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Orthodox Fundamentalism

One of the cornerstones of Orthodox Christianity is its reverence for the great Fathers of the Church who were not only exemplars of holiness but were also the greatest intellectuals of their age.  The writings of men like St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. Maximos the Confessor have been and will always remain essential guides to Orthodox Christian living and Orthodox Christian faith.

Thus it is alarming that so many Orthodox clerics and monks in recent years have made public statements that reflect a “fundamentalist” approach to the Church Fathers.  And unless leaders of the Orthodox Church unite to repudiate this development, the entire Orthodox Church is at risk of being hijacked by extremists.

Like other fundamentalist movements, Orthodox fundamentalism reduces all theological teaching to a subset of theological axioms and then measures the worthiness of others according to them.  Typically, this manifests itself in accusations that individuals, institutions, or entire branches of the Orthodox Church fail to meet the self-prescribed standard for Orthodox teaching.  For example, when the Theological Academy of Volos recently convened an international conference to examine the role of the Fathers in the modern Church, radical opportunists in the Church of Greece accused it and its bishop of heresy.

The key intellectual error in Orthodox fundamentalism lies in the presupposition that the Church Fathers agreed on all theological and ethical matters.  That miscalculation, no doubt, is related to another equally flawed assumption that Orthodox theology has never changed—clearly it has or else there would have been no need for the Fathers to build consensus at successive Ecumenical Councils. 

The irony, as identified by recent scholarship on fundamentalism, is that while fundamentalists claim to protect the Orthodox Christian faith from the corruption of modernity, their vision of Orthodox Christianity is, itself, a very modern phenomenon.  In other words, Orthodoxy never was what fundamentalists claim it to be. 

Indeed, a careful reading of Christian history and theology makes clear that some of the most influential saints of the Church disagreed with one another—at times quite bitterly. St. Peter and St. Paul were at odds over circumcision.  St. Basil and St. Gregory the Theologian clashed over the best way to recognize the divinity of Holy Spirit.  And St. John Damascene, who lived in a monastery in the Islamic Caliphate, abandoned the hymnographical tradition that preceded him in order to develop a new one that spoke to the needs of his community.

It is important to understand that Orthodox fundamentalists reinforce their reductionist reading of the Church Fathers with additional falsehoods.  One of the most frequently espoused is the claim that the monastic community has always been the guardian of Orthodox teaching.  Another insists that the Fathers were anti-intellectual.  And a third demands that adherence to the teachings of the Fathers necessitates that one resist all things Western.  Each of these assertions is patently false for specific reasons, but they are all symptomatic of an ideological masquerade that purports to escape the modern world.

The insidious danger of Orthodox fundamentalists is that they obfuscate the difference between tradition and fundamentalism.  By repurposing the tradition as a political weapon, the ideologue deceives those who are not inclined to question the credibility of their religious leaders.

In an age when so many young people are opting out of religious affiliation altogether, the expansion of fundamentalist ideology into ordinary parishes is leading to a situation where our children are choosing between religious extremism or no religion at all.

It is time for Orthodox hierarchs and lay leaders to proclaim broadly that the endearing relevance of the Church Fathers does not lie in the slavish adherence to a fossilized set of propositions used in self-promotion.  The significance of the Fathers lies in their earnest and soul-wrenching quest to seek God and to share Him with the world.  Fundamentalist readings of both the Fathers and the Bible never lead to God—they only lead to idolatry.

George E. Demacopoulos: Professor of Historical Theology; Director and Co-Founder, Orthodox Christian Studies Center  at Fordham University. @GDemacopoulos

Comments
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Patrick Theros
Wow! Where have you been hiding. Your commentary on Orthodox fundamentalism hopefully will start a dialogue on who we are that we have lacked for several centuries. I could not agree with you more. We run into new rules pertaining to the conduct of our parishes that reflect the whims of those who have a aggrandizing view of what orthodoxy should be. It has created an exclusiveness at odds with a thousand years of history. For years, I have told my children that Orthodoxy, above all, presents an intellectual challenge to its flock only to have poorly informed clerics and laymen contradict me. Your conclusion; we will retain only fundamentalists and drive out the thinkers, is happening before our eyes.

