Orthodox Fundamentalism: What is it and does it exist?

July 14, 2015 Length: 1:07:37

Earlier in the year one of Kevin's guests, Dr. George E. Demacopoulos, wrote on the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese blog that through the increasing expansion of 'Orthodox fundamentalism' in ordinary parishes, "the entire Orthodox Church is at risk of being hijacked by extremists." Father John Whiteford, ROCOR priest and blogger wrote a robust rebuttal to this article. On this episode of Ancient Faith Today, Kevin discusses with his guests their views of 'Orthodox fundamentalism': what it is, whether it truly exists, and what impact it is having on the Orthodox Church today.





Kevin: In the beginning of this year, 2015, one of my guests on this program, Dr. George Demacopoulos, wrote an article on the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese’s blog site titled, Orthodox fundamentalism, in which he wrote, “the entire Orthodox Church is at risk of being hijacked by extremists.”

In response to this piece my second guest, Fr. John Whiteford, wrote a rebuttal to this article on his blog site, and the subject of Orthodox fundamentalism, within the Orthodox Church obviously, is coming up more frequently these days and we’ll be discussing with my guests, how are they understand Orthodox fundamentalism and if it exists in the Orthodox Church today and in what shapes and forms.

And I am very pleased and appreciative that both of the writers of these pieces agreed to speak publicly on these issue on Ancient Faith Today. And my guest on the program are, first Dr. George Demacopoulos is a professor of theology at Fordham University in NY. He specializes in the history of Christianity in late antiquity, the early medieval west, and in Byzantium. He is also the co-founding director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Centre at Fordham University. He is the author and editor of several books including, The Invention of Peter: Apostolic Discourse and Papal Authority in Late Antiquity, co-editor of Orthodox Constructions of the West and co-editor of Orthodox Readings of Augustine. Dr. George Demacopoulos, welcome to Ancient Faith Today, it’s great to have you.

Dr. George: Thank you, it is a real pleasure.

Kevin: And my second guest is Father John Whiteford. Father John is a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia often known as ROCOR, under the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate and Father John serves as senior priest at St. Jonah Orthodox Church in Spring Texas. He is also a commentator on religious, Church and social issues on his blog Fr. John Whiteford’s News, Comments, & Reflections. And Father John also has a regular podcast of his homilies on Ancient Faith Radio titled, From the Amvon.

Kevin: Welcome and thanks for being with us tonight Father John Whiteford.

Fr. John: Thanks for having me on.

Kevin: Very welcome, it’s good to have you both.

Kevin: Dr. George Demacopoulos let me start with you. As you know, obviously, the word fundamentalism evokes the movement of conservative Protestants to establish and uphold certain fundamental beliefs against the perception of the drift of modernism and secular influenced Protestants. So can you please tell us what you mean by Orthodox fundamentalism and if you can, please provide some examples of how and where you see it manifesting in the Orthodox Church today.

Dr. George: Sure, I’d be happy to. So, the term does originate with a group of American Protestants, but in the academic world fundamentalism is understood to be a global phenomenon, negatively effecting every religious tradition. What Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish fundamentalists all have in common, is that they believe that their traditions are literally under attack by the forces of modernity.

As a response these groups insulate their communities by fabricating a mythical vision of the past where all of the believers were completely observant, and all theological questions had clear answers. With this kind of historical invention in hand, the fundamentalist then divides everything about the present world into black and white. All moral question have simple answers, all people are either good or evil.

I used the phrase “Orthodox fundamentalism” in this piece, to draw attention to the fact that our communities are not immune to the desire for this kind of artificial certainty. We are not immune to this kind of lazy thinking, if you will. In fact, given the central role of tradition, and the Church fathers in our religious life, we might be more prone to the traps of fundamentalism because we see the past as authoritative. But turning Byzantium into some kind of golden age and proof texting the Church Fathers, is not spiritual leadership, I would argue, and in fact it’s not the way that the saints of Byzantium actually operated.

Kevin: Father John Whiteford, two part question for you. First, how do you respond to George’s definition of fundamentalism as he perceives it existing in Orthodoxy and two, how do you understand the criticism of Orthodox fundamentalism from some quarters of the Orthodox Church today. If you forget the second part, I’ll remind you.

Fr. John: OK. Well, the problem I have with the use of the word fundamentalism or fundamentalist, the way it’s being used, is that it originated basically with a particular group that had a particular definition of that term, and basically they were sort of defining it as what they saw as the minimal beliefs that you had to believe to be a right believing Christian, in their view.

Fundamentalists now days are typically depicted as being a bunch of ignoramuses or anti-intellectuals but the early fundamentalists included people like B.B. Warfield, and J. Gresham Machen of the Princeton School who were very conservative Presbyterians and were fairly noted scholars of their time and so it was a caricature even for them. So what happened in the late 70s was that the media begun to apply the term fundamentalists to radical Muslims which – I can’t prove this but I believe it was basically a back handed way of linking people like Jerry Falwell with the Ayatollah Khomeini when in reality they had very little to do with each other and – as time has gone on the term has come to be used as a synonym for “you are an idiot.”

The traditional movement such as you find in different groups should be treated more seriously than that and we are talking about people who are traditionally minded in the Orthodox Church. There are people who, I would agree are extreme, but they are not extreme in the sense of trying to come up with a sort of a minimal definition of what it means to be a Christian. As a matter of fact it is just the opposite. It tends to be the modernist Orthodox that have a minimal definition of what it means to be Orthodox and the extremists or Calendarists, have a maximalist view of what it means to be Orthodox and so it’s not as if they are coming up with five things you have to believe to be Orthodox. They some times go too far with some of the things that are maybe not quite so important.

