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?
The following is an excerpt from the beginning of one of my lectures that I’ve also posted on my parish website.
It is well-known among Orthodox Christians that the word orthodoxy—often used as a shorthand for our faith—has two parallel meanings. It is composed of two Greek words—orthos and doxa. Together, they form orthodoxia, rendered into English as orthodoxy.
The word orthos literally means “straight,” and those familiar with geometry will recognize it in the word orthogonal, which refers to something lying at a right angle. Those who know something about dentistry will think of orthodontics, which concerns itself with straight teeth, while the orthopedist wants to make sure your skeleton is straight (literally, orthopedics means “straight children”). It should come as no surprise that Greek uses orthos metaphorically also to refer to something that is true, since we English speakers use straight to refer to reliability and truth, especially in such terms as straight-talker or to be set straight. And of course someone who is on the right path is on the straight and narrow. And no doubt our minds are also called to the use of the word straight to refer to a properly ordered sexuality or even from a decade or two ago when straight referred to someone doesn’t take recreational drugs.
The other side of the word orthodoxy is what may intrigue us more, however, and it is the doxa which gives orthodoxia its double meaning, for doxa can mean both “opinion” and “glory.” Often, in thinking of orthodoxy, it is this first meaning that occurs to the world—an “orthodoxy” is a hard and fast, unmovable set of teachings or opinions. And this meaning should occur to us, as well, that Orthodoxy is very much about the straight, true teachings of the Church, teachings that cannot be changed. The orthodoxy of the Orthodox Church is therefore precisely a deposit of faith, a theology that will never be altered, because it is the truth. It is the straight teaching, the true opinion.
There is more to this side of doxa than “opinion” or “teaching,” however. Doxa was used in the ancient world for many things. Indeed, its primary and most basic sense can be translated as “notion,” especially with the question of whether that notion is true or false. From that, doxa can also be an “expectation,” which makes particular sense if the truth value of a notion remains undefined. Thus, we may also know orthodoxy as a “true notion” and as a “true expectation.” Doxa can also mean “a judgment” or “conjecture,” which takes us into a more psychological realm. If you have a doxa about something, then of course that may be your idea or your opinion, your judgment about the character of the subject at hand.
But the inner sense of doxa is even more expansive than these almost purely philosophical definitions. There are also ancient uses of doxa that we may translate as “imagining,” “a dream,” “a fancy,” or “a vision.” It may be almost whimsical to think in these terms, but if you’ll permit me a little mystical whimsy, consider for a moment that the Orthodox faith is also the “true imagining,” the “true dream,” or the “true fancy.” I do not think that it will surprise you at all to learn that Orthodoxy is also the “true vision.” We are accustomed to think of imagination, dreams, fancies and visions as unreliable, flimsy things, and that is perhaps why we need that orthos for our doxa, to make it clear that this one doxa is the true one, the reliable one, the straight one.
So with that in mind, let us dream together a little more about this word orthodoxy. The other side of doxa with which we are perhaps familiar is that it means “glory.” This sense of doxa is derived from its meaning as “opinion,” and so doxa can be used to refer to the opinion that people have about something, its reputation, how it is esteemed. And so it is not a large leap from “reputation” to “glory,” for something with a good reputation is sure to be glorified. But glory does not only mean giving praise to something, and it is not limited in this way for doxa, either. The meaning extends on toward “effulgence” and even “splendor.” Thus, the Orthodox faith is also the “true reputation,” the “true splendor.” And we may say that it therefore implies “true worship,” because that glorification is directed toward the God of the universe, and it is His true splendor that shines through in Orthodox worship.
What a wonderful word orthodoxy is! On reflection, we must certainly agree that all of these varied senses of what the word might mean are all applicable to the Orthodox faith. Orthodoxy is certainly about what is straight and true, and the “what” there is not just a notion or opinion or teaching, but it is imagination, dream, vision, and (of course) glory and worship. No wonder that we say it is a whole life! It’s not just about believing the correct things.
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.
A post of mine from March, Evangelicals at the Eucharist, has inexplicably been getting a bit of traffic again over the past few days. I was assured in the comments that, in my criticisms of Dr. Peter Leithart’s call to Evangelicals to return to putting the Eucharist at the center of worship, I was pinning the wrong guy. But a close reading reveals that I was not so much attempting to critique the full body of Leithart’s work, but rather speaking in the same “room” that he was speaking in, i.e., modern Evangelicalism, which is as Zwinglian as the day is long. Leithart might have a relatively “high” view of the Eucharist, but the people he’s speaking to, on the whole, have almost no view of it at all. Why? Because they have no priesthood.
That said, in the midst of the comments was posted a new piece from Leithart, Too catholic to be Catholic, published on Monday, in which he professes himself “too catholic to be Catholic.” The closed communion discipline of Roman Catholics and Orthodox makes them “sects,” and he is “too catholic” ever to do such a thing. It is essentially a “Why I’m not Roman Catholic or Orthodox” mini-manifesto.
I read Dr. Leithart’s post with interest, and its internal contradictions are really quite astounding. He is so “catholic” that he would welcome the Orthodox and Roman Catholics into communion, while in nearly the same breath actually proclaims us to be idolaters! While it’s not made evident in this post, it is also the case that he borrows heavily from theologians in those communions, which may be part of why he has been brought up on heresy charges (acquitted, mind you) by his own denomination. By his own definitions, he’s actually using idolaters as a source of theology. If this is catholicity, it has to be the weirdest type I’ve ever seen.
