Magical Thinking in the Orthodox Church
In any sustained discussion regarding the progress of liberal theology in the Orthodox Church, one sooner or later encounters magical thinking. Magical thinking is defined by Wikipedia, that modern oracle, as “the attribution of causal relationships between actions and events which cannot be justified by reason and observation.” In my experience, it often begins like this: Someone, often a convert from a liberal Christian denomination, like the Episcopalians, warns that North American Orthodoxy is exhibiting the same signs of creeping liberalism as did their previous denomination, and suggests that this should be a source of concern for those who do not wish Orthodoxy to become similarly liberal.
For example, Orthodox in the West today are producing the same patterns of behavior as did Anglicanism in the 1960s regarding women’s ordination. Some of our theologians are solemnly declaring that the issue is a very complex one and the question and open one. Denunciations are made of those decrying the ordination of women as people who are narrow, stupid, retrogressive, and, of course, fundamentalist. Groups are being formed under the dubious patronage of women saints, such as St. Catherine or St. Nina, for the purpose of advancing the feminist agenda. The push is made to ordain deaconesses.
When one calls attention to the historical fact that these are all symptoms of creeping liberalism in the Church and that this is precisely the road trod by liberal Protestants a generation ago, one is shouted down as a convert who has no right to speak; one is diagnosed with Post-Episcopalian Stress Syndrome, and more or less ordered to bed. One is told that the Orthodox Church in North America was getting along very well on its own without us and our kind, thank you very much. Your warnings are not appreciated or welcome. Please take a pull or something, and chill out.
This means that the Orthodox Church in North America could be the one institution which considers that years of experience actually disqualifies one from speaking about them. In every other outfit, experience is considered as qualifying one to speak authoritatively, not as a disqualification. It is very strange. It is also a form of bullying and of ideological intimidation. In fact, one’s long experience of Anglican liberalism does not mean that the person is afflicted with some sort of nervous disorder, that their hands begin to shake if a copy of the Revised Book of Common Prayer is somewhere in the room. It just means that said person has personal experience of how creeping liberalism works over a generation and can speak from the authority of that experience. That the warnings and words are not welcome does not at all alter the fact that they come from experience.
It is just here that magical thinking comes in. All of these regrettable changes occurred in Anglicanism and Lutheranism and Methodism and God knows where else, but they could never happen here, with us. Orthodoxy is somehow immune to the liberalism and worldliness that afflicts everyone else in North America. I call this conviction “magical thinking” because, to quote Wikipedia again, the supposed stability and sanctity of individual Orthodox in North America “cannot be justified by reason and observation.”
Perusing blogs and their comments sections and Facebook and reading journals and scholarly books and listening to Orthodox lectures on YouTube all provide abundant evidence that Orthodox people can be just as thick and worldly as anyone else and that we have by no means cornered the market on wisdom and holiness. We have many good and wise people, and many worldly ones, just like any other group. Saying that our status as the true Church bestows upon us an immunity from worldliness is triumphalistic nonsense. It is also lousy history. The Church in the fourth century was also the true Church, and yet it was greatly afflicted by Arianism, which spread like a wildfire for many years. Indeed, at one point, as St. Jerome once wrote, “the whole world groaned to find itself Arian.” The Church as a whole survived, but not without pain and schism and the loss of many souls to heresy. We have no justification that we are now somehow immune to heresy simply because we are the true Church.
It is undoubtedly true, however, that we are unlike our Protestant friends in one important respect. We define ourselves by the Fathers, or at least pay them lip service, even when we veer off in directions which cause them to spin in their patristic graves. We have at least to pretend that we are faithful to the Fathers, even when we aren’t. Part of the trick here is to denounce fidelity to the Fathers as “patristic fundamentalism” or as “a simplistic reading of the Fathers.” This means that even if parts of the Orthodox Church did ordain women or marry gays or conform to whatever the canons of modernity will demand in the future, large parts of the Church will not follow.
In other words, such capitulation to the world would result in a schism. No one really doubts this, even if modern liberals like Behr-Sigel might plead for a “disciplinary pluralism,” that is, a tolerance for what is, in effect, heresy. For the issue here is not simply one of discipline but of the faith. What would St. Athanasius have thought of a “disciplinary pluralism” which tolerated Arianism? No. Count on it. If parts of the Orthodox Church ordain women or marry homosexuals, there will be a schism. I’m often tempted to think that the certainty of such a schism is the real reason why many bishops would never take such action, though whether their inaction springs from courage to resist heresy or fear of schism is perhaps an open question.
As always, the faith, though defined by the bishops, is guarded by the faithful, as the patriarchs themselves insisted in their letter to Pope Pius IX in 1848. Our episcopal leaders are smart enough men, and they know that such changes would not be countenanced by many of the North American faithful. The liberal proponents of change, of course, suggest that if the Church were to modernize by making these changes, multitudes of secular people would come piling into the Church to fill its empty pews, and this would more than offset those lost to schism.
Again, this is magical thinking. The experience of Anglicanism shows that such a happy stampede will never occur. If the Orthodox Church becomes secular in its faith and praxis, the secular world will praise us for our enlightened approach, and then go back to ignoring us. We may, it is true, be applauded periodically in The Huffington Post and on the CBC, but this is, to my mind, a thin reward for scrapping two millennia of tradition and provoking a schism.
What remains certain is that we must live in the real world and look at ourselves as reflected in the mirror of blogs, organizations, and possibly Facebook. There is not a shred of evidence to suggest North American Orthodoxy is immune to the worldliness and liberalism affecting everyone else around us. Magical thinking must give place to thinking and to realistic appraisal regarding our current state.