A few months ago I found on my facebook the good work of Progressive Christian George Koukouris. Based in Indianapolis, Indiana, Koukouris is a Greek Orthodox who has studied other religious traditions to know how they are all interconnected. In his facebook page, he states as his goal to get people to let go of whatever hinders our ability to connect and see one another face to face. He is one of the founders of the Indiana Center for Progressive and Contemplative Christianity, an inclusive, life affirming organization built upon the desire to know God through authentic theological education and practice. He is also the administrator of the Progressive Christians facebook page and the Progressive Christian Alliance.
Thank you George for this interview. I’m not very familiar with the Greek Orthodox Church. What is the Greek Orthodox Church?
The Greek Orthodox Church has its origins in the ancient church before the schism in 1054 c.e. between what we think of today as the western church and eastern church; and, it’s one of the catalysts to every other Christian denomination in the world (along with Catholicism). Today the Greek Orthodox Church is one branch of a larger Eastern Orthodox tree, which includes Serbia, Slovenia, Russia, Ethiopia and here in the States and so on. Here in the [United] states at least, the Eastern Orthodox Church has become predominately obscured by the western church’s (Catholic and Protestantism, as well as their offshoots) influence and practices. More people seem to know about Catholicism than they do about Eastern Orthodox Christianity–even though the Eastern Orthodox Church makes up the second largest Christian denomination in the world. And unlike Catholicism with it’s Protestant schism, there has never been (according to the old priest of the Greek Orthodox church here in Indianapolis) a split in the Eastern Orthodox Church, so it has remained generally the same since the beginning of its inception in ancient times. The Catholic church being seen as founded by Peter, the Orthodox church is seen to have been founded by Paul. I think that’s most interesting.
Orthodox Christianity tends to become overshadowed due to the negative baggage often associated with the word ‘orthodox’. The word ‘orthodox’ which can be translated as ‘straight-thinking’, ‘right thought’ or ‘right opinion’ has become synonymous with a certain kind of fundamentalism: institutionalized Christianity, organized religion, inflexible doctrines, and negative theological dogmas. However, I have come to see orthodoxy in a similar comparison to Buddhism’s eight noble path’s notion of ‘right thinking’–it’s not about rigid rules of behavior, but about having our being in alignment with God’s being so there is no distinction between the two because they are united as one extension.
Catholic and Orthodox Christianity share many similarities to their liturgy, observation of saints, and sacraments. It was explained at a church tour I attended one, Catholicism and Orthodoxy are like twin children born to the same parents but the parents divorce. In the divorce each parent gets custody of one child and each child grows up in different environments. So while there is a common origin and similarities (they look very similar) there are a lot of differences. Orthodox Christians are generally not as literal in their reading of scripture, ideas about the sacraments and purity, and where salvation in Catholicism is about penal atonement of sins–the Orthodox Christians believe in ‘theosis’ or God-actualization. The Eastern Orthodox Church also operates as more of a network, where as everyone in the Catholic faith is headed by one POPE, the Eastern Orthodox Church is a network with a main communion and many autocephalous (self-headed) churches all over the world. Independent from one another, but also in communion with each other.
Now, in my experience the Greek Church has its flaws. It suffers from exclusivism like many churches, as well as its misogynistic views towards women, but on the flip-side Eastern Orthodoxy is based on a strong monastic experience and retains its mystical aspect through Eastern Orthodox mysticism, though it seems lost to the average church-goer. Several times I’ve been up to the Greek Church for anything, they always have a neat selection of books on Christian mysticism such as the “Philokalia” and other writings from the monks on Mount Athos in Greece.
Because most Eastern Orthodox churches observe the Gregorian liturgical calendar, they observe holy days differently than western Christianity does. For example, this year Christmas was celebrated on January 7th and Easter on May 5th. Growing up in a American-Greek family we’ve always celebrated ‘Greek Easter’ and ‘American Easter’. Now that I’m older it’s nice because all of the commercialization (the Easter bunny, Santa Clause, candy and all the hoopla) is done by the time of Eastern Orthodox observances. As least that’s my experience living here in the States. So I’ve come to refer to western observances as ‘outward’ and eastern observances as ‘inward’. We can do both as Christians in contemporary life.
What was your religious upbringing?
