Since Eastern Orthodox Christianity is most likely to feature in mass media at this time of year, the following remarks by John Anthony McGuckin are worth repeating, both for the benefit of Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike. First, from McGuckin’s recent introduction to the Orthodox Church:
The Orthodox (generally) do not regard themselves as exotic. If they have come to Orthodoxy from other forms of Western Christian tradition, or from secular atheism, they are often tempted to regard themselves as exotic for a while, but it soon wears off. Apparently, however, many external observers do still retain that perspective, and it can often tempt the Orthodox to live up to it by ‘posing’ as exotic: a dangerous state of affairs which postcolonial theory has put its finger on already as ‘subalternism’, or that state where a small group with a residual minority consciousness tries to live up to expectations foisted on it by the dominant hegemonic powers of the age. The Christian Orthodox, as they have been encountered relatively rarely, ‘in the flesh’, in the ordinary experience of most Western Christians, are certainly a ‘strange encounter’. The root presuppositions, and the basic style of worship and attitude that are so familiar in many forms of Western Christian practice, seem different here. If the Orthodox feature in the public eye of the media at all, it is usually with a view to the ‘strange’ rituals of a church that has a very ancient liturgical style, and often uses languages that outsiders do not remotely understand.
The temptation to categorize the Eastern Orthodox as romantically exotic is a powerful one, and is often a fate wished on them by those who hold them in kind regard and who value many of the things Orthodoxy represents in Christian history, such as faithfulness to tradition, endurance under suffering, and reverence in worship. Those who are less enamoured of Orthodoxy look at it from the perspective of their own philosophies, ideologies, and orthodoxies, and sometimes censure it as reactionary, exclusive, patriarchal, rigid in its doctrines and liturgy. Rarely, however, do either its critics who dislike it, or its non-Orthodox friends who cherish it, have much awareness of the wider context of what an Orthodox articulation of church and society would be on its own terms (The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture [Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2008], p.1).
Now, from Fr. McGuckin’s contribution to the Festschrift honoring the late Jaroslav Pelikan on his eightieth birthday:
‘We of the East … ’ is a phrase often associated with spokespersons of the Orthodox Christian Church in our age, one of such vastly increased intellectual mobility and ease of informational transmission that the theologians of the past (not excepting many in the present) would have been rendered dumb in the face of it (if such a thing is conceivable for a theologian). Compared to the era when one of the students of Evagrius would have meditated for a week on a couplet from the Sententiae, we now have the capacity in the same time to read, or at least to peruse, books, journals, and ephemera; to see visual iconic forms flashed at us that collectively amount to more literature and far more symbols than an educated ancient might ever have processed in a lifetime.
In the bewildering intellectual welter so grandly shored up by the gimcrack nomenclature of “postmodernism,” the phrase, “We of the East” floats reassuringly across the mental horizon, proceeds in stately fashion like a duchess crossing the carpet. It usually precedes an attempt to explain something of our religious identity as Orthodox, in reference to, or more usually in contradistinction from, the more common matrices of Western European Catholicism or Protestant experience. It has a fine cachet, though one that loses much of its shine when the “East” in question turns out to be the East End of London, East Pennsylvania, or the East Village of New York, places where one today is more likely to encounter Orthodox who are engaged in ecumenical dialogue with “the West” than in some putative Orient of our imagination” (“Orthodoxy and Western Christianity: The Original European Culture War?,” in ed. Valerie Hotchkiss and Patrick Henry, Orthodoxy and Western Culture: A Collection of Essays Honoring Jaroslav Pelikan on His Eightieth Birthday [Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2005], p. 86).