Read it on Kindle: part of the collection, The Christmas Tales
Do children and adults understand each other? To some degree, and if many adults have lost touch with childhood, there are some who understand childhood very well. But when I was a child, I wanted to write a book about things adults don’t understand about children. (I have since forgotten with what I wanted to write.) There is a gulf. A father can read a Calvin and Hobbes strip, and his little girl can ask what’s funny, and the father is in a pickle. It’s not that he doesn’t want to explain it, and he may be able to explain the humor to another adult, but all of those explanations fail with his daughter. Children often believe that there’s a big secret the adult conspiracy is refusing to tell them. And the adult who is trying to get a child to “be serious” by setting aside “make believe” and dealing with what is “real” is like someone who wears a raincoat to the shower. The things that go without saying as part of being serious are in many cases not part of childhood’s landscape.
In this sense, children understand each other. This understanding is compatible with friendship, liking, hating, being aloof, and several other things, but there are certain things that go without saying, and the things that go without saying are shared. Two young children will have a world where the difference between “real” and “imaginary” is not very important, where they have no power and adults laugh at things the children don’t understand, and where the world is full of wonder. And in that sense two children can understand each other even if they don’t know each other’s heroes, favorite ways to play, and so on and so forth. And adults likewise understand things that can normally be taken for granted among adults.
Before suggesting that Western Christianity (in other words, Catholic and Protestant Christianity) is best understood in continuity with the West, I would like to explain what I mean. There are a good many Catholics and Protestants who try to be critical towards Western culture, and who do not accept uncritically what is in vogue. I know several Western Christians who tried to live counterculturally and not accept sour things in Western culture; I was such a Western Christian myself. So is it fair to talk about the continuity between Western Christianity and the West?
There is a common Western tendency to criticize common Western tendencies. I’ve seen Christians eager to criticize Western tendencies. I’ve also seen liberals who were not Christian eagerly criticize common Western tendencies. For that matter, I don’t remember ever hearing someone use the term “common Western tendency” in a flattering way, even though the West is home to many great cultural triumphs (as well as problems). Criticizing “Western tendencies” is a Western thing to do. Taking a dim view of the culture that raised you is a Western thing to do. Working to create a counterculture is a Western thing to do. The focus of this article is not to rebut the West but to explain the East and describe things Western Christians may not know to look for. The Orthodox classics do not try to be Christian by making unflattering remarks about “common Western tendencies.” For reasons that I will elaborate, I know that there are countercultural Western Christians who strive to construct or reconstruct a Christian culture that is very different from the Western mainstream (I was such a countercultural Western Christian), and I still consider their continuities with the West to be significant. More on that later.
This article explores the suggestion that Eastern (Orthodox) Christianity is best understood in continuity with the East, and Western (Catholic and Protestant) Christianity is best understood in continuity with the West. There are of course continuities between Eastern and Western Christianity. But they usually aren’t the point where Western Christians do not understand Orthodox. There are important ways that a Western Christian understands an Eastern Christian and members of (other) Eastern religions don’t. There are also important ways that members of (mostly) Eastern religions understand each other. The purpose of this article is to explain things that the East naturally understands about Orthodoxy, not to explain everything important about Orthodoxy. The understanding between Orthodox, Hindus, Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Buddhists, and many less well known religions is of this kind. And so is understanding within the West, but East and West are different as children and adults are different—not because one is more mature than the other (each can see the other as childish), but because there is a gulf. The understanding isn’t a matter of how many details you know, or agreement on important matters. For that matter, it’s not even a matter of civil disagreement. Understanding another religion is perfectly consistent with fighting religious wars. But there is a gulf that is rarely bridged, and I am trying to bring a spark of understanding of the gulf. I am trying to explain what is shared that Westerns, even Western Christians, need to have explained. And I will be looking at both East and West, at both worlds.
This article is partly Eastern and partly Western, and doesn’t completely belong to either world. It’s meant to give explanations a Westerner would recognize, while addressing important things that a Westerner might not think to ask about. I was raised an evangelical, and I am a relatively recent convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. This means that for better or worse I have a foot in both worlds. I hope to use this position to build a bridge.
The Most Important Thing Is
“Article on understanding Orthodoxy” is a dread oxymoron, a red flag like the phrase “committee to revitalize,” or for that matter a thick commentary on Ecclesiastes 6:11: “The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?” (NIV)
Orthodoxy is something you understand by doing. If you want to learn to swim, you get in the water with someone who can show you how to swim. So the first thing an article on understanding Orthodoxy can say is that you can’t understand Orthodoxy by reading an article on understanding Orthodoxy. You can understand it by visiting a parish and seeing how we worship, and maybe participating. A book can be a useful tour guide that can help you keep your eyes open for what to see at a historic site, but it cannot substitute for visiting the site yourself. The first thing to do is, if you know someone Orthodox, ask, “May I join you at church?” Orthodoxy is a live community, and the way to understand it is to interact with the community. If you don’t have that live connection, you can search online for a nearby parish (and ignore the error message) (Outside the US). Some parishes (churches) are warmer than others. There are some parishes that unfortunately aren’t welcoming. If a church doesn’t have a sign out in front, that may be a warning. But there are many churches that are welcoming. And don’t worry if everybody seems to be doing things that you don’t understand. There is a great deal of freedom in Orthodoxy, and apart from receiving communion you should be welcome to do (or not do) anything people are doing. Sometimes you will see different members of the faithful doing different things, walking around, entering, leaving. This is because of the freedom in Orthodox worship and a grand tradition of not sticking your nose in what other people are doing. When I first visited my present parish, well before I became Orthodox, I was self-conscious about following what other people were doing and sticking out. In the time that I’ve been Orthodox, I realized that there was no need to be self-conscious, and in fact no one cared that I wasn’t acting like everyone else.
So make a note in your planner, or call a friend who’s Orthodox. Decide exactly when you will make that contact, and do what you need to do to get that in your planner. Actually visiting the site is infinitely more valuable than reading a guidebook about it.
Symbol and Nominalism
Before explaining what symbol is in the East, I would like to talk about what has happened in the West. Symbol in the West used to be close to what it was in the East—like two trees standing tall. Then something called nominalism came along, and cut down the Western tree, leaving a stump of a once great tree. Nominalism is a good part of what has defined the West.
Nominalism was one side in a Western medieval debate, and it was called the “modern way.” The debate was whether categories of things were something real that existed before things and before our minds, or whether categories are things we construct after the fact. What people used to believe, and what the nominalists’ opponents believed, was that a lot more things were real than the nominalists acknowledged. Their opponents looked at the structures we perceive and said, “It’s out there,” and the nominalists said “No, it only exists in your head.” Nominalism was an axe for cutting down most of what people sensed about the world around us. In its extreme form nominalism says that brute fact is all that exists; if it’s not a brute fact, it can only exist in people’s heads. Some scholars will recognize that as a postmodern distinction; nominalism was something that flowered in modernism and bore fruit in postmodernism. At one stage, nominalism defined modernism and the Enlightenment, while at a later stage, people were more consistent and became postmodern.
Another thing that nominalism did was to cut apart the thing that represents and the thing that is represented in a symbol. Nominalism is the disenchantment of the entire universe. Nominalism is a disenchanting force that says, “If you can’t touch it, it can only be in your head,” and the place of symbol was changed from what it once was. Symbol wasn’t the only casualty, but it was one of the casualties.
Imagine two very different surfaces, like the surface of the ground. The first surface, Orthodoxy, is rich in connections, layers, and colors. Imagine that the first surface is textured, like the surface of the earth, while there are not only buildings but great arcs connecting one part to another so that what is present in one place is present in another. A symbol is an arc of this kind, and symbol is not something externally added to reality; it is something basic to what reality is, so that the surface is in fact richer than just a surface and is as connected as a web. If there is something in you that responds to beauty in the surface, or to ways it has become ugly, that is because something inside you is resonating with something out there.
Now imagine another picture, of a surface that is flat and grey, where there is no real order, and any structures and connections you see are only ways of lumping things together inside your head. You can read things on to it; you can imagine structures in its randomness and pretend any two parts are linked; because it has no order, you can project any kind of structure or connection you want, even if this freedom means it is only your particular fantasy. If you find it to be drab and empty, that is a private emotional reaction that says nothing interesting about the drab and empty world, in particular not that it is failing to be in some way colorful like it “should” be. “Should” has no meaning beyond something about our private psychology.
