Has Orthodoxy arrived in America? And has America arrived in Orthodoxy?
We can say yes to both questions, in a way. There are many Orthodox Christians in this country, and there are many more parishes now than there used to be. There are seminaries, magazines, internet communities, organizations and even controversies that serve (at least) to make us more self-conscious. Admittedly, there are not enough monasteries, but now, at least, we have a nice translation of the Scriptural Canon.
In another way, no, for it has not yet arrived completely. Orthodoxy disembarked on these American shores in a piecemeal fashion. It was not like the deliberate mission of Sts. Cyril and Methodios to a single culture. The coming of the Orthodox Gospel to this land has been more a complex series of introductions to various settings and groups of people. In Alaska, the mission was deliberate and apostolic. On the east coast, however, waves of immigrants arrived, feeling the necessity of the Church keenly, and frequently establishing and building their own missions without much support or guidance.
The arrival of Orthodoxy in America is an ongoing process of introduction that is far from over. Sts. Cyril and Methodios, as did all the Apostles, established the fullness of the Christian faith at the very heart of their destination. For St. Paul, this obviously meant Athens and Rome. For the American Orthodox Christian, however, this destination remains unknown. We probably know more about America than we did a century ago. But we do not know nearly enough, not yet.
“America” is a term that defies capture. It is an elusive word, like a greased pig. Fall upon it, squeeze it, and it shoots through your arms.
Is "America" the new New Rome? For many reasons, America is the center of the world’s agora, and this is usually the subtext undergirding discussions of Orthodoxy's "big picture" (i.e., the Prester John search for the fourth or fifth Rome). America is the place of worldwide commerce and the global “commercial culture” – this truly is the real name and character of the culture in which we now live. Whatever the term “globalization” means, the meaning of that dratted term must be anchored in this nation. The America of Madison Avenue, Hollywood, Silicon Valley and the chattering news is, whether we like it or not, the "America" the world thinks it knows: "first world" nations in Europe and Asia may huff and puff about this juvenile, sophomoric culture, but despite its complaints, the world has become this American brand of secular commercialism and will not stop buying at WalMart.
Unfortunately, that base culture is the very thing taken as “America” even by Orthodox Christians – who, of all people, should know better. This debasement of America produces either the misbegotten entrepreneurial forms of evangelicalism that litter our highway billboards, or -- and more likely for us -- it invites a "substitutionary mission ethic," where not only the old country faith is proclaimed, but also old country devices like language, ethnic custom and political agendae are packaged confusedly with doctrine. The result is that the usual American who is practically unchurched (despite whatever protestant exposure he has accumulated) will assume that the Trinity must be some Eastern European or Mediterranean invention, instead of the crucial foundation of human life that it is.
The America of commerce and politics can never become a missionary destination, and cannot be the aim of the Gospel. It seems to me that this patently secular ideal of America has been responsible for the unsettling and the overthrow of many evangelistic plans. One may look to the sorry state of the Dobson enterprise, which started out as a decent resource for childrearing, and stands now as one of the jostling mouthpieces of "conservative Christianity" on the political scene.
So let us, instead, try to think differently of the place we want to go. Let us lay aside, at the nonce, the earthly cares of administrative unity, or autocephaly, or autonomy, or the American Patriarchate. Let us think of these shores, and what and who lie between.
It is possible to think of America without WalMart or CNN, without assaulting the land or its people with plastic templates, corporate charts and partisan colored maps. It is even possible to do this without consulting the Pew surveys or Gallup, Drudge or Politico (imagine -- consider religion and country without sociology -- how sweet the air smells ... how clear, for once, the horizon).
