Apologia Pro Vita Mea
I have at this point belonged to or spent significant time in communities affiliated with nearly every major historic division of Christianity (to my profound regret, there simply isn’t a huge Miaphysite or Assyrian presence in my neck of the Midwest). Over the course of my own pilgrimage of faith, I have been devoted to study and work: my academic labors in Religious Studies and Classics have been supported by a concatenation of odd jobs I have been able to string together over the years, committed as I was to not subjecting my family to serfdom for the sake of my professional aspirations. And family, too, has formed a third axis for my transformations: I have had to make religion work for something other than my own ego, for people whose inclinations, tastes, and temperaments are fairly different from my own. These three pyla—intellectual life, working life, and family life—have formed, as it were, my own rota Fortunae in religious matters, upon which I have occasionally comfortably sat but beneath which I have been periodically plunged to great distress. On this model, experience (empeiria) is the momentum of the wheel itself: mine has been a walk with Christ, in which ideas about Christ have been important, and the influence of other people who know Christ have weighed heavily, but in which, fundamentally, each feeling of comfort in the settled space of a community or tradition has been ruptured by the clarion call to the liminal space of the desert and the ecclesial margins.
I have not typically been happy about this state of affairs. For one thing, it is annoying, vexing, even personally unraveling to pick up one’s entire life and find its articulation again in simply another branch of one’s larger religious family; I can hardly imagine how some people do it in entirely new religions, as my friends who have converted to Judaism or Islam (both journeys I see the allure of, to be clear) have so done. It is vulnerable, even embarrassing to have to explain again and again to family or friends or colleagues or clergy or co-parishioners why one is leaving—what has pulled one in a new direction—whilst suffering the withering accusation of a deficiency in stabilitas. And to be clear, while I do not castigate myself for that particular vice of inconstancy, I do acknowledge that it is a fair reading of my life of faith to say that the shifts I’ve undergone are evident of a discomfort with staying in one place, intellectually or physically. There’s some undeniable truth to that, colored by an upbringing in which relatively constant moving parts—living spaces and arrangements, family, friends, possessions, plans, and so forth—have conditioned me to be more comfortable with life’s transience than with the threat of monotony. But for another, I have genuinely wanted to settle down at several junctures, to forsake the life of an ecclesial exile and simply belong somewhere. The intellectual progymnasmata that I have, at this point, undergone in every major Christian Tradition—the institutional and theological apologiai for why this is the truest, best, most ultimate form of Christianity—have been in my experience not so dissimilar to the kinds of intentional assimilation that immigrants seek to effect in their first and second generations, seeking to blend in with the cultural hegemonies of their new homeland as quickly as possible to ensure maximal opportunities and minimal chances of othering. (And, truthfully, the two processes are not so different because they often go hand in hand: religion is one of those public faces that one wears which can be a means of group identity or counterculture, and immigrants of various backgrounds often sublimate or trade their religions for the sake of fitting in, because the traumatic pressure of everything being totally new can sometimes mean that any vestige of the old life is too painful or complicated to retain.)
I of course have found that no matter what community I belonged to, I could never quite convince myself of the ultimacy of these contingencies entirely, even when I was successful at maintaining a public façade that I had so done. After an upbringing as an evangelical Protestant and a brief stint in the Episcopal Church, which I now look back on as a bright memory, I was a fairly cantankerous Orthodox Christian: I was unhappy to submit to what I felt were overly simplistic accounts of the faith on the ground, in the parish, that did not match the more academic theologies which had attracted me in the first place, the theologies of people like Kallistos Ware, John Behr, John Anthony McGuckin, Andrew Louth, David Bentley Hart; I was unwilling to participate fully at first, and then not at all, in the most hallowed pastime of coffee hour in American Orthodox parishes, namely, the bashing of Catholics, Protestants, and non-Christians as, at best, inferior and, at worst, an utterly ungraced massa damnata. I came to find that, in my own quality of what Michael Ward once named in CS Lewis an “endless countersuggestibility,” I was increasingly more open and sympathetic to the theological arguments and Christian lifeways of my Catholic and Protestant friends, who on the whole seemed much more peaceful and pleased to be Christian most of the time than I did. But I stayed Orthodox for the beauty of the Liturgy, and a few good friends, and simply kept my own theological counsel as I completed my MA in Religious Studies and prepared for a second in Classics.
