What is culture, what is civilization, if not a collective sense of self-identity and awareness, of history, of placement in the world, of common and essential practices, customs, and rituals which distinguishes a people as particular from its neighbors?
If one sees a people’s religion, both its underlying spiritual and theological faith and its external religious rites and practices, as integral to their unique culture, then without a doubt we can identify orthodox Trinitarian Christianity as the prevailing religion which has underpinned two thousand years of Western civilization.
Religion is the very ontological heart of a culture, and throughout a people’s history, their religion serves as the defining link between their past, present and future. It guides their sense of internal awareness of who they are, how they understand the existential questions of what truly matters to them, and where in the world and with what other peoples they will forge a common destiny.
Within this framework, the United States stands out as a unique exception in world history as the first nation-state founded explicitly without an official, prevailing national Church or common confession. Because of this careful establishment of a certain separation between the State authorities and different Churches, many among the millions of people who came to the shores of the New World did so seeking the liberty to worship as their conscience bade them. The benefits and beauty of such liberty are obvious to all those who live in a society where, for instance, one can take for granted that one may freely choose to convert to the religion of one’s choosing. There is great freedom in our collective valuing, as a society, of religious liberty for all people, and our country is and has been greatly enriched by this diversity. Unlike European and Middle Eastern history, which are largely defined by recurring dynastic political wars in which religious differences often played crucial underlying roles in escalating or legitimizing sectarian violence, America’s political history is entirely void of any major religious wars.
Yet one particular aspect of American religious life has troubled me, and it is in many ways a symptom or consequence of our foundational national religious pluralism, or, if you prefer, our long history of allowing many different confessions to live side by side largely in peace (the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party, anti-Mormon “extermination order” issued by a corrupt Illinois Governor, and anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish sentiments of many in the Ku Klux Klan terrorist groups notwithstanding). What continues to trouble me is the uncomfortable reality that, as a people, Americans are fundamentally disunited by religion.
For better and for worse, most people in this country do not share my religion (if I am using the term ‘religion’ to denote my specific confession within Christianity). I am an Orthodox Christian who grew up in a Roman Catholic family in a mostly Roman Catholic Long Island town which was first settled in the 1600s by English Anglicans and Calvinist Scottish Presbyterians. In over 300 years, mirroring fascinating demographic changes, my hometown’s religious landscape has changed to an extraordinary degree. The two beautiful mainline Protestant churches which have stood for over three centuries around the Setauket Village Green are now home to dwindling, liberal congregations. My hometown’s largest place of worship is St. James Roman Catholic Church, where I attended Mass for years with my family along with thousands of others. My town has two small synagogues, two Orthodox churches (one is a monastery of American monks who are all converts), and there is a mosque and a Hindu temple nearby. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter-day Saints (Mormons) also have two small chapels near the town center.
I grew up in this very ethnically and religiously diverse community with many Jews, Muslims and Hindus among my friends. Our differences in religion never served as a barrier to friendship, but naturally such differences did prevent a commonality of certain shared experiences, cultural foundations, worldviews, etc.
Tellingly, the specific Christian religion practiced most widely in this country (Roman Catholicism) is still practiced by a minority of Americans, as there are still more Protestants in the United States than there are Roman Catholics, though this will soon change.
This diversity is not, to me, inherently good or bad, but it does exemplify something which to me is problematic: disunited as we are by religion, what then is the foundation or glue which holds America together? Unlike the United States and our comparatively short history, throughout the rest o
f Western civilization, religious identity and practice were virtually inseparable bonds and indicators of nationhood. A people were united among themselves, and distinguished from “others” beyond their nation, by their faith and religious practice.
Think of so many of the conflicts or delineations in world history: what separated the typical Englishman from the typical Scot? What separated them both from the typical Irishman or Frenchman? Religion, and more particularly, a particular sort of Christian confession (Within Protestantism, the Church of England/Anglican vs. Kirk of Scotland/Calvinism, and then the Protestant/Catholic divide uniting most Scots and Englishmen vs. most Irishmen and Frenchmen). What distinguished all of these from the typical Russian, Romanian, or Greek? Their Christian confession in terms of the East/West, Latin/Greek divide. The intersection of rligious differences and national identity remain at the center of major global conflicts today, from Kosovo and Serbia to Russia and Ukraine, India and Pakistan, Israel and Palestine, etc.
