An Open Letter to Dr. Thomas Oden
Recently one night, I was listening to Christian talk radio and heard an interview with Dr. Thomas Oden which intrigued me. He is a self-professed former liberal theologian who has since come to a more traditional position through his studies of the ancient church fathers.
Under discussion was his latest book which laments the current state of much of modern Christianity and praises the current generation of "young fogies" for seeking their historic roots and an authentic, sustainable faith. Much of the discussion seemed implicitly to point toward Orthodoxy, so I called in.
Unfortunately, he seemed to dismissed Orthodoxy as being too Eastern which was frustrating to me as a Western Rite Orthodox Christian. But the format of that show did not allow for extended interaction with callers, as that they were cut off after making a statement, allowing the guest and host to comment on the call. So What follows is a transcript of the my call-in segment, and then a response I would like to have given.
Me: I can very much relate to everything you guys have been saying. I am pretty excited [to be] a part of many people across the United States who are just rediscovering that in fact the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church has existed intact throughout the centuries, but not in the Western civilization as we know it but in other parts of the world. I am taking instruction to come into the Orthodox Church (capital "O") and I see that as everything the Church should have been and is. How do you and how does Dr. Oden relate to that, either academically or personally?
Dr. Oden: I think that the Western tradition is also capable of reflecting the Oneness, Holiness, Catholicity and Apostolicity of the church_not just the Eastern, but the Western as well. However there is a great prize, a great treasure in the Eastern tradition.
However the problem is its immersion in ethnicity. In other words, the forms in which we meet the Eastern Orthodox tradition are absolutely saturated with some particular national culture.
Now that doesn't mean that that is wrong or bad.
It simply means that if you are going to be Eastern Orthodox, and I don't want to try to dissuade you from that at all. I think you can find the One Holy Catholic Church there. But you have got to be attentive to the dangers of being trapped in a national or ethnic identity.
My response: ...
Dear Dr. Oden,
First of all, I would remind you that the New Testament church originated in Aramaic-speaking Palestine. To deny any expression of these Eastern roots would be a-historical at best.
Secondly, the trappings of national identity against which you warn are no different than what is in danger of being imposed in any missionary or evangelistic effort. Nor are they any different than what we happily impose on most newcomers to this country.
But primarily I want to emphasize that you need to know about Western-Rite Orthodoxy! I think it fittingly addresses your concerns. Theologically, nothing dictates that Orthodoxy must be Eastern_and indeed before the Schism, Orthodoxy was world-wide, not just in the East. Unfortunately, when Rome split off about one thousand years ago, it took most of the Western cultural context with it.
This century especially, many Westerners have sought refuge in the solid theological foundation that has been preserved in the East. And because one inevitably is more comfortable in one's native cultural context, I, as a Western European, consider myself extremely fortunate to have found a Western Rite Orthodox parish in my city when I sought the historical church.
My experience in Western Rite Orthodoxy has definitely not been culturally smothering. In fact it has been joyfully enriching in helping me rediscover my Western heritage within the historical church.
Some Eastern Orthodox parishes in America are even "too ethnic" for their own second and third generations who have grown up primarily speaking English. This is an inevitable transition problem since Orthodoxy is relatively new to this continent.
The pace at which Orthodoxy is making the fullness of historical Christianity known in America is accelerating rapidly. We all pray for continued opportunities to spread the good news.
(This article originally appeared in the Occidental, Summer 1996)