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?
Not that I watch awards shows more than perhaps once every five years or so (and I didn’t see this one, either), but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is the first time that Orthodox Christian monastic enclave Mount Athos was mentioned in an Emmy speech. This is Jonathan Jackson winning his fifth Emmy.
Readers may recall my interview with Mr. Jackson shortly before he and his family were baptized into the Orthodox Church earlier this year.
I know that some may greet this sort of thing with skepticism, especially since fame is not exactly conducive to salvation. The value of these kinds of moments, though, is that Orthodoxy is making its way into the public square.
Of course, this can be done badly, and fame can be a temptation in at least two ways: The first is the more obvious, and that is that fame can destroy humility. I’m not sure that many Orthodox people would therefore argue that acting, politics, sports, writing, broadcasting and almost anything which puts one’s work into the general stream of the culture should all be professions avoided by Orthodox Christians. (Some would, I’m sure.) I talked about the intersection of Hollywood acting with genuine faith and its problems for humility with Mr. Jackson in my interview with him. That, for me, was one of the more fascinating parts of the talk.
The second temptation that fame gives for the Orthodox Christian is like unto the first, but moves in a different vector, and that is to cheapen the faith by turning it into a selling point or an exotic accessory for the media personality. That can be done, and I think it’s probably happening in countries where most people are at least nominally Orthodox Christians. (Think, for instance, about the accusations Russian politicians get when they are visibly photographed in church.) But there is also a way publicly to witness to the Orthodox faith without cheapening it, even if that witness is sometimes only a hint. You may not agree, but I think the above video is a good example of this more genuine approach.
I honestly wonder (and I don’t say this in some sort of romantic way) how many folks watched Mr. Jackson’s speech and asked themselves who the monks of Mount Athos are and what it means that they pray for the salvation of the world. And perhaps a handful of them googled them, and perhaps a smaller handful started to read about their faith.
Update: As I imagined could happen, this post got a spike in hits over the past few days, mainly from people searching for some combination of “Jonathan Jackson” and “Orthodox” or “religion.” It seems he got a few people wondering.
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.
This morning, after Matins, I high-tailed it across New Jersey over to Newark Liberty International Airport, pulled up to the Departures area at Terminal A, and picked up a man holding a tray of coffee. We drove to the airport parking, picked a spot, and proceeded to chat for about ninety minutes, about sixty of which I caught on tape.
The man was (as you can see from the photo) Emmy award winning actor Jonathan Jackson, who is perhaps best known for his role as “Lucky Spencer” (son of the mighty super-couple Luke and Laura) on “General Hospital.” Jonathan and his family are currently catechumens of the Orthodox Church, preparing for baptism this coming Holy Saturday, the day before Pascha (Easter).
I’ll let you listen to the interview yourself for all the details of our chat, but I will say that it was a genuine pleasure to conduct. One occasionally finds people that convert to Orthodoxy for various reasons (many of which can, indeed, be good), but it’s always such a delight to find someone who is entering into the Church because of a diligent and earnest desire for the truth. Jonathan has that. But this post isn’t really about that. (But the interview is!)
What this weblog entry is actually about is how a lowly, no-account priest like me got to interview a Hollywood heartthrob, especially because, when his name first came to my attention, I had never heard of him. (He didn’t seem to mind.)
The story essentially goes like this: In the process of exploring the history of Christianity, Jonathan and his sister ended up coming across Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (also on Amazon) and reading it together. Out of the blue, she contacted me this past November to ask if I’d be willing to send a couple signed copies out to them over on the West Coast, as a surprise Christmas gift. She also asked if I’d be willing to be introduced to her brother.
As I’ve mentioned in the past, I often get people contacting me out of the blue and asking for things from me as a priest that are really properly asked of a priest who is local to them. So my first thought was to try to politely brush them off, because I essentially have a local-only policy about such things. But this wasn’t the same kind of request. She wanted to introduce us, because she thought we might get along, and she also let me know that he was already fully plugged-in with a priest and parish local to him. But I must admit that my first thought was, “What the heck will a soap opera star and I have in common?”
