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Orthodoxy, gospel and culture

17 April 2007

In my other blog Notes from underground: The ikon in an age of neo-tribalism I recently wrote about Orthodoxy and Western culture, and now Father Stephen has posted on his blog about the approach of Orthodoxy to Western culture in Reflections on Florovsky.

As Fr Stephen points out, “Florovsky was both a Russian and a true European. He trained in Russia, fled to Europe and came finally to America. He had friends across all of that world – and as friends, he took them seriously whether they were Orthodox or not. Many of them were not Orthodox and yet many of them extended to him a kindness and hospitality that at times was literal life-saving.”

So there is a sense in which Florovsky was tricultural, having lived in Russia, France and the USA. Today we live at least part of the time in the blogosphere, which is multicultural. By virtue of writing this in my blog, I am part of the blogosphere. By reading it on my blog, you are in the blogosphere.

Georges Florovsky and his contemporaries — Vladimir Lossky, Alexander Schmemann, Nicolas Zernov and others are described by Father Stephen as “those who in the 20th century have acted as “Fathers,” engaging our Western world and from the riches of Orthodoxy offering vision and salvation. This is a new phenomenon and one that has yet to completely mature.” And, like Father Stephen, I owe a huge debt to them, for, coming to the West, they wrote in English, or had their works translated into English.

But things have changed since their day. A few years ago the Southern African Missiological Society devoted part of its annual congress to discussion of the “gospel and our culture” movement started by Lesslie Newbigin. There was quite a bit of discussion about the meaning of “our” culture, and when it was revealed that it meant Western culture, there were some objections, because not all of us thought of Western culture as “our” culture.

But the point remains: back in the mid-20th century, Orthodoxy had a problem of relating to Western culture. Now Western Christianity has a problem relating to Western culture, and the “emerging church” movement in the West is self-consciously trying to engage Western culture, rather as the “gospel and our culture” movement is.

In Africa the situation is even more complicated. While in the West Christians have a foot in two worlds, the modern world and the emerging postmodern world, in Africa premodern culture is added to the mix. In all these places the Orthodox and the Western “emerging church” movement are facing the same problem. In many ways their responses will be very different. For the Western church, both modern and postmodern, Orthodox ecclesiology remains a stumbling block. It is also a concealed stumbling block, because neither the modern nor the postmodern expressions of Western Christianity even suspect that it exists. They talk a lot about ecclesiology, and argue about different models, whether “missional” or “static”, but Orthodox ecclesiology remains quite unimaginable to most Western Christians, and if they do discover what it is, they can hardly believe it.

From the Orthodox side we need, as Father Stephen points out, to resist the temptation to withdraw into the ghetto on the one hand, and pretend that the problems of Western Christians and Western society have nothing to do with us; and on the other hand we need to realise that the answer is not a Westernised Orthodox Church, based an a Western “contextualisation” model. Orthodoxy, while it remains true to its calling, will always be perceived as countercultural in the West, and, truth to tell, in the East as well. The Orthodox Church exists upon the earth, but its centre of gravity lies elsewhere, so it will appear eccentric. It is in the world, but not of it.

As a student in the 1960s I once spent a vacation with some Dutch Roman Catholic Augustinian friars, who were seriously concerned with modernising the church. They never wore habits, but dressed in business suits, in order to contextualise the church into middle class society. The prior even sent one of the fathers out with me with orders to buy me a suit and on the way to the outfitters I talked him out of it. But while the friars were donning business suits, on TV disc jockeys were appearing in monastic habits, which were thought by the youth to be the height of cool. One lesson we can learn from that is that a modernising Westernising Orthodoxy is not the answer. As Father Stephen notes,

In our American scene, the “problems” presented by the West are not always found among the intellectuals and whatever it is we have that passes for an intelligentsia. There is instead, a mass culture, in which some forms of Christianity are deeply enmeshed. I have ministered to many who are refugees from that mass culture – others who are refugees from Churches who have all to unquestioningly embraced the culture Hollywood. And yet others who, not believing in God, needed to hear news of a God who was “none of the above,” that is, the God revealed to us in Christ but distorted by the culture in which we live.

I believe that it is good that, facing the problems of engaging with Western culture, Orthodox Christians should also engage in dialogue with Western Christians and others trying to engage the same culture (African Independent Churches for example, have some very active missions in Western Europe and North America), even though we may not arrive at the same answers.

As an example of some of the different ways of responding, Matt Stone in his blog posting on Tribalization and cultural identity adopts an eclectic approach. This is almost the opposite of an Orthodox approach, since Orthodoxy is holistic rather than eclectic. But by engaging each other as well as the culture, I think we have l;earnt a good deal more ab out the culture as well.

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