Thanksgiving Evening – 2007 – America and Christianity

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My Thanksgiving over the past few years has mostly served as one of the few occasions for the gathering of extended family. Somethings are measured in these meetings – the passing of time – I am older; my parents are older – and now the children are increasingly the adults. I am beginning to assume my role as an elder (though not quite “elderly”). I’m sure many places across the world have their own holiday gatherings or other occasions that serve a similar existential role. Less of us were here this year. My father-in-law’s passing two years ago was a huge milestone in the life of our family. He was a great man of faith. His presence remains strong among us. But children are less and less students now, and with jobs and family come less mobility, and greater difficulty to join the clan as it assembles. Always a time of reflection for me.

To give thanks is not hard for me. I have very much to be thankful for. A family beyond anything my life would have deserved and a joy in gathering together. Often, the gathering of family means the increase of anxieties during the holiday. It is quite the other for me. It is one of my greatest joys.

But to the topic at hand and a reflection on this night of the holiday.

America is an unusual country among the nations of the world (I’m sure many of you could offer many observations on how that statement would be true). But most unusual about it was that its founding was the first to occur in human history in which an “idea” was the occasion for the founding. This idea, or the set of ideas that became “the idea,” are enshrined in such things as Declarations and Constitutions. The Declaration of Independence was as much a philosophical statement of some important ideas that had the ascendency in the late 18th century as it was political proclamation. The notion of individual rights, and the ability for individuals to pursue “life, liberty, and happiness,” were abstractions. These abstractions became the basis for a state with a government and an army. But they also became the basis for a culture in which abstractions would also hold a very high place. In political years (which seem to occur annually now) such abstractions become raised to very high levels indeed.

It is possible, in such a culture, to begin to think that this is normal or the way things are everywhere. They are not. Ultimately, to be an American, in this place, means to have accepted the ideas, or at least to live under the ideas as a way of life.

In many if not most places across the globe, to live and to exist is somewhat more organic. To be an Englishman, though it is rich with meaning and even obligations, is also to live in a somewhat organic way. There is no (written) constitution, no single document that enshrines the ideals that make one an “Englishman.” You could establish, I suppose, an “English” form of government, but it would not be an English government. The organic elements are just that – organic – and they are not easily uprooted and placed somewhere else – though many of us would gratefully acknowledge that many English ideas have given rise to much that is good in this land of America. I sometimes think the Constitution would not have worked here had we not already had such a rich inheritance from across the “Pond.”

To broaden this reflection a bit, it is also possible or even likely, for Christians living in this culture, to be greatly affected by the culture itself. It is likely that Christians in this culture may see themselves, as Christians, as Church, living under a set of ideas which make them uniquely Christian. Thus to have a Church with the 39 Articles, or the Westminster Confession, or any number of such documents seems quite normal in this culture.

It is also common for Churches, especially parishes, to resort to statements of purpose, or self-definitions of many sorts – seeking to give voice to the “idea” which unites them.

Here is where Orthodox Christianity stands in a uniquely different position, one, I might add, that makes it quite difficult for us to answer questions that call for a comparison between ourselves and other Christians around us. Orthodox Christianity, despite its involvement in the 7 Ecumenical Councils of the Early Church – does not define itself by the “ideas” of those councils. The Church is an organic (if I may use the term) matter. It has a life which is better described by Tradition (how else do you describe something that has lived for 2000 years and continues the same life and not simply a contemporary incarnation under the same name?). To be Orthodox is not unnatural, but it does force someone to think in terms that are not normally American.

An American is scandalized at the Greek who sees his own self definition as both Greek and Orthodox, and may seek to find a heresy lurking somewhere in such a self-definition, while the Greek is simply describing a life in which his identity by family, language, etc., are as organic as is his religion. These realities have lived so symbiotically for so long that they have a way of becoming enmeshed in one another. And this cannot be entirely wrong. For a Greek is not Greek as an American is an American. Nor is he a likely to be a Christian in a manner similar to other Americans (I could have used any number of Orthodox ethnicities for this example).

I give thanks this day as an American, but mostly as a human being who has a Creator to whom all honor is due, and from Whom all blessings proceed. And this would be true were I living in any other land in the world. It is not the unique inheritance of a set of ideas my ancestors came to live under some 250 years ago.

