The Christian Doctrine of Discovery

July 15, 2013

OleksaThroughout our nation’s history, religious freedom has been praised more than practiced. This conflict has been especially destructive in the ways that the dominant society has opposed the religions of Native Americans and used Christian churches and institutions to impose mainstream American culture on indigenous communities.

The religious oppression of Native Americans has been most deliberate and oppressive in English-speaking, predominately Protestant parts of North America. French-speaking Catholic enclaves in the north and Spanish-speaking Catholic cultures in the south were willing to allow modest amounts of Native American spirituality to be integrated into their new world versions of Catholic worship, faith, and life.

According to Michael Oleksa, a more positive example of the cultural adaptation of Christian faith and Native American life developed in Alaska during the years of Russian control. Although his book Orthodox Alaska: A Theology of Mission was published in 1998, the story that he tells continues to be relevant for all who are interested in inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue.

I read the book in 2002, only four years after its publication, but my review has not been published. It comes to mind a decade later because the Christian doctrine of discovery is one of the topics for reflection and research at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) meeting in Orlando, Florida. The document to be discussed was developed at the initiative of David Bell, director of the Yakama Christian Mission, and its sponsors include nine Disciples congregations in Washington and Oregon.

The materials prepared for the Assembly state that early leaders of the Disciples movement held attitudes about this topic that were similar to those held by their peers around the nation. The sponsors of this document for reflection and research believe that this process of study will add an important element in the desire of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) “to become a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” To download a PDF of the resolution as it has been presented to the Assembly, click Discovery.

Orthodox Alaska: A Theology of Mission, by Michael Oleksa (Crestwood, NJ: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998). A Review by Keith Watkins

During the late 1950s I toured the Russian Orthodox Church in Fort Ross, California, which marked the southern most penetration of Russian settlers along the northern Pacific coast during the age of discovery. Following that brief visit, I had given no further attention to the American history of Orthodoxy until the summer of 2002 when a brief excursion along Alaska’s southeast coast extended my knowledge of the Russian Orthodox impact upon North America. I visited three of the tourist stops: St. Nicholas Church in Juneau, the Orthodox Cathedral in Sitka, and the restored Bishop’s House in Sitka, now owned and managed, except for the chapel, by the National Park Service.

The background for understanding these places was provided by Michael Oleksa’s Orthodox Alaska: A Theology of Mission that was brought to my attention at a bookstore in Juneau and by a brief conversation in a second bookstore with the author’s daughter Ekatrina Oleksa.

The author, for thirty years an Alaskan Orthodox missionary and since 1996 dean of St. Herman’s Seminary in Kodiak, begins with two longstanding principles of Orthodox Christian mission: that the Logos of God is to be incarnated into the language and customs of a country and that an indigenous church is to be developed that will “sanctify and endorse the people’s personality.” Oleksa shows that Orthodoxy became an “integral part” of indigenous Native American culture in Alaska and claims that this is the only place in America where Orthodoxy and an American culture have become so integrated. He proposes that an American Orthodox theology of mission should originate from Alaska to serve the rest of the nation and “contribute to the clarification of Orthodox theology for the entire universal Church as well.”

Oleksa gives a truncated account of Russian exploration and occupation of the Aleutian archipelago and southeast coast, noting that military and commercial activities were destructive of indigenous cultures. The monks and other representatives of the Orthodox Church, however, came with a different purpose. Their spirituality provided positive connections with Native American attitudes. They studied Native American religions with a sympathetic attitude and defended Native people from Russian exploitation, especially in the Kodiak region. The result was that nearly all of the people around Kodiak were baptized during the first two years of the mission, establishing a church of some 7,000 people. The Orthodox influence spread among other Native peoples and the church became well established among them.  Continue reading. . . .

To read more, click Orthodox Alaska.

Visible SignAlthough I wrote a book on the history of the Yakama Christian Mission, I was unaware of the doctrine of discovery at the time I developed this manuscript. The book would have been strengthened if I had been able to include this part of the history. To order the book, which was published by the Disciples of Christ Historical Society, click A Visible Sign of God’s Presence.


Mormons and the Disciples of Christ

April 23, 2012

Writers on Mormon history frequently mention the Disciples of Christ as close counterparts to Latter Day Saints during the first generation of these religious bodies. The primary point of comparison is that both movements sought to restore primitive Christianity.

Mormons and Disciples both emphasized three ideas: 1) The Bible describes the church as God intends it to be. 2) Most of the time since the period described in the New Testament has been marked by aberrations in doctrine and practice. 3) Their respective movements represent authentic restorations of “the ancient order of things.”

As a life-long member and long-time minister of the Disciples of Christ, I have been particularly attentive to this early linkage, and I have in my own mind objected to the casual comparison of these two impulses in early nineteenth Christianity.

Granted, Joseph Smith and the Mormons on the one hand and Alexander Campbell and the Disciples on the other sought to recover the purity and power of New Testament Christianity.

Why, then, did these two movements develop so differently? The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), to use the contemporary name of the one movement, have remained within the boundaries of classical Christian doctrine and practice. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have become a new religious movement with strong connections to orthodox Christianity but significantly different elements in theology, churchly practice, and sacred writings.

One of the reasons why Disciples have stayed with the main Christian stream is that from earliest days, they have understood restoration to be the minor premise in their syllogism. The major premise has always been the unity of the church.

One of the clearest and useful statements of the Disciples’ preference for unity is a paper written by Thomas J. Liggett, who spent his career as missionary, church administrator, and leader in theological education. President Liggett, who died March 27, 2012, and is being honored in memorial celebrations around the country, prepared these remarks for the School of Theology for the Laity at East Dallas Christian Church in Texas, June 22, 1979. The paper was later published in Mid-stream: An Ecumenical Journal.

Although this paper does not discuss the 1830s’ similarities of Mormons and Disciples, it does offer six reasons why Disciples consistently chose unity over restoration. This consistent choice is one of the reasons why the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) have remained within the sphere of classic Protestant Christianity.

The concluding paragraphs of Liggett’s paper state his conclusion forthrightly:

Our movement began with the dual emphasis of Christian Unity and Restoration. These two ideas, compatible and complementary in the beginning, eventually were perceived as existing in tension with one another. As this tension grew, we were led to make value judgments and to choose between them. The Churches of Christ and the independent Christian Churches, while exhibiting significant differences of interpretation of restoration, seem to have chosen “restoration” as the primary value. Each movement, in its own way continues to seek to restore the New Testament Church. Neither participates in the formal manifestations of the ecumenical movement of the 20th century.

The Disciples of Christ, on the other hand, have chosen “Christian unity” as the primary commitment and value. We have participated from the beginning in local, regional, national and world ecumenical bodies. We have encouraged “mission churches” to enter united churches, we are participants in the Consultation on Church Union and we have engaged in union conversations. We believe that this commitment to Christian unity is based solidly on Biblical and theological grounds. We believe that it constituted a major commitment of Thomas Campbell and Barton W. Stone, and became a major commitment for Alexander Campbell in his mature years. We frankly admit to having given priority to Christian unity rather than to Restoration, particularly in any legalistic sense. There have been solid reasons for this decision, some of which are identified above. The choice has been made and the direction has been set. The full expression of our commitment to the one, universal church continues to be our task.

With the support of the Council on Christian Unity of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I have prepared T. J. Liggett’s paper for republication in an electronic version. To read the entire paper, click  Why the Disciples Chose Unity.