Kevin: So you are arguing Father John more with the terminology that Dr. George Demacopoulos used as opposed to his point of anti-modernity and static view of the Orthodox Church and a golden age of Byzantium that had its nuances just like perhaps we do?

Fr. John: Well my issue is with use of the term, as I mentioned, but also the problem is that when you sweep everybody into the same category that is responding to modernity and trying to defend the tradition into one group, you link people like Metropolitan [of Nafpaktos] Ierotheos Vlahos whose probably the most noted Orthodox theologian alive today and highly respected, with people who are extremists or Calendarists that really do have some crazy ideas.

Kevin: OK. Well as a quick followup then I am going to go back to Dr. Demacopoulos. Why do you think people are starting to criticize some groups within Orthodoxy as fundamentalists? What do you see behind this?

Dr. George: Well I think the motivation is that you have certain quarters within the Orthodox Church that are actually trying to promote things like ecumenism or renovationism in terms of the services or the traditions of the Church, and when they get challenged by people who say, ‘well that’s contrary to what the canons say’ or ‘that’s contrary to what the fathers say’ the easy, lazy way to answer is to say, ‘well you are just a bunch of fundamentalists’ rather than to actually engage what they are saying on the merits. Because like I said, in some cases people take criticisms to far and they really do need to be debated on their understanding of Church history and the tradition, but in other cases they have very legitimate objections and their objections should be treated seriously.

Kevin: Dr George Demacopoulos I want to follow up on something that Father John pointed out. When you speak of fundamentalism within Orthodoxy are you talking about using C. S. Lewis’ terminology where he refers to “thick or maximalist” view of Christianity versus a “thin or minimalist” Orthodox Christianity or are we talking about things like, literal readings of scripture, young earth, anti-evolution or emphasizing the ascetic disciplines of the Church like fasting, and rejection of modern sexual morality, and other “cultural war” issues? Maybe you could speak to that.

Dr. George: Yeah, to be honest I believe I am talking about, in a sense, something altogether different. I am talking about a methodological approach. I am talking about a complete unwillingness to accept the historical facts as they are, because the fundamentalist has perverted his faith in God in such a way, that his account of history is completely wrapped up in what it means to be a believer. This sets up a kind of cognitive dissonance where ideological commitments rather than the empirical data of texts and history shape what we think about our past and this then cripples our approach to the present.

When this happens all of the complexity, nuance and variation within our tradition is reduced to a set of stock truisms that do, in a sense, violence to the individual insights of the Fathers, who often disagreed with one another.

In my view there are too many Orthodox who are unwilling to accept that when the Fathers wrote, they wrote for a specific context and for specific purposes that are not always applicable in the present.

The irony then, in fact, is that in the 6th or 7th century, the Fathers were perfectly willing to revise the canons and to rethink the way that they should interpret scripture, and they did it all the time, but now there is this kind of unprecedented stubbornness, almost a militant inflexibility, that is turning the great spiritual resources of our tradition into museum pieces.

Kevin: So you are not specifically, and please correct me if I am getting this wrong, George Demacopoulos, so you are not really talking about a dichotomy between a lax or minimalist Orthodoxy and a maximalist Orthodoxy?

Dr. George: No, I don’t think so. I am not. I mean, the distinction that Father pointed out, I think is right. In some sense there are, lets call them progressives for lack of a better word, who really can be reductionists themselves and there are deeply conservative people that do have a very rich sense of what it means to be Christian. So I am not necessarily going in that way. My use of the term fundamentalist is really more engaged with the question of modernity. The fundamentalist, and this is true of the original Protestant group and it’s true of every other religious tradition that has experienced the same phenomena – which is why the term, I believe, is applicable – it’s that these people think that their traditions are completely under siege by modernity. Literally under siege, and they think that the only way that they can retain their own believers is to basically reject modernity out of hand rather than engage it. And one of my core points is that, that very notion that we are just going to throw up our hands and give up on modernity and not engage it, is the exact opposite of the way that the Fathers of the Church actually engaged the world around them.

There was never an intellectual question or a cultural condition that they were unwilling to engage and they almost always drew on philosophical and cultural resources that were actually not even part of Christianity when they did so. But the fundamentalist refuses all of that and the Orthodox fundamentalist does as well.

Kevin: But you’re not saying that you’d disagree with the idea that Christianity in general is under siege by secular modernity.

Dr. George: I don’t think I would put it that way. I really don’t. I think that a lot of people fear secularism. A lot of people see secularism as a threat to the Church and to the survival of the Church. Secularism is it’s own kind of religion and to think about it otherwise is to make a kind of grave mistake. There have always been religious alternatives to Orthodox Christianity. There was never an age, I would argue, that was less dangerous to the Church than our own. I think it is really wrong to think of the contemporary setting as being a greater threat to the Church than anything the Church experienced in the past.

I think what people get confused is that they think the problem is secularism when I would argue it’s not. I think what is different today that is that we cannot control rapid communication. We cannot insulate our children from hearing things that offer different ideas in a way that we could in the past and so there is no way to stop the flow of alternative visions. But that is precisely what the fundamentalist wants to do. The fundamentalist wants to shut out all possible other options rather than engaging them.

Kevin: Father John Whiteford I read a characterization of Orthodox fundamentalism that I would like to run by you and have you respond to it.

