Orthodoxy: Chapter 2
I was pleasantly surprised by the responses I received on my previous chapter, where my main focus remained firmly on my past exposure to many protestant churches and a set of assertions on the state of modern, American, protestant churches. Indeed, I meant to be slightly abrupt in my statements: I would hate to be too wishy washy after all, and what better way to start a conversation than an electrified handshake? So let's get one thing straight: church, being filled as it is by fallible humans must always reflect a sense of man's fallibility when examined parish by parish. No single group of local believers will somehow reflect in perfect clarity that perfect holiness promised and manifested by God's grace. I do not care whether you are Orthodox or protestant or what have you, but your church will fall short of its ideals in some way or another.
Clearly, the simple humanity of Church must reveal itself, but this should not lead us to avoid the questions of church practice or doctrine. Indeed, quite the opposite must occur. It is not enough to insist on
good people and
sincere hearts as the recipe for a good church both globally and locally. Doing so begs the question, it presumes an already sanctified body of believers. It is true that
doctrine in protestant circles usually equals
that which divides, but this is a false use of doctrine. So far from dividing, doctrine should unite us, not drive a wedge ever more finely between us.
Why has the church become so divided, in a sense? (In another very real sense, it is entirely incorrect to call the church divided.) I submit that the doctrines held by protestants have led to this increasing division. Some would have us divorce the outward, physical man from his inward spirituality. They say,
it is the heart that counts, and they are wrong. One must not nurture a false dichotomy of outward practice (ritual) from inner belief: the two feed one another. Our obsessions of the flesh feed those of our mind and soul, and vice versa. That begins to touch on my first theme. Beliefs hold a great deal of power, and the protestant churches hold a great many deep-seated beliefs, beliefs that cripple them in practice. A corollary to my previous assertion is that belief alone does not protect against the human frailty. Yet God is our deliverer and savior; Christ redeems his bride.
Still, a right faith and understanding surely contributes in no small way to the betterment of the church. Recall how adamantly the writers of the epistles warn against allowing false teaching into the church. The church in a most real way stands guard over the Tradition handed down to her.
In reading my first post on these matters, one may feel that I am — as one commenter put it — comparing protestant reality to Orthodox idealism, but I have made a strong claim, that Protestantism harbors systemic flaws. Such flaws cannot arise merely from the failings of a class of individuals. I rather believe these failings to be brought on or encouraged by these systemic flaws. The protestants are ill-equipped for the spiritual battles they face, for their practices and theology have eroded the foundations of their strength.
This does not mean God's power is not ever present and manifest; for truly, God is ever one to turn the ills of man towards His Glory and Majesty. Still, protestants have abandoned the fullness of God's strength and revelation, even fled it at times, and in so doing, have left themselves weakened and vulnerable.
So, no, my complaint against Protestantism is not over the people, but over the belief, or lack thereof. Orthodoxy, as Protestantism, has had its share of people who failed, but my aim is the foundations, rather than those standing, however steadily (or not), on them.
These thoughts of mine are not new, but they have aged and matured over the years. To continue my story from last chapter, through my searching, I developed a sort of mental evaluation sheet that I could use to quickly classify any church I attended. In all my searching, I never found home. I did not find home not because I had no idea of what home looked like, but because I saw all too well in my mind and soul what home looked and felt like. Far from being rootless, my struggle was roots dug too deep and too strong. I base this not on community, for in Protestantism I found many wonderful and sincere local churches, but on the foundations of the church, on theology and that theology lived out in formal and informal practice. Some may call me arrogant in my evaluations. Who am I to stand alone and call all these denominations lacking and flawed? Yet, I was just doing what they themselves taught! I took my Bible and the many hermeneutics of the protestants and I studied. I tested and challenged and heard their defenses only to find them testifying against themselves. I could not call these systems and practices home. As I mentioned previously, I despaired of finding truth in the systems and instead entered into communion for my wife's sake and my own at a sincere, humble baptist church. I had the occasional discussions with my pastor about my beliefs, and he even listened and responded insofar as he could, given the denominational restrictions. But these heartfelt adjustments came only so far. How can a bandage seal a severed artery?
Having explored, studied, and experienced all but the most obscure and suspect shadows of protestant church and not finding home, what could I have done? I knew no where else to go and no other solution. In essence, I resigned myself to being a sojourner forever, with little hope of a new reformation. Indeed, I did not desire a new reformation, as it went against my desire for unity in the church. Besides, as I had met very few people interested in the same issues, what good would it have done to reveal my thoughts in any way but personal, individual council? No, my council should remain quietly with me, I reasoned, for who am I to challenge these things?
This continued for some years, until I finally had to do something. I was not interested in what I knew would be yet another futile quest for home, but I felt a need to do something. I decided to explore the churches again, but mostly in the abstract and historical sense. Ironically, I came to my study of Eastern Orthodoxy through my nerdiness and text editors.
As only the most geeky will know, traditional console text editors of a few types, called orthodox editors, may be classified into western and eastern orthodox. I had heard of Eastern Orthodoxy through second and third hand knowledge, mostly labeling it mystical and infected by Asian religious influences. It occurred to me that all of this information was not from really original sources. Ever eager to expel such misconceptions, I began researching. What I found told me at the very least that my initial conceptions were inaccurate or incomplete. So, I began reading more about the history of the church and the councils. It was not till I learned from my grandfather of a nice Antiochian Orthodox Church whose priest was son of a contemporary of my grandfather's at the college he attended that I found myself intending to see a service. I suppose in truth, the allure and draw was already pulling me before even attending a service.
