Truly Orthodox and American

The Orthodox Church News Magazine

Editorial of January-February 2007

Volume 43, Numbers 1/2

“The Orthodox Church” News Magazine

Editorial of January-February 2007

Volume 43, Numbers 1/2

Father Alexander Schmemann, writing some 30 years ago about Orthodoxy in America, observed that our task is to be “truly Orthodox and truly American.”

At the end of last year, I participated in a candid and wide-ranging conversation on the subject on the state of Orthodoxy in America. One of the other participants made the observation that the emphasis on being truly American may be the priority for those who see the immigrant story as their family point of entry into America, while for those who have family histories deeply rooted in the American past and in the origins of America, and came to Orthodoxy as converts, the emphasis is on being truly Orthodox.

At either end of this equation, it is possible to use this theme as a mutual “put down,” as a way of feeling superior to the other and questioning the motives of the other. The dialogue last year was not like this at all. It seemed to me that it opened a useful conversation, and invited reflection.

At the end of the 18th century, Orthodoxy comes to North America through the missionary work of Orthodox monks from Russia. Towards the end of the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century, conditions in Eastern Europe and the Middle East bring many Orthodox people to the New World. In the 20th century, many Americans unconnected to the Orthodox cultures and immigrant stories find the true faith in the Orthodox witness to the Gospel and become members of the Orthodox Church. In all of these dimensions of Orthodox experience, America and Orthodoxy encounter one another in a living and mutually challenging way.

Father Alexander’s formulation—“truly Orthodox and truly American”—invites us to go beyond polarity and division. In his vision, to be Orthodox and to be American is simply to be faithful to the Christian mission as given to us by Jesus Christ through the apostles. Orthodoxy and America are not in contradiction to one another. Orthodoxy is not nostalgia about “another time” and “another place.” America challenges Orthodoxy to come out of self-isolation and its tendency to self absorption and to fulfill its calling to bear witness to the Gospel in every culture, to be present here and now. Finally, to be truly Orthodox and truly American is to be free to challenge America and its powerful and often self-absorbed culture.

The challenge to be truly Orthodox and truly American is not addressed primarily—and certainly not only—to the individual member of the Orthodox Church. Our concern is about the vision and mission and orientation of the Church herself. Is the life of the Church both faithful and dynamic in the effort to be truly Orthodox and truly American? Or is Orthodoxy for us a self-evident, self enclosed, private spiritual world which we enter from time to time as a refuge from the pressures of America? Is America a self-evident culture and set of values determining our “real” day-to-day life and not requiring any reflection on our part in reference to the values of the Gospel and the truths of our Faith?

While giving priority to the vision, mission, and orientation of the Church, each one of us has a responsibility personally to live up to the Church’s vocation and calling. Thus, when the influence and impact of our personal stories adds up to an emphasis either on being “truly Orthodox” or on being “truly American,” we are called to be open to correction. In a profound way, the vision and mission of the Church becomes the vision and mission to which we are faithful.