the real answer to questions about the culture of Orthodoxy. The culture of Orthodox Christianity is a culture which seeks to incorporate the presence of God in all aspects of one’s life. What do we often hear when people having traveled overseas describe their experience of an Orthodox country? “I could sense the life of the Church everywhere.” This was my experience in Lebanon, at least where we visited, and I have heard the very same thing from people (Americans in particular) who have traveled in Russia, Greece, the Balkan states, etc.
Whether we like it or not the culture of the Church which stands out most starkly in America is its ethnic culture; maybe it’s because Orthodoxy’s ethnic heritage stands out so dramatically in comparison to the Anglo-Saxon culture of America. The other day I was driving down Shafer Drive when one of our neighbors stopped me to say hello. The first words out of his mouth were, “We thought we would see you at Greek Fest last Sunday. We love it. Every year we plan and meet several of our friends over there for food, especially the desserts, and for the dancing. Does your church ever think they’ll do something like this?” Over the last several years I have gained a deeper appreciation for the ethnic heritage of the Orthodox Church. Yes, I love the food and all the related cultural amenities, but more importantly what has made a bigger impression is the cohesiveness of ethnic cultures. Greeks, Middle Easterners, Slavs, at least within their own cultures, are peoples who stick together. Maybe it is somewhat easy because of the homogeneity of their cultures, but there is a very real cohesiveness within these cultures that, in my view, is worth examining.
What concerns me most, and what I am meditating on here, is the spiritual culture of Orthodox Christianity, and its ability to cohesively hold men together in a splintering world. In comparison to Western Christianity the Orthodox Church, I have heard said, seems like a dinosaur. The Orthodox Church has not “gotten with it” regarding the changing times of post-modern society. The faith demands on the Orthodox Christian today are as great as they always have been. Theological, moral, disciplinary standards have only evolved in their revelation to the Church, and their content is immutable. In comparison, author Ross Douthat had this to say about the loss of an authentic (western) Christian core which started in the mid-twentieth century: “The mainline churches made few demands on those who flocked into its ranks in the 1950’s. In effect, many members acquired only a thin gloss or a ‘veneer’ of religiosity… (and) to some of their children, even the weak requirements of church membership seemed too burdensome or too pointless to assume.” The culture of Orthodox Christian spirituality is founded upon very real “demands;” demands which cannot be altered for the sake of convenience, disagreement, or political correctness. This does not mean that there cannot be struggle with the demands of our faith, or that on a case by case basis the application of standards can be pastorally modified, but the Church’s cohesive call to holiness cannot be altered.
The most compelling question I would like to ask here is this: What’s so bad about demands? The loving demands that are put on the Orthodox Christian are there for one reason: eternal life with God. Why do men argue with this, or say they are unnecessary, and even worse, just blow them off? The truth of it is, the Orthodox Church in the west has been deeply affected by clergy and laity alike putting demands on the Church, consequently compromising this cultural foundation. Some ask, “Why should we follow the antiquated practices of Liturgy (other than on Sunday,) Festal celebrations, Confession, personal prayer, fasting, a tithing stewardship, koinonia (Christian fellowship)?” These profound practices are the very foundation of our Holy Faith and without them, sadly, we will become a mere “veneer of religiosity,” and even worse than marginalized: pointless. Maybe this is what St. Paul meant when he said, “…in the last days [men will] hold the form of religion but deny the power of it” (2 Tim. 3:1-5).
In my meditation following my trip to Lebanon I made this comment: “What impressed me was not the beauty of the Lebanese culture, but rather the faith that made the culture of the Lebanese people beautiful.” It is my hope that we can continue to grow in appreciation for our own culture of Faith. Obviously we are not an ethnically homogenous people, so there is only one cohesive Truth that can hold us together: our Orthodox Faith which so beautifully prays: “Let us love one another so that with one accord (heart/mind) we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided.”