"Can Orthodox Christianity Transfigure the Modernistic Trends and Influences of Contemporary American Society?"

"Can Orthodox Christianity Transfigure the Modernistic Trends and Influences of Contemporary American Society?"

Fr. George Liacopoulos

When one ponders the question that is posed, it becomes readily apparent that with God all things are possible.  If we all agree on this, then we can conclude our session now and enjoy some refreshments together.  Of course, Orthodox Christianity has always taught that the Triune God is the initiator and sustainer of all salvific tasks undertaken in this earthly life.  However, because we enjoy a synergistic relationship with the Trinity, each of us individually and collectively has been entrusted with the responsibility of assisting God in an effort to transfigure the world in which we live.  Therefore, we must analyze the question at hand in light of the theological and spiritual resources bequeathed to us by our venerable Orthodox Christian tradition, the God-given talent and creativity bestowed upon us by our Creator, and in light of the cultural and spiritual climate within which we find ourselves.

This paper will address the question at hand in a twofold manner.  First, an attempt will be made to describe the spiritual realities of contemporary American society.  Due to the complex, multi-faceted nature of our cultural situation, many descriptions and terms will be presented in an effort to capture several of the predominant characteristics which prevail in sectors of America.  No one definition can adequately elucidate the variegated nature of contemporary American thought.

Second, an effort will be made to identify points of contact or comprehension which may exist between Orthodoxy and some of the salient aspects of contemporary American thought and life.  Explanations will be offered as to why these particular points of contact will facilitate the contextualization and incarnation of the saving truths of Orthodox Christianity here in America.

It should be noted that much of the focus of this paper will be directed towards those groups which are oftentimes characterized as liberal and/or non-traditional.  In recent years, we have seen the conversion of tradition-minded individuals and people groups into the Orthodox Church.  Conservatives of varying spiritual heritages have joined Orthodoxy because of their desire to find a stable religious tradition which is grounded in the Apostolic Faith.  Generally speaking, these converts are predisposed towards exclusivistic belief in an absolute Truth.  While these conversions are certainly a cause for celebration amongst American Orthodox, the more difficult task of evangelizing numerous other sectors of society which have been deeply influenced by the modernistic spirit, needs to be addressed with diligence.  This paper will focus on this latter challenge and will hopefully provide some insights into potential points of contact that may exist.  The emphasis will rest upon initiating the conversion process.

  What is this modernistic spirit?  Scholars representing several fields of study and/or theological traditions have attempted to describe and define the religious character of contemporary American society in a variety of ways.  The term "modernization" is utilized by Clifford Geertz and Robert Bellah as they employ anthropological and sociological methodologies to study American culture.  Alexander Schmemann, Nikos Nissiotis, and others characterize American society as "secularized" as they ground their approach in the Orthodox Christian theological tradition.  Lesslie Newbigin, an Anglican missiologist, prefers to identify America as a "neo-pagan" society.  All of these viewpoints will be set forth as providing insightful perspectives which partially describe the cultural context in which Orthodox Christianity functions.  It should be noted that these approaches, while distinct, also contain points of concurrence with one another.

Clifford Geertz, when reflecting upon the sheer complexity and magnitude of the modernization phenomenon, correctly notes that, “There is in such matters no simple progression from 'traditional' to 'modern', but a twisting, spasmodic, unmethodical movement which turns as often toward repossessing the emotions of the past as disowning them.”[1]  Hence, the modernization process follows no predictable path or formula, and it is misguided to conclude that the end result of this process is the replacement of an older ethos and world-view with one that is considered more up-to-date and contemporary.  Geertz correctly argues that throughout the world people feel tugged or drawn toward two seemingly conflicting goals: “to remain themselves and to keep pace, or more, with the twentieth century.”[2]  This dynamic, or inner tension, is certainly characteristic of many Orthodox Christian communities here in America and is also operative in many other sub-groups which struggle to retain traditionalistic lifestyles and concurrently desire to participate in various modernistic trends and developments.