If you imagine these two surfaces—one of them structured, many-layered, colorful, and possessing a veritable web of connecting arcs (symbols), and the other one having only a single grey layer and no connections—you have the difference between what Orthodoxy believes and where nominalism leads. Few people believe nominalism in a pure form; I don’t even know if it is possible to believe nominalism in a few form. Nominalism is more a way of decaying than a fixed system of ideas. Part of what has shaped Western Christianity is the influence of nominalism as the disenchantment of the entire universe. Nominalism disenchants the treasure of a world of spiritual resonance, where symbol and memory have a rich meaning, where a great many things are not private psychological phenomena but something that is attuned to the world as a whole, as much as a radio picks up music because someone is broadcasting the music it picks up.
What was before nominalism in the West, and what is the place of symbol in Orthodoxy now? Christ is a symbol of God, and he is a symbol in the fullest possible sense. How? Christ is not a miniature separate copy of God, which is what a symbol often is in the West. Christ is fully united with God: “I and the Father are One.” God is fundamentally beyond our world; “No man can see God and live.” But “in Christ the fullness of God lives in a body.” And if you have seen Christ, you have seen the Father. Christ visibly expresses the Father’s hidden reality.
The image of God, in which we were all created, does not mean that we are detached miniature copies of God. What it means is that we, in our inmost being, are fundamentally connected to God. It means that we were created to participate in God’s reality, and that something of God lives in us. It means that every breath we breathe is the breath of God. It means that we are to reign as God’s delegates, the moving wonders who manifest God in ruling his visible world.
As an aside, symbol is one important kind of connection that makes things really present, but it’s not the only one. Memory is not understood as a psychological phenomenon inside the confines of a person’s head; to remember something is to make something really present. “This do in rememberance of me” is not primarily about us having thoughts in our heads about Christ, just as saying “Please assemble this cabinet” is not primarily about us seeing and touching tools and cabinet pieces. Saying “Please assemble this cabinet” may include seeing and touching what needs to be assembled, but the focus is to bring about a fully assembled cabinet which not just something in our minds. When Christ said “This do in rememberance of me”, he wasn’t just talking about a psychological phenomenon, however much that may be necessary for remembering; he was telling us to make him really present and be open to his presence, and he isn’t present “just” in our thinking any more than a working cabinet is “just” a set of sensations we had in the course of assembling it. And the idea of “This do in rememberance of me” goes hand in hand with Holy Communion being a symbol in the fullest possible sense: the bread and wine represent the body and blood of Christ. The bread and wine embodies the body and blood of Christ. The bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ. All of these are tied together.
Amomg these symbols, a reader may be surprised about one kind of symbol I haven’t mentioned: the icon. Icons are something I tried to overlook to get to the good parts of Orthodoxy; it took a while for me to recognize how much icons are one of the good parts of Orthodoxy. Icons are in fact key to understanding Orthodoxy.
When one bishop is giving a speech, sometimes he will hold up a picture, of a traffic intersection (or something else obviously secular), and then say, “In Greece, this is an icon. It’s not a holy icon, but it’s an icon.”
Part of what icons are in the East is easier to understand in light of what happened to icons in the West, not only religious artwork but painting as a whole. What happens if you ask an art historian to tell the story of Western art after the Middle Ages, roughly from the Renaissance to the Neo-classicists?
The story that is usually told is a story of Western art growing from crude and inaccurate depictions to paintings that were almost like photographs. It is a story of progress and advancement.
Orthodoxy can see something else in the story. Western art became photorealistic, not because they progressed from something inferior, but because their understanding of symbol had disintegrated.
If a picture is real to you as a symbol, then you don’t have to strive too hard to “accomplish” the picture, in the same sense that someone who has never gotten in trouble with alcohol doesn’t have to make an unprovoked lecture on why he doesn’t have a drinking problem. People who use alcohol responsibly rarely feel the need to prove that they don’t have a drinking problem; it’s someone who has a drinking problem who feels the need to make sure you know that his drinking is under control. People who don’t have a problem don’t feel the need to defend themselves, and artists and publics who haven’t lost symbols don’t feel a need to cram in photorealism. When Renaissance artists inaccurately portrayed the place of Christ’s birth as having a grid of rectangular tiles, they were cramming in photorealism. It wasn’t even that they thought they needed photorealism to make a legitimate picture. They went beyond that need to make the picture an opportunity to demonstrate photorealism, whether or not the photorealism really belonged there. From an Orthodox perspective the problem is not the historical inaccuracy of saying that Christ was born in a room with a tiled floor instead of a cave. The anachronism isn’t that big of a deal. From an Orthodox perspective the problem is that, instead of making a symbol the way people do when they really believe in symbol, people were making pictures the way people do when the pictures are unreal to them as symbols. The artists went for broke and pushed the envelope on photorealism because the West had lost something much more important than photorealism.
Good Orthodox icons don’t even pretend to be photorealistic, but this is not simply because Orthodox iconography has failed to learn from Western perspective. As it turns out, Orthodox icons use a reverse perspective that is designed to include the viewer in the picture. Someone who has become a part of the tradition is drawn into the picture, and in that sense an icon is like a door, even if it’s more common to call icons “windows of Heaven.” But it’s not helpful to simply say “Icons don’t use Renaissance perspective, but reverse perspective that includes the viewer,” because even if the reverse perspective is there, reverse perspective is simply not the point. There are some iconographers who are excellent artists, and artistry does matter, but the point of an icon is to have something more than artistry, as much as the point of visiting a friend is more than seeing the scenery along the way, even if the scenery is quite beautiful and adds to the pleasure of a visit. Cramming in photorealism is a way of making more involved excursions and dredging up more exotic or historic or whatever destinations that go well beyond a scenic route, after you have lost the ability to visit a friend. The Western claim is “Look at how much more extravagant and novel my trip are than driving along the same roads to see a friend!”—and the Orthodox response shows a different set of priorities: “Look how lonely you are now that you no longer visit friends!”
The point is that an icon, being a symbol, is connected to the person represented. It is probably not an accident that in the Reformation, the most iconoclastic people were those in whom the concept of symbol as spiritual connection had completely disintegrated. When I was a Protestant, the plainest sanctuaries I saw were the sanctuaries belonging to people who disbelieved in symbols as spiritual connections. If a symbol is not spiritually connected, then reverence to an icon is inappropriate reverence to a piece of wood; Orthodox believe that reverence to an icon passes through to the saint depicted in part because of the connection that is real to them.
There are other things to discuss about icons. Here I want to talk about them as symbols, and symbols in an Orthodox picture—the mental image I drew above that has a web of interconnections, has both spiritual and material layers, and is very different from the (almost empty) nominalist picture. A lot of people who try to understand icons are trying to fit the Orthodox icon into the nominalist picture, or at least a picture where part of the Orthodox framework is replaced with something more nominalist. I want to return to icons later, after some comparisons.
Compare and Contrast
How is Orthodoxy different from Western Christianity? I would like to answer, focusing on evangelical Christianity in my treatment of Western Christianity but referring to Catholicism. I don’t believe evangelical Christianity is the only real version of Western Christianity, but it is the middle of the (Western) road. From an Orthodox perspective, “Catholic,” “evangelical,” and “mainline” (or, if you prefer an alternative to “mainline,” you can say “oldline,” or “sideline,” or “flatline”) represent three degrees of being Western, much as “rare,” “medium,” and “well done” denote three degrees of a steak being cooked. There are important differences, but there is also something that’s the same. Catholicism is like a rare steak, is almost raw in some parts and almost well done in others. A Catholic may be almost Orthodox (certainly a Catholic is not discouraged from trying to be almost Orthodox), and there are a lot of Catholics who believe that Vatican II says that the Reformers were right about everything (or something pretty close to that).