It says basically, that Orthodox fundamentalism is that which moves beyond a healthy understanding of tradition and

  1. Embraces a static notion of history in the world.
  2. Equates truth with its own impressions and historical political views.
  3. Absolutizes custom and form.
  4. Disdains diversity of views.
  5. Fears the forces of progress.
  6. Rejects all things western.

How would you respond to this characterization?

Fr. John: Well, one thing I would point out is the person that you are referring to is an Old-Calendarist Bishop and so it kind of highlights the point that I am making about there being a lot of different perspectives among people who take a traditional line and why it is a bad idea to use one term that lumps them all together, because really what he is addressing, when he is talking about that, are the really hard-core Old-Calendarists that are very anti-intellectual. And what I would say is that if you want to talk about those kind of people it would be better to use phrases like anti-intellectual or extremist or something like that that is more descriptive. Because [the term] fundamentalist just raises the image of the Ayatollah Khomeini, of the Taliban, and all that kind of stuff and it’s such an overused word that it’s become almost meaningless.

But there definitely is an issue with some people who are on the fringes that need to be addressed. I do think that, it’s pretty safe to say, that Christian faith is under siege by modernity because there is a world view that is become predominant that is anti-Christian, but I don’t know very many people who would say we should just not engage that perspective and just put our head in the sand. There probably are some people you’d find somewhere, they call themselves Orthodox, but I think that cast would be a pretty small minority.

Kevin: Dr Demacopoulos – I am sure you are on top of all this information – we recently saw a Pew Research poll, the first one in 2008, the most recent one in 2014 just published recently in 2015, and many knowledgeable observers within Orthodoxy agree, that the most corrosive and destructive trends in the Orthodox Church today are the influences of secularism by which I mean adopting the values and behaviors or this world versus the abiding values of the Kingdom of God and classic liberalism and I am not speaking of the politics of the Democratic Party or anything like that, but the values which came from the Enlightenment.

So my question is, do you disagree that some of what you might describe as fundamentalism are, again, reactions against these drifting trends that some see even within the Orthodox Church towards a more liberal, secular approach and an attempt to reemphasize the Patristic teachings and practices of the Holy Orthodox faith?

Dr. George: That’s a big question. Let me start by pointing out, I think you and others are making a rather significant leap here. The Pew study, did not assign any reasons for the decline in Church participation. It simply chronicled them. I think that a lot of people are simply assuming that the decline is related to secularism. But more to your actual question, is secularist giving rise to fundamentalist attitudes.

I think that the fear of secularism gives rise to fundamentalist attitudes, I don’t know that secularism itself does, but I don’t think that secularism is the biggest threat to the Church today. In fact, I don’t think there is anything about the present age that is any more challenging for the Church than anything that has come before. Today’s challenges are very different than those of the pre-modern era but they are no more threatening to the survival of the Church as I said.

From my perspective, the biggest threat to the Orthodox Church now, is the fact that we have shifted the way that we respond to the questions of our age, and to be frank, what I mean is, we basically refuse to respond at all. In the past the Saints of the Church engaged the world of their day in its own terms. There were no questions that were off limits. The Fathers drew from the cultural resources at their disposal to demonstrate why an Orthodox confession of faith was the most rational of all possibilities. As the questions and challenges evolved, so did the answers. I’ll give you an example.

By the 5th century, the Fathers came to realize that the language of the Nicean Creed was no longer sufficient to respond to the Christological debates. So what did they do? They drew on non-Christian philosophical resources, Aristotle, Plato, the Stoics, to articulate in new ways the mystery of Christ’s dual nature. They didn’t throw out the Nicean confession of faith of course, but they transformed it so completely that we have interpreted it differently ever since.

By contrast, today, rather than engage and critique the challenges presented by our times, what the fundamentalist does is retreat into the false security of thinking every question is already been answered.

Kevin: Father John do you want to respond?

Fr. John: Yeah, I don’t see a lot of people in the Orthodox world that are refusing to address questions that are being raised by modernity. As a matter of fact, an awful lot of people who spend a lot of time trying to come up with ways to respond to it. Again, I am sure that there are probably is some Old-Calendarist somewhere in some cave that just tries to ignore everything and hopes it will all go away, but I don’t see that as the reality on the ground in the Orthodox Church today.

The people at the time of 5th century, they were using terminology and speaking in ways that were meaningful to the people of their time but they were not changing the faith in terms of its essence, they were articulating it, and we do that today too. We try to come up with new ways to explain things to people but the goal is to try to not change the faith in any essential way when we do that because that is a simple matter of being faithful to the Orthodox tradition.

Kevin: Dr George Demacopoulos, in your post on the GOA website you wrote, “Orthodox fundamentalism reduces all theological teaching to a subset of theological axioms,” and what I am hearing, please correct me if am I am wrong or if I am misconstruing your position, what I am hearing although I didn’t pick up entirely this on your blog, that you are really referring to a kind of theological thinking and theological discourse. Are you referring specifically to theological approaches that you’d describe as fundamentalist or are you talking about the practices, the ethos, things that are being suggested to parishioners or imposed on parishioners that you believe are fundamentalistic in praxis versus simply theological thinking?

Dr. George: OK. So it’s not entirely an either-or because the one can lead to the other. I am an academic so I think in academic categories and so principally my concern is a methodological one. And to pick up what Father John said, I think that there really are people who — I think there are more people than he is willing to concede — there are people who are just unwilling to engage and to question the relevancy of the Fathers in certain topics. I am talking about a methodological approach but it does play out in specific ways and I’ll give you an example.

Kevin: Please.