There need be no apology from the Orthodox that their religion seems to have come to them as a gift and a given rather than as an idea to which they now give loyalty. It expects us to believe certain things, and to live in a certain manner, but this “organic” life of faith will largely remain the same wherever it goes. It may enjoy freedom and bless God for its opportunities, but it may also endure persecution and give thanks to God that we survive. But the life will not change in either case. Or it should not change.

It is why, in reflecting on our conversations here on this Weblog, that really good arguments (one idea versus another rarely happen). An organic life (including the beliefs that are integral to it) cannot be reduced to ideas whether religious or merely political. To live as an Orthodox Christian is, among other things, to live an authentically human life – that is to become more human than I would have been had I not been Orthodox. This becomes possible because a life lived in conformity with the life of Christ is a life in conformity with the only authentic human life. All others are abstractions or deviations. Christ alone was fully man.

I have more to say than I can work with tonight. I sit in a parking lot outside a restaurant, which has kindly left its wi-fi on. Such are the depths a blogger may sink to in order to write. I hope (if you were in America) you enjoyed the holiday, and that the rest of you will be patient with us here as we pause to feast, and to give thanks to God for so much for which we have been such poor stewards.

If there are thoughts on the organic character of Orthodoxy, the fact that it is lived in Tradition, I would welcome them as comments and an aid to this traveling writer.

May we remember to give thanks for all things, especially these many things which were given to us, the gifts of a kind God and the generations of faithful Christians who loved God enough to be faithful to His commandments. Glory to God.

16 Responses to “Thanksgiving Evening – 2007 – America and Christianity”

  1. Pachetul de atenţie + Stropi de emoţie [ 23 noiembrie 2007] « Teologie pentru azi Says:

    […] America şi Ortodoxia noastră…cu părintele Stephen Freeman. Un articol al eleganţei şi al atenţiei, ca de fiecare […]

  2. Reader John Says:

    Thank you for this blog and your podcasts. I’m becoming quite a fan. There’s some irony, however, in why I enjoy your approach and enjoyed this posting in particular.

    After almost 5 decades steeped deeply in the Evangelical and Reformed tradition(s?), I became Orthodox ten years (plus a few days, if measured by my Chrismation) ago. I took my tonsure as Reader into my place at the Cliros and am frustrated some times that there’s so little time, between singing and my “day job,” to figure out how to articulate to the bemused observers around me the treasure I have experienced. “Come and see” is always good, but it’s not an articulation, and it’s hard to get people to come enough times to get over the shock so many experience initially.

    Hence the irony: I like this posting (and your work in general) because it can help me articulate to ideologues (as I was and still tend to be) what it means to live the faith organically.

    Enough of oxymoronic musings. As I write this reply, a related and more urgent ramification occurs to me.

    I’m also my parish’s Building Committee chairman as we plan a new temple. Almost all the resources I’ve found on Church building projects are American and Protestant. They tacitly assume an ideological, non-organic mode of Church life. So they urge, before a Church gets as far as schematic drawings (preliminary to a capital campaign), that there be “self-assessment” and clarification of the Church’s “unique” “mission statement.” One large design-build firm focuses on Churches and would help us work through a “Transforming Church Index.”

    My reaction is “been there, done that” as a lay leader under my “former delusion.” But the question still nags me of whether due diligence before undertaking a 7-figure building project requires that we (sigh) go through something like that and, if so, how (sigh) does an Orthodox parish undertake such a thing considering that the faith IS “organic” and that, as you say, “this ‘organic’ life of faith will largely remain the same wherever it goes.” In other words, is a “unique mission statement” a mutant appendage to a typical Orthodox parish?

  3. Margaret Says:

    Dear Reader John,

    In my former Episcopalian life, I went through a similar experience on the parish vestry. I have always had very little patience with “mission statements” and the like – I have difficulties with at work with team building exercises, they seem so artificial. I am very thankful to Father Stephen for articulating why these processes make me so uneasy.

    I am reminded of a story Frederica tells of an Orthodox parish that was asked to submit a “faith statement” to a local radio station as a condition of their broadcasting. They thought about it (probably prayed) and then submitted the Nicene Creed. The response of the radio guys was that it seemed “quite orthodox.”