But there was just something about the request that kind of intrigued me, even though I am naturally wary of anyone with fame. (I was particularly amused to hear Jonathan say today, “Fame is ridiculous.” I agree.) So of course I sent the books, but instead of initiating the contact myself, I just put a couple of copies of my business card inside the books.
Sure enough, he contacted me sometime after Christmas. We corresponded a bit over email, and I was particularly amused at the (barely restrained) gushing of some of my female parishioners and friends when I happened to mention the whole thing to them. They couldn’t believe that this guy was really becoming Orthodox, and they also had a hard time believing that their priest (of all people) was somehow connecting with him.
Over the course of our correspondence, he told me that he was going to be on the East Coast with his band Enation to play some shows not terribly far away from Emmaus, all within a couple hours or so. So we decided to try to meet up.
Anyway, we eventually were able to work out a time when we could connect, and in the meantime, I suggested the idea of doing an interview for the Roads From Emmaus podcast. He graciously agreed, and now you can listen to much of our talk.
It was a wonderful encounter. I guess I should probably get familiar with his work, though I can’t say I’m likely to start watching “General Hospital” any time soon. (He’s off the show for the time being, anyway, so I guess that lets me off the hook. I should probably watch Tuck Everlasting at some point, though.)
Two of my lectures from the recent Meeting the World series are now fully online, courtesy of Ancient Faith Radio:
- Meeting the World: Taking the Gospel Into Our Times and Our Places: Part 1, Part 2
Three more will be available in the next several weeks, each broken into two parts. All the pieces in this series are about how Orthodox Christians can engage the surrounding culture.
October 9, 2011
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
I have a friend who is a Ph.D. student at a university in New York City. He is a brilliant, traditional Orthodox Christian who is serious about his faith in Christ and also serious about doing real scholarly work. He is also possibly the smartest person I’ve ever met. I recently had the privilege of spending some time with him at a history symposium in Princeton, and he and I began talking about the doctoral work he was pursuing.
He’s in the theology department at the university, and he said that pretty much everyone on the faculty were almost entirely hostile to traditional Christianity and of course therefore to Orthodoxy. He said that they tolerate his presence but that they are so steeped in secular fundamentalism that they would never consider eventually acknowledging him as a colleague. I asked him why he was there, since he knew he would never break into their world. He answered that he was simply trying to get the work done, but that he regarded most of the modern academy, especially the theological academy, as really too far gone to even include the possibility of working in it from within.
“We have to begin building our own institutions,” he said. “We have to develop our own culture.”
I’ve been thinking about that last comment now for these past couple of weeks, and it came to mind again when I was looking at the epistle reading for today. In it, the Apostle Paul references to the Christians of Corinth from the Old Testament books of Isaiah and Ezekiel these words: “‘Therefore come out from among them, and be separate,’ says the Lord, ‘and touch nothing unclean; and I will receive you, and I will be a Father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Is. 52:11; Ezekiel 20:34, 41).
What did my friend mean? And what does this mean, when the Lord Almighty says to us, “Come out from among them, and be separate”?
It is one of the most basic problems of true Christian life. Indeed, the very word for the Church in Greek, the language used when the Church was conceived, is ekklesia, which means “those who have been called out.” We as the Church have been called out of the world. We have been called to be separate. What does that mean?
In the earliest years of the Church’s life, the separateness of the Christian was pretty obvious. If he was a convert from Judaism in Palestine, he was someone who was withdrawing from the majority Jewish practice. He no longer was ruled by the Mosaic Law and the customs of the rabbis. He at first supplemented his synagogue and Temple worship with the Christian Eucharist, and then, when the Christians were thrown out of the synagogues and when the Romans destroyed the Temple, he worshiped exclusively with Christians.
Likewise, a pagan convert to Christianity was even more conspicuous. He stopped worshiping pagan gods. He wouldn’t join the army, because serving meant worshiping the god your unit took as its patron and also worshiping the Emperor as divine. The Christian also held to a much higher moral standard, and he even was known for loving and caring for the pagans, not only members of his own group, something no one else did.