Catholic here seems to mean being so inclusive as to accepting to communion not only heretics but even idolaters. (Remember that an idolater is someone who unrepentantly worships an idol as a god.) I wonder whether communion should have any limits at all then—resumably not, as he decries the “closed communion” of his fellow sons of the Reformation. Should it even be extended to the unbaptized? It makes little sense to me that Leithart would remain apart from the Orthodox and Roman Catholics on the basis of his doctrines—doctrines which proclaim us and most Christians throughout the ages to be idolaters—and yet somehow chafe at the exclusivity of the tradition of closed communion?
Leithart writes, “To become Catholic I would had [sic] to contract my ecclesial world. I would have to become less catholic – less catholic than Jesus is. Which is why I will continue to say: I’m too catholic to become Catholic.” But his “catholicity” would include communing unrepentant idolaters. Is that really the kind of catholic Jesus is? The Scriptures proclaim that the temple of God has no agreement with idols, which makes me wonder how he arrived upon his notion of Jesus’ “ecclesial world.”
It also occurs to me that, in speaking of communion, when you have to refer to an ecclesial world rather than the Church, you have a big theological problem. For the Orthodox, the Church is communion.
In arguing for his “catholicity,” Leithart at least appears to have accepted the Roman Catholic definition of catholic, which is “universal.” Mind you, Rome applies this universality in terms of its governance, but Leithart appears to be applying it in such a sense that it obliterates the very point of sound doctrine, which is to guide the believer in his communion with Christ in His Church. Either Leithart would gladly admit idolaters (the Orthodox and Roman Catholics) to communion, or else he is simply unhappy that the lines that he would draw for communion are different than the ones that others do. Either way, it makes little sense. I suspect he means something different by catholic, however.
In any event, the traditional definition for catholic is not the ultramontanist one Rome uses nor the confusedly pietistic one of Dr. Leithart, but rather simply what the word actually means—katholikos, from kata and holos, “according to the whole.” That is, the catholic faith is the whole Christian faith, and the one Church is catholic because she maintains the wholeness of the Christian faith, not merely a few minimal parts. One cannot, for instance, debate whether Scripture must be somehow read apart from the tradition that produced it or whether succession from the Apostles avails anything at all, considering such things non-essentials, and yet somehow be catholic.
Likewise, his preferred self-moniker, reformed catholic, also makes little sense from the proper definition of catholic. If his faith is truly whole, then why should it need reform? Even if catholic just means “inclusive” or “universal,” then why the need to be “reformed”? It seems to me that no reformation is warranted for someone who wants to commune with idolaters. Why reform them or anyone else when they’re not cut off from your altar? What is actually gained by reform, if not communion?
I must admit that I honestly do not understand the Leithart version of catholicity (though I suspect what he really means by it). He seems to be a man very much concerned with sound doctrine, and yet soundness of doctrine apparently should have no effect at the chalice. But St. Paul warns us otherwise.
As for how becoming Orthodox or Catholic reflects on converts’ former religious experience, Leithart seems not to be aware of something that is amply available in nearly any convert story out there. Most converts do not, in fact, see their previous religious experiences as wholly devoid of grace, as being defined by unmitigated darkness, but rather as having been in some sense a propaideia—a preparation for receiving the fullness of the Christian faith, a preparation for which they are usually quite grateful. I know very few who look on their former communions as Leithart fears they should. Of course they will look on where they’ve converted to as being better, else they wouldn’t convert. But Leithart would have someone whose convictions run that way stay where he is!
There is quite the irony that, while he quails at the idea of an ex-Protestant convert to Orthodoxy or Rome looking on his previous Protestantism as lacking something, he himself looks upon the Orthodox and Roman Catholics as outright idolaters. Thus, the only solution to this convert syndrome seems to be for everyone to stay where he is. The only possible solution to the extreme contradictions of doctrine between the various communions is pietism, the denial that doctrine even matters.
He seems to apply this pietistic dogma-muzzle selectively, though. After all, he still has big criticisms for many of us. But if we were to convert to his way of thinking, would we not then have to look at our time in our previous communions as, in his words, “living a sub-Christian existence”? In the end, it seems that this argument against conversion is really just a cryptic argument that his Christianity is indeed the one true kind. I have no problem with that, but he should just say it: Don’t become Orthodox or Roman Catholic, because they’re wrong and they’re idolaters. Become (his variety of) Reformed, because it’s the one true way. But I think saying it outright wouldn’t be “catholic” for him.
It seems to me that catholic, at least in this piece by Leithart, is really just a synonym for pietism, dressed up in a grand old word with powerful theological import, yet evacuated of its proper meaning.
Update: Here’s a related critique by a Lutheran. (Thanks to Chris Jones in the comments on this post for pointing this out.)
And here’s another Orthodox response (part 1) to Leithart, written by a member of my parish, pointing out how Leithart’s “Reformed catholic” view is at odds with most of the Reformers and has its provenance in Zwinglianism. See also part 2 and part 3.
Also worth reading is this thorough response by a Roman Catholic, especially pointing out the deep connection in the ancient Church between doctrinal orthodoxy and communion.
Update: Leithart has issued a clarification on what he means by “idolatry” and so forth. Here’s my response:
It seems to me that he again wants to define a word (idolatry) in a new way and then claim that his definition is the right one. We “brethren” of his are, it seems, too idolatrous to be Idolatrous.
His analogizing doesn’t work here, though I suppose one could pick up his analogy and turn it around a bit—it is Protestants in their myriad factions who are manifestly those who have departed from any sense of an undivided Church, set up their own “high places,” and then are demanding that the Temple in Jerusalem be torn down so as to legitimize their schism and heresy. (I would of course also include Rome as having departed from the Church, though the pattern doesn’t quite fit the analogy.)
Rome left the Church through heresy and schism, and Protestants left Rome through the same process. It is now nearly the height of anachronism to demand that the Orthodox join the (at least) twice-separated Protestants in their innovative doctrines and man-made worship.
