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The Trap of Romantic Orthodoxy

November 19th, 2006
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On the heels of several polemical posts about Eastern Orthodoxy, this post may appear as yet one more. Well, yes and no. Yes, these comments speak very directly to recent converts from Lutheranism to Eastern Orthodoxy, but no, in that if you read the whole post it gives all of us who strive to remain small-o orthodox with much food for thought. This post is from  Rod Dreher, himself a recent convert to Orthodoxy.

Alexander Schmemann, the renowned Orthodox priest, discerned a problem with what he called
"Romantic Orthodoxy," which can be distinguished by the following
characteristics, as he listed them in one of his journal entries from 1980:

+ nominalism (e.g., non-existing Patriarchates)
+ blind liturgical conservatism
+ cult of the past
+ theological preoccupation almost exclusively with the Fathers
+ "apocalypticism"
+ hatred for the contemporary world (not for this world in general)
+ emotionalism
+ cult of externals (beard, cassocks, prayer ropes, style)

In other words, wrote Schmemann, it
includes all that makes Orthodoxy weak, that makes it into an intenral
ghetto (and not an appeal, a fight, life). Romanticism, in life and in
culture, is, above all, a dream, the primacy of the heart over
discernment and truth. It pushes reality away for the sake of an imagined reality; it is belief in illusions.

Schmemann, of course, was talking specifically about the Orthodox
church, but there is wisdom there for all of us who hold on to small-o
orthodox religion, in whatever tradition. My experience is almost
wholly limited to the Catholic Church, but there are some good general
principles in this for the small-o orthodox to watch out for. We live
in a time of such chaos within the churches that it’s easy for the
orthodox to substitute slavish adherence to ritual and Henny-Pennyism
(i.e., "The sky is falling!") for authentic spirituality. For me — and
this is something I would have added to Fr. Schmemann’s list — a
particular temptation has been to get caught up in Church politics, and
to allow "churchiness" to occupy much of the attention that ought to
have been going to advancing on the path to holiness. There was a time
not all that long ago when I imagined that being preoccupied with the
advances and retreats of the forces of Catholic orthodoxy was the same
thing as being and becoming a good Catholic Christian.

"cult of the past" is a particular temptation too for us
tradition-minded Christians. It’s very easy to look around at the
loosey-goosey religion promulgated by Father Frootloop and Sister
Stretchpants (and their dopplegangers in other churches and traditions)
and to idealize the 1950s, when the Church was rock-solid. But that
solidity must have been a Potemkin village at some level, or things
wouldn’t have fallen apart so quickly in the 1960s, which is the decade
we love (appropriately, I hasten to add) to demonize. Could it be that
in that decade, very large numbers of people were going through the
motions, but the living faith itself never touched their hearts?

few years ago I was in the Netherlands talking with a professor about
the collapse of the Church and cultural conservatism in Holland. He
said that when the Second World War ended, people returned to the
social forms that had existed prior to the war. But those forms had
been hollowed out by the trauma of the war. When the first gusts from
the counterculture blew through the Netherlands in the early 1960s, it
all went down like a house of cards. I wonder, then, if the Dutch
churches in the immediate postwar period were caught up in a "cult of
externals," mistaking the form of corporate worship and personal piety
for actual faith — and so they didn’t see the internal weakness

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