Indulge me, then, with a little sentimental journey:
I love America, but I do not put my trust in mortal princes, or parties, or new management techniques, or shiny business designs. I am fervently patriotic because my country shines through my father’s arms. I hear him singing about the little brown church in the vale from his pulpit at revival meetings, cutting grass in June and eating hot dogs in July at minor league baseball parks. I disagree over and over with politicos and I am petulantly bored with every political party (both parties signal the first decline of patriotism into boorishness, and soon become a systematic rejection of classic and civic education). But I imbibe American history and her literature, and love the people and the land. I grow sentimental when I sing “America the Beautiful,” even though my voice cannot range the rigor of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” I read, like Chesterton did, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass whose pages are chock-full of Americans busy at planting, plowing, piloting barges and driving teams, cooking on hot stoves and picking corn. I read the mystic sonorities of natural law, family and the ages in the images of Faulkner’s Big Woods. I join the throngs at football games and rock concerts and note, in its sublimity, the myriad display of a single, fractured human nature, whose persons are known to and called each one by the Word to participation in Triune Grace.
I mention this personal excursus because I have found these ways helpful in my search for America, and the place where Orthodoxy must go. The Orthodox Church is “here” without having yet “arrived.” It speaks the gross tongue of “television American," but does not yet know the grammar of the back yard, the church parking lot, or the town or union hall. We Orthodox, in our Greek-ness and Russian-ness or whatever-ness, are too practiced at looking upon the hoi polloi as just so many bumpkins. We either follow the mainline tradition of trampling down the grass roots and taking up the ghastly denatured tongue of academic anti-christianity. Or, if we're still Christian, we adopt a Greek or Russian accent, grow a long beard, and preach Orthodoxy as if it were a new alternative (and very chic) ethnicity.
But it is not enough to shake one’s head at a drunkard in a trailer park: what must needs be is an Orthodox parish that can teach a unwed boy with children how to grow up and become an Orthodox man. For it will soon be that the only way a boy can become an American man, in natural law, is through Orthodoxy: so it will be for a girl to become a lady, a house to become a home, a social security number to become a Christian citizen, a pensioner to become an American Saint.
And God knows we need more of these.
It is this loyalty, this old-fashioned love of people and the land, and this devotion to the native Natural Law written in America’s past and her majestic landscape that stand, as the man from Macedonia, as the modern call to the Orthodox Church: “Come and help us!” It is this love of the American people and the American land that the Orthodox Church must travail toward before the Church can lead American sinners to Jesus.
It goes without saying that evangelism wedded to secular commercialism – no matter how dyed with red, white and blue – has nothing to do with the people and the land.
It also goes without saying that the repertoire of foregone “gospels” are losing their hold on the American mind. A majority of Americans now believe that other faiths, besides their own, are salvific: this is a wretched failure of catechism and a sure indication that Christian dogma has been squirreled into some dank Sunday School closet, right next to the moth-eaten CEF flannelgraph figures and the concrete-hardened plaster of paris sack from VBS 1965. Americans also suspect – deeply – any recruitment drive, fund drive, ad campaign, dial-up campaign, e-mail-chain-mail that attempts to lasso them into an institutional association. Americans cannot stand institutions. “Health and wealth” is falling like Lucifer. Americans understand that God and Mammon cannot mix: the day is coming when the quasi-gospels of “needs-based ministry” and “personal development” will no longer “work.”
When the Apostolic Church calls the people, it calls them to a faith that already exists, to a Wisdom that is Personal. It calls them to repentance, prayer and worship. It calls them to the only Will of God that we know, and that is not to go to a particular place or to entertain a certain number of people, pandering to their felt needs; neither is it to establish centralized offices to bullhorn our opinions to politicos and the cognoscenti. The Will of God for the American Orthodox Church is to call Americans to repentance and to theosis. Nothing less.