I had always been told that the Orthodox church was ritualistic and complicated, and I had ascribed reformed or Catholic theological gymnastics to that assertion. When I began my research, however, a truly different reality began to reveal itself. Far from complex, I found Orthodox dogmatically simple and straightforward, to the point where I could not believe what I read online. It seemed elegant and bore a clarity of message that I had no measure for. I had to see if paper and summaries were accurate, and I resolved to see this all for myself. I was skeptical, to say the least; I know all too well how appearances on paper are much different than seeing for real.
So I found myself in an Orthodox church. I entered and I immediately knew a difference. My sense were filled with singing, incense, and the scene before me. Oh the scene! I have been to many, many different types of services; from massive concert like events designed to immerse the sense to intimate house churches. I speak earnestly and truly when I say that none of them sang on so many levels in so clear a note the purpose and meaning of church. Here, in this service was true communion to a most Holy God. Everywhere I looked, Christ was revealed. I saw the whole history of God's covenant with man showering down and through from all angles and in every corner. Here, I saw the scriptures spoken viscerally, physically. I stood amidst the host of heaven that bore witness and worshiped the lamb together with us. I felt my whole being compelled, not just my mind but my body and my soul. And that was just my eyes. The sound of praise and worship was all around. This was not just a few scripture passages mixed in with emotional and sentimental hymns. This was psalm and scripture breathed and spoken alone, all the service I heard the deepness of God's word. These were not cliched verses, but deep theology reinforced and preached in all and for all. And the smell, a sweet smell that drives out other things and awakens the sense, perhaps even the soul. The motions, the standing, kneeling, and bowing, the whole collective action of the church spoke as one: this is honor, this is reverence, this is worship and true communion with our Most High God.
It is hard to describe my first and subsequent experiences in these services. Some have described it as a sense of awe, but that is not the right word for what I felt. Instead, I say it felt like peace. It was a sense of being home. Truly, I thought, this is what it ought to be. In fact, it was more than I could have hoped for. While I had always carried a notion of how worship should look, this was more. Like going from line sketches to the full Sistine Chapel.
What I describe is strange to an unbeliever, and that is important. One of the most interesting parts of all of this is that an unbeliever may have seen the same things I saw, but understood none of it. Sure, it may be compelling in some other way, but fundamentally, most of the service is meaningless to him. This is a service fixated on God, not on evangelism; it is in its whole being directed and dedicated to the Holy Trinity. It is not an advertisement for Christianity, but the servants of the King paying homage in His throne room. Everything draws you before the throne of God to worship and give thanks, to partake of the Divine Nature. Such things are for the bride of Christ, not for those who do not belong to Him. Most of what was so amazing and powerful one would have no conception of if one did not already know the scriptures. The imagery is old and powerful and steeped in the history of God's people; it speaks in language of the scriptures.
This was my first experience with Orthodoxy, and as you must guess, I could go on further, at length. Yet I shall refrain. Carrying my theme of the synergy and symbiosis of inner and outer man, having spent some time on the outer impressions of the church, let us progress to the inner. I discovered that the church was holding a new
Orthodoxy 101 class for inquirers and catechumens. This would be the perfect time for me to see and speak to them about their theology and beliefs. So, I went, with my mental evaluations and checklists at the ready.
I have never agreed with a church fully in my theology. Throughout the years my checklist has never been
all checked. For one reason or another, all protestant churches have in one way or another disagreed on some point of theology either abstract or practical. So I sat down with the priest and a sub-deacon, ready to learn the inevitable theological differences between myself and Orthodoxy; except, there were no differences. As I sat there over multiple sessions with multiple people hammering them with point after point in my list, and investigating their responses in depth, I realized that we agreed on them all. We used different terms to be sure, but when it came down to it, we agreed. Let me tell you, this list of mine is no small thing, and yet, to find this agreement was literally unheard of for me. What's more, these were people who knew their scripture and knew more than just the parroting of a catechism. They understood their beliefs amidst the larger context of all protestants, catholics, and even beyond. Moreover, they were universally humble and open about these things, and if they could not go any further in a discussion, they could find out. This wasn't just blind faith in a particular interpretation of scripture, but an understanding of a larger context.
I spent plenty of time examining doctrine and meta-doctrine and so on. I even had to expand my list to encompass new questions raised during our discussion, something which I have not had to do for some time. However, in all the cases I have found myself heartily in favor of the Orthodoxy position. There are one or two issues on which I am mostly just okay, but I still lean favorably towards Orthodoxy, and these are issues so obscure that they are not really classed the same as other dogmas or doctrines that
face the public.
I am still going through the riches of Orthodox Tradition, and every time I am amazed at the discoveries and truth I find. The more I discover, the more like home it all feels. Indeed, at this point it feels like I am already home, and I am just exploring the many rooms in my mansion. I feel as though I have been Orthodox my whole life and did not realize my home was out there. How do you describe the feeling of being in true communion?
So far I have contrasted the time I have spent in the protestant world and in the Orthodox world. I have not addressed my comments in my previous chapter, but rest assured, I will be getting to particulars soon enough.