Sunday, May 01, 2011

Wonder and Truth, Fair and Balanced?

The following is the second written contribution for my Systematic Theology class. It is almost double the maximum word count; I apologize in advance to my professor. However, as with the first entry, comments have been turned off until the entry can be graded.
Much in Orthoblogdom has been devoted to two often-competing blogs, OCANews and OCATruth, regarding current conflicts in the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). Rather than engage in more of the personality issues, I want to discuss something hitting closer to home.

Recently OCATruth took issue with the most recent issue of OCA Wonder, which dealt with Christianity and partisan politics, and published a review of it. The editor of OCA Wonder is a friend of mine and classmate here at St. Vladimir's, where discussions have gone on recently--in class and in school fora--regarding how or if Orthodox Christians should engage American politics. The emphases of both the OCA Wonder issue and its review on OCA Truth provide interesting insights into how different parts of the national church engage hot-button political issues of the day.

The first article in the Wonder issue, a piece by Abp. Lazar Puhalo, takes issue with those who would "manipulate the civil government in order to have it legislate their doctrines and moral concepts into civil law"; the well-known adage of "You can't legislate morality would apply here. He equates man manipulating man via legislation to man using and abusing his environment and decries both actions as a person sinfully taking his passions and directing them outwardly against the Other, rather than inwardly for the salvation of his own soul. Given the example of ecology, however, I find it interesting that he would most likely have no qualms about legislation designed to regulate Big Business through higher environmental standards. Is this legislated morality? Assuredly so--I would personally agree with such legislation--though one could say that Orthodox were engaging American politics to impose their morality on hard-working, industrious entrepreneurs and, as such, were not "loving" them.

Yet all legislation is morality; it cannot help but be so. Anything a body puts into practice, it does so out of a conviction that what it states is correct, and that which it opposes is incorrect. Our own Archbishop Iakovos marched with Dr. King out of a conviction that Jim Crow laws were immoral and unjust; overturning them through an official act of American legislation was not only not "sinful egoism, self-centredness and self-love," as Abp. Puhalo would have it, but a sense of seeing justice and right prevail, which are necessary aspects of any type of genuine love.

The OCA Truth review, regarding Abp. Puhalo's article, claims that the article "doesn’t identify which doctrines and moral concepts [Abp. Lazar is] talking about, but he can only mean abortion and gay marriage." Now, this inflammatory remark is obviously wrong, as 1) Abp. Puhalo clearly mentioned the environment and 2) it is disengenous in the extreme to insert into silence what one's opponent "can only mean." However, the fact that abortion and gay marriage (which are mentioned together eight times in the entire OCA Truth article and begins to sound like a mantra after a while) are such important issues for the reviewer is telling and should, at least, be acknowledged, as they are, in fact, direct affronts to Orthodox Christian moral and anthropological dogma.

The OCA Truth reviewer's (hereafter, "The Reviewer," as it is anonymously posted) insistence on dealing with his two obviously pet issues does allow him some fair criticism. In his review of Scott Alan Miller's article, "Orthodoxy and Political Conservatism," he wonders "what the author means when he identifies 'social conservatism' as being conformity to Anglo-American norms," since "he barely defines what that means." Furthermore, I would say, to reduce American conservative thought to nothing more than Anglo-American norms is tantamount to saying that Orthodox thought is nothing more than Greco-Slavic cultural norms; there does exist a real, moral influence in both political conservatism and Eastern Orthodoxy that has its base in the Christian Scriptures, which transcend mere human cultural trappings. Indeed, Miller's almost dismissive attitude about the politically conservative arena is a disservice to the point of view he is ostensibly called upon to support. While he is right that many areas of conservativism--and, I would say, in particular, the arena of neo-conservatism--are at odds with much of Orthodox teaching (and, again, this is odd for an article purporting to give a "conservative" view--the OCA Truth reviewer is correct in asking how "you have anything important or helpful to say to young people about Orthodoxy and conservatism when you won’t address the two biggest issues" on which political conservative and traditional Orthodox thought actually agree.

The article on "Orthodoxy and the Political Left," written by Fr. John Culbreath-Frazier, says what I've mentioned here already: "all of Christian ethics in the political sphere are largely simplified to such charged issues as abortion and gay marriage, and placing little, if any, emphasis on how our faith may also approach such topics as the environment, poverty, and human rights; issues that have equal religious significance." The Reviewer's treatment (or lack thereof) of this article is where said Reviewer ought to be the most ashamed of himself. Not only has he only devoted a mere paragraph--and a flippant, vulgar one at that, unworthy of the task at hand--to an eloquent, thoughtful contribution to OCA Wonder, but he has misrepresented Fr. John's position, which does not in any way assert that Orthodox are "natural liberals," as the reviewer "bullet points" later on. Again, while The Reviewer grasps at a possible fingerhold for legitimate criticism when he states that the Democrats ought to be taken more to task for "fail[ing] to live up to the moral standards of Orthodoxy" with regard to the Reviewer's two main issues (for, as a comment that follows the article rightly states, "Both have been condemned by the Apostles and Fathers"), he loses all credibility when he glibly states that Fr. John is alleging that both secular Democrats and Orthodox "ought to wake up and realize that Orthodox Christians are really liberals too." Perhaps if The Reviewer could see past "his two issues," he might see that 1) the article rightly states that there are plenty of other issues championed by the Left with which the Orthodox can and do sympathize and 2) that acknowledgment of this common ground in no way compromises political action in anti-abortion nor defense of marriage arenas.