Catholics tend to be sensitive to the differences to Catholic and Protestant (even if they choose not to pay enough attention to those differences). Yet it is common for Catholics to believe that Catholics and Orthodox only differ in the addition of “and the Son” to a creed. Saying that’s the only difference between Catholicism and Orthodoxy is like saying that the difference between the Bible and the Quran is only that “Bible” was a French word for “book” and “Quran” is, with remarkable similarity, an Arabic word that can mean “book.” Catholic priests will tell you that Catholics and Orthodox believe almost exactly the same thing, and this is because Catholics know how they are different from Protestants but don’t know where their differences with Orthodox lie. The Reformation took a lot of trends in Catholicism and pushed them much further, but the problem isn’t just that the Reformers pushed them further. The problem is that the trends became a part of Catholicism in the first place. To Catholic readers who have been told that Catholicism is almost the same as Orthodoxy and the two should be joined together—I understand why you believe that and it is what one would expect the Catholic tradition to say. But to the Orthodox that is like saying that the Quran is of a piece with the Bible. You’re looking in the wrong place for the differences between the Bible and the Quran when you try to reconcile them by pointing out that “Bible” and “Quran” both mean book in influental languages. Not only do the differences lie elsewhere, they are far, far deeper.
|Sin is understood as essentially crime, and the remedy to sin provided by Christ is understood as being cleared for the guilt of a crime. Hence in Pilgrim’s Progress, for instance, there are elaborations designed to convince you that your crimes (sins) are great, and that you cannot ever clear yourself of these crimes (sins), but Bunyan does not seem to even see the question of whether sin and the consequence of sin are like anything besides crime and criminal guilt.
||Sin is understood as spiritual disease, and the remedy to sin provided by Christ is understood as healing. The Eucharist is “for the healing of soul and body,” and as the Great Physician Christ is concerned for both spiritual disease and physical disease, and drawing people into the divine life that he gives.
|The reformation created mass literacy so that everyone could read the Bible. As a culture, it is heavily oriented towards written text. Someone said after visiting an Orthodox Church that it was the only church he’d been to that didn’t offer him printed material. At least for Protestant churches, a visitor is offered some kind of paper documents; there is a bulletin that is passed out; one of my friends had been a member of church where people said “No creed but Christ!” (which he was quick to point out, is a creed), and then asked him to sign a sixty page doctrinal statement.
||If evangelicalism is essentially a written culture, then in keeping with the observation that the opposite of a “literate” culture is not “illiterate” but “oral,” Orthodoxy has the attributes of an oral tradition. Many of its members can read and write, but writing has different implications. It’s the difference between a natural environment that includes some things people have created (a campsite) and a basically artificial environment (a laboratory). At the parish where I was accepted into the Orthodox Church, there was no literature rack and no stack of booklets for you to follow along the service. Even where those booklets are offered, incidentally, I prefer to participate without reading what is being said—I think it’s not just economic reasons that the main historic way for Orthodox to follow along a service doesn’t depend on reading.
Part of an oral tradition means things that are alive, things that are passed on that have a different basic character to what can be preserved in a text. This is present in Western Christianity, but it is more pronounced in Orthodoxy.
|The written character of the culture is focused on Scripture. It is expected, especially among Evangelicals, that if your faith is strong, you will read Scripture privately.
Catholics and some Protestants do not believe Scripture has sole authority; Catholics assert the authority of Tradition alongside Scripture (“Scripture and Tradition”), and different Protestant groups have different solutions to the problem of how to balance the authority of Scripture and tradition.
|Scripture is the crowning jewel of Tradition. Scripture is not something understood apart from Tradition; Scripture is something alive, something dynamically maintained by Tradition and something inspired not only in that the Spirit inspired ancient words but in that he speaks today to people who can listen to him. And Scripture is at its fullest, not read privately, but when proclaimed in Church.
One Orthodox priest tells people, “Reading Scripture privately is the second most spiritually dangerous thing you can do. All sorts of temptations will flare up, you’ll be assailed by doubts, and the Devil will whisper into your ear all these heretical ‘insights’ about the text. It is an extraordinarily dangerous thing to do.”
Some people are intimidated, wonder if they should really be reading the Bible privately, and ask timidly, “Well, I should reconsider reading the Bible privately. But one question. What’s the most dangerous thing you can do spiritually?”
“Not reading the Bible privately.”
|There is a set of important questions, “What part of the person do we know with?” “What is knowledge?” “How can knowledge be built in another person?” Let me start with some secular answers:
What part of the person do we know with? We know with the mind, which is what is studied by the secular discipline of cognitive psychology. One big example is the part of us that reasons.
What is knowledge? Knowledge is having true mental representations that correspond to the world. It is the sort of thing we acquire from books.
How can knowledge be built in another person? Knowledge is built, to speak crudely, by opening the head and dumping something in. Now of course we need words/numbers/pictures to do this, but you teach by a classroom or a book.
Now this is a purification of something that is mixed in any Western Christian. It doesn’t even represent postmoderns well; in fact, it describes something postmoderns are trying to get away from. But admitting all these things, there is an element of the above answers in how Western Christians understand knowledge. Many Western Christians do not purely believe these answers, but they do believe something mixed with them.
|I’d like to answer the same basic questions as I outlined to the left:
What part of the person do we know with? At least in matters of faith, we know with something that could be called “spirit” or “mind,” a part of us that is practical (the knowing we have when something becomes real to us). This part of the person thinks precisely because it is the center of where we meet God. It is the part of us we use to pray and worship. It is part of us that is connected with God and can only be understood with reference to God.
What is knowledge? Knowledge is when you participate in something, when you drink it in, when you relate to it. Someone’s talked about the difference between knowing facts about your wife, and knowing your wife. The West uses the first kind of knowledge as the heart of its picture of knowledge. Orthodoxy uses the second.
It is normally vain for a person to say, “To know me is to love me.” But there is another reason why someone might say that. To know anything is to love it. To know any person is to love that person because knowledge is connected to love.
How can knowledge be built in another person? Knowledge works from the outside in. The reason the first chapter after the introduction asked you to visit Orthodox worship is that that is how one comes to understand Orthodoxy. We don’t believe in trying to open the head and dump in knowledge. You can’t gain knowledge of Orthodoxy that way. You might be able to learn some of the garments surrounding Orthodoxy, but not the spirit itself. The point of asking you to visit Orthodox worship is that that’s not something important that needs to be added to learning about Orthodoxy. It is learning about Orthodoxy.
By the way, the same kind of thing is true of evangelicalism, even if people are less aware of it. Evangelicalism can never be understood as a system of ideas. An evangelical might only be aware of the ideas to be known, but that can only happen if the participation-based knowledge of the evangelical walk, in other words the Orthodox kind of knowledge, is in place.
|I’d like to look at one more specific kind of knowledge, theology. In the West, theology is an academic discipline, and used to be called the queen of the sciences. Theology is a system of ideas, much like philosophy, and every other kind of theology is a branch of systematic theology.
||It took me a long time to make head or tail of my deacon’s insistence, “Theology is not philosophy whose subject-matter is God,” or of the ancient saying, “A theologian is one who prays and one who prays is a theologian.” But that was because I was trying to fit them into my Western understanding of theology tightly tied to a philosophy.
Theology is not the queen of sciences because it is not a science, and only with reservations can it be called an academic discipline. Calling theology an academic discipline is like calling karate an academic discipline (because you can take classes in both at college). Academic theology has a place, and in fact I intend to study academic theology, but the real heart of theology is not in the academy, but in the Church at prayer.
Theology is knowledge. More specifically, it is mystical or spiritual knowledge. It is knowing with the part of you that prays, and that is why Orthodox still say, “A theologian is one who prays and one who prays is a theologian.” Theology is knowledge that participates in God, that eats and drinks Christ in Communion, Communion, that seeks a connection with God. And because Orthodox theology is Orthodox knowing, as described above, books can have value but can never contain theology.
|In the West, some Christians regard Christianity as a system of ideas. Hence one Catholic author writes, “It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe.” If this is not universal among Western Christians, it nonetheless represents one of the threads that keeps popping up.
||Eastern Orthodox would agree that Christianity is not primarily a mode of feeling; indeed, Orthodox do not believe that feelings are the measure of worship. But we part company with the Catholic author quoted, in trying to fix this by placing a system of ideas where some place emotion.
Orthodoxy is a way, just as many Eastern religions are a way. It is a path one walks. A worldview is something you believe and through which you see things; those elements are present in a way, but a way is something you do. It is like a habit, or even better a skill, which you start at clumsily and with time you not only become better at, but it becomes more natural. But it is more than a skill. It is even more encompassing than a worldview; it is how you approach life. Part of the West says we must each forge our own way; Orthodoxy invites people into the way forged by Christ, but it very much sees the importance of walking in a way.
|The West tends to treat society as to a raw material, a despicable raw material, which will begin to have goodness if one puts goodness into it, transforming it according to one’s enlightened vision.