In any event, the analogy doesn’t really hold. Ancient Israel is not the Church but only a foreshadowing of it. One could still be part of ancient Israel on the basis of birth and circumcision, but entering and remaining in the Church require the apostolic faith. One could not really divide from ancient Israel, but division from the Church is clearly shown as possible in not only the New Testament but in all subsequent history.
Again, Leithart presumes his own relativistic ecclesiology and simply expects the rest of us to follow. He claims that believing in one true Church is “easy” (as though something being “easy” is an argument against it), but in our relativistic age, that claim actually ruffles quite a lot of feathers—despite that point of ecclesiology having been almost universally adopted prior to the 20th century, even in Protestant circles. His “divided Church” ecclesiology is really the much “easier” approach, aligning as it does with the spirit of the age and its mindless call to “inclusiveness.”
It’s easy (there’s that word again) to call someone a “sectarian” when you don’t want to measure up to what it takes to be in communion. But the one who has cut him off from communion from Orthodoxy is not the Orthodox, but himself, and he remains so deliberately, thus revealing himself as being the sectarian.
He is at least consistent when he says that, according to his ecclesiology, Christ is divided(!). What that reveals about his Christology is left as an exercise to the reader. (Or, you know, St. Paul.)
A commenter on Facebook also adds this: His “clarification” is just as confusing as his previous post. The divided kingdoms were divided as God’s judgment against them, and to top it off the Northern kingdom was completely eradicated. Does this mean then that God will send in a group to eradicate the sectarian “northern kingdoms” of Protestantism, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism?
Another commenter has this to say: There’s no difference between ‘high place’ and ‘golden calf’ worship re: the Northern Kingdom. Both were part of an attempt to accommodate YHWH worship to the then current culture by Jeroboam son of Nebat (in fact, Scripture generally lumps them together as ‘the sin of Jeroboam son of Nebat’). I see nothing in Orthodox or Catholic worship that compares. Quite the opposite. The comparable current trend is evangelical worship that attempts to accommodate the worship of Christ to the current American culture. A lot of the comments on your blog tell me that there are some folks out there who need to go back and reread these passages closely.
Before he brought up I Kings for no good reason, I thought he was connecting the ‘idolatry’ charge directly to the Eucharist…if so, that’s an old (and to my mind valid) charge made by the Reformation against Rome (at least since the Libri Caroligni), but doesn’t apply to Orthodox practice at all.
On Saturday, May 12, Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: Exploring Belief Systems Through the Lens of the Ancient Christian Faith turned one year old!
It’s honestly a little hard to believe. This little path has now been winding about for more than three years.
O&H was originally done as a series of lectures offered at St. George Orthodox Cathedral in Charleston, West Virginia, beginning in November of 2008. At the time, I conceived of it as something of an exercise in encyclopedia-making, an attempt to catalogue nearly every religious movement in the world (especially Christian) and offer a brief summary of its similarities and differences with the Orthodox Church. I had no expectation that hardly anyone would actually attend the lectures, since I figured that relatively few folks would have an interest in such questions. The folks at the cathedral proved me very much wrong.
When I came to St. Paul Orthodox Church in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, in July of 2009, I wanted to offer some adult education classes that Fall, and since there were already so many other things happening connected with newly taking up the pastorate at a parish that made any major writing projects almost impossible, I figured I would pull O&H out of my files, give each talk some revision, and then deliver them again.
Before I actually delivered the talks, I ran into John Maddex, CEO of Conciliar Media (which includes both Conciliar Press and Ancient Faith Radio) at the Missions and Evangelism Conference at the Antiochian Village in September of 2009. I grew up as the son of radio missionaries, and with his extensive background in Christian radio, we found we had some things in common. He was even aware of who my father is, and it turned out that he had helped run a local Christian radio station in northern Ohio that I listened to as a kid.
In the course of our conversations, I mentioned my plans to deliver O&H here in Emmaus, and he and his wife Tonya both agreed that they would be interested in recordings of the lectures for Ancient Faith Radio. Not long after that, I received in the mail a box containing a microphone / mp3 recorder, something of a step of faith on their part, since they had never heard me speak or even read what I’d written!
That Fall, I recorded O&H in Emmaus. Turnout at those lectures was also quite good, filling our parish hall nearly to capacity. Soon after the recordings began, O&H started airing on AFR as a podcast. I also started getting a lot of email from listeners—some highly critical and even hostile, but mostly exceptionally kind and positive.
In late February of 2010, I got an email from the acquisitions editor at Conciliar Press, saying that John had asked her to contact me to see if I would be interested in making O&H into a book, that the podcasts had been so popular that they were convinced it would also do well in print. In all honesty, I was exceptionally surprised.
I had in my younger days imagined myself being a published writer, but eventually I put away that childish vanity and settled on the idea that blogging was pretty much going to be my only real publication. So when CP approached me with the proposal, it hardly seemed real. Nevertheless, within about 45 minutes of receiving the initial email from CP, I responded positively. How could I not?
I then entered the process of getting hierarchical approval for the publication and, once that was secured, began working on a complete overhaul of the original manuscripts. I reordered the chapters, did some renaming, corrected errors, nuanced some things that had been phrased too absolutely, and added some new material. I started out with lectures totaling about 60,000 words and ended with a book that was roughly 72,000 words. Along the way, CP did a lot of work to refine the editing and also produced the cover featured above. It went to press the following Spring, in 2011, and went on sale in May. The following November, it was made available as an e-book.
I have been honored and humbled by this whole process, and I am most especially immensely grateful to my wife who is a good check on my temptation to vanity. I’m grateful to John Maddex who put the resources of Conciliar Media behind this material twice and also to all the listeners to the podcasts and to the readers of the book.
