Comparative Theology

12 Reasons Why I Became and/or Remain an Orthodox Christian

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Lists like this are usually so much clickbait, I know, but I thought it was nevertheless worthwhile to compile a list of most of the reasons why I became and/or remain an Orthodox Christian. Some of these things were not really on my radar when I became Orthodox in 1998, but they are part of the reason why I genuinely do love belonging to the Orthodox Church (which is why “and/or Remain” is in the title).

The nature of lists like this is such that they can’t constitute apologetics, really, nor is this one (at least) intended to be universally applicable — these are my reasons. They may not be someone else’s. It will also become apparent that my background as an Evangelical prior to becoming Orthodox is a major factor here. So, all that said, here’s the list.

1. I believe the Orthodox Church really is the one, true Church of Christ.

There’s a lot that could be said here, but the reason why I believe this is that I examined both the Scriptures and the early history of Christianity, and I became convinced that the only church that matches them both is Orthodoxy. Particularly formative for me were the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of the Apostle John. The church life he described was definitely not what I saw in Evangelicalism. Since he was someone who learned how to be a Christian from the Apostles themselves, I wanted to be in his church.

Orthodoxy takes history seriously and doesn’t gloss over the hard stuff. It also doesn’t pick and choose from early Christian witness to develop a streamlined “system” of theology that is easy to swallow. Rather, because Orthodoxy is truly the community descended from the Apostles, within its theological memory are centuries of dogma, doctrine and theological reflection. Not all of it is totally consistent or easy to sort out, but it is nevertheless one great river of truth with an overall unified direction. One doesn’t see that in the same way in Roman Catholicism (there are several major turns in history), and it is impossible to find that in Protestantism. Most Protestants aren’t even concerned with it.

None of that means I regard non-Orthodox Christians as damned, nor do I even regard all Orthodox Christians as definitely destined for eternal bliss. And Orthodoxy’s truth is no testament to me. Orthodoxy is true, but not because of me.

2. Orthodoxy gives me something to do.

I don’t mean that I was bored and needed something to entertain me. I mean that the Christian life as I had been taught it prior to becoming Orthodox was essentially non-critical. I had been “saved,” and there was really nothing critical to do after that. I should try to be moral, of course, and get other people to get saved, too, but those things weren’t really necessary to the big question, which was: “Do you know what would happen to you if you died tonight?” Well, I knew. I was “saved.” I was going to Heaven.

But what if spiritual life is actually all critical? What if you need to endure to the end to be saved? What if being a Christian means working out your salvation with fear and trembling? Orthodoxy provides a full-bodied, full-souled spiritual life that assumes that everything you do as a Christian makes you either more like God or less like Him, and because becoming like God is what salvation consists of, that means that everything you do is critical. You haven’t “arrived” in this life. You should be moral and you should be evangelistic not because they get you bigger rewards in Heaven but because those things are part of what it means to cooperate with God so that you can be saved.

3. Orthodoxy gives me a way to see and touch God physically.

The Son of God became the Son of Mary, and that means that He became visible and touchable. In Orthodoxy, the implications of the doctrine of the Incarnation are that the divine presence — holiness — actually becomes present in the material world. Now, one can argue that that presence is uniquely present only in one physical place — the human body of Jesus — or one can be consistent and see how holiness shows forth in lots of other physical places both in the Bible and in subsequent Christian history. Saints’ bones, apostles’ shadows and even handkerchiefs touched by apostles have all showed forth the power of God.

Within that context, when Jesus said “This is My Body” and “This is My Blood,” it makes more sense to take Him seriously and not just metaphorically. That’s why St. Paul warned that people who received Holy Communion unworthily could get sick or even die. If it’s “just” a symbol, why would it do that?

The physicality of Orthodoxy — sacraments, incense, vestments, church architecture, icons, etc. — don’t get between me and God. They put me in touch with God. A bridge between two cliffs does not get between the cliffs but rather connects them. Orthodoxy’s many physical elements not manmade magic, but the working out of God’s gift of the Incarnation, the reconnecting of God and man.

4. Change is really hard.

People sometimes joke that Orthodoxy is not really an “organized religion,” with emphasis on “organized.” There is no pope handing down uniform instructions to the whole Church; our chiefest prelates often can’t seem to get along; and it seems like we’re never going to get around to holding that Great and Holy Council we’ve been talking about for nearly a century. But all those things don’t bother me. For one thing, it means that sheer logistics make it nearly impossible for us to alter what we do.

And if all that Eternity and Truth stuff is really true, why should we even think about altering it? It can’t get voted on democratically, and it can’t get imposed monarchically. So change doesn’t much happen. That’s not a bug. It’s a feature. Orthodoxy is not going to change out from under you.