This undergirds not only liberalism but most criticism of “common Western tendencies”, and in particular most Christian attempts at counterculture. This attitude behind counterculture is not only that the Fall has impacted one’s culture, but that there is nothing really good or authoritative about culture unless one puts it in.
Counterculture tends to be seen as essentially good.
|In the East, as in the medieval and ancient West, the assumed relationship between a man and his culture is like the relationship between a man and his mother. It is a relationship which respects authority, femininity, and kinship.
This is not to say that one’s culture cannot be wrong. What it is to say is that there is a world of difference between saying, “Mother, you are wrong,” and “You are not my mother! You are nothing but a despicable raw material which it is my position to put something good in by transforming it according to my ideas.” There can in fact be counterculture, but it is not counterculture according to the example of the Renaissance magus, the Enlightenment (or contemporary liberal) social engineer, or the postmodern deconstructionist. It is rather like the wild offshoot into Christ’s body the Church, who regards his mother the Church, and patristic culture, as more authoritative than the culture he was born in.
Counterculture can be seen as a necessary evil.
What the Incarnation Means
In the West, doctrines have worked like elements in a philosophical system, while in the East, the focus is on what doctrines mean for us. There is a difference of focus, more than ideas contained, in the doctrine of the Trinity. The Western emphasis has been on philosophical clarity in describing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Eastern emphasis has been on what the persons of the Trinity mean for us and how we relate to them.
The Church didn’t even spell out a philosophical analysis of the Trinity until almost three centuries had passed and a heresy contradicted what they had always known. The Church had always known that the Son and the Holy Spirit were just as divine as the Father, and it taught people to appropriately relate to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit before it spelled out why people should relate that way.
The Incarnation, God becoming human, is recognized by all Christians who have their heads screwed on straight (and quite a few who don’t). But in the East, believing in the Incarnation isn’t just an idea that we agree with (although that is important). It is something that in practice determines the shape of a great many things in our spiritual walk. It is something that has great practical relevance. I would like to explain some of what the Incarnation means in the East, and that means explaining how the Incarnation gives shape to our spiritual walk.
There has been a saying rumbling down through the ages. The Son of God became a man that men might become the Sons of God (Protestant). The divine became man so that man might become divine (Catholic). God and the Son of God became man and the Son of Man that men might become gods and the sons of God. This teaching has mostly fallen away in Protestantism, even if Luther and Calvin believed it, and it is one puzzle piece among others in Catholicism. To the Orthodox it is foundational. The whole purpose of Christ becoming man, and our becoming Christian, is to become like Christ. Furthermore, becoming like Christ does not simply mean becoming like Jesus the morally good and religious man without reference to Christ’s divinity. We don’t split Christ like that. If God wants to make us like Christ, he wants to make us like Christ who is fully God and fully human, and that means that we “share in the divine nature” (as spelled out in II Pet 1:4). It means that if we read Paul talking about the Son of God as meaning divinity, then when Paul talks about us as sons of God he is saying something in the same vein. There are caveats the Orthodox believe that help balance the picture—in particular, we can be made divine by grace, but only God can be divine by nature, ever. We cannot make others divine. God has his essence which is beyond knowing and his energies which reach out to us, but we can never reach beyond his manifest energies to see his essence. Catholics believe in a “beatific vision” that in Heaven we will see God as he truly is. Orthodox call that heresy. God can reach out to us and we can meet him when he reaches out, but it is radically, utterly, and absolutely impossible for us to ever know God as he truly is. Neither our being divine by grace nor our glorification in Heaven can ever overcome God’s absolute transcendence. The Orthodox liturgy and prayers not only take account of sin; they spend more time bringing sin we need to repent of before God, than our being made like Christ. With all these caveats, the basic picture means that the Incarnation is not a one-time unnatural exception, something which runs against the grain of how God operates, or something totally unlike what can happen with us. The Incarnation is a peerless model that established the pattern of what it means to be Christian. Christ as the example of who a Christian should be is the only human who was fully divine, and even the only one to be fully human, but the Christian walk was meant to be, and is, a symbol that both represents and embodies what happened in the Incarnation. Christ is really incarnate in every member of the Church, and the Incarnation is not an anti-natural exception, but the pattern for being Christian. The purpose of being Christian is what Orthodox call “theosis,” or “divinization,” or “deification.”
Part of understanding that Christ became human, and in fact became flesh, requires an understanding of how spirit and matter relate. DesCartes is one of the more Western philosophers. Part of his contribution was a lot of thinking about the famous problem of the “ghost in the machine.” The problem of the “ghost in the machine” is the problem of how our minds can interact with our bodies, once you put mind and body in watertight compartments and assume that they shouldn’t be able to interact. It’s possible to be Western and disagree with DesCartes—but the main Western starting point is that mind and body are things one would expect to be separate.
In the East we don’t have trouble with the “ghost in the machine” problem because we don’t treat matter and spirit as things that are cut off from each other. We believe that matter and spirit are tightly bound together. It doesn’t seem strange to us that our minds can move our bodies—it’s a wonder, as all of God’s works are wonders, but it’s not something illogical.
This understanding means that the Incarnation doesn’t just mean that Christ had a body; it means that Christ was connected to his body on the most intimate level. What the Incarnation means for us isn’t just that Christ’s body, and our bodies, are somehow part of the picture. It means that our bodies are an inescapable part of the picture, and they are very relevant to our spirits.
If you visit Orthodox worship, you may wonder why people stand, cross themselves, bow, kiss icons, and so on and so forth—in short, why their bodies are so active. The answer is that since our spirits and bodies are tied together in the whole person, worship includes the whole person. We don’t just park our bodies while our spirits get on with worship. We might do that if we thought that our minds and bodies were separate, but we don’t. We believe that Christ’s incarnation is a matter of the Son of God, and the man’s spirit, mind, soul, and body making one being, Christ, who was as united as possible. And that means that worship at Church and the broader spiritual walk both involve the whole person.
This integrated view of spirit and matter, and of the Incarnation, helps create the space for icons. I found icons strange at first, largely because as a Western Christian I had no place for icons that was appropriate. Believing that physical matter can have spiritual properties, that an icon can embody a real presence, all seems strange to someone shaped by nominalism and a rigid separation of spirit and matter. But I am learning to appreciate that to an Orthodox, to say that Christ had a body and to say that matter and spirit are tied together paves the way to recognizing that icons are a gift from God. They mean that matter is not cut off from spirit when it comes to our bodies, and they mean that matter is not cut off from spirit in places where we worship. Icons are another part of the incarnate faith of the Orthodox Church, and if you disagree with them, please understand that they are part of the understanding of how the Incarnation tells us practically how the Father wants us to worship him.
When I was a Protestant, the songs I heard in Church were about spiritual themes, and more specifically they are about themes in the Bible that seem spiritual and theological given a watertight idea of spirit. As contrasted to the Psalms, there was almost none of the imagery of the natural world. Orthodox liturgy, which contains a lot of teaching, sweeps across the both material and spiritual creation. One hymn praises Mary, the mother of our Lord, as “the volume [book] on which the Word [Christ] was inscribed,” and “the ewe that bore the Lamb of God.” The frequent physical and nature imagery that seamlessly praises God and rejoices in his whole creation is what being spiritual looks like when spirit is recognized as so deeply connected with the material dimension to our Lord’s creation.
Like other Eastern religions, Orthodoxy has a supportive framework of formal and informal prayer, fasting from foods, ritual worship, hesychasm (stillness) and other aspects of spiritual discipline (which some Orthodox call “ascesis”). These are not “rules,” but they do provide a concrete structure to help people. Partly because Orthodoxy assumes the relevance of matter to being spiritual, Orthodoxy doesn’t just say “Go, be spiritual,” without giving further direction as it doesn’t just say “Park your bodies so your spirits can worship.” The structure provided for spiritual discipline is shaped by the Incarnation, and not only because it addresses the whole person. The spiritual discipline is not very different from other Eastern religions, but the meaning of that spiritual discipline is very different. In Hinduism and Buddhism, asceticism is something you do for yourself, and other people often aren’t part of the picture. When the Buddha decided to turn back and share his discovery with others, he was choosing a second best—according to Buddhism, the best thing would have been to enter complete release (salvation) instead of compromising his own benefit to share his discovery with others. Being good to other people, in Buddhism and in Hinduism tends to be like a boat you use to cross a river: once you have crossed the river, you don’t need the boat any more.