Whether a convert from Judaism or from paganism, the Christian understood himself to be separate from the world, if only because the world was quite often prepared to put him to death for his faith. And he knew he was separate, because he now belonged to a new community, the Church, the first truly counter-cultural community.
As time went on, in the fourth century Christianity eventually was not only legalized but gradually became the majority religion of the Roman Empire, and the idea of Christendom was born, in which the separateness of Christians from the world was no longer quite as literally obvious as it had been, because now almost everyone was at least formally a Christian. One did not have to leave society in any sense in order to become a Christian. Indeed, being Christian became expected by society. About this time monasticism arose as a major movement, because the fervor of those first martyric Christians had been replaced by Christianity becoming “normal.”
And now we live in the age of post-Christendom, when the ruins of what had once been Christian society are here and there around us, but we again find ourselves in an empire that is becoming more and more hostile to the Gospel. This time it is not paganism, however, but secular fundamentalism. And like all fundamentalisms, secular fundamentalism will not stop until it has taken over every moment of our lives.
If you don’t believe that that’s true, consider the kinds of changes that have occurred within the past couple of centuries and even within many of our own lifetimes. In the great age of Christendom, daily participation in corporate worship was the norm for every Christian. Your day was regulated not by alarm clocks but by church bells. No one went to work on Church holy days—not just Christmas and Easter, either, but all of them. Rulers were not only comfortable with using sincere religious language in their governance, but most of them had actually received a theological education. Now, they’re almost all lawyers and businessmen.
As time has gone on, Christ’s name has been less and less comfortable to use in public life. People eventually whittled down their personal investment in worship into just an hour or maybe two on Sunday morning. And for a while, Sunday was still regarded as sacred. Stores weren’t open on Sunday. It was a quiet day, begun with God and continued with family. But now, even Sunday morning is under assault, and there are all kinds of activities that are impinging, bit by bit, on Christian education and on Christian worship.
I wonder whether most Christians will simply quietly surrender, and yield the last little scrap that we had once reserved for God, so that now all seven days of the week, all 365 days of the year will be dominated by the anesthetic of activity. Personally, I think the moment came a long time ago when we returned back to those first days of the Christian Church, when choosing Christ meant truly giving something up, when the Church functioned as the ekklesia, those who have been called out. But make no mistake that the moment has indeed come. And perhaps the moment will soon come again when choosing Christ may mean giving up our very lives. It already means that for some of our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world.
We have to begin building our own institutions. We have to develop our own culture.
As Orthodox Christians, we are not called to reject the created world that God made and filled with His creatures, but we do reject Satan and all his angels and all his works and all his service and all his pride, either at becoming catechumens or being baptized. That is “the world” which we are called to reject, the corruption and the fundamentalism of secular society, the endless and mindless pursuit of pleasure and possessions and prestige. When will we say, “Enough!”? When will we say as the Prophet Joshua did so long ago, “Choose you this day whom ye will serve… as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15)?
While there have been periods when the mind of Christ forms culture and even perhaps in a sense begins to rule over it, we are again in a time when we as Christians must be counter-cultural. We cannot afford to live life the way everyone around us does, just because it “makes sense” or because it’s “normal” or because that’s how we “get ahead.” I tell you the truth: None of that will count for one scrap when we stand before the Throne of God! Are you going to spend your life and your children’s lives getting prepared for success in this world, which might last a few decades, if you’re lucky, or will you spend this life preparing for eternity?
“Choose you this day whom ye will serve… as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
To our Lord Jesus Christ be all glory, honor and worship, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
- Conciliar Press tells me that Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy is selling very well. Thank you to all who have bought copies, recommended it to friends, or written reviews! I honestly had no idea when I did the original parish lectures in Charleston and then repeated them in Emmaus that they’d get so far away from me.