I think that in the grand ecclesial calendar, we are, in American Orthodoxy, still very much in the Upper Room, waiting upon the Lord to be empowered. For surely, we have not had our “moment.” There has not been, yet, that Pentecostal outpouring, that Orthodox Revival sweeping the land that was seen in the Conversion of the Three Thousand (at Pentecost) or the Conversion of the Slavs (with Sts. Cyril and Methodios, and Vladimir). Let us be honest: we, who carry the Full Gospel, are often stymied by the apparent success of lesser modern-day-Frankish missions that truncate the faith, that publish a Readers’ Digest Condensed version of Christianity, and offer a full panoply of member-services and creature-comforts to boot. We possess neither gold nor silver, neither do we have fountains in the atrium, synthesizers and celebrities on widescreen: we have, however, the Tradition which enables us to say to America, “In the Name of Jesus, rise up and walk.”
That time has not yet come. America, as yet, has no desire to walk in the Name of Jesus.
In the meantime, we should become Orthodox, body and soul. We should pray, and then wonder that we haven't completed even a single word in the greater realm. We should repent in a personal intense manner, and leave off the nonsense of bewailing social, national or cultural sins. We should criticize and judge social problems and political chicanery: but we should not fail to assault and batter our own sins, our passionate idiocies and our personal loyalties to selfish entanglements. We should pray and seek the Holy Mysteries at all costs. We should read the Bible first and the Fathers more than any other literature, for the Bible is mysterious and perfect, and the dogmatic words of the Fathers are clarion in this morass of modern ambiguity.
We should learn of the Holy Trinity and force and pound our minds into meditating upon this supreme and sublime mystery. It is altogether possible that the main reason why American Orthodoxy has not yet “arrived” is simply because we have neglected the Dogma of Theology, which is the Doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity. Then, when we have meditated, and learned of God Who is Above All Names, then and only then will our fellowship begin to look like an icon of the First and Consubstantial Tri-Personed Koinonia.
Only then, on the day we become penitentially Trinitarian, will God allow us to enter into that fabled and autocephalic unity: until then, He will assuredly frustrate each and every attempt at a negotiated settlement, out of His well-known penchant for babel-ization.
And at the same time, we should learn something of America. We should read her good books, even when she no longer teaches them. We should learn to talk again, and become real conversationalists, instead of simultaneous soliloquists who cannot listen because we are busy preparing our next brilliant point. We should learn the stars again and how to nurture a thorny rose, as these two activities are, actually, linked in twain. We should plant a few gardens, can a few preserves, raise a compost heap, fix a car, attend a July 4th Parade, take part in a Pro-Life March, even (perhaps) watch the View now and then, to see what it's all about. In all of this, we will lay aside our old world-ness, and let our ethnicity recede into a happy avocation where it belongs. Our ethnicity, for American Orthodoxy, must be American, even as our Christianity, for American Orthodoxy, must first be Trinitarian.
Without saying it too loudly, I think we should get ready to help Americans down gently, off and away from their false lifestyle of consumerist addiction. It is a difficult thing to live poorer than one's parents, but that is precisely what the Orthodox pastorate must prepare their American people for, en masse. The day is coming, and may now be here, when Americans will no longer be consumers (and not by choice) -- they will be forced instead to accept themselves as simply human, and simple “people of the land.” Our cultural options may become dichotomous (excepting, of course, the insignificant delirious rich): ours will be to choose the agrarian society, even in the city, or the lifeless aspect of soylent green. The Christian Faith will inform that choice surely, but only in its fullness.
The times may get harder for the American dream, which may prove as ephemeral as all dreams turn out to be. It may be at this moment, on that cold gray morning when the dream has passed, that Orthodoxy in America will have finally arrived at the heart of America, and America will finally see a Church that knows the way to repentance and theosis, and sings the cosmic song of the Holy Trinity.
And that Church will sing all this out loud, of course, not in English, but in the American tongue of Hawthorne, Twain and Faulkner, Ellison, Angelou, Borges and Paz, and hopefully (still) Eliot, Frost and Wilbur.
That Day will come when the dream has passed, when America will not be satisfied with information anymore, and can no longer get all the “things” her consumers demand. Then she will seek wisdom, and then, pray God, the Church will have learned Wisdom enough to give Him away.