What about Orthodoxy? One Orthodox saying is, “We are saved in community. We are condemned all by ourselves.” Another Orthodox saying puts it even more strongly: “We can’t be saved. The Church is saved, and we can be in it.” Orthodox spiritual discipline is not something that makes ethics unnecessary. The whole point of spiritual discipline is ethical. If I pursue asceticism, the goal isn’t for me to be saved all by myself; it is impossible for me to be saved all by myself, just like it’s impossible for me to have a good friendship all by myself. The goal of asceticism is for the Orthodox to love God and his neighbor, and if someone fails to recognize this, this is a problem. Spiritual discipline is Incarnational because, as much as the Incarnation was an act of love for others, spiritual discipline is oriented to loving with Christ’s own love.
In the West, people see salvation as accomplished through Christ’s cross; in Orthodoxy, we believe that Christ’s whole time on earth, including the cross, saves us. “Incarnation” means not only the moment when the Son of God became a man, but his baptism, ministry, cross, tomb, and resurrection. And thus the Incarnation I have discussed above is not simply the moment when the Son of God became a man, but Christ’s whole coming that saves us.
The movie Ella Enchanted has beautiful fantasy-themed computer graphics. Ella, the daughter of a nobleman, lives in a lovely Gothic-looking house in the middle of a suburban yard, goes down a lovely rustic-looking wooden escalator complete with a rustic-looking peasant turning a manual cogwheel, and is surrounded by stained glass windows and other medieval-looking trappings when she goes to her coed community college and gets into a debate about government policy and racial exploitation. One of the characters is an elf who wants to break out of the stereotype and be a lawyer instead of an entertainer (which is prohibited by law), and one of the nice things that happens at the happy ending is that the elf and a giantess fall in love with each other.
This movie is not just historically inaccurate; it is historically irrelevant, and it wears its historical irrelevancy with flamboyance. Everything you see has a medieval theme. The lovely Gothic-looking architecture, the richly colored medieval-looking clothing, and the swords and armor all tried to communicate the medieval. And it would be horribly unfair to treat the film as a botched version of historical accuracy, because it simply wasn’t playing that game. However much things had been made to look “medieval,” to someone who didn’t understand the Middle Ages, it wasn’t even pretending to faithfully represent that era. It was using the medieval as a projection screen as a whimsical place to address today’s concerns. That was its real job.
That basic phenomenon affects a lot of how the West tries to understand the East, even when it is trying to faithfully represent it. In Ella Enchanted it is intentional, and the effect must be seen to be believed. (But then, that may be too high of a price to pay—as has been said about another movie.) I was appalled when I visited Victor Hugo’s house, heard about Victor Hugo’s fashionable interest in the Orient, and saw an Oriental-themed wooden painting of Chinese acrobats using their bodies to make a V and an H for “Victor Hugo.” China has produced acrobats, and Chinese acrobats are presumably capable of making those shapes with their bodies. But is this China, even allowing for cultural translation errors?
One major thread in most cultures outside the West is a tendency to exalt the whole of society and de-emphasize the individual person; indeed, people are seen without the Western concept of an “individual.” Individualism is historically anomalous, and having acrobats shape their bodies to the greater glory of Victor Hugo would be about as out of place in Chinese culture as a large pro-censorship demonstration would be at an American university. Here and in other places, the “East” is not really the East, even an imperfectly understood East, but a projection screen for use by the West. Ella Enchanted was tongue-in-cheek and knew what was going on, where this was serious (and didn’t know what was going on), but they were both using exotic places as a projection screen rather than something understood in itself.
New Age quotes the East, as well as “anything but the modern West,” and it has its various attempts to create an alternative to traditional society. The East is over-represented in terms of spiritual practices and ideas, but I suggest that the same thing is going on here asElla Enchanted or the supposedly Chinese acrobats celebrating the greater glory of Victor Hugo. In other words, we have a projection screen (in this case, non-Western) being used to project a thoroughly Western approach to life. The forces displayed are much an exaggeration of things that are accepted in Protestant Christianity.
What is the Western element that is found in New Age?
In the West, heresy is understood as condemned ideas. But the word “heresy” comes from a Greek word meaning “choice,” and in the East heresy is making a private choice apart from the Orthodox Church. This can mean rejecting Church teaching, or splitting off from the Church, but the core of heresy is not the destructively false idea but the private choice. (This already has implications for the American definition of religion as a private choice.)
New Age is Gnostic, but there is something interesting in how it departs from ancient Gnosticism. Ancient Gnosticism was not a single, unified movement, but a broad collection of related but quite different movements with conflicting ideas. In this sense it was like New Age, and for that matter there is a certain deja vu between New Age and ancient Gnosticism. What’s interesting is how New Age is unlike Gnosticism.
Gnostics had a lot of different ideas that conflicted not only with Orthodox Christianity but with each other. And they argued. Gnostics argued with other Gnostics and with Christians. Agreeing to disagree was as foreign to the Gnostics as it was to the Orthodox Christians. Saying “That’s true for you, but this is true for me” or “That’s your choice but this is my choice” would be as strange in classical Gnosticism as an escalator would have been in the Middle Ages.
New Age is a choice, and it is even more of a choice than in Gnosticism in its classical forms. Yes, the ideas are often Gnostic. Yes, New Age gives many of its members permission to indulge in magical, sexual, pride-related, and other sins, almost the same list as what ancient Gnosticism gave its members license for. But the essence of New Age is about a choice, the kind of choice that undergirds heresy. You choose (within certain broad parameters) what you will believe, what your spiritual practices will be, and so on and so forth, and the religion you practice is the sum of the private choices you make.
Where does this idea of religion as defined by private choice come from? One gets the impression from the New Age that it is the wisdom of the East to recognize that all religions say the same thing, and that a sort of Western style inquisition wouldn’t happen. And that is true. Kind of.
In English, poetic license is a legitimate aspect of the language. And there isn’t any central authority to approve instances of poetic license, nor can a poet be expelled from the English Speaker’s Guild for abusing the language. But if one simply tears up the English language, it loses its coherence as English. And so there is poetic license in English, but that doesn’t mean that anything goes. And in Hinduism, for instance, there is no centralized authority and no systematic purge of heretics, but that doesn’t mean that a Hindu (or Buddhist, etc.) approves of religion being approached as a salad bar. Leaders in many Eastern religions may say that all religions are equivalent, and Japanese are often both Buddist and Shinto, but most Eastern religious leaders would rather have you be coherently Christian, or Taoist, or Buddhist, or Hindu, or Jain, than simultaneously try to mix being Christian, and Taoist, and Buddhist, and Jain. That kind of incoherence is not very Eastern in spirit, nor is the idea of creating your own religion particularly Eastern.
What does Orthodoxy say? It matters whether or not you are Christian, and it matters whether or not you are Orthodox. But there is a saying that we can tell where the Church is, but not where it isn’t. There is real truth in all religions, and if the Orthodox Church claims to be the fullness of Christ’s Church, she would never claim that Christ’s Church is limited to her walls. And her rules mean something different from in the West; instead of meaning “You must or must not do _______,” they are resources that your spiritual father can use in addressing the specifics of your situation. In Orthodoxy your spiritual father helps decide what you are going to observe instead of you making the decision on your own, but the rules are more guidelines that your spiritual father can use in meeting the specifics of your situation, than rules in the Western sense. “Oikonomia” is an official recognition that your priest can work with you to figure out how Orthodoxy plays out in your situation.
Which brings me to the Reformation. Martin Luther did something original, but it was not the substance of his criticisms. Almost everything he had said was said earlier by someone else; there were things a lot like the Reformation floating around. Nor would Luther claim to have originated his criticisms much more than a baseball coach telling a boy to “Keep your eye on the ball” would claim to be the first one to give that advice. Luther didn’t get his historic position solely by copying other people, but if you seek new criticisms from him, you’re barking up the wrong tree.
Did Martin Luther contribute anything new? His criticisms had generally been circulating in the Catholic Church. An Orthodox might say that the Catholic Church had drifted from its Orthodox roots even further since 1054, when the Catholic Church broke off from the Orthodox Church. An Orthodox might interpret the general malaise in the Catholic Church as a malaise precisely because it had drifted from its Orthodox roots, and that the Orthodox Church agrees with the vast majority of Luther’s criticisms (as for that matter the Catholic Church has—it acted on many of Luther’s criticisms). Then what was new about Luther? Is Luther famous for an obscure reason?
Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of Popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.
