Orthodox Church of the Mother of God

Joy of all the Sorrowful - Mays Landing, NJ (f. 1966)

Pastoral Letter of SCOBA Hierarchs

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"You are the salt of the earth." The word is entrusted to you, Christ says, not for your life but for the whole world. Nor am I sending you to two cities, or ten or twenty, nor to one people, as I once sent the prophets, but over land and sea, to the whole world, a world in very evil condition. For when he said, "you are the salt of the earth," he showed that all human nature was rendered unsavory and corrupt by sin. Therefore, he looks for those virtues in them principally which are the more necessary and useful for taking care of the many. The person who is gentle, modest, merciful, and just does not shut up his good works in himself, but is concerned that those fair springs should flow for the benefit of others. Again, the one who is pure of heart, and a peacemaker, who feels the urge for truth - such a person orders his life for the benefit of all. [St. John Chrysostom - Homily on the Gospel of Matthew, 15,6]

Preaching the Gospel in a Pluralistic Society

"And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them utterance." (Acts 2:3-4)

79. One of the unique qualities of the modern era is that the average person in many parts of the world encounters a degree of diversity - cultural, philosophical, and religious - unprecedented in human history. Even a hundred years ago, a given people usually remained in a specific place. When you journeyed there, you expected to encounter the culture, religion, and language of the people of that region. Travel was difficult and visitors few. This contrasts sharply with our own experience, when travel is easy, communication instantaneous. Most major cities number as citizens people from all over the world. Although encountering people with worldviews different than our own can be enriching, it can also cause tension and conflict. We see this on the world stage just as we see this in our own neighborhoods. How can we be one human people while still preserving what is unique about each of us? This question has been the Church's concern from the beginning, but it takes on a new urgency in our own time.

80. The Church has used two biblical events to illustrate this tension, even as She has tried to understand how to overcome it. The first is the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), and the second is the account of the Holy Spirit's descending on the Apostles on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13).

81. In Genesis we read that in the beginning everyone spoke one language. This enabled people to begin to build a tower "with its top in the heavens." They said that they wanted to "make a name" for themselves. The problem was not that they were cooperating, it was how they were cooperating. Their cooperation led them to believe arrogantly that they could challenge God. Seeing how their arrogance was bringing them to evil purpose, God "confused their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." Unable to communicate with each other, they scattered throughout the world abandoning their tower.

82. The Holy Spirit's action at Pentecost is the antithesis of Babel. After the Lord's Ascension, the Disciples remained in Jerusalem waiting for the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus had directed them. On the day of Pentecost they were gathered together in the upper room. There came the "rush of a mighty wind" and "tongues of fire, distributed and rested on each of them." "They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages." Because it was a great feast, people from all over the world had gathered in Jerusalem. Hearing the sound of the wind, a great number came to find out what was happening. When the Disciples began speaking to them, "each one heard them in his own language."

83. The Tower of Babel divided humanity. The Holy Spirit restored that unity on the day of Pentecost. However, the unity which we have in the Holy Spirit is different than the pre-Babel unity in one very important respect. The unity of Babel was predicated on a uniformity of language, and one can presume, culture. The unity which the Holy Spirit brings preserves our particular and distinctive characteristics. It is a unity in diversity and a diversity in unity. The Orthodox Church has always used this Pentecost event as a way to understand how diverse people can be one in Christ. Historically, unity of faith has not necessitated one language or even one uniform practice for the entire Church. Sharing one faith, we can be one Church, even as we acknowledge our ethnic and cultural diversity. The question is, what are the "limits to diversity"? When does difference in practice become difference in faith?

84. The first experience that the Church had with this tension was at the Apostolic Council held in Jerusalem in A.D. 49 (Acts 15:1-29). The Apostles had to decide whether or not the non- Jewish converts to Christianity had to adhere to the Jewish Law. These new converts challenged the Jewish Apostles to think about what was central to the Christian faith. After much prayer, deliberation and struggle, the Apostles decided that faith in Christ did not require these Gentiles to become Jews. It was a decisive moment for the Church. The Apostles made a distinction between faith and practical expressions of the faith. They also recognized that as Christianity moved away from its Semitic milieu, it was going to confront a different worldview.(17)

85. The problem for the Apostles and those first Christians was not simply preaching monotheism to a polytheistic world. It was to make a Gospel, that presupposed very different categories, relevant to a culture that was in many ways hostile to the Christian worldview. The debates surrounding the Ecumenical Councils and other local councils of the Patristic period testify to the fact that the process of "inculturating" the Gospel - that is, showing how the Gospel speaks to the issues relevant to a particular people, time, and culture - was not an easy task.

