Introducing the "Off Ramp" Theory of Popular Formation
Updated: Sep 30, 2020
When the great Eastern Christian theologian of our time, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, wrote his landmark primer on orthodoxy in 1979, he named it simply The Orthodox Way. Indeed, a through line of the book is a systematic understanding of Christian life. Christianity, as the Metropolitan emphasizes, is really a ‘way’ — a path, a road, a journey. Countless theologians have reflected on Christ’s words as told in the Gospel of John: “I am the Way.” The way to what? Salvation, eternal life with God, of course. While the way may not always be linear or well-defined, we depend on particular Churches — institutions — to pave history and guide us along that way to salvation.
Therefore, I’d like to expand the metaphor, and bring it from the theological realm to the ecclesiological. In addition to Christ’s ‘Way,’ Churches are perhaps constructing highways. In our modern age, we are truly moving in some direction at breakneck speed. Gone are the days, even at a monastery, where, as recounts Serapion the Sindonite, a Christian can sit down in a house on the side of the road and still be “on her way” to salvation. Our modern globalist economy prevents that, and there’s little the Church can do to counter these massive secular innovations. The Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Catechism, Christ our Pascha, argues that “the creation of a global culture carries the risk of reducing all cultures to one mass culture geared toward a consumer society….[but] through which it may be possible to solve such global human problems as poverty, hunger, social injustice, and illiteracy, as well as environmental and natural resource issues” (§980-981). Hence, the Church needs to put more care into the ‘highway’ infrastructure so as to direct our speed in the right direction: salvation.
Highways, like Churches, collect people from on-ramps coming from many different places. On-ramps allow people to get up to speed, safely, and with clear signs to show the direction in which everyone is moving. This is evangelization. Of course some starting points are more heavily trafficked than others; this traffic, pleasing to the people who built the infrastructure, inevitably leads to more investment into on-ramp infrastructure originating that originates from a particular area. Other, perhaps more neglected areas, don’t have on-ramps at all. This might lead people to either find their own way or, more often than not, give up on taking the highway altogether, decreasing efficiency, limiting opportunities, and increasing the likelihood of getting lost. Here in the Rust Belt, many have argued that some literal highways, if not built with communities’ needs in mind, can even act as ghetto walls — not only preventing people from using the highway, but isolating communities from one another and limiting access to nutritious food and medicine. So, too, does a poor evangelical strategy lead to spiritual starvation.
In places where there is a well-communicated and shared etiquette, people heading in the same direction on a highway yield to slower traffic. People can travel at their own pace so long as the highway is well-maintained, they’ve been educated on how to use it, and know precisely where they’re intending to go. Some people even stop to assist those dangerously stopped at the side of a highway, while tow trucks remove people from the highway entirely, like the demons who pull figures off the Ladder of Divine Ascent. This is catechism.
This article, however, concerns what I call the “Off Ramp” of spiritual formation. Acknowledging that all of us come to Christ from different directions, we all have our own respective on-ramps, and perhaps even our own early ways. The Church’s purpose is to organize that way, signpost it, and educate how to use it at whatever stage along the way the faithful are. A good highway will consolidate roads from many directions towards a particular destination. It doesn’t make sense to have, for example, two highways built completely parallel to one another if they don’t ever intend to converge at one destination. Maintaining both highways becomes redundant, and the resources to maintain multiple parallel and never-intersecting highways probably add up to a negative of their sum in investment. Most importantly, though, parallel non-intersecting highways never completely guide a person to their shared destination. They’re perpetually heading in a direction, close as it may be to a destination, but never quite to a destination. More on that later.
But first we need to determine what our destination is. While our spiritual, theological destination is salvation, the Church is here to build the tangible, literal architecture where we can find salvation most readily. Christ our Pascha underscores the earthly reality of our Church’s context in the catechism on government: “the road to our heavenly homeland passes through our earthly homeland” (§968). To bring it back to my metaphor, “home” is an abstract destination while a highway is tangible. “Home” is real in the same way that a theologian can describe salvation: I can describe how home feels, who is there, and why it provides existential comfort. But when I drive on a long highway, there isn’t a sign pointing to “home.” The highway points to “Chicago,” the place where I can find my home, the built environment that is familiar to me as home, and the place I can return to after years away.
