Bilingual Orthodoxy

Orthodox in America sometimes suffer from a self esteem problem, feeling they don’t get proper media recognition.     So it probably was with some pride that the Orthodox could point out that the June 2008 Pew Forum poll on religious beliefs in America actually shows that Orthodox Christians made up .6% of those who were polled.    If this can be extrapolated to the entire U.S. population it would mean that there are almost 1.8 million Americans  who identify themselves as Orthodox Christian.  This also should lay to rest any of most outrageous claims by OCA leadership that the OCA alone is 2 million or 1 million strong.   It also lays serious challenge to Greek Orthodox claims of how many Greek Orthodox are in America.

The momentary pride the Orthodox might feel for being singled out at all in the poll, will really get dampened when the details of the poll are studied.

Only 49% of those who identified themselves as Orthodox say they believe in a personal God.

For a Church which is so totally theologically dominated in its thinking, this would suggest we are not communicating well with our members.  We probably have the most purely theological hymns of any of the Christian churches, including hymns which denounce various heresies, and yet the expressed views of our members shows an anemic theological conviction.  We may claim to have the most true, perfect and apostolic theology in the world, but it is not being conveyed to our members.  All the beautiful liturgies and exquisite theology but only half of our members are embracing  it.

Orthodoxy prides itself on its beautiful, theologically correct, and unchanging liturgies which still proclaim the Faith of the Fathers.  Yet only

One third of the Orthodox say they attend church at least once every week, while Mormon and Jehovah Witnesses claim that  75-80%  of them attend church at least once a week.

 Certainly these statistics should be alarming to all Orthodox and to our leadership.  If we are relying on the liturgies to convey the truth and beautiful of Orthodox theology, note well that two thirds of the members do not attend even once each week to drink of these waters.   And if we assume our theology is perfectly expressed in our liturgical loquaciousness, the membership isn’t there to hear it all that often.   And with the theological beliefs being expressed by the Orthodox half of our membership doesn’t personally embrace our theology.   If we are not speaking to, teaching, communicating with our own members,  how can we evangelize the world?

 Yet the Orthodox have shown a total disdain for rethinking their liturgical life and how members participate in it or what they take from it into their personal lives.     We have been far more concerned about preserving ancient texts and rites and customs, then in communicating with real people and their assumptions and needs.  We assume that they must change and learn to hear or understand what we say rather than we finding ways to communicate with them.  So priding ourselves on having liturgies in the vernacular, does not translate into truly being concerned about communicating with 21st Century Americans.    If “they” aren’t interested in entering into the world of Fourth or Ninth Century theological debates, we apparently see no need to speak to them in their 21st Century world.   In Acts 15 the Church actually set a pattern for dealing with new people and cultures when it decided that Gentile converts do not have to become First Century Jews in order to be Christians.  We need to revive that lesson and realize neither do 21st Century Americans need to become 18th Century Russians for 12th Century Greeks or 1st Century Jews in order to be fully Orthodox.  The Church in every generation and nation has to be bi-lingual,  speaking the Word of God in terms, symbols and worship that can be understood by and can inspire the people of that time and place.  That is part of the Church’s evangelical outreach to teach the nations all that Christ has commanded us.

To Believe or To Not Believe: For Americans Is there a Question?

Believers often take comfort in numbers, especially in America where people like to identify with winners.   And so the 23 June 2008 released Pew Forum poll on religion in America will be heartening to those believers especially those who suffer anxiety about holding a minority viewpoint when it comes to thinking about God.  And it does seem that many American believers find strength only in numbers or that somehow majority numbers prove the truthfulness of a proposition.   Is this the result of having even their religious thinking dominated by “democratic majority rules” ideas or is it some kind of “might is right” thinking?   One wonders how these Christians would have survived in the Roman Empire, under Islamic domination, or in the atheist Soviet Union, where Christians made up a distinct minority.     Do Americans really find strength in their faith or in God, or do they really rely on the majority opinion to determine what they believe?   Perhaps some of this explains why some American Christians find their “faith” so threatened by science, cosmology or evolution.

Ninety Two (92%) percent of Americans claim to believe in God or a universal spirit.  Strangely enough 21% of those claiming to be atheist also say they believe in a God or universal spirit.  That reminds me of the statistics I’ve seen in Russia where more Russians claim to be Orthodox Christians than claim to believe in God; or as one priest stated it, not all Russians who claim to be Orthodox  believe in God.   It all may only show how difficult it is to do a reliable poll on religious belief, especially when each person is self defining the terms he/she uses. 

Despite the obvious problems polling on religious topics may have, they do offer us some type of portrait of American beliefs.   The Pew fellows tend to emphasize American tolerance and flexibility in their beliefs as a good point.  A majority of those who actively pray tend to be more conservative in their values such as on issues of abortion and homosexuality. Interestingly 60% of those polled “want the government to do more to help the needy and support stronger environmental laws.”  All of these points I would think show that the religious faith of Americans do affect the moral values by which they live and engage the world.   There is a close connection between theological belief and personal morality.  Because of this connection and because of the number of people claiming a belief in God, religious discussion does have a proper role in our elections despite what some claim to the contrary.  And despite how some politicians and religious lobbies distort this proper role in public debate.

 And in this presidential election year, candidates might note that a majority of believers want the U.S. to concentrate more on domestic issues and think the U.S. is too focused on foreign issues. 

To see what the Pew Poll had to say about Orthodoxy see my Bilingual Orthodoxy