The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Gabe has two posts up that are being linked in the Ortho-blogosphere: Problems in Contemporary Orthodox Theology? and Problems with Contemporary Orthodox Experientialism. They are well worth your read. Also worth your read are Perry’s comments. Though I’m afraid that this is two sets of Orthodox folk talking past one another, to some degree.

One thing to keep in mind, it seems to me, is that Gabe is criticizing (rightly in my view), one sort of experientialism (as a means of Ortho-evangelism), and Perry & Co. are criticizing an attack on another sort of experientialism (which tends to run anti-Palamite). Both are correct.

Gabe’s beef, if I understand him correctly, is with the sort of easy evangelical experientialism that evangelical converts to Orthodoxy can tend (Gabe would say do tend) to drag into their newfound Orthodox faith and “baptize” it with Palamite appeals. This tendency, if I am right in supposing it exists, is really quite natural. After all, either these evangelical converts do not know any other way of engaging God (because it’s the only way they have left out on the far flung branches of schism) or they come from a heavy-handed system wherein faith is little more than rigid intellectual adherence to a system of doctrine and finding that experience is, after all, a means of knowing God, go to too far an extreme.

Perry’s beef is that Orthodox in America do not, either because they do not have the wherewithal or the cojones, bring out the fatal flaws that exist in extra-Orthodox theology (usually revolving around absolute, or definitional, divine simplicity–as exemplified in the filioque). He rightly rails against an aberrant scholasticism while he brings out an advocacy of a robust Palamite experientialism (if I may so use such an -ism).

I touch on this because I believe it is important to see the distinctions in both gentlemen’s critiques. Gabe is rightly standing against a certain Protestantizing of Orthodoxy which imports, rather uncritically, Protestant modes of thought and experience, baptizes them with Orthodox terminology and then turns around and “sells” this to potential Protestant converts. Perry is rightly standing against a certain ecumenism of the Rodney King sort that, to justify its own existence, must raise the specter of an Orthodox sectarian fundamentalism. Neither of them are, I do not believe, criticizing the other directly.

Unless of course, I wholly misunderstand both.

For my part, I resonate deeply with both brothers’ criticisms. With Gabe I tire of this sort of easy Ortho-evangelicalism which is only inches deep. I admire what many of these evangelical converts are attempting to do, but I cringe at the temerity of recent converts taking on whole swaths of Orthodoxy as though the experience of their recent conversion makes them experts on anything Orthodox. They are experts on their own experience, but that’s not the same sort of expertise.

But with Perry I am disgusted with the too ready willingness of certain Orthodox to engage in the easy ecumenism of nominalism, as though use of the same words is adherence to the same content of the Faith. And I tire, too, of those Orthodox who paint their brothers into a form of mindless fundamentalism simply because they are willing to speak the truth: the Pope is in schism with the Church and the filioque leads to unChristian theology.

I value both these brothers’ critiques and commend them to you.

For my part, these men reinforce the narrow straits which we evangelical converts to Orthodoxy in the West (or the U.S. in any case) must navigate, on either side the devil of ecumenism and the deep blue sea of shamanistic experientialism. Which is all the more reason for most of us converts to do very little speaking, a whole bunch of listening (to the Fathers and their present day heirs), and even more and more praying in the Liturgy and in our personal devotions.

And then to shut up some more and just live out our Orthodox faith. We’ll let our more esteemed brethren remind us of our dangers and we’ll walk with humility and circumspection.

3 thoughts on “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

  1. Benedict,
    I guess I rather agree with Fr. Andrews comment to Gabe on his “experiential” post. Perhaps there are some that take that approach in evangelism, but I don’t think it is all that prevelant, but perhaps that is because I am so far from (physical distance) any large Orthodox communities.
    I tend to see both sides of the argument too. I agree with Gabes defense of Fr. Reardon, anyone who has listened to his-what he himself terms-“ponderings, would not read into them to the degree that Perry does. I like Reardons approach, because it is not polemic, yet there is a time and a place even for polemics.
    If you compare Reardon’s writings to, say those of Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, in his book “Ikon as Scripture”. THere is a marked difference in their treatment of Augustine. Yet I glean a lot from both of them. To say that Augustine has nothing to say to an Orthodox Christian is just plain ignorant, but to say that nothing from Augustine’s pen is contrary to true Orthodox theology is naive.
    All this is said from a mere catechumens point of view, I truly have nothing to offer but empty words. Thank God for that great cloud of witnesses. Lord have mercy.

  2. I think this is a right reading of me. 🙂 The only thing I would add is that I believe the Orthodox literature out there–convert-oriented and otherwise–is lacking in care about experientialism. Cursory readings fuel the mindset, but so do explanations which tend towards a particular aspect of the Church (experience being a very legitimate one) without a counterweight. Much of what I would dub the “monastic literature” out there tends to do this, which is understandable insofar as it is meant for monastics and not neophytes. But in the rush to print, it seems that there are some who lack caution about what they are putting out there. I would also add that the focus on experientalism does not necessarily have to come from convert circles, or Protestants. I have seen more than a few ex-Catholics who disliked their previous “dead” confession going ga-ga for what Orthodox allows them to “feel.” In fact, there’s been at least one high profile ex-Catholic who seems to have fallen into that approach.

    Perry and I are talking about different things here. If I would fault Perry for anything, it would be sometimes overstating the case a bit, though I understand the distinctions he wants to make, the problems he wants to clarify, the reality of Orthodoxy’s position that he wants to (re)affirm. Praise be.

    For my part, I am not as “anti-scholastic” as some out there. I reject outright the dichotomy of “Western” and “Eastern” thought that has the latter as wholly mystical and the former as wholly cerebral (to its detriment…of course!). There is more overlap than some of the polemics acknowledge, and in the heat of arguments, all kinds of silliness gets tossed out there. If there are overlaps between East and West, we shouldn’t be surprised anymore than we should be immediately disgusted. At the same time, blowing off the distinctions is a real problem and one that ought to be addressed. I am on board with Fr. Patrick’s suggestion that Orthodox claim the wholeness of their Tradition; that’s something entirely different than sniffin’ around and getting caught up in someone else’s.

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