Patrick Theros
Posted on 1/30/15 10:34 AM.
Theophilos A
George, you state:

"Thus it is alarming that so many Orthodox clerics and monks in recent years have made public statements that reflect a “fundamentalist” approach to the Church Fathers. And unless leaders of the Orthodox Church unite to repudiate this development, the entire Orthodox Church is at risk of being hijacked by extremists."

Further,

"For example, when the Theological Academy of Volos recently convened an international conference to examine the role of the Fathers in the modern Church, radical opportunists in the Church of Greece accused it and its bishop of heresy."

If you do not have the courage to name those clergy and monks who you call "extremists" "fundamentalists" "radical opportunists" and essentially "idolaters" then what use is your blog post, besides to bring scandal and cause divisions? It is easy to call people fundamentalists, one could call you a fundamentalist, but for reasons opposite that you are throwing it out!
Posted on 1/31/15 3:09 AM.
Theophilos A
What are some examples of these rules? What do you mean by an intellectual challenge, what specifically? Thank you for your time.
Posted on 1/31/15 3:15 AM in reply to Patrick Theros.
John Heropoulos
Thank you for this eloquent and astute observation. As I am getting older, I am realizing there is much more grey in life that black and white. I have reflected at times regarding this topic. I am tending to think, but would never apply this across the spectrum of orthodox thought, because that is never helpful to constructive dialogue,...............that, people in many cases resort to fundamentalism in any situation (religious, political etc) when they feel threatened. Fundamentalism can be a reaction that comes from a place of self preservation and the need to keep things familiar and comfortable. Also, I have observed at times that, it is easier and less intellectually challenging, and in fact takes less effort and academic/spiritual vigor merely to repeat ideas and thinking of the past, than be challenged with new views, interpretations and applications of earlier thought and practice. It is easier for some to not have to listen, reflect, compromise, re-learn things, embrace uncomfortable things, truly understand the deeper meaning of things we hold dear. Some times when asked in the Orthodox tradition,....."Why do we do this or that?", the reply is because "Etsi to vrikame". (This is how we found them) A sweet, at times, response, but not really what we all need to hear, especially our youth, in the 21st century.
Posted on 1/31/15 11:33 AM in reply to Patrick Theros.
John Ways
If there is an Orthodox fundamentalism, this is its opposite extreme. What Demacopoulos is doing is setting up a left wing answer to a right wing problem: politicizing the Church on the model of American culture wars. Pudeat te! False dichotomies and false answers for a superficial age! The only people who will heed this inflammatory partisanship are those who already think this way; Demacopoulos is not interested in building bridges or reconciling: he sees the "fanatics" as an obstacle to be suppressed, not as brethren to be illumined. But illumined by what? What living expression of Orthodoxy does Demacopoulos have to offer as an alternative to those radicalized monasteries or fundamentalist hermeneutics? Perhaps suburban life and a career of academic theology in a Catholic institution? Very inspiring! I choose 'no religion at all.'
Posted on 1/31/15 2:59 PM.
Dr. John Armstrong
I suppose I am not qualified to respond in some ways, since I am not Orthodox, but as an ecumenist who deeply appreciates Orthodoxy I am honestly tired of the fundamentalism I meet routinely, especially in American converts. I know these converts are not alone but this article is a breath of fresh air, something we all need if we are to remain faithful to the ancient Christian faith.
Posted on 1/31/15 8:42 PM.
Constantine Ps
True, there is Orthodox fudamentalism. But does the way of overcoming it imply an anti-Russian hysteria of the kind that even the most "hawkish" US politicians could envy?
Posted on 2/2/15 12:11 PM.
Harry G Coin
I think the thought John Heropoulos below is the reason many feel the appeal of fundamenalism: a response to fear of instability, that the church which offers foundational concepts in clear language has many in high places who in practice if not in open commentary no longer seeks to appreciate the plain language of the church's moral guidance. But I add there is another reason many feel an appeal of fundamentalism: they are wolves who see an opportunity to take personal advantage of the fact that people feeling fear will seek security of a 'strong man', who, under color of church authority, in the name of 'higher truer heavy deep and real' moral authority in fact control their labor and financies. As if the Christ God who in one account knows the number of hairs on one's head is taking a little nappy in the hours after one's death and only by efforts of the control-freak does a fundamentalist victim have a chance to walk near the Lord in the hereafter.
Posted on 2/2/15 3:53 PM.
Jason Hunt
A very good critique of this article by Fr. John Whiteford can be found here:

http://fatherjohn.blogspot.com/2015/02/response-to-orthodox-fundamentalists-by.html
Posted on 2/3/15 5:56 AM.
Jason Hunt
The entire article is one big straw man fallacy. If there is a so-called "Orthodox Fundamentalism" that needs to be critiqued, perhaps it would be best to critique an article, book, or something else where such ideas are actually demonstrated, rather than inventing a caricature of something which doesn't exist in order to throw stones at it.
Posted on 2/3/15 6:07 AM.
James Roman
If the quality of an editorial is measured by its ability to spark a conversation (which it should be), then this short opinion piece is the most significant publication to date on this site. While there are only a few comments here, the online conversation about this piece on facebook and elsewhere is extraordinary.

What is so fascinating to me is that the essay is being interpreted by some (both critics and supporters) as a critique against monasticism or a critique against traditional Christianity. That is absurd--has anyone ever read his scholarly work? He wrote a highly-praised book advocating for an ascetic-minded approach to spiritual fatherhood.

Monasticism, which is ancient, and fundamentalism, which is a modern phenomenon, are two entirely different things. What Demacopoulos is pointing out is that there are those within the church who manipulate church's reliance on tradition and the insights of the Church Fathers to promote their own agenda, which are traditional in name only.

Those who feel stung by Demacopoulos' call to action should probably look within themselves and ask why they find it so personally offensive. Why does it touch a nerve?

If it is too vague to be taken seriously (as some online vigilantes have claimed), then why are they so threatened by it?
Posted on 2/5/15 11:17 AM.
Fr. James Rosselli
Fordham's Orthodox Studies Center is the home of the formidable and
invaluable CCEL Website. Professor Demacopoulos, a co-founder of the Center, justly deserves to share in the credit for it.

That's why it is so disappointing to see the Professor lapse, in this essay,
into the dreary epistemology of academic post-modernism.

The key to this piece is expressed at the end, where quest is exalted above
content: "The significance of the Fathers lies in their earnest and soul-wrenching quest to seek God and to share Him with the world."
Evocative language, to be sure--but that is not the significance of the Fathers. Their significance is that their discourse shaped the Orthodox Mindset--the Phronema--the "transformation by renewal of he mind" to which we are exhorted in Romans 12:2.

To the author, the important thing about the Fathers is not what they
propounded, but the fact that they went about propounding it. The
fact that there were a variety of Rules of life among the Fathers is
valued not for the essential unity that revealed itself in different
expressions, but that the expressions were different. What we learn from
the Councils is not the Spirit-inspired process of arriving at the most
excellent expression of the Faith, but the fact that there was a process
during which differences were aired. St. John Damascene's hymnographic
contribution is presented not as adding to the treasure of beauty of the Church, but as "abandonment of the hymnographical tradition." Remarkably,
these interpretations are presented as positives!

As have all deconstructionists of the Faith since Bultmann and his ilk,
the author begins by highly praising the Fathers and paening the debt
we owe them.

Further on, though, through the careful use of emotion-laden pejoratives ("extremists," "alarming," accusations of "self-promotion" etc.),
the Content of the Faith is diffused into a post-modern context that turns
critics of an enterprise the author favors into "radical opportunists;" where the defenders of the Ancient Faith, rather than the promulgators of an alien mindset, are termed "extremists" and where "modern scholarship" invites us to a "close reading" that will reveal (egad!) that the Fathers occasionally disagreed! Even--dare we say--bitterly!

The epistemology in this piece is not Orthodox. It is actually very much
a creature of post- "enlightenment" thinking, specifically post-Kantian,
evoking Rogozinsk's "differend:" the essential difference that must lie
at the heart of every concept, that renders it unstable. Post-modernism
insists on a differend, indeed cannot survive without it; for without the
differend concepts would remain stable. This cannot be allowed, for it
would not permit the "modern world" to be exalted to the point where
a stable faith could be dismissed as "symptomatic of an ideological masquerade that purports to escape the modern world."

