The Economic Horizon

Insofar as every message has an audience, and every social institution has an appeal to certain demographics more than to others, both are limited by the economy. The degree to which a message/institution is limited and the number of niches to which it can address itself varies. We overlook these limitations of our beloved institutions at our peril. It may be that, given social differentiation, anything that claims to be universal needs to see what, exactly, its social form is. It may be something quite different from a universal — it may be a sect, or a special interest group, or something else. Economic pressures and patterns of social organization may be more universal in this age; it is not clear that modern Orthodoxy has a social articulation of a universal message about the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of the dead that could hint at a universal horizon whose myriad signs (charity, in all its senses) are bastioned in a minority group that does something revolutionary, something futural. Rather, modern Orthodoxy seems largely poised to sell as a product to certain niches, as is evidenced by the average educational attainment of its members (see the Pew study, below).

I had originally intended to publish this somewhere, in a different form; I leave it here for whoever may be interested in reading it — and to justify closing a number of tabs left open on my browser. :-)

Were I to write this properly, I’d go through Durkheim, Weber, Tönnies, Berger (and Berger, and Berger), Moore, Luckmann, Bruce (and Bruce), Stout, Warner, Pitts, Chambers, Giddens, Parsons, and Táíwò. Sadly, there’s only so much time, and a man needs to work. 

