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beliefnet - January 25, 2008

Whistling past the Orthodox graveyard

   By Rod Dreher

Gotta say I agree with Charlotte Allen's dismissal of the new book about Orthodoxy by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, which she reviews in today's Wall Street Journal. I read much of the book in galleys a couple of months ago, but didn't finish it. If you really want to learn about Orthodoxy, there are much better books for the lay reader (I'm currently reading an excellent one, "Light From the Christian East," by James Payton, a committed Reformed Christian college professor who writes a clear explanation, from a Western perspective, of how Orthodoxy differs subtly but profoundly from Western Christianity. I'm learning a great deal from this book, and can't recommend it highly enough.)

Anyway, I found the partriarch's book to be mostly dull pious bromides. That's no sin, I guess; lots of religious figures write boring, well-meaning books. But I kept wondering when he was going to talk about the challenge presented to Christians by Islam, which he can see as well as anybody, living as he does in a leading Islamic country. The patriarchate in Istanbul is on its last legs. The Turkish government has long persecuted, and continues to persecute, Orthodox Christians there. By Turkish law, the Patriarch has to be a Turkish citizen, which is to say, born in Turkey. But the Greek community there, owing to persecution, is vanishingly small, and Orthodox Christians in Turkey aren't allowed to train their own priests there. It's a horrible situation, one that I understood much more clearly from having been to Istanbul in the past year. I think it would be utterly disastrous to Europe to allow Turkey into the EU, because Turkish migration into Europe would be unstoppable -- and it would permanently Islamify the culture of Europe.

Yet the Patriarch has nothing to say about the Islamic challenge -- not the reality of the present moment, not with insight about how Orthodox Christianity, which has suffered for centuries under the yoke of Islam, managed to endure. Nothing. In my view, Charlotte gets this exactly right:

Nonetheless, Bartholomew devotes the bulk of his book to anything but the mortal threat to his own religion in his own country. High on his list of favorite topics, most with only a tangential relationship to Orthodoxy, is the environment. He has won the nickname "the Green Patriarch" for the decade or so he has preached the ecological gospel, largely to liberal secular audiences in the West. "Encountering the Mystery" is in large part a collection of eco-friendly platitudes about global warming ("At stake is not just our ability to live in a sustainable way but our very survival") and globalization, adorned with a bit of theological window-dressing, that today's secular progressives love to read.

Regarding globalization, Bartholomew cannot decide whether global capitalism is bad ("there are losers as well as winners") or good ("We must learn, therefore, both to think and to act in a global manner"). Plus, we must "transcend all racial competition and national rivalry," "promote a peaceful resolution of disagreements about how to live in this world," and yadda, yadda, yadda. Islam comes into play in the book only in terms of another bromide: a call for "interfaith dialogue."

On first reading, this exercise in fiddling while the new Rome burns seems pathetic, presenting a picture of a church leader so intimidated by his country's Islamic majority that he cannot speak up for his dwindling flock even as its members are murdered at his doorstep. Bartholomew's book presents an eerie mirror image of the concerns of aging, culturally exhausted, post-Christian Western Europe, happy to blather on at conferences about carbon emissions and diversity but unwilling to confront its own demographic crisis in the face of youthful, rapidly growing and culturally antagonistic Muslim populations. The suicide of the West meets the homicide of the East. On the other hand, Bartholomew's "green" crusade across Western Europe may actually represent a shrewd last-ditch effort to secure a visible profile and powerful protectors for his beleaguered church. The patriarch has been an incessant lobbyist for Turkey's admission to the European Union, and his hope has been that the EU will condition Turkey's entry on greater religious freedoms for all faiths.

I told a Greek priest friend weeks ago that the Patriarch's book struck me as mostly a plea to make Europe wake up and come to his rescue by bringing Turkey into the EU -- which would be culturally suicidal for Europe. Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks so. If you want to encounter the mystery of Orthodoxy, by James Payton's book, or even better, try Kyriacos Markides' un-put-downable "The Mountain of Silence."

One last remark: I pity Patriarch Bartholomew, well and truly. He, and the community he pastors, are in desperate times. He could be the last in an unbroken line of patriarch of Constantinople, going back to the early days of Christianity. He is in a terrible position, and suffers things Christians, Orthodox and otherwise, living safely in the West can hardly imagine. Yet this is not the book one would have expected from a man in his tragic historical position. Or rather, this is not the spiritually heroic book one would have wanted from a man who could very well be the last patriarch left to turn off the lights in Christian Byzantium.

Incidentally, if you want to know more about the situation of the Orthodox in Turkey, check out Josh Trevino's beautiful essay here.

Comments

Ok lets remember this as a telling sign of how the Church of Constantinople thinks.....
You have a Patriarch who can speak fluent English but who speaks nearly totally greek when he comes to the USA. This same Church would not receive the converts from the Evangelical Orthodox Church.
You have a Patriarch who prefers the word OMOGENIA to the body of Christ. Say it again O-M-O-G-E-N-I-A. }
As for Fr. Karloutsos words in the article by Charolotte Allen...tell me is it really a good idea to downplay Jesus Christ simply for Political Recognition. Europe needs more Jesus Christ not a leader who shys away from the heart of the Orthodox faith when the pressure is on.
And one last one about the Church of Constantinople in Captivity. It seems a little like His All Holiness Enjoys his golden prison with accompanying yacht a little too well....
Poland under Communist rule was a Church in Captivity. Look how that Karol Wojtytla guy turned out.........indeed no one person is more responsible for freeing more Orthodox Christians from communist captivity that Pope John Paul II

Posted by: Andrew | January 27, 2008 9:23 PM

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