Cattle Drive, Fort Worth Stockyards, April 2010

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Essential Question: What is Truth?

While reading one of the blogs I check up on, I read a magnificent piece that describes the essential difference between the Protestant mind and the Catholic mind (we Orthodox think the same way as the Catholics here). It was written by a Roman Catholic priest, Fr. Seán Finnegan, as part of a post regarding the historical discussions between Anglicans and Roman Catholics and what has been at the root of the problem. He says, I think rightly, that it has to do with the essential definition of truth.

The most important issue that should have been examined first is the nature of truth, and how we are to arrive at it. For a Protestant, a Christian himself (or herself) reads the Bible, and, illuminated by the Holy Spirit, and helped by the witness of tradition (for some) and reason, discerns God’s truth for himself. Within this system, there has to be a fair degree of toleration of difference, because Protestants had discovered within a couple of years that two earnest Protestants are going to have two different interpretations of pretty fundamental doctrines, and if they aren’t going to end up killing each other (which some did), they are going to have to accept that there can be room for honest doubt. This, I would contend, has eventually given birth to doctrinal liberalism, though it would be a mistake to conclude from this that all Protestants are liberals, though Protestantism is particularly prone to liberalism on the one hand (for the nice people) and bigotry on the other (‘my privately held opinion is better than your privately held opinion’).
To a Catholic mind, our Lord did not come to write a book, but to found a Church through the wisdom of which, guided by the same Holy Spirit, he would continue to guide his Church into all truth. That Church would, inspired by the Holy Spirit, write a book, (the New Testament) but the Church precedes the book and therefore authoritatively interprets it (as the Bible interprets the tradition). It is the Apostles who are to be listened to as one would listen to Christ (Luke 10:16), and the Church holds that they continue to teach through tradition with scripture and through their successors.

    I think Fr. Finnegan clearly describes the foundation of the Church from the viewpoint of truth. It is also a description that we as Orthodox should "read, mark, learn and inwardly digest" as the old collect from the Second Sunday of Advent in the Book of Common Prayer used to say, because it gets to some of the great difficulties that we face as Orthodox Christians too.
    There seem to be about three different camps of Orthodox currently: (1) what we might call the "ethnic" camp [sometimes thought of as the "old guard'], (2) the middle camp [which includes converts and cradle Orthodox], and (3) the "fundamentalist" camp. There is a terrible battle occurring between the three groups that is tearing us apart. It is not a healthy place to be right now and if it is not healed, I fear that many will leave the Orthodox Church entirely. I classmate of mine in seminary wisely pointed out that, "sometimes it becomes necessary for some to leave the Church for their salvation." When there is little room for prayer, repentance and conversion of life, then one needs to find a place he can do that. If we aren't very careful, we'll see that day sooner rather than later.
    What are the battle lines? The first camp brought the Orthodox Church here from oversees. It struggled and sacrificed to plant the Church here. The vision oft times was not so clear, ranging from the vision of a real parish church to a religious social club for "our people." But this camp has always been in charge and run things. It has been generous and open to freely give the faith to those seeking it (at least in the Antiochian Archdiocese). But the Church has changed in the US now and is no longer populated by purely "ethnic" folks. About three-quarters of the clergy in our Archdiocese are converts (or "non-ethnics"). Some estimate that the number of convert laity is perhaps at least fifty percent to seventy percent. As the converts increase, as they give their money, their time, their lives to the Church, they also want to have a larger voice as well. These two groups represent the first big, and in some ways the most significant, clash going on.
   It is tremendously important because these two groups have entirely different values of propriety and rectitude. They have different senses of action as well. The great discomfort that we felt last summer largely comes from this collision of cultures. As long as both sides continue to entrench, we will have no peace and will be cast headlong into either a schism or dissolution, or both. This is the source of my great concern for the bishops' meeting that will begin in a couple of weeks. Will they strive to reinforce the "old guard" as the legitimate mind of the Church here? Will they recognize that the Holy Spirit is giving birth to a new ethnic Orthodox people that just happen to be Americans (which necessarily includes all of the groups of immigrants that have come here)? I'm not sure, but the signs are not promising.
   I have spoken to a few people who have traveled across the United States recently and visited several parishes. They have told me that the use of the "mother tongue" of the various groups is up, both liturgically and in the parish hall. Discussions have been much more stridently pro-ethnic across the board. My intuition is that this comes from some folks feeling very uneasy and threatened. Power is slipping away... and it must do so.
   The third wheel in this group is what has been characterized by the fundamentalist camp. This group has caused a lot of difficulties in our parishes across the board. There is always a tendency to legalism, but there is something else here that is at the heart of the problem I think. Fundamentalism has two sources. The first source is that many people who come into Orthodoxy have not left the Protestant notion of truth behind. They believe that they can define it themselves through a larger group of writings. Monastics become almost modern Apostles. I have had to work with some folks like this before and they are almost impossible to help. They insist that only a really pure monk can give them advise and counsel. They judge everything themselves, rather than accepting life from the Church. The Protestant mind cannot be brought into the Church if one is to be healthy.
   There is another source of fundamentalism though, and it is subtler. Many converts find it distressing to be asked, "What made you become a Greek (or Arab, or Russian, name your flavor)?" They didn't realize they were doing any such thing. After a while of having their own heritage pushed to the side, one of the choices for them is to reject a purely modern ethnicity in favor of one defined by an odd sort of fundamentalism. I don't think it works very well, because one ends up having to be some sort of fundamentalist--Greek or Russian or whatever. Either way, one loses himself.
   At the heart of the matter is the question of truth, which is why I think Fr. Finnegan's entry is so important. We must recognize that the Church comes before any of these groups. The Church itself is absolutely universal and that no ethnic group can lord it over the others. If any one group is to have the upper hand, in the long run it must be the local group, whatever that is. Otherwise the Church is nothing but a romantic enclave of what we knew "back there". (To the fundamentalist it would be a romantic enclave of what the Church is like "on Mount Athos" or 19th century Russia, or whatever their foundation is.)
   We are at a critical moment. We must pray that the Holy Spirit guides our fathers, the bishops, that they will be inspired and moved according to his will and not theirs. We must hope that the Church embraces the Universal reality with which she was created and not move to a backwards entrenchment--as comfortable as that might be to some.
   I don't know what the future will be for us. I can't even honestly say what the future will be for ME. Our salvation is all that matters. Our growth in Christ and in his Church are essential, nothing else is.

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