After Luther said this, he split the Church. This is a rousing statement, and it is a rousing statement that contains the heart of heresy. A heretic is not so much someone who has a wrong idea, but someone who has a wrong idea and is willing to split the Church over it. Luther’s distinctive and historic contribution was not levelling particular criticisms against the Catholic Church, but choosing to split the Church rather than go against his conscience, and his understanding of Scripture and plain reason. This choice is at the very heart of heresy.
Luther was a monumental figure, a great hero and a great villain rolled into one. His courage was monumental; so was his anti-semitism. And Luther was a prime example of a heretic. He was a heretic not so much by the points which he had wrong, which are relatively unimportant, but because he defined the Reformation with his precedent of splitting the Church.
So Luther worked to establish the re-established ancient Christian Church, and I am not particularly concerned here with the ways the re-established ancient Christian Church served as a projection screen for ideas that were in vogue at the time. (Somehow, when people re-establish ancient glory, their work ends up with a large dose of ideas that are in vogue with their creators. It happens again and again, and I think it has to do with how the ancient glory serves as a projection screen, much like New Age.) That tendency aside, Luther and the Catholic Church treated each other as heretics for a very good reason. It wasn’t that they weren’t ecumenical enough, or that they needed to be more tolerant, or that they needed to be told they were all Christians and Christianity is Christianity. The reason was something else. I can lament the blood that was shed, but there was a very healthy reason why people went that far against their opponents.
The Catholic Church, along with Luther, and for that matter along with the Orthodox, recognized that there is one Church, bound together in a full communion that cannot exist without agreement in doctrinal matters. Luther’s reconstituted Church and the Catholic Church differed in doctrine and could not have this common basis. If you have two different groups which differ in doctrine, at least one of them is not the true Church. This is for the same reason that if one person says that an airplane is in Canada and another person says the same airplane is in Mexico, at least one of them has to be wrong. They could both be wrong; nothing rules that out. Luther and the Catholic Church might neither be the true Church. But if there are two conflicting organizations competing to be called the true Church, at least one of them has to be wrong, just as an airplane cannot simultaneously be in Canada and in Mexico. Luther and the Catholic Church both recognized this.
What one might have expected, if Luther were simply re-establishing what the Christian Church was in ancient times, was that there would be one and only reformer’s Church. When Luther couldn’t agree with other reformers, they split off from each other, each saying, “We’re the true Church!” “No, we’re the true Church!” It wasn’t long until there were seventy or so different groups, and the claim, “We’re the true Church” could no longer be taken seriously. In retrospect, Luther’s saying “I do not accept the authority of Popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other,” and then moving to Protestant churches was a move out of the frying pan and into the fire. Perhaps Luther could not have foreseen this unintended consequence, but the disagreements and divisions in Luther’s wake made the disagreements of Popes and councils pale in comparison.
At that point, the reformers reconsidered what was going on, but they chose to consider the Church structure generated by the Reformation as valid. There was an unwritten rule: “Whatever you say about churches, it has to approve of what’s happened with the Reformation splintering into many groups that could not be in communion with each other, no matter what Christians have believed about Church since the days of the Apostles themselves.”
The solution they invented included the concept of a “denomination”. The idea was that these different groups were not competitors for the title of “true Church;” instead, they were simply names for parts of the true Church. The true Church was not a unified organism complete with authority as it had been understood from the days of the apostles; it was something invisible and quite independent of formal structures. It’s kind of like there had been a supercomputer club whose charter said that they would have one supercomputer, but they couldn’t agree on which computer was the most appropriate supercomputer, so they violated the club charter by each buying his own computer, and to be able to say they had one computer like the charter said, hooked the computers up and said that the real club supercomputer was something invisible, a sort of virtual computer, that was emulated over the club network—and then said that this is what the original charter really called for. This is not because the reformers read the Bible and this was the best picture they could come up with of what the Church should be. It was much closer to an answer to the question of “How can we re-imagine Church so it won’t look like the Bible condemns the church structures which the Reformation can’t escape?”
Today we have:
- All denominations point to the same Christian truth.
- It doesn’t matter which denomination you’re part of, as long as you have faith.
- It doesn’t matter much whether you stick to one denomination’s prayers, doctrines, and so on and so forth, or for that matter whether you consider yourself a member of one denomination at all.
- We should pursue the goal of uniting all the different denominations.
But let me change barely more than one term:
- All religions point to the same truth.
- It doesn’t matter which religion you’re part of, as long as you have faith.
- It doesn’t matter much whether you stick to one religion’s prayers, doctrines, and so on and so forth, or for that matter whether you consider yourself a member of one religion at all.
- We should pursue the goal of uniting all the different religions.
Sound familiar? It should. It’s New Age. It’s the foundation to the New Age movement that all the exotic Asian decor rests on, and it is more Western than most of the West. Or at least there’s an uncanny resemblance between Protestantism and something most Protestants wouldn’t want to be associated with. (Or at least evangelicals wouldn’t want to be associated with New Age. With mainline, er, oldline, er, sideline, er, flatline Protestantism, the line between “Protestant” and “New Age” is often crystal clear, but at other times can be maddeningly difficult to tell the difference.) Beyond all New Age’s Eastern trappings, the heart of the New Age is a non-Christian twist on a very Western way of thinking about religious community. That way of thinking is the Protestant understanding of Church.
Why am I making such a disturbing and perhaps offensive connection? Do I believe Protestantism is as bad as New Age? Absolutely not; I think there’s a world of difference. The answer has to do with something else, something about Orthodoxy that seems strange to many Protestants. What is this something else?
Jesus, in the great prayer recorded before his execution, prayed fervently that all his disciples may be one, and Paul made incendiary remarks whenever he discussed people having different denominations. So it is important for all Christians to be united, and that goes for Orthodox. So why do Orthodox refuse to attend non-Orthodox worship and especially to take non-Orthodox communion? Why do we exclude non-Orthodox from our own communion cups? So why don’t Orthodox recognize that we are just one more denomination, even if we are a very old denomination? Why are there so few Orthodox at ecumenical gatherings?
Something has to give, and Protestants often try to figure out whether the observations about Orthodoxy are what gives, or whether Orthodox really being Christians gives. Which one gives? Neither. Neither the practices that seem so strange to Protestant ecumenism, nor the imperative to Christian unity, give. What give are the Protestant assumptions about what makes Church, that determines what Protestants see as real ecumenism.
I’ve written a long and subtle discussion about Ella Enchanted, New Age, and other things because I wanted to get to this point. New Age may do all sorts of things to get an impression of being Eastern, and it may be chock full of exotic decor. But underneath that decor is something very Western. It is a modified form of Protestant teachings about Church. The similarity between:
- All denominations point to the same Christian truth.
- It doesn’t matter which denomination you’re part of, as long as you have faith.
- It doesn’t matter much whether you stick to one denomination’s prayers, doctrines, and so on and so forth, or for that matter whether you consider yourself a member of one denomination at all.
- We should pursue the goal of uniting all the different denominations.
- All religions point to the same truth.
- It doesn’t matter which religion you’re part of, as long as you have faith.
- It doesn’t matter much whether you stick to one religion’s prayers, doctrines, and so on and so forth, or for that matter whether you consider yourself a member of one religion at all.
- We should pursue the goal of uniting all the different religions.
is a disturbing similarity. And most evangelicals wouldn’t touch the second list of statements with a ten foot pole. Yet it is connected to the first statement. The first set of statements isn’t what the Bible says. It isn’t what Christians have believed from ancient times. Its job was to give a rubber stamp to the sort of churches the Reformation created, and serve as a substitute for what the Orthodox believe about Church. And, with modifications, that way of thinking about Church has been perfectly happy to abandon Christianity and help give us the New Age movement.
My purpose isn’t to get you to reject Protestant assumptions about church. But it is my purpose to help you see that they are assumptions, and that Orthodox have worshipped God for two millenia with a quite different set of assumptions. If you can see your own objection to New Age treating all religions as interchangeable, you may be able to see the Orthodox objection to treating all denominations as interchangeable, even if it’s on a smaller scale. And to show why Orthodox do not simply see the Protestant style of ecumenism as necessary to a full and robust obedience to the commandment to Christian unity.
In Chinese translations of the Bible, the main rendering of Logos (Word in the prologue to John) is Tao, a concept in both Taoism and Confucianism which is important to Chinese thought and includes the Eastern concept of a Way. In Chinese translations, the prologue opens, “In the beginning was the Tao, and the Tao was with God, and the Tao was God.” Is this appropriate?
