27 April 2007

Orthodox mission in the 21st century

This post is from the concluding chapter of my thesis on "Orthodox mission methods", submitted in 1998. I have posted it mainly as a follow-up to the previous post and comments, especially the comments by Phil Johnson, on monasticism and utilitarianism

In the history of Orthodox mission, we have seen two kinds of approach to the world. There is one where the world is evaluated positively, and another where it is evaluated negatively. In the first view, the world is seen primarily as God's world, part of his good creation. In the second view, it is seen primarily as the fallen world, the world that lies in the power of the evil one.

These two approaches extend to cover the ecumene, the humanly inhabited world. They are found in relation to culture, to church and state, to the relation of the Church to human society. If Christians are in the world but not of it, then some have emphasised the importance of being in the world, and others have emphasised the importance of not being of this world. I have pointed out that I believe that both these approaches are authentic parts of the Orthodox tradition, and that both are in fact essential to the maintenance of that tradition.

How does this affect Orthodox mission as we approach the twenty-first century? In the First World, the predominant culture is post-Christian. Modernity has affected Christian thinking, and postmodernism has affected some of those who have abandoned the Christian faith altogether. In the Second World, several decades of communist rule have effectively secularised society, leading to a modern post-Enlightenment outlook, though it has sometimes taken a different form to that of the First World. In the Third World, Christianity has been expanding tremendously in Africa, and has been shifting from a Roman Catholic to a Protestant emphasis in Latin America, while remaining a minority religion in most of Asia. There is a sense in which postmodern culture is spreading throughout the world, though taking different forms in different places.

How do Orthodox Christians evaluate these cultural changes in relation to mission? In the negative, or pessimistic view, often expressed by Fr Seraphim Rose, these cultural changes exemplify the spread of nihilism (Rose 1994:12). They are inimical to the gospel, and most Orthodox churches will lapse into apostasy as the world is prepared for the coming of the Antichrist. Mission, then, becomes the gathering of the faithful remnant out of the world, and out of those Orthodox churches that are seen as apostate. In its extreme form, this view is expressed in sectarianism and schism, over such questions as the calendar, or, in the Second World, over such questions as Sergianism - those who were said to be too subservient to the communist state. The emphasis is on maintaining the distinction between the Church and the world.

In the positive, more optimistic view, the world's culture is not seen so negatively. The Orthodox Christian faith can be incarnated in any culture. The positive approach of St Nicholas of Japan or St Innocent of Alaska to the local cultures in the countries where they were missionaries can also be used with the cultures of modernity and postmodernity. In its extreme form, however, the effect of such accommodation can be to do away with the need for mission at all, such as when a prominent bishop was reported as saying that Mohammed was a prophet of God. Orthodox Christianity then becomes nothing more than a way of "being religious" for people of a certain ethnic or national cultural background.

One of the things that keeps these two tendencies from falling apart completely is that they both look to the same missionary saints: Nicholas of Japan, Herman of Alaska, and Innocent of Moscow as examples, even though there may be different emphases in their interpretations of their life and ministry.

It is probably too soon to try to define the characteristics of postmodernism or postmodernity. It is sufficient to note that in many areas of culture the influence of the Enlightenment, or modernity, has begun to wane, or at least to be modified by new approaches that are in some ways incompatible with modernity. The secular science of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on empirical verification, also gave rise to scepticism about what could not be verified empirically. In the postmodern world, however, such scepticism is often found side by side with credulity. It is said that G.K. Chesterton once remarked that when people stop believing in God, they do not believe in nothing, but they will believe in anything (though this is frequently attributed to Chesterton, and is the kind of thing he might have said, I have not been able to find a source for it in his writings) . So we find, for example, that people who are sceptical about the resurrection, or even the existence of Jesus Christ, are sometimes quite willing to believe the most amazing stories about flying saucers and the like.

In some ways the postmodern world looks very similar to the world in which the Christian faith first appeared. There is, for example, a similar religious pluralism. The rapid growth of communications has made it possible for religions that were previously confined to one area to be found all over the globe. As a result of missionary activities and the diaspora of members of different religions, people living in places where, a couple of centuries ago, they would have had little chance of meeting members of more than one or two religions in the normal course of their daily lives, can now encounter dozens of different religious views and outlooks. Interreligious dialogue, which previously was regarded as the province of specialists, and involved meetings to which people travelled from all over the world at great expense, now also takes place electronically. Ordinary lay Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Wiccans, neopagans, Mormons, Baha'i and many others from different parts of the world meet and discuss their religious beliefs and practices on electronic networks. There are also numerous new religious movements, and they too spread rapidly and widely. In the nineteenth century, St Nicholas of Japan took Orthodox Christianity from Russia to Japan. In the twentieth century, a new religious movement, the Aum Shinrikyo sect, has more adherents in Russia than in Japan where it originated.

