Fourteen years ago, I was chrismated in the Orthodox Church. That year it was the Feast of Pentecost. (We have a ways to go until Pentecost this year.) It was the culmination of about seven years (five with focused intentionality) of inquiry regarding the Orthodox Faith.
I had begun attending an Orthodox parish in the summer of 2000, while in graduate studies in Chicago. I did not have a clear set of reasons why I wanted to become Orthodox. I had not been satisfied by the way of Christian living given me by the churches in which I grew up, and while I delighted in the liturgical forms of prayer in Anglicanism (the Episcopal Church) I was also much disturbed by how politically oriented things were among Episcopalians. In Chicago, I became aware of many other religious groups I otherwise might not have encountered in my life had I remained in my hometown. One group that struck me was the orthodox Jewish community in and around Skokie, and how distinct was the way of life they led. I learned through that, that it was a way of life, not a new set of beliefs or liturgies, for which I was hungering. I had not found it among my heritage churches, among the Episcopalians, or Roman Catholics (all of which I had considered after entering graduate studies). All of these groups seemed more or less to be imitations of various aspects of American political culture (either right or left depending on the group), dressed up in moral strictures like the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments.
I understand my tone is somewhat critical, and I suppose it must be. I do not, however, mean to disparage any of the various groups and traditions. But what is most certainly true is the way in which I had been approaching each group. I looked at their beliefs and dogmas, determined which ones I agreed with, then tested the group (participating in public worship, using their materials for private devotions), but ultimately, I ran up against something that necessitated my departure from the group. By the time I came to the Orthodox Church I knew, and sometimes expressed, that this was it. After this, there was nowhere else to go. If this failed, it would be simply falling back to wherever I could best make my way on my own.
This approach, though, is typically an Enlightenment (or, if you prefer, a post-Enlightenment) approach. We tend to think of religion and philosophy in political or theoretical terms. This or that group has a theory about the world, about reality, usually brought about de novo by some philosophical or creative genius or reformer, who draws about himself (or herself) followers who agree with him (or her). And then they come up with their own jargon, and their own codes of conduct, a sort of moral Robert’s Rules of Order.
While I was encountering the Orthodox Church, I was also in graduate studies focusing on ancient philosophy and ethics. There I read Pierre Hadot’s collections of essays and addresses, Philosophy as a Way of Life, and his different view of philosophy in the ancient world. In another of his works, he describes it this way:
. . . [A]t least since the time of Socrates, the choice of a way of life has not been located at the end of the process of philosophical activity, like a kind of accessory or appendix. On the contrary, it stands at the beginning, in a complex interrelation with critical reaction to other existential attitudes, with global vision of a certain way of living nd of seeing the world, and with voluntary decision itself. Thus to some extent, this option determines the specific doctrine and the way this doctrine is taught. Philosophical discourse, then, originates in a choice of life and an existential option—not vice versa. Second, this choice and decision are never made in solitude. There can never be a philosophy or philosophers outside a group, community—in a word, a philosophical “school.” The philosophical school thus corresponds, above all, to the choice of a certain way of life and existential option which demands from the individual a total change of lifestyle, a conversion of one’s entire being, and ultimately a certain desire to be and to live in a certain way. This existential option, in turn, implies a certain vision of the world, and the task of philosophical discourse will therefore be to reveal and rationally justify this existential option, as well as this representation of the world. Theoretical philosophical discourse is thus born from this initial existential option, and it leads back to it, insofar as—by means of its logical and persuasive force, nd the action it tries to exert upon the interlocutor—it incites both master and disciples to live in genuine conformity with their initial choice. In other words, it is, in a way, the application of a certain deal of life.(What is Ancient Philosophy?, tr by Michael Chase, 2002, p. 3)
Hadot articulated precisely my approach to the Orthodox Church. Previously, I had made the various groups answer my questions, in an attempt to fit in to my mode of thinking and living. Yet, what was motivating my dissatisfaction with these groups was this very thing: that there was no distinctive way of life, of soul formation, no new mode of thinking (all were oriented around the Enlightenment and variations on it). Hadot opened my thinking to perceive that it was the way of life that was chosen first, then came the theoretical structures, the vocabulary, the standard documents. Having read (and taught to undergraduates) Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and Aristotle’s description of how the soul habituates virtues of character, this was what I was looking for.
Being a graduate student focusing on ancient philosophy, I quite naturally turned to the early Church Fathers while I was in this searching phase. It was quite evident that conversion to Christianity in the early centuries was not by way of accepting certain doctrines, though of course, one was required to believe certain things. Being used to a revivalist structure to conversion, it was striking that ancient inquirers spent a few years in the catechumenate, that conversion was understood to be a slow process. The catechumenate was as much about formation of behavior as it was the inculcation of specific dogma. Ancient catechumens learned how to fast and pray as they learned the doctrines of creation, the Incarnation, the Virgin birth, the Ascension, the Trinity, and so forth.
But there was one thing, or rather a set of things, that the catechumens were not given detailed teaching on: the Mysteries (or the Sacraments). In ancient Christianity, catechumens were dismissed from the public worship as the service moved from the reading of Scripture and teaching to the liturgy of Holy Communion. Only Christians were allowed to be in the service during portion of the service centered around the Eucharist. Once a catechumen had been baptized and chrismated, had received Holy Communion, then they were taught about what they had just experienced. The way of life, the experience, came before the instruction.
I had read enough Kant and Hume (not to mention Foucault) to know that for finite humans there really is no “view from nowhere.” All of us, as Aristotle and Sextus Empiricus more than 2000 years ago articulated, have a priori assumptions which we do not question and with which we make sense of the world. No one presupposition is, on rational grounds alone, more privileged than another. All presuppositions rise and fall on whether they allow us to make sense of the world. This was what the ancient philosophical schools set out to do. This is why there were different schools, as each had a different conception of what was the bedrock reality that underly the universe.
And thus I was free to approach the Orthodox Faith in such as way as to understand it as a way of life, an existential mode of living which offered a view of the world. From that way of life, I could make sense of not only my own life and history, but reality as well. So I approached Orthodoxy “from the inside” so to speak (though it would be a handful of years before I would chrismated). I learned how to fast and to pray. I let Orthodoxy describe itself to me, and put me to the test, so to speak. I did not ask whether the Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Faith made sense to me or had adequate answers to my questions. Rather, I simply asked, is this way of life coherent, does it makes sense of everything, including me and my life? The answer then, and now, was yes.