“Tao” translates “Logos” better than any word that is common in English, and the real question is not whether it is appropriate for the Chinese to render “Logos” with their “Tao,” but whether it is appropriate for us to render “Logos” with our much less potent “Word,” which is kind of like undertranslating “breathtaking” as “not bad.”
Is it OK to mix Christianity and Taoism? There are important incompatibilities but my reading the classic Taoist Tao Te Ching put me in a much better position to understand Christ the Logos and the Christian Way than I would have otherwise had. God has not left himself without a witness, and Taoism resonates with Orthodoxy.
In fact, there are quite a lot of things that resonate with Orthodoxy; it would be difficult to think of two religions, or philosophies, or movements, that have absolutely no contact. It may be easy to forget this in the West; one of the Western mind’s special strength is to analyze things by looking into their differences. This is a powerful ability. But it is not the only basic insight. Essentially any two grapplings with human and spiritual realities (religions/philosophies/movements) will have points of contact. It isn’t just Taoism that resonates with Orthodoxy. Hinduism is deep and has a deep resonance with Orthodoxy. The fact that I have not said more about Hinduism is only because I don’t know it very well, but I know that it is deep. Catholicism resonates with Orthodoxy even more than Western Christianity as a whole. Platonism resonates with Orthodoxy, and the Church Fathers learned from their day’s Platonism, however much they tried to avoid uncritically accepting Platonism. For that matter, Gnosticism resonates with Orthodoxy. But isn’t Gnosticism a heresy? Yes, and it couldn’t have a heresy’s sting unless it resonated with Orthodoxy. Part of a heresy’s job description is to be confusingly similar to Orthodoxy. Postmodernism resonates with Orthodoxy. I wouldn’t be surprised if some scholar has said, “Orthodoxy is postmodernism done right.”
It should not come as a surprise that feminism resonates with Orthodoxy, evangelicalism, and the Bible. Jesus broke social rules in every recorded encounter with women in the Gospels. And “In Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” is profound, and cannot be separated from the rest of the Gospel message. Looking at a historical context and a cultural context where feminism is floating around, where some form of feminism is the air people breathe—in other words, not the Early Church’s context, butour own historical and cultural context (yes, we have one too!), it should come as no surprise that people see the Gospel as moving towards what we now call feminism, a moderate feminism of course, and so people work to develop a Biblical egalitarianism that will coax out the woman-friendly vision the Gospel is reaching towards, and correct certain abuses and misunderstandings of the Bible in its cultural context.
This should not come as a surprise. What I had originally thought to write is as follows: It is entirely understandable to try to adjust Christianity with a moderate feminism and try to help Christianity move in the direction it seems to have been moving towards, from the very beginning, but even if it is understandable it is not entirely correct. It is not entirely incorrect but it is not entirely correct either.
Christ’s robe is a seamless robe that may not be torn. So is the Gospel. The same God inspired “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,” and equally inspired, “Wives, submit to your husbands… Husbands, love your wives even as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her.” The same God who inspired one inspired the other, and if your interpretation doesn’t have room for both, it is your interpretation that needs to be adjusted, not God’s revelation.
But what about cultural context? That question comes up a lot. And let me share some of what I found in my studies. I set out to do a thesis on how to tell when a book which treats a Bible passage’s cultural context is misusing the context to neutralize a pesky passage that says something the scholar doesn’t like. The first time I heard that someone had made an in-depth study of a pesky passage’s cultural context and it turned out that the pesky passage meant something very different from what it appeared to mean, I believed it. I fell hook, line, and sinker. But after a while, I began to grow suspicious. It seemed that “taking the cultural context into consideration” turned out to mean “the pesky passage isn’t a problem” again and again. And I began to study. That seemed to happen with every egalitarian treatment of one particular important passage—not only that I could find, but that my thesis advisor could find, and my advisor was a respected egalitarian scholar who spoke at a Christians for Biblical Equality conference! There were a lot of things I found about using cultural context, and my advisor liked my thesis. But in the end, there is a simple answer to, “How can you tell, if a book studies a pesky passage’s cultural context in depth and concludes that the passage doesn’t mean anything for us that would interfere with what the scholar believes, if the book is misusing cultural context to neutralize the passage?” The answer is, “There will be ink on its pages.”
“In Christ there is no male nor female” is true, and it is for very good reason that that resonates with feminists. What a Biblical Egalitarian or feminist may not realize is that there is also a truth which feminism does not especially sensitize people to. “God created man in his image” is tightly connected with “Male and female he created them.” There is unity in Christ, and we are called to transcend ourselves, including being male and female. But when God invites us to transcend our creaturely state, that doesn’t annihilate our creaturely state; it fulfills us—just as God’s promise that our bodies which are sown in decay and weakness will be raised in power and glory. Christ’s promise of a transformed resurrection body does not take away our bodies; it means that our bodies will be glorified with a depth we cannot imagine. Christ’s establishment of a Church that transcends male and female does not mean that being male and female is now unimportant, but that God uses them in his Kingdom that is being built here on earth. Men and women are meant to be different, in a way that you’re going to miss if you’re trying to see who is greater than who else. Paul writes, “There are Heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the glory of the Heavenly is one, and the glory of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and and another glory of the stars, and star differs from star in glory” (I Cor 15:40-41). If star differs from star in glory, so do women differ from men in glory. Men and women are different as colors are different, or as a blazing fire is different from a deep and shimmering pool. This is truth, and if you take the feminist truth alone and not the other side of the truth, you flatten out something that is best not to flatten out—and it makes a bigger difference than many people realize.
That’s what I would have written earlier. What I would have focused on now is different. It seems that when people return to past glory, or try to return to past glory, the past resonates with what’s in vogue, and we don’t pick up on things people knew then that we aren’t sensitive to now, or even worse we pick up on them but neutralize them. (“Man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of the time he will pick himself up and continue on.”) We unwittingly make the past a projection screen for what is sensible to us—which often means what’s in vogue. The Renaissance called for a return to past glory and ended up being an unprecedented break from the past. The same thing happened with the neo-classicist Enlightenment. And something like this happened with the Reformation. When you sever yourself from tradition to get to the past, you’re cutting open a goose to get all the golden eggs.
Part of being Protestant, whether it is evangelical, or the more liberal Prayers of the Cosmos: Meditations on the Aramaic Words of Christ (note the effort to reach further back than even the Greek New Testament), or deconstruction to get to what a text really meant (so that the text agrees with deconstructionist revisions to morality)—part of all of this is the idea that you dig past the tradition’s obstacles and barnacles to unearth the Bible’s meaning, perhaps a meaning that is hidden from the common multitude who blindly accept tradition. The idea that tradition is a connection to the past seems to be obscured, and sometimes the result seems to be digging a hole with no bottom. There’s no limit to how much tradition you can dig past in an attempt to reach the unvarnished text. And this phenomenon is foundational to Protestantism. There are things that distinguish evangelicals from liberal Protestants, but not the effort to liberate the text’s original meaning. In that sense Biblical egalitarianism is a member in good standing of Protestant positions—not the only one, but one member in good standing. And if past glory has functioned as an ambiguous projection screen, this may mean that Biblical egalitarianism has problems. But it doesn’t doesn’t mean that Biblical egalitarianism is a different sort of thing from Protestantism. It may be an example of how a Protestant movement can misunderstand the Gospel.
Attempts to recover past glory can be for the better. One group of evangelicals, originally in a parachurch organization, came to realize that “parachurch” wasn’t part of how Early Christians operated. There was no parachurch, only Church. So, assuming that the ancient Church disappeared, they agreed to research the ancient Church and each century’s developments and follow them if they were appropriate, and founded the Evangelical Orthodox Church. They went some distance into this process before they ran into a Russian Orthodox priest, and they (the real Church) were examining the outsider, or so they thought… and they found that Orthodoxy preserved the ancient teaching about the Lord’s body and blood, and about Church structure, and… things were suddenly upside-down. The ancient Christian Church had not dried up. It was alive and well; they had simply overlooked it when they tried to re-create the ancient Church. It was they who were the outsiders. And they realized they needed to be received into the Orthodox Church.
