Oh the evil West
Published: Jun 3, 2012 by Maria Gwyn McDowell
We Orthodox regularly mischaracterize ‘the West’ as a way of elevating a particularly Orthodox way of thinking about something. Our goal is not to understand ‘the West’ on its own terms, nor is it to learn (is this even possible) from its experience, but to elevate ourselves. We do this by falsely characterizing and then denigrating the other.
Often, our characterization is shallow, failing to take into account the diversity of opinions in Western thought on a given subject, the depth of thought given, the context out of which their perspectives arose. We treat ‘the West’ as if it is a monolith (it is hardly that!) and as if we have nothing to do with it. As Fr. John McGuckin points out, Greece is not the East, it is the source of the West. We are really not that far apart.
This is not to say that we are not different, or that the differences in the development of Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant theologies are not significant. However, if we do not understand the reasons for these differences, we cannot adequately respond to them.
The truth is that those of ‘the West’ are not stupid or thoughtless. By offering a shallow portrayal, we insult them, treating them as if they haven’t actually taken centuries to discuss important theological doctrines, and then we say things about them that are simply wrong. As a result, we come across as ignorant, reactionary, and shallow ourselves.
Certainly this can’t be effective evangelism, to speak of oneself through denigrating the other. We set up false dichotomies which serve to immobilize ourselves in an effort to preserve the masquerade that we are “Eastern”, “mystical”, different, i.e., better. We cannot then respond to our (somewhat new) Western context without retracting our former characterization, which in our pride we are loath to do. We are simply unwilling to deconstruct our now ritualized performance of ourselves in the face of honest discourse.
This intentional polarization is a disservice to our “cradle” members. As theologians, we do not provide the intellectual resources for our members to participate in their new culture(s) in any way other than with hostility. A faith that is about “being against” has a hard time “being for” anything.
This intentional polarization is a disservice to our new members, since in the midst of mischaracterizing the West we mischaracterize ourselves. Imagine their horror when those invited into the “unchanging” Orthodox Faith suddenly realize the diversity of opinion, practice and theological inquiry and outright conflict that characterizes our Tradition? Their unchanging rock turns into shifting sand, at least in their perception. We invite them in on false promises, often based on particular ritual and social practices which, to their surprise, turn out not to be universally implemented among Orthodox either in the present, or in our history.
It is, in short, a colossal waste of intellectual, emotional and spiritual energy, all this rhetoric against the “West.” Instead of telling people what is wrong with the food they are eating (or, if they have already joined us, ate), why do we not invite them to the beautiful bounty of diverse offerings at our table? We could spend our energy sharing the beauty, joy, reverence, awe, and sensual delight that Orthodox offers, not excoriating someone else’s table.
And, if they have something wonderful to bring to our table, all the better.