  Robert Bellah, a prominent American sociologist who has taught at Harvard and Berkeley, concludes that the modern mentality consists of a new attitude toward the phenomenon of change.  Whereas, in previous generations change was feared, suspected, and considered to be opposed to existing authorities, now it has become a welcome and liberating experience for many.[3]  Bellah also claims that the new mentality "seems to violate one of the cardinal requirements for organized action of any sort, namely the need for continuity, for stability of orientation – in a word, ‘for identity.’”[4] While rapid-paced change is certainly a predominant feature of our contemporary culture welcomed by many, the reassertion of many traditional religions and belief systems in recent years seems to suggest that modernized individuals may need and desire constancy and a sense of identity more than they initially realized.  Such a reality would seem to confirm Geertz's observation that modernized individuals tend to oscillate back and forth between world-views.

  Bellah claims that "one aspect of the great modern transformation involves the internalization of authority.”[5]  In other words, individuals tend to suspect any teaching that is merely given by an authority figure, and instead, prefer to work out their own solution's to life's ultimate questions.  Although this observation is certainly valid for many people and groups, it should be noted that the growth of cults, charismatic groups, and Buddhist meditation seminars headed by gurus, tends to suggest that people still have a need to embrace the teachings of authority figures.

Nonetheless, Bellah is more or less correct when he claims that modernization


carries with it a conception of a relatively autonomous individual with a considerable capacity for adaptation to new situations and for innovation.  Such an individual has a relatively high degree of self-consciousness and requires a family structure in which his independence and personal dignity will be recognized and where he can relate to others not so much in terms of authority and obedience as in terms of companionship and emotional participations.[6]


Bellah concludes that in light of this description, most modernized individuals understand religious institutions as providing a wholesome environment which enables them to resolve personal problems and questions without having to embrace what he calls “a prefabricated set of answers.”[7]  Put differently, many people understand religion as a private matter of subjective feelings, thoughts, and beliefs.  The result is the loss of religious authority and absolute truth since "one person's feelings are as valid as another's and there is nothing objective against which to test them."[8]

Other scholars employ the term secular or secularized in an effort to describe contemporary spiritual and cultural realities.  Father Stanley Harakas notes that the root of the word secular is the Latin term saeculum which means a “race, age, or the world.” Over the course of recent generations, secular has been defined as that which pertains “to the worldly or temporal as distinguished from the spiritual or eternal.”[9]  Charles West posits that it involves "the withdrawal of areas of thought and life from religious -- and finally also from metaphysical control, and the attempt to understand and live in these areas in the terms which they alone offer."[10]

Schmemann maintains that secularism involves a negation of the sacramentality of the world and of humankind.[11]  Nikos Nissiotis offers another complementary approach when he defines secularism as an ideology "which attributes absolute meaning to things and means which serve man by enabling him to raise his standard of living, making them the only and final purpose of his life."[12]  Father John Meyendorff adds that the secularized person understands the world as a place where autonomous historical forces are operative and in a continuous struggle to attain justice and peace.  Consequently, the central tenets of the Gospel message are disregarded as being superfluous since people become preoccupied with harnessing worldly forces for the purpose of promoting a better life.[13]  Schmemann amplifies this description by portraying secularism as "a faith in the immanent fulfillment by man of his dreams and aspirations, a belief in 'history', 'justice', 'freedom', and other pseudoabsolutes."[14] In short, the phenomenon of secularization contains a primary emphasis on the material and cultural amelioration of the world and a de-emphasis of theistic referents.

Many theorists insist that this phenomenon includes a definitive dichotomy or bifurcation between religion and the world.  The end result being a privatization of the religious life and the inability of traditional belief systems to impact upon societal decision-making processes.  The secularized world dictates the manner and extent to which Orthodox Christian values and teachings will be appropriated within the fabric of society, as compared to the opposite dynamic so familiar to Orthodox Christians of earlier generations and in other parts of the world.  As a result, Schmemann argues that Orthodoxy in America gets reduced to the "commonly acceptable"[15] and that this progressive surrender is all the more insidious because it is gradual and unconscious.[16]

Bellah, however, posits an optimistic perspective on the matter when he suggests that the secularization process may entail a qualitative rather than a quantitative change in the religiosity expressed and professed by believers.  In other words, while secularization is a process by which the external control system of religion has declined, it cannot be concluded that religious belief will cease to exist since human beings will perpetually seek to reconcile and resolve the paradoxes of their existence.[17]  This innate human instinct will be discussed later when points of contact between Orthodoxy and modernization are presented.

