Frederica Mathewes-Green’s Men and Orthodoxy podcast (mp3 file) captures fairly closely my sentiments about and attraction to the Orthodox Church, coming from the robust pioneer-era Restoration Movement churches through the rather more effete Episcopal Church. Take a listen.
Protestant Christians normally see the Church as comprised of individuals–all the individuals who are Christians add up to this thing called the Body of Christ. Protestants necessarily deny that any one group of Chrisitans can claim to be the one Church. “Churchiness” if you will does not extend to congregations or denominations except by way of the individual Christians in those congregations or denominations–if it does at all. In other words, for Protestant Christians, the Church is coterminus with individual Christians.
And, to be fair, when one looks at the New Testament there is no other option presented: If one were a Christian one necessarily was a member of the Church. The two realities were (and are) one act of salvation. In the New Testament there is no talk of a visible versus an invisible Church. One did not speak of spiritual unity over against visible divisions. There was no program to make the Church visibly unified so that the world could be evangelized. In the New Testament there was no ecumenism or ecumenical bodies like the World Council of Churches. In the New Testament, the Church’s visible unity and its spiritual or divine foundation of Trinitarian unity were bound together.
But Satan sowed discord. And the ecclesial situation 2000 years later does not resemble the New Testament very much. There are now thousands upon thousands of Protestant schisms. And if Protestants are going to claim to be part of the New Testament Church, they are going to have to significantly alter the simple New Testament ecclesiology. So now we have talk of a visible unity over against a spiritual unity. We have the invisible Church which is the true Church. And none of this, ironically, is New Testament ecclesiology.
So (he says after that long windup) to say that the one true Church is by definition the Orthodox Church is to say that Protestants and Roman Catholics are not visibly part of the Church. And for Protestants especially, that’s the equivalent of saying they’re not Christians.
In light of the modern situation of innumerable schisms among various Christian bodies, the Orthodox, as I understand it–and any time I use the phrase “as I understand it” check with your local Orthodox parish priest–have affirmed that the nature of the Church has been dogmatized but not the situation of those who come to faith in Christ outside the visible boundaries of the Orthodox Church. Thus, while Protestants are not, according to the Orthodox, visibly part of the one Church of God, it is not the case, according to Orthodox, that Protestants are not going to be saved. (Indeed, neither is it the case that all Orthodox will be saved. Sadly, some will be damned.)
So, after yet more long winding up I come to the point of this post–or rather the question with which I’ve often been confronted by interlocutors:
If it is possible to be saved outside the visible boundaries of the Orthodox Church, then why become Orthodox?
It’s a fair question and a good one. From Protestant evangelical eyes, if one is going to be saved without having to become Orthodox, then, really, what sort of urgency is there? It would be different if one came to believe one’s own salvation was predicated upon becoming Orthodox specifically. By all means, damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead! But if no real salvific crisis hinges upon becoming Orthodox, isn’t it then just simply a matter of pragmatics and preferences? If A will get you to C by its own, why go by way of B?
And this is a fairly typical Protestant minimalism, with functionality at the forefront.
But . . .
Let’s look at it from a different perspective. Let’s look at it from the standpoint of marriage. If doing A means that my marriage will be good and that my spouse and I will not get a divorce, wouldn’t that be good enough? But if doing B in addition to doing A means that my marriage will be great and that far from getting a divorce, my relationship with my spouse will be such that it inspires, encourages and builds up other couples and ensures healthy development of our children, and so on, would anyone balk at saying one should do both A and B?
Now, let’s look at that Protestant question about becoming Orthodox again, this time translated into our marriage hypothesis.
If doing A gets me to C (good marriage, no divorce), why add B (great marriage, inspires, encourages, edifies others, results in well-developed children)?
Does it really make sense to ask that question now?
