What’s So Good About Being Eastern Catholic?

What’s So Good About Being Eastern Catholic? December 8, 2016
The Geographer, by Johannes Vermeer (PD-Art), via Wikimedia Commons
The Geographer, by Johannes Vermeer (PD-Art), via Wikimedia Commons

When I was blogging as Chinglican at Table at a group blog called A Christian Thing, one of our group members known as Churl wrote a piece screaming at evangelicals, and by extension, all Protestants. As Churl and I were both Christians in the Anglican tradition at the time, I felt that I needed to write something to say why I’d stay Anglican and would never become Catholic. The series that resulted was titled What’s So Good About Anglicanism? I managed to produce three posts: an introductory one, one comparing the Anglican Communion to the career of Anne Hathaway, and a zany madcap argument for why reading English literature is key to understanding Anglicanism.

Churl and I are now both Catholic. He is Latin; I am Kyivan. We both now blog for Patheos Catholic, which is why the links above go to my Patheos blog, where they have been imported. I won’t reveal Churl’s identity unless he really wants to be revealed; at the time, we all blogged by nickname because we were working in the secular academy and were never about being public Christians. We still work for secular universities, and are now outspoken Catholic Christians in public, but I do not know whether he wants to be attached to his old posts, although his work on the blog was much more profound than mine.

I say all of this because when I became Eastern Catholic, I got a lot of these same questions, which is why I am now asking: What’s So Good About Being Eastern Catholic? Just like Churl asked about why I stayed Protestant in this zany tradition called Anglicanism, my friends who knew me as an Anglican thought that I had literally gone back into the stone age. Despite the total mess that is the Anglican Communion, most of my Anglican friends pride themselves on being rather modern Christians, even the so-called ‘conservative’ ones. For most (but not all), the ordination of women to the priesthood and even the episcopate is a done deal; as for the big fight about sexuality, there has always been the sense that one tiptoes around the bedroom (and most likely, this respectable privatization of sex is what ironically amplifies the fight in Anglicanism over this question to this day).

I realize that as I’ve been blogging lately (and not blogging sometimes, perhaps to the great joy of my most vociferous critics), I’ve been saying some things about the ‘Left‘ (fragmented as it is) and making links to Eastern Catholicism that sometimes bewilder my friends. I just saw on Facebook today that there is a great discussion on an Eastern Catholic friend’s wall (I think he’s in the Kyivan Church) where there was a collective lament that Eastern Catholicism still feels like some ethnic and nationalist blend with religious practice. As one of my Anglican friends tells me, it’s like I joined some obscure Catholic sect with some weird ethno-nationalist madness and every time I try to explain it, it takes me seven paragraphs to clear my throat. Add to that my commitments to what can broadly be called the ‘Left’ (whatever that is), and the stone-age perception of Eastern Catholicism doesn’t add up.

So what is so good about being Eastern Catholic? I think I’m going to try to work through that in the next few blog posts, and I ask for your indulgence. I suppose this is a good exercise in reflection over this St Philip’s Fast, and I’m in a place – Richmond, British Columbia – where I think I can do some of this reflecting on Eastern Catholicism as a social justice tradition, because in many ways, that’s what’s so good about being Eastern Catholic for me. For other people, it’s the liturgy; for still others, it’s the spirituality; and for me, all those things are very good, but ultimately, it’s that I find in Eastern Catholicism a vibrant understanding of social justice, which is something I’m told that very few others see in it.

Indeed, during my catechumenate, I asked my spiritual father whether I was crazy to think about Eastern Catholicism as a social justice tradition. He told me that, in quite a real way, there is a division in practice between what we call diakonia (service): mikrodiakonia (small service) and makrodiakonia (big service). Generally, Eastern Catholics are pretty good (he said) at mikrodiakonia – giving out food and clothing, responding to people’s needs, and so on and so forth – what some might call ‘charity.’ But it’s the makrodiakonia that is often lacking because we often don’t have a rigorous analysis of the social, economic, and political structures that oppress people by colonizing their consciousness and making them feel and act as less than a human person. And yet, he pointed out passages in the Lenten Triodion, as well as in the Divine Liturgy, where the stichera and the troparia and the kontakia (for those unfamiliar, the various chants and spiritual songs) argue for the just distribution of material goods to the poor. What we need, therefore, is the rigorous development of a makrodiakonia among the Eastern Catholic churches as a key part to understanding our theology.

That’s why I want to work through this over the next few days and maybe weeks. I don’t know that I’m the person to work out the questions of makrodiakonia for Eastern Catholics, especially in the Kyivan Church, but it is how I encountered this church, and I’m going to be writing through some of my own experiences. If you have the patience, I will ask for your indulgence as I struggle through the questions of makrodiakonia in a church where our people might be seen as rather on the sidelines by people on the real ‘Left’ and people who have actually done the hard work of analyzing and organizing and protesting and occupying and so on and so forth. Yet in this moment when the ‘Left’ is in such complete shambles, maybe there’s room for us all to grow.

I will say by way of closing that what I’m doing here, I think, is not altogether disconnected from my actual academic work. As I’m sure many other young academics will empathize, I struggled for a bit after receiving my doctorate in geography about what I wanted to do next. I had done a dissertation project on Cantonese-speaking Protestants and how they engage Pacific Rim civil societies, especially Vancouver, San Francisco, and Hong Kong, and I’m still revising parts of it into peer-reviewed articles and book chapters and maybe even a book itself. But in the struggle over what to do next, the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement protests in Hong Kong happened, and I found myself drawn into solidarity with it – and in many ways, through Eastern Catholicism in Richmond, British Columbia. Around that time, many other struggles that seemed disconnected were happening – the Revolution of Dignity had happened a few months before in Ukraine, and then there was the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan after that, and then Black Lives Matter was hitting the streets in the wake of Ferguson, and it was clear that Black Lives Matter was sort of coalescing into a ‘people of color’ coalition that was also concerned with immigration reform that came out of mobilizing around the DREAM Act as well as the Idle No More movement, which is technically not about ‘people of color’ but indigenous sovereignty. After studying Cantonese Protestants who were mostly aligned with the ‘Right,’ I’ve finally admitted to myself that I am now interested in understanding what the ‘Left’ is about, especially in all of what is being said about the ‘Left’ being fragmented and with all the interesting theology that is being done through the fragmentation. In this way, I don’t see my academic work as disconnected from my personal theological reflections and Eastern Catholic spirituality, which is why it is impossible for me to separate writing about Eastern Catholicism, politics, and academia. For this, I once again ask for your patience. I think what’s probably going to happen is that because my thinking just refuses to be compartmentalized despite my best intentions, my spiritual reflections on my everyday life as an Eastern Catholic are probably going to end up driving this blog, and a big part of my everyday life is (for better or worse) working on that project.

I’ll stop clearing my throat and just get on with it in the next post, I think and hope. For that, I ask for your prayers – that I might actually write about something instead of just waving my hand and clearing my throat. The Protestant theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas says that most theology is just a ‘throat-clearing exercise’ (A Cross-Shattered Church, p. 11). I am guilty as charged.

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