Some theologians differentiate secularization from secularism, by describing the former as a process, and the latter as an ideology that is consciously espoused and promoted by its adherents.  In light of this distinction, Father Thomas Hopko contends that the doctrine of individual freedom, for instance, not only has become an essential value for modernized individuals, but also a close-minded dogma.[18]  In a similar manner, Hendrik Kraemer, writing more than a generation ago, criticizes the prevalence of relativism and the loss of absolutes.  He attributes much of this to the alleged discovery of human capabilities and powers over some of the mysteries of life as manifested by various technological advances.[19]  According to Charles West, such scientific discoveries divert humankind's attention away from ultimate questions and answers, and shift the focus towards pragmatic concerns and enterprises.[20]

Another significant definition of secularism offered by Schmemann is that "Secularism in all its forms, including the religious one, is in the last analysis, the loss of the experience of God which has always stood at the very heart of religion."[21]  Schmemann recognizes the validity of many definitions of secularism, but insists that the most important one has been overlooked: "Secularism, I submit, is above all a negation of worship.  I stress: (sic) - not of God's existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore of some kind of religion . . . It is the negation of man as a worshipping being."[22]  He does qualify this bold statement, however, by acknowledging that many secularists are obsessed with worship because they cannot deny their nature as worshipping beings.  Writing in the 1960s, he cites the rise of Masonry with its rituals and Harvey Cox's need to write a book on "celebration" after writing about the "secular city" in order to substantiate this contention.  This reality may provide another point of contact and will be explored later in this presentation.

  Another interesting description of the secularization phenomenon is provided by Robert Wuthnow, who like Bellah, believes that contemporary religiosity has experienced a qualitative rather than a quantitative change.  He insists that modern people do not perceive God to have been pushed out of the world.  Rather, "modern religion is principally characterized by a collapse of the dualistic world-view which distinguishes God from man, the supernatural from the natural, this world from a world beyond life."[23] He cites evidence from surveys which suggests that for many people God has become subjectivized and oftentimes is not perceived as a metaphysical or transcendent reality.  Secular humanists subscribe to this outlook since their philosophies tend to deify the human being by making him or her the ultimate standard or measure of truth.

Such an emphasis on self-proclaimed truths and personal interpretations has resulted in a reluctance to accept ancient creeds.  This dynamic has been fueled by high levels of denominational switching and interdenominational marriages.  Wuthnow concludes that this increase in self-centeredness and stress upon flexible organizational styles and privatized systematic theologies has rendered American religion more complex, but also more capable of adapting to constantly changing circumstances.  He concludes that such an elasticity will foster the survival of American Christianity in general.[24]  While Orthodox Christianity would vehemently oppose these characteristics of some contemporary religion, it should be noted that these realities are creating frustration, confusion, and existential distress amongst those who feel overwhelmed by rapid change and a lack of stability within their religious communities. Many converts to Orthodoxy have been drawn from disenchanted adherents of these groups.

Lesslie Newbigin offers another penetrating view of our contemporary spiritual situation.  He understands secularism to mean irreligion, and therefore, argues that American society is "neo-pagan" in nature and not secular because many gods which are not God are being worshipped.  He cites the existence of many absolutes and ultimate concerns to which Americans, and Westerners in general, commit themselves, either instead of the Christian God or in addition to Him.  For Newbigin, "neo-pagan" is roughly equivalent to the term "polytheistic" and is, therefore, a useful categorization since American society is very pluralistic in terms of its religiosity.  He insists that this new paganism has been born out of the rejection of Christianity and that this paganism is far more resistant to the Gospel than the pre-Christian forms of paganism encountered by the early Church.[25]

Newbigin borrows from Peter Berger when he cites the importance of epistemological plausibility structures for understanding the manner in which Christian faith functions in the modern world.  Berger defines a plausibility structure as "a social structure of ideas and practices that create (sic) conditions determining what beliefs are plausible within the society in question."[26]  Berger contends that modern society has no accepted plausibility structure due to its pluralistic nature, and that people are required to become heretics and make personal decisions regarding religious belief.  This "heretical imperative" requires people to decide upon ultimate beliefs for themselves instead of accepting a given tradition.[27]  Newbigin refutes Berger's claim by stressing:


It is not that there is no socially accepted plausibility structure and thus we make our own choices.  This is the ruling plausibility structure, and we make our choices within its parameters. It is, if I may anticipate what has to be developed later, the public world of what our culture calls facts, in distinction from the private world of beliefs, opinions, and values.  This is the operative plausibility structure of our modern world.[28]


Newbigin claims that there is a sharp dichotomization between facts as established by the scientific and political community and between values professed by Christianity.  This chasm between the two has resulted in the privatization of Christian faith.  Moreover, Newbigin complains that Christians have allowed this reigning plausibility structure to dictate the extent to which Christian faith can and will influence society as a whole.  Newbigin asserts that this relationship needs to be reversed and that Christianity should be establishing the parameters of societal values and facts.[29]  Implicit in this reigning plausibility structure are the beliefs that the essence of Christianity is equivalent to that of other religions, and that all belief systems are obligated to submit their truth claims to the standards of the scientific method.[30]

In short, Newbigin insists that contemporary society promotes what it understands to be facts, and in turn, relegates religious truths to the privatized category of values which are viewed as subjective and merely a matter of opinion.  He builds upon the thought of Alasdair MacIntyre in criticizing the modern assumption that the "facts" are value-free, unbiased, and detached from subjective influences.[31] This dichotomy between 'facts' and 'values' undergirds the spirit of relativism which pervades modern society.  He concludes that relativists can only ultimately claim to know that reality is unknowable since there is no disembodied reason which can act as an arbitrator between the many conflicting truth claims presented.[32] The other logical flaw in modernized plausibility structures resides in the fact that “the definition of what is reasonable and what is not will be conditioned by the tradition within which the matter is being discussed.”[33] Here Newbigin agrees with those scholars who describe the modernized mentality as that which exalts the autonomy of the individual and promotes a kind of supermarket mentality when it comes to ascertaining religious truth.

  Many of the descriptions of modernity presented unquestionably contain ideologies which are antithetical to the principles of Orthodox spirituality.  Of course, there are numerous other descriptions which contain varying levels of correspondence with Orthodox values and teachings.  For our purposes, the discontinuities have been emphasized in an effort to ascertain the extent to which Orthodox Christianity can contextualize itself amongst the more liberal streams of contemporary thought.

Hendrik Kraemer, writing in 1947, noted that Christian missionaries must establish points of contact with the religious beliefs of those being evangelized.  In other words, it is essential to research other religions, and determine similarities that pre-exist between the two traditions so that Christianity can be presented in a more meaningful and comprehensible manner.[34] Soterios Mousalimas uses the terms "points of comprehension" and "points of correspondence" to convey the same principle.  These points of comprehension reflect similarities that exist between two religious belief-systems and should not be misunderstood to reflect equivalencies.  For instance, he notes that the Russian missionaries to Alaska effected spiritual bridges and conversions by explaining some of the similarities between icons and ritual masks, and between baptism and Aleutian spirituality concerning the ocean.[35]

It should be noted that many theologians of the Calvinist tradition, including Karl Barth, and many fundamentalist evangelicals of the 20th century reject this notion of points of contact, since they insist that other world religions are completely discontinuous with Christianity.  For them, non-Christians need to experience a complete and radical conversion in order to be saved.  Orthodox Christianity has always professed the existence of points of comprehension and has substantiated this principle by referring to the economy of the Holy Spirit who is present everywhere and who fills all things, by embracing the evangelistic methodologies of St. Paul, and by referring to Justin Martyr's teaching concerning the "logos spermatikos."

  Hendrik Kraemer adds another interesting and most pertinent perspective concerning points of contact when he asserts that discontinuities between religions can also serve the same purpose.[36]  In other words, the absence of certain spiritual teachings and realities in some religious traditions may create a thirsting for the truth which draws people towards Christianity.  This salient dynamic will help to elucidate how Orthodox Christianity can begin to transfigure many of the antithetical trends and influences of contemporary society.

  The prevalence and pervasive impact of the various modernistic ideologies presented poses a prodigious challenge to those seeking to evangelize late 20th century Americans.  The task becomes less formidable when one pauses to identify underlying points of correspondence which may not be readily discernible upon superficial observation.  Here are a few of the many bridges which can be extended towards contemporary ideologies and lifestyles.

