Orthodox Christianity: Offering Material Piety to Twenty-first Century America
Material piety was central to the early Church and it flourishes to this day within Orthodox Christianity. That Christians would love the material, created world makes perfect sense—their God took on matter in order to appear in the world of His creation. And early Christians understood that their path to God would be walked in that world; embodied as a human, among the other animals, alongside the trees, over the earth, beneath the sky.
Early Christians expressed this love for matter through their ornamentation of the catacombs of Rome, which were places not just of burial of the dead, but of gathering, of worship, and of praise. The same goes for outside spaces in later centuries, when noble women gathered in cemeteries to care for the graves and their park-like surroundings. The faithful also crafted religious objects: rings, bracelets, and ampullae for oil from holy sites, thus feeding their proclivity for, as Robert Wilken calls it, tactile piety: “worship with the lips and fingertips.”
As Christianity spread beyond the Byzantine Empire, its love of the material world meant that preexisting tactile traditions were often incorporated into Church practice. For example, the Slavic practice of using a wax resist method to dye intricate patterns onto empty chicken eggs became a Lenten discipline, replete with symbols of the resurrection. Rather than rejecting pre-Christian material traditions, Christianity baptized them.
Within this doxological relationship with the material world there is an understanding of the body as the setting not only of the path to God, but also of many wayward trails away from Him. Discernment of how to integrate or reject the material world is a critical part of one’s journey. Physical asceticism, which has a long tradition within Orthodoxy, may have a role in this journey—when well-ordered, it is not the opposite of material piety. One can fast, make prostrations, and submit oneself to other such exercises while still maintaining love and reverence for the material world and one’s incarnate existence.
To be sure, the embrace of especially images was not met with unalloyed enthusiasm. Clement of Alexandria, who in the second century tells us of Christian signet rings and bracelets and such, does so reluctantly—he is worried that these items may lead to pagan idolatry. His was not the last skepticism about Christian images and objects. Most spectacularly, many icons, which can be understood as the height of material piety, were destroyed in the iconoclastic controversies of the eighth and ninth centuries (controversies that were certainly not limited to the production and veneration of images). To this day, there are minority strands of Christian thought that take a more spiritualist, less embodied approach to the world.
But, the Christian love of the material is the principal tradition. The understanding expressed by John of Damascus prevails again and again: “I do not venerate matter, I venerate the fashioner of matter, who became matter for my sake and accepted to dwell in matter and through matter worked my salvation, and I will not cease from reverencing matter, through which my salvation was worked” (“Treatise on the Divine Images,” I.16).
In contrast to material piety, materialism dominates contemporary America. This materialism is rampant in the form of consumerism—the elevation of the acquisition of material possessions to greatest desire. One need only spend a day in any American city to be bombarded by advertisements, surrounded by stores of all kinds, and subjected to brand names and logos displayed on all manner of clothing and vehicle. A result is the constant pressure to consume novel goods and services in ever-increasing quantities and to identify and define oneself more and more with those goods and services. This not only depletes Americans’ wallets, but also their spirits.
This is quite different from the loving care of the material world of Orthodox tradition. In contrast to the very American habit of trading in one’s perfectly functional car every few years just for the novelty or prestige of a new one, consider the image of a deacon carefully polishing a ninety-year old brass chalice in advance of Pascha; a chalice given to the church by one of its founding couples who are long since reposed but remembered every liturgy when that chalice is lifted up by the priest. While materialism values attainment of things over all other attainment—even spiritual attainment—material piety honors things, preserves things, and makes them beautiful, because they are part of the created world and its history.
Even amidst rampant America materialism, American Christians have a fideistic aversion to spending money on beautiful spaces for worship. While the culture condones unbridled purchasing of nearly any good, there is an odd and notable exception granted to funding gorgeous architecture in the name of (misbegotten) thrift, and Orthodox communities are not immune to this thinking. The witness of the architectural beauty of Hagia Sophia, after all, played a role in the conversion of an entire people when the Slavic emissaries reported back, “We did not know where we were, on heaven or on earth.”
Orthodoxy Christianity offers a continuous witness to material piety that is in elegant alignment with her incarnational theology. A consideration of this venerable part of Orthodox theology and lived experience offers a safeguard for Orthodox Christians to withstand the materialist pressures of the larger culture and a place for them to examine those pressures within the Church.
And, perhaps more significantly, Orthodoxy offers to America a witness “reverencing of matter,” as Saint John of Damascus put it—of the created world in all its manifestations—that is both an opposition and an antidote to the transient, throwaway culture at large, and that might serve as a guide as to how humans ought to care for all of the beloved created world.
This essay was sponsored by the Orthodox Theological Society in America’s Project on Faith in Public Life.
Carrie Frederick Frost, PhD is a scholar of Orthodox theology, Professor of Theology at Saint Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Seminary, and a Board Member of Saint Phoebe Center for the Deaconess.