Persuasion for Orthodox Converts

A look at a total communication failure

Back in 2009 a Roman monk approached me with what he claimed to be an ecumenical advance on Orthodoxy that was sensitive to Orthodox concerns. I was quite mystified about what on earth that would be, and after I read it, I wrote, An Open Letter to Catholics on Orthodox and Ecumenism.

He responded with one of the biggest flames against Orthodoxy I've seen.

It's been just shy of fifteen years that that post has been live, and I've seen Roman readers respond in anger, or take it as unprovoked hostility when Rome has been appropriate in its advances to Orthodoxy, or making a completely clueless asking price in clumsily attempting to cooperate with Roman ecumenism on essentially Roman terms.

What I have not yet gotten in response from a Roman who has not been moving towards Orthodoxy, even once, is, "Ok, now I think I understand why Orthodox claim that there are unresolved doctrinal differences between Orthodoxy and Rome." Nor have I received a response of "I recognize that you are trying to explain why Orthodox cooperation with Roman ecumenism does not make sense to Orthodoxy."

I do not discount the possibility that my writing in fact has communicated with some of its intended audience; normally very few readers (proportionately speaking) will write an author, and a Roman in a white heat of fury upon reading An Open Letter to Catholics on Orthodoxy and Ecumenism may be much more eager to contact the author than a Roman who gulps and thinks, "Ok, I think I see some of why Orthodox assert that there are unresolved doctrinal differences between Rome and Orthodoxy." I mention and acknowledge this as a possibility, but as far as the feedback I have received goes, the letter has represented a total communication failure to 100% of Romans who have written me back about it at all. It was meant to dislodge assumptions of Roman ecumenism as speaking for Orthodoxy, and I have yet to be contacted by a Roman not moving to Orthodoxy who shows any discernible evidence of these assumptions having been brought into question or in any sense challenged.

To those asking what may be a painfully obvious question of why I haven't taken it down in fifteen years of its not communicating, I wish to acknowledge the objection and answer it. I have not received much of any advice that it communicates to its originally intended Roman audience, but it communicates powerfully and clearly to Orthodox about something Romans deny, that there are unreconciled doctrinal differences between Rome and Orthodoxy, above and beyond the unauthorized Roman addition to the Creed. I do not attempt breadth in particular in that the work is not intended to address all unresolved doctrinal differences or even all major unresolved doctrinal differences; I attempt to give depth in treating two main differences. Furthermore, while I have not seen evidence of my edifying Romans in the work, I have seen really quite strong evidence of it being helpful to Orthodox.

It should probably be acknowledged that I was attempting something difficult: not just contradicting beliefs that Romans know they have, but contradicting beliefs that Romans mostly do not know that they have, among which is that Roman ecumenism is the way to approach Catholic-Orthodox unity; the articulated belief that Rome and Orthodoxy share a common faith, a common heritage, and a common doctrinal basis fully sufficient for full communion; and in particular that if Romans try to show some love for Orthodoxy and make ecumenical overtures to Orthodox, the decent thing for Orthodox to do would naturally be to reciprocate in the same spirit. Other things might also be acknowledged; however, I am chiefly bringing this up as a well-written, noetically driven, and meticulously argued presuppositionalist apologetic argument that has completely failed in its originally intended purpose for its originally intended audience. Furthermore, it fails in an area where such things naturally do fail. I pick one of my own works to demonstrate such failure, but there is really no shortage of arguments of this sort that just drive the intended audience away. the intended audience away...

Which brings me to a crucial point. The Sermon on the Mount says, "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you." In our prayers before communion at each Divine Liturgy we say, "For I will not speak of the mystery to Thine enemies."

The core principle is a principle of Orthodox mystagogy, which is in most non-monastic settings observed minimally today, but at the very least means this: if you know the truth and you know that another person will reject the truth if you tell him, you must hold your tongue. It will be better for that person at the Last Judgment to not be guilty for rejecting the truth you held your tongue about, and it will be better for you too at the Last Judgment because you did not place your neighbor in a position where you knew he would reject the truth.

Part of the Western philosophical tradition is to try to compel the other person by argument, and arguments can persuade. Online arguments can persuade bystanders even if they fail to persuade an opponent in an online forum. However, "A man convinced against his will, retains the same opinion, still." And presenting a position is only persuasive up to a point: present a position too far beyond a person's horizon and it will just repel. Traditional Orthodoxy wants, and God wants, to show a love for queers as whole people that will give them blessings people in LGBTQ+ lifestyles cannot even dream of in their present state. But it does not and should not follow that one is making progress by arguing against LGBTQ+ agendas in non-Orthodox online forums. Try to argue down a queer in a random Facebook encounter and you will just drive him further away from openness to the truth. It is a disservice to him, and it is a disservice to you.

