I have lately come across an encyclical, written by a Greek Orthodox bishop to be read by his clergy in the parishes of his diocese. He is concerned that Greek Orthodox Education be fostered within those parishes, and he exhorts the faithful to pursue the Greek Orthodox Education of their children with all vigour. The bishop’s intention is honourable and consistent with his high episcopal calling. For this bishop (and all Orthodox bishops) I have the utmost respect. Nothing in the following thoughts should be construed as intending any disrespect whatever. I kiss his canonical hand, offering all honour: eis polla, eti despota.
Nonetheless, I would like to suggest that something is amiss in much of North American Orthodoxy, and that this encyclical inadvertently witnesses to what this is.
The encyclical begins by stating that “Greece and Hellenism worldwide need a proper tidying and to be put in order”. This tidying and order can be accomplished, the letter goes on to say, by vigorously pursuing Greek Orthodox Education. “The aim of Greek Orthodox Education is key and essential for the perpetuation and progress of our people, but to also enter and inherit the Heavenly Kingdom of God. Greek Orthodox Education helps put our house in order and it enriches the child’s soul. Some parents expect their children to be Greek and Orthodox, without taking care to teach their children the Greek language, the Orthodox faith, and the Hellenic Christian ideals.” For this reason, parents must take all care to teach the children to be Greek and Orthodox and to accept “the Hellenic Christian ideals” (what these ideals consist of is not stated, nor how they might differ from, say, Slavic Christian ideals.) Parents “must speak the Greek language in the home and actively live the Orthodox faith”. Appeal is made to the final judgment of Christ, so that these duties are “truly a matter of life and death for the perpetuation of our people and for the inheritance of the Kingdom of Heaven”.
The bishop is, I believe, reacting to the tendency he observes among his flock to abandon the ethnic Greek heritage, and along with it, the Orthodox Faith. His remedy is to pursue the Greek Orthodox Education of the children more zealously, teaching them “the Greek language, the Orthodox faith and the Hellenic Christian ideals”. Notice that for him, these all constitute a single package. Here, I suggest, is the problem. I mention this encyclical (with some hesitation) because I believe the problem lies not with this Greek bishop alone (whom I am sure is doing the best he can), nor with other Greek bishops, (who are doing the best they can). The problem is not confined to the Greek Orthodox in North America. I believe that the words “Russian”, “Ukrainian”, “Serbian”, “Romanian”, “Bulgarian” or other ethnic tags could be substituted for the word “Greek”. The problem is not with Hellenism (for which I have the utmost admiration); it is with ethnicism per se, the unreflective tendency to include Orthodoxy as but one component in a larger ethnic package.
The Greek Orthodox Church being the largest in North America, we see the tendency most easily among our Greek brethren, reflected in such films as My Big Fat Greek Wedding. This film (one of my favourites) is an affectionate and not disrespectful look at what it means to grow up Greek in America. Orthodoxy is presupposed, and scarcely noticed, like the colour of wallpaper in the background. In the film, a nice but completely secular young man falls in love with and decides to marry a nice religious Greek Orthodox girl. Since she is “religious”, and he is not, he decides to convert to her religion for the sake of family unity and peace. He allows himself therefore to be baptized in the Orthodox Church (after presumably no catechesis whatever), while remaining an unbeliever. Immediately after the baptism, he greets her jubilantly saying, “Now I’m Greek!” It is a happy Kodak moment. My point is that there is nothing in the film to suggest that this is outrageous. He wants to be acceptable to her Greek family, and becoming outwardly Orthodox is the way to do this. Orthodoxy is thus on par with Greek language, Greek customs, and Greek cuisine. The Resurrection of Christ is no more significant to him than souvlaki. It is this subordination of Faith to culture that is problematic.
To be fair to the Greek bishop (or to any Orthodox bishop), he would never say that the Resurrection is no more important than souvlaki or any other aspect of culture. As a true bishop, doubtless he would boldly proclaim the centrality of the Resurrection and do his best to preach the Gospel. But by wrapping the Gospel in ethnic clothing, and by refusing to the face the option that the Gospel might be preached and pursued apart from that ethnic clothing, a disservice is inadvertently done to the Gospel. Face it: multitudes of Greek young people (or Russian, or Ukrainian, or Serbian or Romanian, or whatever) will fall away from their ancestral ethnic heritage. It is not wonderful, but it is inevitable. I know of one excellent Romanian priest who speaks in his ancestral tongue to his boys over the dinner table: they reply in English. And they do this not to be rebellious but because, like it or not, they are becoming Anglicised by their experiences in school and in society around them. The odds of them finding nice Romanian girls to marry and producing nice Romanian children are not assured. Living in greater Vancouver, odds are they will fall in love with non-Romanian girls. It happened to the heroine in My Big Fat Greek Wedding; it will probably happen to them also.
It becomes crucial therefore that the Gospel be distinguished and separable (not separated necessarily, but separable) from the total ethnic package in which it was first found. Losing one’s language and ancestral culture, while a cultural loss, is not catastrophic. “The inheritance of the Kingdom of God” does not depend upon retaining any language or culture; it does depend upon retaining the Orthodox Faith. By refusing to acknowledge that Orthodoxy is separable from culture or by presenting them as an inseparable and essential unity with that culture, one only insures that when culture is lost through passing generations, the Orthodox Faith will be lost also. Orthodoxy in North America does indeed need to be tidied and put in order. But this can only be accomplished by stressing the primacy of the Gospel. “Our people” should not be defined as the omogenia of Greece, but as the entire Christian People of God, whatever their ethnicity and language. We forget this at our peril, and the peril of our children.