  For instance, Father Schmemann's contention that most secularists have a need to participate in some kind of worship is extremely helpful.  A plethora of groups, clubs, societies, religions, and other organizations engage in some kind of ritualized worship experience.  Even the rock 'n roll culture with its emphasis on mood altering concerts which feature religious lyrics, multi-colored light displays, fog, smoke, music played in the minor key, and numerous traditional religious symbols strives, both wittingly and unwittingly, to create some kind of otherworldly experience for its enthusiasts.

  The task of Orthodox Christianity is to invite these individuals to the Divine Liturgy and explain the manner in which the believer's heart, mind, soul, and body commune with God, experience the heavenly life, and enjoy a spiritual transfiguration.  Orthodoxy needs to point out the ritualized nature of other worship experiences and explain the deeper truths which underlie the Divine Liturgy and other worship services of the Church.  Father John Veniaminov applied this principle successfully when he invited the war-like Thlingit tribe of Alaska to experience the beauty of the Liturgy and to ask questions afterwards.  In an age which stresses the material realm and all that is tangible, Orthodoxy can attract seekers of true worship by explaining how Orthodox worship is capable of activating all of the bodily senses and reorienting them towards the Divine.

  The individualism described by Bellah, Wuthnow, and others has reached tragic proportions in many families because of divorce, single-parent homes, gangs, extramarital affairs, alcoholism, drug abuse, gambling, street violence, and other debilitating realities.  For this reason, it is essential to reiterate the oftentimes neglected spiritual reality of "adoption in Christ" which is eloquently described by St. Paul.  The value of being adopted or embraced by a loving family is very familiar to many Americans and within the collective memory of older Americans who look upon the past with nostalgia, while it also presents a spiritual and emotional wholeness missing from the lives of many others and essential for their spiritual growth.

  Fragmented and broken people need to be aware of the adoption and reconciliation made possible by our loving heavenly Father.  Dysfunctional families need to perceive themselves as children of God who can be adopted by Him if they so desire.  Moreover, we need to teach baptized Orthodox Christians about their own adoption in Christ, as a fait accompli, so that they will feel compelled to reach out to others and encourage them to join our Lord's family of believers.

  In Romans 8:14 ff., St. Paul refers to those who are led by the Spirit of God as "sons of God." He then tells the Christians of Rome that they "did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, Abba, Father." 'Abba,' of course, is a very affectionate and intimate way of referring to God, our Heavenly Father.  St. Paul then refers to us as children of God and later as heirs of God and "joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may be glorified together." (Romans 8:17) These verses would have had a profound impact upon Roman Christians who well understood that according to Roman law, adopted children were accorded all the rights and privileges held by the natural children of a given family.[37]

Romans 9:1-5 speaks to us, the baptized Orthodox Christians, about our own adoption in Christ and its precious quality.  In these verses, St. Paul expresses great anguish over the fact that his own countrymen, the Israelites, have neglected this adoption in Christ which pertains to them as revealed by the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament.  St. John Chrysostom understands these verses to present a warning to us as well so that we will take our personal adoption in Christ seriously and not drift away from the Church.[38]  From a missiological standpoint, our outreach to the world will be conducted with greater conviction and enthusiasm if we understand ourselves as children who have been adopted by our Heavenly Father and as children who yearn to see estranged brothers and sisters worldwide also reunited to Christ's family -- the Church.

In his epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul elaborates upon this new relationship of adoption in Christ by noting that prior to the adoption we were held in bondage by the elements of the world (Gal 2:11-22).  However, with the incarnation of Christ, and our subsequent acceptance as full-fledged, adopted children of God, we were no longer slaves of the world, but rather children and heirs of God.  Put differently, our willingness to be adopted by Christ has liberated us from the debilitating and sinful forces of the world.  It is this message of spiritual liberation which broken and fragmented souls and families yearn to hear in a society which stresses individualism.  It is this message of adoption in Christ which provides a crucial point of contact with the spiritual needs of modernized individuals.

