Thursday, September 3, 2009

Whither the 'Thirst for Transcendence'?

Dear Parish Faithful,

I just wanted to share a few observations that have formulated in my mind since I began teaching again for the Fall semester at Xavier University. I have been teaching there for as long as I have been in Cincinnati, which is now twenty years. In the past I taught a few different courses, but now I am limited to one class per semester, and the department wants to offer the undergraduate course "The Eastern Orthodox Church," I believe, as part of their commitment to "diversity." Fortunately, I do not get tired teaching the same course over and over again. I maintain a bit of "variety" by periodically changing the books on the required reading list. This semester, the four required reading books are:

Formation and Struggles - the Birth of the Church AD 33-200 - Veselin Kesich
The Orthodox Church - Timothy Ware
Mother Maria Skobtsova - edited by Jim Forest
The Mystery of Faith - Bishop Ilarion Alfeyev

However, my observations are based upon the changed and changing nature of my students from year to year. Simply stated, my students are clearly less "religious" than from the time I began teaching at XU in 1989, and this loss of religiosity seems to have accelerated in recent years. I know this not only by observation, perception and/or classroom experience through interaction with the students, but also because they tell me so, if even ever so briefly. On the first day of class, the students have to answer four questions:

What is the Eastern Orthdox Church?
Why did you take this class?
What other theology courses have you had?
What Church or religion to you belong to?

I will concentrate on the last question: What Church or religion do you belong to? Over the years, the vast majority of students let me know that they are Roman Catholic. I will have a few Protestant students; an even a stray Orthodox student now and then! (This list, by the way, includes Sophia and Paul Kostoff, Matthew Krueger, and Ed Chalupa - Anne Taylor's brother). I have had some non-Christians students also, mainly students of an Oriental background. I encourage the students to write as much as they want in describing their religious background, and some will add a comment or two. What I have noticed over the years is the steady decline in what I would call "practicing Christians" - or even students conscious of being Christians. Typical answers, that again have multiplied over the years, would include:

"Roman Catholic, but no longer practicing" - or "tired of it," "had enough at a Catholic high school," etc.
"Raised Lutheran, but now am nothing."
"I may have been baptized when I was younger, but unsure."
"Not raised in a religious household."
"Still searching."
"I am an atheist." (Never heard this only ten years ago).

This semester I have a large class of thirty students, and perhaps a generous reading of at best a half-dozen responses implied some kind of commitment or church-going. Such commitment is usually the case with the few Afro-American students that take my class. Otherwise, there seems to be a pervasive apathy or indifference to the whole question. Whether or not this is "natural" or expected of college students very conscious and protective of their newly-established independence, the point I am making is the evident change in responses over the years. What is painfully evident as the years go by is an ever-increasing biblical and theological illiteracy displayed by my students. I have to carefully teach them that there are four Gospels written by Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John! It is always hard to tell if they simply do not know the basics, or if they are timid about displaying their knowledge before their peers. That just may not be cool! In fairness to my students, however, I must point out that many do quite well in my course, eventually writing solid papers about St. Gregory Palamas and hesychasm! It is an intelligent study body at Xavier, and I like and respect my students very much. So, as I am introducing my students to the Orthodox Church, I am offering them a basic course in Christian teaching. I am catechizing under the respectable veneer of "objectively" imparting information! I find that challenge immensely enjoyable.

Be that as it may, these shared observations were prompted by a short paper one of my students just turned in based upon her "experience" at an Orthodox liturgy, as she was with us just this last Sunday. This young woman made it clear at the beginning of her paper that "I have never been to church before except for a wedding or a few funerals." In fact, at one point in her paper she reveals: "I do not know whether or not I was baptized ..." She further writes of even feeling uncomfortable attending a university with a "religious aspect." After those opening comments, she continues more specifically about visiting our church:

When I went to the liturgy at the Orthodox Church this morning, I did not feel comfortable there, though I did not feel uncomfortable. As a person of no faith I guess I felt uncomfortable because I felt it was wrong for me to be there.

The rest of her paper is an uninspiring and rather confused account of sitting and standing through an incomprehensible "religious ceremony." She was not very happy with the homily! She did not like the fact that St. John the Baptist "judged" Herod for his "private" life apart from his "political" accomplishments. Fair enough. I have noticed another clear trend over the years, and that is a lowering of interest in - or attraction to - something that is unknown and unfamiliar. While students in the past with no knowledge of Orthodoxy would write of the "holiness," "sacredness" and simple "beauty" of the Liturgy. Even though hardly anyone returned - alas! - I will still read of a kind of "wow, that was different and quite interesting" response.. I hardly encounter such comments any longer. More and more I read of a dull incomprehension and a barely disguised boredom with the Liturgy. And all that standing! On the positive side, students continue to speak of feeling welcome and of appreciatiing the small, family-community atmosphere of our parish. But a sense of worship, of transcendence - that has pretty much disappeared.

Her concluding paragraph summed up her "experience" in a matter-of-fact manner:

Overall, I would say that I am not likely to attend again, not because of the Orthodox faith but the entire faith of Christianity or any religion for that matter. Growing up with no faith, I have no reason to feel that it is a part of me, though for some people, I understand it is a very large part, and to each his own.

Perhaps in our Orthodox parishes we do not notice these (young) people of "no faith" and do not let them know that they are perfectly welcome to "come and see" what and who we are as Orthodox Christians. Such visitors feel that they do not belong, and we may unconsciously enforce that perception. However that may be debated, I believe there is something more fundamental here: the growing practical agnosticism/atheism of our society and contemporary Christianity's inability to break through that barrier outside of the "theology-lite," "religion as psychology" approach of relevance smartly "marketed" for mass consumption. Where, today, is that "thirst for transcendence" that Fr. Schmemann claimed marked human nature? These are the deeper questions we are going to have to deal with as secularism and post-modernism continue to erode a basic knowledge and respect for Christian truth and "values" in the years to come.

I have about thirty more students to come through the doors for the Liturgy before the semester draws to a close in December. Please continue to keep an eye out for them and help them to feel as welcome as possible, knowing that they will be here because they have to be!

Fr. Steven

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