You may already be aware that I also have another, ongoing podcast with other lectures (and recently, sermons) entitled Roads From Emmaus, and I’ve also signed a contract with CP for another book tentatively entitled An Introduction to God: Encountering the Divine in Orthodox Christianity which is in the revision process. We’ve also lately been discussing the possibility of a book of essays, as well.
Again, thank you for your prayers and support in all of these projects. I love doing them, and I hope they’re useful to you.
I was fascinated today to run across this call to the Eucharist, written from a Reformed perspective, by Peter J. Leithart, pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and an eminent Evangelical theologian. (Seeing this, along with my recent posts on Evangelicals observing Lent, I’ve decided to create a new category for posts on this weblog: Evangelical Appropriation of Tradition.)
This is a fascinating self-criticism from within Evangelicalism, but I have to admit that after I got to the end, I had hoped there would be more to it. There is something very much missing from this, and as I attempted to remember how I would have read this as I would have as an Evangelical sixteen or so years ago, it came to me. There must be Evangelicals who read this piece and are thinking: Why?
The argument that Leithart makes here for Evangelicals to put the Eucharist at the center of their worship is really pretty weak: It helps Christians to remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. Yes, well, we can remember such things in other ways, can’t we? If it’s really just about remembering, why should we have to break out the wafers and grape juice all the time? (And, you know, we have to vacuum the carpet afterward.) What does all that ritual actually do, anyway?
Mind you, I think Leithart is actually right about all the criticisms he levels at the results of a de-liturgized worship life. There can be no Church without the Eucharist. Christians are politically vulnerable without the Eucharist. Christian life is reduced to fads and programmes without the Eucharist; or, in the words of Fr. John S. Romanides, “When theology is false, then Christianity is reduced to activities.”
But, why? Why is a de-liturgized worship so vulnerable to all these distortions? Why do Evangelicals largely not see the point in the Eucharist?
It is because the Evangelical Eucharist is, to use Leithart’s term, merely a Sign. If it’s really just a reminder—a sign—then once I feel like I’ve gotten my memory in order, I don’t need the reminder any more. (And let’s not forget that doing communion all the time looks suspiciously Catholic.)
But now, if the Eucharist is actually real, if it’s actually what Jesus said it is, “food indeed” and “drink indeed,” if eating and drinking it actually put life into you, if it’s really so serious that you could get sick or die if you partake unworthily—well, that’s something else. When you’re given the opportunity to eat and drink God, then of course you will put that at the center of your worship.
And when that Eucharist is truly the flesh and blood of God Himself, then there is no way you could ever stand to surround the act of communion with anything remotely faddish (if you do, it will clearly be a blasphemy). Eating and drinking God requires a dignity and power and reverence that are entirely beyond whiting out the lyrics of the latest Lady Gaga song to be replaced by what a friend of mine calls “Jesus is my girlfriend” music. There’s a reason why, when most of us picture Heaven (including the Biblical writers), we do not think of a pop concert.
And if you are eating and drinking God, and that’s putting life into you, then you are going to be granted, quite frankly, an otherworldly power that will not only make the unity of the Church utterly critical (not to mention, obvious), but you will also not be beholden to the temporal, transient temptations of this world, whether political or in other cultural ways.
In traditional Christian theology, the Eucharist creates an extension of the very incarnation of Christ. But in the Evangelical theological world, where associating physical matter with holiness is just idolatry, then you are creating an incarnational no-man’s land where holiness cannot touch. But you still have to live there, so you fill it up with programmes and politics, not to mention emotion and intellect.
A Christian life whose weekly high point is essentially a concert followed by a lecture (even a very good lecture) is not going to have the kind of otherworldly power as one where you get to eat and drink God. It just can’t hold a candle.
Leithart also speaks of the priesthood of all believers (and, indeed, the Orthodox believe in that, too), but what is the point of a priesthood who really aren’t offering up any real sacrifice? A priesthood of “signs” is really just a priesthood of pretense, of pretending. No one puts on costly vestments and takes up golden vessels if he believes that what he places into them is just a symbol of something that’s not really there. (Well, some do, but eventually, their theological descendents always eventually start to put those things off, because they just don’t see the point any more.)
The problem with Leithart’s call to Evangelicals to come back to the Eucharist is that he doesn’t give them any overriding, compelling, positive reason to do so. His negative reasons are good, but theology has to have its own inner purpose beyond preventing or addressing dysfunction. The Eucharist’s purpose is not to hold back these distorting tendencies he identifies so concisely. Rather, its purpose is for those who receive it to become partakers of the divine nature.
And when you’re doing that, well, that changes everything.
Update: A friend points out this piece which examines all these issues in terms of their Augustinian theological background from an Evangelical (but apparently non-Zwinglian) perspective. He also rightly points out that Leithart himself probably would not embrace the fully Zwinglian “pure sign” sacramental theology I make reference to above. But of course Zwingli’s ideas about the sacraments are the context for almost all Evangelicals, and Calvin’s Eucharistic theology (from which Leithart is drawing) has its weaknesses precisely for the reasons outlined in the post on Augustine’s sacramentology.
Another point well-made by my friend is that the real reason why there is not likely to be any sort of Eucharistic revival among Evangelicals is that they really have no actual priesthood. It’s not something that can simply be started up by people who read some books. If you have no connection to the ancient traditions of Christian priesthood, what would actually make you think that the prayers of your newly-created priesthood actually would be the means by which God transforms bread and wine into body and blood? Ultimately, the various elements of tradition that are being appropriated here by some Evangelicals will necessarily be distorted, because they have been removed from the context of the tradition that gives them their power and meaning.
