« Crunching the Founding? | Main | Neuhaus, Counter-Revolutionary Leader? »

Eastern Orthodoxy and Westerners

But though I have not given up my “caesaropapism” argument, it is not that argument on which I base my reasons for becoming or staying Catholic. Rather, my reason for not being Eastern Orthodox is based upon a fuller understanding of and appreciation for the Eastern churches. I have come to understand that they are true churches. Their bishops are legitimate successors of the Apostles. Their Eucharist is the Eucharist of the church catholic (i.e. universal). They have preserved the Apostolic Tradition and pray with us the Nicene creed.

But they are Eastern churches, and I am a Western man. I have grown up in a Western society and imbibed a Western culture. I was nursed in an Evangelical community which, for better or for worse, has its roots in the Western church. It is no accident that Protestantism arose in Europe. Its heresies are typically Western, but so are its peculiar insights. If the Traditional church native to Western European culture, i.e. the Roman Catholic Church, is a legitimate church at all, then it is my church, whether I like it or not.

In effect, as an Evangelical Protestant living in New Hampshire, I have always belonged to the Catholic Church. The Bishop of Manchester has always been my pastor; I just didn’t acknowledge it till 2002. To become Eastern Orthodox would be to pretend that I could stop thinking in my native, Western categories, that my understanding of the Incarnation, the Redemption, etc, could be totally divorced from my experience of culture and Evangelical worship, and I do not think that is possible. There is a reason why each church, in addition to having its own liturgy, has its own theology. The terms in which the Faith is expressed speak slightly different things to each individual culture. This does not mean that the Faith is infinitely malleable in the hands of any particular people, but only that words in any language can mean slightly different things and receive their full meaning not from dictionaries but from the shared life of the culture, i.e. from the Tradition. ~J.B. Watson, Likelier Things

Via Rod Dreher

This is the sort of argument against becoming Orthodox that I find the hardest to swallow. I am tempted to say, "Give me a good, solid Catholic rejection of schismatics any day over this sort of objection." If we wanted to be preoccupied with the historical problems and distortions different churches have undergone over the centuries and use these as a basis for deciding whether to join one church rather than another, let me just gently suggest that it is difficult to see how the Roman Catholic Church comes out ahead. However, I don't intend this to be an anti-Catholic post. I will not take up Mr. Watson's challenge to prove the Western church "deficient" today, not least because those sorts of arguments have gone back and forth for a very long time and I would have little new or interesting to add to them. I will object to the post on two points: the idea of "caesaropapism" and the East-West dichotomy that he uses to justify his commitment to the Western church as a "man of the West."

Obviously, as a convert to Russian Orthodoxy from a wholly "Western" (i.e., western and central European and American) background, I take exception to the idea that there is something amiss in being a Western convert to Orthodoxy, as if I have somehow departed from my civilisation's roots. But I take particular exception to the idea of caesaropapism. Caesaropapism has never existed in the Orthodox world (I would also argue that it has never existed anywhere, but that is not my main concern). I cannot stress that strongly enough. It is something that modern historians and polemicists invented to wrongly describe or discredit Byzantium.

In Byzantine studies, there is now the understanding that "caesaropapism" is a crude, misleading and false description of the relations between Church and state. For more on that, I recommend Gilbert Dagron's Emperor and Priest. Caesaropapism, if it means anything, means that the emperor or secular power rules the Church. If the term meant what it literally ought to mean, it would mean that the emperor functioned as the equivalent of the pope in the Church. The closest to caesaropapism that any Orthodox polities have ever come are post-Petrine Russia and post-Revolution Greece, when Peter adopted the style of church government then fashionable in western European Protestant lands and when the Greek church was made effectively a department of the state under the Bavarian-style dispensation under Otto I. Plainly, these are examples of departure from the customary relations of Church and state in the Orthodox world brought about by Westernising governments. The Synod established by Peter would seem as bizarre and dangerous to most Byzantine bishops as it does to anyone else. To judge Orthodoxy's tendency for caesaropapism by this episode in the history of the Russian church would be to judge the Papacy by the Babylonian Captivity (where we see something like the French secular ruler dictating the policy of the Avignon Papacy)--clearly, not a fair assessment by any means.

