Thursday, November 3, 2016

Ethnophyletism – Not at St. Vladimir’s

“We censure, condemn, and declare contrary to the teachings of the Gospel and the sacred canons of the holy Fathers the doctrine of phyletism, or the difference of races and national diversity in the bosom of the Church of Christ.” (Article I of the Decree of the 1872 Council of Constantinople)

Lately some folks have been complaining about our parish Church School instructing in English and Russian, rather than in Russian only. Before we discuss this more fully, let me include here our Church School Mission Statement:

“The mission of the St. Vladimir Church School is to gather Orthodox Christians of all nationalities and backgrounds, as well as all those desiring to embrace the Orthodox Christian Faith, as a parish family for mutual spiritual support and the salvation of our souls. The Church School, as an integral part of the parish family, exists to train the future saints of the Church in their formative years. We strive to emulate in our lives, and to actively model in our Church School, the relationship between the persons of the Holy Trinity as the highest and most profound example of love.”

Now, on to the conversation. There is not a special place in Heaven for those who are of a certainly nationality. See Article I quoted above. There may be a special place in Hell for those who think that their nationality will save them, but that is just speculation on my part – the Church does not have such a teaching. And further, nothing could do more to HURT the Church’s efforts to sanctify the post-Soviet societies in which is works than for people to somehow think that their Russianess or Ukrainianess, or Kazakhstaniness, or Americaness, or Canadianess or whatever nationality they are will save them. In other words, those that promote phyletism work actively against the Church and its efforts to bring souls to salvation in Christ.

Orthodox Christians should be patriots. That is, we should love our countries. Many of us were born in one country and now live in another. Or were born here but of patriotic parents who were born in another country. This presents a problem. How can one be a patriot of two countries? Especially countries like the United States and Russia, who seem to have such opposing world views?

More importantly, how can we be patriots but avoid phyletism? For the purposes of our conversation here, let us use racism as a synonym for phyletism. I like to say phyletism, and I think everyone else does too. It is a funny/pleasant sounding word. And makes one sound like they know something that someone else doesn’t. Still, it isn’t something most of us say every day, but as people who live in America we hear and use the word racism a lot. And this can help us to unpack this issue, that all parishes with multiple nationalities struggle with from time to time.

Let me be clear here too: it is OK to have this discussion. It is GOOD that we have people of multiple nationalities in our parish. This is the image of the Church with a capital “C”. The Church is diverse, and our parish is diverse. That diversity brings lots of good things, and the struggle against phyletism is a GOOD thing. If we were fully homogeneous as a parish we would not have an opportunity to have this conversation. And that would be bad, because people might begin to hold heretical views (phyletism is a HERESY after all) and we probably wouldn’t even know that. So thank God that we get to work this out together as a parish family!

I think as mature Christians we could not accept the following sentence as expressing Orthodox theology appropriately: “White people are superior to Asian people.” Or superior to African Americans. Or Native Americans. That just rubs us the wrong way. We know that can’t be true and thus we cannot accept that. But let’s switch things up a little bit and see if we can accept this sentence: “Russian people are superior to American people.” Hmmm. That is a little more tempting. Or how about this: “Russian language is a hallowed language and thus superior to Spanish.” Or Vietnamese. Or English. Or Swahili. Sts. Kyrill and Methodius understood this and this is why they taught the Slavs Greek language and culture before they catechized them. St. Innocent too, in his work in Alaska, Russified all the natives and only then taught them about Christ. But where did St. Innocent learn Russian if Sts. Kyrill and Methodius Hellenized the Slavs? Wait – something is wrong here. In fact Sts. Kyrill and Methodius sanctified the pagan Slavic culture they found when they came to bring Christ to our ancestors. And St. Innocent and St. Herman and the rest of the missionaries in Alaska sanctified the native pagan cultures they found there. They did not force the people to learn Russian. On the contrary, Orthodox Christian missionaries have ALWAYS learned the local language and preached in it, rather than trying to turn the local people they were preaching to into Hellenes or Russians or whatever the missionaries were.

This is not to say that there is not some benefit to knowing a language and culture that has been “sanctified” by centuries of Orthodox influence and guidance. Of course there is. But the Church preaches to the “natives” in the language they know. Period. There is no other authentic Orthodox approach to mission. And this is why we use both Russian and English in our Church School. If children come from a Russian speaking home and have not been to American schools for very long of course – it makes good sense to teach them in Russian. But it also makes good sense to teach them in English too, since honestly, very few of our children are heading back to Russia, Ukraine, or Belarus anytime soon. Some may be – we do have a somewhat transitory population in our parish given that we are in a university town. Again – this is why we offer instruction in both languages. But it will always be both. Because even those who are heading back to the motherland will be benefited by knowing important things like Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ, Old Testament, New Testament, etc., in English too. Like it or not, English is the lingua franca of our times. Our Church School exists to make saints. The child in the school might be a saint. But so too might the child he or she teaches when he or she is a Church School teacher in the next generation. The point is to make saints that can make more saints! We aim to make saints that can train the next generation of saints, and so on and so forth, until the Lord comes again.

I would like to make one other point here, that folks often are confused about. That is this: we often get very concerned that young people go to college and leave their faith due to challenges to their faith they encounter there. But the latest research in this regard seems to points to the fact that those young people who leave their faith in college do so not because of something they have found in college. On the contrary, by the time they go to college they are, by and large, confirmed in their faith. Or confirmed NOT in their faith. That is, college provides the opportunity - the freedom - for young people to live a life away from God if they have already decided to do so in their early to mid teen years. Thus, it seems college is not the problem – it just provides the freedom to actualize a decision that has already been made in High School. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that the Church School and the Youth Group are really quite crucial to establishing our young people in their faith. This is not to say that the average American college is a bastion of support for Christian values. But the challenges to Christian values found in the academy are met in an Orthodox way, by and large, by the students that have already established themselves in the faith, and in a secular way by those who have already decided to live a life separate from God. The moral of this story: we need to put more resources into our children’s formative years. We need to model a Christian life for them from their earliest years. We need to have our kids in Church School, in Youth Group, and most importantly: at the Divine Services (in a way that is moderate and appropriate for their age) to the greatest extent possible. And we need to pray that the Lord strengthen them in their faith and guide them to salvation. This is what matters in the end. Not phyletism. Phyletism is a heresy. Let’s concentrate on what matters as a parish family so that we can save our souls and the souls of our children, and listen to the wisdom of the Holy Church: no phyletism at St. Vladimir’s.

Fr. Gregory

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