It is Lent, and therefore many things have been happening. We hardly get much of a chance to catch our breath during Lent (despite a number of us being quite full of hot air). Somehow, though, in the midst of all this, there has been some recording going on here, and of course there are bits that have been recorded that had not been previously published. Thus, I thought I might give something of a recap of stuff that’s been released recently that you may have missed, as well as some items that are newly online.
A few weeks ago, St. Paul’s here in Emmaus (my church) hosted Richard Barrett to give a couple of talks for a retreat on Orthodox church music. (On his weblog, he recently reflected on his visit to Emmaus, among other places.) Here are the two titles, along with brief descriptions:
- Psalterion as pulpit: The privilege, craft, and discipline of Orthodox liturgical song: The Byzantine rite provides a unique opportunity for the church singer to preach the Orthodox Christian faith in its fullness. In this talk, the practical and spiritual implications for the cantor and choir director are discussed, exploring how liturgical music is a responsibility to be honored, a skill to be learned, and a calling to be respected.
- Mingling Prophecy With Melody: The Ethos of Orthodox Liturgical Music: St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great both describe music as the sweetener that God has given us so that we will want to worship Him. How does music work in that way? What do we sing, who sings it, and why? How does Orthodox liturgical music "set the tone" for our worship? This talk discusses some fundamental musical concepts and explores how they interact with our liturgy and our faith.
These talks were both well received, and they even include a bit of singing. My contribution to them was mainly the introduction at the beginning, though I do hum a bit of ison at certain points.
Something you probably saw (but I think is worth highlighting again) is my hour-long, airport parking lot interview with General Hospital actor and musician Jonathan Jackson, who is a catechumen (along with his wife and children) in the Orthodox Church, in the process of converting to the faith. The Jacksons are slated to be baptized this coming Holy Saturday (April 14, by the Orthodox reckoning). Here’s the chat:
- From General Hospital to the Hospital of Souls: Interview with Jonathan Jackson: Four-time Emmy award winner Jonathan Jackson, star of ‘General Hospital’ and ‘Tuck Everlasting,’ talks with Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick about his journey into Orthodox Christianity, his family, how he lives his faith as a Hollywood actor, music and writing, on this special episode of Roads From Emmaus.
Jonathan and I have stayed in touch in the weeks following the interview, and I’ve found him to be a remarkably earnest, thoughtful man. We’ve shared bits of writing with each other, including him offering some insightful comments on the manuscript I have in production (tentatively entitled An Introduction to God: Encountering Orthodox Christianity). He’s also shared some of his music with me, which I now recommend—it’s also earnest and thoughtful and not at all a mere “side project” for someone who’s otherwise got his career elsewhere engaged.
Finally, the newest release is the completion of a talk that is the last in my Meeting the World series. This one is a broadside against pietism in Orthodoxy. Here’s both parts:
At the beginning of the second part, I apply the naval cannons to that famous saying attributed to Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” For those interested in some other comments on pietism, take a listen to “Giving Up Something” for Lent (original weblog post here).
All this stuff is edited and produced by the fine folks at Ancient Faith Radio, to whom I am ever in debt.
I believe that the church in which I was baptized and brought up ‘is’ in very truth ‘the Church’, i.e. ‘the true’ Church and the ‘only’ true Church . . . I am therefore compelled to regard all other Christian churches as deficient, and in many cases can identify these deficiencies accurately enough. Therefore, for me, Christian reunion is simply universal conversion to Orthodoxy. I have no confessional loyalty; my loyalty belongs solely to the ‘Una Sancta’.
- Fr. Georges Florovsky, “Confessional Loyalty in the Ecumenical Movement”
A number of times in my life, especially since I have been ordained, and even moreso since I began writing and speaking publicly, it has been suggested to me (usually second- or third-hand) that I am some kind of fundamentalist—meaning not merely someone who holds to fundamentals, i.e., orthodoxy, but rather someone who is an intolerant militant.
Likewise, it has also been suggested to me (again, usually indirectly) that I am some kind of ecumenist—and here is meant not merely someone who will bother talking with other confessions and religions, but who will compromise with them on the truth.
I sometimes wish I could get these two groups of people together to let them have it out, and perhaps then I might know which sort of extremism best suits me by virtue of deciding who among these partisans I find most sympathetic. I suspect I will never get my wish, however.
Nevertheless, I believe it is the responsibility of any gentleman who aspires to integrity to take the words of his critics to heart, if only to remember why he does not agree with them. Also, I believe the issue of where exactly an Orthodox Christian ought to draw the line in these questions is very much something worth reflecting on. (I have written on this before, mind you, but that has never stopped me from doing so again.)
Suffice it to say, I do not believe that either fundamentalism or ecumenism (each as defined above) is befitting an Orthodox Christian, the first because it is a sin against love and the second because, well, it is a sin against love.
That fundamentalism is a sin against love is evident to all but the fundamentalist himself. This attitude, that it is I who possess the truth in and of myself, that it is I who am right, is fundamentally an error. Orthodoxy is not a measure by which people are judged to be correct or in error. Orthodoxy, because it is the truth, is actually Jesus Christ. Jesus said that He is the truth, and so we Orthodox rightly affirm that the truth is not a set of concepts which one can get right or wrong, but that the truth is a Person. Therefore, the one who is truly in union with that Person cannot be a fundamentalist, because he will have transcended worldly categories of rational correctness. He also cannot be militant, because the One with Whom he is in union is pure gentleness and respects the free will of mankind, having granted it Himself in the first place.
Ecumenism is likewise a sin against love, and, again, that is news to the ecumenist. He probably thinks he is acting in the interests of love, setting aside all that pesky dogma that divides and does not unite. But love does not lie, not even to spare the feelings of the beloved. And ecumenism is fundamentally based on the lie that there is no truth, that there are only “truths,” whose meaning never touches mankind such that he becomes responsible to something beyond himself. Rather, these “truths” are put in service to mankind.
