A Christianity of the Catacombs

Archpriest Lawrence Farley | 20 January 2022

I begin with a quote from an article that is almost 60 years old, but which has lost none of its timeliness:   “Since the Byzantine era, Orthodoxy was always brought to and accepted by whole nations.  The only familiar pattern of the past, therefore, is not the creation of mere local churches, but a total integration and incarnation of Orthodoxy in national cultures; so that these cultures themselves cannot be separated from Orthodoxy but in their depth, are genuine expressions of Orthodoxy.  This organic unity of the national and religious is not a historical accident, much less a defect of Orthodoxy. In its positive expression it is the fruit of the Orthodox concept and experience of the Church as embracing the whole life” (from Fr. Schmemann’s essay Problems of Orthodoxy in America, 1964).

It is not just Orthodox Christianity which incarnates itself in the total life of a culture.  All religions do that.  The life of Israel in the Old Testament was similarly saturated by commitment to Yahweh as revealed in the Law and covenant given at Sinai.  How Israelites were to dress, look, what they were to eat, who they were to marry, how they were to order their week and their year—all was regulated by their faith in Yahweh.  Theirs was a total integration and incarnation of religion in their national culture.  (Of course there were also some foreign elements in it which violated the Sinai covenant, as the prophets forcibly pointed out—and as Yahweh pointed out when He allowed Assyria and Babylon to invade and destroy in 721 and 586 B.C. respectively.)

Gentile Roman culture also united the national and the religious.  Life at home centered around the domestic deities, temples filled the land, patriotism involved devotion to those deities, and public education centered around stories of them.  That was, I think, the root cause of the antipathy that the Jew felt for the Gentile:  both were a part of all-encompassing and radically incompatible worlds.  That was also what made life so interesting for Christians living in that Gentile world.  They did not share Judaism’s cultural exemption from participation in it, and so were dramatically out of step with everything in the world around them.  That was why they were hated as atheists and misanthropes.

Religion by its very nature fills one’s world.  Religion is not a part of one’s life, like one’s taste in music, one’s chosen profession, or one’s political allegiances.  It cannot be compartmentalized and still remain one’s religion.  That is why religious people do not define themselves as religious.  In our society, religion has indeed been compartmentalized, so that one’s religion is now more akin to one’s interests or hobbies. But it is otherwise for people whose religion is healthy and real.  Religious people do not think of themselves as religious, but as devout.  They do not “have a religion” as others have an interest in stamp-collecting or hockey.  They simply live their whole life under the gaze of God and strive to make that life pleasing to Him.  Their whole life is one, and it belongs to God.

That is why true religion inevitably fills and permeates a culture.  Byzantium, with all its ambiguities and downsides, was not a departure from true Christianity (as people like the Anabaptists thought), but rather the inevitable result of many, many people becoming Christians.

It is the same with all religions.  The cultural situation in (say) Saudi Arabia is simply the result of most people there being Muslims. When Muslims declare themselves in favour of sharia, they are mostly just saying that they think all culture should reflect submission to Allah and his Qur’an.  We do (or did) the same sort of thing (though with less violence) when we made Sunday our weekly day of rest and worship.

This is what makes our current situation so difficult.  For some time now we in the West have officially embraced pluralism, with the inevitable result that any one religion is not allowed to have pride of place culturally and nationally over any other religion.  The Byzantine model—the only one which allows religion to do what religions always do—has been culturally disallowed, with the result that religion is now primarily an individual matter.  There are still pockets representing the Byzantine model (e.g. the Amish communities, though they would not appreciate the reference to icon-loving Byzantium). But as a whole, the West has opted to make religion a part of one’s individual life and refuse to let it become the governing principle of their world.

To quote Fr. Alexander again, “In America, religious pluralism belongs to the very essence of culture and prevents religion from a total ‘integration’ in culture.  Americans may be more religious people than Russians or Serbs [note: this was written in 1964]; all this does not alter the fundamentally secular nature of contemporary American culture. It is precisely this dichotomy of culture and religion that Orthodoxy has never known or experienced and that is totally alien to Orthodoxy. For the first time in its whole history, Orthodoxy must live within a secular culture”.

Well, maybe not the first time.  For the first three hundred or so years of its existence, Orthodoxy lived within a culture that was, though not secular, certainly totally alien to it, and which persecuted it relentlessly. But Fr. Alexander was formally correct:  there was no dichotomy between religion and culture in pagan Rome.  That was, of course, the problem.  That was why the Roman scoreboard usually read, “Lions:  6.  Christians:  0”.

Fr. Alexander wrote in America for American Orthodox.  But the pluralism written into American DNA can be found elsewhere throughout the West.  Canada, for example, and most of the nations of the cultural West also enshrine the values of a liberal democracy (including far away Australia down under), and have all signed on to the programme that America received as a cultural gift from the French (along with her late house-warming gift of the Statue of Liberty).

Pluralism, with its dichotomy of national culture and religion, now reigns here unquestioned. That is why America and the West look with uncomprehending distress at nations like Russia and their neighbours when they transgress our pluralistic model and use a more Byzantine one.  Such nations are denounced as intolerant, oppressive, and a lot of other rude things when they refuse to sunder religion and culture.  This uncomprehending distress goes a long way to explain why there is so much hostile news coverage of anything that Russia does (at least here in Canada).

There is no realistic hope of turning back the clock and establishing a Byzantine model of culture and nation here in the West. Since the last vestiges of Byzantium and Christendom are fast fading from the West, we must prepare ourselves for a return to the Christianity of the catacombs.  We needn’t hurry to move in there, mind you.  We should treasure what good things we have left and use every means in our power to preserve sanity in a world that is increasingly going crazy.

But while we are doing that, we must also be aware of the abiding temptation to conform to the prevailing model’s insistence that religion be compartmentalized.  If we do compartmentalize it, we can live more cozily in our secular culture, and this will make things easier for us.  We can say when running for political office, for example, that we are personally against abortion, but that this personal view will not effect our public support for it.  We will not let our religion intrude into our interaction with our culture.  We will behave ourselves while in public, and keep our religion a distinct, separate, hermetically-sealed off part of our life, something strictly private, like a dirty little secret.  Thus not only will religion not be allowed to transform our culture.  It will also not be allowed to transform us.

Allowing our faith to transform us and dictate how we react to the culture around us will inevitably make life difficult for us.  But the alternative to this Christianity of the catacombs is a Christianity without the cross—which is no Christianity at all.

Besides, a catacomb existence will not be the ultimate catastrophe.  In the early church, after we said, “The doors! The doors!” and shut out the world and began the Eucharist, we found our enclosed world spacious enough.  We have always known, and the monks took care to remind us, that this world was never to be our final home.  Byzantium and Christendom were very nice while they lasted.  But they were never our final destination.  That was the main message of the Book of Revelation.  The catacombs bid us welcome, and they point us to the Kingdom of God.

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