Are you heaven bound?: US Copts between faith and ethos

Are you heaven bound?: US Copts between faith and ethos
Blog & Featured Image by Candace Lukasik, UC Berkeley

This short blog post seeks to unpack a conceptual problem I have encountered in my research among Copts in New York-New Jersey, Washington DC, and Los Angeles during the summer of 2016. My dissertation research partly focuses on the relationship between different generations of Copts and the Coptic Orthodox Church in the US-based diaspora. These brief comments address the push among the youth and clergy I spoke with to separate faith and culture. According to the Pew Research Center, 75% of the Egyptians living in the United States are Coptic or of Coptic descent, and since the uprisings of 2011 and 2013, Coptic immigration has dramatically increased to the United States. While there are no official statistics on Coptic immigration, anecdotal evidence from the East Coast to the West Coast suggests a staggering increase of attendees at local churches. This increase in immigration has brought the question of separation between faith and culture to the forefront in the minds of second-generation youth and clergy. To understand more of what this separation entails, I narrate three scenes from my fieldwork this summer.

Note: All names have been changed.

Scene 1:
Youth Leader, Mikhail, and Mina, 22, sit around a table in the dining hall of the church.

Mina: In reality, the Egyptian culture does play an important role in the Church and if you try and get rid of culture once and for all…and I believe you should to some extent…some people would be repulsed by that and they would still hold on to culture very tightly. Some people believe that the culture is part of the faith.

Mikhail interjects: But we can work on this…

Mina responds: Of course we can work on it…

Mikhail: Just to differentiate between if this is faith or this is culture….Culture you can keep it for yourself, or your family…but if it is faith, we can’t get rid of it.

Mina: You’re right but even within the Orthodox liturgy, a lot of culture plays a part of it. An Orthodox liturgy in Greek or in other denominations… they are different than the Coptic Church. So, to what extent are we able to even in spiritual services, liturgical services…how can we alter that? Some people may not be completely willing to do that.

Scene 2:
Macarius, 23, is a consecrated servant, educated and engaged in intra-Orthodox dialogue. While stroking his beard, he mentions the following during our conversation together:

“It’s obvious the conflict is culture, but I also think it’s very much a spiritual conflict. I think in Egypt you are born Coptic Orthodox so you live Coptic Orthodox, you bleed Coptic Orthodox until you die Coptic Orthodox. That’s your identity, it’s very much a part of who you are because the culture is very religious based, and your name even defines who you are. You’re either a Mina or an Ahmed. But here that’s definitely not the case. If you’re a Coptic Orthodox Christian born and raised here you have to make the decision to be an Orthodox Christian. You have to have faith. You have to actively believe in God, actively believe in the sacraments and believe they are transformative. You have to be kingdom driven. Whereas in Egypt, it’s more of a…I don’t want to call it a cult…it’s a cult…more cultish, where you are doing ritualistic things that hit home and are nostalgic and are just what you do. You go to liturgy Wednesday and Friday and Saturday and Sunday and get qorban from the guy selling it outside and you go to the bookstore and you drink from the canteen. Whereas here, that’s definitely not the case, if you don’t want to go, you don’t go. Especially once you hit college and you’re off and you’re not grounded in your faith, khalas, then you have to make the decision for yourself, and no parent is going to trap you to go, that doesn’t work here.

So, now you have a church that’s the remnant of that….[you have] the people who actually want to live an Orthodox, sacramental, Christian life and you have this giant group of people who are just like “this is who we are”…the goals of both sides are different. The goal of one side is heaven bound and the goal of the other side is…not to say they aren’t heaven bound, but it’s less of a faith experience, and more of an ethos.”

Scene 3:
A second-generation priest sits across from me in the children’s room of the church. Speaking on the issue of the theology/culture problematic in the US-based church, he notes:

“‘Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?’ Many new immigrants and some of the first generation are still taken aback when I ask this question to them.”

While each of these scenes seem to address different ways of approaching what is “cultural” and what “faith” means, I want to briefly attend to the underlying assumption of asking such a question: “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?” to, possibly, bewildered new immigrants from Egypt. Anthropologist, Talal Asad importantly differentiates between secularism as “political doctrine,” and the secular (or secularity) as an “epistemic category” (Asad 2003). How does the conceptual move of separating Orthodox theology from Egyptian culture relate to understandings of secularity? I would like to quote Anthropologist, Saba Mahmood (2015) at length on this point:

“Secularity entails a certain judgment about, and appreciation for, what religion should be in the modern world. Its predicates are found not so much in state edicts and policies as in culture at large, where they are disseminated, reproduced, and embodied as sensibilities. We encounter them, for example, in the modern emphasis on individual conscience and experience as the proper locus of religiosity and in the relative diminution of the phenomenal forms of religion (rites, rituals, attire, and scriptures). Because secularity exists at the level of sensibilities, its assumptions are difficult to grasp” (Mahmood 2015: 181).

We can see from interactions and declarations in the previous scenes that there is a “modern,” dare I say, secular way of understanding Orthodoxy. While many Orthodox Christians seek ways to live an Orthodox life in the face of modern transformations, it’s also important to understand the ways by which both modernity and secularity, as those modalities by which one chooses faith and affirms conscious belief, reconfigure how living an Orthodox life, particularly in the West, is conceptualized. This has implications for the tensions between second-generation Coptic-Americans and new immigrants (or some of the first generation) who do not understand (Coptic) Orthodoxy the same—in terms of practice, conceptions of “belief,” as well as the principles of pastoral care and authority (which I don’t have space to address in these short remarks). Separating faith from an ethos, or culture, is part of a particular configuration of secularity in the United States (or the West more broadly), with its own culturally specific sensibilities, behaviors, and practices.


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