Pokrov Note: This editorial appeared in the Fall 1992/Winter 1993 issue of “The Orthodox West.” At the time, “The Orthodox West” was a quarterly publication of the Diocese of the West of the Orthodox Church in America. James Paffhausen, now Archimandrite Jonah, was the editor of the publication.
We live in a time when Orthodoxy is being looked at throughout the American religious scene by many groups as the bastion of integrity of the Christian Tradition. Its wholeness and unbrokenness is attractive to many as a place of refuge from the storm which is battering and destroying much of mainline American Christianity. Even Time magazine recently proclaimed it “new, reformation sweeping Christianity.” The non-Orthodox churches are going through a radical rethinking of their doctrine, structure and worship, which is for the most part taking them farther and farther away from any connection with the Apostolic Tradition. The Orthodox Church in this country must take this seriously. It presents us with challenges and opportunities which we have to take advantage of to spread the Gospel. We must consider our philosophy–not simply policies—of mission.
There are tremendous challenges presented by our culture as well. Our society seems to be plunging down a precipice into violence and dehumanization, moral and spiritual bankruptcy. American culture and its wealth have been more successful in instilling gross materialism and utterly selfish individualism than the Communists ever could have hoped for. One cannot help but draw the very obvious connections between the individualism and materialism, on the one hand, and the moral/spiritual bankruptcy of American, and Western, culture. When the Self and its gratification becomes the sole criterion of all decisions, moral or economic, then other people are simply reduced to either means or obstacles to the satisfaction of those desires. What results is dehumanization. And those who feel dehumanized are going to rebel, hence the violence that permeates our society. Our lives become an endless chase of elusive desires to gratify our egos, make more money, gain a higher position. Materialism, consumerism, the downward spiral of ego gratification all cloud, darken, and eventually eliminate our perception of things spiritual. When the world–and this is precisely how the Gospel defines the “world”–and the things of the world become our sole goal and pursuit, there is only despair, for it all ends in the grave. There is no love in this, only lust; no hope, just avarice; no faith, only egotism and self-confidence. It is here that we, as Christians, as the Church, are presented with the greatest challenge.
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but of the world.”(1Jn 2:15f.)
The Gospel stands in judgement of culture, in every time and place. So also the Church, if it is true to the Gospel, must be a judgement on whatever culture in which it finds itself by its very existence. The entire life of the Church as Church, and of each of its members as Christians, has to be a witness to the Gospel of Christ, and the very presence of Christ and the Kingdom of God in the midst of the world. We bear witness to these by our faith, our hope and our love; and by living by values and in a way very different from this world which denies any meaning to faith and the sacrifices we are called to make.
“Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. For what advantage is it to a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” (Luke 9:23f)
The task facing us as the Church is to incarnate the self-denying, self-sacrificing love of Christ for one another and for the whole world. We must have real faith: not the abstract, intransitive “faith” that you hear from those who preach the power of positive thinking. Rather, we must have the authentic, Apostolic faith IN Christ, IN the Holy Trinity, IN the Church. It is not simply a “belief” in these doctrines, though this is where we must start; and it is not “my personal” beliefs–which are as valid as anyone else’s. Rather, Orthodox Faith is a common mind and vision, given to us by the Spirit, a unity of mind and heart with all the saints in the bond of peace. Finally, we must have hope; not the hope of success in this world, or of gain; rather our hope must be in Jesus Christ, Who is our salvation and our resurrection from the dead, and Who is coming again. This is our mission as the Orthodox Church in America. The Church’s judgement on the world, on our culture, consists in how we love one another, and how we grow in our loving obedience to Christ and His commandments.
Our mission is not simply to build ecclesiastical organizations, whether parishes, deaneries, the diocese or national church. These will be built and strengthened if indeed we are successful in our real mission: to preach the Gospel of Christ in all its fulness. The heart of this Gospel is repentance.
Our mission is to enable people to be confronted by the Gospel, and to give them the context to repent, so that their lives will be changed. Our churches and our communities must be places where people can change their lives. The only way they will be confronted by the Gospel in our churches is if we live it, if we love one another, and if we deny ourselves for the love of Christ and of one another. It is not simply those “outside” who are called to repentance and to change their lives. It is us. It is a never ending task. We will never inspire people with the hope that there is more to life than money and possessions and lust if we do not live that way ourselves. And we will never inspire people to change their lives unless we believe that lives can be changed, that repentance is real, and that authentic transformation can take place.
This world believes in revenge, in harboring and rembering wrongs. We, Christians, believe in forgiveness. The world does not believe that a person can change, that they fall into a way of life and that simply is the way, who, they are. The Church believes that with repentance, a person can completely change his life, and that with forgiveness, al his sins are wiped away. He is truly born again in Christ, and has become a new person.
“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:3)
We must be in the midst of the world, but not OF this world. This is hard, because it judges us, and confronts us with our own spiritual poverty and worldliness. And sometimes we like worldliness. It is very attractive, comfortable, politically correct, and easy. It is, after all, what everyone expects, and what we all grow up wanting. So, we run after all sorts of distractions from the task presented to us. These may not even seem to be worldly distractions; they may even be “religious.”
Many might wish to simply retreat to comfortable, safe refuges in a variety of havens remote from the challenges this rapidly changing culture presents to our Orthodox mission in America. These may be romantic visions of lost empires, or a reductionism, externalism or legalism in doctrine, canons or liturgy, an Orthodox “fundamentalism”- -however that is to be defined. It may take the form of a defeatist withdrawl into cynical non-involvement. We may take refuge in a wholehearted embracing of a worldly cause, with its values and agendas, religiously edited and politically correct. This latter especially gives an appearance of making the Church confront the challenges of our culture, but ends up as a betrayal of the Gospel. Or we may adopt a “holier than thou” (or “more Orthodox than thou”) attitude, consigning everyone else to hell, never bothering realize that we, and those we have dragged along with us are already children of hell ourselves–and need to repent.
Yet another temptation is to become preoccupied with changing the life of the Church to fit the culture: the order of services, the rubrics, the music, the style of iconography or whatever. While all these are important, they can distract us from the “one thing needful.” We are not called to conform the Church to the culture and its trends, to make the Gospel more “relevant.” We do not conform the tradition to ourselves. This is where the non-Orthodox bodies have gone astray. Rather, we are called to conform our lives to the Gospel, to surrender to the Tradition, not simply in externals, but to fully enter into that living consciousness and ascetic battle which is at the heart of the Gospel.
Our programs and our feverish activity–all “for the Church” and hence, “spiritual”–may present an image of dedication and commitment. But do they lead us to love one another? Do they inspire us to deny ourselves for the sake of the other, for the sake of Christ? Do they draw people to us who see something utterly different about our lives? Are we becoming transparent to Christ? Is our liturgical life an experience of the Kingdom of God? Are people embraced in love when they walk into our communities and enraptured by the love of God in our churches? Are they moved to repentance and to change their lives by seeing how God has changed our lives?
We can debate endlessly over the organization of the OCA, missions policies and rubrics. That all has its place. But it is all in vain unless our real missionary policy is to preach repentance and the Kingdom of God, to bear witness to our hope in the resurrection and our faith in Jesus Christ, and to incarnate that faith and hope in the loving embrace of all who seek Him and wish to change their lives.
The Editor can be reached at the following address between Feb. and July:
Russky Palomnik Orthodox Mission
UI, Pogodinskaya, Dom 18, Kv.12