Perhaps a legitimate criticism of Fr. John's article--and it is a small one--would be to extend his criticism of the Left's "refusal to engage the 'right' on the religious playing field regarding policy." Not only has this "given the 'right' a monopoly on making any stance a religious issue," but it is a betrayal by those who espouse religious beliefs privately regarding these issues of their own responsibility as public figures to allow their faith to be a part--and an integral one, at that--of the whole person who casts a vote in Congress, writes up legislation, etc. That the moral and religious aspect of enacting legislation as a priestly offering to God is so absent from the political Left is a deficiency that can--and has--only hurt them politically.

Finally, The Reviewer takes issue with "The Problem of Partisanship" by Dr. David Wagschal, a professor at St. Vladimir's, though, again, the "taking issue" comprises all of a paragraph-long screed that, in essence, dismisses Dr. Wagschal's article because it was written by a Canadian (One wonders, or at least, I do, if The Reviewer simply got tired or pressed for time in reviewing these last two articles, given the non-engagement one sees therein). As The Review has devoted no more than a paragraph to this last article, I will devote no more than that to him here.

What I would like to address are certain ideas put forth in Dr. Wagschal's article. Dr. Wagschal mentions that the Orthodox, in Byzantine days, had "been very focused on promoting a maximal vision of a specifically Christian monoculture, with a very defined and carefully regulated set of beliefs, behaviors and values. The imposition of an ideal uniformity has been a much higher priority than a pragmatic management of diversity." It is interesting that this Byzantine uniformity was imposed on enslaved and subjugated sub-cultures through the official fiat of an emperor rather than suggested through the simple "good example" of individual faithful. It seems to me that this is a necessary and admirable admission when one is dealing with the issue of whether or not one is justified in "imposing one's morality" legislatively in our 21st-Century context. It would seem that, given our own past and the above-mentioned precedent of hierarchical Orthodox participation in the American Civil Rights Movement, our role is more complicated than Dr. Wagschal's dichotomy of "mov[ing] the political and moral agenda in a Christian direction from within" as opposed to "simply [being] content to throw stones at it from without" would have it.

While I agree that 1) "partisan sectarianism or extremism is too likely to reduce the Gospel to a set of narrow and human political “positions” which deprive it of its universal power and applicability," 2) "the Gospel could be identified with a human 'party'," and 3) "the scandal of the Gospel become the scandal of the Church’s political positions, not the scandal of the cross," none of these ideas inherently preclude participation or engagement with the legislative process of this country--"voting one's conscience," in other words. I do not necessarily think that Dr. Wagschal makes the assertion that his premises preclude such engagement (though he could hold this opinion, I suppose), but that he is so reticent to engage political activism based on a dichotomy of Church/State where involvement in the latter obscures irretrievably the message of the former is evident in his assertion that the Orthodox hierarchy ought "to keep the respectable distance from politics that our system demands, speaking out only occasionally on critical moral issues, but [to be] generally very careful to allow Orthodox citizens the freedom necessary to participate credibly in the political arena." I do not see a hierarch's involvement in political issues at odds with his responsibility to the Gospel; I would question whether any issue--be it poverty, the environment, the unborn, or the nature of human sexual union--is so (pun fully intended) sacred as to preclude "intrusion" from religious influence. While our government is designed so as to keep one, state religion from denying other churches' existence or dictating public policy as a whole, it does not follow that individuals can not engage public politics with a purposeful intent to bring their religious convictions into play, nor that religious leaders cannot speak to the faithful of their own confessions regarding pertinent issues of the day and teachings that can--and should!--influence how those individuals involve themselves in the political process.

It seems to me that, as one classmate of mine said, the image to the right is the only admissible image we as Orthodox have for guiding our participation in our nation's political arena; as the Israelites found out concerning the golden calf, so we must acknowledge that neither the image of elephant nor donkey can serve as a suitable replacement for the only image our God has given us of Himself. All Orthodox who are politically engaged understand that certain ideas in American politics are affronts to what they see as those things consonant with the image of God in Christ; the questions are, then, 1) which issue or issues comprise the greatest affront to said Image, and 2) how (not "if") those Orthodox Christians involved will engage the political process so as to bring it more into conformity with the image of God and Man in symphony.