Of all the great callings that Christians are reminded of on a daily basis, the creation of culture is not among the most mentioned. I would even hazard a guess that many Orthodox would find [the calling to create Christian culture] mildly frightening, even smacking of some ancient, unpronounceable heresy. And indeed, those arts that we associate as obviously (and safely) Orthodox, such as iconography, sacred chant, church architecture and the like, seem to exist for many in a sort of bubble safely out of the reach of those who might defile them.
While the title is perhaps more appropriate for a treatise than for this brief meditation, the piece itself contemplates something that has long bothered me about nearly all forms of Christianity (sadly, including Orthodoxy) in early 21st century America, and that is that we have largely abandoned the public realms of culture.
Some Christian groups in America carve out their niche markets, create Christian™ brand kitsch and pack it into Christian™ bookstores for Christian™ consumption, while we Orthodox tend to keep our cultural accomplishments under wraps by limiting them to the grounds of our churches. That said, there are hints that that might not be good enough for some of us, and I welcome that.
Kotar’s piece largely bases itself on some excellent thoughts from Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin, such as this epigram at the top: “Christianity has a great calling, which many do not ever realize. This purpose can be defined as the creation of a Christian culture.” It is no secret to students of Christian history that a Christian culture has been attempted with some energy at many points over the past two millennia, with varying levels of success. But we seem to be in an age now when it is hardly being attempted, and Ilyin’s comments on this, expanded by Kotar, call us out.
Mind you, there are some notable exceptions to our general disengagement with and abandonment of the culture, and I am grateful for them. But I still must admit that, at least in my language, I have yet to find any Orthodox Christian writers or artists who thrill my soul the way people like J. R. R. Tolkien (Roman Catholic) and T. S. Eliot (Anglican) do.
I think that, if we will but try it, Orthodoxy actually has a leg up on Protestantism in this regard, though there is still much possibility in Roman Catholicism. Why? Because a sacramental vision of creation permits Christian culture. Where sacrament is abandoned, the possibility is hardly permitted. After all, if God does not actually transmit holiness in and through physical matter for the sanctification of mankind, then what precisely is the point in attempting the permeation of creation with holiness that is the purpose of Christian culture?
As I like to say, doctrine does indeed matter, and this is one of the ways it matters. If your view of the creation is essentially gnosticized or merely governed by the banal “stewardship” ideology, then you will see little point in treating it as a priest would his altar table and the things on it. But if all creation is secretly sacramental, well, then that’s different.
In any event, take a look at Kotar’s piece. It’s a good beginning on some of these questions, and it’s a good read, as well.
The Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick is pastor of St. Paul Orthodox Church of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, author of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (Conciliar Press, 2011), and host of the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and Roads from Emmaus podcasts.