Thursday, June 01, 2006

Convert/Cradle - An Orthodox Life

Recently, I've thought a lot about the verbiage we use to talk about the faithful in the Orthodox Church. For those raised in the church their whole lives, who have come from generations of Orthodox Christians, we call them "Cradle Orthodox."

For those who have discovered Orthodoxy later in life, who many times come from other Christian confessions and many times have a strong formation in other Christian groups, we call them "Convert Orthodox."

This is a handy way to talk about the cultural challenges that face each group. On one hand a "Cradle Orthodox" might be terrified by an influx of people into his parish from a different ethnic background precisely because he fears loosing something precious in his background. This "Cradle Orthodox" comes from centuries of formation and many times his religious understanding of the Orthodox faith is inextricably tied up with his cultural formation. For many "Cradle Orthodox" to be Greek or Russian or Romanian or Serbian IS to be Orthodox.

A "Convert Orthodox" however, would look at this in bewilderment. He has been shaped by a religious experience that says his faith is not so much tied to an accident of birth as to a free and conscious choice to follow a faith. He is amazed that a "Cradle Orthodox" knows so little about the faith he was born into. Many times this "Convert Orthodox" has paid a high social price (sometimes, in the case of former pastors who convert to Orthodoxy, they have also lost jobs and retirement benefits) to embrace what they have discovered as the "faith once for all delivered to the saints."

The "Cradle" sees his self identity wrapped up in this ethnic identity which includes a religious affiliation.

The "Convert" has little if any ethnic identity at all, and certainly doesn't see his self identity shaped by any ethnic ties. If there are any ethnic ties, they will be subordinate to his religious fervor and commitment to his church.

This necessarily sets up an interesting clash of civilizations within the Orthodox Church here in America.

This is a country where a melting pot of ethnic backgrounds are all thrown together. For 200+ years we have experimented with building a nation where a person is identified as an American but may come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. The national motto of the country is the Latin "E Plurabus Unum"- Out of the Many, One.

Having set this up, I want my next post to deal with what I hope to be an ongoing conversation about the very nature of Orthodox identity, an identity that goes beyond any ethnic heritage, while not dismissing the beauty and value of a heritage where Orthodoxy shaped an entire nation.

But, as my grandma says, God ain't got no grandchildren!


rightwingprof said...

I suppose I'm fortunate. After going to several Synod and Greek parishes that went out of their way to make me feel unwelcome, I went to an Antiochian parish that was pan-cultural and thoroughly American, with many converts. The "ethnic" thing there was never exclusive, since there were Orthodox from India, Iraq, Eastern Europe, and even Greeks who had grown tired of the exclusivity at the Greek parish. I was welcomed with open arms.

Barnabas said...

Dear Right,

Yeah, you are fortunate.

My problem is that I was spoiled when I first converted. I was in a parish that was "convert friendly."

But since moving from that area for a job, I find myself in a place where there really aren't any "convert friendly" parishes.

However, I am still finding God's grace in abundance even at a heavily ethnic Greek parish. The very position of being a "stranger" has called me to a more serious spiritual discipline. So I guess even here God is shaping me.

I am actually grateful for the challenge. It's just not easy, but it is worth it.

rightwingprof said...

I'm surprised there aren't any OCA parishes where you are. Look for OCA or Antiochian.

Barnabas said...

Actually, Right, there are both an Antiochian and an OCA parish nearby. The Antiochian parish has some particular problems that have been going on for many years and the OCA parish mainly serve the Russian and Slavic immigrant communities.

We live in a very ethnically diverse portion of the nation, but I am not in despair. Sometimes being a stranger helps me identify with the One Who was first a Stranger to His own.

rightwingprof said...

My original parish is Antiochian, but I now belong to an OCA parish, not at all excessively ethnic (I define ethnicity in a parish as excessive when it overrides everything else -- see your stereotypical Greek parish as an example). Both are similarly composed of a core "ethnic" membership, and a large number of members from other Orthodox churches, as well as converts.

Anonymous said...

I have noticed that my OCA parish is composed of both cradle and converts. All cradle Orthodox, however, are not really "Greek" or "Russian". I was raised in the church but am only 1/16 Slav. My Great-Grandmother went to an Eastern Church. So what? We are all Americans. Why not rejoice that many "cradle" Orthodox come from the American melting pot? Are we "mongrels"?

Even dogs eat scraps from their master's table.

Anonymous said...

I am a "craddle' Orthodox, living in a traditionally Orthodox country, so I guess my insight on American Orthodoxy is absolutely minimal. I do however feel both why 'craddle' Orthodox are reluctant with converts and why converts are bewildered at 'craddle' Orthodox. I do believe that 'craddle' Orthodox often cling to ethnic and cultural elements as if they were part of the Holy Tradition of the Church, which is, of course true. On the other hand, I also believe, from what I have read, that converts have a tendency to "americanize" Orthodoxy as much as possible, something which, if done excessively might cause problems. I think the best thing is the middle way. Let me give an example: When the Russians where converted to Orthodoxy by the Byzantines, they adapted it to their own style. They used their own language, formed some different traditions (adding cultural, not dogmatical, elements) and generally they 'did it in their own style' so to speak. They did not try to make Orthodoxy russian. They took Orthodoxy from the Byzantines, along with its - time-tested and valued - traditions, added and subtracted in specific places to make it familiar in their own culture and made their own very beautiful version of Orthodoxy, so similar to the Byzantine and yet so unique. In that sense, Orthodoxy in America should be adapted to the people's culture but that should be done with respect to some valuable traditions. Just my opinion, I could be wrong, for I'm not familiar with the circumstances there.

Anonymous said...

I posted the comment above, just wanted to correct something: the phrase "... Holy Tradition of the Church, which is, of course true" should read "... Holy Tradition of the Church, which is, of course NOT true" meaning that cultural and ethnic elements of religion are not an integral part of the Holy Tradition.