For those of us Protestants who are on the way to Orthodoxy, this is what that Protestant question looks like. I know I’m one of those seemingly genetically wired to look at the arguments for Orthodoxy, and to go with the facts and the Truth. And I do not want to deny the importance of the truth of the Orthodox claims. But I am also trying to make sense for my Protestant friends and readers why anyone would be willing to do such a strange thing as become Orthodox and bring his family with him if he can? Especially if it’s possible to attain the goal without all the extras.
Doing A is minimalism, functionalism. Focus on my individual relationship with Jesus. Study the Bible, stick with Bible-oriented preaching and teaching. No sacraments. No liturgy. No spiritual disciplines.
Sure one gets saved, but it’s like munching on a rice cake (without any added flavorings).
Doing B is all that A is plus sacraments, liturgy, the disciplines, saints’ days and feast days, the union of soul and body in salvation, a Church with a biography that goes all the way back.
One gets saved, and one feasts on the tastiest of steaks (or for you herbivores, the best spinach lasagna ever).
Because for some of us, being a Christian isn’t just about getting saved or getting by. We want a faith that is full and rich and has all the bells and smoke and history and romance and tragedy and adventure. For some of us, greedy spiritual beggars that we are, we want it all.
Andrew, one of the commenters on the em church post I critiqued earlier yesterday, tagged me with being scornful of em churchers (and presumably other such folk). It is often remarked by em churchers against those of us who criticize the em church phenomena and its attendent structures and presuppositions that we somehow fail to understand them. We are, it is implied if not outright alleged, to be rigidly modernist and binary. And we also fail, so goes the claim, to see that God is at work in this postmodern milieu, and come very nearly close to denying the work of the Holy Spirit–an unforgivable blasphemy one might recall.
Well, this may well be true of other critics of the em church, but if I may be so bold: it is not true of me. I offer as evidence two examples of my love-affair, however brief and fittingly provisional, with postmodernism, both papers I wrote in seminary. The first paper, Deconstruction: Derrida, Theology, and John of the Cross, written in all my tenderness as a first year, indeed first semester, graduate student in seminary, is surely proof enough. A man who quotes Depeche Mode and St. John of the Cross alongside an examination of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, if he hasn’t earned the right to call himself postmodern is very near so as to be indistinguishable! The other paper, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Postmodernity and Christ the Center, written the following semester may not be so obvious, but since it concludes with “Therefore, I recommend Bonhoeffer and his theology as seedbed for postmodern theology and faith” I think it counts.
Having come from a conservative Restoration Movement Bible college education, one can imagine how I went through my modern/anti-modern stages, and, as I recount elsewhere, the realization of the weaknesses and failures of modernism (under an anti-modernist critique) helped me to see the failures of both. My only option, intellectually, then was to examine postmodern thought. I did. And I espoused it for several years.
But as happened with the previous two “modernisms” I had consciously owned, I quickly came to see the emptiness and uselessness of postmodernism. I saw its pretensions, its blindspots and its fascist inclinations. Although my first blush of infatuation with postmodernism led me to strongly believe in its usefulness as a tool for propagating the faith, I realized one does not use a tool and remain unaffected by its purpose. Despite its protestations otherwise, postmodernism has a teleology, and one who attempts to wield it, even with the best of intentions, cannot but be dragged along in time to its ultimate nihilistic end.
I came out of postmodernism–if that is an accurate way to describe such things–by falling in love with something else. I rather suppose that’s the only way one ever makes any lasting committed changes, whether they be marital, spiritual, or fanatical. It is not the love, per se, but the object of one’s love. One is not, as per the Romantics, transfigured by love but by the object of that love. And not all transfigurations are ones of glory and beauty. We may be made cruel and capricious by loving the wrong person or thing just as much as we may be made humble and meek.
I fell in love, to state it baldly, with the New Testament Church. Not the legendary idol of my upbringing in the Restoration Movement churches, but with the real, live, blood-pulsing incarnate New Testament Church. Only such a love, located outside the context of the fights of modernism and its stepchildren, coudl accomplish this. And as with all loves, I did not then know Her for what She was. She was to me a mixture of my own fantasy, mistaken opinions and judgments, and real life. But the more time I spent getting to know Her–admittedly at first in a distant, detached way–the more real She became. And the more desirable.