My parish was Evangelical Orthodox before it became part of the Orthodox communion, which I think is special. So Evangelical Orthodoxy turned out all right. Why then would Biblical egalitarianism have gone wrong? That’s not the puzzle. The puzzle is Evangelical Orthodoxy. Evangelical Orthodoxy is a surprise much like getting an envelope that says “Extremely important—open immediately!” and finding that it has something extremely important that needs to be opened immediately. Usually “Extremely important—open immediately” is a red flag which suggests that the contents of the envelope are something other than what you’re being led to believe.
But my focus is not to say who’s wrong and who’s right in the Protestant theme of recovering the glory of the Early Church. It’s not even to suggest that tradition is a mediator that connects us with past glory, a living link, instead of an obstacle which chiefly gets in our way. My focus is to talk about something that looms this large in Orthodoxy.
Orthodoxy is not understood best as the content of a private choice, any more than learning physics is privately choosing ideas about how the world works. In one sense it’s hard to out-argue someone who says that, but that isn’t a very Orthodox way of thinking. It could be called using Orthodoxy as if it were a private heresy. (Once I wanted to be Orthodox out of that kind of desire, and God said, “No.”) It’s also deceptive to say that a convert Orthodox should select Orthodoxy as a sort of winner in the contest of “Will the real ancient Church please stand up?” which he’s judging. It’s truer to say that that happens for many former evangelicals (including Your Truly) than I would like to admit, but Orthodoxy points to something deeper.
Repentance (which some Orthodox call “metanoia”) looms almost as large in Eastern Orthodoxy as recovering the past glory of the ancient Church looms large in Western Protestantism. For that matter, it might loom larger. And I’d like to comment on what repentance is. This may or may not be very different from Western understandings of repentance—I learned much about repentance as an evangelical—but it would be worth clarifying.
Repentance is not just a matter of admitting that you’re wrong and deciding you’ll try to do better the next time. That’s what repentance would be if God’s grace were irrelevant. But God’s grace is key to repentance. Grace isn’t just something that God gives you after you repent. Repentance itself is a work of grace.
If repentance isn’t simply admitting your error and deciding you want to do better, then what else is repentance? In this case, Orthodoxy becomes clearer if it is compared and contrasted with other Middle Eastern or Eastern religions.
“Islam” means “submission,” and “Muslim” means “one who submits to God.” Submission is not one feature of Islam among others; it is foundational to the landscape, and one of the deepest criticisms of Islam is that the Islamic way of understanding submission, and the Islamic picture of God, effectively deny the reality of man. How does Islam deny the reality of man? God alone contributes to the world’s story. The only real place for us is virtual puppets—not people who help decide what goes into the story. But Islam’s central emphasis on submission is itself something that’s not too far from Orthodoxy.
In Hinduism and Buddhism, one of the defining goals is to transcend the self and become selfless, and both Hinduism and Buddhism believe this requires the annihilation of the self. In some of Hinduism, salvation means that the self dissolves in God like a drop of water returning to the ocean. In therevada Buddhism, to be saved is to be annihilated altogether.
Orthodoxy, by contrast, is deeply connected with the Gospel words, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel will find it.” (Mark 8:35) One of Orthodoxy’s founding goals is to become selfless and transcending oneself—offering oneself totally and wholly to God, saying, “Strike me and heal me; cast me down and raise me up, whatever you will to do.” This is how Orthodoxy believes in transcending one’s being male and female: something that is totally offered up to God and which God, instead of annihilating, breathes his spirit into. This is the difference between Orthodoxy on the one hand, and on the other hand Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and even moderate feminism. Unlike Islam’s picture, whoever totally submits to God, or strives for submission, hears God’s voice boom forth, “Come! I want you to contribute to the story of my Creation! I want you to work alongside me!” The goal of Orthodoxy, or one of its defining goals, is to help each person to be fully who God created him or her to be.
What does this have to do with repentance?
Repentance means losing yourself. It means unconditional surrender. Losing yourself for Christ’s sake and for the sake of the Gospel is transformed to mean finding yourself. Repentance is unconditional surrender, and it is one of the most terrifying things a person can experience. It’s much more than letting go of a sin and saying, “I’m sorry.” It’s letting go of yourself. It’s obeying God when he says, “I want you to write me a blank check.” Perhaps afterwards you may be surprised how little money God actually wrote the check for—I am astonished at times—but God insists on us writing a blank check. God tells us to place our treasures, our sins, our very selves at his feet, for him to do whatever he wants, and that is absolutely terrifying. Repentance isn’t letting go of sin. It is unconditional surrender to God. And it’s the only way to transcend the self and become a selfless and transformed “me.”
One pastor used the image (he held up his keys when he said this) that we’ve given God absolutely all of our keys—all but one, that is. And God is saying, “Give me that one,” and we’re giving God anything but that. God demands unconditional surrender, and he calls for unconditional surrender so that we can be free, truly free. In my own life I’ve offered God all sorts of consolation prizes, all sorts of substitutes for what he was asking me, and when I did let go, I realized that I was holding onto a piece of Hell. Before it is terrifying to let go, and then after I let go of my sin, I am horrified to realize that I was holding on to a smouldering piece of Hell itself. A recovering alcoholic will tell you that rejecting tightly held denial is something that an alcoholic will do absolutely anything to avoid—and that rejecting to denial is the only way to be freed from bondage to alcohol. That is very much what Orthodoxy announces about repenting from our sin.
Hell is not something external that will be added to sin starting in the afterlife. Every sin is itself the beginning of Hell. Orthodox theology says that the gates of Hell are bolted, barred, and sealed from the inside. It’s not so much that God casts people into Hell as that Hell is a place people refuse to leave: Hell’s motto may be, “It is better to reign in Hell than serve into Heaven.” Hell is where God leaves people when they refuse to unbolt its gates and open themselves to the Father’s love. I’ve experienced the beginning of Hell, and the beginning of Heaven, and you’ve experienced them both. Every sin is a seed that will grow into Hell unless we let God uproot it, and that means letting him dig however deep he wills.
Repentance needs to be not only admitting to a sin, but an unconditional surrender that leans on God’s grace because apart from God it is beyond us. Repentance needs to be unconditional surrender because only when we give God our last key will we be released from holding on to that one piece of Hell we are trying to avoid giving to God. Repentance is a work of grace, both in God taking the piece of Hell we were clinging to, and in God’s power helping us give us the strength to let go of that one piece of Hell.
That much is true, but this article is incomplete even as a tour guide. I’m not even sure it’s an accurate picture of Orthodoxy. There’s a joyful dance, a dance of grace and ever-expanding freedom, and this article is a still, flat picture of that dance. Everything I describe is meant as Orthodox, but I have flattened out its living energy (which is why this is so philosophical), without doing it justice. The solution is not a better and more complete picture of the dance that will still be flat and still. The solution is for you to see the dance live, whether or not these observations are what God wants you to see. God may want to show you things I’ve never hinted at, or use something I’ve written to help you connect with Orthodox worship, or for that matter use this article as a key to open the treasurehouses of Orthodoxy. But that is God’s choice. And he can also connect you with the here and now as many Orthodox emphasize, or make everyday life more and more a home for contemplation, or pick out other treasures that you need. We don’t know our true needs—God does, and he cares for them.
For Further Reading…
If you’ve read this far and want to know how you can read more, I have not succeeded very well at communicating. I’m not saying there aren’t any good books out there. There are scores and scores, and I’ve even read some of them. I love to read. But please don’t try to read five more books on Orthodoxy so you’ll understand it better. Please don’t.
Go visit a parish. Participate, and come to experience firsthand, for real, what this book is at best a tour guide to. Even if this tour guide helps you see things you might not pick up on your own, it’s only the tour guide. The reality is the life that Orthodox live, and if you come to a service wanting to take something in, I will be surprised if nothing happens. Joining Orthodox worship (even just sitting or standing) and trying to take everything in, is like falling into a lifegiving river, being surrounded by its mighty currents, and coming to contact with a little bit of it. Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything that’s going on. I serve at the altar as an adult acolyte, and I certainly don’t understand all that’s going on. But I don’t need to. There’s a saying that a mouse can only drink its fill from a river, and it’s simply beside the point that we can’t drink all the water in the river. We don’t need to. What we can do is take away what we are ready for and drink our fill.
And if you still feel a bit intimidated, like most of this is too subtle to understand—don’t worry. You don’t need to understand it the Western way, by figuring out all the concepts in an article. The Eastern way is to go to an Orthodox Church, and let God teach you over time. If you do that, it doesn’t matter how much or how little this article seemed easy to think about.
Would you like to find an Orthodox parish near you? (Outside the US)