John Allen, a reporter for the National Catholic Reporter, makes a some interesting observations in his review of French sociologist Olivier Roy’s La Sainte ignorance: Le temps de la religion sans culture (Editions du Seuil 2008; the English translation, Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Diverge, is scheduled for release in May 2010, Columbia University Press). Allen is trying to make sense of what he (and others) calls “evangelical Catholicism” or that movement within the Catholic Church that seeks “a strong reassertion of traditional Catholic identity coupled with an impulse to express that identity in the public realm.”
Based on Roy’s work, Allen argues that evangelical Catholicism is part of a broader impulse among religious believers to revive a “traditional identity and . . . to proclaim that identity in public.” Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism all have their own evangelical movements. And so parallel to “the explosive growth of Evangelical and Pentecostal forms of Christianity,” we see “the success of Salafism, Tablighi Jamaat and neo-Sufism within Islam, the comeback of the Lubavich movement inside Judaism, as well as the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India and the popularity of Sri Lankan theravada Buddhism.”
While there certainly are difference among these movements, they nevertheless according to Allen share common characteristics. He quotes Roy as saying common to all these movements is “The individualization of faith, anti‐intellectualism, a stress on salvation and realization of the self, [and] rejection of the surrounding culture as pagan.”
What I find fascinating is Roy’s assertion that, in Allen’s words, “this evangelical wave isn’t a sign of a comeback for religion, but more akin to a symptom of chronic illness.” For example, the “anti-intellectualism” of contemporary forms of evangelicalism is the doorway through which believers are offered the promise of “immediate, emotional access to the sacred.” As part of this promise these new evangelical modes of traditional religions set themselves up “in direct opposition to contemporary pagan culture” and in so doing “creates space in which fundamentalism and radicalism metastasize.”
While some Orthodox Christians may see this as fundamentally a good thing, I think Allen is correct that in fact for Catholics and Orthodox Christians “this as a body blow, or at least a serious challenge.” The reason is that both “Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, . . . historically have emphasized the integration of religion with cultural, national and ethnic identity.” The pastoral significance this is seen not only in “the heavy losses Catholicism has suffered to Pentecostals in Latin America, and more recently in parts of Africa,” but also the growth of Protestant sects and New Age spirituality in traditional Orthodox countries such as Greece and Russia.
Turning to America, we see a similar evangelical movement among Orthodox Christians. I’m thinking here not only of traditionalists groups or those who intentionally pattern parish life on a deficient and eccentric understanding monastic life but also our packaging and marketing of the Church’s tradition to meet the expectations of dissatisfied Evangelical Christians seeking to recapture New Testament Christianity.
As I have said here before, we often see in American Orthodox Christianity is a dangerous convergence of ethnicity and monastic life that (ultimately) is faithful to neither. Instead it represents the very anti-intellectualism and sectarianism that we see not only in various forms of indigenous American Christianity but also in other religious traditions.
Is Roy’s analysis correct? Having not read his work I have to reserve judgment on the matter. But at least as reported by Allen, my intuition is that Roy is certainly on the right track. The temptation that the Orthodox Church–and really all religions face–is to hang our corporate identity on our opposition to American culture. To be sure there is much in American culture to oppose and I will not waste time repeating what we all know is true.
At the same time there is much in American culture that is good and I think compatible with the Gospel. The various personal and political freedoms enshrined in the US Constitution come quickly to mind. There are other qualities that are of value as well. Chief among these is the American commitment–again personal and corporate–to practical philanthropy, to fair play and to the common good. And all of this is in turn grounded in what I would call our common sense adherence to natural law and a just and well-ordered society is founded upon personal virtue.
It is important to note that what Roy describes is not–in the current case–Orthodox Christianity in its fullness. Rather what he helps us see in a parody, or at least a diminishing, of the Church’s life. An Orthodox Church without monastic life and our different ethnic traditions is crippled Church and one that will fail in its vocation to proclaim the Gospel.
Finally and briefly, our proclamation of the Gospel will necessarily draw on the monastic witness and the riches of traditional Orthodox culture; we can do no less if we are to be faithful to the faith delivered once and forever to the saints (see Jude 1:3).
We cannot reduce our proclamation the Gospel to simply reiterating what others have said and simply imitating what they have done. In classical Christian moral theology, virtue is always contextual. It is not enough to do a good thing; one must do the right good thing that the circumstances demand.
As always, your comments, questions and criticisms are not only welcome, they are actively sought.