Many of the new religious movements are extremely eclectic. The neopagan religions of the First World are usually conscious attempts to revive the pre-Christian religions of northern Europe, especially the Celtic and Teutonic ones. But in North America (and sometimes elsewhere) they are often combined with elements of North American native religion. Wicca, which, like some of the others, also claims to be a revival of a pre-Christian religion of Northern Europe, is in fact nothing of the kind. It has reinterpreted and combined elements from many different religions, ancient and modern, including Christianity, and some of the elements were made up by twentieth-century novelists. Many Wiccans are solitary, and consciously practise a kind of "mix and match" religion. There is also the New Age movement, which is even more eclectic. Many Christians characterise the neopagan religions as "New Age cults", though most neopagans themselves do not see themselves as "New Age", and make a distinction.
These movements, however, even where they do claim premodern roots, have a radically different attitude. They cannot be regarded simply as a revival of premodern religions; they are primarily a reaction against modernism. And they are therefore profoundly influenced by modernism. Tinker (1993:121) observes:
The withering of white Christian spirituality has so disillusioned people that many have engaged in a relatively intense search for something to fill the spiritual void, from Buddhism, Sufi mysticism, or Hindu meditation to Lynn Andrews hucksterism or the so-called "men's council" movement, with channeling, astrology, and witchcraft falling somewhere in between. In this time of spiritual crisis, Indian [i.e. native American] spirituality, which just a short while ago was the anathema of heathenism, has now become an appealing alternative to many of the seekers.
The main difficulty is that Indian spiritual traditions are still rooted in cultural contexts that are quite foreign to white Euroamericans, yet Euroamerican cultural structures are the only devices Euroamericans have for any deep structure understanding of native spiritual traditions. Hence, those native traditions can only be understood by analogy with white experience...

Both well-meaning New Age liberals and hopeful Indian spiritual traditionalists can easily be swept up into a modern process of imposed cultural change, without recognizing deep structure cultural imposition even when in their midst. The first Indian casualty today in any such New Age spiritual-cultural encounter is most often the deep structure cultural value of community and group cohesion that is important to virtually every indigenous people. As adherents of Western cultures, Europeans and Euroamericans live habitual responses to the world that are culturally rooted in an individualist deep structure rather than communitarian. In this "meeting" of cultures, the communal cultural value of Indian people is transformed by those who do not even begin to see the cultural imposition that has occurred, however unintended. Hence dancing in a ceremony in order "that the people might live" gives way to the New Age Euroamerican quest for individual spiritual power. What other reason would a New Yorker have for rushing out to South Dakota to spend eight days participating in a Sun Dance ceremony? Yet well-meaning New Agers drive in from New York and Chicago, or fly in from Austria and Denmark, to participate in annual ceremonies originally intended to secure the well-being of the local, spatially-configured community. These visitors see little or nothing at all of the reservation community, pay little attention to the poverty and suffering of the people there, and finally leave having achieved only a personal, individual spiritual high. "That the people might live" survives merely as an abstract ideal at best.

According to Tinker then, modernity can be not merely imposed from without, by aggressive culturally-insensitive Western missionaries, but also from within, by religious sympathisers who are ostensibly seeking to learn. In Alaska and East Africa, however, the native people who had become Orthodox regarded Orthodoxy as part of their culture within a very short time, as I have shown in Chapter 7. I believe this might well be because the Orthodox missionaries were themselves rooted in a communitarian deep structure rather than an individualist one. In addition, as I have tried to show in chapter 2, Orthodox soteriology has tended to regard human nature and human institutions in a somewhat more positive light than much Western theology; as distorted and blemished by human sinfulness rather than "totally depraved".

The modern revival of the ancient European cults of Odin, Thor and Lugh among people living in the First World involves the same kind of reinterpretation of premodern beliefs as that described by Tinker, but at least it does no harm to living community practitioners of those cults. In part the phenomenon that Tinker describes is the difference between tribal and urban cultures. It is also the difference between what McLuhan (1967:84) describes as literate and preliterate, or manuscript and print, cultures. The cohesive kinship community structure of the tribal polity makes way for the anonymous individualism of the urban one - a process that began in the modern age in north-western Europe with scholasticism and the Renaissance (McLuhan 1967:100).