Our Church’s theologians have described salvation as best they can, much like how poets have tried to capture the feeling of home; but our Church’s leadership has struggled to decide how the physical, built environment that fosters salvation looks, and therefore we don’t know where to find salvation. The great American Catholic monastic, Thomas Merton, said “we cannot go to heaven to find God, because we also have no way of knowing where heaven is or what it is.” We are building our highway towards salvation blindly, without a physical, literal destination in mind. This is why we have so many parallel, half-built, and never intersecting highways in our Church. We don’t know where we’re going, and for that reason, perhaps worse, we won’t recognize it when we get there.
Let me propose a destination that I think most people would agree on. A Church best suited to prepare people for salvation is not segregated on account of race, ethnicity, language, neighborhood, political ideology, or social and economic class. It’s a Church with a robust social life where, in addition to arts and culture education, everybody feels a sense of material responsibility for their neighbors both inside and outside of the Church. It is a Church that cares about the depth of our Holy Tradition, as Patriarch Josyf emphasized, but it is also “not a Church for Ukrainians, but a Church from Ukraine for the world,” as said Patriarch Sviatoslav. I understand that many theoretically agree with this destination. What I have not seen is a plan to guide our Church there. I have seen these ideals invoked, but rarely acted on. I have seen some parts of this destination signposted in some parishes, and others not at all. Every parish is on a different highway, heading towards different destinations. They’re headed toward a place that near to (but not quite) where we need to be on earth for salvation.
At the start of 2020, the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Bishop of Parma sent me a short film that narrates the establishment and growth of 9 new parishes and missions across the American South. Interviewees in the film describe two parishes as “ethnic,” and the rest are “not ethnic.” I think what’s meant by the former is the use of the Ukrainian language in liturgy and parish social life, catering perhaps to recent immigrants from Ukraine, while the latter, “non-ethnic,” as a place generally serving the assimilated grandchildren of Ukrainian immigrants, but otherwise generally comprised of anglophone white converts from Western Christianity. This “non-ethnicity,” as the name suggests, purports that for whatever the worldview, art, politics, and language the “ethnics” have, the others have nothing. Of course that’s not true. The “non-ethnics'' have their own cultural codes too; in America, some of those behaviors fail to accommodate the other group. American hegemony, in the context of dominant “non-ethnic'' religious spaces, is a culture in its own right. It is white in cultural outlook, and it expects assimilation into that dominant American culture.
Sometimes, one group unfairly expects the other to conform to their true way of religious life, arbitrarily putting stock in learning a language for the benefit of others, adopting certain cultural norms or ideologies, and usually giving up one or another part of one’s identity for sake of conformity with the dominant other group. Between these two dominant groups there is a symbiosis of judgment on the other that keeps the Church afloat, ironically. Sometimes one group is not even fully aware that the other group exists, even though they’re nominally under the omophor of the same bishop.
These are the two parallel highways I was referring to above: the “ethnic” and the “white assimilationist.” They are the two highways that our Church has spent most time, money, and effort building and maintaining in America. Every generation of immigrants, and every major movement in our Church has come to America through an on-ramp and has chosen to either build their own highway or, far less often, off-ramp onto an existing highway. The two dominant groups I describe in the above paragraph are fiercely building in their own directions—vaguely in the right direction—for the sake of the people they know are already on that path. But so long as one group is unaware of the other, nor do they see the possibility of the other ever achieving paradise from a mutually-well-developed and recognizable destination, then we are doomed to have two abandoned highways defining our Church’s direction. Dead ends. Burnouts.
I am writing this out of a deep personal investment in this Church—the last thing I want to see is our Church fail—which is why, at this point, I must underscore the fact that neither one of these highways serve me or my family. My children are likely to speak and understand English better than Ukrainian. Perhaps they’ll be able to follow along (like most) with others on the ethnic highway, but the Church’s signposts and destination will be meaningless to them. My children will also be Black, and will therefore be alienated from the predominantly white assimilationist highway—one that assumes, in a colorblind manner, that all damage can be readily repaired, potholes don’t exist, and the past doesn’t matter.
But I’m not necessarily advocating for a third way. If two highways amount to a negative of their sum in investment, then a third highway that leverages the experience of non-White multigenerational mixed-immigration families for salvation will truly make for divestment. I’m not interested in segregation. I’m interested in off-ramping onto a robust highway where all of our experiences are accounted for and all care for one another on their way to salvation.