If I spell out to you the ultimate teleology of the postmodernism the em churches imbibe, I will be–I know because I have been–dismissed with prejudice. It will not matter that what I say is true, nor that I have experienced it personally myself. I at least have this advantage: I have been there and back. Many, perhaps most, em churchers have not. My arguments, if they carry any effectivness, only do so because they are coupled with authentic experience. I can argue against postmodernism because I have lived it.
Thankfully, I need not do so. Nor do I need argue over exclusive ecclesiology–though I do, and too too often. I need not argue for the legitimacy of Orthodoxy’s claims. I need only to keep pressing one thing: come and see.
I have spoken at some length of my meandering journey from my heritage churches of the Restoration Movement, to the Anglican churches, and finally to my long, lingering look at Orthodoxy. And there is an ever growing number of reasons as to why I should, need to, become Orthodox.
But last night on the way home from teaching, I was trying to identify the single motivating impulse that started me on this journey. Clearly one of the early desires was a search after the historic New Testament Church, with a more full and stable body of doctrine and discipline.
Still, if I can think with any clarity about this, it seems to me that long before I even knew the Orthodox Church existed, before I encountered Anglicanism, before all of this, the first step of the journey began with a simple wish.
I wanted to pray better.
I had pretty much grown up with the Protestant evangelical paradigm of Bible reading, prayer, going to worship and giving offerings. Ever since I was a junior in high school (and even intermittently prior to that), I woke up each day, read a chapter or two from the Scriptures, said a prayer, and went about my day. I went to church and tried to give. To this day, I still do these things. These are the fundamentals.
But aside from this structure, my prayers were formless, my thoughts simply bounced off my own skull. And anyway, for who knows whatever reason, I wanted more. By the mid-point of my Bible college education, I was struggling for help. Something different.
I’d already made the acquaintance of Richard Foster’s book, The Celebration of Discipline. But it ended up being more of the same: I was the standard by which such things were measured. If I fasted or not, it was up to me. Any rationale for such activity was whatever I needed or wanted it to be.
Somehow, and the particulars are no longer clear to my memory, I became acquainted with medieval Benedictine monasticism. I was here introduced to the daily office. Later I would encounter St. Benedict himself and his holy Rule. I also was introduced to the Carmelites, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. I read St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. Here were entire lives devoted to nothing but the praise and worship of God. And to this I was irrevocably drawn.
From there the two primary catylsts for my journey–the seeking out of the historic New Testament Church, and the search for a liturgy-theology grounded in that Church–were set and guided me into and back out of Anglicanism, and finally to Orthodoxy.
Along the way, I discovered prayerbook worship, the quotidian practice of the office, and the way liturgy is meant to shape and form one’s spirit, soul, mind and body. I went from my own sense of lack and emptiness, through ever-greater fulfillment, until I arrived at what I know is my home and final destiny.
To this day, my continuing paradigm of Orthodox experience remains one of the first images I retain from one of the first worship services I attended. It was a “deacon’s mass” at All Saints, where I now attend with my family. The undending refrain of praise, glorification and worship of the All-Holy Trinity told me at long last that I had found that toward which my heart had set me some seventeen or eighteen years before.
- The Orthodox Church is the fulfillment of my search for a living askesis.
As a Restoration Movement Protestant Christian, I had a history-less Church. I had doctrine that was incomplete. But most importantly, I had no way to live an embodied faith.
It is really difficult to capture that for Protestant readers. The ready reply is that acting on one’s faith is an embodied faith. And while some charitable Protestant readers might grant me the points on history and minimalist doctrine, the ascription to my Protestant background of an incapacity to embody one’s faith might seem the beam talking to the speck.