That lack of organization also leads me to love Orthodoxy for another reason, too:

5. Orthodoxy really is one Church.

Unlike the denominationalism of the Protestant world, the various churches of Orthodoxy really do have to talk to each other and work things out. A Presbyterian and a Lutheran may each recognize each other as Christian, but they have almost no stake in each other’s internal church life. The same even holds true of someone belonging to the PCA and someone belonging to the PCUSA (both Presbyterian denominations). They don’t have to work anything out between them. A PCA church plant does not in any way infringe on the territory of the PCUSA, because they’re not the same church.

Orthodoxy may often bicker and fight (though most parishioners never see this unless they happen to be in a dysfunctional parish), but the fact that we have such bickering and fighting with each other means that we recognize in each other that we are one Church, that we have a problem and that we need to fix it. Protestants always have the option of just splitting (and once splits occur, they don’t have to bother with each other), while Roman Catholics can ultimately appeal to the Vatican, who can impose solutions that work for the Vatican but might not work for everyone else involved.

6. Orthodoxy is a faith for the whole life.

Because Orthodoxy comes with a vast set of expressions of its tradition, you can never exhaust it all. There is always something new not just to learn but to become. While we don’t really “arrive” until the next life (and I’d argue even that is not an arrival; that is, it’s not the end of the road of salvation), there are many way-stations in this life that delight and grant joy. The difference between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism in this regard is that I’m talking about not just growing in wisdom, which is common to all religious traditions, but that Orthodoxy tracks many stages of spiritual development throughout a whole lifetime.

I remember one time hearing a monk explain the response he got from a holy elder on Mount Athos after asking him many questions. The elder replied that some things just wouldn’t make sense to him until later, until he’d received some level of illumination (theoria). It’s true. One cannot read a “Statement of Faith” from Orthodoxy (not even the Creed) and say, “Ah, yes. That is everything Orthodoxy teaches. I understand it now.”

Again, that’s not a bug. It’s a feature. Yes, we like things to be simple, to be readily accessible to everyone, but any faith that is not complex enough to address all the complexities of human experience is not worthy of the dignity of mankind. Orthodoxy provides that in a way that I haven’t found anywhere else.

7. Orthodoxy is a faith for the whole world.

There are no “target demographics” for Orthodoxy. We don’t do market research to figure out how to attract young people, old people, urban people, suburban people, or whatever particular demographic we might desire for our parish. A parish can often have a certain degree of commonality among members, but that isn’t by inherent design. There was no committee that met saying, “How do we get the 30-something suburbanites?”

Yes, Orthodoxy is sometimes plagued with ethnocentrism. But that’s a distortion of Orthodoxy, not faithfulness to it. And it’s not everywhere. I’ve belonged to both more ethnically focused and less ethnically focused, as well as ethnically non-focused Orthodox parishes, and none of them had an ethnic membership card check at the door. Orthodoxy is really a universal faith that has shaped numerous cultures and languages over many centuries.

If people as diverse as Arabs, Greeks, Serbs, Georgians, Russians, Estonians and Finns can all sing the same faith, and if both their young and old can sing it together, then truly, anyone is welcome. (Some Orthodox need to remember that more than others, though.)

8. Orthodoxy is a faith for the whole person.

Mankind is not just emotionally moved by beauty, but he aches to be near it, to create it as much as that is possible. More than any other iteration of Christian faith, the Orthodox Church knows how to envelop the worshiper with beauty in all five (or more!) senses, both otherworldly beauty that transports the worshiper and otherworldly beauty that transforms the earthly.

One might describe this as aesthetic, but it is not “mere” aesthetics in the sense of something that appeals only to the senses, perhaps for entertainment value, but goes nowhere in particular. This is aesthetic in the sense that God Himself is beauty. That is why Orthodoxy, while sometimes homely or homey, is never cheesy. It is timely and timeless, but not “contemporary.”

The beauty of Orthodoxy addresses the whole human person in multiple ways. It is not a faith just for the “soul” or the “heart,” but for the body, as well, including our ability to apprehend beauty.

9. God really does love you the way you are, and He loves you so much, He won’t leave you that way.

There seems to be a constant battle these days, especially within Protestantism, over whether God should be perceived as loving or as a judge. Even those who preach that God is love still tend to preach a God Who is angry at you for your sins and has to be appeased. But Orthodoxy preaches the God Who is consistently loving, a God Who loves with such strength that His love will change you, if only you will cooperate with it. The change won’t be lousy, either, turning you into some goody-goody prude. Rather, it will be a change into authentic personhood, where virtue is striven for because of communion, not because of adherence to arbitrary rules.