I didn’t have a formal religious upbringing. Both of my parents have their own innate sense of spirituality (although they’ve never been expressive about it). I’m not speaking in a theological sense–more as in an aboriginal, organic way they both have had a spiritual grounding. If that’s what one wants to call it. I remember growing up anytime I went anywhere with my dad, before we drove off he would always make the sign of the cross (we all have crosses hanging from our rear-view-mirrors). And even today I will find my dad in the kitchen, early in the morning, praying to this icon of Jesus we have hanging with a huge set of “worry beads”. I guess that’s something of a religious practice that he got growing up as a kid in Greece. My mom on the other hand has never talked about religion, except on the rare occasion, but even then she’s shy’d away from debates or conflicts like the plague. I do know as a young girl she attended a generic kind of Christian church with her grandmother–and today she dabbles with certain authors such as Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and often times Wayne Dyer if I have him on television. But as far as their theological education goes, they’re both very primitive in what they know about the Christian faith, Jesus, the Bible and so forth. What my dad knows is the typical stories we’ve all heard in Sunday school, because it’s what he was taught in school in Greece.
That being said… both my younger sister and I were baptized (Christened) as toddlers in the Greek Orthodox Church. For the better part of my early childhood we attended church regularly on Sundays and for observed holy days and weddings. But neither of my parents indoctrinated us with any specific theological ideologies; and eventually we fell away from the church because of finances and my parents worked quite a bit. Within that context I can’t say I’ve had a formal religious upbringing beyond ‘before-dinner’ prayer and things like that. Because of that, however, I’ve never developed the negative stigma associated with the Church and I’ve been free to explore my religious side unhindered.
What inspired you to study other religious traditions?
Before I came back to Christianity I had dipped into many other religions. Initially I’d like to think God inspired me. It was God that put the ‘bug’ into my ear; it was a calling of sorts. I guess. But I got into studying religions in the later portion of the 90’s–’96, ’97, and ’98–and it just snowballed. My family and I had fallen away from the Orthodox church. We’d go there if a relative invited us to a wedding or sometimes we’d go to church dances, but other than that we rarely attended. Religion was very far from my mind, I really didn’t think much about God or the big questions in life. I’ve always been spiritually sensitive though, psychically intuitive. I’m big lucid dreamer. And I was generally a D and F student all through school. I hated school and couldn’t wait to be done; now I’d love to go back. Here I am now reading works of theologians, philosophers, and the writings of other respected thinkers. I can’t get enough of it.
I used to have a job where I worked on Sundays. We had zero activity on Sundays so I would bring my notebooks and sketchbooks to draw in, and a book or two to read. At that time I was writing superhero stories and I was researching a story I was writing loosely based on the lore of angels and the war in heaven, the fall of satan, etc. One day when I was reading this angel encyclopedia I got a strange phone call, because I kept saying hello and no one would respond. But before I hung up, I heard a feint voice on the other end say very sharp “God is coming”. There still was no one on the phone responding and I hung up. After that experience I didn’t really know what it meant or if I had just made it up in my head: but for me God has come into my life. A lot of times it’s all I think about.
At that time the girl I was involved with (my first girlfriend) was friends with some women, one of them owned a New Age store and the other was a psychic reader there. So we’d go over there and I’d read up all their books. I spent a small fortune I didn’t have, there. There I was introduced to Paganism and various other types of nature based religions. Wicca. And then one day while at a funeral out of the blue I just got an impression to read a Sylvia Browne book. She was a psychic medium on Montel, although I’d never really watched her. So I read her books, study groups, attended a lecture, and was guided to study soul consciousness/survival, spiritism, and that’s where I first came upon the terms ‘gnostic’, ‘gnosis’, ‘Gnostic Christian’. So that got my interest. I’d gotten into Buddhism and eastern philosophies while studying Togakure Ninjutsu, we had a wonderful mediation teacher. And then I got more into esoteric Buddhism when I was studying ReiKi healing. At the same time I was still into Gnosticism (before it became more known and popular in the media) and that lead me into Spiritualism, religious science, and New Thought, Unity. Throughout that time everything I was reading kept linking back to Christianity, Christian symbolism and Christian mysticism (and Christian Gnosticism); and that got me more into studying Christian scholarship, historical/textual criticism and where I am today.
I see religion as a valid field of study. For me, even more than simply studying what different religions believes, but why? When we deconstruct it further, what everyday things motivated Augustine’s formulation of his theology? Or Anselm? Or Origen? When we study Buddhism, what connections is there with Christianity and vice versa? And then what insights can we come to in our own faith tradition from reading and immersing ourselves in other religious traditions, or even other Christian denominations that are different from what we’re in or have grown up with?
What are some activities that bring people of different religions together?
