Thursday 1 August 2013

The troubling acceptability of Eastern Orthodoxy among Western secular Leftist intellectuals


It is troublingly acceptable, isn't it?

Acceptable, that is, especially compared with Conservative or Evangelical Protestants - aka 'fundamentalists'.


And this acceptability of Orthodoxy can only be for bad reasons - mostly that Orthodoxy, as it functions in the West, is perceived as being no real threat to the Western Leftist project.

Orthodoxy is instead seen as an example of 'vibrancy', of ethnic colour (since almost all Western Orthodox churches are non-Western - Russian, Greek, Serbian, Coptic etc), and perhaps of offering a rich and exotic aesthetic appeal.

Unsurprisingly, Western converts to Orthodoxy always have been among intellectuals - especially academics.


For instance, I once conversed with a member of the national intellectual elite who said that they attended Orthodox service quite frequently when abroad on vacation; and I initially interpreted this as meaning that this person was a covert Christian - but far from it! The person was actually hostile to Christianity, but enjoyed attending Orthodox worship, because it was assimilable to a generic 'spirituality' of a New Age flavour, the 'perennial philosophy' perspective, and subjectivist mysticism.


In sum, Eastern Orthodoxy is seen as cool - and thereby its effectiveness as a form of Christianity is neutralized.

In the modern world, everybody wants to be cool; but anything cool is assimilated to the mass media world and can lead to no good.

Any hope for Christianity in the West will need to come from the uncool...



Anonymous said...

Also Orthodoxy seems to pretty strongly pacifist.

Arakawa said...

"The person was actually hostile to Christianity, but enjoyed attending Orthodox worship, because it was assimilable to a generic 'spirituality' of a New Age flavour, the 'perennial philosophy' perspective, and subjectivist mysticism."

Well, they do say the Eucharist is actively harmful to those who take it in the wrong spirit. I can only assume the same is true for the worship services in general....

Bruce Charlton said...

JP has left a new comment on your post "The troubling acceptability of Eastern Orthodoxy a...":

"mostly that Orthodoxy, as it functions in the West, is perceived as being no real threat to the Western Leftist project."

More than that -- Western Leftists think their home-grown Protestants hate and fear Orthodoxy. Therefore, accepting Orthodoxy is another way to poke a finger in the eye of home-grown Protestants...

Accept, of course, does not mean "sincerely convert to"... unfortunately, since sincere Leftist conversion to Orthodoxy could only be a good thing.

Bruce Charlton said...

@dl - "Also Orthodoxy seems to [be] pretty strongly pacifist."

I don't think that is correct: pacifism is a very Western thing, and Byzantium and Holy Russia were not remotely pacifist, nor is modern Serbia - but perhaps you refer to recent Orthodoxy among Western converts?

FHL said...

"I don't think that is correct: pacifism is a very Western thing, and Byzantium and Holy Russia were not remotely pacifist, nor is modern Serbia - but perhaps you refer to recent Orthodoxy among Western converts?"

I think DL has a legitimate point here. Even concerning the cradle orthodox. Orthodox people usually don't deny a nation's authority to conduct war when necessary, I think they just take that for granted, but the idea of every man arming himself with firearms, and having a God-given right to do so, is a very western idea, and a particularly American one at that. It's an idea that I personally like, and agree with quite strongly, as I cannot bring myself to see how taking away a person's means to self-defense is good for anyone; but I grew up in the West, and I'm sure that has a lot to do with my views here.

It may just be an issue of relativity, but when placed side-by-side with the Protestants, the Orthodox certainly come out to seem as if they are very pacifistic, perhaps even benign.

I think if you compared the amount of guns per household between the two groups, you'd find the number for the Western Christians to be much, much higher than that of the Eastern immigrants.

But this is just from what I see, I have no statistics on this.

Although I would also mention that the war we are fighting is taking place primarily in the hearts of men, and no amount of bullets can make up for a stripped-down feminist-led
"Christianity." Faith and loyalty to God is where we need our strengths to be, and in this issue, the Orthodox seem a lot more confident and a lot more secure.
(no insult intended to fellow protestants, most of whom I am sure not only rival me but run laps around me in regards to any spiritual virtue. I'm just mentioning general trends I see within the two groups)

Samson J. said...

In sum, Eastern Orthodoxy is seen as cool - and thereby its effectiveness as a form of Christianity is neutralized.

Yes, this was my first thought as soon as I read the title.

I've had a similar conversation with Protestant converts to EO, by the way - people who are legitimate Christians; they will insist that they converted because they were convinced by the theology, but I believe they are often attracted to the sense of exoticism and seeming "authenticity" that boring ol' Evangelicalism doesn't offer.