86. For example, the ancient world placed a high degree of importance on unity or even uniformity. Individuality was to be subordinated to the good of the whole or the group. This is the perennial tension between the "one" and the "many"; in the language of our day, unity and diversity. In contrast, the Gospel placed a unique importance on each person. The Church found the evidence for this in the Incarnation of the Word who desired to save both the world, and most importantly, each individual soul.

87. A related difficulty that the Church encountered was the way in which many in the ancient world conceived of history. Many saw history as a series of repeating cycles. Consequently, much Greek philosophical thinking was consumed with discussing the beginning of things. For them, the result of any action was simply the consequence of the initial "seed." Nothing could alter it. The Gospel saw the world very differently. History was of supreme consequence. We were not subject to the inevitability of our destiny. The world had a beginning, but more importantly it would have an end. God had entered history to alter its direction decisively. The modern world has become absorbed with history - look at the importance we give to "facts" as "impartial" arbiters of the truth - without giving much thought to the direction and purpose of our history.

88. The Christian experience of the Godhead as a tri-personal reality sharing a singular essence turned this argument on its head. The Christian belief that God took on human nature to transform history and creation directly challenged preconceived assumptions about history, human beings, God, and the integrity and inviolability of a particular essence (i.e., if you are a human being you cannot be God; if you are God, you cannot be a human being). At every point and in almost every way, the Christian message began to change the way the Greek and Roman world thought. These questions were more than simply relevant or valid to people of the time. They saw them as vital. Everyone - the Church Fathers, the intellectuals, the pagans, the workers on the street - saw these questions as central to their existence.

89. We should also remember that the persons who were raising these questions on behalf of the Church were themselves a part of the intellectual life of their time. St. Basil the Great was trained in philosophy in Athens. St. John Chrysostom studied under the greatest pagan rhetorician of his time. St. Gregory of Nyssa had an extensive knowledge of human anatomy and biology; some think he might have studied to be a medical doctor. St. John of Damascus was well acquainted with the science of his time; for example, he knew, as did most knowledgeable people in the East, that the earth was a sphere, that it traveled around the sun and that the moon was a "reflecting" light.

90. When the Gospel entered a new cultural situation, it engaged that culture on its own terms. The people who were responsible for preaching and teaching did not hide from this responsibility. They did not try to make the Greek and Roman world into a Semitic one. They were themselves full participants in that world. But they gave Christian answers to the religious and philosophical questions that were being asked. They began with their faith experience and from that faith experience began to reinterpret all they had learned and understood. They treated those who disagreed with them with respect, while insisting upon the truth revealed in Christ. The debate was lively because a great deal was at stake.

91. If the Christian message seems not to be reaching the people of our time we should ask ourselves: Are we offering answers to questions that no one is asking? And perhaps more importantly: Are we willing to engage honestly the many vital questions that people are asking? People want to know if the Christian Gospel has anything to contribute to our time. We believe that it does, and the missionary task before us will not be an easy one.

92. We presently live in a world that has been shaped by the principles of the Enlightenment, but this worldview has reached the limits of its possibilities. The Church must detach the Gospel from this worldview. We live in a period of cultural transition. If we are to avoid being marginalized, we need to learn a lesson from the Patristic period and enter into a deep dialogue with the surrounding culture. People long to know God. They are searching for the truth. If we do not help them with their search, others certainly will be stepping into the breach.

93. The Church has followed certain principles in Her encounter with different cultures. The first is that every people, in every time period, is constantly being called by God. We are being called not only as persons, but as a 'nation' to embody those virtues that befit creatures created in the image of God. What flows from this is the belief that every people and indeed every culture is able to be transformed and sanctified. We should not despise the people around us.

94. Our vocation, as those who are called to proclaim the Good News, is to help distinguish between that which is good and helpful in a culture or society, and that which is false, leading to ruin. St. Paul's advice to Timothy can be a guide for us: "For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving; for then it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer" (1 Timothy 4:4-5).

95. The second principle to keep in mind is that God is directly present in creation in a real and vital way. St. Gregory Palamas articulated this when he spoke about the difference between God's "essence" and His "energies." He used the image of the sun and its rays. Like the sun, God's inner reality is inaccessible to us; but like the rays of the sun, He is constantly giving us light and warmth. God who is totally different from us, is still present through His life-giving energies that surround and permeate the whole creation.

96. Similarly, St. Maximos the Confessor spoke of the Logos of God (the Word of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity) having seeded the whole of creation so that all created things have within themselves an inner rationale (a "logos" proper to itself) that was placed there to testify to the Creator. This concept, which had been present in pagan philosophy as the "spermatic Logos," was also used by the earliest Christian writers. They based this connection to Christian thought on the first chapter of John's Gospel where he speaks about Jesus Christ, the Word of God.

