Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Why I Am (Becoming) Orthodox

Almost since I started becoming interested in Orthodoxy, a recurring theme in my journal entries has been my attempts to write an "elevator pitch" for it, not as if I were trying to sell something but a concise summary of why I find it convincing and why I am in the midst of a long transition from evangelical to Orthodox Christianity. If my 23-post series is any indication, I haven't come very close to "concise" yet. After a lot of reflection and brainstorming, I'm giving it a try now. Here are ten reasons why I am (becoming) Orthodox, hopefully kept to a short enough length that you won't have to schedule a time to read them in your calendar. (Optionally, compare my list with that of Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, in which I see some similarities with my reasons)
  1. The Incarnation. Perhaps the most fundamental reason I am drawn to Orthodoxy is how totally the Incarnation pervades everything the Church believes, prays, and does—what Fr. Alexander Schmemann calls the "sacramental worldview". This manifests in at least five areas (although the -logy terms I use for them are not used very commonly in Orthodoxy, nor are they treated as much like distinct fields of study as they are in Protestant theology):
    • Epistemology: Reflects the reality that Jesus is "the Truth" (John 14:6), i.e. that the Truth is a human person, and deeply explores and applies the implications of this. The result is that the faith is never remotely reducible to a body of doctrines to be believed; knowing God or having right theology is irreducibly relational as it is also propositional. Both the head and the heart are involved in really doing theology (in Greek usage the human capacity to know God is thought to be centered in the heart).
    • Bibliology: Similarly applies the reality that Jesus is the Word (John 1:1); Scripture is read as a fully divine and fully human book whose purpose is to witness to Christ and express the faith he embodies. The "Word of God" is usually understood to refer to Christ, not the Scriptures. The human and divine aspects of Scripture, as well as of the Holy Tradition of which it is the center and within which it is rightly read, are seen as complementary rather than conflicting.
    • Ecclesiology: The Church is viewed as the body of Christ, an incarnational (not just a sociological) reality, defined as much by its unique and salvific relationship by God as by its members. In Orthodoxy the Church is seen as truly one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.
    • Soteriology: Unabashedly synergistic; with the Incarnation as an example, there is again harmony rather than tension or competition between our will and God's, just as is embodied in Christ. (The doctrine of dyothelitism, "two wills")
    • Doxology (that is, worship): Holistic, utilizing all the senses, reflecting the fact that God became matter and saves us through matter. Thus the form worship takes is viewed as just as significant and meaningful as the "message" it carries. It is centered around the Eucharist, which is in a sense  a weekly celebration of the Incarnation.
  2. Orthodoxy's unbroken continuity with the early Church. Amid a sea of Protestant denominations, churches, movements, theologies, and groups making conflicting claims to represent "original Christianity" and the resultant skeptical attitude that no one can claim to be the "one true Church", Orthodoxy's apostolic succession and Holy Tradition which seeks to receive, treasure, and preserve the Truth rather than modify it made its claims stand out as uniquely believable. I truly believe is it is the unbroken continuation of the apostolic faith into the present day. The relative similarity of Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, despite the fact that they split off from each other long before the Catholics or Protestants went their separate ways, is striking and compelling evidence of the historical continuity of both.
  3. Its clear, wholehearted, unqualified affirmation of God's goodness. Uncertainty about God's goodness was the center of the struggles with doubt that led me to question everything I believed. Is God somehow complicit in the problem that "the gospel" solves? Is he the one from whom we are saved? Is sin willed by God, another means he uses to show forth his glory? Is death a punishment for sin created by God? Does God need to punish our sin before he is able to forgive us? Is his "justice" in tension or opposed to his "mercy"? Does God will to save only some and not all? Orthodoxy's answer to all these questions is a resounding and decisive "No", and I am incredibly grateful for it. Of particular note is its teaching that hell is not a cruel and endless torture chamber, the damned soul's experience of God's anger and vengeance, but of his love, which to them is torment but which to the saints is unutterable bliss. The message is that the difference between heaven and hell is not simply in how God treats us (for God never changes, and his love towards sinners never wavers), but in how we are able (or not) to receive his presence. It is still a terrible teaching, but it is fair or fitting in a way Eternal Conscious Torment never was.
  4. The indivisible unity of worship, prayer, theology, and life. The theology of the Orthodox Church is not best expressed in a statement of faith or systematic theology (John of Damascus' The Orthodox Faith is the closest I know of to one), but in its worship, creeds, practices, and prayers. "Theology" is truly knowledge of God, not just knowledge about God; as Evagrius of Pontus put it, "if you are a theologian, you pray truly, and if you pray truly, you are a theologian." Orthodoxy is seen not merely as a faith but as a way (leading to salvation), a life, namely the common life of the Church in union with the life of Christ. Knowing the truth and practicing it are two sides of the same coin. As a corollary, there is not much of a gap between the Church and the academy; the Church's best theology is not done in isolation from its worship. Much more often, it is expressed in its worship.
