Monday, September 30, 2013

Which sign is more appropriate for your church?

I was reading the blogosphere (not a good idea when you're tired and you should be going to bed) about some of the controversy that has been stirred up by Rod Dreher's article "I'm Still Not Going Back to the Catholic Church" in the latest issue of Time.  Mr. Dreher makes many salient points about the state of the American Catholic Church in particular and about Roman Catholicism and christianity in general.  It is well worth the read.  Though Mr. Dreher is now a communicant in the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is very easy to naturally ascribe to him some vendetta or schadenfreude for the confession he left behind.  I, personally, don't see that there, but I do see that he is right on the money with his observations of not just the Catholic Church but also Christian confessions across the spectra.  Whatever his motivations may be for writing this article, let's look at some of his complaints about modern Roman Catholicism here in the states.

  • I could count on one hand the number of homilies I heard that addressed abortion or sexuality in any way. Rather, the homilies were wholly therapeutic, almost always some saccharine variation of God is love.  
  •  In his recent book about Anglicanism, Our Church, the English philosopher Roger Scruton says the greatest problem in the modern world is the “loss of the habit of repentance.” Broadly speaking, there seemed to me to be no particular interest in the American Catholic church in repentance, because there was no particular interest in the reality of sin.
  • All this put the moral unseriousness of the American church in a certain light. As the scandal raged, one Ash Wednesday, I attended mass at my comfortable suburban parish and heard the priest deliver a sermon describing Lent as a time when we should all come to love ourselves more. (emphasis mine)
  • In his interview, the pope used a metaphor for the Church that is often employed by Eastern Orthodox Christianity: he called it a “field hospital” where the walking wounded can receive treatment. He’s right, but it’s important to discern the nature of the cure on offer. Anesthesia is a kind of medicine that masks the pain, but it’s not the kind of medicine that heals the underlying sickness.

Response:  He's absolutely right.  Should we deny that God is love?  Absolutely not.  But should we proclaim it at the expense that sin should be avoided?  Again, absolutely not.  Too many sermons concentrate on what God has done for us, but have lost focus on why God has done what He has done. He wasn't bored one day and decided to send His Only-Begotten Son to be delivered to men to be crucified and ultimately resurrect.  What was the cause for all this?  Silence.
Too many Christians forget that both John the Forerunner and Christ began their ministries with the key word--repent--which, in Greek, is μετανοιετε.  Literally, the word means to change one's nous.  The nous is described by St. John the Damascene as the eye or window to the soul. It is NOT the soul, but the means by which our souls become receptive to the energies of God to change our life in an ontological reality, i.e. a real change of life as opposed to an imputed declaration of righteousness.  Theological niceties aside, churches and priests do not advocate change (unless it's political change whether left or right) of self and if they do, it is marred in such psychotherapeutic jargon that you may as well listen to Dr. Phil.  

We are called to love ourselves.  But the problem as sinners is that we tend to love ourselves to the point that there is no love or even passing concern for others.  Besides, Christ said that if any man loved Him, he is to deny himself, take up his cross and follow Him.  Take up the Cross and be crucified with Him.  That's not love of self; that's denial of self, destruction of self for the sake of Christ.  Lent is not about how we don't love ourselves enough; it's about how we do love ourselves too much that we have become estranged from God, hence why He came in the flesh.

I don't stand outside my house in the busy street thinking that if I get hit, thankfully, there's a hospital nearby where they can immediately numb the pain.  The church is a hospital, but it does more than simply give anti-pain meds.  The hospital is there to heal the body, not to fool it into believing there is no pain with medication.  Churches all over America keep giving out the morphine drip, but are reluctant to prescribe any physical therapy.

Response over.  I could go on and on, but, Mr. Dreher is right.  And he's right not just about what is happening in the Catholic Church but in Protestant churches and--dare I say it?-- the Orthodox Churches.  Are there exceptions?  Of course.  But our churches tend to bend to the culture rather than try to make the culture bend to the church.  And that's the wrong direction.

Since Mr. Dreher has published his article, he has been praised and maligned by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.  Most of the Catholics who understand his position are still upset (read some of the responses) that he still left the Catholic Church for the Orthodox Church.  They say that the Orthodox Church has its flaws and he should have stuck with what he grew up with.  I,with Mr. Dreher, believe that the spirit of the Catholic Church is too connected to whomever may occupy the Throne of St. Peter at any time.  For eight years that was the theological stupor and conservatism of Benedict XVI; now it is the humility and liberality of Francis.  If the spirit of the church is that fragile and moves as its leader changes, then I can understand why Mr. Dreher would leave.
But once one leaves, whether from Catholicism or Lutheranism or Evangelicalism or whatever, trying to find that perfect ecclesial fit, what mindset should be adopted for the journey.  It's not an unfair point to bring up that many people who leave one Christian confession for another will probably not be happy in the new one they find.  And they leave again.  It's easy and natural to be idealistic when going "church shopping."  

