This discussion reminds me also of something Vigen Guroian, the Armenian Orthodox scholar, once said to me: that you cannot choose a tradition (this, in a conversation in which he expressed skepticism over my conversion to Orthodoxy). I don't think this is true, because if it was, the last Christian would have died on the Cross. Still, he has a good point: there is something phony about promoting tradition in the postmodern world. How can it be anything more than lifestyle advocacy? I see the point, and admit that our historical condition makes recovery doubtful, but I must ask in return: what else is there? Does the fact that I'm something of a phony with all this crunchy-con, neotraditional stuff obviate the criticism I and my fellow travelers make of our rootless society? Is the alternative to just throw up our hands and accept the world as it is, and offer no protest, or try to chart out a more humane alternative? I think not.
That post and the discussion which followed later developed into a conversation about the tensions between those born into a particular tradition and those who later choose to be a part of that tradition. Many of the people participating in the conversation were Orthodox Christians, and the exchange eventually focused on the differences and tensions that exist between ethnic Orthodox and convert Orthodox. Here's an extended quotation from a great response which was written by Richard Barrett, who is Antiochian Orthodox convert:
Hypothetical example: let's say you're a third-generation [fill in the blank] in this country. Maybe your grandfather was the first priest at the church you attend. In the Old Country, your family has been Orthodox as long as anybody can remember. You've never confessed and you've never observed a fast. You've no idea what any of the Ecumenical Councils decided. You probably come once or twice a month on Sunday, and maybe you slide into your pew halfway through the Gospel reading on a routine basis.
Nonetheless, your wife makes sure your boys serve at the altar and get there on time, and you are in a financial situation where you're able to give around $500k a year, at least. When there is a need you happily write a check. How seriously do you take converts, if you're this person? They have shelves full of St. Vlad's Popular Patristics series, they can prattle on and on about theology, they go to every service and usually show up a few minutes early, they fast (and ask you why you're not), but so what? They give maybe $1000 a year and already had to leave something else to become Orthodox (maybe multiple somethings else), so who's to say they won't leave Orthodoxy down the road? You may not go to every service, but you'd never think of leaving the religion of your fathers. You may not believe it all the time, but it's more than what you believe -- it's what you are, in a way it can never be for a person who is there because they picked up a book and on whom the chrism is barely dry. Do you really want to be told how to run your church, or what is Orthodox and what isn't, by those people?Richard goes on to say that he doesn't believe these folks are right, but he has accurately described the attitude of many ethnic Orthodox Christians. And while I find that attitude understandable in a whole lot of ways, I also find it very, very puzzling and very, very troubling.
It's troubling because in Holy Scripture we are instructed to be kind to the sojouner and to take special care for the alien and to practice hospitality. Watching your parish or archdiocese fill up with converts--many of whom are zealous know-it-alls--may be disconcerting and uncomfortable, but our lives are not to be normed by our natural reactions but by the commandments of the Most Holy Trinity. In fact, that's the specific message of the opening chapters of the Book of Acts when the first (Jewish) Christians had to make room for all those outlandish Gentile converts from places like Caesarea and Antioch. That was a tough transition, but the Church went on to "preach the gospel to all creation".
But the reaction of many ethnic Orthodox is also really puzzling because most of these folks know, at some level, what it's like to be immigrants. They may have been in this country for several generations now, but their families still retain that living memory of what it's like to leave everything that is familiar and travel to a place where you don't understand the language, where just about everything is new, and where very few people are welcoming. That's precisely what it's like for most people who convert to Holy Orthodoxy. And just as most immigrants understand that they will never feel entirely at home in their new land, but they make that sacrifice for the sake of their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, in the very same way, Orthodox converts give up the comforts of familiar traditions and pieties for the sake of future generations.
So even if ethnic folks have a hard time coming to grips with the mandate of Holy Scripture--and who doesn't?--they should at least be able to remember what it was like for Grandpa Sergei and Aunt Hariklia. They should at least be able to welcome all of the spiritual immigrants that arriving in their communities.