I would further point out that few people who join the Orthodox Church were cornered by arguments into accepting Orthodoxy. That is not the force that drew me in, and it is not the force that draws most people in. To the best of my knowledge I know one person who is dear to me who in fact was more or less cornered, by a close acquaintance in discussions over time, and I fully welcome him and accept him as a dear brother in Christ. And where there is patience, a relationship, and much discussion, arguments can persuade. But we have a wrong idea in the West that the ideal persuasion is a storm of persuasion where someone comes in, makes a powerfully persuasive moment, and then leaves the other person convinced. That, perhaps, might be how someone who browses my site and reads at length might find An Open Letter to Catholics on Orthodoxy and Ecumenism persuasive. (Again, Roman response such as I have received for that piece reflects a total failure on my part to dislodge the beliefs and presuppositions that work was meant to challenge, and to my knowledge only Orthodox have benefited from reading it.) What is much more live an option to persuasion is a personal connection and a relationship over time, with arguments woven into a personal caring. To the best of my knowledge, Orthodox who feel a great need to corner others into Orthodoxy were not cornered into Orthodoxy themselves; and they do not seem to express a need to exercise an influence that worked for them in their lives.

If you are a former Protestant, I would encourage you to read The Protestant Phenotype. I have only met a Protestant obsession on cornering me in arguments and imposing their way in former Protestants who have room to go in their conversion. And I would on this point quote Fr. Andrew Damick whom I have reservations about on other scores, in suggesting that people who have been Orthodox for less than three years should not teach, and clergy should teach only the people their bishop has blessed them to teach. (My own abbot has not asked to see each individual thing I post, but I work as directed by his guidance, and he supports my writing as a whole, including my backing off on certain things in light of our conversation.) If you have been Orthodox for less than three years, I would at least suggest checking with your father confessor about trying to corner people in online cyber-doxy and force people to accept the truth; and if you are a former Protestant I would point that most Orthodox, clergy even, do not primarily engage online arguments. Some do; Fr. John Whiteford does, and I am far from the only person to respect him. But he is an exception to the general rule.

In A Mechanism I wrote,

Bowled over by humility

There was a time when I was visiting Holy Cross Monastery, and I talked to another person about someone who worked in the kitchen (name withheld), who had "bowled me over by humility." The other person knew immediately whom I was talking about and what I meant.

There was something incredibly compelling in those interactions with him, and before long my unspoken reaction was, "I want the mint!", i.e. I don't want some of the money he has, but what he has that he was minting spiritual money with. Now he offered me undiluted kindness in every interaction, but my "I want the mint!" was something that extended well beyond appreciating the kindness he treated me with. I did not want, exactly, for him to treat me so kindly, but I did want to observe and see if there was some way I could learn where he was spiritually minting money from. Dealing with him was riveting.

I think also of another time I encountered someone very humble, and I saw something great, and was again closely trying to observe him and wanting what he had, but I kept my mouth shut.

Bruising someone's humility

There was one other time I'd mention, on a not so theatrical scale, when I told my abbot, "I'm not telling [Name] in order not to bruise his humility, but you don't know what an incredible blessing it is to answer to someone who is humble." And that was appreciated.

Pride wants compliments; humility helps uproot that desire, and so it's not best, when dealing with humble people, to offer comments that will bruise their humility. Pride wants human honor; humility is extremely wary of receiving honor, partly because humility includes an accurate assessment of how empty human honor really is. The suggestion I'd give for dealing with someone who has an awe-inspiring humility is to sit on your hands as far as compliments go; interact with the person, love and appreciate him, and try to get what you can of the mint, but respect that a humble person will regard human praise as fool's gold that is inseparable from hostilities that follow it, and he wants things much greater. I would add to this that such people have their sights set on a much higher target, and you do nothing to hinder them in their quest by sitting and enjoying their humility.

There was one time at a gathering where I was listening with rapt attention to musicians playing, and in a personal conversation after the performance, the performers spoke appreciatively of my listening. I do not remember what language they used but I would use a term like "listening loudly," or listening loud and clear. Someone who is listening in a prickly or hostile way makes it harder to perform; someone who is listening sympathetically makes it easier to perform, and I give every blessing to "listen loudly," when encountering someone humble.

How not to impart humility, and what is better

There is something compelling in this listening, and something I have never met in meeting the Seraphinians I encountered that led up to writing, and continues after writing, The Seraphinians: "Blessed Seraphim Rose" and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts. They were, without exception, very big on my need for humility and fully willing to harass and bluntly criticize me to pound me into being humble. And none of my own humility, such as I have, came from there. If anything, like a bad heresiologist I fell into the trap of picking up some of my opponents' approach in communicating, and however much I may have attempted to argue in a compelling fashion, I do not believe many readers have been drawn to it as by humility.

There is someone else I met who has a deep and contagious calm, enough so that people are drawn to him in the hope that some of his calm rubs off on them. Calm and humility are not exactly the same thing, and the deep calm may or may not have been accompanied by humility. However, there was something of the same kind of draw. People have wanted to be near him in the hope some of his calm will rub off.

