The Progressive Captivity of Orthodox Churches in America
Most Christians who are received into the Eastern Orthodox Church as adults
do so for the same reasons that others embrace the Roman Catholic Church: They
are tired of the moral relativism or the shallow theological traditions of their
former communions. These great historical Churches offer an oasis of clarity
where the first questions are settled and the foundations do not have to be laid
again in every generation. At least that’s the idea.
Alas, it is not always so. Orthodoxy and Catholicism have their share of
dissenters but this is nothing new to anyone who knows their history. Yet this
realization often comes as a surprise – even a shock -- to many Orthodox
converts. They assume that the precepts of the moral tradition will be taught in
our generation as well. Sometimes they aren’t.
Analyzing the present culture and discerning how the moral tradition speaks
to it is always a complex business because people are dynamic beings. Truth is
relational because Truth is a person – Jesus Christ. As such, any
self-revelation of Christ whether it be Him directly or through the words and
work of His followers requires much more than an outline of propositions. If it
were that easy we would all be fundamentalists.
This relational dimension however, is where it gets dicey. Christianity’s
secular counterpart – Progressive morality – has impressive fluency in the
language of human compassion in which ideas that are inimical to the Christian
moral tradition are hidden. It confuses believers and convinces secularists and
lies at the root of much internal dissent in the historic Christian
This problem exists in some quarters of the Orthodox Churches in the United
States today. Take for example Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s statement on
abortion (see: A Patriarch who ‘Generally Speaking Respects Human
Rights’). He leads the largest, by far, Orthodox jurisdiction in America,
the Greek Orthodox. Here the patriarch appeals to personal humility to avoid
restating what the Fathers of the Church make clear: Aborting a child is a grave
moral crime. Appeals to humility might be morally compelling, but in this case
it is misplaced.
Consider instead the teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church where the
sanctity of all human life is unequivocally affirmed (see: The
Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church). Or read the statementon this same problem issued in
Belgrade by the Serbian Orthodox bishops earlier this month. They spoke of “a
deep moral degradation, a great crisis of family life and lack of true faith in
God among many people, though many of our people declare themselves as faithful
Orthodox Christians at least in the elementary sense of that word.”
When human dignity ceases to be the source and focus of thought on cultural
issues the moral foundations of culture are undermined. One reason why the Church Fathers were clearon the moral
status of the unborn child (today they would be branded as “haters”) is that
they understood if the unborn child was seen as a commodity, any kind of cruelty
could be justified in the end. They fought for the elevation of human morality.
Today we fight against its devolution.
Sadly, this type of confusion often exists when American Orthodox Christians
encounter other profoundly moral questions. Recently the Acton Institute
co-sponsored a conference on povertyat St. Vladimir’s Orthodox
Theological Seminary, the flagship of Orthodox seminaries in the United States.
To its credit St. Vladimir’s, located in Yonkers, N.Y., resisted considerable
behind the scenes pressure aimed at shutting it down. From whom did the pressure
come? Orthodox Progressives.
Acton’s approach to poverty places the native creativity of the poor at the
center of any program to alleviate poverty. People have natural dynamism because
they are created in the image and likeness of God – an insight that can only be
grasped and responsibly applied if one first believes that all people have
inherent value and dignity. This moral vision is the legacy of the Christian
moral tradition comprehensively understood.
This understanding is a threat to the Progressive vision however, because it
lays bare the materialist vision of man (man is a biological machine, a better
society is achieved by manipulating the mechanisms of state) that lies at its
center. The reason for the confusion between the materialist (Progressive) and
Christian vision is that the materialist vision borrows the language of the
Christian tradition thereby making it appear that the ideas it champions are
indeed Christian and thus in accord with cultural history.
Ecumenical discourse between the churches (Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant)
that hold fast to the moral tradition will be fruitful if it stimulates internal
reflection and prompts necessary corrections in our respective communions. The
Acton-St. Vladimir’s conference reveals to the Orthodox that 1) thinking on
poverty issues is underdeveloped and 2) the objections to the conference relied
solely on ideas drawn from Progressive ideology.
This fact is not lost on Orthodox moral conservatives and traditionalists. We
call it the Progressive Captivity of the Orthodox Churches in America.
There are historical reasons why we are late to the discussion (Turkish
captivity, Communist tyranny, etc.). It led to some missteps along the way such
as joining the National Council of Churches (the NCC functions primarily as the
amen corner of the secular left) but they are being corrected.
The hour has passed however, when we can excuse participation with those who
misappropriate the Christian moral vocabulary in order to cloak ideas and
policies inimical to the Christian moral tradition. The moral confusion in the
larger culture should not become our own.
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