March 18, 2009

Conversion as Immigration

As we are getting ready for Rod Dreher, I remembered something that I read on his blog several weeks ago; it's a post about whether or not it is possible to 'adopt' a tradition. Here's a portion of Rod's thoughts on the subject:

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.

fr. aidan


Heather said...

Interesting blog...

I've been interested in Orthodoxy for quite some time, but your post articulates one of my biggest hang ups....exclusiveness. As much as I yearn for the Authentic Church, I feel too much of an outsider, being of Protestant background. Maybe my evangelism girdle gets in the way; how can one convert others when the others are not always welcome?

K said...

This issue is definitely a good one to think about. Thanks for bringing it up, Father.

My husband and I were both received into the Church at St. John the Forerunner, the parishoners of which are mostly converts. As we moved around the state for his education, we belonged to two "ethnic" parishes. These communities welcomed us and accepted us, and usually at least one person in the parish would try to say hi to any visitors. Nevertheless, neither of these parishes seemed particularly interested in evangelism, or in sharing their faith with friends or neighbors, or offering education in the Faith to inquirers. To many of the people we worshipped with, Orthodoxy was simply part of being slavic or hellenic, and people sometimes seemed to have a hard time understanding why any "outsider" would want to join at all. (I still chuckle a little inside when I remember the time a woman asked me, "Have you always been Serbian?")

That said, it is understandable that any immigrant would gravitate towards other immigrants from his home country, with whom he shares customs and language. It can be a great remedy to culture-shock to find someone more familiar to pass time with. So, it is not very surprising that in a country where virtually nobody had ever heard of Orthodoxy, these immigrant groups would come to view their religion as something cultural rather than something Christian, as something to cling to rather than something to share.

Unfortunately, that tendency is the opposite of what the first Orthodox Christians in America had in mind. Russian missionaries were the first to bring the Orthodox faith onto our continent, with the intent of sharing it with others, of passing on the teachings the Church works so diligently to preserve.

Another problem in "ethnic" parishes is the issue of language. As I said above, it is incredibly comforting to find others who speak and understand your native language when you find yourself in foreign territory. But the mother tongue that comforts some becomes a barrier for others. The children and grandchildren of immigrant parents are usually more comfortable and knowledgeable in the language of their homeland. For them and for visitors who aren't at all familiar with Greek or Russian or Arabic, a service perfomed in one of those languages are not easliy understood("It's all Greek to me!"). If no catechism or instrucion is offered, it is easy to see how third- and fourth- generation immigrants do not gain an understanding of what Orthodoxy is really all about. The Holy Faith becomes a part of one's heritage, not a part of one's heart.

That's not to say that the hypothetical late-coming checkwriter isn't doing something right...just that he doesn't quite understand what a great treasure his parents and grandparents have given him. This is frustrating for us "zealous" converts to watch, because, having tramped about in the deserts of emptier (though usually well-meaning) religious communities, we know that Holy Orthodoxy contains the fullness of the Christian faith, and teaches a deeper and more tangible relationship with the Most Holy Trinity than is available anywhere else.

As Father Aidan mentioned, this Tradition is universal, relevant to people from every culture and background. It's a shame when the majiscule "T" becomes miniscule, when Orthodoxy becomes just a part of an ethnic identity, like a big nose or a traditional recipe. I wish every Orthodox community cared as much as St. John's about sharing the Truth with outsiders.

Misty said...

Before coming to St. John the Forerunner I had never been to Vespers or Liturgy in English. Despite the fact that I understood virtually nothing that was going on for quite sometime, I found all of the people in these parishes I attended to be very open and welcoming. Having said that, there was not a lot of interest in teaching the why of what we believe or in sharing the inner life of the Orthodox with me as the 'outsider'. I occasionally wondered if they thought I was treating them as entertainment or a tourist type attraction rather than actually being interested in prayer and worship.
St. John's is a wonder in the respect of having a true heart for sharing the faith with all inquirers and truly welcoming all who cross the threshold.

father aidan said...
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father aidan said...

Thanks for your comment, Heather. As I noted in the post (and as K and Misty observed), many Orthodox communities just aren't particularly welcoming; it's one of our besetting sins. However, I can testify that whatever time and trouble, heartache and hassle is required to enter the Church, it is worth it--a thousand times over. There is,to be sure, a sense of going into exile from contemporary American Christianity; there is that call to leave home and kindred to go to a far country. But even though those dynamics can be kinda frightening, they are all deeply biblical.
If there's anything I can do to help, please don't hesitate to let me know
Father Aidan

Carol said...


I hope you are others are still reading. I can testify to the welcoming nature of the people at St. John's. The statement in Misty's last paragraph is not an exaggeration.

I have been involved with St. John's in one way or another for about 6 years. To cut a long story short, I became a catechumen after a few years of apprehensive questioning. My catechumate lasted about 2 1/2 years. Then I voluntarily left and joined another Christian denomination where I was a member for 19 months. I finally returned to St. John's and was chrismated in November 2008.

During this entire time, Fr. Aidan and the members of St. John were consistently open, caring and patient with my sometimes ornery questions about the faith. Even after I left the catechumate, while I was a member of another church, I attended several events at St. John's such as book studies. People greeted me with genuine warmth and continued to patiently answer my questions, all without any pushy or pressured evangelism.

When my cancer worsened in the spring of 2008 and I became unable to work, people from St. John's drove 30 miles into Austin to visit me. I was receiving almost as much attention and kindness from St. John's as I was from the church where I was a member.

Obviously there's much more to the story than this but to tell it all would be too long for a blog post. I hope we can meet someday and have a long discussion in person. If you are interested in Orthodoxy, please visit St. John's as soon as possible, if you have not already done so.