In the Roman empire before Constantine, there was a saying, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the faith." Roman citizens seeing public martyrdoms of Christians saw at least one thing that even transcends that wild beasts were let loose to devour martyrs and came and licked the martyrs' feet. They saw families that were summoned to the contest, and who were exuberantly happy, as if they had been summoned to a great feast, and there was something very compelling about this. Although martyrs had been sometimes healed in the course of their contest, they saw that a pagan Empire could kill Christians but not defeat them. Now it is to be mentioned in some cases that there were apologetics at play, and Great-Martyr Katherine, for instance, converted the fifty philosophers who were asked to out-argue her. However, there was something in the many martyrs beyond some of them being effective apologists. Rome could kill Christians but not defeat them, and in the final run killing Christians under those conditions was an act of impotence.

The story is told of one teacher who took over a religion class whose terrible behavior had driven out her predecessor, and whose unruly students found to their astonishment that all their verbal missiles simply passed through her without causing harm or leaving a trace. Their hostility gave way to an incredible curiosity about who she was and why she was not harmed by their missiles.

I was not argued into entering Orthodoxy, and I only reasoned my way into it to a limited extent. I wanted what the Orthodox Church has.

The "fruit of the Spirit" option

The Benedict Option argues forcefully that Christianity has lost the point of sexual morality in the public sphere, and really lost what is to be had in the public sphere of argument. But Galatians 5:22 reads, "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law." Christianity may have lost all legal status above that of bigotry in face of anti-Christian opposition, but the option is as much now as ever open to leave people in the misery heralded by the gender rainbow to see their misery and the "I want what he has!" to our joy in the Spirit.

Years before entering Orthodoxy, I was part of an "Anglican opposition" parish, with a healing ministry for homosexuals, and one of the priests talked about how as gay he had a vision of a face he did not recognize. But the face he did not recognize was his own, radiant as the ex-gay priest he would become. And he really was unrecognizably transformed in his penitence.

It hurts to kick against the goads, and it still hurts if you have the entirety of the law, public discourse, and political correctness defending the full legitimacy of kicking against the goads. Now that traditional teaching on sexuality is legally no more privileged than bigotry, Christians have lost incredibly much in the public square, but Orthodox and Christians are free now as much as ever to have something that queers want.

This is the proper and primary Orthodox channel of influence. It is not cyber-dox followers of "Blessed Seraphim Rose" assuming the position of a superior over any non-Seraphinian, as a superior directing a subordinate, and making humility the first thing to teach.

And by the way, I invite you to read my book The Seraphinians: "Blessed Seraphim Rose" and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts for a pristine example of how to fail at persuading opponents. I picked up my opponents' bad habits and was just as forcefully and abrasively committed to cornering people into agreeing with me as my opponents were.

Earlier in A Mechanism, I wrote,

Quotes that have rumbled down the ages

Perhaps the most famous quote in Orthodoxy, a John 3:16, is "God and the Son of God became Man and the Son of Man that men and the sons of men might become gods and the sons of God." Or that's at least one variant.

Another quote or two that have rumbled down the ages, if not quite so spectacularly, is:

  • Save yourself and ten thousands around you will be saved.

  • Make peace with yourself and Heaven and earth will make peace with you.

I would like to suggest a mechanism by which such things make effect, or at least a physical shadow of an explanation. The deepest sense in which such things happen is God's grace, in a relationship where God is totally free and we are totally free, and I do not want to detract from that. However, there is a physical mechanism, a physical dimension, that I'd like to explore, before saying, "The truth is greater than all this."

Taking a cue from the Left

I have written elsewhere about The Saint and the Activist, and I believe there is something in Orthodoxy that is profoundly oriented towards the saint's life of Heaven on earth and not towards the activist who wants to change the world. However, Gandhi offered what would become heavily quoted words, "Be the change you want to see in the world."

If liberals and radicals who, naturally, measure their life's achievement by how much they change the world, are willing to be the change they want to see in the world, we who are Orthodox should be beating them to the punch! Orthodox should be the humility we want to see in the world. Orthodox should be the repentance we want to see in the world. Orthodox should be the sanctified presence we want to see in the world. Orthodox should be the welcome to a hurting world we want to see in the world. Orthodox should be the peacefulness we so much want to share with the world.

This is the power of saints, and it is the primary persuasive power Orthodox should trade in.


The Western and Protestant heritage is to feel an obligation to corner people in arguments and make them accept the truth. As stated in A Mechanism, and for several reasons, I do not agree with current psychobabble that we are a thin veneer of logic on top of a structure of emotion. However, the primary power Orthodox trade in is a different power. It is a more subtle power, and the only real reason I do not say a more Taoist power is that the partisans of Fr. Seraphim of Platina who assign Christ the Eternal Tao for others to read, demonstrate the virtues of the Tao and Taoism least among self-identified Orthodox I have ever met. One of the titles I considered giving to this work was "The Tao of Orthodoxy," and I don't think that is a terribly bad title.

But while acknowledging that argument has a place, I would express serious reservations about "If you have a truth you really want other people to agree to, you should corner them in arguments." A much better plan is to live the truth in such a way that they will want to have it too, and if you don't have a relationship with another person to be able to live the truth contagiously, maybe that might indicate you shouldn't be trying to straighten that person out.

You can only use the power of words and argument most effectively when you already live the power of silence and Orthodox influence first.