Especially here in the States we’re generally discouraged from talking about certain topics: sex, religion, politics, and how much one makes financially. Four things that affect our every day lives more than anything else. Underlying these in importance is religion because our religious (or non-religious) beliefs influence what we believe about sex, politics, and how we get paid for our labor. So programs that promote religious awareness are enormously important. We can no longer be ignorant in an age of information. Some activities that help to promote religious awareness are cultural festivals. Here in Indiana we have German Fest, Greek Fest, Italian Fest and Gay Pride and so on. All to help promote diversity and awareness. My place of employment at their Memphis headquarters has hosted a religious diversity seminar for two or three years in a row. Employees are put together from various types of religions to represent and explain what their religious tradition is about, as well as hear a talk by a professor of religion.
But it’s my experience that if you want to get down to the nitty-gritty and see people when they’re their most normal, it has to be done in every day situations of mundane activities. Going to the grocery store, gathering at your child’s school for different activities, sitting in traffic, if you work a job. These are all activities where our religious beliefs and practices play out in real life. No one is watching. No one is on their best behavior. Because life is all about bringing differences together and their relationship to one another. I can only fully experience myself when it is in relationship to something or someone in contrast.
We look at tragedies such as the Boston bombing and all the people of diverse backgrounds who clung to one another, helped each other, and without any thought of religious difference. That is another activity, or event, that brings people of different religions together. But we don’t HAVE to have tragedy for that. Not always.
How did you get onto the path of Progressive Christianity?
In a round-about way this path has found me. Everything I’ve fallen into I can say that I’ve done so because of God. And I feel as if I’ve been moving in full circle. As I said before, both my younger sister and I were baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church. Yet neither of my parents are particularly religious, so we’ve never been indoctrinated in one specific theological point of view. But I’ve always been more progressive minded, with an innate sense of curiosity and inquisitiveness. I’m also a geek with a love of geeky things such as science fiction/fantasy, video games, comic books, films and books. Religion and geek culture both revolve around cultural narratives, so there’s that connection that appealed to me as I transitioned, or included religion into my list of interests I became passionate about. I came to the Progressive Christian path through further studies in Gnosticism, gnostic Christianity, and Christian mysticism, as I came back into the Christian faith and found academic scholarship, historical/textual criticism, and so forth. On this path I’ve been exposed also to philosophy and critical theory, of which I’m grateful for.
Was there a theologian, priest, saint, or Christian hero who had a strong influence on you?
Conventionally we’ve been taught that Christianity has been only one thing. And so we have a limited number of voices contributing to the Christian dialogue. But as we explore further we realize this isn’t true at all. And we begin to see all of the other voices and thinkers and what they had to say. There are simply too many to list, here, but a few are Thomas Merton, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Meister Ekhart, Teresa of Avila and so many others who showed us a different side of Christianity that has remained hidden.
Then there was a chaplain who gave the eulogy at my grandma’s funeral. I was surprised that he spoke about her near death experiences–here was a minister who wasn’t speaking the typical Christian cue card things. And I was impressed by that.
Antisemitism is on the rise in Europe. Incidences of harassment of Muslim Americans and Sikhs have occurred in the U.S. What can ordinary Christians do to stem the growing tide of antisemitism and Islamaphobia?
Education and religious awareness is key here. Because so much of what we know about Islam is misinformation that is propagated by a Christian fundamentalist bias. As progressive Christians it’s important we be that voice of reason and help to not only educate people about our own faith, but also, about the faiths of others through the Christian lens. What I mean by ‘through the Christian lens’ is, we can show connections between Christianity and other faith traditions. And then what are some differences and why those differences exist. In my experience, the monastic traditions of many religions look a great deal a like. They come to many of the same truths about life. By showing that (the similarities between Christian monasticism and Sufism for example) we educate people and let them decide for themselves.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, progressive religious people played important roles in the civil rights protests, anti-war movement and other social justice movements of the era. One thinks of religious leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, Malcolm X, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Bayard Rustin, Dorothy Height, Pauli Murray, Daniel Berrigan, William Sloane Coffin, Dorothy Day. Since that time, however, Christian conservatives have been the dominant voices in the national dialogue on religion. What are some ways in which the Christian Left can regain their voice and push for social justice and radical gender, and sexual equality
What I see with the Christian Left and liberal Christianity in general, is the potential to become a kind of “Social Pharisee”. And in many ways we’re seeing that already. We need to get back to the fruit of the spirit and what scripture teaches about Christian behavior–kindness, gentleness, self-control and so on. Christians become people who are slow to anger and actually listen and think and consider things before they react. That’s the difference between an aggressive Christian and a progressive Christian. Aggressive Christianity puts one behind and creates more problems than solutions. It antagonizes and creates an enemy where no enemy exists. We need to get away from that.
