Wednesday, April 8, 2015

My Journey, Part 16: Looking Back, Coming Home

This is the final part of my rebooted series on my journey from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. The full series can be found here:

1Back to the beginning
2Cracks appear
3Questions multiply
4Questioning the "gospel"
5The big question
6A better hermeneutic
7Explorations in epistemology
7.5Excursus on oversystematization
8Back to the gospel
9The new direction
10Ecclesiological foundations
11.1Sola scriptura
11.2The insufficiency of Scripture
11.25Addenda on sola scriptura
11.3Holy Tradition
12Bridging the cracks
13.1Orthodoxy and Genesis 1–3
13.2A Better Atonement (Against Penal Substitution)
13.3Faith Alone?
13.4The Colour and the Shape of the Gospel
14Worshipping with the Church
15Mary, Saints, Baptism, and Other Odds/Ends
16Looking Back, Coming Home


When I first started this series, I promised 35,000 words over "about 13 posts", "in relatively quick succession". What I instead produced ended up being about 112,000 words over 22 posts and eight months. I am terrible at estimating. To avoid forcing more people to read through them all, I'll summarize my trajectory here as briefly as I can.

Growing up in a Presbyterian church, I was apathetic about God for most of my life. When I first started caring about the faith I'd been raised in, I had picked up some misconceptions: the version of Christianity existing in my head was highly dualistic ("it's not about what I do, it's about what God has done", "all I can do is trust God and let him take care of the rest", etc.), rationalistic, inward-oriented, and reduced everything to the state of my all-important "relationship with God". It was a caricature of authentic Christianity, but I didn't know anything better at the time, and it was still an improvement from my former near-total apathy toward God.

In college I became more closely involved with evangelical Christianity, which placed a strong emphasis on "making your faith your own" and "living it out" through intentionally following the teachings of Jesus, discipleship, and missions. In the course of following this calling, I ran into my first serious doubts in my newly personalized faith. First, my dualistic thinking led to great discouragement and doubt in the authenticity of my faith when I felt unable to see my obedience bearing any "fruit". Due to the pressure of the ministry I was involved in, I set this doubt aside, thinking I had conquered it. But the next year, I began questioning the point of it all: why do we seek to grow in relationship with God and introduce him to others? When does this become more than an activity or exercise and pervade the whole life? My other two misconceptions about my faith had begun to catch up with me; I went through a difficult time of doubt and rethinking of the ways I applied my faith, trying to make the inside and outside match better.

Reassessing the ways I was living my evangelical faith out, I realized many were more because of external pressure than any deep conviction within me. Rather than simply dismiss my uneasiness and remind myself that Christian living doesn't depend on feelings, I sought to reassess and deepen my beliefs to help them to make more sense to me, so that I could live my faith out more authentically. I wanted to make my "internal faith" match my "external faith".  But, turning to the Bible in hopes that it would help me to do this, it instead ended up giving me stronger, deeper doubts. I encountered passages that seemed to depict God telling people to sin, or outright lying—what was going on? God's own word seemed to be calling his goodness into question. I took a biblical theology class at my church in hopes that it would help, but as it took me on a tour through the Bible from cover to cover I instead got even more questions. Amid all of these, a "meta-question" burned in my mind: why do I have to struggle with the Bible so much to get it to make sense?

I "knew" that the all-important gospel was the key to making sense of the story of Scripture, but around this time (in 2012 and 2013) the account of the gospel I had been taught so often from a Reformed evangelical background also stopped making sense. I questioned its assessment of the "big problem" the gospel solves (universal, endemic sin and just condemnation) and its origin; I questioned the sensicality of the proposed solution (penal substitutionary atonement); I questioned the strong evangelical focus on securing individual "decisions for Christ" and "getting saved". Though the authors and blogs I read offered tantalizingly ethereal alternatives to the teachings that gave rise to these questions, I was plagued above all by the problem of Paul: his writings, more definitive of the "gospel" I was trying to make sense of than any other part of the Bible, seemed to be irreducibly at odds with the Old Testament; it made the gospel appear to be a solution to a problem that God himself created. And if this was true (as it seemed to be, inescapably), the whole thing stopped making any sense.

Finally, I got tired of my attempts to push all these doubts aside for the sake of not making my faith about an "intellectual assent" rather than a "relationship". I realized that by refusing to deal with my doubts or thinking that they were "just me", I was allowing them to eat away at my faith until there was very little left. Finally I confessed to God that he had stopped making any sense to me and that his word had contradictions in it. But a funny thing happened: I didn't simply despair at losing my faith. I realized that I still had faith in God, that it ran deeper than what I could rationally make sense of. The trust I still had in God that led me to pray to him—I realized that is what faith really is.