  On a related note, a succession of articles appearing recently in Again magazine clearly illustrates the manner in which individuals from a variety of traditions can be made to feel welcome in the Orthodox Christian Church.  Western-rite Christians, Blacks, Muslims, Jews, and others have been presented with aspects of Orthodoxy that are similar to aspects of their own tradition.  The underlying theme is that of coming home to the one Family of God which contains common elements of their traditions as well as other aspects of the Truth.  Usually these points of contact are established along historical lines as in the case of Blacks who are reminded that early Christianity contained many African saints.  While these evangelistic approaches are appealing and useful, they must be applied carefully in order to avoid a kind of slippery slope whereby the person being evangelized may hearken back to historical periods of his or her ancestry which pre-date Orthodox Christianity -in this case, the pagan tribalism of pre-Christian Africa.

  For many Blacks and Hispanics living in the impoverished districts of America's urban centers, Christianity has been rejected as a viable religious option.  While Christ, the suffering servant who was crucified on a Cross unjustly, may continue to penetrate the hearts and souls of oppressed and marginalized peoples, others have been desensitized to the power of Christ's passion because of their perception of white Christians as aggressive colonialists who have abused the political and economic power which they have enjoyed for several centuries.

  While such perceptions can be transfigured through meaningful and far-sighted social outreach programs, Orthodoxy can also provide a historical point of contact by presenting itself as a religious tradition which has suffered mass executions, persecutions, poverty, and even genocide (as in the case of the Asia Minor tragedy).  The countless martyrdoms which occurred within the Roman Empire during the early years of Christianity, during the Crusades, throughout the four centuries of the Ottoman Period, during the Communist pogroms, and at other times need to be presented and explained to those suffering oppression here in America.  The contemporary hardships and persecutions endured by Orthodox patriarchates, dioceses, and parishes overseas need to be recounted in vivid detail.  Such conversations will invariably establish empathetic bonds and a spirit of fellowship which could provide a lead in to other aspects of the Orthodox Christian tradition and eventually to conversion.

  Many conversions involving cross-cultural barriers ultimately occur because of the love and friendship which is witnessed by the Christian missionary.  For instance, Macarius, the 14th century Russian missionary to the Altai tribal peoples, illustrated this principle when he began to clean and sanitize the homes of the people, teach them basic hygiene and medical care, and in turn, guide them to conversion.  Such conversions probably would not have occurred had he not empathized with the needs of the people and become one with them.[39]  American Orthodox Christians need to exemplify a similar kind of empathy towards those living in oppressive socioeconomic situations today.

  Points of contact with the intelligentsia of American society are also attainable.  For instance, many liberal thinkers, who have distanced themselves from many of the metaphysical aspects of traditional Christianity, have espoused a kind of veneration of nature.  Ecologists, environmentalists, and others strive to preserve the pristine qualities of our environment and, in turn, understand nature as being infused with some kind of vaguely defined spirituality.  This can be understood as a kind of spiritualized materialism, or a modernized revision of American Indian beliefs.

In such instances, Orthodox sacramental theology can provide the bridge which inaugurates channels of communication, and in turn, an explanation of Orthodoxy's profound appreciation of nature and its role in promoting God's salvific plan.  Many intellectuals, if given the opportunity, would be deeply impressed by the hymns of Epiphany and of the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross which majestically describe the goodness of God's creation, and the sanctification and transfiguration of this goodness for the promotion of higher purposes.

For instance, the waters and trees of the world are venerated as good elements of God's creation which became sanctifying agents as a result of Christ's incarnation, baptism, crucifixion, and resurrection.  Furthermore, the wood of the tree is depicted as a good element, which was converted into an instrument of sin and evil by fallen humanity, and then later redeemed as an instrument of salvation, love, and peace as a result of Christ's crucifixion.  Such discussions can go a long way towards arousing the curiosity of those moderns who have grown accustomed to perceiving the world within a plausibility structure which has de-sanctified the material elements of God's creation.

  Another point of contact with American intellectuals can be established by expounding the "Easternness" of Orthodox spirituality and praxis.  A recent Time magazine article outlines the manner in which many Americans are looking to the Buddhist and Zen Buddhist traditions of the Far East for spiritual direction and fulfillment.  The task of American Orthodox Christians is to orient these seekers to the East, but not to the Far East.