97. Most of us are not accustomed to thinking in these theological and philosophical categories. It might make more sense if we spoke of the "DNA of salvation." When God created the world through His Son, He embedded within the "DNA" of everything the sign of His wisdom. This is what the Psalmist expresses when he says: "O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all" (Psalms 104:24). God's mark is everywhere. Those who pursue the truth, be they scientists or philosophers, believers or agnostics, will come upon the same Wisdom present even in the most minute corner of the universe.

98. The third important principle is that salvation involves more than human beings and human societies. There is a cosmic dimension to mission. The Lord spoke of a world, indeed a universe, that is shaped and transfigured by His saving love. We say in the hymns of Theophany (Epiphany) that our Lord's first act of salvation was to cleanse and restore the water - which stands for the whole of creation. St. Paul speaks about the creation waiting with eager longing for the liberation of the children of God (cf. Romans 8:19). We must not be narrowly anthropocentric as we proclaim the Gospel.

99. When we look at the society in which we live, we see that even though its roots traditionally may be Christian, nonetheless, there has been a steady distancing from these roots. We certainly observe this to be the case here in North America, and it is also more and more true in traditionally Orthodox countries. We see a growing number of people who are actively searching for 'meaning' in their lives, however they might understand that word. There has been a rise in attention given to various religions and philosophies presenting themselves as alternatives to Christianity. What is very significant is the large number of people who have grown up outside of any Church, with only the most superficial, and often confused, understanding of the Gospel. In short, our own society has become a primary "missionary territory."

100. Unlike other times and places, when the Gospel was preached, most people in our society believe that they already know what Christianity has to say. For better or for worse, the Church's history, but more significantly the history of those people who have claimed to act in the name of Christ, has negatively shaped peoples' views of the Christian faith. Our challenge is to frame the proclamation of the Good News so that it speaks in a new and fresh way, breaking through these prejudices.

101. At the same time, we should not forget that many of the foundational principles of modern society are the direct result of the Christian Gospel. Would we speak of human rights had not our Lord taught us the value of every human life? Would we speak of freedom had not our Lord liberated us from the fear of death? Would we speak of equality if our Lord had not lowered the heavens to become one with us? These principles were embedded in custom and law by people who were living out the Christian Gospel. Although the rationales currently offered for these principles have moved away from their original theological premises, they nonetheless have their basis in the faith experience of those whose lives were changed by the coming of God into the world.

102. Coming out of a Christian worldview, our society has attempted to balance the rights of the individual with a communitarian impulse. What is lost as these principles are separated from their original Christian foundation is the balanced emphasis on the importance of community and responsibility for the other, especially the weakest among us. There is an ancient Christian saying: unus Christianus, nullus Christianus - a single Christian is no Christian. What this means is that there can be no individual or isolated Christian. We are Christians in community, in relationship to one another. We would also claim that this is critical for society as a whole.

103. The increased erosion of community in the name of individual rights can be attributed to the inability to appreciate that personal identity can be maintained and supported within society. The reemergence of unapologetic racism and ethnicism have a similar root. Here the individual totally identifies with the group and sees the 'other' as a threat. Can our understanding of the Holy Trinity - as a community of three distinct persons who exist in total love while sharing everything in common - be helpful?

104. As we observed above, people have gone searching to fulfill their need for meaning. Yet, this search often involves popular and personal "spiritualities" that lack a coherent theology. "New Age" religions that mix and match according to personal taste give the illusion of spiritual fulfillment, but lack the qualities of true worship. The substitution of purely humanistic social and political movements for a true relationship with God is another example. These tend to be distractions at best, and idolatry at worst. We have watched as some have ended tragically.

105. But perhaps the most distressing sign we detect today is the degree of cynicism on the part of some young people and the adults influencing them. There are those actively seeking to take away or distort the idealism, so characteristic of youth. We see this as a symptom of the hopelessness that affects some young people, be they poor or affluent. Perhaps this helps explain the acts of indiscriminate and merciless violence that we have witnessed in our nation and around the globe. In some places the suicide rate, especially among teenagers, is higher than the overall murder rate. As Christians we have a responsibility to give an account to others for the hope that is in us (cf. 1 Peter 3:14). But even more, we have a responsibility to show them that our hope is more than words, that our love is more than sentiment. People can live without a great many things. They cannot live without hope. It is our obligation to bring the truth and therefore hope to our young people. It is likewise our responsibility to shed light on the many wonderful works and ministry done by our young people across the North American continent, so as to give hope to others and bear witness to the love that our young people have for God. There is a profound message in this.

