A friend of mine, a cinephile, a lover of the cinema in the very best sense of that phrase, commented to me once about what he saw as a difference between the films of the 40s and the 50s and those made ‘Oh, after about 1978’. The characters in the earlier films had neuroses, whereas the characters in the later films had ‘lifestyles’. I believe the catalyst for this conversation was the broadcast of a TV movie that caused a minor stir during the early 1980s called The Day After. It was a dramatization about a surprise nuclear attack on the United States by the Soviet Union, and the aftermath of that attack. About one third of the first episode was dedicated to the pre-apocalyptic lives of some ordinary Americans in order to build audience empathy for them in preparation for the horror that was to follow. What this meant was that we, the audience, had to suffer through about twenty minutes of watching self-absorbed people shopping, having sex, and quarreling about what they should buy or who they should have sex with. My friend commented that it was no wonder the Russians nuked us. They probably thought it was a mercy killing. ‘They didn’t kill a single person,’ he said. ‘Just a lot of individuals.’
That off-hand remark has stuck with me all these years. Most of the criticisms I have heard of American society and even of American church life congregate around two foci; first, that it is too individualistic, and second, that it is too impersonal. At first glance, these two remarks appear to be contradictory, somewhat like the great Chalcedonian adverbs, until you meditate on the difference between an individual and a person. We are all of us born into this world as individuals, but it is a struggle to become a person in the image of the Persons of the Most Holy Trinity. There is a lot of deep anthropology here, and some of the most interesting recent Orthodox theology deals with the concept of the human Person, what does it mean to have a hypostasis, and to participate in communion with other hypostases? Now, I know know know know know that IM is to some degree an Asperger sufferer’s theology board and any theological statement an amateur like me will make is subject to endless qualification and amendment, but here goes. The names of Met. John Zizoulas and Fr. John S. Romanides are the two names most often associated with this current of theology, which goes by the name of Neo-Chalcedonian both among the Orthodox and those outside of Orthodoxy who are aware of it, even though Neo-Chalcedonian is properly a label of a pair of sixth century Fathers who defended the council of Chalcedon against the Justinian Monothelite compromise.
Only in Orthodoxy could someone from the sixth century be considered Neo-anything.
Anyway, I am aware of two popularizers of this strand of theology. One, who speaks mostly to non-Orthodox, is Fr. Stephen Freeman, a convert priest from Tennessee who has written some intriguing posts about the True Self and the False Self and which is the self that Jesus Christ actually saves. This makes sense to me. Fr. Stephen, in as far as I can follow him, makes the remark that most of us live from day to day in the reality of the ego, which is a construct of what the Fathers call the logismoi, the fleeting contradictory and opposing thoughts that bubble through our minds like the carbon dioxide in a fizzy drink. The ego’s priority is to defend itself in a hostile psychological environment – to justify itself, to prove its value, to keep is elf from submersion in stronger egos or extinction. In an extraordinary admission, Fr. Stephen goes so far to say that the ego, the false Self, needs an Enemy. having no source or center of identity within itself, it creates a false identity by identifying error and proclaiming that ‘I am not that’. Thus, the opposites of the great Chalcedonian adverbs – confusion, change, division, and separation, come more and more to define and control our interior lives.
I am going to go so far as to say this: I think the central pathology of that strand of Evangelical Protestantism that arose in the Great Awakenings in this country is that it is attempting to save this false self rather than putting it to death in baptism then resurrecting and nourishing the True Self which is being made over daily in the image of Christ in God. Now, I realize that is a big loud statement from The King Of Sinners, the Emperor of the Passions, but I’m not the only one who’s saying it.
A second popularizer of Neo-Chalcedonian Orthodox theology is a priest from Greece named Philostheos Faros who wrote a book with the delightful, no-nightsoil title of Functional and Dysfunctional Christianity. Fr. Philostheos spent about twenty years in the United States and his critique of Anglo-Saxon culture and the Christianity which produced it is not for Church Ladies of either gender. I was tempted to reproduce a portion of it here, but it may not go down well with those who think that the penal substitutionary model and the imputed righteousness of the active and passive obedience of Christ is the Gospel, which is just about everybody here including those who invited me to write and Mike Spencer of blessed memory. It also wouldn’t go down well with those who are unaccustomed to the unvarnished language Greeks use when there aren’t any non-Greeks present. As someone who has experienced Greek parish life at its best and at its worst, I can tell you that I am not speaking rhetorically. As caustic as Fr. Philostheos is in describing Western Christianity, he saves his real vitriol for his fellow Orthodox who, he says, should know better.
Apart from my obvious convert’s joy in reading Fr. Philos’ book, which felt a lot like watching Inglorious Basterds or Django Unchained, I took away an interesting nugget. The word ekklesia was not minted to describe the Christian Church. It was a pre-Christian Greek word used to describe the meeting of the polis, in which the citizen participated and through which human energies could be synergistically channeled for the common benefit. The polis is where the citizen acquired a prosopón, a personhood. An individual (idiotés), says Fr. Philos, is defined by his competition with other individuals. The person (prosopón) is defined in communion with other persons. For the pagan pre-Christan Greeks, this was a reference to their common participation in the civic life of the polis. The individual becomes a person through participation in the family, in the tribe, and finally, in the polis. When Christianity came to the Greeks, the idea of the ekklesia of the polis came by extension to refer to the life of the Church, which was the truest factory of persons, where an individual was called to participate in the very inner life of the Most Holy Trinity, where the distinctions are the widest yet the unity is the deepest.
Now, I’m not really making a plea to allow Orthodoxy to save the West. I want to see if it will save me first. But I am frightened, terrified, that the legal-economic golem the West has unleashed upon the world and which appears to proceed from strength to strength will eventually succeed in devouring every possible wellspring of our personhood and leave us in sterile anonymous isolation, crying out for each other through official descriptions and caressing each other only through the mediation of counsel.