St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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Assessing American Christianity, Part Two

In my last column I said that I saw two shifts in American Christianity. The first was the shift from spiritual growth to social concern. I was gratified with the response I received to that column. Thanks to all of you readers who responded in one form or another.

This week I want to explore the second shift I see, the shift away from the connection between culture and religion.  This may not seem as significant as the last topic, but I believe it has direct bearing on why we lost the emphasis on spiritual growth.

Thirty-five years ago, when I was an adjunct professor at Yale Divinity School, we were already exploring what it meant to lose a cultural context for faith. Specifically: what happens when Orthodoxy moves away from its cultural milieu of Russia or Greece of the Ukraine? What happens when Roman Catholicism moves out of an Italian or Spanish or Polish cultural setting? What happens when Lutheranism moves out of Sweden or Germany? Our Jewish brothers and sisters were struggling with the same issues. It was apparent that a shift was in the making. For many students, to grow up Lutheran, say, involved Danish folk dance, hymns. ebelskiver for breakfast, and national heroes like Nikolai Grundtvig. Religion and culture were interwoven.

In the millennium or more of Christendom the Church, internationally, developed indigenous Christian communities based on local cultural patterns: language and poetry, habits and social customs, personal and ethnic characteristics. This interwoven cloth unraveled in the new world. The weft no longer had a stable warp upon which to make its patterns.

America is a multicultural society. We are so much richer for this. We should rejoice and revel in it. Most of us do. We eat Mexican food, drink French wine, watch Indian movies, drive Japanese cars, listen to Afro-Pop music, and so on. Various cultures have been absorbed into the US, even ones at first not welcomed or valued. That’s all good news.

Not all is good news, however. In latter-day America, many folks have not been able, or have been unwilling, to find their way as their cultural matrix vanished. This is understandable. Take away the cultural wrappings and, for many people, the faith itself is diminished. In societies where religion and culture were intertwined, there were recognizable signs of holiness: prayerful devotion, service to the community, the development of hospitals and orphanages, immersion in the sacramental life, peculiar patterns of piety. In Orthodox and Roman Catholic lands, this included pilgrimages and visits to monasteries and spiritual guides. This was summed up as “churchmanship” (including women and men): the willingness to put energy and commitment into the organisms and institutions of the church. Secular society lost or, perhaps, discredited such markers on the path of holiness. Add to this the fact that in America we have, as Harold Bloom put it years ago, American civil religion, defined as a vague faith in American values with an overlay of piety. The threads for weaving spiritual depth are missing.

We should both embrace the shift to a multicultural society, and also revisit these markers for holiness. There was a great deal that was healthy and wise about them, and these markers can flourish anew even in a society where the ties between culture and faith have been weakened or lost. What is required is our recognition that faith is universal, that it is not tied to ethnic anchors, that we can learn to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. After all, for Christians at least, we are always pilgrims and aliens in a strange land.

published 19 Feb 11