  Many American Buddhists endorse what has been called an "existential, therapeutic and liberating agnosticism" which has stripped away many of the metaphysical dimensions of earlier Buddhist traditions.[40]  In fact, many of these individuals are attracted to the meditational practices which are taught by various gurus and seminar leaders.  Much of the focus is on "a simple awareness of breath drawn in and let out."[41]  Some theorists have suggested that Buddhism is appealing because it is perceived as a kind of do-it-yourself philosophy which does not require commitment to a clear-cut systematic theology.

  While this latter viewpoint is certainly discontinuous with Orthodox notions of truth and revelation, the practical aspects of Buddhist meditation can certainly be likened to the Jesus prayer and its concomitant breathing process, and to the hesychast movement in general.  Orthodox evangelists are provided an opportunity to initiate a dialogue based upon these commonalities.  Other theological issues can be explained once these points of contact are readily comprehended.

  Another point of contact between Orthodoxy and contemporary American culture may consist of what some call the "pre-Orthodox" quality of American society which was shaped and formed by Protestantism and Catholicism.  This process is likened to the pre-Christian aspects of Graeco-Roman paganism which facilitated an eventual conversion of the pagan world to Christianity.  In the case of America, Orthodox Christians would need to demonstrate the many commonalties shared with other Christian traditions and then attempt to demonstrate the truthfulness of existing differences.  While this approach appears obvious and simplistic on the surface, it should be noted that a high percentage of Americans are quite unfamiliar with Orthodox theology and spirituality.  The challenge for Orthodoxy is that of presenting the message of Christ's salvation with a kind of freshness and vitality which will capture the attention of those who perhaps have grown tired of frequently repeated slogans, or who have had unpleasant experiences within their former Christian traditions.

Many American intellectuals also have been steeped in feminist theologies and ideologies.  These groups present imposing challenges for Orthodoxy because of the "patriarchal abuses" attributed to traditional religions in general.  Here we need to be honest about former practices which may have been repressive towards women and which may have been either directly or indirectly sanctioned by the Church.  On the other hand, the many feminine images and analogues projected by Orthodoxy need to be underscored.  For instance, feminists need to appreciate that wisdom has been personified as a woman since Old Testament times, that the Church has been personified as both the Bride of Christ and as our mother, and that the Blessed Theotokos is accorded the special status of first amongst all the saints.  In addition, the ministry of deaconesses needs to be presented as a vital component of the clergy ranks.

  Another point of correspondence is grounded in the universal need for a stable identity and sense of rootedness articulated by people of all backgrounds.  While theological conservatives may be more readily willing to admit this existential desire, it should not be discounted for liberals, especially for those who may have spent their earlier years searching for and experimenting with various belief-systems and who have, in turn, grown fatigued by the lack of rootedness in their life.  Given the breath-taking transformations of modernity portrayed by Geertz, Bellah, and others, it is highly probable that a percentage of today's intellectuals would seek refuge in the Apostolic Faith.

In addition to the above-mentioned points of contact with modernity, there are two others which transcend culture and its diverse plausibility structures.  The first is the practice of agape love as exemplified by Christ Himself and by the early Church saints and martyrs who effected many conversions.  The Epistle to Diognetus eloquently summarizes this distinct, loving disposition towards others by stating in part,


They have their meals in common, but not their wives.  They find themselves in the flesh, and yet they live not after the flesh.  Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. . . they love all men, and they are persecuted by all.  They are ignored, and yet they are condemned.  They are put to death, and yet they are endued with life . . . They are dishonoured, and yet they are glorified in their dishonour, They are evil spoken of, and yet they are vindicated.  They are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and they respect…[42]


Herein lies a universal point of contact that can be readily understood and desired by all those who have been created in the image of God and who are even partially conscious of the divine spark which ignites their soul.

  The other pervasive point of contact is provided by the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who is present everywhere, and who fills all things -- the third person of the Trinity, the one who vivifies and sustains the cosmos.  The Holy Spirit is that most essential point of contact who prepares people's souls for conversion by utilizing and transfiguring the many cultural forms and concepts known to them.  The missionary enterprise is initiated and sustained by the Trinity.  It is the Holy Spirit who empowers, guides, and inspires those who choose to assist in this trans-global and trans-temporal process.  We are merely the instruments of the Holy Spirit, since He precedes us in all our endeavors, and since He prepares the hearts and minds of those being evangelized.  The Holy Spirit makes contact with potential converts before the arrival of the missionaries.

