With the basic issues of ecclesiology and Tradition explained, I can get to how I really began to realize that the Orthodox tradition holds the answers to my questions and doubts about the gospel and the Christian life.
EpistemologyI saw many of my scattered trains of thought on epistemology reflected and completed in Orthodox thought. The distinctiveness of the eastern mindset from the western one common to Catholics and Protestants is hard to summarize, but it pervades Orthodox theology like a breath of fresh air. Most basically, it is not so heavily skewed towards rationalism and legalism (the need to find laws and patterns governing everything). The tendency to treat theology as something of a science is entirely alien to the Christian east. The eastern church has had no rediscovery of Aristotle, no Scholasticism, no Reformation, and no Enlightenment; thus, it has preserved something much closer to the thought world of the apostles in its theology, untouched by the destabilizing effects of all of these developments and the distortions they introduced to western theology. I get the feeling that evangelicalism is always seeking to "go back" to the thought life of the early church, trying to reconstruct from the Bible what was once natural. Orthodoxy has no need, because it is still there.
This was a welcome answer to the problems I was realizing modern ways of thinking were causing as I tried to apply them to the Bible. A common pattern with Orthodoxy is that it does not directly answer my questions and doubts, but shows why they are based on wrong assumptions or axioms. Again, as Ware says, Orthodox tend to start from different questions than Protestants and Catholics (I will get into the specifics of this next time regarding the gospel).
Our different, modern context causes many parts of the Bible to raise questions that the authors weren't aware of and make no attempt to answer. (2013-9-29)I began to realize that modern rationalism informed by the Bible is not the only (or even the best) starting point for a Christian looking to discover the things of God. I wrote this entry not long before discovering how Orthodoxy makes few compromises with modernism.
Instead of viewing everything through my rational, modern perspective, I have to be willing to step outside it and realize it's not the right way to view the supernatural. Modernism tends to stick its nose where it doesn't belong. (2014-2-23)Truth, as viewed through the Orthodox tradition, is a much more holistic thing. It is unequivocally associated with the divine Logos, that is, the person of Christ (Jhn 1:1,14; 14:6; 17:17), something I had previously mentioned as a possibility, but whose implications I couldn't begin to grasp. To know Christ himself (not just about him) is to know truth. (Col 1:15-20, Heb 1:1-3) The utmost revelation of God to man was not the inspiration of the books of the Bible, but the Incarnation, the "Christ-event" to which they all testify. To live rightly in the truth, according to Orthodoxy, is both to know truth and to do truth. Knowing a truth is not logically prior to "applying" it, as in Protestant thought. As St. John Chrysostom preached, "Virtue is really true, vice is falsehood." (Sermon on Philippians 4:9) This also establishes a solid basis for conversation with nonbelievers, as the equation between Christ and truth goes both ways. Peter Bouteneff writes, "Everything that is true, whether or not it is said by a Christian, is true because of Christ; anything that is approaching truth is approaching Christ. And everyone who is doing the truth is making some kind of approach to Christ, whether or not they name him as Christ."
This is a minimal outline of the Orthodox approach to epistemology. It has been tremendously refreshing for me to discover. Evangelicalism's "bad habit" of placing doctrinal, propositional truth ahead of experiential truth (if only in logical priority) is not universal. There was a way out of the constant struggle to truly "know" the truth and then "apply" it, in which I was increasingly feeling trapped as the truth I was supposed to "know" increasingly didn't even make sense.
We come to know God primarily through experience, not propositional truth. What if the purpose of the Bible is to allow us to experience the life, death, and resurrection of Christ? It's so beautiful, makes so much sense of everything—it must be true. And that, to me, is the Christocentric hermeneutic. (2013-5-6)Though I came to this realization rather subjectively, it is surprisingly close to Orthodox teaching I would look into a year later. I wrote similarly about this deeper, Christocentric, (unknown to me) Orthodox view of truth again:
What if the point of Scripture is not to simply tell us what to believe, but to enable us to encounter Christ? And we've been mistaking a shallower, more visible purpose (correct belief) for the ultimate one (conformity to Christ's image) and if we seek this ultimate purpose, we will find correct belief "thrown in"? (2013-5-10)I got the sense that Protestants are always trying to faithfully reconstruct the "biblical" Christianity of the early Church from the Bible. Months before I found the Orthodox alternative to this quest, I was becoming pessimistic about it, longing for a more immediate experience of Truth.
