Tuesday, November 24, 2009

One Eastern Orthodox woman's reasons for conversion

I mentioned I was reading Facing East: A Pilgrim's Journey Into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy. I can't write everything I've thought about it, but here's briefly the author's story and an extended quote about how and why she and her husband moved into Eastern Orthodoxy.

I loved the Proluge, which is about their path to conversion. The rest of the book is little vignettes from their church or their participation in Orthodox traditions, and it follows through the liturgical year. Interesting, but not a little slower and less interesting than reading their motivations and thought process in the proluge!

It's interesting because in the amazon reviews, the negative reviews are often from cradle Orthodox - those that have grown up in the Eastern Orthodox church. For them, the author's levity seemed to be at the expense of sacredness. I found that interesting because she admits in her preface that the very act of "writing an affectionate and somewhat humorous account like this is in itself a distinctly Western thing to do, and something of the essential Orthodox experience is likely to have been lost in translation." The thing is, her perspective is very helpful for someone like me because I can see how it all looks and feels to someone entering in from a Protestant perspective. To me, the ability to make it understandable to a Western perspective is key if you wish to minister in the West!

In any case, the author and her husband were converted from angry agnosticism into charismatic Christianity, "baptized in the Spirit", etc. When that charismatic experience grew stale (as I think it usually does - I believe the emotional emphasis of that movement only lasts so long before you are forced to wonder what it's all based on), they went looking into the liturgical Episcopalian church. They attended an Episcopalian seminary, the husband became a priest. They felt keenly the growing theological and moral liberalness within parts of the Episcopalian church. The author remembers sitting in on a resolution that the Episcopal church attempted to pass requiring ordained clergy to abstain from sex outside of marriage. When it failed to pass she remembers thinking, "This isn't a church anymore; it has no intention of following its Lord."

The author's husband decided he couldn't remain under the authority of apostate bishops.

But where to go? He briefly considered the "continuing" Anglican churches but felt he couldn't climb further out from the branch to a twig; if that the compromising flaw lay at the very heart of Anglicanism. The beloved doctrine of "comprehensiveness" suggested, "Let's share the same prayers, the same words about the faith, but they can mean different things to you than to me." Not a common faith, but common words about the faith - mere flimsy words. A church at peace can survive this way; a church attacked by wheedling heresies must tumble into accomodation, reducing orthodoxy to shreds.

Roman Catholicism was the next obvious choice, and we looked into the Pastoral Provision whereby married Episcopal priests can become married Catholic priests. But, ironically, pro-Provision literature gave us serious doubts. One book by a priest's wife painted an unintentionally grim picture; would we have to sell our furniture and live in a furnished apartment, never be allowed to retire.... and be fourth on a huge staff under supervision of people whose views were uncomfortably similar to those of the Episcopal bishops he was feeing?...

Then there was the matter of theology. We remained worried about the traces of salvation-by-works theology in Catholic practice and a habitual tendency to frame human relations with God more as a business transaction than as a love affair. Catholic theology seemed in general too overdone, compelled to parse every sentience and split every infinitude...

Then I reencountered a history lesson that had eluded me in seminary but now took on vital importance. For the first thousand years, the threat of Christian unity was preserved worldwide through battering waves of heresies. The method was collegial, not authoritarian; disputes were settled in church councils, whose decisions were not valid unless "received" by the whole community. The Faith was indeed common: what was believed by all people, in all times, in all places. The degree of unity won this way was amazing. Though there was some local liturgical variation, the Church was strikingly uniform in faith and practice across vast distances, and at a time when communication was far from easy. This unity was so consistent that I could attribute it to nothing but the Holy Spirit.

Then a developing split between East and West broke open. The Church had five centers: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandira, Constantinople, and Rome. The bishop of Rome was accorded special honorary status but no unilateral power to determine doctrine or to comman the other bishops. However, by the eleventh century the concord between the four Eastern Centers and Rome was disintigrating. The East believed the papacy was seeking expanded power over the worldwide church and balked particularly at Rome's insistence on adding the word filioque to the Nicene Creed, a statement of faith that had been in common use since 325 A.D. So serious a change as rewording a creed would have to be won by consensus in Church council, not imposed by command....

The filioque controversy, then, had implications that reach furthur than initially appear. The bishops of Antioch, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Jerusalem objected that Holy Spirit would not have waited a thousand years to clarify the role of the bishop of Rome and that a church council would be necessary to amend the creed. The conflict grew worse, and the legate of the pope excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople on Christmas Day of 1054 A.D. The patriarch returned the favor, and the split was on.

When the West severed from the East in this four-to-one split, the Orthodox churches continued united, as they have to the present day. Unlike the Western church, the church of the East went through Christianity's second millennium without being shattered into fragments by theological disputes. This is despite horrific persecution and martyrdom: twenty million Russian Orthodox are estimated to have been martyred in this century alone.