But there is an ineffable difference between a faith that is turned into a code of conduct and a faith that is incarnate. As a Restoration Movement Protestant, the only sacrament I accepted was baptism. And even then, my Restorationist brothers and sisters and I resisted calling it a sacrament. Such a label was too Catholic. We did not believe, for the most part, that material things carried grace. We intuitively understood that baptism was an exception to our anti-sacramental stance, but we did not know precisely why.
So, we did not have much of a place for the body in our doctrinal understandings. Sexual sins were not so much a violation of the sanctity of the Holy Spirit’s home (the Christian’s body) as they were a violation of a code of conduct. Our understanding of forgiveness was the removal of debt, or the restoration of a relationship. And because we did not have a place for the body in our doctrine, we did not have a place for askesis in our living.
Ours was a faith to be believed, with obligatory conduct codes, but we did not understand that faith and its obligatory conduct as something we did with our bodies. We confessed the Cross, but we did not sign ourselves with it. We confessed the Incarnation, but we did not venerate icons. We confessed the Lord’s Supper, but we did not consume Christ’s Body and Blood.
So, lacking this understanding of a fully embodied faith, rejecting the Mysteries, or Sacraments (except for baptism), divorcing our doctrine from the living tangible Church, we had propositions and codes of conduct. Our “embodiment” of our faith, was simply the logical and moral conclusions to our doctrinal syllogisms. We had behavior. But we did not have the body.
On coming to Orthodoxy, then, it was a stark contrast as to how material the Faith really is. There is incense, oil, bread, wine, water, wood, gold and silver, icons, vestments. In fact, there are the saints themselves in all their bodily theosis. The Faith is not only touched and tasted, it is ingested. The Incarnation happened once for all in Palestine. But the Incarnation continues where Christ sits at the right hand of God. It continues in the visible, tangible existence of the Church, the Body of Christ. And it continues when the Holy Spirit is called down upon the elements and Christ’s brothers and sisters eat His flesh and drink His blood, just as he commanded. It is the body that connects faith and doing. It is the Body that connects Christian with Christ. We are saved in the Body and saved in a body. Here is the missing link of my Christian heritage.
And it’s fulfillment.
[Previous post: Part I]
- The Orthodox Church is the fulfillment of the doctrine in which I’d been raised and educated.
There is an oversimplification of Orthodox doctrine which runs something like this: Orthodox hold to the ancient, unchanged doctrine of the apostles without addition (Roman Catholicism) or subtraction (Protestantism). Orthodox claim that with purgatory, the immaculate conception (based on the dogma of original sin as original guilt), and, preeminently, the filioque, among others, the Roman see has added unauthorized dogma to the Faith. Orthodox also claim that Protestant rejection of the sacraments, icons, apostolic succession, among others, the Protestants have committed unauthorized subtractions from the whole of the apostolic faith. These additions and subtractions, according to Orthodox, result in a distortion of the faith and in schism from the Church who holds to that faith in its entirety.
As I said, this is an oversimplification. But like such generalizations it does hold germs of truth. And, in point of fact, when I first came to Orthodoxy and began to investigate what it is and its claims and arguments for those claims, I began to realize that far from radically altering what it was I believed, I would have to flesh it out.
I had a faith contained more or less in a body of propositions and codes of conduct. I’m not sure when I began to believe that I should go back to the historic Church to really determine what the Bible meant, but it was a couple years prior to coming into contact with Orthodoxy in the summer of 2000. It began with a book of daily readings from the Church Fathers, which I used in my daily devotionals beginning in autumn 1996. But it didn’t reach conscious fruition until late 1999 when I began conscientiously to seek the mind of the Fathers.
At first my method was to try to understand what the Fathers said, and then to justify that within the framework of (what I interpreted from) Scripture. Infant baptism? Sure, since Scripture could plausibly be said to have instances of it. Sacramental Lord’s Supper? Sure, since I already had such an understanding of baptism, and I’d long been bothered by the hermeneutical inconsistencies of affirming what I did about baptism, but rejecting the same hermeneutical base for what I believed about the Lord’s Supper. Bishops? Sure, since the word itself is all over the New Testament and the historical data made sense in light of the New Testament. And so it went.