Since religious belief, practice and ritual has been a recurring and essential component of every major civilization in history, and the creation of a society united by the absence of religion has only been attempted once on a massive scale (this having failed so spectacularly with the end of the Cold War and the tremendous resurgence of Christianity in Eastern Europe), I cannot help but wonder: what, again, is the true unifying component of American society or civilization?
As much as some of us might want to say that Christianity has been, and today remains, the foundation or unifier of American life, any serious probing into that claim reveals a tale of multiple different “Americas” existing side by side and yet largely independent of one another, the “Catholic America”, “Methodist America”, and so on. If we broaden this to Judeo-Christian, or even Abrahamic, still many Americans remain excluded. So, then, if the pillar of American society and cultural life cannot be one particular Church, confession, or even one religion, or even a set of broad religious identity such as monotheism, what, precisely, is it that constitutes the ground or heart of American cultural identity?
I have wondered about this for many years, and the more I learn, the more people of different faiths I meet (and, increasingly, those without any faith), the more I come to understand that the United States has largely always accommodated a multitude of confessions and practices since long before its establishment as a sovereign republic. I am not convinced that this longstanding religious pluralism is bad or dangerous, since the history of all great civilizations tends to follow a similar pattern of broad tolerance for those of different confessions, and serious problems when such tolerance is interrupted (the Sepoy Rebellion, Irish revolts against Queen Elizabeth I, Guy Fawke’s plot, Thirty Years’ War, and Dutch War of Independence come to mind).
Yet the United States is different from all other great powers in one crucial respect: in the vast British Empire, most Britons were Anglican, while most Russians in the Russian Empire were Orthodox, most French were Catholic, most Indians Hindu, most ancient Persians Zoroastrian, and so on. Alone among all great powers in history, the American people are and always have been a hodgepodge of many different religious identities and allegiances from before the United States even existed as a geo-political entity or nation. It is in this country that what has arguably been called the fourth Abraham religion (Mormonism) arose at the height of the restorationist movement within the Second Great Awakening. This country produced the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, and numerous other competing denominations and sects. It is this country that my Muslim friends say allows them true freedom to worship but without compulsion, and it is here that so many of my Jewish friends’ ancestors came fleeing pogroms or hoping to build new lives and families after the Holocaust.
These questions and thoughts are always especially on my mind at Pascha, on Easter Sunday and Bright Week following the Resurrection. For all those of us who attended Paschal vigils and liturgies this past weekend, what is often difficult to realize is that, despite packed churches on these occasions, these crowds mask an uncomfortable reality: declining rates of general observance among Christians in a country which has an increasing number of committed non-Christians.
As someone who participated in the transcendently beautiful Holy Week services culminating in the three-hour midnight Paschal Liturgy of my own Church, and felt keenly the sense of belonging to a nation (Orthodoxy) within a nation (Christianity) within a nation-state (America) and all the world, I cannot help but wonder what America, and the world, will look like in terms of religious practice when I have children one day. It is the participation in the liturgical life of the Church which is the foundation or fount of unity within my faith. Yet how small is my faith here in the United States, so that while I deeply feel the universality and wholeness, the true Catholicity of my Church on Pascha of all days, still I am reminded that the overflowing crowds that packed St. John’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Washington all day Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday remain a small minority within this nation-state, part of a much larger whole scattered throughout the world.
Shared participation and common experiences are the key underlying and overarching bonds of solidarity within every culture. Just as remembrance of God through participation in the liturgical life of the Church is what connects people to the very Life and source of their ontological destiny and identity as Christians, so too, paradoxically, is withdrawal from that Life a source of disconnect, alienation and confusion.
Every heartfelt and genuine participation in the Eucharistic liturgy of the Church connects the communicant to the heaven kingdom. Communing of the sacred and life-giving Mysteries brings Christ into the very veins, the heart and soul of every worshipper. Every worshipper who communes of the Body and Blood participates in the timeless heavenly liturgy that is offered for eternity before the throne of God. So too, does every coming forth to the chalice constitute an affirmation of one’s citizenship in the universal Christian nation (in my case, the Orthodox nation within the larger Christian family), whatever one’s geographical nation might be.
