Posts Tagged ‘sociology of religion’

Weighty possibilities I haven’t come across before for the phenomenon — reportedly not rare — of Orthodox clergy who seem reluctant to receive a convert, especially in the Western world, are presented by a Greek priest in Australia.  (NB: I’ve never heard of a language requirement before.)

His piece reminds us that most Orthodox didn’t come to the West as missionaries.  Of course, most non-Indigenous didn’t come to North America, Australia, etc., as missionaries — their religions basically followed them here.  (Of course, conversion of the Indians was part and parcel of colonial policy in Latin America.)  We easily forget ethnic distinction in religion wasn’t brought here by the Orthodox; to this day many Protestant and Catholic congregations are still predominantly of one or another ethnicity (or two), even if they don’t include it in their buildings’ names anymore.  But active explicit or implicit competition for adherents began apace at least in the U.S. with its (eventual) very “free-market” approach to religion.  Since overall, Orthodox are more-recent arrivals than other Christians, they’re mostly still in that earlier phase so to speak.

Sometimes a little sociological understanding can go a long way….  Kind of a correlate to Khouria Frederica Mathewes-Green’s 12th “…Thing I Wish I’d Known…

Advertisements

The sociologist and novelist, not the boxer … though he’s always been a fighter too!  Over the weekend his coat got caught in a taxi door in the Chicago area and he was dragged a bit, suffering a skull fracture.  (I’m sure he’s wondered since then if coats should be made of such strong stuff!)  He’s critical-but-stable in a Lutheran hospital’s surgical ICU.

His fiction as well as nonfiction have helped me learn about my Irish and Catholic background(s) in ways my working-class status couldn’t otherwise afford — no bagpipes or jigging growing up, no trips to The Old Country….  If anyone stood a chance of keeping me in the Catholic Church, it would’ve been he.  As I was returning to it in ’98 after 7 years among the Quakers and Mennonites, I asked him in an email, “What if I don’t agree with everything the Pope says?”  He responded, “Who does?”

Intriguingly, in recent years the religious resurrection of formerly-Communist Eastern Europe caught his attention as a sociologist of religion, and formed the backdrop of at least two of his novels — The Bishop Goes to THE University, about the apparent locked-room murder of a Russian monk at the U. of Chicago (it’s always apparent, isn’t it?!); and the stellar Star Bright!: A Christmas Story, which latter you must buy and read — meditatively — before the Nativity According to the Flesh of Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, especially if you’re American, Irish, and/or of Catholic background!  Fr. Greeley’s information about Orthodoxy isn’t perfect, but passable.  Star Bright! is not a murder mystery, but one of the blossoming romance between a Chicagoan Irish Catholic college Russian Studies major and an artist and art history major from Russia, a mystical young lady raised there without religion in the final years of Communist rule, who embraced Orthodoxy as a teen, ie, just a few years prior.  I imagine she’s a stand-in for her entire country / church, though sadly, an American Russian Studies major certainly isn’t, for our country, yet.  Atypically for Greeley, although the girl is “luminous,” the boy is not described as great-looking, which he pointed out to me when I chided him once for making most of his good characters good-looking and his evil characters ugly.  Also, this novel contains almost no sexual material — just one mild, and as always sincere, grope above the waistline, IIRC, as well as evocative allusions to an alleged tradition of “Christmas love,” around which the novel turns.  No violence, but some US Irish Catholic family holiday conflict; as one character complains, “It’s too bad Christ had to be born at Christmas!”  IMHO a true Western-style spiritual classic, though of a lay, not clerical / Religious, orientation … and an acceptable little dip into Russian / Orthodox faith too.  The pair even visit a traveling exhibit of Alaskan and Siberian Orthodox artifacts, complete with references to Saints Herman and Innocent of Alaska, serenaded by a recording of the St. Vladimir’s Seminary choir: I believe this is the coffee-table book based on the actual exhibition, put together for the 200th anniversary of the 1794 Valaam Monastery (Russia) mission to Native Alaska that formally brought Orthodoxy to the Americas to stay.