While I should note that this approach—conforming the Tradition to my own biblical interpretations—is dangerously wrongheaded, for Protestant converts like myself, it is, perhaps, almost inevitable. We Restoration Movement Protestants are, or used to be, raised with a propositional faith, and our transition to the Faith of the Ancient Church will be by propositional stages. One ought normally to be suspicious of those Protestant converts who are ready to accept the dogmae of Orthodoxy wholesale without investigation. I say normally, because God saves us where we’re at. But he can also bring us, in his grace, to where we need to be. It’s a matter of the heart more than it is of the mind, and once one’s heart is ready, the intellect can follow. Some of us have hearts that are much more stony than others.
So, for a time, my movement toward Orthodoxy was a matter of adding propositional content to my faith. I quite literally did not believe enough, I had to fill up what was lacking in my faith. In this sense, Orthodoxy was a direct fulfillment of my already deeply held beliefs. I did not need to come to a more serious conviction about the place and authority of the Scriptures. But I did have to understand that place and authority as one manifestation of the singular Tradition. I did not have to come to an understanding of the person and role of Jesus as the fully human and fully divine Mediator. But I did have to come to understand why that was important in my salvation. It was not merely that Jesus’ death as the God-man was God taking his own medicine, turning away the wrath of God from sinful humanity. It was precisely the means by which we would be united to God, body and soul.
But not merely a filling up of a lack, Orthodoxy is the fulfillment of my Protestant doctrinal beliefs in that they require a move from proposition to disposition. My Protestant faith had a most difficult time moving from propositional truths to living application. These most often could not get past being simply new codes of conduct. Belief A resulted in an obligation to Conduct B. But I was quite literally without any knowledge or recourse as to how to move from A to B. I knew that I was saved by grace through faith, and not through my own works. I knew that God worked in me both to will and to do his good pleasure. But day after day I could not find a way to move from head belief to a heart that willed the code of conduct that my belief demanded. Ironically, for one who would have argued wholeheartedly against works-based salvation, the only thing I knew was to place yet another burden of laws upon my “grace-filled” faith. I could not go the way of antinomianism, for I had read St. Paul’s condemnation of such in Romans 6. But the alternative was just as impossible.
In Orthodoxy, however, I have seen the fulfillment of my Protestant doctrine. I am, in part, called to certain propositional beliefs. I also am, in part, called to specific acts and behaviors. And I know, as I did in my Protestant doctrine, that God works the transformation within me. But now I know that he does so through his life as manifested in his Son through his Church and, in part, in and through the Mysteries of his energetic grace, especially the Eucharist.
As a history-less Protestant, I needed the historical Life of the Church. As a biblical reductionist Protestant, I needed the Tradition of the Church. And as a Protestant seeking the fulfillment of his faith and conduct, I need the holy and life-giving askesis that the Church offers via her union with the holy and life-giving Spirit proceeding from the Father and sent by the Son, one holy and ineffably perfect Trinity in whose energies is my only salvation.
[Next: the fulfillment of a living askesis.]
I have recorded my peregrine spiritual journey elsewhere (see also here and here), so I will not attempt to recreate yet another account of my Orthodox journey. Rather, I want to simply speak to some of the things that Orthodoxy means to me, who am still as yet just outside the doors. I’ve expressed these ideas before, but I want to revisit them again today.
- The Orthodox Church is the fulfillment of my search for the historic New Testament Church
I grew up in history-less churches. Intent as we were about restoring the beliefs and practices of the New Testament Church, we ignored the seventeen hundred years between the close of the New Testament era/first century and the rise of the Restoration Movement churches at the beginning of the nineteenth. We didn’t even pay too much attention to our own history. What was important was doctrine, interpreting the Bible correctly. History primarily served as a foil to prove our contention that we were correcting the errors of the historic Church.
