Orthodoxy Today: Cosmic Cowardice

America is quickly becoming Buddhist! It is, to be sure, a quiet, unwitting conversion process conducted by the high priests of nirvana like Dr. Jack Kevorkian, while Christians, Eastern and Western alike, remain distracted by our less momentous internal squabbles.

When Orthodox Christians celebrate Pasca (“Easter”) next month (once again, alas, a week later than the Western churches), we shall sing our signature hymn: “Christos Anesti!” In Greek, Slavonic, Romanian, and dozens of other languages, the meaning of Christ’s dramatic triumph over death is unmistakable: “Christ is risen from the dead, by death trampling down death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”

I used to contrast the Eastern Orthodox focus on death and life to the Catholic and Protestant preoccupation with sin and righteousness. The soteriology of the Christian West seems more juridical and forensic, the East more ontological and metaphysical. But this difference in emphasis is really nothing more than a matter of style. Both East and West acknowledge the power of sin, death, and Satan, all of which the Incarnate Word overcame through his voluntary sacrifice on the cross and glorious bodily resurrection from the dead.

This contrast pales in significance before the more radical difference between the entire Christian world and the peculiar concerns of Buddhism. And yet it is the ethos of the latter that seems to be, like Carl Sandburg’s fog, creeping on little cat feet into the popular culture. More specifically, the Buddhist fear of and disdain for suffering has displaced the classic Christian anxiety about death as the ultimate existential concern of millions of Americans.

The Hemlock Society, Dr. Kevorkian, and their burgeoning minions of death dealing acolytes have tapped into a very real American angst. Many Americans would rather embrace death than endure physical suffering of virtually any intensity. For them death is not “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Corinthians 13:26), but rather a welcome friend, a release (in truth, escape) from this mortal coil to which pain and suffering loom as the greatest evil.

Like Buddhists, our death-seeking neighbors have come to regard the physical world as illusory and unworthy of attachment. Unlike true Buddhists, however, they do not seek the genuine enlightenment that, through renunciation of all attachment, enables one to annihilate ignorance and every evil; instead, they long for mere annihilation. They are, by any honest spiritual measure, pseudo-Buddhists and cosmic cowards.

A century ago, the enigmatic Russian philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov actually foresaw the rise of Buddhism as a serious rival to Christianity, owing partly to this non-ethical view of good and evil. Life is much less demanding when one can renounce universal love and simply dismiss hatred in favor of an isolated life “devoted to a constant contemplative inactivity.”

Contrast this Buddhist mentality—whether authentic, neo, or pseudo—to the Christian spirituality of suffering epitomized in the Russian experience. The great Russian Orthodox novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky, agonized spectacularly over the providential meaning of the needless suffering of innocent children. Who can forget, for example, the poignant story of the five year old girl tortured by her parents and kept in a privy that Ivan relates in The Brothers Karamazov? It almost topples the faith of Ivan’s younger, more spiritual brother Alyosha, who still, happily, manages to resist Ivan’s rationalistic arguments.

But it was Ivan Turgenev, Dostoevsky’s more liberal, Westernized compatriot, who, a generation earlier in 1851, depicted the ideal Christian view of suffering in his short story, “Living Relic,” which he included in Sketches From a Hunter’s Album. The protagonist Lukeria, a neglected invalid who, nonetheless, maintains a joyous love of God and the world, responds to an incredulous visitor with this testimony of faith: “The Lord God … knows better than I do what’s good for me. He sent me a cross to carry, which means he loves me. That’s how we’re ordained to understand our suffering.”

Suffering as a proof of God’s love for us—now there’s a notion! It’s the faithful, courageous, penitential response to our suffering, not cowardly flight, that opens our souls to “forgiveness, reconciliation, and spiritual healing.”

We Christians can endure all manner of suffering, because we know by faith that it has no hold on us, that it—and not the physical world contra Buddhism—is ultimately illusory. The Lord who freely endured unspeakable, unmerited suffering on the cross and died an ignominious death emptied both death and suffering of their power. The empty tomb in Jerusalem revealed this truth definitively and for all the world to see.


  • Rev. Alexander Webster

    Father Alexander F.C. Webster, an archpriest in the Orthodox Church in America, retired in June 2010 as an Army Reserve chaplain at the rank of colonel after more than 24 years of military service. He is the author or co-author of four books on topics of social ethics.

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