    1. Is Orthodoxy for everyone? Two articles published in December of this past year, one by a liberal Orthodox professor & one by a conservative Orthodox blogger & author, seem to suggest: No.
      1. I am not sure they mean to make this suggestion. The professor (see other Tweets here and here) and the blogger/author both want to render certain behaviors, ideas, and associations as out-of-bounds for some community or society — in this case, the Orthodox Church.
        1. The liberal is worried that some Orthodox are affiliating with parochial southern causes that cozy up to white supremacy, align the Church with one side of the culture wars, and so fracture its unity along the lines of the general fission within society. (He has a follow-up article here; Tweeted here.)
        2. The conservative is worried mostly about a loss of measurable religiosity and religious affiliation in certain US regions, a loss that he seems to find culpable, worried about “liberalism” and “progressivism” “spiritually desiccating” regions of the US, and worried about the institutional normalization of “homosexuality” and “transgenderism” as it may affect the Orthodox Church. He does not want the state to legislate against the postwar conservative norms on sexuality that he seems to take to be part of the faith, wants the Church to be something of a bastion for these norms against the wider society, and is worried that those who think as he does may need to retreat from society if the state does so legislate against the rough outlines of the postwar consensus.
        3. The conservative embraces what the liberal wants to avoid — the reduction of the Church to the status of a sect. The liberal may want to include everyone, but he can’t include people from the south who want their niche parochialism: his Orthodoxy cannot be for them, cannot address their concerns. (This is not to validate these concerns, simply to note that there are heterogenous aims and social organizations in the world, and, given this heterogeneity, universal inclusivity is impossible.) The conservative flat-out does not want to include everyone: his Orthodoxy doesn’t even try to address the concerns of urban elites, the educated, the uneducated, economic losers, or either ethnic or sexual minorities. 
      2. Now, a sect fits into an economic landscape; a sect is a community with niche interests. It is not universal, not simply reflective of the range of interests in the larger society. It represents an option within and among a demographic, or a cluster of demographics. It does not have society-wide appeal. In the modern world, a community —particularly a sectarian community— is not the society.
        1. Rural societies before industrialization also generally took the form of a community; everyone in a community had at least some common concerns and interests; their interests had a large degree of coördination. Aside from snowstorms and floods and such, this kind of common concern is gone for any developed, liberal society. 
        2. The social life of our modern post-industrial society is more complex than this in its organization, more distant from the affective bonds of a community; modern society has so many niches, groups, and classes — these can often compete with one another, or else drift apart, having different needs, different goals, and different ways of looking at the world. Even granting differences of training and education, the pre-modern peasant and lord both shared physical space and a coordinated social world (often with a coherent hierarchy of values), all of which bound them both; today, one would be hard pressed to point out such a horizon across differentiated groups. This is simply a fatality of the social differentiation that goes along with economic development.  
      3. While the conservative blogger is worried about a top-down intrusion from the state or other bureaucracies, he seems less concerned with the ways in which bottom-up shifts in society have rendered his notion of a Church as an affiliation group fundamentally different from what the Orthodox Church historically was — a community without a larger society (Byzantium), a community situated as a minority hosted by another community (Islam), or a communal heritage to be overcome by a new society, if not used by it for nationalist purposes (Communism). The older forms of community are gone, but the conservative seems to entertain images of what Orthodoxy is and could be that ignore societalization and social differentiation
    2. Even the adjectives I used in my initial description are telling: liberal & conservative. The blogger even self-identifies with it. It seems that, at least in a sense, the political sphere holds sway over religious identities. (What I take to be one of Dr. Sarkasian’s fears is, it seems, an inevitable eventuality.)
      1. Religious people of a certain sort (Dreher, for example) are prone to suggesting that they enjoy “transcending” political considerations when they come together to celebrate the Divine Liturgy, but this defines politics too narrowly, as though it concerned only partisan approaches to certain hot-button issues, while ignoring the social & economic framework that makes those possible (and which makes ignoring them possible). 
      2. I am going to take the unpopular position here that there is an economic, social, and historical landscape that constrains what we are likely to believe, sorts us into “tribes”, and which is so differentiated that it makes the shared horizon of a “thick” unity to our beliefs and practices, across all classes and places, impossible. 
    3. In the case of our liberal professor, this impossibility flies in the face of the cosmopolitan ideals he holds; in the case of our conservative blogger, this impossibility reveals his preferences to be those of a sect. 
    4. In each case, there is an audience for their claims — their arguments sell to a demographic. 
    5. The more alarming question, of course, is whether there is an Orthodoxy. On the face of it, this seems like a ridiculous question. There is, of course, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed that binds Orthodox belief, and a roughly standard Sunday Liturgy that guides most practice.  Beyond that, there are only a handful of pious practices that could claim anything resembling universal recognition, even if they certainly do not enjoy universal observance (e.g., daily prayers, the Jesus prayer, regular Eucharistic participation, fasting before the Eucharist, occasional confession). The normative practice of immersive reading in the Biblical text occurs within all of these practices — particularly the hearing of the text at the Divine Liturgy. The fathers of the Church are recognized as normative guides in many liturgical and ascetical works. To what degree these witnesses vary on any given topic, and on what topics their interpretations are binding, is a matter of debate in theory as well as varied in practice on the ground. Trained historians who look at these figures are usually less sure of the ways in which they offer anything like a unified field of authoritative opinion than some more pious souls, non-historians, who often imagine them to be a well-tuned choir. (The history of Peter Lombard‘s Sentences, Books 1, 2, 3, and 4 shows the falsity of this assumption well. Lombard thought that he could harmonize the outward multiplicity of the patristic sources by letting them say what they said, in the intentions of their authors, while offering an overarching theological interpretation of the heterogeneous sources on any point, to harmonize them in a higher framework. Authors after him did not always find his harmonization successful; commentaries on the Sentences became one of the ways that a top-tier theologian would cut his chops. Eventually, theologians stopped trying to harmonize the patristic heritage, and accepted heterogeneity, and the inevitability of exclusive judgments to cut through it and take a stand.)
      1. One can also be a nominal believer in traditional Orthodox societies, and in ethnic parishes still today. This is also a possibility in more cosmopolitan parishes on the coastal cities. This is impossible in the kind of Christian context Dreher champions in his Benedict Option, with all the rhetoric of the coming flood — Dreher’s Orthodoxy only has room halfway up mount Sinai, and at the top. His psychology of the “flood” and the culture war will exhaust and wash away those at the bottom. Dreher doesn’t even need to be wrong. It is, however, the case that his rhetoric can only land in a very different kind of social organization (the sect) than the range of possibilities present in traditional Orthodoxy (a society, perhaps a public).
    6. There is, of course, a Catholicism. Or is there? The educational attainments of Catholics roughly mirror those of the general US adult population, because Catholicism takes itself to be a religion for everyone. Even though it has positions, in many ways (not all) it has avoided taking a stand on them in a way that would make Catholicism a religion that is really best adapted to one economic class or the habits of one class of professions or the culture of one geographic area. This is also Catholicism’s downfall in the modern period, because social differentiation has made any thick unity across social worlds to be impossible. Catholicism is everything, and Catholicism is nothing. In avoiding becoming a sect, Catholicism blesses everything. (Maybe this is good; it is not meant as a judgment.)
    7. Continuity across time can conceal deep discontinuities; if I keep playing a C note across modal changes that begin in C major, the notes may follow one after another, but I shouldn’t delude myself into thinking I’m still playing a pedal tone. Orthodoxy is now in a changed socioeconomic and political context, and has been fated to go through several camouflaged mutations. Bishops have become chieftains of ethnoi, or else product evangelists. There are opportunities and weaknesses in these models, but neither of them is universal. 
    8. The modern landscape is determined by the immanent logic of social and economic conditions, which are different for different classes and areas.
      1. Individual Orthodox parishes will adapt their traditions to these circumstances, generating their own norms and practices, but it will be impossible to universalize these beyond the Creed & some liturgical norms. This does not mean that there is no Orthodoxy; it does mean that Orthodoxy will inevitably look different based on where and among whom it takes root.

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One thought on “The Economic Horizon

  1. I second your “unpopular position” although, since I’m not Orthodox or Catholic, my thoughts survey a wider horizon than whether modern Orthodoxy (or Catholicism) can or does articulate a universal message about Jesus.
    As I see it, the possibility of a “shared horizon of a ‘thick’ unity to our beliefs and practices, across all classes and places” was both articulated in the New Testament (though imperfectly, even by Paul) and yet already (though not irretrievably) forfeited in the first-century church(es) and their evangelism, as documented even throughout the New Testament. But by the time Christianity became a religion (unpacking that phrase would be a big job!), the possibility of universality had been utterly foregone, even though its ideal remained not only alive but crucial to the very meaningfulness of the church’s message.
    I believe the developments of recent centuries (including secularization) make genuine universality for a message about Jesus more possible than ever before, but not if confined within the horizon of “a religion.” (I have Bonhoeffer’s remarks on “religionless Christianity” in mind, although I’m sure if he had lived to develop his thinking he would have expressed it differently.)
    I know this comment doesn’t adequately explain what I’m thinking, but it’ll have to do for now.

    (This is my second time posting the same comment. The first time my comment didn’t appear, perhaps because I included a link to extensive Bonhoeffer quotes. I hope I don’t end up with a duplicate post.)

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