Then there is the claim that "they are Eastern churches, and I am a Western man." If we are speaking in terms of a civilisation as a basis for determining which "valid" church Westerners will choose, we are speaking of a Christian civilisation. That civilisation encompasses the heirs of Byzantium as well as the heirs of Latin Christendom. If that is the case, the distinction between what is Eastern and Western collapses rather quickly. What is an authentic measure of the mind of that civilisation, if not the common mind it possessed prior to the schism? If it is that mind that created the fundamental, defining doctrines of the Faith, and that mind was possessed equally throughout the oikoumene before the schism and was expressed in ecumenical councils that were, because of particular historical reasons, all located in the East, we cannot dismiss the "Eastern" churches for being Eastern if we grant, as Mr. Watson does, that they have a valid apostolic succession, valid sacraments and the correct definition of faith. Once we accept the latter, their "Easternness" ought to be immaterial to Western peoples. Indeed, if we see the continuities in the Orthodox Church from the early centuries until today we will be more hard-pressed to mark them off anachronistically as simply Eastern and thus unfit for "Western men."

Daniel Larison | March 23, 2006


Arguments, like those by J.B. Watson’s, irritate me to no end. I don’t blame him, since his is like most, simply a product of the system and has no idea that he is arguing contrary to the proper method of coming to know. He is arguing accidentals, as if they are principles, because like Bacon, the principles are simply a multitude of accidents.

He can see where his position is going when he says “this does not mean that the Faith is infinitely malleable”, but taking his position to its logical conclusion, that is exactly what it means since truth becomes relative to accidents which are without limit.

The same is true with modern ecumenicism, there is no logical place to rest once the Faith is abandoned in attempts at reconciliation. A method of reconciliation which makes about as much sense as offering a cross without Christ. Why would anyone want to reconcile themselves to that? The reason we are Catholic is because of Peter’s words to Christ when many walked away. “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life”

The Scholastic | 03/24/06 00:11

But they are Eastern churches, and I am a Western man. I have grown up in a Western society and imbibed a Western culture.

I am sure this is a very honest statement, it is honest about the emotions that we have vis a vis other cutlures, cultural mores, etc. especially those in religious practices.

I find it less than acceptable in a Christian, however. It undermines the very idea of conversion to anything that can be viewed, perceived, or felt to be not of "my culture". Should the Romans and the Greeks have denied Christianity because it was "so Jewish"? Should the Africans, Native Americans, and Asians deny Christianity because it is "European"? Is Christianity inappropriate for Arabs and Persians, and Indonesians, etc. because they are "Muslim" and they are "imbibed with Muslim culture"?

christopher3rd | 03/27/06 15:33

That's a great point, and one that I should have stressed more. Of course, Christianity is expressed culturally, so I can understand valuing a cultural heritage that has been shaped by a particular kind of Christianity, but in another sense Mr. Watson seems to be privileging his Westernness even over his Western Christianity and making a cultural mentality the basis for determining his religion rather than having a religious mind determine what sort of "categories" he should think in. It is not just that he comes from the tradition of Latin Christendom, but that he is "Western," which carries with it a lot of other associations far beyond being a son of a western European Christian tradition. I think he might find that many of the "categories" of thought he uses as a Westerner are as alien to the mind of the earlier Latin church as they are to the mind of the Greeks. Fundamentally, custom and tradition must be measured against something even more lasting and eternal than even they are. This is why St. Clement of Alexandria urged the Greeks to put away their ancestral customs in favour of better instruction and better habits. Because the categories of thought that we have received are good insofar as they are in agreement with the mind of the Church and they are problems to the extent that they oppose that mind. And if there were no opposition between a Western mind and the mind of the Orthodox Church (though I believe there is some), there would be even less reason to resist "going East."

Daniel Larison | 03/27/06 15:45

My comment got deleted somehow but I hope it is not too absurd to be repeated. First, great Orthodox theologians worked with the categories of Hellenic and Hellenistic thought that supposedly underlie the whole Western philosophical tradition. If one considers oneself Western, one is supposed to be able to understand Plato and Aristotle; if so, one should also be able to understand, to some degree, the Cappadocians.