- I will be signing copies of O&H at the Conciliar Press booth at the Antiochian Archdiocese Convention at 4:30pm on July 27, 2011. I’ve already done a couple of other booksignings at parishes (one including a lecture), and they’ve been a lot of fun.
- If you can’t make it to the Convention or don’t live anywhere near Emmaus but would still like a signed copy of O&H, you can contact me privately about getting one.
- I’ve added to the sidebar here on Roads from Emmaus a section of reviews and press on O&H.
- You can now follow my goings-on via both Google+ and Facebook.
- I’ve started a new weblog entitled Vox Oriente for the Emmaus Patch, a locally focused website dedicated to my home which kindly ran a short column introducing folks to O&H. The intended audience for VO is local readers who’ve never encountered Orthodoxy before.
- Beginning in August, I will be leading an 8-part Introduction to Orthodox Christianity series at St. Paul’s in Emmaus. I have no plans to record the series for podcasting for a couple of reasons: This is meant to be local and informal (and thus not really suited to international publication), and there is also a wealth of this kind of material already available online from other sources.
- Beginning earlier this spring, I took up in earnest the aquarium hobby. My wife is a wonderfully patient woman who has not laughed at all the poor, dead fish who have given their lives to further my education in aquarium biology and chemistry. If you happen to be in the Lehigh Valley, I strongly recommend you support your local aquarium store and only shop in the corp-stores when you have to.
- As of a couple of weeks ago, our family marked its second anniversary serving in Emmaus. We are grateful to God to be here. This has become home, and we want it to stay that way, at least until the final Day.
A recent encounter by my wife with a Unitarian Universalist has set me thinking again upon what I believe is one of the great Christian evangelistic questions of our time: We now have to make the case for dogma. We no longer have the luxury of assuming that the person in front of us believes that there is Truth, that there is an objective reality and an objectively appropriate way of living in that reality to which we are all responsible, whether we like it or not.
Now, it is not as if, in earnest conversation with someone, he is likely to tell you, “See here, now—I am a relativist, and therefore any positive truth claim you may make to me will fall on deaf ears.” (I suppose it is possible one may find such a rare chap now and then, but he is exceedingly rare.) It is more likely that you will hear something like this: “I don’t need anyone to tell me what to believe.”
That basic anti-authoritarian attitude regarding philosophical and spiritual truth has ironically become something of a dogma in its own right, but instead of turning its adherents into dyed-in-the-wool, doctrinaire relativists (he says, with particular irony), the doctrine instead plays itself out into a moral and spiritual system. That is, it dictates behavior and attitudes and even piety. Or rather, one might say it engenders a sort of allergic reaction. When in the presence of dogma, he will react immediately to it and seek some sort of balm or pill to deal with the symptoms. He rarely asks whether its claims are actually true, because doing so would open up the possibility of becoming responsible to those claims.
Yet one of the inherent ironies of this position is that the believer typically will still place authoritarian faith in another kind of priesthood, something called “science.” “Studies show” that “science” is always right. (Though there is that problem of credentialing: What does one call a “scientist” with whom one disagrees? It is not enough that he has impressive degrees from otherwise trustworthy institutions—institutions that we trust because, well, they’re trustworthy, you know.) He will accept that he is responsible to the claims of “science,” but his will (unfettered, or rather, unstrengthened by other dogma) will still probably not help him to lose weight.
But let us dispense with the irony and face this question head-on: What do you say to someone who doesn’t want to be told what to believe? I don’t know what you say to them, but I typically tell them that they can believe anything they like, because they can.
Why? At the heart of the anti-authoritarian dogma is the desire for freedom. I believe a lot of people who feel this way believe that they’re being put into some sort of straitjacket when someone tells them what is true and what is not. Yet if we are Christians (“little Christs”), then we look at the example of the Christ: He preached the truth—and well He should, for He is the truth—but He never compelled anyone to believe in Him.
Orthodox Christians often make the point that the truth is a Person, not a set of propositions. That is not really something one can wrap one’s head around (ever try to wrap your head around a person?). Yet there are things one can say about that point, and one of them is that the encounter with a person, especially the divine Person, is precisely the opportunity for freedom. We can engage or not. We can love or not. We can hate or not. We can ignore or not.