    Perhaps we should go and do likewise.

    Mark (Margaret’s husband)

  4. Ezekiel Says:

    Reader John,

    I think you will find this link interesting (if you haven’t seen it all ready): http://www.theophany.org/ourChurch_newTemple.htm. It is the story of a community in Colorado Springs that went through a building program.

    Check it out!

    Blessed Fast!

    Ezekiel

  5. fatherstephen Says:

    Reader John,

    I know what you mean indeed. We’re also approaching the time of architects. There are obvious questions to be asked. How large a temple do you want to build? I would say that Churches should not think about how big an Orthodox Church can we build, as much as how many Churches need to be started in the area in which we live. We need more parishes far more than bigger parishes… I could and will write an article on why I think that is so.

    Second you need to think about the several things the Church will be used for. How much and what kind of space do we need for fellowship, education, offices, storage, etc.

    But we all essetially have the same mission statement and purpose. To make disciples of all nations. To offer God the worship and thanks that is due Him. And such like. We must teach our children and train catechumens and the whole of our church. But, it’s probably best to have an architect who has a clue about ORthodox Churches and their needs.

    Hexaemeron.org has some excellent resources and recommendations.

    Also, look around the web at the pictures of Orthodox Churches that you like and find out what they did. No sense in constantly reinventing the wheel. That’s more or less the process we’re using.

    There is a need in the process to gather the whole Church a few times, or various segments among them, to ask questions and get input. For our current building, which is a renovated structure, the parish meeting we held on the subject virtually gave us every idea that was employed in the renovation of this building (which we gutted to start with). I have not regretted that input in the least.

    Paul Evdokimov, in his book on Icons and Beauty has an excellent chapter on the Church building as icon.

  6. Richard Collins Says:

    Reader John,

    I recently went on a theology course in Cambridge, England, on Iconography and Sacred art/spaces. The lecturer was an Orthodox iconographer called Aidan Hart (google him to get his website). He has done icons/frescos/carvings etc… and is the UK’s foremost iconographer (has done commissions for the Royal Family and Mount athos etc..). Whilst on the course he mentioned that his dream was to ‘design’ Orthodox temples. He’s not an architect proper, but has a deep understanding of how a ‘sacred space’ should be constructed and decorated.

    I don’t know if he is able to do email consultant work but if I were leading a building project for our parish I would, perhaps, want to enlist the skills of someone like him – even if only in an advisory capacity, since I don’t know of many architects who also have an eye for sacred space (at least here in the UK – you’re probably drowning in them over there!).

  7. D Burns Says:

    Reader John,

    If I may add to the discussion. My parish in Houston, TX built a beautiful bezintine style temple only a few years ago, though not without some problems. You may wish to talk to our priest regarding questions you need to think about. I understand he gave an execelnt talk about building a church at the parish life confrence a couple of years ago. His contact info and pictures of the church can be found at

    http://www.saintjosephorthodox.org/

    Fr. Steven,

    Thank you for your blog. I try to read it daily. I aways find wonderful and beautyful ideas and thoughts to ponder and it’s a great way to start my day. I hope you and yours had a wonderfull Thanksgiving.

  8. Mary Lowell Says:

    Father, Bless!

    I wholeheartedly concur, Father, we need to build many churches in every city and totally discard the notion of “largeness.” When in Russia, I saw a temple on every four-block area. Affiliation with a particular parish was a matter of proximity, not doctrinal slant, recreation opportunities and children’s church programs, as it is with the myriad of Protestant options in every U.S. city. The Church is One (organically) and unity among priests and congregational jurisdictions within our cities is the best witness and mission statement we can offer to our communities, as in the con-celebration of Patronal Feasts and Sunday of Orthodoxy. We should necessarily fill the streets on such days. In Novgorod, the faithful process between temples in adjoining blocks, carrying the Cross and icons to celebrate patronal feasts when their day comes. If mega-churches in American cities can get traffic control assistance on Sunday mornings, why not the Orthodox on the Sunday of Orthodoxy? I know, I’m dreaming!