Carol said...


Thus sings Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof" in answer to the question "And how do we keep our balance?"

Christian Orthodoxy provides tradition well. Yet, when I first decided to join, I felt like I might be abandoning my own tradition to join one that didn't belong to me.

My family (at least my father's side) had been Presbyterian as far back as the family history can be traced. And not just the type that go to church on Christmas and Easter. No, the Ramsays were dedicated to the church. Each generation usually produced at least one preacher or preacher's wife and the lay Ramsays were always leaders in their local churches (usually in small towns). I grew up just one block from our Presbyterian Church and it was like a second home. Bible stories and prayer were a part of daily life at home as well.

Although my generation did not beget a clergyman, my siblings and cousins all remain committed Presbyterians to this day. I'm not sure how I got to be the family oddball.

But I kicked the family tradition long before I became Orthodox. Shortly out of college in 1971, I decided I was an agnostic, religion was meaningless, God was either dead or moribund, prayer was futile, and worship was just an empty ritual. I proceeded to live accordingly for the next 30 years.

It took a severe family illness and then my own life-threatening disease to spark that dormant desire for tradition. Like Tevye, I felt the need for some "balance." My agnosticism no longer provided equilibrium as my life collapsed around me.

I've struggled with this thought but, now that I'm in the Church, it is becoming a little more clear. I am not abandoning a tradition; I am enhancing it. In fact, I now value my Presbyterian upbringing more than ever. Two Presbyterian hymnals, beat-up volumes dating from my youth and my Dad's youth sit on my piano. Last week, I read with delight my brother's latest sermon (he's a lay preacher who sometimes substitutes in his Presbyterian Church) Next to my icons rests a photo of my mother trying to teach me to pray at about age 2. It was the tradition that my parents "handed down" to me that ultimately led me to where I am now.

I haven't abandoned my tradition. I'm just trying to tap its deeper source. Perhaps, without the recent sufferings in my life, I would not have reached this point.

At any rate, I'm still a "newbie" in this faith, struggling to find that balance that Tevye valued, still wrestling with certain issues and seeking to find the deep well of "living water" (that my patron saint, Photini, yearned for). After 30 years of cyncial surface living, I still have a long way to go.


Heather said...

Thank you for your kind responses. I will actually be visiting your parish this weekend to listen to Rod Dreher.

While I can't speak for Orthodoxy's welcoming environment as a whole, if your parish is anything like the few folks I've met who attend there, I'm sure I won't be disappointed.

DStall said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DStall said...

[Revised Comment]
I think the cultural problem in Orthodoxy comes from 'facing west' instead of 'facing east', traditional Church orientation. In Alaska is found American Orthodoxy that faces east, introduced from the west. See The Alaskan Orthodox Mission and Cosmic Christianity
and Listen to the Other Guy's Story
But in the eastern US is found 'expatriate' Orthodoxy which has spread to the lower 48, and which came from the east 'facing west', looking for the proverbial Realms of Gold.

True American Orthodoxy is 'fearless' in the biblical sense, and consists of 'Christianized' American 'pagan' spirituality where such spirituality has points of commonality with Christianity. On the other hand, expatriate Orthodoxy is 'traditionalist' rather than 'traditional', clinging fearfully out of insecurity to a 'culture' which is of another place, and thereby 'dead', not living. Such clinging is ludicrous, because all human culture springs from and is rooted in the earth, not in externals of language, dress, cuisine, 'religion', etc.

What creates this delusion is that modern 'culture' is anti-cultural "consumerism'', which sees 'happiness-seeking' as the meaning and purpose of life, not as 'spiritual sickness'. Blind to real meaning and purpose of life as spiritual journey toward communion with God, modernity indulges 'happiness seeking sickness' as 'cultural', as a way of human living, and in doing so brainwashes humanity into living 'above' the earth like a spaceman in a spacesuit, as if humanity exists in a vacuum and is capable of 'creating' its life support system from the 'universe' apart from God and interconnection with Creation (cosmos) by way of 'technology', whether from the earth or (should the earth be exhausted) from some lifeless rock of a planet. (See Quatsi Trilogy by Godfrey Reggio).

In modernity, any 'culture' can be transported 'internationally' wherever one wants to 'live', because culture is an aesthetic 'thing' for modernity, not a way of life. By remaining ignorant and blind to cosmos (the interconnectedness of God, humanity and all Creation), modernism encourages definition of 'culture' quantitatively instead of qualitatively, superficially as some 'thing' sentimental and nostalgic instead of as real, living way of human being, wherein humanity shapes the earth as the earth shapes humanity. That 'shaping' ('earning' bread from sweat of brow by tilling an earth that no longer cooperates with humanity, yielding up thorns and thistles) is different in different places due to the earth being diverse in the unity of its 'habitats'.

Authentic Christian cultural tradition is one where dogma and ritual are not only "Orthodox" but where these are integral to human way of life and the whole of living Creation, itself an icon of God in which something of Him can be seen in All that He has made. Where such integrity exists, 'sense' can be made of human life, and human way of life shaped spiritually, just as the earth physically shapes human language, dress, cuisine, etc.

DStall said...

Instead of connecting to Orthodoxy by way of 'expatriate' culture which is foreign to Western Europeans, Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans, connection to Orthodox Christian culture can be made by way of ancestral Orthodox Christian connection which exists for all human cultures (albeit lost to modernism) prior to barbarian invasion of Western Europe and rise of western 'christian' Anselmian Augustinianism.
See False Type of Theology & False Model of Life
More on culture and Alaska.