Thursday, May 22, 2008

America Coming to Orthodoxy

I got an e-mail today from a colleague in the world of Orthodox Christian publishing who commented that "America is not coming to Orthodoxy." It was at once a statement of realism and apparent resignation. However, I do not think his observation is correct. If by "America coming to Orthodoxy" we mean a massive conversion on a popular level--revivalist fervor, tent meetings with icons, incense and golden chalices, along with the accompanying recognition in the secular media--then certainly America is not coming to Orthodoxy. And I say thank God. I don't think the American Orthodox Church (and here I mean North American) has the administrative strength to handle a tsunami.
However, if one allows that coming to Orthodoxy begins by becoming aware that it exists and is a real option for Christians in North America, then I say America is coming to Orthodoxy. When I began teaching at a major Methodist seminary about twenty years ago, the M.Div. program required two semesters of Church history: New Testament to Reformation, and Reformation to present. In none of the one-year course of lectures was there any but the slightest reference to the Eastern Orthodox. Church history was a direct line from Paul to Augustine to Aquinas to Calvin/Luther to Wesley to whatever flavor of contemporary Christianity one preferred. Theology followed the same path. When I left this seminary five years ago, one full lecture in the history cycle was devoted to Eastern Orthodoxy, not a tsunami, but certainly an introduction that had never existed before. Similarly in theology, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Palamas had been "discovered." In New Testament, (albeit without the discernment of the Church) the importance of all first and second century Christian authors had been discovered.
When I came to Trinity Western (the largest Evangelical university in Canada), I was pleasantly surprised to find many faculty members openly discussing the role of tradition (of course it sounds better and probably draws less criticism from reactionaries if you use the Greek: paradosis). Theology faculty occasionally asked to discuss with me some of the more difficult aspects of Zizioulas (Being as Communion) or Yannaras (The Freedom of Morality). I would hear professors mention Schmemann and Tillich in the same sentence. Bishop Kalistos Ware's The Orthodox Church and The Orthodoxy Way were required texts in some courses (and often available in the general reading section).
It seems to me that America is coming to Orthodoxy. But like everything Orthodox, it takes a real long time.

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