Dr. George: A couple of years ago, probably the best theological academy in Greece is a place called the Volos Theological Academy, hosted a conference where the animating question of the conference was “The role of the Fathers in the modern church.” Papers were authored by some of the most prominent figures of the Orthodox world including Metropolitan John Zizioulas, and Metropolitan Hilarion of Russia. The presentations were screened online with live translation in to Greek – it’s fascinating watching these guys go so fast actually.

A couple of months after the conference a bishop in Greece assembled a list of a few sentences here and there from the Greek transcript that he had gotten hold of. Literally he would pick five or six words, completely out of context, and then he would write ridiculous refutations that would go on for paragraphs and paragraphs, against the five or six words that had been taken out of context. And the common thread in each of his responses, and this man is the bishop of a major city in Greece, and the common thread in each of his responses was that everyone who participated in the conference was a heretic. This is of course nonsense and the bishop in question showed himself to be a fool but I think this is going on in ways that are more substantial than we may realize.

Kevin: When you refer, George Demacopoulos, to reductions of theological teaching to a subset of theological axioms, break that down for us non-academics. What are you referring to?

Dr. George: One of the common themes in this man’s critic was that the definition of Orthodoxy is that it is philopatria. Meaning that Orthodoxy is simply the love of the Fathers, and that anyone who would besmirch the name of any singe Father, anyone who would besmirch the notion that the Fathers had not already answered every question that exists, is a heretic. He is conceded to a modern godless secular west and there is basically no hope for him. This person is no longer Orthodox, according to that kind of thinking.

Kevin: You can’t question the Fathers? Is that what you are saying?

Dr. George: Right. You can’t question the Fathers, you can’t question their relevancy. God forbid you ever point out when they contradict one another and so on.

Kevin: Ok. Father John Whiteford, as a follow up to that, would you disagree that some Orthodox take quotes of the Holy Fathers perhaps out of context or apply them inappropriately? We often hear “this is what the Church Fathers say” as if, as George has pointed out, there is often some inconsistency between them, or that some of the quotes maybe very contextual that is applying to a particular historic situation and/or time or trend. Bishop Kallistos Ware by the way condemns this calling it canonical fundamentalism.

Fr. John: Certainly, just like people who quote scripture out of context, there are people who quote the Fathers out of context and just like the scriptures, the Fathers have to be interpreted. They have to be interpreted in context and they have to interpreted historically. But I think what got the reaction out of the Metropolitan in question and prompted quite a few other people who maybe more articulately took some issues with what happened at the Volos conference that Dr George refer to, was that they were throwing around the term “Post-Patristic Theology.”

The idea of there being a post-patristic Orthodox theology was waving a red flag in front of the bull basically for these people. I realize that a lot of what was actually said at the conference was a lot more nuanced than that, but that’s what set people off. We do have an issue with people in the contemporary Orthodox world that are trying to push the boundaries of Orthodoxy in the areas that are totally foreign to what the Church has always believed and while I would agree that there are issues that come up that we can’t just quote the Fathers to answer, the issues that are being raised today, we also can’t come up with a new Orthodox faith that has not already existed and call it Orthodoxy. We have to apply the principals and the teachings of what the Fathers in the scriptures taught and then come up with a way to deal with things that may be they didn’t directly address, but we do find answers in most cases to those, or at least we find answers in terms of the principles that we find in the Fathers that address these things. And so, there can’t be post-patristic Orthodoxy.

Kevin: Dr George Demacopoulos why don’t you respond to that?

Dr. George: Yeah, the final statement I think I would agree with completely. This is precisely what has to go on. The scriptures, the Fathers, are resources for the modern world, to be sure. I guess the only nuance I might add to it, is that engaging those sources and appropriating them effectively for today is always an act of translation, and it is always something new. It is not new as in original, but it is new as in, it is a new articulation because you are engaging a new question. So there is a vitality to the faith, an ever shifting evolution to its articulation that has always been there. To deny that is to simply not understand how historical change works.

Fr. John: I certainly agree that that is true. We wouldn’t care what the later Fathers had to say if the earlier Fathers had already said everything that needed to be said. But to give a concrete example, we have people in the Orthodox Church today that are trying to promote the idea that women should be ordained as priests. We have people who are promoting the idea that homosexuality, as we know it today and understand it today, is ok and maybe what the Fathers weren’t even talking about it or if they were talking about it, they were just ignorant, and so we don’t have to be concerned [with] what they have to say.

I think any approach to those kinds of questions that tries to find an answer that is at odds with what the Fathers taught, is suspect at best and heretical as worst.

Kevin: Dr Demacopoulos you mentioned two intellectual errors in your definition of fundamentalism in your blog. One, the presupposition that the Church Fathers agreed on everything, which you’ve said they didn’t. I am not sure that any knowledgeable Orthodox would disagree with that. And you’ve said, two, that Orthodox theology has never changed. These are errors as you point out. So my question is, are you making the argument that once the Fathers reached dogmatic consensus, say in the Ecumenical Councils, that they are fallible? And do you mean that they are open to contemporaneous interpretation and/or disagreement by individuals and/or theologians? I mean are you suggesting some sort of a development of doctrine as Catholics and Protestants teach?

Dr. George: Let me put it to you this way. I am a historian by training and I am making the historical observation that those statements of dogmatic consensus were never deigned sufficient by subsequent councils because the participants always added to them, always nuanced them, or altered their thrust in order to bring them in to conversation with contemporary questions.

We are often triumphalistic in our use of the Ecumenical Councils and something we rely on in our apologetics against Protestants especially but also the Catholics. But if I could give you just one example that I like to give my students all the time, I would steer you to St. Gregory the Theologian, who was perhaps the single most important writer in our history.