    But to the point, your point, we must concentrate on building many temples, but each arrestingly beautiful, temples which appropriately articulate the True Faith in wood and stone and icons. In our city of 0.75 million, we have two poorly constructed temples that no one could identify from a Missionary Baptist or a large laundry mat. Care was only taken to put a roof over our heads and get out of the hotel banquet space. Now these small structures can hardly take any more growth.

    To reiterate, build it to proclaim Heaven on Earth. Take care to make it a mission statement of God’s Glory and suitable to proclaim the Beauty of His House. Chose appropriate materials with the mindset that our Orthodox ancestors had – that it would stand 1000 years or more. Build it to stand within Orthodox time (eternity) not for a thirty year stint in prefab steel and sheetrock.

    Thanks, Fr. Stephen, for the invitation to visit http://hexaemeron.org/. For an articulation of Orthodox approach to church building and the meaning of Orthodox architecture, see articles in our 2007 spring/summer news letter. We would be glad to talk with anyone looking for guidance on church building.

    We do indeed have resources that can help church building communities in the way of gifted architects, photos of their beautifully executed temples, examples of classic designs and access to master iconographers who transform the bare walls into an embassy of Heaven on Earth. You will not find these listed or displayed at the Web site because we are not in the construction business. Our goal is to see beautiful churches built, not collect a finder’s fee. But we will be glad to forward photos and contact information if you write icon@hexaemeron.org.

  9. Mary Lowell Says:

    John,

    Aidan Hart is a friend of Hexaemeron and one of his articles is published in our newsletter. Also an excellent article by architect Andrew Gould.

  10. The Scylding Says:

    Church Architecture is an interesting topic. The architecture is a necessary consequence, insofar as funds will allow, of the core beliefs of that community. This can be seen in the great churches of the East, and the gothic churches of the west. Related to your newer post, the occurrence of the arena like churches of the modern megachurch shows core beliefs that’s entertainment and comfort centred. The focus has become the stage – ie entertainment, not the pulpit (like in old time Calvinism), the altar (Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican) or the Iconostasis. This ssems like an entertainment variety of the ancient Cretans, whose god was their belly, as Paul wrote to Timothy.

  11. Reader John Says:

    I have seen the resources mentioned by Ezekiel, Richard and Mary, but I viewed them earlier on in the process. Perhaps it’s time to revisit them all.

  12. AR Says:

    Re: the organic life of Orthodoxy…

    I’ve been recently struck by the fact that so much Orthodoxy knows has come down to it by way of what I must describe as a “cultural memory.”

    This is really incredible to me. It must be a large reason why massive, complex arguments are not constructed on why Orthodoxy is the true Church…Orthodoxy “remembers” the overtures of Martin Luther, it “remembers” the fall of Constantinople, it “remembers” the inconoclastic controversy and the last council that submitted to the will of the whole church. Also it “remembers” that young upstart, Rome, waving its defunct imperial stick around trying to impose the filioque on vast communities of thriving apostolic churches whose carefully numbered generations, each lovingly absorbing the former, had recited an intact Nicean creed unaltered for 600 years.

    The Orthodox Church is truly a living entity and, naturally enough, she remembers her own long, fruitful life. She knows her own name. Not all that difficult, really.

  13. handmaidmaryleah Says:

    Yes, here in Colorado Springs, we love our new Temple, Holy Theophany is a pleasure to worship in, glory be to God for all things!
    Thanks Father for the article I look forward to the next one and good luck on the new temple Reader John…

  14. Josephina Says:

    The architectural firm used by Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Indianapolis, IN specialized in Orthodox design, I believe. Photos of the dome that is in progress can be seen at http://www.holytrinityindy.com .

  15. Damaris Says:

    AR —

    Brilliant and profound. Your expression of “remembering” does more to diffuse the criticism of “stagnant” tradition than anything else I’ve read. How can living memories of a living entity — the Bride of Christ — be stagnant?

    Thank you.

  16. Mary Lowell Says:

    Also see Holy Ascension in Charleston, SC. Architecture design and oversight by Andrew Gould. Dome raising is a short video clip. Church is built of solid masonry and finished out with lime plaster interior walls for painting directly on to the surface.

    http://www.ocacharleston.org/building.html

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