Second -- this goes in the opposite direction -- J.B. Watson may be concerned, superficially as it may seem, with basic questions such as the language and music of the liturgy. What if he can't bear the thought of abandoning the Book of Common Prayer?

The Russian Dilettante | 03/28/06 00:59

I'm sorry that the other comment was deleted. I don't know how that happened. The notice of your comment came in to me, but when I went back later to the site it was not there.

Your points are very good ones. As I have said at another time in a short talk I gave on Orthodoxy and Byzantium, if Western civilisation claims to be the result of the combination of Christianity, Greek thought and Roman law Byzantium has a stronger claim to belong to Western civilisation than much of the rest of Europe for long stretches of its history. The point is not to make Byzantium the new center and exclude someone else, but to recognise that culturally, theologically and philosophically the Byzantines are either our ancestors or at least our very close cousins.

The one element that defines "the West" as being something other than Byzantium is the Germanic cultural influence, which is certainly significant, but to mark off "the East" as something alien from Western civilisation is to privilege that German heritage over and above everything else and to make the opposition between Germans and Slavs the defining feature of the separation, which is historically absurd (Germans and Slavs have long had intertwined and connected histories). As much as I admire many things about the Germans, making them the centerpiece of Western identity does not make any sense from a specifically Christian perspective.

Funny that you should mention the Book of Common Prayer. I was at an Episcopalian wedding not that long ago, and I clearly heard parts of the liturgy that were lifted directly from the Liturgy of St. John. The more "Western" one could seek to be, the more inescapable the Byzantine influence is. The pretense that something "Eastern" even exists in a meaningful sense is just an attempt to get away from our own heritage.

There was another now-missing comment to the effect that the Orthodox liturgy appeals to melancholic temperaments. Whether or not one really wants to classify Slavic peoples as broadly melancholic (which does not describe most of the Russians I know), and even though it would be a vast generalisation in any case, this would be to overlook that practically all the liturgical rites the Orthodox practise come from the Greeks (and Syrians), whom few could generally accuse of melancholy. By contrast, until Vatican II many of the Latin rites were heavily influenced by practises that emerged in German lands, and surely the stereotype of the dour and serious German is just as melancholic as the stereotype of the Russian. To go down this road would be to make a significant mistake in assessing why a certain kind of liturgy appeals (or does not appeal) to people.

Daniel Larison | 03/28/06 10:30

T'was I who made the comment about the liturgy and I would like to clarify it if I may. But first I must say that I have been very favorably impressed, Mr Larison, by your depth of knowledge and clarity of style since I recently discovered this site. Thank you for your many insights.

I think it is fair to generalize about national temperaments and characteristics, as you have so ably done about American optimism, and about cultures and liturgies. Temperament, contrary to current misusage which implies an emotional state, is an inherited type of mind. The melancholic temperament (mind) is ponderous, deeply religious and mystical. It is geared to thought. The choleric temperament is quick, practical and geared to action. Both are highly intelligent and serious. They are designed to be complimentary.

It seems to me that the Russian mind can be characterized as melancholic. Dostoyevsky is nothing if not Russian and nothing if not melancholic (not to over-simplify the argument but to give an obvious example). The same can be said of Eastern culture and liturgy. I have heard Rachmaninoff's Liturgy of St John and it is hauntingly beautiful, deeply mysterious and obviously melancholic. There is nothing even remotely like it in the Latin Church. Adrian Fortescue rightly says, "The old, pure Roman rite was nothing if not austerely practical. It contained no ceremonies done for their own sake, no decorative or symbolic features, as do the Eastern rites ... If there is a fair reproach that could be made against the Roman liturgical tradition it is rather that, in its austere simplicity, in its exceeding commonsense, it is even dull." The German influence was accepted in the Latin Church precisely because it was so practical.

I don't think the need for intellectual attraction in religion can be dismissed off hand as "unchristian". Temperament can, and often does, form a serious impediment to understanding complimentary temperaments, cultures and traditions. Temperaments tend to be attracted to similarity because they are familiar and easily understood. Complimentarity is beneficial, however, as tending to a whole instead of a part. To argue that one tradition is better, or more significant, or more substantial than the other is to miss their inherant complimentarity.

