There’s Just No Substitute for Philotimo

January, the month during which we celebrate The Three Hierarchs and Greek Letters, is a great time for some self-reflection. In our time, theologians like Fr. John Romanides and Christos Yannaras have highlighted the antithesis between faith and religion.

Rather than rehashing the auto-suggestive practices found in the “illness” of religion (as Romanides terms it), which seeks to create a psychological illusion easing the innate fears of the individual, the Orthodox faith seeks to cure this illness by helping the individual leave behind their isolated shell and participate in a “community of persons.”

It is in this community of persons where one can experience the activating life force of love and exist as a true person, unbound by time and space, rather than as an individual, bound by the biological rules of earthly existence.

There, people can discover their unique otherness, which allows them to enter into meaningful, indelible relationships that do not succumb to time or distance (i.e., we do not cease loving our “sleeping” loved ones, even though their physical presence is no longer among us), as well as to begin to empirically form a relationship with God, who Himself exists in a Trinitarian mode (i.e., God is not obliged to exist, otherwise He would not be all powerful. God chooses to exist as a Trinitarian community of persons, with the Father eternally begetting the Son and sending forth the Holy Spirit).

These doctrines of faith, which are reemphasized throughout our long historical path as Orthodox Christians, were laid down by the Fathers of the Church, including the Three Hierarchs. It is this very concept of God as love and this Trinitarian mode of existence, that defined the Hellenic understanding of ontology and metaphysical meaning that separates the Hellenic Orthodox worldview from that of the Protestants or Latins, let alone other faiths.

And these doctrines were expressed not only in the theology of the Church, but in its “mode” or “tropos” or existence; a mode that manifests itself artistically, architecturally, administratively and organizationally.

This mode, so closely associated with all that the Greek people hold sacred, also manifested itself in other sectors of their communal and political existence (i.e., preference for small administrative communities, rather than large municipalities, etc.).

This month, rather than organizing lectures and stressing this characteristic as part of our “cultural otherness,” most parishes will be dedicating their resources towards promoting and marketing their annual stewardship campaigns – which seem to have been afforded doctrinal status by the Church in America.

Countless ink will be spilled and marketing materials dispatched to promote this stewardship campaign, designed essentially to secure financial support to parish communities, to the faithful in much the same way that a company markets its products to a consumer.

The means by which this is accomplished are dangerously removed from the traditional Orthodox mode, resembling instead a very capitalistic approach, which makes full use of Protestant moralistic arguments.

This, of course, begs the question of whether such an unorthodox mode can ever constructively serve an Orthodox purpose. Or will it, like, bureaucracy – another Western characteristic that has plagued modern Hellenism – end up becoming an end in itself.

Naturally, non-profit institutions like churches and schools need donations and income to ensure proper operation. Of course, the vast majority of Greek Orthodox parishes and most all schools were built and established well before the stewardship doctrine ever made its way into ecclesiastical rhetoric.

The age-old concept of “philotimo” amply served all the needs of Greek immigrants in the new world, and if our community structures were better organized by the generations succeeding those pioneering immigrants, our institutions would be even more solidified today.

The problem with stewardship lies not in the appeal for funding, per se. It lies in the psychological illusion it creates among the faithful that they can somehow individually earn “brownie points” with God by aiding Church “ministries,” whatever this hazy term may entail.

From that standpoint, it comes dangerously close to traditional Western practices that Orthodox has opposed, such as the Catholic practice of indulgences to help free sinners from purgatory or the Protestant focus on moralism.

What it fails to mention is that one could very easily be agnostic or atheist and still support philanthropic causes. The difference between a well-meaning atheist and a conscientious agnostic is the presence of Christ, Whom the faithful cultivate a personal relationship with through their participation in the holy sacraments and their personal relationships with one another and God, experienced with Christ as the reference-point. Philanthropy and “ministries” are natural extensions of a life in Christ, and do not require marketing tools and promotion as if the faithful were customers at some supermarket.

The benefits that may be recorded through this undue overemphasis on stewardship marketing will likely be far outweighed by the consequences, not the least of which is the debasing of the ecclesiastical event, where people may misguidedly end up believing that they can secure their own individual “salvation” through donations, rather than authentic relationships aimed at changing our mode of existence from “individual” to “personal.”

The doctrines professed by the Three Hierarchs and other Church Fathers represent their lived experiences and act as a road map towards a more authentic life. In today’s world, where the dead-ends of consumerism and materialism have created widespread misery and unviable conditions, these authentic experiences should be amplified because of their ecumenical importance, not diluted by practices founded on the ones that have contributed to today’s crisis.

Churches are not corporations and should not try to adopt the language and practices of businesses. They are communities of persons. Rather than trying to manipulate the minds of the faithful and employ corruptive psychological ploys to meet their material requirements, all that is needed is a clear-cut vision of the community goals (not some vague reference to “ministries”) and an emphasis on the virtue of “philotimo.”

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