St. Gregory thought that the Second Ecumenical Council was a complete failure. Yes, that’s right. He actually thought that the Nicean Creed was a mistake. He thought it was a mistake because it didn’t go far enough. It didn’t explicitly state that the Holy Spirit is God. St Gregory was so convinced that the Council was a mistake that he resigned as the president of the Council, and spend the remainder of his life in self-imposed exile writing against the bishops who had failed to acknowledge that the Holy Spirit was homoousios with the Father.

Today, we interpret the Creed as saying that the Holy Spirit is God, but it doesn’t. The Creed never says that the Holy Spirit is homoousios and it never uses the term Trinity. It simply says that we worship the Holy Spirit. The reason we interpret the Creed as saying that the Holy Spirit is God, is because we read it through the lens of the Fourth Ecumenical Council and this is precisely my point.

It took the Church two more ecumenical councils to declare that the Holy Spirit is in fact God, and since that time, we’ve understood the meaning of the original Creed in a new way.

Kevin: Interesting. Thank you for that. Father John Whiteford, you know I’ve spoken…

Fr. John: Well…

Kevin: Did you want to make a comment Father John?

Fr. John: Well, I was just going to say that the fact that as time goes by the Church defines things more precisely does not suggest however that the Church didn’t believe in things that we later more precisely define. Because St Basil the Great was arguing that the Holy Spirit was God long before the Fourth Ecumenical Council happened, and that was the faith that was given to the Apostles and it it the faith once delivered onto the saints. It is just a question of the Church didn’t have a precise definition of these things prior to controversies arising and then as time went on when these controversies appeared the Church sorted these issues out and came to a consensus and that’s what we believe. But if we were going to say that the Apostles didn’t believe the Holy Spirit was God then our faith would be false, we’d be proclaiming things that were just not true.

Kevin: Father John let me follow up with you on this. I’ve spoken with some Orthodox clergy and laity alike who have come from Protestant fundamentalist backgrounds themselves and seem to want to fit, at times, everything Orthodox into an air tight theological box like fundamentalists do, as if there is a simple black/white formulaic Orthodoxy. Would you disagree that the great Orthodox tradition is far too broad and complex to reduce to such fundamentals – this is Orthodoxy, this is this, this is that – as sometimes one hears?

Fr. John: Well I think part of the problem that you have with that, when you are explaining Orthodoxy to people that are not Orthodox, it’s difficult at each point to get into all the possible nuances to every point that you are making and so when people are newer to the Church they may tend to have a more cut and dry view of things that upon further study they’ll come to know there is a little bit more to it than that, because Church history is a little messy.

I, myself, have often been called an Orthodox fundamentalist but I can tell you and I can show you all the volumes I’ve written on the subject, responding to people who really are extremist, who’ve tried to make the case, for example, that if you’ve got a bishop who teaches anything that’s heretical that therefore everyone has to immediately separate from that bishop and can’t have anything to do with him and if they fail to separate that therefore have cut themselves off from the Church.

When you study Church history you just know that’s not true, because there certainly have been cases where there has been ambiguity where some local Church has fallen in to some error but other local Churches didn’t immediately cut them off. So I agree that Church history is more complicated than that and so when I encountered people who tried to make it more cut and dry than that, my effort has been to try to educate them. I just don’t think we advance the football down the field when we use terms that are so broad that we lump people like myself in to the same category as the kind of people I have spend so much time responding to. This was particularly when the Russian Church abroad was in the process of reconciling with the Moscow Patriarchate. I can tell you there were several years where this kind of conversation was going on in a regular basis and so to put us all in one category and say that we are all fundamentalists doesn’t really help anyone understand anything.

Kevin: George, let me follow up on this point. When I have discuss and have asked people in the non-academic world what they understand as being Orthodox fundamentalism, what I hear is not this intellectual description that you’re putting forth. What I hear are things like, “Oh you know, all the strictness, and following all the Church fasts, and coming to Church regularly and all the pony tails that the priests are wearing, and the cassocks and these things…” Again, are you seeing fundamentalism as part of these things as well?

Dr. George: I am glad you raised this. The one thing I really regret about my original posting – I mean it was a 500 word op-ed, there is only so much you can do – but the one thing I regret is that I did not anticipate that people would confuse my critic of fundamentalism with the critic of monasticism or ascetic discipline more broadly.

Orthodox Christianity is inherently ascetic and it’s ascetic traditions are ancient. Fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon. It can only exist in modernity because it’s animating force is the fear of modernity.

My first book is actually an analysis of the ways in which the ascetic traditions of the monastic world first made their way into the parish environment during the 5th and 6th centuries. Throughout that book I argue that this was a very positive development. I would say it’s a very good thing when priests introduce traditions of ascetic discipline to their communities. Where it goes wrong I think, is when it leads to self-righteousness. When the spiritual father and his followers think that this is the only way to live an Orthodox life, or that ascetic disciplines somehow requires a rejection of modernity.

As I said, there is nothing inherently evil about modernity. Every age presents it own challenges to the Christian life. Ascetic discipline and especially the ascetic discipline of self critique as essential tools for combating our age or any age.

Kevin: So it sounds like to me that what you are saying is that those Orthodox who live in some idealized imaginary bubble of living in fifteen century Russia or thirteen century Byzantium or what ever, they are living in an unreal Orthodox existence?

Dr. George: It is not that they are living an unreal Orthodox existence, per se. I mean, they can be very pious, spiritual people. But I think they have insulated themselves from the world in such a way that is entirely inconsistent with the Orthodox tradition.

