Word Magazine May 1976 Page 6-9
Eastern Orthodoxy in a Western Ethos
Part I: Culture, Celebration and Expression
by philotheos faros
It is difficult to figure out how the prevailing assumption developed that Western cultural tradition is more refined and civilized than is the Eastern. Nevertheless, whatever the origin of this assumption might have been, it seems that this has been taken for granted for a long time. In this part of the world this is especially true, and people of both Eastern and Western cultural backgrounds seem to accept this assumption without question. As a result, the Westerners have developed a certain air of superiority and have at times demanded that those of an Eastern cultural background renounce their cultural tradition and conform to their prevailing superior Western cultural practices. When in the beginning of this century, and to some extent even now, the Anglo-Saxon city clerk told the intimidated immigrant that his name would not be Basil or Constantin but William or Charles, he did not have the slightest doubt that he was a missionary who was civilizing the barbarians. On the other hand, the immigrant Easterner often felt overwhelmingly embarrassed for his barbarian background and he was very eager to Anglo-Saxonize himself. He would change his name from Papadopoulos to Papson, forget his mother tongue, speak to his children in broken English, and, finally, he would also change his religion, and become Episcopalian, because Episcopalianism was the religion of the high class.
Even if he did not change his religion, he would try very hard to Protestantize Orthodoxy so that it was less barbaric. The use of incense was limited, as was lighting candles, kissing icons, or doing prostrations. All these were the uncouth practices of an old grandmother; these were dismissed with disgust by father and mother.
In everyday life many reformations were also very quickly introduced. Those reformations had mainly to do with the ways of expressing anger, sadness, happiness, and despair, as well as the role and value of the human body.
Expression of anger, which was so direct with Easterners, was strongly discouraged. Screaming or yelling, a very common and healthy way for Easterners to express anger, was characterized as cannibalism, and composure and calmness became the definite indication of refinement.
The expression of joy was also limited to controlled smiles and celebrations, and feasting was so much devitalized that it became difficult to know the difference between a wake and a wedding reception.
At this point I would like to mention how this mentality influenced Orthodox worship in the West, since Orthodox worship is celebrating and feasting more than anything else. The spontaneity of the faithful was suppressed and Orthodox worship deteriorated to an orderly bore.
The expression of grief was reduced to an ugly farce. Many non-reformed Orthodox who visited their grieving Anglo-Saxon friends found themselves in the predicament of being consoled by the bereaved themselves who would try to control their visiting friends’ sobbing by repeating in disgust, “Do not cry my dear, everything is fine.”
I do not think there are many things more pathetic and more barbaric than the mother who stands dressed in a flowery dress with a glamorous hairdo and makeup next to the casket of a young son or daughter who has died a tragic death and asks with a smile of every newcomer, “Doesn’t he look beautiful?”, and the visitor replies with the same smile, “He definitely does; they have done a beautiful job,” to which the grieving mother responds very politely, “Oh, thank you very much.”
Another strong element of Western culture is a definite dualism. For example, there is a strong contempt for the human body which is not expressed in the crudely open ways that some of the ascetics express it, but in a very subtle, undetectable way which penetrates everyday living. Most common is the strong distaste for any bodily gestures or facial expressions, as well as touching, which implies that the body exists only for sexual promiscuity.
Many zealous Orthodox, especially converts, are overcome with indignation when Orthodoxy is mixed up with cultural or, as they call it in order to make it sound more Sovinistic, ethnic traditions. These people are obviously still unable to get rid of their former error, which is probably the worst of Western heresies, namely, the separation of religion from life and its reduction either to a sterile religious intellectualism or to some kind of quaint and exotic mysticism. In reality, unless religion becomes a style of life that is a culture which is continually experienced in everyday life without any impressive pronouncements and fanfare, it is only a gimmick, a game, or a “trip.”
To help in understanding this point, I would like to bring to your attention that the Anglo-Saxon cultural characteristics I tried so hard to ridicule have a theological origin. They were inspired by Puritanism and pietism, those ugly monsters which were begotten out of wedlock from the triangle of Christianity, Romanism and European barbarism.
Spirituality: Static or Becoming
I do not know if I can fully explain how these disastrous distortions of Christian morality developed, but it seems that Western Christianity very early developed the belief that people either are Christians, which means they meet certain standards, or they are not. Western Christian spirituality and morality is static in that sense. The procedure of becoming a member of the body of Christ is similar to the procedure of becoming a member of a club. That is, to become a member of a certain club you have to meet certain requirements. Actually in the Orthodox Church in America the procedure of becoming a member of the Church is not similar to that of becoming a member of a club but identical.