The author paves he way for this remarkable statement by inventing straw
men to knock down: "One of the most frequently espoused is the claim that the monastic community has always been the guardian of Orthodox teaching. Another insists that the Fathers were anti-intellectual. And a third demands that adherence to the teachings of the Fathers necessitates that one resist all things Western."

While there are indeed people who hold positions like these, it is a gross
propositional misrepresentation to claim that all opponents of the Professor's
particular modernist philosophy fall into these three categories. It is, further,
revelatory of the weakness of his actual position that he relies so heavily on
pejorative language and upon casual, even arbitrary, imputation of foul
motives.

The Professor does not seem to feel obligated to explain his statements.
Why, for instance, is the monastic community suddenly not the guardian of
Orthodox teaching, when the mind of the Church has held it so since the
Fourth Century?

The Professor's language construction evokes the epistemology of the
Episcopalian deconstructionists who set about, in the 1960's, the transformation of their communion into what it is today. Orthodoxy cannot
fit into that mold, and trying to so fit it will not transform it, but only move the
attemptor farther away from it.

in Christ,

Fr. James Rosselli
St. Joseph of Arimathea Orthodox Church
and House of Prayer
ROCOR
Posted on 2/5/15 4:02 PM.
Philip Zymaris
Thank you George, you are absolutely on target. I think the main problem today is that we in the Church have lost all sense of conciliarity. For this reason it is difficult for people to realize that the final authoritative voice of the Church is never to be found in one or two individuals, be they Fathers or monks, regardless of their supposed sanctity because because holiness is not a guarantee of authority, i.e., holiness and authority in the Church are two different things. In other words, we cannot accuse the Roman Catholics on the one hand of having an infallible Pope, but, on the other hand, believe that all Fathers of the Church or all (holy) monks are infallible! (At least the Roman Catholics have only one infallible guy...if we really believe the Fathers can't make mistakes as the fundamentalists would like to have us believe then we have countless infallible guys!). No, the final authoritative voice of the Church is based on the Ecumenical Councils but even some councils that fulfilled all the "prerequisites" to be Ecumenical (i.e., Florence-Ferrara, Lyons II and many others) were in the end....rejected by whom? By the people, i.e., the consciousness of the whole Church. Therefore, in the end the whole Church, that is to say you and me and everyone in the Body of Christ (=Church) and not one or two people (again regardless of "holiness" which ultimately can be judged fully only by God in the end times) is the final voice that can say what is right and what is wrong. This of course works when our faith is a "βίωμα", that is to say a real life experience and relationship with the living God and not an "ideology" or a set of principles that we abide by as if we belong to a specific philosophy, political party or are masons or something like that. Since the narrow path of Christianity presupposes love and crucifixion for the other (something that goes against our instincts - even and especially our "religious" instincts!) most would prefer the easy and broad road of making our Christian Orthodoxy an "ideology," that is to say, a "religion."...But Christ did not come on earth to merely found a new religion to be just one more among many, no, he came to fulfill all religion and in this sense abrogate religion. Religion is when people sacrifice things in order to somehow appease a dangerous and all-powerful deity that they don't really know fully (this is naturally observed in Man before he has the full revelation of Christ seen in his Incarnation, and in this sense religion is an instinct just like the instinct for self preservation, hunger, etc.). In other words, in religion we plead with God in order to get him to do what we want in a semi-magical way, whereas Christ did the exact opposite thing: he, being God incarnate, sacrificed himself for us in order to plead with us to have communion with him! He therefore turned religion upside down! Once we fall into the temptation of religion, then, we in fact destroy everything Christ suffered for and we ultimately fall into the temptation of fundamentalism. With fundamentalism there is no love. You know that recently a woman in ISIS occupied territory was killed because a little bit of her foot could be seen. Where is the love of God? This is a typical "religious" fundamentalist approach, a typical reaction of people who have no Christ. This is because, before Christ, from a religious point of view the unknown powers of the world (including sexuality which is a powerful force that pre-Christians cannot understand as God-given and good and therefore