Eastern Orthodoxy and American Youth, Part 3: God is not the Enemy?
Today I will address why the theology of the Orthodox Church attracts young people.
First, many of us are sick of being the object of marketing campaigns. Therefore, church services that are obviously staged to be “attractive to young people,” can look silly or even offensive. Moreover, pop culture changes so quickly, that a church may be years or decades behind the times even as it tries to be cutting edge. A service steeped in ancient tradition can feel refreshing and authentic in comparison.
Second, many of us are committed to social and environmental causes, but feel like we have failed in our efforts to change the world. We are not interested in simply knowing that our sins (or anyone else’s for that matter) are blotted out on some heavenly ledger: we want real change. The Orthodox doctrine and practice of theosis, the process of becoming by grace what God is by nature, is appealing because it says the a person can become, here and now, an agent of God’s healing presence.
Theosis involves spiritual discipline, but we can understand that. Once again, young people have been introduced to many traditions that take discipline seriously. Holding strenuous body positions for long periods of time? We’ve done yoga. Fasting? You mean I’m supposed to eat a vegan, raw food diet on Wednesdays and Fridays? That’s cool. Of course, these practices are not an end in themselves, but a means of growing in Love.
Fourth, the Orthodox Church does not teach that God the Father demanded a blood sacrifice in order to satisfy his own wrath. Rather it teaches that Jesus, through his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, defeated death, the tyrant, and united man to God. As we sing at Easter, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life.”
Fifth, many young people desire to know God in a way that transcends intellectual professions of faith. We are done with fundamentalism (whether liberal and conservative) and long to experience spirituality as real life. When we look at the lives of the saints, we see that that is possible, but how can Orthodoxy provide this kind of living faith today? Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the current patriarch of Constantinople, puts it well in a speech that he gave at George Town University:
“It may appear strange for a progressive think tank to sponsor a talk by the leader of a faith that takes pride in how little it has changed in 2,000 years,” the patriarch explained, referring to the talk’s other sponsor, the Center for American Progress. “…. But even though our faith may be 2,000 years old, our thinking is not. …Christianity was born a revolutionary faith and we preserved that. In other words, paradoxically we have succeeded in not changing the faith that is itself dedicated to change.”
Not that Orthodox Christians always live up to this ideal. Those who expect perfection from the Orthodox Church will leave disappointed. Five years ago, I would have been among that number.
Holy Father Brendan, pray to God for us.
Read Part 1.
Read Part 2.