One reason for the rapid growth of African Independent Churches could be their successful retribalisation of the Enlightenment-style Christianity preached by most Western Protestant missionaries. In effect, they have reinterpreted the Christianity of modernity in premodern terms, and have rejected the "cult of civilisation" in which it was packaged. And it is precisely among such groups that Orthodox Christianity is growing in Africa today.

Postmodernism is primarily a First-World phenomenon, though because of the ease of communication, it is influencing other parts of the world as well. Within the First World, many Christians who have been brought up in "Enlightenment" denominations are discovering Orthodox Christianity, and Orthodox apologists are seeking to help these "Enlightenment" Christians to understand Orthodoxy. The religious pluralism of our time has brought these Christians into closer contact with each other. Orthodox Christians from Eastern Europe and the Near East have migrated to America, those from Cyprus have gone as migrant workers to Western Europe, and stayed. Refugees from the Bolshevik Russia have settled in other parts of the world. In the past, the differences between them and Western Christians were explained ethnically. It was the difference between the Greek and German, the Cypriot and British, the Arab and American, the Russian and English, way of seeing things. The new Orthodox apologetic literature takes a different approach, comparing the paradigms or worldviews, rather than national characteristics.

One example of such literature is Bajis (1989) Common ground: an introduction to Eastern Christianity for the American Christian. The book begins with a section called "Western and Eastern outlooks compared", which starts at the levels of paradigms or worldviews or frames of reference. Bajis (1989:6-8) notes that:

  1. Eastern Christianity is communal
  2. Eastern Christianity is intuitive
  3. Eastern Christianity is holistic
  4. Eastern Christianity sees the Church as a living organism of which Christ himself is a member
  5. Eastern Christianity sees the Christian faith as relational, personal and experiential
  6. Eastern Christianity sees the grasp of truth as dependant [sic] upon one's moral and spiritual sensitivity.
In many ways, these are characteristics of premodern thinking as opposed to modern thinking. Bajis seems to be inviting his readers to suspend their modern worldview, and try to see things through premodern eyes. As I have tried to show in earlier chapters, Eastern and Western Christianity have been influenced by modernity in different ways, and this accounts for most of the differences listed above. Daneel and others have observed similar differences between African Independent Churches and the Western missions in Africa. In parts of rural Greece, as described by Stewart (1991), Hart (1991) and others, the same could be said.

Modernity tends to be analytic rather than synthetic. It seeks to understand things by breaking them down rather than by building them up. It relegates "religion" to the "private" sphere. It is individualist rather than communal. Modernity is not holistic: its analytical approach seeks to reduce wholes to their components, to disassemble and dissect, and to see the whole as purely the sum of its parts. The holistic view of Orthodoxy (and many premodern societies) is quite alien to this approach.

In the modern world - that is, the world of modernity - Orthodoxy finds itself misunderstood. Modernity has faced ideological battles between individualism and collectivism, which to the Orthodox appear to be two sides of the same modernist coin. But to collectivists, such as the Bolsheviks, Orthodoxy, with the value it gives to the human person, seems to be yet another manifestation of bourgeois individualism. To individualists, Orthodox communalism seems to be another manifestation of totalitarian collectivism, and many Western observers of Russia have seen a continuity between the Orthodox vision of "Holy Russia" and the political messianism of the Bolshevik regime, while to the Orthodox the Bolshevik regime was the logical conclusion of the ideas of the Western Enlightenment, imported and imposed by Peter the Great. In this way Western professional "Russia-watchers" still give a picture of the Russian Orthodox Church in which many Orthodox Christians find it difficult to recognise themselves.

Orthodox communalism, expressed in such terms as kinonia and sobornost, is hard to express in English. "Fellowship" has become trite, "conciliarity" is too abstract, "community" is too vague. But at its root, it means something similar to the Zulu saying, "umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu" - a person is a person because of people; or as the English poet John Donne put it, "No man is an island".

In the light of this, one might expect Orthodox mission to be more effective in premodern societies, and as I have tried to show in the preceding chapters, this does appear to be the case. In Alaska and East Africa, for example, Orthodoxy could become part of the culture of people. Even where it changed and influenced the culture of the people, it did so in an organic and internal way, so that baptism replaced initiation ceremonies such as female circumcision, even where Orthodoxy had been accepted in a protest movement against a missionary ban on female circumcision. In the diaspora among people from Eastern Europe or the Near East who emigrated to North America, Australia, and other places, Orthodox mission has been less effective, however.