Both fundamentalism and ecumenism (again, I stress: as defined above) are in their essence not remotely Christian. Why? It is because their purpose is always born of and directed toward this world. The fundamentalist serves worldly logic, always demanding correctness, while the ecumenist also serves another worldly logic, demanding instead social aims such as “justice” (defined typically in purely material terms) or “unity” (again, in material terms, not in terms of uniting with the one Christ). Neither fundamentalism nor ecumenism are actually about the truth, because they are about mere concepts (often about the truth), not about the Person Jesus Christ (Who is the truth).
Orthodoxy’s telos has always been directed away from this world, toward the Person Who is Truth Himself. That is why, as per Florovsky’s quote above, an Orthodox Christian must believe in only one Church, the Una Sancta (“One Holy,” from the Nicene Creed). Why? Because we believe in the whole Christ, according to the phrase of St. Augustine that Florovsky himself loved, totus Christus, caput et corpus (“the whole Christ, head and body”). Christ cannot be divided, and so there cannot be many churches. There can be only one Church.
Believing this and defending this to those who would deny it does not make one a fundamentalist. Why? It is because the uniqueness of Christ, which is the uniqueness of the Church, is not any human achievement. It is nothing for which I can take any credit. It is only something to which I can attempt to adhere. By my sins, I frequently separate myself from the Church, and it is only at the eschaton, the end of all things, when it will be known whether I will be fully and permanently joined with Christ.
Admitting that I am a sinner and do not understand the truth fully also does not make one an ecumenist. Why? Because God actually did reveal the truth, and He revealed that He is the truth. We cannot compromise on the nature of the truth—Who is a Person—any more than we can compromise on any other person’s nature. We can argue and issue agreed statements and overlook various points of doctrine all we want, but none of that will change the nature of Christ. He is Who He is. Working out a “confession” to which one must be loyal or to which disparate parties can agree is ultimately irrelevant to the reality, as though some “version” of Christianity could be found to be sufficient. The task of the Christian is not to discover the truth (or worse, “my” truth) so that it can be publicized to mankind but to be responsible to what was actually revealed to mankind. There is discovery to be made, but the discovery is how I may further conform myself to the revelation, not the revelation to me.
Yes, I believe that the Orthodox Church truly is the only Church. Seeing what I have seen, how can I believe otherwise? And I also wonder, how can anyone else who holds to some faith believe otherwise concerning his own faith? If what you believe is not truly the truth, why do you believe it? How is it worth your dignity and your loyalty if it is not the truth? Nothing is worthy of the name truth that does not call humanity to its knees in repentance to be transformed into what is higher and nobler.
What makes belief in the Una Sancta something that cannot be used as a weapon against others, something that cannot be turned into a fundamentalism, is that none of us truly knows whether he will finally be found in the Church at the end of time. The Church is not mine. The question is really whether I am the Church’s.
Likewise, the Una Sancta cannot be turned into a project of ecumenism, because the Church is truly the Body of Christ, the corpus of the totus Christus, and there is no amount of word-wrangling that will change the God-man Jesus Christ. In the end we must stand (in the words of the great Akathist of Romanos) “as mute as fish” before this mystery of incarnation.
Let us pray that in the end we will be found not to have neglected so great a salvation.
Update: For the sake of clarity, I thought I should make explicit that the definitions of fundamentalism and ecumenism used above are not my own, nor do I prefer them. To me, both words are almost entirely evacuated of any real meaning these days. I will, however, proffer my (observed) definition for fundamentalist as found in the wider culture:
fundamentalist, n. Anyone who is more serious about religion than I am, especially if he owns a gun.
In my previous post, a comment from a Protestant challenged me to argue for Lent purely from Scripture, also saying that his own experience of Lent, like Mark Galli’s, was pretty miserable. That led me to consider that I actually had left several important things out in the previous post, most especially touching upon the question of the dualism of Evangelicals and what that might do to their appropriation of Lent. Following is my response to that comment, which I thought merited a post of its own:
If you want for me to reconstruct Lent using only a sort of “raw” reading of the Scriptures (i.e., without reference to any interpretive tradition), of course that is impossible. But then again, so are things like having an annual festal celebration of the Resurrection (Easter) or Christ’s birth (Christmas), weekly worship services on Sunday morning, and Sunday School.
But that takes us rather to a more basic question, which is on what authority any Christian does anything at all. You want me to show you everything from the Scriptures, but that begs a deeper question—Whose interpretation of them should we use? There is no such thing as a truly raw reading of the Bible. Every text has a context, and major element of the context of reading a text is the tradition in which one is reading it, even if that tradition is something as elementary as what language one happens to know. But of course Biblical interpretation involves a whole lot more than that, and the historic fact that Church tradition actually preceded, generated and defined the Scripture complicates matters even further.
But anyway, probably the deeper issue here is that the “Lent” you as a Protestant have experienced is quite different from the experience I as an Orthodox Christian also call “Lent.” Whatever combination of fasting, abstinence, church services, devotions and confession you may be doing is not the same as what I’m doing. We are using the same word to refer to two different things. You don’t mention what kind of Protestant you are, but there really is no parallel between anything in Protestantism and the Orthodox Christian experience of this season. Even fasting alone—though it could theoretically involve the exact same prescriptions in terms of types and amounts of food eaten—is a totally different experience.
Why is this? It is because of the dualism of Protestantism, its inner feeling that physical matter has nothing really to do with holiness or the spiritual life at all. So physical practices can never really be more than self-discipline or pure memorial. It can only be about thinking and feeling, because Protestants see no link between the body’s efforts and the soul’s salvation.