But transitions in work and family life would make the intellectual treaty I had reached with myself long term unsustainable. I completed my studies at Missouri State University and moved home to St. Louis; my wife and I were married in our Greek parish (my college parish was a beautifully idiosyncratic corner of the OCA, which I feel I got to enjoy in its golden years, but broadly Russian in tradition); and quickly the combined pressures of another round of graduate school, menial labor, teaching, and learning the ropes of marriage made us dependent on the community our parish could provide, which was and usually is an unfortunate place to be in, in our case because the community of young adults we had slowly befriended over the years was beginning to drift apart and into other life stages. Orthodoxy was proving to be a fairly difficult transition in the context of wider family relations and, particularly in a Greek setting, as regards our own cultural identity, since it often seemed to us that our church, for which we still have great love, was more interested in our Hellenization than in our formation as disciples of Christ.
Catholicism emerged over the course of the first couple of years of our marriage as a potential alternative, and necessity generated my own openness and receptivity to reconciling the shape of Christianity with the Roman vantage, something that my time as an Anglican and my longer time as an Orthodox had somewhat naturally predisposed me against. And, to be clear, there was something mildly enchanting about becoming and being a Catholic, particularly a Byzantine Catholic no less awash in the Latin rite: St. Louis is, after all, the Rome of the West, the great staging point for all Catholic missions Westward and Northward, and there is something as close as the Midwest gets to history, with its thick weightiness, about Catholicism here. These were not the intellectual symbols that most personally and profoundly expressed my appreciation for being Catholic: it was, of course, an academic appreciation of the beauties of Catholic Europe, particularly of my ancestors’ own patriae of Italy and the British Isles, which gave me a sense of a precedent to which I was looking in the West, even as I continued to value the Greek and Eastern Mediterranean Orthodoxies as the inspiration for my particularly Eastern Catholic identity. But these were places I had only studied, never seen: they remain to me ideas, not realities, and even had I the chance to directly sense them, short of living in these places the religion of their climes is not and never can be my own, however inspirational they are; and Catholicism in America, in the 21st century, is predicated to no small degree on the assimilation of these distinct cultural identities into the assimilative vehicle of Whiteness, which has afforded the Catholic Church in America a degree of public respectability and power that the hierarchy has had a hard time forfeiting.
Our on-the-ground experience of Catholicism was dissatisfying because the things that were attractive to us about the Church were so infrequently evident in the average parish. One has to really look around my neck of the woods (but also, in most places) for either an Eastern Catholic parish or, simply, a tolerably well-done celebration of the Novus Ordo. And working life was, in turn, raising questions for both of us about the feasibility of Catholicism vis-a-vis the dominant politics of Catholics on the ground in the era of Trump. For me personally, Catholic sacramental theology, particularly around confession and mortal sin, seemed to run aground on the truth of how morality is often shaped by the gritty facts of working or impoverished life for most people. The opportunity to make daily confession was originally only afforded to monastics; and in the early centuries, the only sins thought unable to be atoned by prayer, fasting, or almsgiving and to require public penance were the most egregious signs of apostasy, like adultery, murder, and idolatry. The threat of hell is, after all, reserved in the Bible for the rich and the mighty. To be clear, I did not come to reject the utility or benefit of regular confession; life afforded me the vantage to critique, with academic resources, the practice and rationale of a community I had integrated into around confession, particularly as I evaluated the somewhat neurotic cost of feeling that I had to flee to the confessional to the detriment of an already pressed schedule when, as the news was regularly bearing out, the Church itself was often led by people who either committed or tolerated the only sins the Tradition itself had identified as requiring this particular means of sacramental absolution.
Orthodoxy did not yield a long-term home in my locative context that afforded meaningful reprieves from ethnophyletism or fundamentalist kinds of thinking; I did not finally find anywhere in the Catholic world to land where my own experiences, needs, and formation could be faithfully received and represented, though there were a few close matches. More recently this has meant a retreading of Anglican ground, in an Episcopal parish of Anglo-Catholic liturgical persuasion and vibrant theological and political diversity. It seems to me that it will provide a longer-term home; I say that knowing full well that I have thought so before, and that I may have to reassess in the future. I have not pushed to change any canonical status, nor have I officially announced some intention of reception, nor do I currently need to, since Anglicans follow the eminently reasonable practice (as do Assyrians) of predicating eucharistic communion on valid baptism and confession of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Symbol at the Liturgy. Whether this is “it,” the final stop, or not, I do not pretend to know; it is minimally a comfortable haven, that offers the chance of home if it seems to us good to want it. And it is a collective decision: while my heart still rises to the clarion call of the beatitude of the Kingdom that rings out at every Greek Liturgy, I regret only that the canonical structure of Orthodoxy forced me into a decision that would always, ever lead to my fidelity to the marital stephanon: I do not regret the decision to value that crown above an institution that would not listen when I needed it to.
