Orthodox Disclaimers: Why There are No General Christians

cropped-339505146_LnxGy-O-1A few weeks ago, I was prepping for a radio interview about gun control by reading some old blog articles I had written for the Huffington Post. As I was scrolling down the page, I noticed the following comment:

Dunn does not speak for any Orthodox church, nor any lay Orthodox group. The disclaimer at the end of the article does not dispel the impression, given by the title,that he does so.

As a Greek Orthodox, I find this discrepancy offensive. The Orthodox religion is little known and understood by majority of Americans. I’m not sure what (false) legitimacy Dunn hopes to claim.

Dunn might rather write his column, make his point and, then, mention his religion while emphasizing that he is writing as individual and that his views may conflict with Orthodox church teaching. It would be far more intellectually honest.

I get this a lot. Knowing how to be an Orthodox Christian and a public theologian is something I have struggled with for years. This is never an issue for me when I am with other religion scholars (Orthodox or otherwise). I have never been criticized by an academic for having the audacity to speak for my tradition, mostly because they understand that I have no intention of speaking for my tradition. A lay theologian can only speak with her tradition, and sometimes to her tradition, but always only as a member of it.

20131110-204925.jpgThe indignation of my Greek Orthodox brother reminds me of another conversation I had after I published my first and (most infamous) article as a Huffington Post blogger. A fellow parishioner took it upon himself to lambast me for misrepresenting my tradition and for contradicting the official position of my church (emailing me this letter from SCOBA, which I can only assume he thought I did not know existed). Over the course of our correspondence, he said that what I should have done was talked about my beliefs in a general Christian sort of way, not as a specifically Orthodox Christian.

Life would sure be a lot simpler if I knew how to be a general sort of Christian. Then I could avoid offending my sisters and brothers who would rather I not claim I was Orthodox. I don’t like to rock the boat. I don’t like attention. Maybe it’s because I was bullied as a child. I was small, weak, poor, and I talked funny (my  mother has a severe hearing impairment, and I picked up her accent). I have the Japanese kanji for “courage” inked onto my spine, mostly because I know that I am not courageous at all. (It’s the same reason that I wear a cross – to remind me that I am not really worthy of it.)


The character looks to me like an idiot rushing headfirst into battle, which also describes me sometimes.

The problem is that I don’t know how to be a general sort of Christian, because to be a Christian means to be a member of the body of Christ. That means that who I am can always only be very specific. I am a product of the bodies who stand next to me on Sunday morning, who share my prayers and sing my songs. The nuances and idiosyncrasies of my community have pressed themselves into my life, like fingerprints on a clay pot that is still turning on the wheel. So for me to write about religion, I must write about my religion, which means I must include the people who make me religious, even when I disagree with them.

The best I can do is disagree reluctantly. At least I know enough about the history of the church to know that it is long and that people are often wrong. In Orthodoxy, history decides doctrine. We don’t have a pope, and not even the decisions of bishops in councils are always the final word. That is why I am occasionally willing to disagree with my hierarchs, but I always do so with a fair amount of reluctance and reservation. I doubt myself. A lot!

My people. I love them.
My people. I love them.

Perhaps I can better explain what I mean by talking about a phone conversation I had with a priest the other day. He wanted to pick my brain about gay marriage. He is a smart priest, who understands that what people think about contemporary issues pivots upon what they think about doctrine. So the first question he asked me was about whether I was a “minimalist.” For him, if it is not covered in one of the Seven Councils, then it is theologoumena – opinion – not dogma. (See my post about how doctrine develops in the Orthodox Church.) I replied that I tend toward minimalism, but with a serious caveat. The laity is an office in the Orthodox Church. In a way, you could say that we judge the decisions of our bishops and patriarchs, but we have not been vested with the authority to teach. We do not serve the same role. That means we can be more critical, but it also means we need to be a bit more humble. The Orthodox Church is not a fossil. We do change, but we move slowly. That is what I like about Orthodoxy. As David Bell writes, “Tradition can protect the Church. It can protect it from change which may be too hasty, too rash, or too individualistic.” Bell is not a fundamentalist. He knows Orthodoxy changes. In some ways, he seems to want it to change, but what we want and what is right are not always identical.

Also my people, but smaller.
Also my people, but smaller.

To stand against the consensus of my bishops is never an act of self-will for me. It is a reluctant act of conscience, coming from an introverted coward, and it is always an act of deep love for my faith. As Professor George E. Demacopoulos has noted, our tradition makes room for “holy disobedience.” We are not the Borg. Resistance is never futile. Sometimes it is the most faithful thing an Orthodox Christian can do.

I suspect demands that I not broadcast my faith have more to do with the unpopularity of my positions than fears that I am somehow misrepresenting my church, because the truth is that, those who think I am misrepresenting my church, don’t actually know very much about the way the church works. I doubt I would hear much complaining if my views agreed with the politics of my critics. I agree that Orthodoxy is not well-known in this country, and this goes for its diversity. The church is misrepresented if that diversity is not also made clear to the public – if voices like mine are silent. We are not Roman Catholics. We never have been. Just because our bishops say something does not mean that our bishops are right. So if I hide my Orthodoxy to present a consistent picture to the public, then the public still does not know what Orthodoxy is. The best, the most honest, and faithful thing an Orthodox Christian can do is to speak with as much particularity as possible, which means to speak only as an Orthodox Christian. Always. Even with disclaimers.

2 thoughts on “Orthodox Disclaimers: Why There are No General Christians”

  1. This is a very tangential comment, on the Chinese character that "looks like an idiot rushing forward into battle": Chinese characters are fascinating, especially when you study what the various parts mean. That particular character (yong) is really three characters put together: starting from the bottom and going to the top, the bottom part is the character for strength (which looks like an arm flexing its muscles), the character that looks like a grid, is the character for field. When those two characters are put together, it means "a man". The character on the very top, is the character that means "sword". So the combined character is a man with a sword, and means "Brave".


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