  5. Its beautiful, compelling, and perfectly-balanced vision of the gospel. To name just a few of the things I appreciate:
    • The theological focus on what we are saved to, namely the lofty (but attainable by the Spirit) goal of theosis, holistic, mystical, transformative union with God. What we celebrate in church each week, what I find constantly throughout Orthodox writings ancient and contemporary, is a joyful exploration of the riches we have in Christ, that is, what we receive and become through our salvation. A quote by St. Athanasius that is very frequently thrown around exemplifies this: "God became man that man might become god." Orthodoxy sets the bar for salvation very, very high and is itself the Way to reach it.
    • The gospel is cosmic as well as individual; objective as well as subjective. The constant focus in worship is on praising and making present objective spiritual realities, not just their subjective effects on and in me.
    • Salvation is physical as well as spiritual (the incarnational soteriology again); there is no popular misconception that Christianity is about "going to heaven when you die". Death in all its senses is the enemy just as much as sin is. The veneration of relics, far from idolatry, is a reflection of God's power to redeem even our physical bodies. Nothing God has made is outside the scope of the gospel.
    • Salvation is therapeutic rather than legalistic: we are saved not by meeting the right requirements in an impersonal system or being declared "not guilty" in a heavenly courtroom; though these metaphors can be applied, God does not need to do any such thing in order to forgive us, and they certainly do not describe the primary meaning of salvation. Rather, it is is viewed as healing, and sin, death, and the devil as oppressors from which Christ rescues us. What changes, what needs to change, is ourselves, not God's disposition towards us, which is in fact unchanging.
  6. Putting Christ and the cross front and center, in their fuller context. The divine victory was won just as much at Christmas and Easter as on Good Friday. Salvation is equally the work of the Father, Son, and Spirit, not the Son in isolation. Orthodoxy proclaims this reality clearly.
  7. Its wise wariness of the power of human reason, as well as its detachment from modernity and related tendencies like rationalism and individualism. In fairness, this may be in part a historical accident reflecting Orthodoxy's isolation from Scholasticism and the Enlightenment, but I see a somewhat similar trend of cautious, thoughtful engagement in its relations with classical philosophers. I sometimes hear talk of the "noetic effects of sin" in Protestant circles, but Orthodoxy is much more methodologically thorough in its distrust of human reason, not least in its sensitivity to the role of mystery in theology and the necessity to read the Scriptures with the mind of the Church instead of one's own judgment. Rational thought is considered a useful tool to support our knowledge of the truth, but is not a necessary or absolute criterion for believing it.
  8. No age discrimination in worship. In an Orthodox Church, there is no Sunday school, at least not during the liturgy; children and infants are baptized and chrismated and thereafter fully participate in worship alongside their parents, up to and including the Eucharist. I didn't realize how significant this is until I had experienced it for a while, but now I think it's quite beautiful (many Orthodox cite it as an advantage over Roman Catholicism as well). This reflects quite visibly Orthodoxy's lessened focus on reason and head-level understanding, as well as its understanding of salvation as healing and sacrament as mystery. You don't need to rationally understand grace in order to partake in it; in fact, the ways in which we receive grace are at bottom not rationally understandable. It strikes me as the fulfillment of Jesus' words in Matthew 19:14: "Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven." Fr. Josiah Trenham comments on this: "It is not the children who must grow up and become like adults in order for them to be baptized and saved as the Baptists would have us believe, but, on the contrary, it is the adults who must be converted and become like children if they hope to be saved."
  9. Its realization of things that feel like unreachable ideals in Protestantism. Orthodoxy has great unity and clarity on "essentials of the faith", which is nominally the goal for Protestant unity but only rarely and incompletely achieved. Any Orthodox can tell you just what "praying continually" (1 Thessalonians 5:17) looks like in life, even if the saint who fully becomes prayer is a rare and precious sight indeed. There is no sense of a need to recover, rehabilitate, reclaim, or move towards important but missing parts of the faith; there is instead an almost tangible "fullness of the faith", which I heard mentioned by many others in my catechism class as a reason for their interest in Orthodoxy. This reflects the Church's unbroken continuity with the apostles, its preservation of the faith entrusted to them by Jesus, leaving nothing out.
  10. A consistent stance toward all of these things, rather than a confused or conflicted one. They are applied, not merely talked about or paid lip service. I found many of Orthodoxy's truths at least hinted at in the books I read while searching for the truth on my own, but too often they were just academic ideas, applied on a small or individual level if at all. But in Orthodoxy they are much more.
These reasons aren't meant as a decisive "proof" of the Orthodox faith (the concept of a "proof" connotes a kind of objectivity which I don't think is attainable at all in religious truth), or even as an argument for it; again, refer to my 23-post series if that's what you're looking for. They are rather a quick outline of why I find Orthodoxy convincing, and why I am joining it. Do any of them resonate with you as well?

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