I do not typically feel a need to defend my decisions at this stage of life. Marriage, fatherhood, and work have a tremendous ability to help clarify for one the people that really have some kind of exercise of legitimate accountability over one’s life. I might add therefore that no small part of my journey has been precipitated by an increase in personal agency and the abrasive agitation this has brought to my experience of the patronizing, infantilizing culture of clericalism that still dominates a fair number of Orthodox and Catholic settings. But I offer this apologia for a different reason, namely, that I know from speaking with others and hearing from those who reach out to me from time to time that I am hardly the only one to fall into these cracks in the schismatic scaffolding, to feel deeply that one is and contains those traditions whose official guardians insist on their incompatibility.
I have never stopped thinking of myself as Anglican, or as Orthodox, or as Catholic; at different points in my life, for different reasons, different communities have stood out to me as better matching the necessary contours of my real experience and therefore as more convenient by way of identification, just as in academic theology I have often found that how I classify myself depends largely on the question at hand. With Catholics I share a sense that the Church’s unity requires some kind of primacy; with the Orthodox, that novelty should be tested in matters of faith before accepted, and that the older tokens of theological unity ought to be sufficient for shared life; with Anglicans, that the fluidity of time and cultural change really should affect our Christian living in ways bold and sometimes even brazen; with classical, biblical, and patristic scholars, that peeling back the layers of history and literary artistry which constitute our texts provides necessary context for all dogma, doctrine, and theologoumenon, inciting us to be further present to our own moment and the way it shapes our reception of divine apocalypse, and pointing us to the ultimate revelation of the future; with Jews, a profound sense that the Messianic Era and the Kingdom of God in the olam haba have yet to come to fruition, that the moral life of mitzvot is our own opportunity to engage in tikkun olam, the “repair of the world”; with Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs, that the ultimate truth of classical monotheism is simply a pantheology in which what it is to be God includes but transcends what it is to be the world, such that, in our era of separation and isolation, the ultimate act of rebellious sainthood is a realization of God’s absolute intimacy to us as our very originary Being, Consciousness, and Bliss spilling over into concrete acts of compassion; with Buddhists, that the emptiness and transience of the Self is not a cause for lamentation but the very opportunity for Enlightenment and Liberation; with my own generation, passion for justice and mercy, for a culture that genuinely values life and does not merely pretend to do so, in all its forms; with the nones, the New Agers, the spiritual experimenters, and the futurists, a longing for a transcendent present and future which tinges all true joy in this life.
Again, I know I’m not alone in feeling that my own soul is bigger than the limits which institutions tell me I am responsible for observing; I know that plenty of other Christians and non-Christians feel similarly. I offer, then, a defense not just for my own life but for our life (vita nostra): it is a genuinely prophetic calling to feel that one can authentically “be all things to all people” (1 Cor 9:22), to find one’s politeia in heaven (Phil 3:20), to indwell not only the political but also the ecclesiastical margins as “strangers and exiles” (1 Pet 2:11), knowing that every pretense to have arrived at the Kingdom in this life in full is a lie. Christianity is, after all, “the Way” or “road” (hodos; e.g., Acts 9:2), the Way of Jesus, the Son of Man that had “nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8:20) in this kosmos, for his Kingdom is not of this kosmos (Jn 18:36). Wayfaring in this path—this apocalyptic, revolutionary prophecy, this beatific collegium, this cult of utmost mysteries, this schola of true philosophy, this practice of transcendence—may well run afoul of those Christian institutions and communities who seek final refuge in the world, who in the final analysis want to think of themselves as having arrived rather than as walking on the pilgrim’s route to the New Jerusalem, climbing the Ladder of Divine Ascent as they go. This parting of the ways can well be painful to experience: trust me, I’ve undergone it several times. But it is one thing to bear a cross, and another to follow; Christ summons us to both. The journey with Christ is not one of mere subservience to ecclesiastical bureaucracies or the always oligarchically enforced politics of schism: it is the very “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18) by which we, in, through, with, and as Christ, transcend the binaries of this world so as to remove enmity and restore the harmony of true diversity. And this means ignoring schisms: ignoring them right out of existence, seeing not the stasis to which humans are so prone but the good order of God’s polis, the kosmopolis of the eschatological Church, all creation glorified and praising God together, always more evidently and finally real than the distinctively human ruptures of charity which run roughshod over the triumphalism of Christians and their Christianities. We, too, must “arise and go with haste” (Lk 1:39) when Christ summons, even when he calls us forth from those ecclesial contexts in which we are most comfortable by the bonds of experience and love: for these things too are Christ, as are all.