You recently wrote a great post recently in the Progressive Christian facebook page about the importance of prayer and contemplation. What advice would you give on prayer?
The key in understanding prayer is there is no system or structure to prayer. Prayer is an emptying of self so that we can be in alignment with God, everything is prayer. When we become Social Pharisee, we try to create prayer laws with long lists of things one cannot pray for. And yet, who are we to say what one can or can’t talk to God about? Prayer is to be very simple where just a ‘thank you’ is sufficient.
Are there any practices or rituals that you go through to reach a state of contemplation
A. No. I find that, for me, I tend to slip into contemplations quite regularly and quite often. In the Jesus narratives he’s reported to going off by himself a lot to pray and think about things. It’s not a complicated thing where he has an elaborate altar or a bunch of necklaces or Tarot cards–it’s just him. When I’m driving to and from work I will find that I slip into contemplation, often times tuning out the radio even or the whole trip altogether. Trying will halt the experience.
How does one fight for social justice while loving one’s enemy?
A. Stop fighting. Social justice is not subversive, it is built into the system itself. Feeding the poor and homeless will go on forever until the system that creates these conditions is negated. It’s like broken hose: one will always have to patch the leaks until one replaces the broken hose altogether. But secretly activists don’t want the system to be repaired or negated, because activists are addicted to the emotional high they get from being activists. The thrill of being arrested. The high of being validated by the poor and homeless they’re helping, by social media. And yet there’s more poor and homeless being created every day. Stop fighting and enabling the system. Tackle the system itself, that we all created.
Many Christian progressives have championed LGBT rights within their churches. From my own experience in speaking out for LGBT rights within church, I know how divisive this issue is and know how it can lead to painful conflicts. Why do you think it is important for Christians to fight for LGBT rights?
I believe everyone deserves to be loved and to be able to express love to others. In life we see this demonstrated in a variety of ways and configurations. But I think the language of ‘rights’ is the wrong approach. Because we use ‘rights’ as a way to justify violence and negate our ability to empathize with those we hurt in the name of our ‘rights’. How many hide behind their ‘right’ to free speech here in the STATES, as they make harmful comments towards another human being? Then they seek asylum under the same ‘rights’ in order to avoid retaliation. “Rights” were created to protect identity, nothing more. And so, we need new language of ‘responsibility’. Not ‘rights’.
What has been the most gratifying thing for you in your work with other religious groups and your work for progressive Christian causes?
Working with other religious groups and progressive Christian causes helps me to actualize myself more fully. In my own work to help educate people by giving information, I’m exposed to other thinkers and that allows me to grow. And the more I grow the better equipped I am to help others. Through connecting with the Progressive Christian Alliance, for example, I’ve been exposed to philosophy and critical theory, psychoanalysis and so on. Something I’d never have come into had I not made these connections. It’s all synchronistic.
What would be your advice to someone who is visiting Indiana for the first time?
Not everything is as it seems, here. Indianapolis is a small city that tries to be like the bigger cities we read about. But it really is a smaller city with more laid back, humble people. However, if you look carefully you will find a lot of places that are fun. I’m not much for excitement so I don’t go too many places.
What are some places that you could recommend?
Indiana is famous for a few things. Two of them are college basketball and racing. So I’d definitely encourage going to the Indianapolis 500 and catching a basketball game, if you can. But we also have a nice zoo (Indianapolis Zoo) and a Children’s Museum, Native American Fest, Greek Fest, and several other ethnic festivals. Or you can walk the canal downtown. Like I said, if you look carefully there are things to do here.
Here are more interviews that I did for Everyday Citizen
An Interview With Cartoonist Gustavo Rodriguez
An Interview With Children’s Book Illustrator Lea Lyon
An Interview With Democrat Nancy Hirstein Smith
An Interview With Cartoonist Ann Cleaves
An Interview With Muslim American Activist Zahra Billoo
An Interview With Peace Activist and Lay Pastor Jim Ramelis
An Interview With Cartoonist Monte Wolverton
An Interview With Cartoonist Adam Zyglis
An Interview With Reverand Gerald Britt
An Interview With Cartoonist Tjeerd Royaards
An Interview With Poet, Activist, and Teacher Diane Wahto
An Interview With Cartoonist Jesse Springer
An Interview With Cartoonist Steve Greenberg
An Interview With Eric Wilks
An Interview With Cartoonist Greg Beda
An Interview With Poet Melissa Tuckey
An Interview With Cartoonist Andy Singer
An Interview With Author Robert Balmanno
An Interview With Cartoonist J.P. Jasper
An Interview With Cartoonist David Cohen
An Interview that Everyday blogger Diane Wahto kindly did of me