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Friday, May 15, A.D. 2009
Ethnic Parishes

Yesterday, John Couretas posted a piece of the habitually insightful Orrologion, “Sacrificing All,” on the American Orthodox Institute’s blog.

Orrologion’s entry touches upon the phenomenon of “ethnic parishes” in the United States. Many people, especially converts to Orthodoxy, criticize these ethnic parishes as tribal social clubs instead of evangelizing churches. I respond:

I suppose that I am poorly inclined to appreciate the disgust at “ethnic” parishes. Having lived abroad myself, I know how refreshing it is to hear and to speak English while dwelling in an alien land. I do not begrudge the Greeks their Greek or the Serbs their Serbian.

Of course, immigrants to the U.S. should learn English, but let me respond to Orrologion’s point of social etiquette. It is highly artificial to speak another language to a person whose primary language is also your own. Moreover, after spending the rest of the week in a foreign language, perhaps these folks just wish to indulge in some leisure during the post-liturgy meal. I don’t think that such is rude. It’s natural. I am not a multiculturalist, but if visiting Americans are so intolerant of hearing another tongue, then how can we expect them to be open about a new faith? If someone ignorant of Orthodoxy decides to venture into an Orthodox church, such an adventurous person would not be so narrow in his sensitivities.

I wonder if folks sometimes conflate their image of “ethnic” parishes with that of exclusive, “in the club” communities. Surely, it is the exclusive, “you’re not welcome here” attitude that people find objectionable. To sound a bit hokey, a smile and friendliness know no linguistic boundaries. Of course, openness to strangers and etiquette in different cultures differ a lot, and these different rules may give the impression of exclusivity. Yet, English speaking, all American communities of converted WASPs can be just as unwelcoming.

Thus, we ought to be mindful of ourselves and to try to accommodate others in love. Such, I guess, is Orrologion’s point.

Yet, I wonder if something else lurks in the criticism of ethnic parishes (not necessarily by Orrologion, but generally).

Something that I find disturbing about Christianity is its morbid insistence on the one thing needful, as if we were simply noetic beings with no other object but the Trinity itself. While I agree that there are priorities and that God should be at the top, and while I acknowledge that God is the highest good and that God is the source of all other goods, I think that there is a thread in our faith that justly merits Nietzsche’s condemnation of Christianity as a form of nihilism . . . a Western Buddhism that denies and hates the world because the world is not perfect—because the world is not God. This tendency existed in the early centuries and it survives, spreading like an infection through all the mutations of Christian history. To me, it is one of the best arguments against the Christian religion.

Yet, I don’t think that this attack accurately understands Christianity (and so I remain a Christian—though sometimes I question my choice). For we believe that God creates and sustains the world, that the world mirrors the splendor of God, and that we should strive to see God in and through the world. We are not to see only God purely, without creation, but rather to see and rejoice in creation as an image of God (as the Latins say, as vestigium, imago, and similitudo). We render thanks to God for the world, and thus we rightly esteem and love the world as a beautiful God-given treasure.

What does this have to do with Orrologion’s post or with general criticisms of “ethnic” parishes? I fear that this sort of nihilistic fanaticism, though limited and small in dose, might lurk behind the criticisms of the “side benefits” of a Christian community. Obviously, we need to have our priorities clear. If a parish fails to facilitate spiritual growth, then it is not doing its job. Yet, if it preaches the gospel, offers a rich liturgical and sacramental life, and shares its love and blessings with those around it, we should not fret over its being a social setting for its members. As a community, if teenage boys wish to play basketball, if old women wish to knit, and if expatriates wish to reconnect with their blood tribe, then that is fine, too. Man may not live on bread alone, but he still has to eat.

Though Orrologion offers some undoubtedly useful advice, his post bothers me . . . in a similar way as most of the ascetics’ wisdom bothers me. Though pastorally and psychologically practical, there is something about the post (and desert wisdom) that strikes me as false. Like the tendency in Christianity that is so intent to avoid pride that it mutates into false modesty and self-hatred, Christianity’s pious exclusive focus on God sometimes turns into a poisonous nihilism. In an attempt to avoid idolatry, this extremeist vein in Christianity thereby commits acts of ingratitude and of blasphemy.

Posted by Joseph on Friday, May 15, Anno Domini 2009
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