Jesus' death and resurrection were not abstract spiritual objects to the disciples—they were there. They were real. Have we lost that, so that we only teach the gospel instead of experiencing it together? It is from this experience that the New Testament was written. If we simply try to study the writings rather than trying to get beneath them to the apostles and Christ, we are getting the gospel secondhand. (2013-11-10)These entries all express a desire for a more experience-focused form of Christianity in which the gospel is something lived as well as taught and believed. I see Orthodoxy as the fulfillment of this desire; experience is not subordinated to belief nor belief to experience, but both are treated as essential and indivisible from the personal truth of Jesus. Correct belief (the titular orthodoxy) is treated as essential, but never at the expense of experiencing Christ and becoming like Him. Of course evangelicals also desire to live the gospel out, but is its emphasis on teaching, proclaiming, accepting, and believing the gospel portraying it as something that begins in the head and then must be "worked out" in the rest of life?
Another entry describes my confusion about evangelical teaching. As I questioned and looked into teachings about the "gospel" (which, again, I will cover next post), so often the answers were largely rational derivations of the doctrine from Scripture. Such biblical proofs were assumed to establish them as "true", and having found the truth it was then our job as faithful believers in the truth to live it and love it. I felt as though my heart and intuition were being excluded from in any way shaping my understanding of what was true; the result was a gospel that I could maybe (not always sincerely) say I "believed", but could not meaningfully live on. I expressed a desire for a bigger, more inclusive view of "truth" based on my understanding of the holistic Greek term for "heart", καρδια. Similarly, I again unknowingly journaled my desire for an Orthodox epistemology here:
I don't need the gospel to 'make sense' logically so much as I need it to capture my heart and imagination. (2014-2-7)Before I began to look into Orthodoxy, I was increasingly tending towards a postmodern view of truth, as I wrote here. My confusion about supposedly "biblical" doctrines was making me painfully aware of how subjective even the best biblical interpretation can be, and so I was becoming skeptical that the "true" interpretation was really knowable, at least through the prescribed methods. I was beginning to see the distance that often existed between reality (which I still very much believed was "out there") and our descriptions of it.
I see [the Calvinism-Arminianism debate] as more about our descriptions of reality and how they must fit into our chosen logical frameworks than about the underlying reality being described itself, which stubbornly remains the same whatever we say about it. Deep down Calvinists and Arminians do know this I think/hope, even if they don't acknowledge it. This approach is arguably more objective than the modernist one. (2013-7-11)Now, though, I think the answer is to draw from Christian tradition preceding modernism, rather than trying to forge a path beyond it into the unknown.
Back to the journal entry marking the start of my confusion about the Christian life.
If we grow in relationship with Christ just to help other people know Him, that's circular and pointless. I want it to be more authentic, more real than that. What is the life of Christ? What is the death of Christ in us? ... So much of the time this seems like just idea manipulation, pointless exercises. How do I 'plug into' God and make sense of it? (2011-11-30)Again, Orthodoxy answered such confusion in two ways: first, with a more immediate idea of theology and truth that doesn't seek to "know" and "apply" them separately, and second, with a gospel vision that actually connected with me, captured my heart and my imagination, that I didn't have to struggle to make sense of. This gave me hope for overcoming the head-heart divide that for years seemed basic to my faith.