This is the off-ramp theory, one that imagines a final destination—a strategic and actionable utopia for attributes all parishes should share—that best allows for any person who enters either highway to find their way across generations and cultural differences. In the case of the two dominant highways we currently have, that means continuing to meet people where they are, while also having a plan for their spouses, children, grandchildren, as well as an active plan for evangelizing to people of all backgrounds, regardless if they belong to the dominant cultural group in the area, and regardless where their ancestries derive.
Now off-ramping does not mean an immediate end to folk dance lessons, cultural festivals, and the use of certain languages. These are all important on-ramps—important cultural expressions that make spiritual and social life immersive at a particular parish, one that lends itself to financial stability. However, they are ephemeral, not sustainable. What off-ramping does demand is asking, in every instance of a Church-sponsored function, including liturgy, how it lends to teaching the required skills and mindsets to attain eternal life. Do current approaches appeal only to the dominant extant group in a parish, thus alienating their children, friends, and spouses? Are cultural norms, attitudes, and ideologies contradictory to the Gospel or alienating to those on a different point along the highway? If the answers to any of these questions is a ‘No,’ then there is an immediate need to off-ramp. Even if the answers to these questions are not immediately evident, every parish should create a plan to off-ramp, guided by their eparchies towards a final destination.
The current approach in our Churches—on each highway—is, in some ways, destructive. Parishes on one highway or another often act like vehicles which, instead of efficiently navigating towards an agreed-upon destination, believe they will get to salvation faster by dumping aspects of their parish life on the side of the road. “Getting rid of” the things people carry with them, like Latinizations, “secular” culture, language, folk dancing, their work-life balance, certain political expressions, and so on, are not necessarily antithetical to salvation, but are often the first things people are expected to give up. Offloading that which often brings people to Church in the first place does not, in its own right, necessarily make for a constructive long-term way forward. We need to make priorities progressive, not static—appealing and inviting, yes, but not inhibited to those aspects.
What I’m proposing with the off-ramp theory is a constructive model, where we leverage our radical Christian imagination for what a utopian Church in America should look like, and establish the kinds of initiatives to get us there. If we are truly, faithfully committed to the mission of building a highway forward, towards a just destination, then the baggage we all carry will naturally fall away. When we off-ramp, we must know where we are going, and the highway that will collect us needs to be a new one. Perhaps it will take time to widen, and perhaps many off-ramps need to be built onto the new highway, but it must be done.
I intend to continue developing this idea of the “Off Ramp Theory” over the coming months and years. I’d love to hear some of your concerns, additions, or caveats to this kind of model for our Church going forward. Please leave them in the comments below. There are also a lot of intricacies that the off-ramp must account for, including a caveat about parishes where the Ukrainian national idea thrived while the Church was underground and Ukraine was not yet independent. I’ve described what that wrinkle in my analysis might imply. in my first follow-up article. You can read that by clicking here.
Prayer of Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky
Grant me the wisdom of patience, the wisdom of humility, the wisdom of gladness and seriousness, the wisdom of the fear of the Lord; the wisdom of truthfulness and of good deeds; may I be patient with no complaining, humble without the least pretending, joyful without inordinate laughter, serious without severity; that I may fear You without the temptation to despair; that I may be truthful without the shadow of duplicity; may all my good deeds be free from self-complacence.
Grant me the wisdom to admonish my neighbor when necessary without exalting myself; grant that I may edify in word and deed without hypocrisy.
Grant me, O Lord, the wisdom of vigilance, attention and wariness; may no vain thought lead me astray.
Grant me the wisdom of nobleness; may I never be brought down by any impure and unworthy attachment.
Grant me the wisdom of what is right; may no selfish intention ever lead me away from the path of my duties.
Grant me the wisdom of courage and strength; may no storm overthrow me.
Grant me the wisdom of freedom; may no powerful passion ever enslave me.
Grant me the wisdom of the theological virtues and the moral virtues: faith, hope, love, prudence, devotion, temperance and fortitude.
Grant me, O Lord, the wisdom of the apostles, the wisdom of the martyrs; grant me a priestly and pastoral wisdom; grant me the wisdom of preachers and teachers; grant me the wisdom of those who administer the Holy Mysteries; grant me the Eucharistic wisdom and mystical wisdom – the wisdom of prayer and spiritual wisdom, and above all, O Lord, grant me the wisdom of sincere repentance, imperfect and perfect contrition; grant me the wisdom of to know myself in my weakness and malice; grant me the wisdom of mortification and fasting; grant me the wisdom of self-denial and self-sacrifice; grant me the wisdom of sacrifice, the wisdom of the Cross, the wisdom of Blood.