My confidence renewed by this realization, I set out to reconstruct the edifice of beliefs and theology that my doubts had pulled down. Taking plenty of inspiration from "post-evangelical" types like Peter Enns, I sought new paradigms for thinking about the Bible, God, and truth itself. To address my doubts head-on, I learned to read Scripture in its original cultural and historical context, via something Enns (and others like Christian Smith) call the "incarnational hermeneutic". In search of a more humble epistemology that could see past all the denominational divisions between Christians (an area of increasing concern for me). I explored the implications of Jesus being the Truth (Jhn 14:6), and of truth therefore being bigger than what I can grasp with mere rationality. In my nerdier moments, I struggled to put into words the frustration I had with the tendency of evangelical theology to oversystematize things and pack weighty truths into convenient jargon. I looked for answers to my questions about the gospel, finding the idea of the New Perspective on Paul especially fruitful for reconciling Paul and the Old Testament. Yet I was frustrated by the individualism of my quest, the implicit relativism of trying in isolation to construct a theology that made sense to me, and the academic, idealistic nature of my search for truth: even if I did lay hold a vision of the gospel that had the ring of truth, where would I find a church that practiced it?

Then, through the master's program I was taking at the University of Northwestern, I stumbled upon both in the form of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The more I studied its teachings, the more I realized it was the church and the faith that I had been seeking for years, despite my initial misgivings. Unlike the traditions I'd been weighing, it has the historical backing to support its claim to be the Church holding the Faith that Jesus established on the apostles two thousand years ago, claims that are a dime a dozen within the Reformation tradition. (When they are considered possible at all) In its ecclesiology I saw the antidote to the metaphysical dualism, individualism, and divisions plaguing Protestant churches and their claims. In its approach to the Bible I saw the way past the doctrinal confusion and divisions sown by the ahistorical Protestant approach of sola scriptura; the answer is not Scripture alone, but Scripture at the center of the Holy Tradition of the Church, the body of Christ, reading, praying, and living the Scriptures together. Orthodoxy also exemplifies a more mystical, practical, incarnational approach to theology that is the perfect answer to the rationalism that divided my faith into interior and exterior dimensions and gave rise to my seemingly endless questions. It not simply a matter of believing the right things and then living or "applying" them; Orthodox spirituality is "real" (in the language of my doubts) to the core, and never simply heady.

But even as it has helped me see past the misconceptions that made my questions and doubts about evangelical Christianity seem so necessary and important, Orthodoxy has shown me a far better, more coherent, more intuitive, and more beautiful vision of the gospel than I had ever heard before, one which either makes my old questions unnecessary or replaces them with better ones. The Orthodox approach to Genesis is more compatible with modern science and makes clear that the "problem" of the gospel is not in any way God's doing, nor is it a total derailment of his purposes. The eastern telling of the gospel avoids the numerous problems of penal substitutionary atonement and instead offers a rich, multidimensional heritage of interpretations centering around Christ's defeat of sin, death, the devil, and all the spiritual forces that enslave and imprison humanity. It also offers an alternative to the various dichotomies (faith vs. works, law vs. gospel, human agency vs. divine agency) that contributed to my former confusion about how to "live out" the gospel, and the perhaps-excessive evangelical focus on "decisions for Christ" and the singular conversion experience. And finally, though it wasn't one of the reasons I initially felt drawn to Orthodoxy, I found its liturgical worship more beautiful, more historically grounded, and more consistently incarnational than a contemporary style.

Whither ecumenism?

Looking over previous posts (and even the previous iteration of this one), I keep noticing how I used to be much more concerned for the unity of the church than I am today. This is understandable, because I used to think that the church—the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church that Jesus founded—really is divided up into disparate denominations, communions, and confessions. I felt adrift in a sea of relativism, unable to find any solid answers to my questions of faith; whatever answer I preferred, there seemed to be a denomination, church, or (at least) theologian that supported and legitimated it. Though most claimed to be after this elusive beast called "biblical Christianity", I feared that it had been lost in the plurality of viewpoints.

But now I am blessed to see that the Church is not divided and biblical Christianity is not lost. God has not simply abandoned us to to try to derive the Christian faith for ourselves from first biblical principles. Rather, he is faithfully present with us through his Spirit which knits us together into the one, holy body of Christ, within which there can be no schism. Though the reunion of Christians is beneficial and highly desirable for many reasons, we do not "reunify" or "assemble" the Church by doing so. Protestants tend to consider it "arrogant" to claim to be the church that Christ founded, but consider the alternative! Such objections are little different from the relativist's argument that it is arrogant to make exclusive truth claims; I find it ironic that apologists who are so eager to defend "absolute truth" in epistemology are so reluctant to accept it when it comes to ecclesiology.

Moving forward, I face the challenge of continuing to be ecumenically-minded when when absolutely everything doesn't depend on it, as I used to think, and of pursuing unity humbly even while earnestly believing that this unity means everyone becoming Orthodox in some form. As I become more settled in the faith, I want to affirm it wherever I see it reflected in others, to learn to disagree constructively and charitably. Really, this has been my desire for years, but now I am called to do so even more and without compromising on my newfound certainty. In the end, I don't just want to cross over the gap between churches; I want to see it closed.

Looking back...