But for the Orthodox Christian, physical matter is precisely the stuff by which our salvation was accomplished, because God became man, and He really suffered in the flesh, and He really says we have to eat His flesh and drink His blood, or else we have no life in us. And of course the Bible itself is filled with all sorts of spiritual significance for physical matter, not just for healing of death and disease, but also for the engendering of faith and holiness. So it makes sense to us that asceticism and sacrament should be a normal part of our lives.
In short, an “argument” for Lent to a dualistic Christian from a non-dualistic Christian will never make sense. There are no shared assumptions. Lent for the Orthodox is something we do within and guided by the Orthodox Church. It is not a set of autonomously operating spiritual disciplines that will operate outside of the actual community of the Church that was founded by the Apostles. Protestants don’t have that, and they generally don’t want it, so it makes little sense for them to want to appropriate something that comes from within that context. (Mind you, I would argue that it therefore also makes little sense that they would accept the Scriptures, since they were written, compiled and canonized in an ecclesial context they would reject—bishops, sacraments, asceticism, etc.)
As for fasting and other ascetical practices in the New Testament, I’m afraid that you’re not seeing them because your tradition has conditioned you not to see them. But they’re really everywhere. I again recommend this article for a detailed, book-by-book examination of asceticism in the New Testament.
Having said all that, though, I honestly think that if you’ve chosen your spiritual tradition, then trying to add Lent into it where it does not already exist is rather futile. Grafting an oak onto a willow is just not going to work, and trying to incorporate even a little of the ancient Christian traditions of Lent—which presuppose a non-dualistic understanding of spirituality—will only frustrate you. The context is wrong, and so the results will be distorted.
If, however, your spiritual tradition is something you can highly customize and alter as you go (rather than something to which you are called to be faithful), adding or subtracting spiritual practices as you like, then I don’t see why you’d need any authoritative argument at all—even from Scripture. Pick what you like.
Update: This post is now available as an audio recording at Ancient Faith Radio.
Mark Galli recently posted an article entitled Giving Up Self-Discipline for Lent which is actually a fairly fascinating look into what Lenten ascetical effort looks like from within a Pietist tradition. Pietism is, in brief, the belief that the private relationship with God is paramount and that doctrine and shared tradition in community are relatively unimportant. (For more on this, see Pietism as an ecclesiological heresy by Christos Yannaras.)
That such a piece would be posted on the Christianity Today site is certainly a sign of the times. Lent itself has been religio non grata for Evangelicals’ low-church Protestantism descended from the Radical Reformation for quite a long time. I’ve been surprised in recent years to hear of Evangelicals recovering the idea of Lent, and here we have an example of someone from that tradition reflecting critically on that appropriation.
Or do we? CT is certainly an Evangelical publication, but who is Mark Galli, and why does he construct his argument in the way he does? We’ll get to that, but let’s first look at the argument itself and how I as an Orthodox Christian would evaluate it.
The narrative here has a classic rhetorical shape: Appear to be criticizing or dismissing something, then reveal how you’re not really criticizing it, but instead revealing its true message contra the popular impression of that thing. Thus, Galli seems to be dismissing Lent (“the Grinch that stole Lent”) initially, but he eventually says that its true value is something else.
How does this actually work out in the article? What he is indeed criticizing is that Lent really is about self-discipline. Self-discipline as an inherent good is part of the Pietist package, and it makes sense to approach Lent from that angle (if one approaches it at all) from within Evangelicalism. Modern Evangelicalism is so steeped in the culture of self-improvement and self-help (not to mention, self-service) that Lent actually starts looking pretty good, so long as it’s understood in this Pietist manner.
And why shouldn’t it be understood this way? Evangelicals’ main cultural contact for Lent is American Roman Catholics, whose Lenten asceticism no longer even necessarily includes actual fasting on Fridays—to say nothing of every day during the season, which is Roman Catholics’ ancient tradition, giving up even dairy, which is why there are Shrove Tuesday pancakes and (around these parts), Fastnacht Day. Rather, what they see is “giving something up for Lent.” Picking something to give up for Lent is a perfectly Pietistic thing to do. (Pietism has, alas, affected not only the churches of the Reformation.)
Because there is no doctrine of theosis (divinization/deification, the process of becoming united with God in His divine energies) in the world of Pietism—nor really in any of the Reformation churches—asceticism has nothing to do with uniting with God. For us who believe in theosis, asceticism’s very purpose is the retraining of the will, not for the sake of mere self-discipline, but rather because the will has to become receptive to divine grace in order to receive it. But that doesn’t exist outside of theosis, so fasting or giving up anything at all for Lent will not, as Galli says, actually lead to more self-discipline. That wasn’t its purpose when it was commanded by Christ, so attempting to use it for that won’t actually accomplish it. Asceticism’s purpose is the retraining of the will, not the self-improvement of the body. Fasting is not a diet to help us lose weight or to become more “responsible.” It is the ongoing struggle against the passions.
What’s also missing from Pietistic asceticism is the guidance of tradition and community. Remember that Pietism’s concern is the private relationship with God, so there is little room for the idea that one should have a father-confessor guiding one’s asceticism, who is himself guided by centuries of Church tradition and experience. It’s something you do on your own and for yourself. So why shouldn’t you just pick and choose for yourself how you’re going to do it?
Galli essentially shares some of these same criticisms that Orthodoxy has of this Pietistic approach to Lent, though certainly he doesn’t make his criticisms from within Orthodox tradition, so there is no theosis here to reveal asceticism’s traditional Christian purpose. He also does not seem to have any problem with the individualized approach to Lent, so he’s keeping at least that bit of Pietism intact. This leads us to ask just how it is he has determined what he calls “the real point of Lent”:
Here’s the one invaluable thing that Lent teaches: Yes, Martha, you are the undisciplined, self-centered human being you suspected you were. Yes, Frank, you are in many respects a miserable excuse for a human being. Yes, we are sinners, and sinners without hope. When it comes to the really important things—like learning to have faith, hope, and love—we can’t do a blessed thing to improve ourselves. These come as gifts or they don’t come at all.
