DANCING ALONE — OUT OF STEP WITH ORTHODOXY
By Vigen Guroian
The emergence of Frank Schaeffer as an Orthodox apologist has implications which are both promising and ominous. Promising, because there are those who have and will continue to be first introduced to the Orthodox Church through his talks and freely distributed newspaper, The Christian Activist. Ominous, because the tone and style of Schaeffer’s ministry have led some to question whether it is less the Orthodox Church and more the struggle with his own fundamentalist background that he is proclaiming.
In the review presented below, Vigen Guroian, a professor at Loyola College in Baltimore, offers the most articulate critique to date of Schaeffer and his understanding of Orthodoxy. This article was reprinted by permission from the June 7-14, 1995 issue of The Christian Century (Copyright 1995, Christian Century Foundation).
Of additional interest is the article by William J. Abraham, "Orthodoxy and Evangelism: Observations and Comments on a Recent Conference in the United States," Sourozh, #60 (May, 1995), 1-14.
Dancing Alone: The Quest for Orthodox Faith in the Age of False Religions. By Frank Schaeffer. Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 327 pp.
Over the past two decades, significant numbers of discontented Episcopal and Roman Catholic clergy as well as Protestant and Catholic laity of various stripes have been converting to Orthodoxy. New parishes dominated by converts have been cropping up in the archdioceses of the Antiochian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church of America (an outgrowth of the Russian Orthodox Church). A genuine sense of Orthodox mission in America is beginning to find expression.
When several hundred former evangelicals were converted and admired into the Antiochian Archdiocese in the 1980s, the story of their spiritual journey was widely told. One of the leaders of that group, Peter E. Gillquist, wrote a popular account, Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith. In 1990 Frank Schaeffer, son of Francis Schaeffer, the famous evangelical preacher and theologian, also converted to the Orthodox faith, and he has produced a book which "charts an odyssey that took me from the evangelical Protestant community, to which I once belonged by default, to the Orthodox Church, which I chose on the basis of the conclusions described herein." These comments suggest an apologia, or spiritual autobiography. As it turns out, however, Dancing Alone is a convert's manifesto about "true Christianity" tilted against false religion and a morally corrupt culture.
The most conspicuous personal note in Dancing Alone is anger. Schaeffer characterizes his evangelical Protestant upbringing as a huge swindle. "I … spent half a lifetime in the evangelical Protestant world without learning one iota" of the ancient tradition. "It was as if a lobotomy had been performed on the Protestant community and that the history, faith and practices of the ancient church had been obliterated in the operation."
Schaeffer's central argument is that Orthodox Christianity is uniquely suited to answer the contemporary religious and moral crisis in America. In this respect, Dancing Alone follows a familiar American pattern of dissent and conversion. As Peter Berger has observed, Americans face a "heretical imperative"—they are forced to choose for themselves what to believe and what religious institutions they will be committed to. The pluralism of contemporary American life promotes a radical voluntarism, a voluntarism which undercuts confidence in the catholicity of the Christian faith and the church. What is new in Schaeffer's tale, then, is simply that Eastern Orthodoxy has joined the array of religious choices.
Schaeffer declares that "according to Holy Tradition, it should be possible to write a book that attempts to critique social and political problems of the day and to simultaneously suggest a religious solution [my emphasis] ." He divides the book into two parts. "The Age of False Religion" is a critique of the culture. With sweeping strokes, Schaeffer sets out to prove how virtually all of Western Christianity, Protestant and Roman Catholic, is irredeemably vitiated by theological errors and has accommodated itself to secularism. In "Authentic Orthodox Faith" Schaeffer reviews the history and doctrine of the Orthodox Church, arguing that the Orthodox faith is the only form of Christianity that decisively answers the heresies of secular humanism and modern unbelief.
This commendation of Orthodox faith will no doubt strike a receptive chord among ethnic Orthodox still smitten with church triumphalism as well as with many who are outraged by the decline of traditional religious and moral values. Nevertheless, the premise of the book and its way of arguing lead toward the worst kind of. Americanization and secularization of the faith. Ironically, Schaeffer's book oozes with the same moralism, instrumentalism and pragmatism that have contributed to the secularization and loss of catholic Christian consciousness that he condemns.
Even the title of the book evokes American romantic individualism. Schaeffer seems to have become Orthodox because the rest of America has gone wrong, and Orthodoxy is the best religious remedy for cultural crisis and moral malaise. At work here is not the catholic mind of the church but the romantic self that takes upon itself the task of reconstructing and arbitrating theological truth. Schaeffer intones "Holy Tradition" repeatedly when he passes judgment on the falsehood in others and claims truth for his own statements ("Holy Tradition says …"). But at center stage as arbiter and mediator of this so-called Holy Tradition is the "I."
