Welcome to the year 2020 in America. Malaise and despair. Outrage and division. These characteristics combine in such a way that they reveal what binds the people of this nation together. Which is almost nothing. Any sense of unity we may have once had is now long gone. This divide is evident even in the Orthodox Churches in this country. Before I go any further, I feel the need to inform the reader that I hold no romantic notions regarding the purported purity or superiority of any era or civilization in history, especially America. Golden ages are the inventions of those unable or unwilling to cope with the present. Actual history is as messy as the human condition that fills it. This is not to say that certain people and events have not influenced the human condition for the better, but it does mean that the evil has ever stood alongside the good, hoping to overshadow it. Granted, this is not an era in which the Orthodox Church is suffering any persecution in America, and for that I am grateful. And here I am—an American-born Orthodox priest pastoring a parish in North Texas, trying to help my people navigate our current circumstances—244 years into the American experiment.
Do we really need another blog? Honestly? There is no shortage of internet publications opining on everything under the sun. Another blog may well be white noise. However, I think often about how few Orthodox Christians there are in America. It is humbling that of the over 325,000,000 citizens in this country, Orthodox Christians account for only around 800,000. We who belong to the Orthodox Church are the living continuity of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church established by Jesus Christ between the years 27 and 33 AD. Our faith is the unpolluted preaching of the Apostles, which proclaims the crucified, risen, and imminently returning God-Man. As such, Orthodox Christians are uniquely placed in this nation to bear witness to Christ in the fullness of his Church. Each month, new inquirers approach me asking about the Orthodox Church, eager to learn more about what is sadly the best kept secret in America. Doubtlessly, they found the parish address and my phone number on the internet, for which I am grateful. They seek to learn more, and they continue to use the internet as a guide, which concerns me. While there are numerous wonderful Orthodox websites which edify and inform, there are also destructive websites flying the Orthodox banner. The Orthodox presence on the internet reflects the problems within our various jurisdictions, parishes, and the nation itself.
On one hand, there are websites which reflect a fundamentalist approach, which is altogether incompatible with Orthodoxy. Fundamentalism is a product of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries in American Protestant churches. In the words of one of my colleagues, fundamentalism has “a complete disregard for real nuance.” It is characterized by fear more than by faith. While it claims concern for Truth (with a capital T), it treats such Truth as mere data by which to fight ideological enemies. It takes the majesty of the creation story in Genesis, which proclaims the uniqueness of Yahweh who lovingly created human beings in his image and turns it into a forensic history textbook. Creation happened in six twenty-four hour days. Period. Fundamentalism reduces our faith resplendent with light and color to black and white. The proprietors of such websites declare that it is impossible to get sick at Church—that if an Orthodox Christian really has faith, he will disregard the directives of his bishop and come to Church. They insist that our bishops are complicit in our persecution by the state. Some in my own parish have been troubled listening to such voices. Yet, none of the hierarchs whose priests and faithful contribute to such websites have given a word of correction.
On the other hand, there are websites which reflect a politically progressive approach, which is also at odds with Orthodoxy. In this case, it is apparent that the proprietors of such websites are deeply religious. Progressive politics, however, is their primary religion, and they try desperately to cram Orthodox Christianity through their foundational religious framework. They focus almost exclusively on trying to get the Orthodox Church to change her teaching regarding sex, sexuality, and marriage. For them, the Church needs to embrace same-sex marriage and allow women into the priesthood. Also, the Patriarchate of Moscow needs to stop existing. The Church’s refusal to do so would be an expression of bigotry and unmitigated hatred. They frequently remind us that their daddies were priests for so many years, which is how they know that the Church has always secretly been fine with sodomy. However much they may quote St. Maximus the Confessor, their anthropology remains Freudian, steeped in the philosophy of the sexual revolution. Their love of the Liturgy is outstripped only by their love of Third-Wave Feminism and Queer Theory. Not one of the priests and faithful who contribute to these websites have been given a word of correction by their hierarchs, either.
It is news to no one that the internet is a game changer, far exceeding the radical change brought about by the printing press. Vast libraries and volumes of information await the requisite keystrokes and mouse clicks of the user. As such, the internet is an indispensable part of the Orthodox Church’s evangelism, whether our bishops like it or not. One of the problems is that the internet is the truest democracy the world has ever known. Everyone has a voice. The wise, the foolish, the noble, and the despicable stand side by side in hopes that Google will pick their websites for searches. As a priest, it has become part of my job to tell both inquirers and faithful alike which sources to use and which to avoid. Something as simple as a list of websites officially endorsed by the Holy Synod of any jurisdiction would go a long way toward making it clear what the Church approves and what she does not. Official words of correction and episcopal sanctions against those who publicly misrepresent the teachings of the Church would be even better.
So, do we really need another blog? Perhaps not. But what I write, I write as a pastor charged with caring for a spiritual flock and nothing more. My deference is to the Apostolic Tradition alone, which is the preaching of the Incarnate Word and the proper response to his saving work. The preaching of the crucified and risen Messiah is sufficient to save men’s souls, and it needs no improvement. Not from fundamentalists, progressives, conservatives, nor any other popular religious group which rules the hearts and minds of people in America. These groups hope to fashion Jesus Christ in their own image as opposed to seeking transformation by him. Doubtlessly, I am a sinner and a man of my time, but I would like for all Orthodox people to give heed to our Lord Jesus Christ’s warning, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Mt 7:15).
Fr. Photius Avant