The great contribution of somebody like St Basil the Great, was that he went to Palestine and Syria and he saw these ascetics who had walled themselves off away from society and he said, You know what? That’s really not right. That’s not what it means to be Christian. To be Christian is to be engaged and it is to be engaged in the community around you and so St Basil’s great contribution to the Church is that he built monasteries that were socially active. He demanded that his monks served the causes of social justice in the environment in which he lived and that they not wall themselves off and shut themselves away.

So these little communities that are filled with lay people, they choose the monastery over the parish, I mean there is nothing inherently wrong about that but they are failing to kind of heed the Gospel to share the good news with the rest of the world. They are scared of the world, they don’t want anything to do with the world. They think the world is going to corrupt them. That’s not St Basil’s vision, that’s not Jesus’ vision.

Kevin: St Basil was the inventor really of the first institution of the hospital, of caring for…

Dr. George: That’s precisely right.

Kevin: ... the sick, including non-Christians.

Dr. George: That’s right, and he used his monks to staff them. He and St Gregory the Theologian literally invented the concept of the hospital.

Kevin: Absolutely. Father John, would you disagree or would you agree that trying to harmonize Orthodox Christianity, maybe the word harmonize is the wrong word, but trying to harmonize Orthodox Christianity with modernity de-christianizes the Orthodox faith or do you think there is a way to communicate the faith without being so fearful of modernity?

Fr. John: I think that we have to have a way of communicating the faith to people that have the minds of modernity or post-modernity but we can’t just come up with some sort of synthesis that kind of splits the difference. We have to maintain an Orthodox position that often will contrast with that modern perspective. For example, the world view of modernity is that there is no possibility of miracles. Well obviously we can’t except that. There is no any way we can compromise with that perspective because that would be to deny our faith. But we certainly can become educated and articulate enough to explain what we believe and give a rational defense of what we believe to people who have that mindset.

Kevin: George Demacopoulos you wrote of Orthodox fundamentalism as a slavish adherence to a fossilized set of propositions. So what do you mean by fossilized and who decides what’s fossilized? I mean Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos wrote, “We are Orthodox in so far as we are of the Holy Fathers,” in the book The Mind of the Church. Is this what you are describing as fundamentalism?

Dr. George: To be fossilized mean to be dead. So in terms of the Church it means that the Holy Spirit is no longer active. That revelation and Grace no longer occur. If the Church is to be alive, it’s to be filled the Grace of the Holy Spirit, then it must constantly seek to speak to the world of the present, not the world of the past.

To be clear, it must do so in a way that is not contradict the revelation of the past but it must also explain what that revelation is in terms that have meaning to the present. The entire history of our faith, from the age of Moses forward, has been an act of translation. Of communicating revelation to the world of the present, with each successive move the language we use to explore the mystery of God appropriates and digests its present. To think that this process of translation has stopped, is to deny that the Holy Spirit is active.

Kevin: I think there would be a lot of Orthodox that would agree that we need to have more of our hierarchs and our leaders speaking to the issues of the day from an Orthodox and Patristic perspective but it seems that we often tend to stay under the radar. I don’t know if that’s because of the lack of unity, administratively in the States or the fractionalized percentage of Orthodox in this country, I am not sure but I wouldn’t disagree with you on that one, Father John?

Fr. John: I would agree. I’ve often suggested to different bishops that it’d be nice to hear them speak more regularly on issues that of concern to people because it’s one thing to hear it from priests but when the bishop speaks people pay more attention and even people outside of the Church start paying attention, so yeah, that’s what we need more of and I don’t know very many people who would argue with that in principle, but to do so is not so easy. I think a lot of people are fearful to engage in these topics cause they are afraid they are going to offend a bunch of people or maybe they are going to fail to articulate things as well as needed to be but I’d rather see more bishops making an effort and occasionally not doing such a good job than only once in a while having a bishop that does it really well and not dealing necessarily with the really big issues.

Kevin: I am going to ask a question to both of you to respond to and this is something that I have been concerned about. Would you not agree that we do have some Church canons that are outdated and in need of reevaluation and one in particular that troubles me, is canon eleven of the sixth Ecumenical Council which talks about not eating unleavened wafers made by Jews, not befriending Jews, receiving no medical aid from Jews, not bathing in public areas with Jews. Metropolitan Philip of thrice blessed memory called this a “dead canon.” But it doesn’t appear that we are willing to go back and evaluate some of these canons that are either entirely out of context with the world that we live in today and/or able to be mis-applied. George, why don’t you start.

Dr. George: Yes, I think that there are absolutely are canons that, there are some canons that are just purely irrelevant because they have been replaced by subsequent ones like canons that draw jurisdictional maps. Those jurisdictions mapped onto a Roman Empire that no longer exists, so they are all nonsense, right?

There are other canons like the ones that you speak of that I think are highly-highly problematic and need to be revised. I think, and this is I think a why my posts really touched a nerve, is because there absolutely are things like this that need to be addressed, and I think the vast majority of bishops are so fearful of the fringe people within their constituency that they don’t have the courage to say so. But what’s so interesting is within four days of my posting that editorial on the Greek Archdiocese’s website, I received messages from 12 bishops and about 80 priests thanking me. And explicitly saying, most of them, that I was saying things that they couldn’t say because of the backlash they would receive. And so I think that there is probably a much larger consensus than you would expect that thinks that certain canons need to be revised and certain questions really need to be brought out into the open and discussed and researched, and it could take a generation or so. We are not going to solve these things overnight. It could take a generation or two to solve this. But I think that these groups within the Church that are so critical of our leaders and they just beat the drum of “Oh I’m more Orthodox than you because I am going to use this fossilized notion of what it means to be Orthodox.” I think that has so many of our bishops gun-shy.

