Converts and Culture

Father John Whiteford
Father John Whiteford

The American priest Father John WHITEFORD from Texas talks about the experience of converting to Orthodoxy in the cultural context. He presents his thought on how can someone best assimilate into the “culture” of Orthodoxy without losing their own nationality. This text was originally published on his personal blog.

There is no such thing as a generic Orthodoxy. Our faith is handed to us by particular people, who come from particular cultural expressions of the faith. Consequently I think a convert can only embrace the particular expression of the faith as they receive it, in the context that they have converted in. Some converts have gone so far as to actually try to adopt the ethnic identity of whatever Orthodox Jurisdiction they convert into—I have even heard of cases in which people Russified their surname. This is of course ridiculous, and is neither necessary, nor helpful.

When I first encountered the Orthodox Faith, it was in the Russian Orthodox context. I was never under any illusions that I could become a Russian, nor did I have any great desire to do so. When the Orthodox Faith was brought to the Slavs, they embraced many aspects of the Orthodox Byzantine culture that brought them the Faith, but they remained Slavs, and with time, they in turn made the Faith their own, and a new Orthodox culture developed. You could go back one step further and talk about the Jewish culture of the Apostles, and the interaction that the Greek converts had with it, which ultimately developed into the Byzantine Greek culture. So while I am not a Russian, nor could I ever become a Russian, my experience of Orthodoxy came in a Russian package, and so I am Russian Orthodox, and love and appreciate the best aspects of Russian culture.

Anything in any culture that is contrary to the Orthodox Christian Faith has to go. But anything that is good or virtuous in a culture can be embraced. The Greeks certainly did not give up the best aspects of their culture when they embraced the Christian Faith, and the Church has been enriched by the Greek Christian culture that came out of that. The same is true of Americans. Anything that is good in the culture that you have when you enter the Church you get to keep.

And while we have to embrace the expression of Orthodoxy as we receive it, since we live in a context were we have many other cultural expressions of Orthodoxy, we should resist the temptation to look down on other practices that are no less authentic, but nevertheless different than what we are familiar with.

Someday, God willing, we will see a distinctly American Orthodox culture, but attempts to force that into existence prematurely have met with bad results, and I think this fails to understand how Orthodoxy changes a culture. The Russians did not decide one day that they were going to toss out Greek culture, and concoct a Russian version of it. It happened naturally, as their national Church matured. The American Church has a very long way to go.

However, none of this means that those of us whose language is English need to have the services in a foreign language. The texts of the services have all been translated into English, and so there is no reason why we should not use them.

What a convert should do is try to learn what they can from the most pious and mature Orthodox Christians they encounter in their parish, and emulate them. You will inevitably find some faults in such people, and so those things you should not follow. And you certainly should not emulate the bad habits of those who have grown up on the Church. For example, many Orthodox Christians have a bad a habit of coming to Church late, or coming to Church inconsistently. Ignore the bad example of those people, and imitate the ones that are doing what they should be doing.

One temptation for any convert is to take things to extremes, and so finding the balance is something that you have to work towards. For example, while we can and should learn from monasticism, unless and until you go to a monastery, you should not try to live like you are an Athonite monk. For one thing, it’s not going to work, and you are likely to have the wheels of your faith come off at some point. Keep your focus on trying to live like a normal pious layman, and if God leads you to a monastery eventually, you will be a lot more likely to work out your salvation there, if you have learned how to work it out in a balanced way, while living in the world.. We should always remember the wise words of St. Poemen the Great:

“Everything that goes to excess comes from the demons”[1]

[1] Benedicta Ward, translator, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Alphabetical Collection (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975, 1984 revised edition), p. 185.

An Orthodox  service in the Holy Trinity Monastery (Jordanville, New York)
An Orthodox service in the Holy Trinity Monastery (Jordanville, New York)
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