When Your Sacred Canopy Rips

Consider this 2014 blog post from Rod Dreher, in which he expresses his bafflement that 90 percent of Greek Americans are not active in the Greek Orthodox Church:


Dreher is confused at how the Greek Orthodox Church diagnoses the problem as “intermarriage” with non-Greeks, as opposed to Greek Orthodox parishes that lack a “serious commitment to Christ.” He does not understand why Greek Orthodox Christians see their Orthodoxy as “the tribe [ie., Greeks] at prayer,” rather than as a disciplined way of life centered on the liturgical calendar and regular prayer.  However, seeing your religion as “the tribe at prayer” is exactly how religion has traditionally been seen in most cultures around the world.

The notion that Christianity should be about sincerity of belief, sincerity of prayer, and a “personal relationship with Christ,” as opposed to simply living in a realm ruled by self-described “Christians” is a very Protestant way of looking at religion that didn’t come into being until the Anabaptists declared that the entire notion of state-run church was illegitimate. By calling the sacred canopy of Christendom illegitimate, whether it was a Catholic Christendom or a Protestant Christendom, the Anabaptists were threatening the social order in a way that frightened Catholics and the Magisterial Reformers alike. Catholics and Magisterial Reformers may not have been able to agree on the nature of the Eucharist, the role of Mary, or whether confession was necessary for salvation, but they could all get behind oppressing Anabaptists. The debacle at Münster didn’t exactly help convince outsiders that Anabaptists were solid citizens:


While the Anabaptists may be the most influential religious group to never actually “make it big,” many of their ideas — the need for separation and church and state, the notion that a ostensibly Christian culture does not make one a “real Christian,” the importance of following your conscience even when it conflicts with the wider culture, the need for a self-conscious disciplined Christian life, the idea that Christian communities did not have to support the variant of Christianity espoused by the majority — have been adopted by almost all Christians in the West, regardless of their actual denomination. The secularized versions of Anabaptist beliefs, especially separation of church and state and the importance of standing up for your beliefs, continue to inspire what we call “Western culture” as a whole, regardless of whether you’re religious or not.

When you have a sacred canopy, people are Orthodox, Catholic, or what have you simply because everyone else your social circle is that way. It’s just what people do. There is no conscious decision to be a member of that religion, because the sacred canopy is so total that there is no option to be anything else or because you’ve been told that options exist, but you live in the best of all possible worlds. In the case of the Greek Orthodox, they are told that to be Greek is to be Orthodox, not that their theology is superior to that of Catholics or Protestants; it’s just what you are as a member of “the tribe.” Thus, when second generation Greek-Americans don’t see themselves as Greek, there is no reason to be Orthodox. I think this is why the Catholic Church in America traditionally didn’t try to “win souls” like Protestant churches, because the hierarchy assumed the Irish, Italians, Polish, etc. would naturally fill the pews as an obligation of their respective tribes. The so-called “New Evangelization” is another tacit admission by the Catholic church that it can no longer assume that people will show up for mass or even self-identify as Catholic simply because they belong to a particular “tribe”:


As much as Dreher professes to be 100 percent Orthodox now, he still brings a very Protestant mindset to his new religion. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that (it’s not like Dreher could forget his Southern Methodist upbringing), but when he examines the problems in Orthodoxy, he’s assuming a very American and very Protestant sort of spiritual marketplace where people are not only free to choose religions at will, but are obligated to eventually find “the right one,” regardless of their ethnic or cultural baggage. But most people stay within a particular religious group because it’s convenient and comfortable, not necessarily because it’s true, and when belonging to that group is no longer convenient or comfortable, they go somewhere else.