10. Orthodoxy is both mystical and rational.

Some Orthodox will oppose the mystical to the rational, but that’s a mistake, I believe. For all the apophatic theology (theology which emphasizes our inability to know God with our minds), there is also a lot of cataphatic theology (theology that makes clear, positive truth claims) in the tradition of the Church. We don’t have to choose one or the other, nor are the two really alternatives to each other. Apophatic theology is also not merely a “corrective” to cataphatic theology. Rather, both are simply ways of talking about theological emphases within Orthodoxy.

It is not as though, when I am serving the Divine Liturgy, I switch on the “rational” part when preaching the Gospel and then toggle the switch to “mystical” when I drink from the Chalice. All these things are in play simultaneously. I love that, and I haven’t really encountered that anywhere but in the Orthodox Church.

11. Orthodoxy is ascetical.

No Christian body takes asceticism as seriously as Orthodoxy does. Roman Catholicism has it in its tradition, but it is mostly ignored. Yet Orthodoxy expects all Christians to fast, to stand vigil, to be as non-possessive as possible, etc., and it provides a programme for how to do that. You don’t have to make it up for yourself, because the tradition is already established. And it’s also customizable according to the pastoral discernment of your father-confessor.

Asceticism is a way to do real battle with the broken modes that the human will functions in. It allows a man to take control of himself in a powerful way so that he can redirect his God-given powers and energies back toward God and away from his base appetites. Asceticism doesn’t save anyone, but it certainly does help. Why? Because we are only saved to the degree that we want it. Asceticism helps us to want it.

And as anyone who has really fasted for all of Lent and then tasted that first taste of roast lamb at Pascha can tell you, asceticism actually makes the good things of this earth taste better. Far from being a denigration of God’s good creation, asceticism returns the creation to us and opens up its beauty in ways that consuming it without restraint cannot ever do.

12. Orthodoxy aims higher than any other Christian faith.

While theosis (deification/divinization) is not the only model of salvation in Orthodox Christian theology, it certainly makes some of the strongest claims. There are hints at doctrines of theosis in Roman Catholicism. (I am not aware of any Protestant groups that teach it.) Yet it is only in Orthodoxy that one is taught that salvation means to become by grace what Christ is by nature, that “God became man so that man might become divine” (Athanasius, On the Incarnation) that becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4) is actually expounded upon. “I have said, ‘ye are gods, and all of you are sons of the Most High'” (Ps. 82:6) is taken very seriously. You won’t find that anywhere else.

Even Pentecostals who teach that you can be chosen by God, spoken through by God, etc., aren’t really teaching that you can enter into such union with God that you begin to take on the divine attributes. But that is exactly what Orthodoxy teaches, that the transfiguration, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ are all what it truly means to be a Christian, that mankind is now seated on the very Throne of God Himself, and being in Christ means being seated there, too.

Pretty daring. But why settle for less?

So those are some of my reasons. What are yours?

Why I Love (True) Religion Because I Love Jesus, Redux

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This coming Sunday, Jan. 12, will be the two year anniversary of the post that has inexplicably (to me) probably been the most-read thing I’ve ever written. It’s always somewhat odd to me to note the things that get the most hits. They’re almost invariably stuff that’s more off-the-cuff than much-deliberated (like this silly post of coffee and theology jokes). (Kind of depressing, really.)

One thing I’ve noted from the comments on the post is that, at the time, many people chided my criticisms since I was picking on some “kid” who was just expressing himself, while I insisted that he was acting as a professional and making a contribution to public discourse that was therefore subject to critique.

Since then, that “kid” has of course made quite the career from the video in question and now has a book entitled JESUS > RELIGION. It’s still selling quite well on Amazon, with 308 reviews and counting, and is a NYT bestseller. His Facebook page currently has over 231,000 “likes.”

Now, one might argue that it was this video that propelled him from “amateur” to “professional” status, and it certainly did make him a celebrity. But as I mentioned at the time, the video was quite professionally produced, and he had already been soliciting speaking engagements for some time before the video came out. So he was clearly a professional, just not quite yet a very successful one.

But now he has joined the pantheon of Evangelical pop spirituality stars. I wish him well. I do not think that that kind of spirituality will long endure, however, as Evangelicalism now seems to be engaged in a fairly serious self-critique which is coming to look at the sort of religion this gentleman pushes as rather shallow and even heretical.

I actually ended up doing a couple of follow-up posts to explore some further issues related to the original. Here are all the posts in the series:

A lot of this kind of thing I would probably today post on Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, but the site didn’t exist yet in January 2012. The popularity of the original post and its follow-ups are actually part of what led me to start the O&H site in the summer of 2012.

Thanks to all my readers. I appreciate whatever attention you can lend.