Kevin: Well, Father John do you want respond to the need for revising some of these canons that are at least not in context with the world we live in here?

Fr. John: Well, if you make an analogy with scripture, there are certainly things in scripture that we refer to as problematic passages that are difficult to understand because a lot has changed since they were written and within that context that it was written in it made sense but in our context it’s difficult to understand.

No one says, at least no one who is pious says, let’s revise the Bible. What they say is, we need to interpret the Bible properly, and so the same thing would be said in this case. You have a canon that was in a very particular context, that’s very different from our context, so for example you often hear people who are trying to say well, why should we care what the canons say, because the canons say you can’t go to Jewish doctor and who doesn’t go to a Jewish doctor?

Well, they didn’t have modern medicine back when that canon was written. They were talking about people who would be a lot more like faith healers than they would be a doctor with a modern MD. So the concern of that canon was with dealing with a much more aggressive anti-Christian population of Jews that they were dealing with in their own context and basically saying, keep your distance, don’t blur the lines, don’t partake in their religious celebrations and don’t go to their faith healers, but that is not what we encounter in New York City today with the average Jewish person that you’d encounter. So to try to say, well, the canons says that you can’t be friends with a Jew and you happen to work with a guy who is a Jew, so therefore you are violating the canons if you make friends with him, that’s not what the canon’s talking about.

Kevin: To my point, some of these need to be either addressed and/or dealt with. The [Roman] Catholic Church is going back and looking at some of its anti-Semitic canons and repenting of them. We’re not doing much of that.

Fr. John: I don’t think we need to repent of that canon. I think we need to properly interpret it. As a matter of fact, I would say that we are. I don’t know of any bishop that is excommunicating people or deposing priests because they go to see a Jewish doctor. We know that canon doesn’t apply in the context that we are in.

But even canons that don’t directly apply to our context still have principles that we can study and in many cases those principles would still be applicable to other situations, just not directly.

Kevin: George, you also wrote in your blog that “the insidious danger of Orthodox fundamentalist that they obfuscate the difference between tradition and fundamentalism.” So bring that out for us non-academics. What do you mean and some examples would help.

Dr. George: Alright. The danger as I see it, is that because all Orthodox Christians understand the significance of tradition and the Church Fathers, those who are not especially knowledgeable of this material can be easily swayed by a fundamentalist reading of our past, because it is so tidy and offers such certainty to life’s questions.

Paul Tillich once wrote that “the opposite of faith is not doubt. It’s certainty.” That’s a really profound statement. He is speaking specifically to the great deception of the fundamentalist, because the fundamentalist turns faith into something easy. He makes it certain. This in turn leads to a kind of unseeking ideology that can even become idolatrous.

Kevin: So are you talking about legalism?

Dr. George: Sure, yeah. I am talking about legalism. I am talking about proof texting. I am talking about reductionism. I am talking about people who often have actually not read very deeply in the Fathers, don’t understand their nuance, and so around the sentence that begins with “The Fathers say…”

I once quipped to some friends that anyone who begins with the sentence, “The Fathers say…” hasn’t actually read them.

Kevin: Father John, in an article on the subject of fundamentalism, the author of the article wrote,

“Within the charismatic perspective of the Orthodox Faith, our fidelity involves neither, fundamentalism a fruitless domination by tradition, an insalubrious appeal to the past, nor a legalistic mentality.”

So my question would be, are we support to pretend we live in a pre-modern world and reject the findings of modern science in order to be Orthodox? How would you respond?

Fr. John: Well, again, I don’t know very many people who are saying, let’s pretend like we live in the 19th century or anything like that. The Russian Church for example, back in 2000 issued a very extensive document called The Basis Of The Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church that covers all kinds of contemporary issues and dealt with them in a very thoroughly – it’s a great document, and I don’t know of a very many people who are traditionally minded who would have a problem with it.

It talks about issues of bioethics, homosexuality, the death penalty. It deals with just about any kind of temporary hot button issue you can imagine and I think the Orthodox Church pretty much received it favorably. I don’t of very many people who are criticizing it. Even among people who are traditionally minded.

The issue is, as I said, we have people in the Orthodox Church today that will wax eloquently about the fundamentalists and legalism, that are trying to promote the idea that it’s OK for a man to have sex with another man and be an Orthodox Christian and receive communion. The canons, the scriptures, the Fathers, are incredibly clear on that subject, and that’s just in fidelity of the Orthodox Faith and saying so doesn’t make somebody a fundamentalist. It makes them an Orthodox Christian.

Kevin: George Demacopoulos you wrote that

“the significance of the Fathers lies in their ernest and soul-wrenching quest to seek God and to share him with the world.”

Father John in his rebuttal to that wrote,

“If this is true, then how were the Fathers different from Buddhists or Taoist writers who were in a soul-wrenching quest to seek God.”

How would you respond to that?

Dr. George: Pretty simply I guess. The difference is that the Fathers believed in the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus and that they provided insights for how to actualize that faith in a community of believers. It comes down to ideas and what they believe in, what they committed themselves to.

Kevin: OK. So you are not conflating ecumenical syncretism in with this whole issue?

Dr. George: Not at all.

Kevin: OK. Father John…

Fr. John: What I’d say is the significance of the Fathers is the fact that they faithfully passed on the faith that was once delivered on to the saints and they did it in very articulate ways. It wasn’t some soul-wrenching quest where they were coming up with this stuff out of thin air. It was certainly an intellectual quest, a spiritual struggle for them to deal with the kinds of difficulties they had to deal with, but if they were coming up with stuff that the Church hadn’t always believed, in essence, then we don’t have a faith that is really true to what it claims to be.

