Adults- Better Than Average 2016
How many Orthodox Christians live in the United States? Over the years, several different answers have been offered. In the recent past, some church authorities estimated between four and six million Orthodox faithful. Our own Greek Archdiocese claimed upwards of two million faithful. However, these estimates were not based on solid research or documentable facts. It was not until 2008, when the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted the United States Religious Landscapes Survey, that we finally received an answer that can be considered reliable. That number is now believed to be approximately three million people or about one percent of the US population. More interestingly, the survey was able to tell us some other interesting facts about Orthodox Christian demographics including education level, political affiliation, faith and morality. The results are not reassuring.
For example, while 71% say they have a strong faith in God, only 56% consider their religious faith important for their lives. And only 26% attend worship services weekly. In addition, 48% believe homosexuality should be accepted in society and 24% believe abortion should be legal in most cases which is higher than the national average amongst all people (18%). What do these statistics mean?
Fr. Emmanual Clapsis, a Theology Professor at our Holy Cross Seminary, notes that “Orthodox people in this country have differentiated to some degree their religious and moral beliefs from the formal teachings of the Orthodox Church.” He adds that “Orthodox churches have been fully integrated into the American religious landscape and they are facing the exact same challenges of other communities of faith in a religious and culturally plural context.” In other words, Clapsis says that Orthodox people’s “beliefs, religious practices and moral choices reflect mainstream American religious life repertoire.” He says the central characteristic of this is turning toward the sovereign self as the principle authority in crafting their identity.” This turn involves a “mistrust or moving away from the organizations, institutions and causes that used to anchor their religious and cultural identity and behavior.” Clapsis opines that “community is a felt need, even a real hunger for some...but it is…subordinate to individualism.” The bottom line is that Orthodox Christians are being more and more influenced by American secularism and materialism than by the Teachings of the Church. What are we to do about this troubling trend?
Fr. Anthony Coniaris, in his book “Meet Jesus in the Sunday Gospels, vol.2” gives us some interesting insights. We are a nation that worships the average. We hear the word constantly: the Dow Jones average, batting average, the average American. If a person stands with his right foot on a hot stove and his left foot in a freezer, some statisticians would assert that, on the average, he is comfortable. Yes, averages can be deceiving as was discovered by the statistician who started to wade across a river whose average depth was two feet. He drowned in water twelve feet deep. We have made a virtue of the average as coming to mean what is normal.
Thus, in America today, as more and more people come to accept homosexuality as a legitimate alternative lifestyle and to accept abortion as legitimate choice when pregnant, these two attitudes are viewed as average and normal. On the other hand, the Orthodox Christian teaching that homosexual behavior and purposeful termination of pregnancy are sins becomes abnormal and therefore repugnant.
Fr. Coniaris notes that when a person is in need of surgery, he/she does not typically seek out an average surgeon. They seek out the best surgeon with exceptional qualifications and recommendations. Most people, schools and companies do this when they need a pharmacist, a pilot, an architect, a student or most anything else. We all look for someone who is above average.
The Orthodox Chrisitan Church does something paradoxical. While welcomes everyone, especially sinners, at the same time She does not teach averages. God, through the life of the Church, teaches exceptionality and excellence. That’s what today’s Gospel reading, from the Second Sunday of Luke (6:31-36) is about. Jesus says,
31Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32"If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.
Christ is saying it is average to love someone who loves you; to do good to those who do good to you and to lend expecting to be paid back. What does Christ say about being average? Three times He asks, “What credit is that to you?” implying it is no credit to us to be average. Jesus tells us to be above average saying,
35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for He is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Very few people in our society, including athletes and students and just about any type of worker, are rewarded for being average. Christ is saying the same thing. Go beyond the norm, seek to be exceptional and to excel in every virtue. If we do, our reward will be great because we will become God’s children. On the walls of an Orthodox church temple, we do not have photographs of former parishioners. We have icons of saints because saints are not average. They are models of exceptionality and excellence in holiness and righteousness. They, not the average person, nor the average American, are models and examples to us.
In conclusion, some might say it’s impossible for everyone to be exceptional, implying that there will always be some above average and some below average. This assumes that holiness is inborn trait given by God in varying degrees to some but not to others. Yet, this thinking buys into mankind’s law of averages, not God’s law of above averages. Remember, Christ also said, “What is impossible for man is possible for God.” The only thing that causes below average Christians is their misuse of their God-given freedom. They choose to follow society, not God. The question for all of us is: Who are we going to follow? The average person or Christ? The average American or St. George, who died because his faith in Christ was ‘abnormal’ at the time? Ask yourself, “Am I ready to become abnormal today for the sake of Christ my Lord, God and Savior? Amen!