In itself, however, the greater effectiveness of Orthodox mission among premodern people, particularly in hunting, gathering and pastoral societies, is not necessarily unique. Western mission has also tended to be more successful among such peoples in Africa and South America, while spreading more slowly among people who follow the "great religions" such as Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam. But Orthodoxy does seem to have been more easily "contextualised" in premodern cultures, and to become part of the culture of such people.

In the diaspora, Orthodox people, many of them coming from villages in the Balkans and the Near East with a premodern worldview, have emigrated to cultures where modernity is part of the culture. The cultural milieu has tended to be assimilative and hostile to tradition. Orthodox immigrants have often sought to identify with the host culture, and Orthodoxy has tended to become a relic of the past, or a mark of ethnic identity or nostalgia for one's ethnic roots. In such societies, Orthodoxy found it difficult to "contextualise" the Christian faith - unlike Western Christianity, and Protestant Christianity in particular, which both helped to produce modernity, and was in turn a product of it.

Postmodernity has been bringing a change in this. It is less hostile to tradition, and has often led people to search for "traditional wisdom" outside modernity. The danger, as Tinker has pointed out above, is that the eclectic postmodern approach, while valuing tradition more than modernism does, can also destroy the traditions it seeks to adopt, by appropriating the superficial forms, but not the worldview they are based on. Thus it can sometimes come as a surprise to Orthodox Christians in the diaspora to find that attitudes in the surrounding society towards them are beginning to change. They may find that some people, at least, no longer regard them as irrelevant relics of the past, but as somehow "cool" and "countercultural".

The West, after centuries of using terms such as "navel gazing" as a term of abuse, symbolic of all that is backward and out-of-date about the Orthodox Church, as suddenly begin to show an interest in such things. An age that has begun to look to gurus - Hindu holy men from India - for advice, is more open to the message of monastic spiritual elders from places like Mount Athos, whose long hair and beards have now become a symbol of ancient spiritual wisdom.

In Russia, one of the characteristics of the religious revival of the late Soviet era, particularly among the intelligentsia, was that it was driven by a search for the roots of Russian culture. Marxist materialism was somehow unsatisfying, and people began a spiritual search in traditional Russian culture. Though this was in many cases a religious search, it was not necessarily a Christian one. Russian culture, however, was profoundly shaped by the Orthodox Christian faith, and thus led many of these searchers to Orthodox Christianity.

One of the mission strategies being followed in the current religious revival in Russia, therefore, is the promotion and teaching of Russian Orthodox culture. As time passes, however, I believe that such an approach will prove to be inadequate. In the Soviet era, pre-Soviet Russian culture was sanitised and Bowdlerised to fit the Marxist ideology. Those who discovered the Christian faith by exploring Russian culture did so as a deliberate choice, which was an act of rebellion or non-conformism according to the values of the dominant culture.

The collapse of the Soviet system, however, has opened the floodgates to a much wider range of cultural choices. There are many more choices, and young people who have grown up without knowing anything of the restriction of life under the Soviet system might be less inclined to seek answers in the Russian culture of the past. Those who are most involved in the religious revival, in the 25-40 age group, never had the opportunities to encounter the variety of culture that the younger generation is now able to experience, and might therefore not be able to interpret the newer imported cultures as easily in Orthodox terms.

The generation of the under-25s, however, who have grown up without really knowing the communist system, might be more difficult to reach by such a method, or might, if they do adopt it, lapse into nationalism and xenophobia, covered with a very thin veneer of Orthodoxy. The collapse of communism has not yet led to its replacement by anything else. The glowing picture of the virtues of capitalism and the free-market system painted by Western propaganda has created a lot of unfulfilled expectations. What it has done, and what Western Christian missionaries to Russia have sometimes unconsciously reinforced, has been to implant Western values of individualism and greed, which find little outlet in Russia, except in a life of crime.
The tensions in Russian society are also to be found in the Russian Orthodox Church. There are groups within the Church that have adopted a xenophobic and nationalist attitude, and have rejected even Orthodox Christians from outside Russia. The leaders of the Church are under constant pressure from such groups to suppress foreign influences, to discipline clergy who are seen as "modernist" and so on.

As the Russian Orthodox Church is the largest Orthodox Church in the world, this is bound to affect Orthodox mission, not only in Russia, but elsewhere as well. It could easily cause a kind of paralysis, and a concentration on external and political considerations. Questions such as participation in the ecumenical movement, for example, could be decided on the grounds of political expediency, on whether it would promote or block the influence of this or that power bloc or pressure group. Such an attitude will not promote Orthodox mission.