As christopher3rd rightly points out, "Should the Romans and the Greeks have denied Christianity because it was so Jewish", familiarity should not be the deciding factor in the acceptance of truth, but it is, practically speaking, a significant factor. The fact that there were tremendous difficulties in the early Church in this regard is a case in point. And it is even now an impediment to reconciliation between East and West.

I would be very interested to know, however, at which point this divergence began because, as you say, both developed from the Greek. Is it facile to point to the Schism as approximately the time when each began to focus more on similarity than complimentarity? I would also be very interested to know whether the Western philosophical tradition developed along Aristotelian lines and the Eastern along Platonic.

Victoria | 03/29/06 11:42

Thank you for your very kind remarks about the writing, your comments and for your persistence in trying to get through. I apologise for the odd disappearance of your earlier comments, and I'm glad you came back.

I shouldn't have given the impression that I was writing off general temperaments all together. Certainly the Russians are usually associated with melancholy, and I admit I was thinking of it in emotional terms, which accounts for my confusion on this point. If we take melancholy as a temperament suited to the ponderous, religious and deeply mystical, which makes sense, I am all the more surprised that Germans, whose thought often tends in this direction, should embrace a more "practical" approach. Germans are well known now for being terribly practical and action-oriented, but this is a fairly recent cultural shift that they owe to Prussian predominance--they were the nation of Dichter und Denker, which would beg the question why so many from the nation of Dichter und Denker would be attracted to the most "no-frills" sorts of liturgical practise.

Arguably, some German attraction to a less mystical liturgy and symbolism would make sense if we think of it in terms of the old Frankish opposition to the theology of icons and the presence of God that the icons represented, so that Germans would be drawn towards contemplation of God without very many images, but this would be to assume a lot of things. This would help make sense of "Gothic" architecture in one way, but German Baroque church decoration would also make no sense if we followed this route. I'm willing to grant that national temperaments may have something to do with some of the forms in liturgical practise, but I don't know how much it can explain.

I appreciate your remarks on complementarity of temperaments and styles. While the old medieval puzzle of whether actio or contemplatio is superior to the other, whether Martha or Mary is the better example, does always end up with the answer in favour of Mary, I am not going to insist on this too much. Not everyone can be monks (I most of all), and not everyone can be drawn through images upwards into the intelligible realms, so to speak, as readily as others.

Arguably, the Schism was, theologically speaking, the result of Latin-speakers engaging in theological speculation that was historically more typical of the Greeks: the development of the Filioque for indigenous reasons of combating heresy came across as novel and strange in an age for the Byzantines where new theological speculation was essentially supposed to be done and over with. After 843, Byzantine theology is admittedly less energetic in some ways and saw the Victory of Orthodoxy as the capstone of doctrine. For the Byzantines, there was nothing more to elaborate, and the Latins (particularly the Franks) started to elaborate things to contest their own Christological controversies (Arianism, Adoptionism) that had been settled one way or another in the East for centuries. As I try to argue in my "civilisational" theory of a common Christian world encompassing Latin and Byzantine cultures, the Schism comes after repeated, ever-closer reunions between Rome and Constantinople. Relations between the two cultures and their modes of thinking are in some ways becoming closer than they had been before. The disputes that were the proximate causes of the Schism were the function of more similar and intertwined cultures, rather like a big family blow-up. The blow-up can tend to be that much larger and more bitter, even over allegedly small stakes (though I think the disagreements are more meaningful and important than that), because the contestants are closely bound to each other and are very much alike.

The different philosophical developments East and West largely turn on different uses of Aristotle, rather than competing Aristotelian and Platonic models. Or so argues David Bradshaw in his Aristotle, East and West. I have to admit that I have not yet read it in its entirety, but a colleague of mine who is better versed in the technical language of "energy" under discussion believes it is a very good book. As I understand his thesis, the different ways that Aquinas and the Byzantine Orthodox theologians construed activity/energy came from two different readings of Aristotle that produced two different doctrines of God and grace.