This is not the Orthodox way of being. The great voices of Orthodoxy in America did not become Orthodox because of a spiritual and moral crisis facing them. By the grace of the Holy Spirit they remained Orthodox so that the church could bring salvation to a sinful world. Georges Florovsky, John Meyendorff and Alexander Schmemann saw America as a place of mission not because America had gone bad, but because the Orthodox faith is true and good for sinful humanity here as in all places. They sought to take Orthodoxy beyond the stage of immigrant and ethnic church and make it an evangelical mission to secular people starved for the spirit of God. As Schmemann often said, the task and purpose of Orthodoxy is not to perpetuate and preserve ethnic or national identity, or to correct the course of the American way of life, but to perpetuate the catholicity of the church within and through the particularity of Russianness, Greekness or Americanness.
In contrast to this genuinely catholic and evangelical ecclesiology, Schaeffer adopts "culture wars" as the presiding metaphor for his analysis and critique. "There is an ideological war raging within our borders," he writes. "This 'war' is being fought between those who disavow the history, religion and society of Christian civilization, and those who continue to cherish our cultural and religious inheritance." Strongly attracted to the message of the neoconservatives, Schaeffer praises them for their fight against secular humanism. But he also finds them wanting in religious conviction and judges that they are incapable of leading America back to moral and spiritual health.
"The conservatives and neoconservatives have done us an invaluable service in exposing … the bankruptcy of secularism … But inasmuch as they have proposed only economic, political, nationalistic or technocratic solutions to what are fundamentally religious-moral problems, they have not told us what we can be for.
Most of our conservative leaders have failed to finish the sentence, 'I believe …' with a convincing declaration of faith."
Schaeffer's assessment of the neoconservatives is not without foundation. But the deeper problem is not that they ignore religion or do not value it enough, but that even the religious among them view religion in terms of social utility. It's not accurate to say that Richard John Neuhaus, for example, does not complete the statement "I believe" with a strong declaration of faith; but that faith is too often used as a means to wage the cultural wars. Schaeffer's newly gained Orthodoxy stands in the same relation to his social critique as does Neuhaus's recently embraced Roman Catholicism to his critique of America — only Neuhaus is far more nuanced. Indeed, Neuhaus's Roman Catholicism looks far more catholic than Schaeffer's Eastern Orthodoxy. Schaeffer's declaration of faith reveals the roots of fundamentalist and sectarian Protestantism.
Perhaps because I am an Orthodox "by default," as Schaeffer would say, I am deeply skeptical of the claim that Christian existence is about finding religious truth and then choosing a church that keeps to it. I suspect that there is a trick in this perception of things, a deception that leads to the serial denominational belonging of vast numbers of Americans.
Schaeffer's fundamentalism is evident when he contrasts the worship, institutional constitution and doctrine of the Orthodox Church with the false religions and secular moralities that he says are destroying America. Although he has studied the Orthodox sources, the broad and deep spirit of Orthodoxy is missing. It is one thing to talk about the sacraments; it is another to convey the sense of mystery in Orthodox theology and worship. Mystery is lacking completely in Schaeffer's discussion. The forensic style of religious fundamentalism and literalism colors every page. When he invokes "Holy Tradition" as the infallible authority in place of the Bible, he is supplanting his earlier biblical literalism with a fundamentalistic neopatristicism.
I do not want to be insensitive to the convert's honest attempt to express his new faith. Yet there is a real danger that this book will help lead some Orthodox out of the catholicity of the church into a new sectarianism. It certainly misrepresents Orthodoxy to others. One example of misrepresentation is Schaeffer's assessment of Florovsky, who almost single-handedly led the Orthodox into the modern ecumenical movement. I can agree with much in Schaeffer's critical comments on the ecumenical movement — it has been steering in some bothersome and outright heterodox directions, especially under the influence of extreme womanist and liberationist theologies. But must this lead to the conclusion that the Orthodox should leave ecumenism behind or that people like Florovsky were "duped" or "blinded" by their own good intentions?
"How sad to think," he writes, "that such a great mind and spirit as Georges Florovsky could have been so blinded by his own innocent good will as to the true nature of the Protestant debacle [embodied in the ecumenical movement] which has resulted in the disintegration of Western civilization, the acceptance of abortion on demand, the ordination of women, homosexuals and lesbians, the apostasy and heresy inherent in 'liberal' Protestant theology."
Schaeffer brings an alien polemic into the Orthodox Church and shows disrespect to all of the great figures of Orthodoxy in this century who gave the Orthodox faith back to world Christianity. Their gift should not be taken back, nor their work abandoned. Orthodox have been among the greatest defenders of Nicene Christianity in the ecumenical movement and have spread the seed of Trinitarian orthodoxy. That seed needs to be fed and nurtured by a new generation of Orthodox theologians and churchpeople. To imagine an Orthodoxy that is not ecumenical is to lose hope for the unity of the church and disobey the command of Christ "to make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
Finally, it is odd that someone from an evangelical background should say so little about mission. In contrast, Florovsky, Schmemann and Meyendorff were driven by the deep spirit of evangelism in Orthodox Christianity. Their ecumenical involvements issued from the conviction that if the church is not in mission it is not the church. Although they too were sometimes tempted to leave the ecumenical movement, they believed that to do so would have been to give up confessing Christ everywhere so that his body might be built up in the world. That expression of the fullness of the Orthodox spirit and its profound vision of the catholic and apostolic church is conspicuously missing in Schaeffer's book.
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