Rumors of my excommunication have been greatly exaggerated. The other morning I received a message from a Facebook friend saying that some folks over on the “TradOx” Facebook group were saying I had been excommunicated. When I found the conversation he was referring to, I realized he was not quite right. It was more like they were celebrating my excommunication. (Seriously! Who “Likes” someone being excommunicated?) The TradOx criticisms were more hurtful than the usual trolling I get from time to time, in part because the rumor apparently started with one of my fellow parishioners. It also brought back memories of the time when I really thought I was going to be excommunicated.
When the opportunity to blog for the Huffington Post presented itself, one of the first things I did was to talk to my priest. I did not say, “Hey, Father! I’m thinking about coming out as pro-gay-marriage on the Huffington Post. Are you cool with that?” In hindsight, maybe that is what I should have said. But I know that our priest tends to keep his own politics out of his ministry. I did not want to put him in an awkward situation. Plus, there have been plenty of times when someone disclosed more information to me upfront than I would rather have known. I was trying to give my priest a certain amount of deniability, so I said something vague about having opinions some would find controversial and asked how he would feel about those opinions being voiced in a more public forum than scholarly publications. In particular, I asked if he would like to review articles before I published them. I was prepared to drag my first Huffington Post article into the trash if he asked me to. The reply I got from my priest (who, by the way, I am not calling by name on purpose for reasons that will become clearer momentarily) was basically, “I don’t make a habit of policing the thoughts of my parishioners.” If I stuck with the seven councils, I was good. Since I have never contradicted any dogma of the Orthodox Church, nor do I intend to, I went ahead and submitted my article to the HuffPost.
When the article came out, and when upset readers began Googling me, figured out where I went to church, and then began calling my priest, my spiritual father was understandably upset. I have only had a panic attack once in my life, and it was after I read his irate email to me about my article. Having suddenly realized that I was in over my head, I kind of freaked out a little. My default setting is “mildly paranoid” anyway. It took me about a month, and a long meeting with my priest, to stop worrying every few minutes about my impending expulsion from the fellowship of the church. When I brought up my concerns about excommunication, my priest responded that he does not use the chalice as a weapon. He did not doubt that my heart right (even if he still believed that my head was wrong).
My priest is definitely not a fan of what I write. Definitely not! We have debated the subject of gay marriage before. He thinks I am wrong, but he does not think I am a heretic. Like I said, he does a pretty good job of parsing theology from politics. That is not to say that theology does not impact politics, but the two are not the same thing. One is more affective; the other is more cognitive. To wit, one is about belief, and the other is about judgment. Two people can believe the same things on a theological level, but one of them might exercise what the other considers to be poor judgment on the political level. Or to put it another way, theology is about objectives, but politics is about tactics. Theology is committed to the reign of God’s righteousness. Politics is about how we live into that reign until Christ’s kingdom comes.
The TradOx conversation started when a Facebook friend posted something I wrote for the HuffPost blog. It was an older piece in which I attempted to clarify, as much as I am able, what I think about same-sex marriage as a civil rights issue versus what I think about it theologically. What I said, in sum, was that I love gay people, and I am the chief of sinners. I am not sure what TradOx found so heretical about that.
Of course, the low-hanging fruit whenever Orthodox Christians read something I don’t like is to ask, “How dare he call himself a theologian?” They have a point. I prefer not to call myself a theologian because, in the Orthodox Church, that is a title you receive after a life of saintliness. I am no saint. That is why, on this site, I simply refer to Orthodox political theology. But as I explain elsewhere, the word “theologian” is useful when I have character limits. I use it on the Huffington Post because it quickly conveys, to a broad audience, that I am doing academic stuff. I have played with my HuffPost tagline from time-to-time, but I kept coming back to “Orthodox lay theologian.” I say, “lay,” to make clear that I am not a priest. What I write is not official or representative. If I cannot say, “lay theologian,” what should I say? “Orthodox scholar”? “Haters gonna hate.” I am pretty sure that those who do not like what I write will not be satisfied with anything short of, “Dumb-ass heretic.” I am open to suggestions for a better tagline. Keep it to about three words please.
I was invited to join TradOx by some of my Facebook friends a couple of years ago. A scan of the site told me that I probably did not want to get involved in most of the conversations happening there. It would be a time-suck. In particular, I found that its members seemed to lack the ability to read with charity. Obviously, this does not apply to every member of the group. I am referring to an overall “tone” of the group. By reading with charity, I mean the ability to try to give the author the benefit of the doubt, even if one ultimately ends up strongly disagreeing with that person. Reading charitably is an important skill because it helps keep one from reading prejudicially. We all come to the text with our own biases. If nothing else, giving the other person the benefit of the doubt lets our biases be challenged, enabling us to develop a stronger criticism later. Charity is how we avoid setting up and knocking over straw men. On a purely argumentative/rhetorical level, a charitable critic is a more convincing one.
I would add that a charitable critic is also a more Christian one. For kicks and giggles, I looked over the rules of the TradOx group. As an exercise in internet performance art, I half-thought about joining the group, and then reporting those members who were violating their own terms. Apparently the admins of TradOx only have a problem when members question the motives of, and insult, each other, but it is perfectly fine to attack those outside the group.