And that brings us back to dogma.
Dogma comes from the Greek word meaning “to seem,” and its use in Christian theology begins in the New Testament itself, from that first council of the Apostles, when they laid down some dogma, saying that it “seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us.”
Dogma is therefore not the speculations of ivory tower academics or professional philosophers. Rather, it is what has been revealed by God as true. The Apostles did not say that their pronouncements merely “seemed good to us.” Rather, it was an act of the Holy Spirit, the Person of the Trinity Who inspires flawed human beings to see the Truth, Who is the Son of God, Jesus Christ. This same “seems”—dogma—has also been pronounced down through the ages by those whom the Spirit has similarly inspired.
Now, of course the anti-authoritarian crypto-relativist will not believe any of that, and he doesn’t have to. But he is usually not very thoroughgoing in his relativism. He probably believes that it is better to be kind than to be cruel. He probably believes that it is better to love than to hate. He probably believes that human beings have an inherent worth to them. But none of that is apparent from a merely scientific examination of the material world.
Scientific observation can say that humans are composed of certain kinds of elements in certain amounts, that certain kinds of behavior make for longer life, more efficient energy processing, etc. But they cannot make pronouncements of value. Why should kindness be better than cruelty? Because it makes more people live longer? Why is that a laudable goal? Why should we honor the value of every human person? Says who?
But these are precisely all dogmatic claims. To say that life is better than death is to make a transcendent claim over and above the observable facts of material reality (assuming we even have the ability to observe all that’s there). It is to say something about that material reality beyond merely what is to what should be. But most people would find countering such dogma so absurd that they would not even countenance mounting a defense for it. So such dogma remains unarticulated or at least ungrounded in any sort of compelling transcendent narrative. Yes, life is valuable, but why? Because you happen to like it that way? So what?
Anti-dogmatism therefore finds itself defenseless against well-grounded materialist ideologies, such as militant communism, which has a proven record of not valuing human life above its own philosophical dictates. If millions must be sacrificed, then so be it. Since there is no God, there is no One Who is going to enforce the value of human life, neither now nor in the next life. The Kingdom Come becomes the Kingdom of Now, and in the Kingdom of Now, whoever has the biggest gun wins. But few of those who do not believe in truth will actually admit this terrifying reality. Nietzsche knew, of course, and he was willing to face the horror of unmooring humanity from transcendent dogma.
That brings us once again back to our practical question: What are we supposed to say to the person who doesn’t want to be told what to believe? Don’t tell him. He won’t believe you. But at the same time, there really is no verbal defense against love. If you love someone—that is, if you sacrifice yourself for him in meaningful ways without expecting anything in return—then you are communicating the One Who is Truth to him. When you love, then you are displaying the image of God within yourself, connecting to the image of God within the other, which is what makes us all worth the king’s ransom that we each are.
No matter what he might say, everyone believes in something. Some only believe they’ll have another drink. Okay, fine. But why is it worth it to make yourself feel good that way? What are you worth? Why?
And that’s dogma.
There is a critique in Orthodox convert circles, especially in what one reads on the Internet, of the “problem” of converting to Orthodox Christianity. Part of the problem, the argument goes, with American culture is its emphasis on conscious choice, that is, consumerism. We are bombarded nearly non-stop by our advertisement culture to make various selections which will be sure to enrich our lives and (most critically) the stock values of corporate shareholders. This mindset finds its way into everything, and religion becomes boutiqued, bourgeois, commercialized, smorgasbordized (if I may).
As such, someone who chooses to become an Orthodox Christian is still really just continuing in his consumer approach to personal life, culture, religion, etc. He may seem to be becoming Orthodox, but because he made a conscious choice to do so, such an act is inherently heterodox and therefore, well, wrong. Ergo, we must conclude that converts really are not truly Orthodox. The norm, you see, is Holy Russia, Imperial Byzantium, etc., where one true religion was the norm, no one made a conscious choice of it, and faith was never commercialized. There may even be some lauding for the compulsory side of this whole business and how much more authentic that really is.