“Who is a Christian?”: Ancient Faith Today with Kevin Allen (May 12)

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Update: The recording of the discussion is here.

On May 12, 2013, at 8-9:30pm EDT / 5-6:30pm PDT, I’ll be appearing on the live call-in show “Ancient Faith Today with Kevin Allen.”

The topic: “Who is a Christian?”

“Ancient Faith Today” (AFT) is Ancient Faith Radio‘s live call-in show streaming via the Internet, covering multiple topics, from pop culture to politics, from an Orthodox viewpoint with live guests. Calls are taken during the show, and it’s also recorded as a podcast for subsequent downloading.

Learn more about AFT (including how to tune in) here.

I hope you’ll tune in and even give us a call!

“Orthodoxy & Heterodoxy” in Houston, Feb. 9, 2013

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I will be at St. Joseph Orthodox Church in Houston, Texas, on February 9, 2013, leading an “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy” themed retreat. It would be lovely to meet many of you there. Copies of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy will be on hand for purchasing and signing, should you so desire.

Institutionalizing the Revival: The Culture of Revolutionary Christianity

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Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick:

I’ve got this new post up today at Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy that may be of interest to readers. I reflect a bit on my own childhood in Evangelical revivalism as well as talking about how that culture functions and why I regard Orthodoxy to have more satisfying answers to revivalist longings.

Originally posted on Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy:

I was digging recently into the darker recesses of my childhood memories and came upon a name I probably haven’t thought about in almost thirty years—Sutera. I really couldn’t remember what the name meant (and I half suspected that I was simply thinking of Chicago’s original lead singer), but I started doing some Googling and discovered the names Ralph and Lou Sutera, the “Sutera Twins.” At that latter phrase, my memories opened up, and I recalled being a young boy at a Baptist church somewhere in Ohio (I honestly cannot remember where). The church was hosting a week-long set of revival meetings in the evenings, featuring the Sutera Twins, who preached and sang and wore nice (and matching) suits, and are apparently still going strong decades later.

I don’t remember the content of what was preached or sung, but I do remember one of the features of…

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Writings, Recordings and Recommendations: An Update

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As you probably can tell, I’ve mainly been focusing my weblogging energy into the new Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy weblog. Forgive my neglect here. I’m still working out the balance of the kinds of work I plan to do there and here.

In any event, in case you don’t happen to be a reader over there yet (and why not?), I thought I’d update you on stuff I’ve published over yonder (since I last posted here, more than a month ago) as well as some other items of note.

Stuff I’ve Written:

Stuff I’ve Recorded:

Stuff I Recommend:

For more recommendations and such, follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

And if you haven’t yet bought Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (Conciliar, Amazon, Kindle, NOOK), well, what’s the hold-up? Perhaps you’ve been holding out for the second printing, which now has a spiffy new, non-glossy-finish cover. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

No True Church? No True Church History.

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One of the criticisms of Orthodoxy’s understanding of its own history (not to mention, Roman Catholicism’s) is that there really is no unbroken Christian tradition of anything at all, that Church history is really just about multiple movements, doctrines and practices that cannot coherently be traced back to the Apostles. This is essentially one version of the historiography of the anti-ecclesiologists. If there is no true Church, then there certainly cannot be any true tradition of continuity.

The above is the first paragraph of a post I published today on the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy weblog, entitled “No True Scotsman does Church History Polemics.” It deals with one of the approaches to Church history taken by those who not believe in one, true Church (what I call the “anti-ecclesiology”), simply denying what those who lived in the centuries prior believed about their Church, that it is the unbroken continuation of the very Church of the Apostles.

I hope you like it.

Who’s not a Christian?

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I’ve got a new post up at Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy that continues our series on ecclesiology. This one is entitled Who’s not a Christian? It examines the question of how different Christian communions see each other’s legitimacy.

Why can’t God love me the way I am?

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One of the perhaps most pressing theological questions of our time and place is answered beautifully in this post from Jim John Marks:

The question is not “why can’t God love me the way I am”, the question is “why can’t I love God the way I am”.

And it is the pursuit of the answer to that question which opens the door to a discussion about why our behavior, and our doctrine, matters. It ends the false conversation around whether or not specific behavior or doctrine is necessary to be “good enough” and so undercuts the contemporary appeals to relativism. The conversation then becomes about what the specifics of a relationship to God look like and why.

The whole post is so good that I really wish I’d written it. So go read it.

The One True Church and the Partisans of Anti-Ecclesiology

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The first of our ecclesiology posts is now up at the new Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy weblog. I wrote this one, and it’s essentially a sort of meditation on what it means to believe in the teachings of your own church and how that cannot help but affect one’s relations with other communions.