It is not probably an accident that the passage of the 5th chapter of St. Matthew is translated in English as: “You must be perfect.” However, in Greek, the verb is in the future tense of indicative mood and it is a promise which implies very clearly that that perfection will be granted through grace in the future, though in English it is in present tense and the imperative mood which implies that man is expected to reach perfection by himself immediately.
As I said, I cannot trace out the origin of this notion; I only know that Augustine was already introducing it when if I am not mistaken, he said in his confessions that after his baptism he had no sexual thoughts. I hate to question Augustine’s honesty, but it is absolutely impossible for me to accept his statement. I suspect that he made that statement because he already had the notion that since he was a Christian, he was not supposed to have any sexual thoughts. The understanding of Eastern Christianity at the same time was entirely different. Historically, outstanding Christians with a great reputation for wisdom, perfection, and holiness, like St. Anthony, do not have any difficulty talking about their sexual thoughts and temptations, even to a very old age. The desert fathers, those giants of Christian spirituality, report their sexual anxieties and transgressions with an amazing simplicity and openness. I would like to mention only one of those beautiful stories that convey so well the desert fathers’ definite conviction that a Christian is constantly in the process of becoming, and consequently what makes somebody a Christian is that he is moving, that is, he is growing spiritually, and not just that he is meeting any standards at any specific time.
“A brother was goaded by lust, and rising at night be made his way to an old man, and told him his thoughts, and the old man comforted him. And revived by that comforting he returned to his cell. And again the spirit of lust tempted him, and again he went to the old man. And this happened many times. But the old man did not discountenance him, but spoke to him to his profit, saying, “Yield not to the devil, nor relax thy mind: but rather as often as the devil troubles thee, come to me, and he shall go buffeted away. For nothing so dispirits the demon of lust as when his assaults are revealed. And nothing so heartens him as when his imaginations are kept secret.” So the brother came to him eleven times, confessing his imaginings. And thereafter he said to the old man, “Show love to me, my father, and give me some word.” The old man said, “Believe me, my son, if God permitted the thoughts with which my own mind is stung to be transferred to thee, thou wouldst dash thyself headlong.” And by the old man saying this, his great humbleness did quiet the goading of lust in the brother.”1
I said before that what, makes somebody a Christian is the fact that he is moving, and growing; he is not stagnant, nor has he reached a certain level of perfection as a final point. In Christianity every single person’s standards are to some extent different from anybody else’s. The expectation for the person who is on the first step of the ladder of perfection is to move to the second; the expectation for the person who is on the tenth step is to move to the eleventh; therefore, when the latter individual is not moving towards the eleventh step, he can be condemned, while the first one can be saved, although he is eight steps lower than the latter. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is a good example of that. The Pharisee is a decent man. He is not a thief, not an adulterer; he is a temple-goer and an ardent temple supporter. But he is satisfied with his accomplishments, and he believes that there is nothing else he has to do; and, as a result, he had become stagnant. On the other hand, the tax collector lives an ugly life, but he realizes it; he is not satisfied with it, and he is resolved to move. It is the latter, not the former, who went up to his home justified, said Christ. The whole Eastern Christian tradition has developed on the basis of this stand. Western Christianity seems to have missed this entirely, and it got really caught up in its inflexible and impersonal generalizations. It developed the either/or Christian morality which presented very serious problems right away, and these show up very clearly in our times. The Christian West tried to cope with the consequences of its either/or generalized and standardized morality by developing two highly destructive patterns: 1) the “appear to be” pattern and 2) the “lowering of standards” pattern.
Two Destructive Patterns in The West
The first, in essence, just removes the focus from trying to be a Christian to trying to appear to be a Christian. Very early, Western Christians realized that they would never make it if the only way they could be Christians would be to meet all the standards; therefore they concentrated their efforts on trying to appear to be the way they were supposed to be. A good name for that tactic is hypocrisy, and it is familiar to all legalistic and rigid moralities. Phariseeism was exactly that, and Puritanism and pietism excelled in this — far beyond Phariseeism. Southern Baptist piety is an excellent contemporary example of this tactic.