it is perceived as a dangerous force to be feared and revered at the same time) give us an insecurity that is only satisfied by sacrifices, revenges, violence, etc. - all in the name of "God!" In the end fundamentalism looks the same wherever it rears it's ugly head regardless of supposed differences in dogma. Therefore we find that even "Orthodox" fundamentalists also have no love, are all about the externals, are full of fear and don't shrink even from violence (today the violence of words as in the demonstrations in Volos, tomorrow the violence of true violence as recorded in Chekov's short story "The Murder" where an Orthodox character murders his brother because he.... didn't fast properly on Wednesday!.....). When we make our Orthodoxy into a religion we look just like the ISIS people who murdered that woman because some of her foot was exposed!
Posted on 2/10/15 1:32 AM.
Fr. Gregory Hallam
It is very easy for everyone to tilt at windmills Don Quixote style. There may be elements of this both in the article and in some of the responses here. However, since we are primarily discussing the article not the responses I propose to salvage and justify some of the article's analysis and claims. First let me say that my field of data is not academic discourse but the much maligned social media and other internet fora. Here, in the wild as it were, indeed at the popular level, Orthodox fundamentalism abounds. I am one of the moderators on Facebook Group: "Progressive Orthodoxy." Now of course the very word "progressive" is "red rag to a bull" for many of the group's Orthodox detractors. We are regularly lambasted for being "not so closet liberals", gay propaganda infiltrators and so on and so forth notwithstanding the group's very clear adherence to Church teaching on these matters. Some of us however have the timerity to suggest that accepting toll house teaching is not a touch stone issue almost like glossalia is for Pentecostals. We point out from time to time that no Church Father has been entirely free from error seen against the developed teaching of the Church. (An example here might be St. Irenaeus and chiliasm). Some detractors in this group and elsewhere insist that only a clear repudiation of Darwin will establish oneself as Orthodox in relation to creation - notwithstanding the fact that the fathers themselves warned against Christians teaching on issues that properly belong to natural revelation rather than special revelation. I could go on but mercifully I will not. All these are examples of Orthodox fundamentalism and might be characterised more generally as:- (1) Erecting test cases to judge whether or not someone is "sound" in his teaching. (2) Spreading paranoia and conspiracy as if the Church really was vulnerable to "entryism" and about to be taken over by the Antichrist. (3) Proposing a hermeneutic in relation to Scripture and Tradition that would make even a conservative Protestant blush. These are not quixotic windmills but rather mindsets quite alien to the Church and her catholicity. They are nasty, sectarian, bigoted ... and just plain false empirically and historically speaking. The phronema of the Fathers lie elsewhere.
Posted on 2/10/15 5:27 AM.
Demetra Keane
As a regular Orthodox practitioner I enjoy the freedom provided us by our Church practice to communicate directly with GOD without always needing an intermediary. I believe that's aside from our beautiful traditions it is this principle that makes our religious practice so special.
To curtail this practice would not benefit of the greater church and eventually result in its demise.

I believe that Dr. Demacopoulos is trying to warn us that something is a foot in the modern church and that as practitioners we need to voice our concerns. However, the burden of addressing this issue in my opinion lies with the Church leaders, from the Patriarch down. In each dioceses it's important that the head of that dioceses attempts to monitor the practices of the individual churches. If that's not happening, it's time for a change.
Posted on 2/11/15 9:39 AM in reply to Gregory Hallam.
Catherine MacDonald
I am Catherine Olga MacDonald nee Michalaro
Living in South Africa I believe Orthodoxy should never change.
The Indigenous African people are flocking to our church the reason being that it has never changed therefore remains consistent not like all the fly by night Christian religions who interpret ate the bible and Christianity to suit them selves. The Superficial West hates the East because of the Eastern Orthodox Church who does not change. These 40 thousand ready made Christian religions are responsible for most of the problems of this world. Consistency is what the people need. Look at the greedy world today money has become their God. I wish George E Damacopouls should go and spend some time on Mount Athos it would him good. Do not judge a religion by what some monks say they are only human. The church is steadfast
Posted on 3/23/15 9:22 AM.
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