I’ll be quite frank and say that I think that idea is utter garbage.
For one thing, it’s mostly converts who seem to advance this argument, and any argument that necessitates self-loathing is immediately suspect. (And one must ask how these people know what they’re saying to be true, since, by their own definition, they’re not really Orthodox.) But of course I believe the critique has its merits, which is why it seems to have some life and gets repeated every so often. The consumerism of America is a serious problem, and its siren call to put the Almighty Me at the center of everything is indeed a vicious and spiritually debilitating evil. But our problem isn’t the choosing. Our problem is bad choices. My problem is choosing Me.
The norm is not some mythical Holy Nation. The norm, if there is one, is the time of the Apostles, a time where every single Christian made a conscious choice to be one. In the first few generations, relatively few were baptized as infants. Instead, what we see are thousands upon thousands of grown-ups making deliberate choices to become Christians. There was no compulsion to it—indeed, compulsion tended to lead away from the Church. Compulsion was at the hands of the state, which was all too happy to butcher Christ’s followers.
The first Christians lived in a time when there was a lot of religion to choose from. It was pretty normal for most people in the Roman Empire to be poly-religious in one way or another. The notion of One True Faith was something new with Christianity. Monotheism, while on the scene before Christ, really was not a major worldwide force until the Apostles started making it one. So if you were a Gentile, you just picked from plenty of gods, whichever you happened to need for the moment.
But Christ sent the Apostles to call the Gentiles out from that vain world. But one had to answer the call, and in answering that call, converts made a deliberate, conscious choice. I really dare any of these self-loathers to tell me that people like the Apostles and those they converted from among both the Jews and the Gentiles were really not authentically Orthodox because they made a choice to become Christian.
A man who is a philanderer who gets married and settles down is not engaging in more philandering by virtue of choosing one woman to be his wife. He is leaving that life behind, choosing one woman to the exclusion of all others and continually making the conscious, daily choice to remain faithful to her.
Where this self-loathing argument fails is that it assumes we are meant for slavery and that freedom is the real problem. But Christ doesn’t call us to slavery, but to freedom. And in that freedom, we freely choose union with Him. And we have to keep choosing it. Faithfulness is not something one is born into.
Nor is the true Christian life authenticated by virtue of having no will of one’s own. Indeed, this is a kind of monothelitism, in which the will of God so swallows up the human will that the latter is utterly erased. But the Christian, like Christ, is to have a human will in obedience to the divine will. Even the monastic who “renounces” his will does not become an automaton. He still exercises his will to be obedient to his monastic superior.
If this claim regarding the inauthenticity of converts’ Orthodoxy may be likened to a kind of Calvinism, another distortion of Orthodox Christian spirituality is like a sort of semi-Calvinism common to Evangelicals. Many Evangelicals believe in “once saved, always saved,” that your will is operative in choosing Christ, but it immediately becomes inoperative ever after. In the “Orthodox” variant on this doctrine, which a friend of mine calls the “blessing culture,” you are permitted to choose to become Orthodox. But everything you do after that has to have a “blessing” from your “spiritual father,” who is probably your poor parish priest, who now finds himself responsible not only for hearing your confession and giving you spiritual advice, but also must weigh in on what job you will take, whether you will buy a new car, etc. And you must never do anything at all without his direct permission.
Again, this is a form of slavery, and it is not worth the dignity of man. God did not create us to hand over all responsibility for our lives to another person, to turn off our minds. The authentic Christian is not the lobotomized man, but the man whose mind has been transformed by renewal. Again, even a monastic who is obedient to his superior makes the choice to stay in the monastery and to keep on keepin’ on.
Be a man, I say (with no apologies to the women, who know what I mean)! Your life is yours. You can use your will to choose Christ, to choose holiness, to choose to dive into the great depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God. Or you can choose to live hellishly. He’s calling you. Are you listening? Will you respond?
You gotta choose.