By now, it would almost be commonplace to observe that the COVID pandemic has created (or perhaps, rather, it has apocalyptically exposed) a cultural rift within the contemporary Orthodox Christian community. As a pastor, I have experienced this division firsthand, and I know of other clergy who have lost parishioners as a result of it.
On the one side stand those who have wholeheartedly embraced government-sanctioned restrictions and measures to reduce the spread of COVID. They accept the closure of churches as a matter of course, and once gatherings are permitted, they welcome mitigation strategies such as multiple spoons for receiving communion. On the extreme end, these folks tend to get anxious when they observe any failure to comply with the letter of the health regulations.
On the other side of the rift are those who resist attempts to restrict or shut down access to in-person Church services. They view attendance at the services as an unavoidable risk, inherent to Christian faith. The most extreme of these folks accuse other Christians of moral capitulation or worse, while yearning for the days of the early Church when Christians supposedly took all manner of risks to gather for the Eucharistic liturgy.
Decorum sometimes wrests from friends and family desultory queries about my job. They know I teach at a seminary, so they ask after my courses. “Mostly church history this semester,” I say. “Some modern philosophy, and a course on atheism.” “Atheism?” many balk. Others of more urbane sensibilities nod approvingly. “Well,” they say, “I suppose it is useful to train seminarians to defeat the enemy.”
My course on atheism does nothing of the sort. In fact, my first lecture outlines what our course will not do. It will not teach students to brandish dialectic against internet atheists. It will not dignify the dogmatic scientism of a Richard Dawkins or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, pretenders both to atheism’s tiara. And it will not teach the sort of genealogical legerdemain so common in religious circles that reduces every position with which Christians disagree to atheism in three easy steps. Desirous of apologetics the course will not provide (perhaps), some students invariably and quietly drop it.
The first rising of the sun in the East shoots rose light across the dim landscape; it is a time the early monks knew well, for a prayer service was starting, when the bell-ringer could just begin to see the lines in his hand. The Evangelist Mark leaves us in the Garden by the Tomb of Christ, at what may be the most extraordinary moment in history. For it was when those vivid shards of dawn light shot through the darkness from the East that Mary Magdalene and the other women came bearing myrrh to properly finish the burial preparations for their dear Lord, Jesus. As they approached, the Evangelist says they were anxious about how they would gain access to the tomb, for the stone was heavy.
Then, something profoundly miraculous happened. The Myrrhbearing women experienced something life-changing. All four Gospels describe the moment. Although each tells it a little differently, the message is so profound, and so utterly seminal to our life as Christians, that the details fall away and something utterly transcendent has happened and is revealed. And we too experience it personally and transcendently at Pascha. It is so luminously divine that it can only be described as something like a flashing white angelic figure—like lightning, really—a vision so powerful that the stone is moved and the empty tomb is visible; and in some dazzling way, the women suddenly know to depth of their hearts—He is not dead. Surely, this is the first truly apophatic apprehension of the Resurrection. He is not here! He is not dead! Christ is alive! And the radiant angel cried out to the Myrrhbearers: “Why do you women mingle myrrh with your tears? Look at the tomb and understand: the Savior has risen from the dead!” (Tone 2; Stichera of the Myrrh-bearers, Pentecostarion, for Myrrhbearers Sunday)
The term “accommodationist” has recently become a topic of some contention in global Orthodox Christian conversations on human sexuality. The term was derived from the widely influential book by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (first published in 1989, and reissued in 2014 with a new foreword and afterword). Because this term could continue to influence the way that we as Orthodox speak with each other about our tradition, bringing some clarity to the term itself might be helpful. I therefore reached out to Hauerwas and Willimon directly in order to gain some insight into their understanding of the concept. Both graciously agreed to speak with me about this topic. What follows is my reflection on their key points. (Direct quotations without citation are taken from phone conversations that took place in April of this year, and citations from the text itself are taken from the most recent 2014 edition).
I would summarize Hauerwas and Willimon’s understanding of the term “accommodationist” in the following way: the term “accommodationist” is a critical heuristic, not a category of heresy.