Father Stanley Harakas once affectionately referred to Orthodox Christianity as the "pack rat of Christianity" because of the many traditions and teachings which have been stored and preserved in the treasure chest of Orthodoxy.  Some of these traditions have been set aside temporarily from the mainstream of the Tradition, but they have not been discarded because one never knows when they will be needed in order to contextualize Orthodox Christianity in a new environment.

  The modernized, secularized, and neo-pagan qualities of contemporary American culture certainly pose formidable and somewhat novel challenges to Orthodox missionaries.  The task at hand is to study this culture and concurrently to employ the many spiritual treasures of Orthodoxy which will establish points of comprehension for those being evangelized and eventually converted.  Such a transfiguration has been effected in previous generations and in other socio-cultural contexts, and can be repeated here in America if Orthodox Christians are willing to acknowledge the mission as belonging to God, and if evangelists are willing to apply and present saving truths and traditions to the American context in a manner which is creative, meaningful, relevant, and true to the Orthodox Christian tradition.


[1] Clifford Geertz, "The Politics of Meaning," The Interpretation of Cultures, (New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1973), 319.


[2] Ibid., 320.


[3] Robert Bellah, "Meaning and Modernization," Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World, (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1976), 67.


[4] Ibid


[5] Bellah, "Religion and Belief: The Historical Background of 'Non-Belief,"' Beyond Belief, Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World, 223.


[6]Bellah, "Islamic Tradition," Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World, 159.


[7]Bellah, "Religious Evolution," Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World, 43-44.


[8]Bellah, "Cultural Barriers to the Understanding of the Church and Its Public Role," Missiology 19 (October 1991): 463.


[9] Stanley S. Harakas, "The Church and the Secular World," The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 17 (Spring 1972): 173.


[10] Charles West, "Background Paper for the Consultation on 'The Meaning of the Secular"' (September 15-20, 1959): 3.


[11] Alexander Schmemann, "Worship in a Secular Age," St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 16 (1972): 8.


[12] N.A. Nissiotis, "Orthodoxy and the West: A Response," The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 17 (Spring 1972): 136.


[13]John Meyendorff, Living Tradition: Orthodox Witness in the Contemporary World, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1978), 152.


[14] Alexander Schmemann, Church, World, Mission: Reflections on Orthodoxy in the West, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1979), 63.


[15] Schmemann, "Problems of Orthodoxy in America: The Spiritual Problem," 177, 189.


[16] Ibid., 175.


[17] Bellah, "Religion and Belief: The Historical Background of 'Non-Belief,"' 227.


[18] Thomas Hopko, All the Fulness of God, (Crestwood, NY.- St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1987), 155.


[19] Hendrik Kraemer, The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World, (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1947), 8.


[20] Charles C. West, "Secularization: A Historical Study of the Phenomenon," 11.


[21] Schmemann, "Problems of Orthodoxy in America: The Spiritual Problem," 187.


[22] Schmemann, "Worship in a Secular Age," 4.


[23] Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion, second printing (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989), 297

[24] Ibid., 305-06.


[25] Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman's Publishing Company, 1986), 20.


[26] Ibid., 10.


[27] Ibid., 11.


[28] Ibid., 14.


[29] Ibid., 15-16.


[30] Ibid., 18.


[31] Ibid., 77.


[32] Ibid., 56-57.


[33] Ibid., 9.


[34] Kraemer, 130-31.


[35] S.A. Mousalimas, The Transition from Shamanism to Russian Orthodoxy in Alaska, (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1994), 131, 208.


[36] Kraemer, 139.


[37] William Barclay, The Letter to the Romans, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), 106.


[38] St.  John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church XI, ed.  Philip Schaff, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm.  B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 459-60.


[39] James Stamoolis, Eastern Orthodox Mission Theology Today, (New York: Orbis Books, 1986), 29.


[40] David van Biema, "Buddhism in America," Time magazine (October 13, 1997): 80.


[41]Ibid. , 81.


[42] The Epistle to Diognetus," in The Apostolic Fathers, ed.  J.B. Lightfoot, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980), 254.