I suppose this may relate to something that is an ongoing theme at Charlton's Miscellany: is the beauty and loveliness of a thing (a religion, a bible translation) an indication of its truth?

Bruce Charlton said...

@FHL I presume you too are talking about EO converts in the West? But this surely has nothing to do with Orthodoxy as such?

@SJ - "is the beauty and loveliness of a thing (a religion, a bible translation) an indication of its truth? "

Yes it is an *indication* - and the reverse is true as well.

And b&l may be very important things for some people - and Orthodoxy has a very important place for this reason (among others).

And vice versa - if you love a liturgy (as I do with the words of the AV and BCP) then there is a visceral process of loss and mourning when they are not used by your denomination (which may be preferable overall and in other ways) - this is my situation having moved to the conservative evangelical end of the Church of England: most of it is a lot better, but the liturgy is a lot worse.

This isn't the point I am trying to make in the post, however.

Bob said...

Christianity itself was seen as exotic and cool in the declining years of the Roman Empire, simply because mysterious religions from the East were in vogue at the time.

It seems likely that many people "converted" to it because of its Otherness and novelty.

I wonder if any traditionalist Romans argued against Christianity itself for the same reasons you argue against Orthodoxy.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Bob - "you argue against Orthodoxy"

You obviously haven't read much of this blog if you can say something as absurd as that I 'argue against Orthodoxy'! Search that word and you will see. Search Byzantium/ Byzantine. Search Seraphim Rose...

@FHL - Sorry, but I don't publish comments about the religion you were discussing.

FHL said...

@ Dr. Charlton

A wise choice. But that's all the better, because I just thought of something else: I think it really is just relativity. I think the West can often become a place of extremes, where we have complete pacifists as well as well as those who glorify in violence.

The Orthodox can seem pacifistic in comparison to some in the west, while also seeming the opposite if they are compared to the west's pacifists.

So I think the confusion is just relative, that the Orthodox may simply be balanced in their use of force, and when compared to West where ideologies are extended to their logical limits, and not their reasonable limits, the position of the Orthodox comes to seem very vague and uncertain.

Haha, of course, being Orthodox myself, I would conclude as such, wouldn't I?

Maximo Macaroni said...

Nassim Taleb, the author of "The Black Swan", is an Eastern Orthodox. He makes a point in one book - I think it's his latest, "Antifragility" - of detailing how mentally and physically healthy the Orthodox religion is. He even talks about how having all those fast days keeps you from getting fat and all the other dietary restrictions makes you conscious of what you're eating. Next I expect him to come out with a diet book.

But Taleb, Lebanese former heavy-duty stock trader, classicist philosopher and statistician, is formidably "cool" among the wannabe intellectuals these days.

C. said...

Perhaps DL means that EOs are "pacifist" in the sense that they tend to oppose the US military intervention in the Middle East that has led to the destruction of ancient Christian communities. Ie, they're not neocons.

(if you did not mean this, DL, I apologize)

Bruce Charlton said...

@FHL - This may be of interest

I think I suffer a case of Orthodox envy - and I rather like the alternative history that the Church of England became a branch of Orthodoxy at the time around the early 1900s when the Anglo-Catholics were dominant. (It was a lot closer to happening than most people realize)

But in my less dreamy moods I am forced to conclude that the Orthodox church does not seem to transplant to the West, and the possibility of Westerners replicating the situation in the East is something I cannot believe in.

Furthermore, the Orthodox church is itself in a long wind-down, since 1917 - and could only really revive if led from a Russia with a restored Tsar (which might happen...?)

@MM - My personal evaluation of Taleb is that he is some kind of phony - I've read quite a bit of him, and approached him with a positive prejudice (I think) but it just doesn't ring true to me.

"all those fast days keeps you from getting fat" - but I don't think I have ever seen a photo of a *slender* Orthodox priest - indeed their masculine robustness is one of their charms.

Maximo Macaroni said...

"I don't think I have ever seen a photo of a *slender* Orthodox priest " - BC

Oh, no! You don't mean they're all cheating on their fast days!

As to Taleb being a phony, I do find him a bit repetitive and highly arrogant, but interesting. I'm not sure I've quite absorbed the "Fragility" thing, though. Sometimes he tries too hard, like Thomas Friedman and his "the world is flat" nonsense.

Anonymous said...

I think that secular interest in and comfort with Orthodoxy comes from knowing that Orthodox Christians are a tiny minority in the west. (For instance, the number of baptized Orthodox in North America is said to be about 1 million, so there are probably about 5 Jews for every practicing Orthodox Christian).