Through all of this transition, I've continued attending my old evangelical church and Bible study, which I consider a good thing. When I was just beginning to discover the riches of the Orthodox faith around a year ago, I was at risk of succumbing to "conversion sickness", becoming resentful of the tradition I was leaving and ignoring my own advice about not defining yourself by what you reject or disbelieve. I was not yet Orthodox, but I certainly felt "post-evangelical". Yet because of my continuing ties to it, I couldn't just fling criticisms at evangelicalism as from the outside. This was a tradition that many of my friends still belong to, that had been responsible for much of my own spiritual formation. How could I just step away and call it bankrupt? So as I continued to stay at least somewhat within the evangelical bubble, I felt called to make peace with my old tradition, albeit as an ecumenically-minded outsider to it: to affirm and encourage the good within it without feeling threatened or offended by the bad as I used to. So I started to think about things that evangelicalism does get right. Somewhat to my surprise, this list was not empty.

Engaging and redeeming culture. While I do prefer the traditional, liturgical, a capella worship of the Orthodox Church, this doesn't mean that more contemporary styles of music are outside the scope of the gospel. Though not always for the right reasons, evangelicals tend to be quite open to contemporary culture and seek to engage with it constructively. This is a truly scriptural impulse, based as it is on the universal scope of redemption, and in many ways better than the traditional Orthodox mentality which is content to let culture pass it by to preserve its traditions untouched. In their better, more creative moments, I think evangelical can teach Orthodox a thing or do about approaching and redeeming the culture around them from within.

Biblical/textual study. Even many Orthodox admit that Protestants, especially "Bible-believing" ones, tend to have a higher standard of biblical literacy for laypeople; all that emphasis on reading the Bible for yourself every day is really good for something. I've not sure how much background knowledge of the Bible I would have if I'd grown up Orthodox. A huge amount of academically solid biblical and theological studies go on in Protestant schools (again, their separation from the Church is unfortunate), and most textual criticism of the Bible is done by Protestants; English-speaking Orthodox mostly use Bible translations created by Protestant scholars, such as the RSV (which has also been approved for use by the Catholic Church). Of course this knowledge can be used to blaze your own path of personal interpretations away from the rest of the Church, maybe even taking others with you, but with the right attitude it is a precious resource.

Proselytizing/widespread willingness to go, even on missions. It's hard to deny that evangelicals take Jesus command to go in Matthew 28:19 very seriously. I had trouble going along with this constant push toward missions because a) it felt overwhelming at times, b) the main form of "evangelism" I heard about was walking up to strangers to start "spiritual conversations" with them, and c) the "gospel" I was supposed to be sharing didn't make sense to me. But the evangelical argument that you should be eager to share the best news of your life with people still holds. Even the prominent magician/atheist Penn Jillette acknowledges that if you really believe that the gospel is the best news anyone can ever hear, then you should be sharing it. As I've been taking in more of the Orthodox faith, I have started to notice myself really wishing that others could know it as well and for ways to share it—an impulse that was largely external in evangelicalism, but now comes from within.

An emphasis on personal, authentic, lived faith. If I had to pick the greatest strength of evangelicalism (and the greatest contribution of western individualism to Christianity), this would be it. Though language of Christianity as a "personal commitment/decision/relationship" is often used erroneously or reductionistically, the truth is that Christianity is all of these things, though it is also much more. If evangelical Christianity had not deeply impressed on me the importance of personal applicability, authenticity, and practical, ground-level application in my faith, it's likely I would never have found the Orthodox Church, or even looked for it.

I hope my continuing relationship with evangelical (and Protestant) Christianity is a long and fruitful one.

Coming home

"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven", says the preacher. (Ecc 3:1),
a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. (3:2-7)
To these I might add: "a time to doubt, and a time to put away doubt." When I stopped denying my doubt and started trying to truly address it, I adopted a very positive view of doubt, as something healthy, necessary, and normal. I also cautioned against excessive or "bad" doubt, and now I see this danger clearly. Doubt can be the chisel by which God carves away our unworthy beliefs, attitudes, and habits, or it can be our excuse for hesitating and ignoring our conscience. But while I still agree with all of this, it turns out I had my definitions reversed. Experiencing "good" doubt (uncertainty and skepticism) is actually a bad sign insofar as the thing you are doubting is worth doubting; experiencing "bad" doubt (hesitation and aversion) is actually a good thing insofar as the thing you are doubting is worth actively pursuing. (Jesus himself seemed to experience it; Mat 26:39) So I count it a blessing that I very rarely experience "good" doubt about Orthodox teaching; the challenge is no longer forcing myself to believe it or getting it to make sense to me, but consistently abiding by it, the test of every spiritual athlete.

In biblical studies, there is a literary technique called chiasmus in which a pattern is repeated in inverted order, which gives the text a concentric structure which (in some cases) can be quite elaborate. Looking back over my story, I can see this structure in it. When I first started to be intentional about my faith, I was concerned with matters of practice, with consistently living what I saw as the truth. But as my doubts grew, my faith turned more and more inward as I questioned what "the truth" really was. Now this questioning is very nearly over, and in many ways I'm back to where I started, with a lot more clarity and conviction. As I hoped and prayed, I have found a vision of the Christian faith which I can wholeheartedly believe, but this is only the starting point for the real journey it reveals stretching out before me—a path heavily trod by past generations of saints, leading ever upward to God.

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