As for The Bishop Goes to THE University (a Blackie Ryan mystery), my most memorable line comes from Bishop Blackie’s boss, Sean Cardinal Cronin of Chicago, after attending the monk’s lengthy funeral liturgy (probably liturgies): “Three hours, Blackwood!”  His Eminence was not amused!

O Holy Father, heavenly Physician of our souls and bodies, Who hast sent Thine only-begotten Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, to heal all our ailments and deliver us from death, do Thou visit and heal Thy servant, Father Andrew, granting him release from pain and restoration to health and vigor, that he may give thanks unto Thee and bless Thy holy Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.  Amen.  (From the service of the Orthodox Mystery of Anointing.)

What follows is extracted from this blog post I know nothing else about, which is why I’m giving you what I got out of it here instead of sending you there to try and pinpoint it.  The book-author discussed, Rodney Stark, a sociologist (and BTW, according to Wikipedia he’s not “a Mormon fanatic” as one of the Commenters over there alleges, FWIW, although we could all learn something from Mormons’ sense of mutual aid, as well as, of course, evangelization), AFAIK became big in seminaries in the ’90s not only with the book mentioned but also his co-authored one with Roger Finke about how the U.S. is so “religious” because it’s a religious free market rather than one with a legally-established faith like most European countries (which fellow socio Andrew Greeley’s research also supports, so it must be right! 😉 ).

This extract first caught my attention because of something I read in a letter to the Orthodox Again magazine a few years ago citing pre-Hitler numbers estimating that in the first century of Christianity possibly some 90 percent or more of the world’s Jews placed their faith in Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, ie, became Christians.  (And as we know from Scripture and Church history, many of them remained identifiably “Jewish” Christians in one way or another for some time afterward.)  I didn’t know how to take that source, and half-feared it might be some Anti-Semitic (ie, anti-Jewish) screed rather than serious scholarship.  But Stark seems to come to a similar conclusion (remembering he’s not a historian but a sociologist – counting people is what they major in!).  So again, FWIW.

I don’t necessarily buy everything in this excerpt, but Big Picture, it suggests alot to me about evangelization in general, as well as other Christian and Orthodox ideals.

Here’s the blog text, pasted as is (except Stark is now teaching at Baylor University instead of U-Dub), text coloring added:

Christianity, emerged from Judaism, introducing a set of revealed truths and practices  to its adherents. Many of these beliefs and practices differed significantly from what the Greek religions and Judaism had held. In The Rise of Christianity (Princeton University Press, 1996) by Rodney Stark, professor of sociology and comparative religion at the University of Washington, gives us a new perspective on the formative years of Christianity. I mention Stark”s study because he is a scholar without an ax to grind against Christians and his research approaches the subject without any preconceptions. In one of the more startling conclusions from his research, Stark says that contrary to the current wisdom, the mission to the Jews of the early Christians was largely successful and continued right up to the year 300. According to Stark, the some four or five million Jews of the Diaspora had “adjusted to life in the Diaspora in ways that made them very marginal vis-a-vis the Jews of Jerusalem, hence the need as early as the third century for the Torah to be translated into Greek for the Jews outside of Israel (the Septuagint).”  For Jews who lived in the Hellenic world, “Christianity offered to retain much of the religious content of both cultures and to resolve the contradictions between them.” 

It should be noted that most of the new converts to Christianity came from the Hellenized peoples of the East especially the Greeks rather than from Judaism, because Christianity had much more in common with the freedom imposed by the Greek mind than the legality of Judaism.  Christianity preached the possibility of a worthwhile and even happy existence for slaves, the weak, the poor, the ugly, even barbarians, people Aristotle  and Plato would not have regarded as capable of a happy life and people the Jews would not have regarded as those like themselves chosen by God.  During the major upheavals of the fourth century Christianity emerged as the dominant movement. The new faith engaged in both dialogue and conflict with Greco-Roman culture. Christians found themselves in conflict with pagan society and even with themselves.  Change, heresy, reformations, compromises, violence, persecutions were characteristics of the fourth century but they did not stop there.