If anything, western medieval intellectual life was more influenced by Neoplatonism through Eriugena and his translation of Pseudo-Dionysios, which would later inspire Thierry of Chartres and William of Conches to pursue a limited Platonising Christianity. Their theological influence was ultimately limited and overshadowed by the turn to Aristotle in the 13th century, but thanks to Suger and the Gothic style at St. Denis Neoplatonism had a direct effect on Western architectural history. As much as I like Pseudo-Dionysios, his influence in the East was fairly limited up until the 14th century. For whatever reason (probably their association with anti-Christian or insufficiently Christian thinkers), and in spite of the importance of Neoplatonism on early doctrines of the soul and categories of thought in asceticism, Plato and the Neoplatonism did not win much of a following in the Byzantine world.

Daniel Larison | 03/29/06 12:24

The Germans are a curious mixture which I think has much to do with their centralized geographical location. When one thinks of the boundaries of Germany today they certainly seem drawn to include different temperaments and cultures. I agree that temperament does not explain all but the generalizations are often valid and recognized by most people as such. It's what leads to the singularly American habit of describing oneself as 'German', 'Irish' or 'Polish', etc. It's in the blood.

"The disputes that were the proximate causes of the Schism were the function of more similar and intertwined cultures, rather like a big family blow-up. The blow-up can tend to be that much larger and more bitter, even over allegedly small stakes (though I think the disagreements are more meaningful and important than that), because the contestants are closely bound to each other and are very much alike." I agree wholeheartedly and posit that after the divorce, so to speak, each party retreated into his corner and the benefits of complimentarity were largely lost. In addition, the longer the parties remains seperate the harder it is to reconcile. One gets set in one's ways and begins to forget the attraction complimentarity once had.

Thank you kindly for all this info on the influences of A & P. You have given much to think about!

Victoria | 03/29/06 13:30

In re Martha and Mary: the point no one ever seems to make is that together they made a very nice home. Was it, in fact, this unity which attracted Christ to it?

Victoria | 03/29/06 13:34

Daniel, this said, can I make a direct question? Suppose I am an American coming from a Roman Catholic background. I have studied Orthodox theology and have found it deeply satisfying. I believe they are the true Church and want to join it. I also know that liturgy is central to Orthodoxy. With that in mind, which particular church should I join? Should I invest in learning Greek or Old Church Slavonic, or look for a church that practices a "Western" Orthodox rite (if it exists at all)?

Victoria -- note that musicologists often classify most of Rachmaninoff as late European Romanticism. There is an ongoing debate within the Russian Orthodox Church on what music is fit for liturgy. Some are trying to get back to Byzantine roots, some are looking at the pre-Petrine Russian tradition with its "hooked" notation. My understanding is that during the so-called Synodal period (from Peter I to 1917), Russian church choirs absorbed contemporary Western musical tradition even to the exclusion of other elements. Tchaikovsky, for one, wrote a letter to a Russian Orthodox bishop against the use of what he saw as Italian operatic style in church singing.

The Russian Dilettante | 03/31/06 03:00

Thanks for the interesting question. Of course, I am biased because of my own choice in this matter, but here goes.

There is a Western rite and a few parishes who practise it in western Europe, and if I were a Catholic approaching the Orthodox Church that might (I stress might) seem the most familiar. However, if I am correct, even though it is a Western rite it would not really be that much more familiar to me, as the structure of the Mass, while similar, is different enough from what the Orthodox call the "Western rite" that it might not be any more familiar (and maybe less?) than the Liturgy of St. John.

If I am "going East" in large part because of the theology, I am probably a stickler for Tradition and doing things in the most "Traditional" way possible. If that is the case, I would probably be more inclined to sit down and learn Old Church Slavonic (or at least as much of it as I needed for understanding the Liturgy, reading inscriptions on icons, etc.) on the grounds that, as of today, the Russian Church represents, in my view, the most Traditional alternative available outside of the Greek Old Calendarists. The latter are often quite good and very "Traditional" (what else would they be?), but their parishes are exceedingly few and far between outside of a few major urban centers in North America, which makes a practical commitment to one of their various synods very difficult.

In America, the ROCA has relatively fewer parishes than, say, the Greeks or the Antiochians, but they tend to have less Westernised forms of worship as well. (This is not intended necessarily to denigrate any other Orthodox Churches, but I hope it is simply a statement of the reality of what worship is like in the different kinds of churches.)

