Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Place of the Greek Language in Greek-American Orthodoxy

At the Detroit Youth Conference, the question of the place of the Greek language was posed for general debate and discussion. Some of the views expressed refocused the issue on three points:

a) The problem of liturgical awareness: Ignorance of the structure and purpose of the services represents the true problem as language plays only a secondary role in liturgical experience. Experience of the liturgy must be active and engaged, regardless of the language.

b) The study of the Greek language has universal significance, beyond the narrow confines of Modern Greek identity. Rigorous study of the ancient Greek language promotes critical thinking skills indispensable for civic and spiritual engagement and spiritual survival in our modern cultural-economic system.

c) Parish life must be complemented by a culture of education that promotes the pursuit of higher education among the youth. Young Orthodox Christians must cultivate critical-thinking skills as the methods and temptations of modern media culture are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Now, more than ever, critical thought is united to the contemplative life of an Orthodox Christian.

Some of the dangers outlined were:

1) Intellectual idleness and passivity as a problem that has engrained itself in modern media culture. Its presence within Greek-American culture is particularly distressing. The Socratic maxim "an unexamined life is not worth living" was fully embraced by the Fathers of the Church who believed that examining one's life was the first step in the theoretikos bios, or the contemplative life.

2) The creation of a "feel-good culture", particularly as it relates to the language issue, as a problem that is tied to secularization. Retaining Greek for the sake of Greek or instituting English for the sake of English, are two parallel moves that often look not to the liturgical engagement of the faithful, but to a "feel-good" culture.

3) Greek identity without action as a problem of secularization. Throughout its history Greek identity was an inclusive category that made itself universally appealing by embodying universal values, the most salient of which were critical thought, rhetorical eloquence, and philosophical contemplation. Over the last century, Hellenism has lost its universal appeal and ecumenicity. Greek identity can no longer be particularistic and exclusive.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This issue makes me think of Pentecost, when the disciples were "speaking in tongues." There were no value judgements regarding which tongue was better. They acquired the Holy Spirit, so they could fulfil Christ's words to "Go therefore and make disciples of ALL nations." In the United States, where two "nations" merge in the Greek Orthodox Church, the selection of "tongues" should be such that all people gain an increase in understanding and love for the faith. This can happen in any language, and the decision should be made pastorally based on what will bring the most understanding.

7:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regrettably, the Greek Orthodox liturgy needs to be performed in English. The question is when.

The transition is regrettable because of what is lost in a non-Greek liturgy. The Orthodox tradition of Greek liturgies is nearly two millennia old. The beauty of the Greek liturgy elevates the soul in a manner no other language can. The Greek liturgy has a deeper meaning than any translation can match. Greek liturgies are an integral part of Greek culture. Much is lost for those who speak fluent Greek or are of Greek ancestry when a non-Greek liturgy is performed.

The need to transition to an English-based liturgy in America is real. The benefits of a Greek liturgy will eventually succumb to the costs. The Orthodox Church’s mission is to save souls. Greek liturgies have become a constraint on Orthodox growth and worse, risk the loss of souls. Non-speaking Greek families, various children of Greek families, and American converts desperately need English liturgies. It is not practical to expect them to learn Greek – and an ancient version at that – so they may participate in the Orthodox liturgy. This is the single greatest challenge to continuing with the Greek liturgy. Americans are not learning Greek. As a result, they have shown a propensity to avoid Greek liturgical services. How does one who does not understand Greek respond to the Greek liturgy upon hearing it? Regrettably, often as one does in a museum when viewing modern art. It is emotionally pleasing but lacking in substance. Such a participant of the liturgy cannot possibly comprehend the subtleties of Orthodoxy, nor of its logical underpinnings. This growing absence of reason within American Orthodoxy is a slow growing cancer that is attacking the very foundations of Orthodoxy in America. It is for these reasons that a carefully managed transition to the English Orthodox liturgy must occur. The historical precedent is evident in the Slavic liturgy.

People resist transitions, especially quick ones. They do not wish to leave the known and comfortable for the unknown and painful. The young are more prone to accept transitions. The old resist transitions. This is the generational challenge. The transition to English liturgies may take many paths, each fraught with risks. Which path offers the least risk and greatest benefit? One such path may be a periodic English-only Orthodox Saturday morning liturgy, followed by the regularly scheduled Greek Sunday liturgy. This would gradually validate and establish the importance of English liturgies while not offending the older generations. Over time, a gradual transition, at a pace commensurate with what each unique church can accommodate, will bring about the balance between English and Greek Sunday liturgies that will make American Orthodoxy more enriching for countless souls.

The need to transition to English-only Orthodox liturgies is real. The time to initiate this transition is now.

8:37 PM  

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