The other pattern has been the lowering of the standards. That is, if the only way you can be a Christian is to meet all the standards, we can increase the number of Christians by decreasing the moral standards. Our age has witnessed much of this tactic. It started with Protestantism and developed to a spectacular firecracker in Roman Catholicism which responded with an overflow of permissiveness to the recent overwhelming exodus and indifference of its followers. I wonder which of the two tactics has been more destructive. The first created false people who spent their energy not to grow but to hide! The second took the excitement out of life. All the average American expects from himself is not to steal and not to kill, and when he accomplishes that, he sits back doing nothing and ends up vegetating and being bored to death. There is not any far-reaching perspective in his life, therefore he develops an infantile self-concern, which leads either to depression or to breakdown. When he cannot have instant gratification of his great oral needs, the world falls apart. He would never have a chance to get depressed due to sexual frustration, if he had the far-reaching direction in his life that a certain ascetic had, who every time he ate food, cried because he was nurturing his corruptible body when in incorruptible soul was starving.
That static notion of Christian morality and spirituality penetrated the life of the Western Christian and became a life style, which they live without being aware of it. Since the Western notion of Christian morality was the meeting of certain standards, a Christian was not supposed to have any negative feelings like anger an hatred. That notion was incorporated in the culture and eventually the expression of anger became a sign of barbarism. Refined people were not supposed to express or feel any anger. As a result of this notion, anger was suppressed, and it was transformed to all kinds of bad symptoms. Repressed anger is a basic part of all mental disturbances. The suppressed anger becomes devious and comes out well camouflaged and over-destructive. This is exactly what Christ describes, saying, “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, be passes through waterless places seeking rest, but he finds none. Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and brings with him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.” (Matthew 12, 43-49)
The unclean spirit that comes out of the Easterner with uncouth screaming and yelling, and which is repressed by the refined Westerner, comes back bringing with him seven spirits more evil than himself like all kinds of neuross, schizophrenia, depression, religious fanaticism, and many others; undoubtedly, the state of the psychotic refined Westerner is far worse than the state of the uncouth and crude, screaming and yelling Easterner. Repressed anger has been the cause of many disasters in human history. Many wars, revolutions, and massacres have been the disastrous outburst of repressed anger, and likewise many destructive effects of religious fanaticism like the Inquisition and the dreadful murders of the Calvinistic communities in the Middle Ages. Also, many dictators or stern and punitive religious leaders are moved by a repository of repressed anger which usually refers more appropriately to parental figures and which has been repressed by religious and cultural inhibitions. This is how religion becomes life, and it is lived by these people without awareness. This is how Western Christianity has influenced Western culture and this is how a distorted Christianity has caused immeasurable harm and innumerable deplorable cases of mental disturbance with which modern psychiatry is struggling. The therapeutic process for a schizophrenic in essence is a process of Easternization of the Western man; it is a process of re-orthodoxizing the Western Christian, because Orthodox Christianity has not accepted the “appear to be” pattern and, although it encourages the struggle for perfection, condemns perfectionism which is intolerance of human imperfection and which, in the language of the ascetics, is an indication of demonic pride.
The Image of Christ
It is amazing how Western Christianity distorted, in this issue, the scriptural image of Christ and presented him as condemning human aggression and as a sickening, soft, and effeminate man with rosy cheeks and blond wavy hair. It is deplorable that so many Orthodox are offended by the strong, powerful, dynamic, scriptural Christ of the Byzantine art although they are infatuated by this nauseating Western Christ. It is amazing how Western Christianity managed to visualize the fiery eyes of Christ which “looked around” at the Pharisees “with anger,” (Mark 3,5) as sweetish and wishy-washy, how it resolved to present as soft and effeminate, the powerful Christ who made “a whip of cords” and drove with it all the merchants “out of the temple” with their sheep and oxen, and “poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.” (John 2, 13-16) It is amazing how Western Christianity managed to describe as quiet and soft-spoken him who uttered the dreadful “woes” and called the Scribes and Pharisees “hypocrites,” “blind fools,” “blind guides,” “white-washed tombs,” “serpents” and “brood of vipers” (Matthew 23) and told his tempting disciples “Be gone Satan.” (Matthew 16, 23) It is inconceivable how Christ disintegrated to a eunuch prince of peace although he stated very emphatically, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and daughter against her mother, and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and man’s foes will be those of his own household,” (Matthew 10, 34-36) Christ did promise peace but not a hypocritical external peace but a real inner peace. He said, “My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.” (John 14,27)
1Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers (The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor Paperbacks, 1960), p. 77.
Father Philotheos Faros is professor of pastoral theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Seminary. This bicentennial article, presented in two parts, was written exclusively for THE WORD. Part II will follow in our next issue.