Now was the spread of Christianity a “miracle” or just coincidental based on a combinations of existing facts?  Believers like me will lean toward the miraculous.  {snip}  …I will let Stark offer the conclusions formed by his research. I stress here that historians, even those who can offer us the benefit of their research studies, can’t be sure that they have all the right answers.  They are making an educated guess. Stark points out that in 165, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, an epidemic struck that carried away during the course of fifteen years up to a third of the total population of the empire, including Marcus Aurelius himself. In 251 a similar epidemic, most likely of measles, struck again with similar results. Historians generally acknowledge that these epidemics produced a depopulation which led in part to the decline of the Roman empire, more than the normally attributed cause of “moral degeneration.” Stark points out that these epidemics favored the rapid rise of Christianity for three reasons. One, that Christianity offered a more satisfactory account of “why bad things happen to good people,” based on the centrality of the suffering and Cross of Christ than any form of classical paganism. Second, “Christian values of love and charity, from the beginning, had been translated into norms of social service and community solidarity. When disasters struck, the Christians were better able to cope, and this resulted in substantially higher rates of survival. This meant that in the aftermath of each epidemic, Christians made up a larger and larger percentage of the population even without new converts.” Last, these epidemics left large numbers of people without the interpersonal bonds that would have prevented them from becoming Christians, thus encouraging conversion. He says, “in a sense paganism did indeed ‘topple over dead’ or at least acquired its fatal illness during these epidemics, falling victim to its relative inability to confront these crises socially or spiritually, an inability suddenly revealed by the example of its upstart challenger.”  His words not mine.

Stark introduces a number of other elements in Christianity’s rise to prominence. It was an urban phenomenon based in the teeming cities of the Roman Empire especially in the East. Stark underlines the fact that Christianity brought a new culture capable of making life in Greco-Roman cities more tolerable: “To cities filled with homeless and the impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.”  Contrary to popular belief,  despite Christianity’s drawing power  for the poor and slaves, it also attracted the upper and middle classes in appreciable numbers.

Christianity was unusually appealing to pagan women” because “within the Christian subculture women enjoyed far higher status than did women in the Greco-Roman world at large.” He shows that Christianity recognized women as equal to men, children of God with the same supernatural destiny. Moreover the Christian moral code of prohibition against polygamy, divorce, birth control, abortion, and infanticide contributed to the well-being of women, changing their status from powerless serfs in bondage to men, to women with dignity and rights in both the Church and the State. Go to any Church service on any given day and you will understand the importance of women within the body of the Church.

Stark establishes four conclusions based on his study. One, Christianity rapidly produced a substantial surplus of females as a result of Christian prohibitions against infanticide (normally directed against girl infants), abortion (often producing the death of the mother), and the high rate of conversion to Christianity among women. Second, as already pointed out, Christian women enjoyed substantially higher status within Christian society than women did in the world at large, which made Christianity highly attractive to them. Third, the surplus of Christian women and of pagan men produced many marriages that led to the secondary conversions of pagan men to the Faith, a phenomenon that continues today.  Finally, the abundance of Christian women resulted in higher birthrates; superior fertility contributed to the rise of Christianity. 

Why did Christianity grow then? According to Stark, “It grew because Christians constituted an intense community, able to generate the ‘invincible obstinacy’ that so offended the younger Pliny but yielded immense religious rewards. And the primary means of its growth was through the united and motivated efforts of the growing numbers of Christian believers, who invited their friends, relatives, and neighbors to share the ‘good news’.” At the heart of this willingness to share one’s faith was the revealed word of God, as taught by the Church.  Acceptance of Christian doctrine was based on an article of faith. “Central doctrines of Christianity prompted and sustained attractive, liberating, and effective social relations and organization.” The chief doctrine, of course, which was radically new to a pagan world groaning under a host of miseries was that “because God loves humanity, Christians may not please God unless they love one another.”