One other thing that really helps overcome this divide is the total absence of any "faith vs. works" dichotomy in Orthodoxy. Rather, Orthodox theology is rigorously Incarnational. This is seen powerfully in the theologies of communion and baptism, which (far from being ways to "earn grace" from God) are viewed as concrete ways that God instituted (as Jesus in the flesh) for us to receive His freely-given grace. In the eastern, sacramental worldview, spiritual realities are not cleanly separable from physical ones. Inward belief and spiritual experiences are not logically prior to (or simply outwardly manifested though) visible realities. Orthodoxy views people holistically; we are fallen as whole people, so Jesus redeems us as whole people, and so as whole people we participate in our new life in Him. (I will unpack this more two posts from now)
One other element of Orthodox spirituality that is helpful is its unabashed synergism. There is no ongoing debate over monergism vs. synergism, whether we have to somehow respond to God and somehow contribute to our salvation or whether it is most truly God who accomplishes everything in us. Instead of monergism's dualistic dichotomy between our inability and God's total sufficiency, synergism believes that cooperating with God's grace poses no threat to His sovereignty, but instead gives Him glory as the One who leads and teaches us, His children, to grow and develop into Sons and Daughters of the Kingdom (and as the one who gave us freedom to choose in the first place). Before, I had seen synergism as only a minority view within evangelicalism or the domain of the Wesleyan tradition, considered unorthodox by many; imagine my surprise to learn that it is ancient tradition in Orthodoxy! Again, well before looking into Orthodoxy I expressed my preference for a fully synergistic Christian spirituality
In reformed teaching we are just (presumably interchangeable) passive, imperfect straws through which the spirit blows. But this view misses much. We will get praise from God—for what we have done with what we have been given, for how well we've obeyed. (2013-3-16)
When debating providence, it's important to remember that an action need not be solely God's doing or ours; rather than God regenerating us independently before or after we repent, they can be one and the same action. (2013-5-14)I should mention that Orthodox theology of synergism is not at all the same as Arminian theology, which I tended towards but never felt comfortable fully embracing, as I explained here. Rather, as I had explained to me in this discussion, Orthodoxy is absent of the Reformed (both Calvinist and Arminian) focus on making a "decision" to have faith in Christ and what exactly is involved in this decision on the divine and human sides. Because of this, Orthodoxy has no understanding of prevenient grace as a necessary component of redemption, as Arminianism does. The commenter who explained it to me said something which I realized perfectly described how I came to be convinced of Orthodoxy: I never really "made a decision" for it, but became convinced as I realized it was what God had been leading me to through all my questions and searching. Here is what he said:
Another telling example to demonstrate the difference here might be how Orthodox converts typically don't say: "I made a decision to follow Christ and accept Jesus into my life" as Protestants often do. Rather, they are more inclined to say "It feels as though I have been guided home all along without ever knowing it". This to me is roughly the key difference: that Orthodoxy resists this "decisionist spirit" and its individualism in favor of the Holy Spirit and divine communion. This formulation is perhaps still too simplistic, but the surface here arguably reflects the theological depths.One other thing is that the concept of our faith as a "relationship with God" is somewhat relativized in Orthodoxy. No one denies that we do enjoy a "personal relationship' with God—but there is much more to the faith than this. The corporate and historical dimensions of our salvation are at least as emphasized as the individual and personal, which is a most welcome development. It bypasses the occasional tendency of evangelicalism to overapply (or apply overly literally) the "relationship with God" concept by viewing our Christian faith as somehow analogous with our interpersonal relationships, as I noticed in this entry.
I think we allow our relationship with others to inform our 'relationship' with God more than the other way around. What do we miss by construing faith in these terms? (2013-11-4)
Bridging the cracksThe different (at some points radically so) vision of epistemology and spirituality offered by Orthodoxy helped show me that many of my questions and doubts about the gospel had no answers because they were based on faulty preconceptions. Simply to ask them was to misunderstand. When I look at how eastern theologians and church fathers handle Scripture, I am often helped to find ways around my doubts, to question my questions. For example, I found an alternative to the oversystematic, "spiritual object" thinking that so often made reading the Bible more disconcerting than life-giving for me. Orthodox theology turned out to be the "relational theology" that I desired but couldn't clearly define.
Spiritual object thinking tends to miss how the various parts of our salvation and new life can paradoxically combine—God's grace and our effort/works, the divine inspiration and humanity of Scripture, the divinity/humanity of Jesus...it puts these concepts in airtight compartments. We can talk about how they interact as from a distance, but this doesn't go far enough, as a relational model does, which views them as dynamic parts of a relationship. It also leaves the question of how to apply things like 'life by grace' rather open to hidden tradition. Relational theology sees these things as their own application. (2014-1-5)There is much less emphasis on rationalistic explanation or systematization and a much greater acceptance of mystery in Orthodoxy. "Mystery" here is not meant as a way to push a counterintuitive doctrine or interpretation of a passage past peoples' conscience or intuition, but to refer to things like the Incarnation, the Eucharist, or Baptism—times and ways in which God enters into our surroundings that are truly, gloriously beyond our understanding. Again, this fulfilled what I wrote in this entry:
I don't need the gospel to 'make sense' logically so much as I need it to capture my heart and imagination. (2014-2-7)In the eastern vision, it does.