The problem is that the seeker is overwhelmed with a perfect picture of what is out there.  It may exist; it may not.  So, let us say, for argument's sake, that you are coming into Holy Orthodoxy.  If you are coming with the same frustrations as Mr. Dreher, which of these two churches are you more likely to enter based on the sign alone?

To the zealous wannabe convert, both signs are troublesome. They both say that he shouldn't expect to find the Orthodox Church he has read about in so many books or heard about in the blogosphere.  Both of these signs though also do invite an indictment against all confessions of Christianity, most of which are trying to be inclusive and reach out to "nones", "spiritual but not religious", "millennials," "atheists", "others", etc. Too many churches are trying to not be what they were founded to be.  Lutherans are going farther away from the Book of Concord; Anglicans from the 39 Articles; Methodists from the Book of Discipline; Presbyterians from the Westminster Confession; Catholics from their tradition.  Do/should churches really only want new members who are content to reduce their expectations and be lukewarm about the faith?  Do/should churches try to attract only reasonable people with reasonable expectations?  It seems to me that if any church has any variation on either of the signs above, there will always be Rod Drehers who go looking for the next ideal thing.  

If churches are serious, really serious, about growth and commitment of their members, then they need to be true to what they were founded upon.  No, it's not sexy; no, it's not relevant to the culture.  But for every reasonable/reduced-expectation-person that a church gains, it will lose two Rod Drehers who have about five times the commitment than those gained.  Maybe this is the best sign to have:



  1. You're not the only one who's up too late. :-P

    IMO, the best sentence of Dreher's op-ed: "'God is love' was not a proclamation that liberated us captives from our sin and despair, but rather a bromide and a platitude that allowed us to believe that, and to behave as if, our lust, greed, malice and so forth – sins that I struggled with every day – weren't to be despised and cast out, but rather shellacked by a river of treacle."

    I read the article and I had a double whammy of personal recognition: first, for the post-Vatican II love-in he describes as being heavy on the anesthetic and hesitant to dispense medicine and reset limbs. I could point you to my childhood parish - Sacred Heart at 22nd and Binney Sts. in Omaha - that boasted how they had driven out the older parishioners and was bringing in a younger, more progressive set with its live band and by substituting interpretive dances for liturgical readings. My family quit the parish right before my pastor who had confirmed me quit the priesthood in order to pursue his current career in artistic photography of nude women.

    Or how about the Newman Center at UNK where my friends Josh and Christine spoke after one mass to advertise their services as natural family planning instructors and how when they mentioned that birth control was against the teaching of the Church, were asked never to come back lest their divisive message alienate the students(!).

    The second pang of recognition is for myself and my own difficulty with a severe lack of pastoral guidance. Suffice to say that there comes a point when if the Church refuses to treat the patient, the patient will become anxious and begin to self-medicate. Even an animal has the good sense to chew off her foot if it will release her from a trap, but man, doesn't she make a mess of it for lacking a skilled surgeon's hands! :-P

    Here, I must say that I am afraid that Dreher paints the American Catholic Church with too broad a brush. For example, I don't think that the Catholic institutions that are fighting the HHS mandate to subsidize contraceptives are in any way watered-down. A lot of people out there walk the walk, and take great personal risk to do so. They have empowered me when I felt weak. Even my parents, and particularly my mom (the dictionary definition of Dreher's "granola conservative"), didn't compromise on a lot of aspects of the faith that I'm more appreciative of now.

    I would also point out that the American secular press may characterize Pope Francis as dispensing with so-called culture war issues, but that's not actually what he said in his interview nor how he's conducted his papacy. The very day after its publication, he spoke to a conference of gynecologists and urged them to refuse to perform a single abortion, saying that each of these children bears the face of Jesus. That's pretty unequivocal.

    In any case, it is a fine article not only about believing what you preach but practicing it too. See, this is why I need to start my own blog!

    Thanks for writing on this topic. Sincerely, Trish

    p.s. The other thing that has helped me is something that unfortunately is oftentimes inaccessible to Catholics in America and that is to stand (or preferably to kneel) in the presence of the bones of the Christian martyrs as I was fortunate to do on several occasions in Italy. Those guys knew all about taking up their cross!

  2. Holy Orthodoxy isn't geared toward any particular culture, but to the human soul. As the human soul is the same in every culture in every age,Orthodox Christianity is universally relevant. Who ever lived (except Jesus Christ) and did not need his past forgiven, his present filled with meaning, his future filled with hope?

    1. Anastasia, I'm sorry but I'm not connecting what you wrote with my point. Please clarify.