When I think of all those who, for so many reasons, do not participate in the liturgical life of their church communities, I see, first and foremost, a tragic withdrawal from that participation which is the source and spark for common identity, belief and lived experience. In that withdrawal, I see an individual, and a collective, alienation, a separateness, a missing out which will naturally have long term consequences for society as a whole as well as individual non-churchgoers. Especially on Pascha, the Day of Days, the Feast of Feasts, what is the withdrawal from participating in divine services if not a withdrawal, a stepping back from, and outside of, Christian life and culture? What is this, if not a tragedy which we as church communities should work collectively and lovingly to do everything we can to reverse?
What is Easter without participation in Christ’s Resurrection? It is nothing. Pascha without the solemn and profound beauty of remembering, affirming, and participating in the theological, historical and existential reality of the Lord’s Resurrection is nothing. Divorced from its basic, defining meaning and reality, Easter Sunday without remembrance of Jesus Christ risen from the dead becomes just any old Sunday in spring with no particular import. Forgetfulness of God on such a day as Pascha itself, the Feast of Feasts and day of days, constitutes nothing less than a complete divorce from the very heart of what Christianity is. Without the Resurrection, Christianity has no purpose, no heart, no meaning.
Easter egg hunts and Easter baskets are lovely, harmless traditions, but next to the cosmos-shattering Resurrection, they are utterly superficial traditions with no intrinsic connection to Christ. When the cosmos-shattering reality of His Resurrection is forgotten or downplayed, such traditions lose their very purpose or reason for existing. I recall with joy how much happiness Easter egg hunts and indulging in chocolate candy brought to my family growing up, but these pastimes are really nothing outside of Christ’s Resurrection from the dead. Easter without the Easter bunny, egg hunts or baskets brimming with chocolates would still be Easter, or Pascha (as all non-English and German speakers call the day). Regardless of the eggs and baskets, observing Easter without Christ at the very forefront and heart is utterly meaningless, a commemoration of nothing in particular.
These enjoyable pastimes serve a positive purpose in many homes, warmly delighting children and parents alike, but when their inclusion in the rituals of a family’s Easter morning stands aside the omission of attendance at divine services, something truly profound is being lost and forgotten, while something far less important is being prioritized. Instead of parents choosing to prioritize their children’s immediate happiness at receiving baskets of chocolates over the possible discomfort or inconvenience of sitting or standing through a longer-than-usual Sunday service, let the parents integrate the baskets into the far more important bigger picture which is Christ’s Resurrection. Celebrate the Resurrection with attendance at Sunday and (why not?) Holy Week services, and then open the baskets on Sunday afternoon before a much-deserved nap. Why not integrate one joyous tradition into a far more ancient, far more profound Tradition which is the very foundation of Western civilization?
What of all the millions of Americans, including so many professed Christians, who go about spending the Day of Resurrection as they would any other Sunday, perhaps with the addition of a family reunion at which no mention of Christ is made? The consequences will not likely be immediate, as any children opening Easter baskets filled with beautifully wrapped chocolates and jelly beans will show a truly genuine Christ-like glow, but instead of people wanting to prioritize their enjoyment of Easter as if it were simply any other occasion for a family reunion, let them see participation in their church’s community and above all its liturgical life as a source of joy, communion and community far more lasting and profound. Let them see regular participation in Paschal divine services as a gateway into, perhaps, regular participation in regular Sunday services (no pressure!). When this begins to take place, and more and more people in a church community come to know each other and genuinely care about each other as brothers and sisters in faith, a truly beautiful thing occurs: Christ dwells in their midst and makes His home in their hearts.
This Paschal season, as we rejoice in the risen Lord, let us look to our own parishes and see in those empty pews or floor spaces an opportunity to extend a heartfelt welcome, to be more neighborly, to go out of our way to forgive one another and truly live the greeting “Christ is in our midst!”. Let us by our example encourage and welcome others joyfully into that life-giving and restorative participation which is the rock and foundation of our life as Christians, and the most beautiful expression of our common citizenship in the eternal Kingdom of Heaven. Christ is Risen — now let us strive to live in such a way that, every day, our actions proclaim the reality of the Lord’s Resurrection!