That said, the west is ramping up for another long culture war with Russia, this time over anti-gay laws, so we Orthodox Christians will soon have the comfort of being actively hated and persecuted by the mighty west once more.


Titus Didius Tacitus said...

Orthodoxy has a history of political passivity extending even to servile relations with anti-Christian tyranny, a trustworthy record of defining itself in opposition to other forms of Christianity, potential to foster white-on-white ethnic conflict as in Yugoslavia, and superficial exoticism. What's not to like?

Anonymous said...

Try: "I wonder if any [pagan] Romans argued against Christianity itself for the same reasons you argue against [liberal progressivism]."

tgj said...

Having met some traditional Orthodox, mostly Western converts, I would describe them as warm, in a very disarmingly unaffected and yet encouragingly formidable way.

One of the men that I met had met Fr. Seraphim, shortly before he reposed. He described Fr. Seraphim as a simple priest who did his duty.

Toddy Cat said...

For an argument against the Orthodox Church (or any other Christian church) being pacifist, I'd recommend "The Virtue of War: Reclaiming the Classical Christian Traditions East and West" by Alexander F.C. Webster and Darrell Cole. It's pretty definitive.

Titus Didius Tacitus said...

deconstructingleftism said... "Also Orthodoxy seems to pretty strongly pacifist."
No, but it is anti-crusading, and that is good enough.

ivvenalis said...

I think it may be as simple as the fact that Orthodoxy is sufficiently non-Western to avoid triggering the feeding reflex of the leftist wolf pack.

Unfortunately, Russia's legal/social/religious reaction against Western efforts to normalize homosexuality will probably mean more negative leftist sentiment against the Orthodox church. I've been seeing more in the media about how evil Russia is because of this, although right now most of the blame is on Putin.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

What is more uncool than the Roman Catholic Church? Even Mormons are still cool in comparison.

Scott Locklin said...

I think it's a simple tribal thing. Orthodoxy most certainly *is* considered the enemy by cultural Marxists within Russia. Pussy Riot didn't desecrate a mosque. In the US, it is considered a fringe or "recent immigrant" religion; one that doesn't interfere with the leftist political program in any obvious way. There are no Orthodox Christian politicians whose faith has ever been a political issue. Indeed, with Michael Huffington, Dukakis, Tsongas, Olympia Snowe and Rod Blagojevich as prominent examples, I can see where people aren't particularly threatened by it as a force compared to, say, Mormons. Justin Amash may change that perception, but I've never heard it mentioned.

FWIIW, in case I'm responsible for the impression that Taleb is completely full of beans, he's been talking some sense recently. Perhaps it is the weights and the improved diet.

roger u said...

This is an old post, but I'm going to comment anyway.

I have just about decided to convert to Orthodoxy from protestantism and my observations differ a little from yours. One point to mention, I'm in the South and that may effect the situation vs Britain.

The other converts I have met at the OCA church I attend are definitely not of the "cool" or "intellectual" variety, not to say that they aren't educated, just normal, politically centrist if they think about politics at all. Pretty standard people for a small NC city dominated by DamnYankees.
Very few actual Southrons, and I think that will hold them back in this region: Orthodoxy is doubly foreign.

Another thing I think will hold them back is their insistence on remaining strongly Russian despite saying they want to be an American church and being largely composed of American converts. I think you have posted on the need for Ortodoxy to be set in an Orthodox society. I think this is very possible, but it will require the Orthodox to let go of their secular traditions and become American.

I have come to Orthodoxy after drifting away from church, but not Christianity, for a few years. I realised that that I needed the coroprate aspect of worship along with the individual aspect. I started looking around and tried a Presbyterian social club...I mean church then went online reading sermens at other churches. I decided to look into Orthodoxy and I have come to the conclusion that they have the most sound doctrine. I was not drawn to the liturgy, I think it is clumsy and contrived a lot the time though I do like the litanies, but I have come to enjoy it. I have also found that the Orthodox are a lot less dependent on the personality of a preacher, as most protestant churches are, being instead focused on worship.

What most drew me to the Orthodox Church, outside doctrine, is their organisational structure, which you have posted on, as well as their ability to let some things remain mystery while still clarifying orthodox doctrine when necessary; not getting wrapped up in an intellectual exercise (while still boasting their fair share of intellectuals) is very appealing after protestantism's constant doctrinal disagreement and schism.

I don't know if this is in any way interesting, especially on such an old post, but I felt compelled to comment. I also want to point out that the Orthodox Church is one of the most conservative Churches, probably the most conservative of the big denominations, and any conservstism helps these days.

Bruce Charlton said...

@roger - Thanks for this comment. Certainly, I wish Orthodoxy well.