What do I mean by Westernised forms? In general (there might be an exception somewhere, but I don't know of it), ROCA churches have no pews, no instruments and usually no large choirs. Many American Greek and Antiochian churches also have no instruments or choirs, but most non-Russian churches these days have gone in for the pews. That would not be a problem, except that, as I understand it, one is supposed to remain standing on Sundays in church, on account of it being the day of Resurrection. Some will say that these (pews, instruments) are fairly trivial differences, but I would say if some of these points are important enough to be regulated by the canons they are not all that trivial.

Daniel Larison | 03/31/06 12:40

Russian Dilitante,
Yes, you are quite correct in classifying Rachmaninoff among the Romantics. I was not under the impression that I was witnessing a bona fide liturgical service, just as I would not consider the performance of Mozart's Requiem a real funeral Mass. Still, the differences were remarkable. For instance, in spite of the heavily romantic overtones there was a strong element of virility (all those bass voices!) unlike anything Western.

The Roman Catholic Church has had the same discussion as to the infiltration of 'popular' music into the liturgy. Perhaps someone could recommend to me some music (on CD) which would be the Orthodox equivalent of Gregorian Chant and/or polyphony. I would be very interested to hear some.

Victoria | 04/05/06 09:52


I highly recommend the recordings (in Church Slavonic) of the Monks of the Monastere de Chevetogne. Just google using that phrase and you will get their main website (which starts out with beautiful liturgical music). FYI, these monks are Orthodox in communion with Rome ( or, to use the pejorative term, "uniate" ).


I've perused your website for sometime now but this is my first post. I hope I don't flatter you excessively (especially during Great Lent) but I must say that I am amazed that such incisive commentary and analyses come from someone so young. It seems to me that EUNOMIA bridges the gap between the intellectual rigor of the contemplative (MODERN AGE)Old Right and the fire-breathing rhetorical "engagement" of the (CHRONICLES) Paleoconservatives. Not that the two are by any means mutally exclusive, but their most notable tendencies are united in your blog. Hopefully you, along with Michael Brendan Dougherty and Daniel McCarthy (to name two other luminaries) will continue your efforts in more high profile ways in the future. In any case, this (middle-aged) Bay Area denizen continues to profit; keep it up.


Ian | 04/05/06 13:59

First, regarding Victoria's question, there are a couple of fine Greek chant CDs out there that I can strongly recommend. One is a recording from the Orthodox monastery on Patmos, St. John's island, and another is what I believe is a selection of more traditional Byzantine chant, which I believe is just called Chant byzantin. I will have to confirm the name. For a different Eastern liturgical experience with a predominantly Arabic liturgy, I recommend the recording of Sister Marie Keyrouz from the Maronite Catholic Church:


Thanks so much for your exceedingly generous comments. I'm sure that you must be praising me too much, as I am doubtful that most of what I have written here is really all that incisive, but I thank you very much for saying so. Being compared to Modern Age and Chronicles at once is a great compliment, and also very humbling, since any one issue of either presents more serious and intelligent commentary of one kind or another than a year of my blogging. I would like to say that I think the gentlemen at Chronicles play the role of contemplative and rigorous intellectuals in their own right, but I appreciate that the mix of reflection and fire-breathing that I have tried to present here, as you say, comes across.

Michael and Daniel are the professionals. While I'm blogging, they're actually working on real writing and magazine jobs of one kind or another, so you will assuredly see more of their writing in physical print-copy. I am working through some ideas for reviews and possibly an article, but I have found that putting together a good, concise article is much harder than the off-the-cuff sort of writing I do here. Thanks once again for your very kind words, and I hope to see you commenting in the future.

Daniel Larison | 04/06/06 10:05

Follow-up on the music comment: the title of the Patmos CD is Monastery of St. John: Byzantine Patmos. I'm still checking on the other one.

Daniel Larison | 04/06/06 10:06

Ian and Daniel, thank you both for these wonderful recommendations. I spent a delightful half hour browsing the Monastere website and want to order all their CDs immediately!

Victoria | 04/06/06 10:49

You are signed in, . (sign out)

Remember me?