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Vol. 2 No. 3 - Dormition 2007

Dreaming of Byzantium

Government-backed multiculturalism has for decades encouraged - even paid - Canadians to relive the cultural experiences of places long ago and far away. On the surface, such nostalgia has the smell of Orthodoxy, a longing for a truth long forgotten, a time and culture where we were closer to God, and more innocent.

Such nostalgia is misleading, since its focus on an ideal time and place, lost in the past, runs absolutely contrary to the authentic longings of the Orthodox Christian heart: a longing for eternity, for the Kingdom of Heaven. Orthodox Christianity is not a museum piece, despite its antiquity: it is the timeless Truth, as fresh yesterday and today as it will be tomorrow, and in a million years.

Sadly, this vision of true Orthodox Christianity is often lost in North America. Drowning in the soup of ethnic nationalism, many parishes are made up of members who buy into the nostalgia, bringing Orthodox Christianity along for the ride. Where the faith has become part of some dusty bookshelf, churches are occupied only by those interested in dusty books. Trying to "spice up" the dusty church library with ethnic food festivals and dance lessons doesn't help: in fact, it undermines any chance of connecting most Canadian-born people with the eternal Truth of Orthodoxy.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the false attempts to equate Orthodoxy with a revised view of certain Imperial cultures, particularly Imperial Russia, and especially Byzantium. Ethnic nationalism, fueled by Canadian multiculturalism, has distorted our memories of both these Orthodox empires. Both were in fact multi-cultural, multi-lingual empires, whose richness and diversity were the very means by which God granted the spread of the Gospel. This is not the picture that is painted by many modern Hellenists (and to a lesser extent, Russian nationalists), who speak of their Orthodox empires in very different terms: uni-cultural, uni-lingual, fundamentally mixing the identity of one people - Hellenic, Russian, or others - with the identity of the Orthodox Faith. For those who subscribe to such fiction, the spread of the Orthodox faith requires the adoption of Byzantine, Russian, or some other Imperial Orthodox culture.

This is of course the approach taken by Protestant sectarians around the world even today, who offer their Protestant religion in the trendy global pop-culture of the west: for them, to become a "Christian" means to become an American. Islam does the same in its idealizing the Arabic Qu'raish culture as the only one which truly allows entry into heaven. Clearly, Orthodox in North America must be above this silliness - or are we?

Despite the best hopes of Canadian multiculturalism, one of the unintended effects has been the utter ghettoization of ethnic groups. Regardless of age, with the exception of youth who have joined the rootless Canadian pop culture, most Canadians are most comfortable to remain firmly entrenched in within communities, and circles of friends, who look, cook, talk, and dance like them. Orthodox communities, once culturally integrated and mixed (and until the 1920s, united under a single jurisdiction), have bought into this balkanization, and in doing so, have indulged their own ethnic nationalists dreams, many of which could never have been achieved in reality in their homeland.

This reality has deeply affected the Orthodox concept of mission work. While great Orthodox empires like Byzantium saw their task as bridging diverse cultures and languages, to bring all into the fold of Orthodox Christianity, modern groups too often expound on the uniqueness of the Orthodoxy of their people: the Greek dismisses others as 'xenous' (strangers), the Slav speaks of 'nashi' ("our people", or more subtley, "people like us"). We see recently that when such ghettos suffer numerical decline, there are calls to bring back those who have fallen away from the Faith (or more specifically, from the faith of their people). This pastoral work with lapsed Orthodox is too often mistaken for mission work, when it is nothing of the kind.

A similar confusion afflicts North American converts, particularly in the so-called "missionary" jurisdictions like the Orthodox Church in America and the Antiochian Archdiocese. Shaped by North American Anglo-Protestant culture, the approach to "mission" work is similarly Imperialistic, and similarly distorted. Rather than a mission that goes out and across cultural divisions - an undoing of the divisions resulting from the sin of the Tower of Babel - the so-called "missionary" jurisdictions are almost exclusively focused on building new parishes that are almost exclusively white, suburban, middle class, English speaking, and very, very establishment. As such, we often live under the illusion that the Orthodox in North America have escaped their immigrant ghettos, when in fact, the ghettos have simply joined the comfy middle class.

Of course, neither of these approaches have much at all to do with Orthodox Christian mission work. The fact that most of the largest ethnic and linguistic groups in North America - Hispanics and Black Americans in the United States, French, Chinese, and Asians in Canada - remain virtually untouched by the Orthodox Church should tell us something about our blissful myopia.

Multiculturalism should provide to North American Orthodox the greatest missionary opportunity in the history of the world, particularly in Canada. In almost every case, Orthodox faithful and bishops themselves have bought into the balkanized culture, and have settled instead for the chance to dream about the way things could be, in some empire, far, far away.

Father Geoffrey Korz, (Dormition, 2007)

© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2007.