Ironically, it was through a Church history class taught at one of my heritage churches’ Bible colleges, that I awoke to the supreme problem with this view: the notion that we could ever really know what the New Testament Church believed and practiced without consulting that New Testament Church. That is to say, the view that the New Testament Church was wholly contained in the New Testament did extreme violence to Jesus’ promise of the prevalence of the Church over the gates of hell and his promise to be with Her always till the end of the age. Contrary to the “Constantinian-apostasy” and “trail-of-blood” ecclesiastical history that I’d grown up with, the Church, I discovered in my class, did not, actually, apostasize after the last of the apostles died, nor during Constantine’s reign. Nor did Jesus’ promise fail. The Church has continued to this day. This, of course, was something I obviously had to believe if I wanted to believe myself part of that Church. But the full implications of it—that there was a flesh-and-blood group of people whose history and doctrine could be traced directly back to the Apostle Paul (such as the Church at Thessaloniki)—would take some time to sink in.
Still, to even acknowledge that there was a living, breathing New Testament Church in our day—and not just some doctrinal, theoretical construct built on particular interpretations of the Scriptures—led to the only logical question I could ask: Where is that Church?
That question led me, ultimately, to the Incarnation. Ecclesiology is Christology. If God himself thought it important to take on human history as intrinsic to the Person of the Son, if God did not think it too great a thing to wrap all his divinity in the weakness of human flesh and blood, then who was I to ignore the history, the flesh and blood reality, of the Church? I began to realize that the absence of personal history is the absence of real identity. I could not claim to be part of the Church if I cut off from my faith and practice the history that was essential to that Church. Then, like an adopted child seeking his origins, there was awakened in me a deep hunger for that real identity that could only be fulfilled by the Church that was not only doctrinally but, as importantly, historically connected to the New Testament Church. I began to realize that my identity as a “New Testament Christian” was a construct. It was an empty frame with only bits and pieces inside. That relative emptiness needed to be filled, that identity needed to be made real.
And like many adopted children, I found myself not disparaging or disrespecting my adopted mother, the Restoration Movement churches, but nonetheless dealing with the truth: my adopted mother had raised me well and given me great and lasting gifts. But my origins as a Christian must necessarily lie elsewhere. I needed to shift the incomplete picture of who I thought myself to be to the reality of what I needed to be: a child of Mother Church.
For most of my life, I was a Christian cut off from the rest of the Church. Our group of churches largely did not acknowledge other denominations since we viewed much of their doctrine and practice as not in conformity with the New Testament. This changed quite a bit as I became an adult and our churches began to cooperate more often and more widely with other church groups. But I was also cut off from the Church of history. There was this vast emptiness between myself and my churches and that New Testament Church we believed once existed in purity, and which purity we now sought to restore.
But such a church was still primarily a doctrine, an idea. We often referred to the New Testament as a “blueprint” for our faith and practice. The Church, in my understanding, was not so much a real, live entity as it was a propositional standard. This, of course, was precisely how we could “restore” it. Ideas can always be “restored.” This well-meant, if anemic, understanding of the Church served me well for much of my life. But it could not teach me to pray. It could not teach me how to live and to struggle. It could not in fact, live such prayer and such struggle for me. It could not lead me by example. It was, after all, an idea.
In my discovery of Mother Church, however, I have found not an idea, not a doctrine, but the warm maternal love of a home, the household of faith. Here there is a family related by blood. Over there is the “eccentric grandmother,” fool-for-Christ Xenia. There are the family doctors, Cosmas and Damian. There is the plucky Great Martyr Katherine. And there is the brilliant Confessor, Maximus. But there are plenty of children about, just like in a real home: the children martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion, Lucy of Sicily, the Holy Innocents. And just like the homes we know, there is always Good Food about.
The restoration of my ecclesial maternal ties has not yet been completed. But I have met my Ecclesial Mother. And I am forever grateful to my adopted Restoration Movement mother who raised me to seek Her. I must now devote the rest of my life getting to know Her.
[Next: the fulfillment of doctrine.]