Dr. George: Can I go back to that just for a second? 

Kevin: Please.

Dr. George: Actually I remember writing this and I often in my writings have Saint Gregory the Theologian in mind and when I used that phrase, soul-wrenching, there is no way to read St Gregory’s poetry in the period of his self imposed exile. He is so desponded about what has happened at the Second Ecumenical Council. He is so upset. He is remembering his long time friend St Basil, and how they ended on poor terms and they never reconciled before St Basil’s death, and that poetry is as soul-wrenching as anything you’ll ever read.

The world is falling apart in his view. Everything is going wrong and yet he still finds God. He still believes in God and he still pushes the intellectual boundaries to try to articulate what it means to believe in God. So, I would agree that the Fathers of course passed on the Apostolic Tradition but every great saint of the Church and every – certainly every theologian who is a saint of the Church – does so in a very specific context with very often unique animating concerns that lead them to those insights.

Kevin: Father John, as we are starting to descend in this very fascinating and hopefully clarifying conversation, you know, one of the criticisms I’ve heard from some and being frank, often of convert clergy, is that they emphasize the stricter rubrics and seemingly more monastic ethos and posit them at the parish level as the only true Orthodoxy. So my question is, do you see a problem with conflating or teaching a strict monastic ethos in parish life and promoting it as the only true Orthodoxy?

Fr. John: It certainly can be an issue. I mean, I know when I was a newer convert and more zealous, I had the desire to do the services to the hilt for example, but when I became a parish priest and started dealing with the practical question of how am I going to get my parishioners to come to Church, and also became more aware of a proper Orthodox ethos to these things, it dawned on me at one point that there are certain abbreviations for example that the Russian Church has done for a long time. People like St John of Shanghai grew up going to services that were like that and as bishop he had abbreviations that he told people to follow but he also wrote an article, by the way, on the Typikon where he talked about abbreviations that people should not make. I mean there is boundaries that have to be drawn but I finally came to the point where I realized, you know what, I just want my parish to be a pious, normal, Orthodox Church that’s in the Russian tradition.

The other issue of course is that, there are different traditions and what is a pious, normal, Orthodox parish in a Greek tradition is going to be different than in a Russian tradition and that doesn’t mean that one of them is better than the other. I interestingly heard a Greek bishop one time talking about how in America we have a great opportunity to appreciate all the differences that we have that are legitimate between the various traditions and to appreciate them and to celebrate them but then this same Greek bishop – this was when I was a deacon – I was serving with him and he was communing the faithful, at a Russian parish, and when the people tried to kiss the chalice he almost spilled the chalice trying to move it out of their way. So in theory he came to that understanding but in practice he still fell into the temptation that we often do, which is to think that the way we do it is the way that it has to be, but that’s certainly not true. And in American we really do have an opportunity to observe that there are differences and not be narrow in our perspectives but that doesn’t mean that anything should go either. There is a legitimate tradition and the various local practices and then there are abnormalities that we shouldn’t encourage or propagate.

Kevin: Dr George Demacopoulos I am going to give you the last word here. Based on the research that I’ve been looking at and we discussed some of this, you know, the lack of retention rate of Orthodox, according to the Pew study, only 53% of those born in the Orthodox Church remain Orthodox. I go to a convert parish and I’m going to say that probably the retention rate of converts is no greater. The influence of secularism, lack of knowledge of our faith at the young adult and the adult level, and failure to take our Orthodox faith seriously, it seems to me are far greater threats to the Orthodox Church than any definition of fundamentalism. If you disagree I’ll give you the last word.

Dr. George: Alright. Thank you. I would agree that the lack of quality religious education in our parishes has been catastrophic and I would agree that there is a general indifference among people my age – I’m 45 – in parish life and that has led to a situation where secularism is a more appealing option to an 18 year old and all of this contributes to issues of retention.

But as I tried to suggest, secularism in and of its self is not the problem. Secularism is its own kind of religion. It’s the most popular religious alternative in the west at the moment, but have always been religious alternatives. To combat secularism effectively, we need to have a far more sophisticated understanding of what it is, where it come from, and why so many American prefer it. We can’t just throw up our hands and say everything about the modern world is wrong or evil. To do so is to deny that God is in the world.

The problem with fundamentalism, is that it offers the most wrong of all possibles answers to the questions and challenges posed by modernity. Rather than engaging the world in which we live, the fundamentalist conjures fantasies of the past as a way to escape the present. This does not bring anyone closer to God. It does not revitalize the Church. It creates its own heresy and leads to idolatry.

Kevin: Well, I would have to agree with you. I don’t want to put words in Father John’s mouth but with his blogs and knowing him as I do, I don’t think there is any disagreement between the three of us, that what we need is as Orthodox Christians and from the Church, is more robust engagement with the world and its secular and non-Christian religious views, its atheism and so on.

And so we’ll have to end here. I have the feeling this topic will continue to be discussed but I want to thank you both for helping me clarify and articulate your positions and you’ve both given us food for thought. So, Dr George Demacopoulos thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with us on Ancient Faith Today.

Dr. George: My pleasure. I really enjoyed it.

Kevin: And Father John Whiteford thank you very much for taking part in this important conversation.

Fr. John: Thank you and I’m glad to see you back on Ancient Faith Radio.

Kevin: Thank you very much and thank you all for listening to Ancient Faith Today.