If Orthodox mission is to be effective in future, then I believe tradition and traditionalism are very important. The Orthodox Church needs to avoid the error made by so many Western Christians in self-consciously seeking to make the church "relevant to modern man" by the wholesale adoption of modern culture, values and attitudes. It also needs to avoid the pseudotraditionalism of making certain selected traditions badges of identity, and therefore marks of self-righteousness. The self-righteous denunciations of others by many of the Old Calendrists, for example, have little to do with the genuine Orthodox tradition that promotes the virtues of modesty, humility, patience and love. Using traditions as badges of identity to denounce others is quite incompatible with this.

What is most urgently needed for mission is the renewal of the genuine tradition of Orthodox monasticism that promotes these virtues. In many places, this is happening. Monasteries, like mission, have been growing since the 1960s. If this genuine spiritual life in Orthodoxy grows, then mission will be the automatic consequence. If Orthodox leaders who participate in the ecumenical movement are filled with these virtues, then they will not be corrupted by their participation in it, as the xenophobes and nationalists fear, nor, should they withdraw from the ecumenical movement, would it be from considerations of political expediency.

The revival of interest in tradition that has come with postmodernity provides a mission opportunity for Orthodox Christians not only in the First World, but also in the Second and Third Worlds as well. The religious eclecticism of the New Age is not confined to the First World. It is universal. One of the students at the Orthodox theological seminary in Nairobi was from a country town in Cameroun. He had been baptised a Roman Catholic, and at the age of 16 had become a Rosicrucian, and had tried Ekankar, Wicca and several other Western religious movements before becoming a Hindu and travelling to India to spend some years studying under a guru. On his return to Cameroun he had a vision in which his spirit guides told him to worship the Triune God, and he travelled to Yaounde, the capital, to look for a trinitarian church. The first one he found was the Orthodox Cathedral, so he became an Orthodox Christian.

But postmodernity, as a reaction against modernity, can also impose the values of modernity. Traditions can become diluted by eclecticism, and the salt can lose its savour. The Orthodox vision and vocation is not to be overwhelmed by the world, but it is a vision of a world renewed and restored by the life of Christ. The traditions need to be strengthened so that they are not diluted and overwhelmed by eclecticism. This means that monasticism needs to be restored, as is happening in parts of Greece, Russia, Serbia and other places. It also needs to be returned to Africa, where it started.

The obstacles to this are great. Where, in the Orthodox disapora, Orthodox Christians have sought to accommodate to modernity, monasticism has not flourished. Some have tended to be embarrassed by it, and have at best regarded it as a quaint survival, or not quite in accordance with the image of a "modern" church. In the Second World, monasteries have to overcome the deliberate attempts to destroy them made by communist regimes. To extend the metaphor used by Sister Philotheia of the Monastery of St John the Forerunner in Karea, Athens, the wells are few, and so many are having to make do with bottled water. And sometimes the bottled water could come from contaminated wells.

As we look forward to the 21st century then, the Orthodox Church in its mission is faced by both opportunities and dangers. For the first time since the 6th century, more Orthodox Christians in more countries are free to engage in mission, unhindered by hostile and repressive governments. The Orthodox Church's unique experience of modernity, and its stronger base in premodern culture, gives it more opportunities than Western Christians to make its message heard, both among those who are becoming somewhat disillusioned with modernity, and among those who have been, rather reluctantly, dragged into it.


The Scylding said...

Interesting post, Stephen. I think it is important to note that the people flying from materialism most often take their materialism with them - i.e. those wanting new experiences often devolve that into a buying list (candles etc etc). It's like the medieval enthusiasts who, instead of starting to act nobly, gets himself chainmail armour.

Whipping up enthusiasm, whether by neo-monasticism or by changing the eucharist to make it more mystic (referring to certain protestants) is missing the point. You do stuff necause its right to do, not because of the "awesomeness" or the "feel-good" factor.

The fight is thus not against tradition, but against cheap imitations thereof. Much of modern, protestant spirituality is shallow and plastic - much like the neopaganism you mentioned here (and I say that as a protestant).

Steve Hayes said...


I know what you mean. Before i was Orthodox I was Anglican, and one of the things I sometimes did as an Anglican was to put ikons in Anglican churches, but it never seemed to work. It was like tearing the seamless robe and all you have is a dishrag, not a garment. I saw the ikons in an Orthodox setting, and they made a lot of sense. But putting them in an Anglican setting didn't seem to work. Anglicans saw them just as decorations, bells and whistles. They didn't know what to do with them. There was no tradition of kissing ikons, no understanding of them as part of the church.

And that's the kind of thing Tinker was talking about in the bit I quoted.

philjohnson said...

Thanks for your post a most interesting discussion.

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