106. The recent almost unprecedented economic growth in North America, coupled with the collapse of totalitarian communism in other parts of the world, has given us the sense that our economic system is the best and perhaps the only way of organizing a society. We will not, at this time, enter into a detailed commentary on the Christian principles one might use to organize an economy. Rather, we will limit ourselves to a few general observations.

107. The disparity of wealth distribution between the richest members of our society and the poorest is growing at an alarming rate. There is always an "underclass." Now there is a permanent underclass that is definitely unaffected by the rising economic tide. This is not only unjust but creates a sense of hopelessness. This is very troubling, especially in our society that claims to be predicated on a notion of classlessness, or the possibility of persons to change their economic status through gainful employment. The Church can and must help ameliorate the condition of the most vulnerable. But the problem is structural, and needs to be addressed structurally.

108. As bishops who have ties to many churches that suffered terribly under communism we believe that we have an understanding of that system that few other Americans share. The common belief that communism was predicated on atheistic materialism is true. However, we acknowledge that our capitalist system is no less predicated on purely materialist principles, which also do not engender faith in God. There is no place in the calculus of our economics to account for the "intangibles" of human existence. Reflect on how the simple accounting phrase "the bottom line" has shaped our whole culture. We use it to force the summarization of an analysis devoid of any externals or irrelevancies to the "heart of the matter." This usually means the monetary outcome.

109. We spoke above about the origins of the word "economy;" and how it was used by the Fathers of the Church to describe God's plan for our salvation. Contrast this meaning of economy to the narrow sense in which we use it today. In spite of the growing need many people feel for meaning in their existence, we seem to be trapped in a substantially materialist understanding of life. This understanding sets God in a compartment far away from the concerns of the "real" world. In spite of the religious rhetoric which falls so easily from the mouths of some, many of those who have great wealth fail to share their wealth with others, while many of the poor are consumed with get-rich schemes that promise to solve their problems. Can our Christian understanding of "economy" help our society see life as more than "bread"? (cf. Matthew 4:4)

110. As Orthodox Christians we must have a view of mission that focuses both on the salvation of persons and on the transformation of the cultural context. There is nothing more precious than one soul. Certainly, the surrounding environment can provide support and encouragement in the Christian life. Orthodox mission has traditionally been oriented toward both. As we preach the Good News to those around us, we must be thinking about this question of the cultural context of Orthodox mission in North America. It must become a subject of study and reflection, not only in our seminaries, but also in our parishes and homes. We are not suggesting that there is such a thing as a "Christian culture." There is not. However, the risk of not engaging and transforming the culture in which we live is that the Orthodox Church will become just another sect.

111. To transform our culture we must be prepared to enter into a dialogue especially with those of other faiths. Such a dialogue must be constructive. It must be based on religious conviction. This will require that we strengthen and deepen our own theological understanding. Dialogue is more than tolerance. In dialogue we recognize that while different than I, the "other" does not exist simply to exist. Rather he or she exists as a person who has something to say to me. I am obliged to listen respectfully to what that person has to say. I need to relate what he or she says to my own convictions and evaluate it in the light of my own beliefs.

112. This is not syncretism. Religious syncretism rests on the assumption that each of the participating parties has a positive contribution to make, and that these when collected and collated constitute a whole. New Age religions contain many syncretistic elements, but there are also varying degrees of syncretism in other popular philosophies and ideologies. For us, dialogue means that while we may recognize positive elements in another religion or even philosophy, these are always to be judged against our own beliefs. We have no interest in forming another religion. But we do have a great deal to say to one another.

113. Sometimes we forget that religion is not about "religion," but about our relationship to God, to one another, and to creation. A dialogue with those around us can begin with the obvious challenges of the new millennium. The technology which we created has taken on a life of its own. We should weigh its best uses, while ameliorating its dehumanizing aspects. The ecological crisis, in some ways a child of our technology, poses one of the greatest threats to the environment and to our human existence. There is little debate about this. The causes of the crisis may be technological, but the source of the problem is spiritual. We need to talk with one another about the best ways of improving life for all human beings while preserving the biosphere. The advances in medicine, genetics, and other biological sciences pose new concerns to which we must respond. We are in need of serious theological reflection on the nature and meaning of life.

114. The reality of a pluralistic society means that there is religious, racial, and ethnic intermingling. We know how prejudice eats away at the fabric of society. We have experienced how it can lead to violence and war. As we begin to engage in dialogue with our society in this new millennium, we need to learn how to talk with one another, to dialogue with the other, in mutual respect and love.


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