To me, participating in a Lenten discipline is my chance to do a little play acting. What would it be like to live as if the law were in fact sufficient? How about for 40 days I pretend that I really can improve myself in the sight of God? Let’s see how that works for me.
What I find Lent after Lent after Lent is that Lent is a miserable way to live! This is one reason we’re so glad when Lent is over! If Lent were such a great idea, if it really did make us better Christians, you’d think we’d want to turn Lent into a lifestyle. But no, we don’t want to do that precisely because Lent is an onerous form of existence. It’s the life of duty. Life under law. Life as a death march.
So here we have to figure out exactly from where within the Reformation Galli is making his criticisms of the Pietistic approach to Lent. To figure that out, I had to do a little digging.
Galli is of course one of the editors at CT, but some Googling reveals that he is also a member of the Church of the Resurrection in the Wheaton, Illinois, area. And to whom do they belong? That also took some digging. (What is it with churches that don’t tell you up front which denomination they’re part of?) They belong to the Anglican Mission in America, a conservative breakaway from the Episcopal Church USA (which has as a body gone quite off the deep end in recent decades). So Galli is coming from that interesting, multifarious and confusing world of Anglican traditions (note well the plural).
But he is essentially using a Lutheran argument, which is not surprising coming from a conservative Anglican. They’ve always had a certain affection for Lutheranism. Martin Luther, as you remember, identified good works as being opposed to faith—which was not St. Paul’s argument at all; Paul was instead concerned to contrast grace with the works of the Law of Moses, not with good works in general (Luther’s error was to conflate “the [Mosaic] law” with “good works”). (For more on this, see the rather bountiful references to the inherent close connection between faith and good works in the entire Epistle of James, which Luther was none too fond of.)
So the best that good works can offer—and of course asceticism was very much on Luther’s mind as a “good work,” seeing he was an Augustinian monk—is the same that the Mosaic Law can offer. It is a tutor to show you what a rotten sinner you are. That’s what Paul says about the Mosaic Law, but he doesn’t say it about asceticism. (Instead, the whole New Testament actually speaks quite highly of asceticism and its place in making the will receptive to grace. But never mind that.)
So what we really have here in Galli’s article is essentially a less Pietistic sector of the Reformation criticizing a more Pietistic one.
For Orthodox Christians, Lent and all of our ascetical effort (which includes fasting around half the days of the year, not just Lent, as well as other ascetical practices, none of which include picking something to give up) are about neither the Pietistic emphasis on self-discipline and individual piety and belief nor in the more Lutheran concern of revealing us to be sinners (thus representing the continuum between the Radical and Magisterial Reformations, respectively). There is nothing wrong with either goal, of course, but that is not the point of asceticism.
And I have to say that asceticism is rather a silly method of showing yourself to be a sinner. Wouldn’t it be easier just to take a long, hard look at yourself? And what about the Pharisees who “succeed” in their asceticism? It would seem to have the opposite effect on them. Centuries upon centuries of Christian tradition is finally about “play acting”? Yeah, that does sound pretty “miserable” and “onerous” to me, but that’s because you’re doing it wrong.
It actually doesn’t particularly matter if we succeed in “self-improvement” by means of asceticism. If we do, great, but if not, what we are actually trying to achieve is something different. It is becoming more receptive to the free gift of divine grace, so that we can become by grace what Christ is by nature, so that we can be united to God in His energies, becoming partakers of the divine nature.
It also doesn’t matter if we reveal ourselves to be sinners or not in practicing asceticism. To be honest, if you’re not aware that you’re a sinner simply by being in the presence of the beauty and glory of Orthodox Christian worship, then I’m not sure what will reveal it to you. But I suppose if you belong to a religion that does not know about that beauty, it may well take something else to reveal this to you, because you’re cut off from the true revelation of that glory.
Because he is probably far from experiencing the amazingly heartrending beauty that we Orthodox experience in Lent, I can see why someone like Galli might find Lent to be “a miserable way to live” and why he’d never want to “turn Lent into a lifestyle.” But if you’re Orthodox, Lent is very much “a lifestyle”! We’re always in the process of struggling against the passions of our will, and asceticism is our constant companion—Lent is only one season in which it is intensified. And if we do it the right way—as part of the Orthodox Christian community—it is rather far from being a miserable life. Indeed, the true ascetics always have a curiously indomitable joy.
For the Orthodox, Great Lent’s purpose is possible and revealed only within the actual community of faith, both within space (including all those currently in the Church) and time (including all those who have come before). It is not an individual achievement. It is something that is done within the Eucharistic, liturgical community, which is why Great Lent so radically transforms our daily liturgical life. It is also perhaps why so many people who may not otherwise make confession a frequent practice often find it within themselves to come to confession during the Lenten springtime (and “spring” is what Lent actually means, by the way)—they feel something awakening, and they know that the only possibility for its coming to full alertness is to reconcile and renew with the community with the guidance of their father-confessor.
What is missing both from the Pietism that Galli criticizes and the Reformation opposition between faith and works that he endorses is the doctrine of theosis, which is communion with the Holy Trinity. That communion between us men and women and the Divine Community Himself (for He is three Persons!) is what drives our asceticism and is the inner meaning of Great Lent.
For a great deal more on what asceticism actually means and how it’s everywhere in the New Testament, contra what the Reformation says about such things, I very much recommend a piece by Fr. Georges Florovsky to which I linked above, The Ascetic Ideal and the New Testament: Reflections on the Critique of the Theology of the Reformation. In English, at least, you can hardly do any better.