Once unchained from the need for consensus with other bishops, the Western church continued freely developing Christian doctrine, while the East had laid the task to rest with the end of the seventh Ecumenical ("worldwide") Council in the eighth century. As Western Christian theology grew more elaborately defined, it offered more fodder for protest and eventually for Protestantism. Five hundred years after the East-West split, the Reformation emerged, spurred by a desire to whittle back to the simpler original. But though some Reformers read the Church Fathers and made an effort to learn from Orthodox leaders, barriers of geography, culture, and language made cross-fertilization dificult. For the most part, the Reformers relied on the Bible as their only guide, and it's a book that sincere people can interpret in wildly different ways, as shown by the existence of nearly twenty-five thousand different Protestant "Bible-based" denominations. Subsequent generations continued the split from ancient practice. Like untrained gardeners going into an overgrown garden, successors to the Reformers hacked about with machetes, slashing unknownly through material that had been affirmed for the first thousand years: the sacraments, the honoring of Mary, the eucharist Real Presence. Protestants were trying to rediscover the ancient Church, but instead they created a dancing array of sorcerer's apprentice brooms, all trying to sweep each other clean.

The constant experience of doctrinal disagreements contributed to a Western tendency to make the Christian experience more about ideas than about heart-driven living faith, more what you think than what you do; more assensus than fiducia, more ideas about God than surrender to him. The Orthodox Church, escaping this sort of discord, could admire a butterfly without having to pin its head to aboard. Orthodoxy has had many failings and controversies, but they are most often about use and abuse of earthly power; they are not about theology. It's not yet perfection on earth, but there is to a refugee Westerner a certain bliss in bypassing theological arm wrestling about things too big for our puny understanding. For example, rather than overdefining Jesus's presence in the Eucharist or tossing out the concept entirely, Orthodox are content to say that the bread and the wine become his body and blood simply because they "change." In Orthodox theology there is a humility, a willingness to let mystery remain beyond comprehension.

The stance of an Orthodox believer is similary humble and childlike: we are sinners, receiving the overwhelming love of God, and we stand before him in gratitude. This is, I think, one of the reasons we kiss so much; we kiss icons, the Gospel book, the cross, and one another. Most Sundays we use the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, and we thank God for sending his Son 'into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief." ...

I paint here in hindsight a rushing tide of conviction about the truth of Orthodoxy, which swept my husband away. At the time, I was having none of it. Orthodoxy was too foreign, too old, too fancy. I didn't care what they said, I just couldn't believe that this was what the worshop of the early church looked like - all the cluttered doodads of gold, incense, and fancy vestaments.

My vague assumption was that early Chrsitians just sat around on the floor, probably in their blue jeans, talking about what a great guy Jesus was. It was embarassing to review Scripture and realize that from Exodus to Revelation worsrhip is clothed in gold, silver, precious stones, embroidery, robes of gorgeous fabric, bells, and candles; I don't know of an instance of scriptural worship that doesn't include incense. God ordered beauty, even extravagant beauty, in worship even while his people were still wandering the desert in tents. Beauty must mean something that no-nonsense, head-driven Christianity fail to grasp.

So - that shows you the view of history and the analysis of Protestantism and Catholicism that drove the author's move into Eastern Orthodoxy. Interesting, eh? I read it to Isaac, some of it he nodded vigorously in agreement to, some it he groaned over. Of course as a seminarian he talks of it being okay to debate and to seek to understand more and more - mystery is good but it is not always what is necessary....

Anyways, that's all for now.


Jaimie said...

Awesome. This was so interesting.

CM said...

I love the last paragraph that you quoted. Actually the whole thing is interesting. Eastern Orthodox is one perspective that I've heard next to nothing about, so it's fascinating.

Anonymous said...

I have always loved her "My vague assumption was that early Christians just sat around on the floor, probably in their blue jeans, talking about what a great guy Jesus was." I've used it on a few occasions since I was one of those people with a similar misconception. LOL. It wasn't until I did a study on Revelations that I also realized the disconnect between modern and ancient worship. The prologue is available online at her website under essays.

As a complete side note: I happen to go to the same parish as Peter Aslan and his parents, and am good friends with his mom. He's now in high school and his voice is somewhere in the bass section :) They are a lovely family.

Young Mom said...

Very interesting. Its amazing how much there is to learn. And I too love the "mystery" of God. I feel like to often we try to out God into a man-made box, you know what I mean?

PresterJosh said...

"Once unchained from the need for consensus with other bishops, the Western church continued freely developing Christian doctrine, while the East had laid the task to rest with the end of the seventh Ecumenical ("worldwide") Council in the eighth century."

I'd have to dispute this idea rather strongly. What of the Palamite controversy in the 14th century, and the resulting establishment of the essence/energies distinction as the official teaching of the Eastern Church?

Certainly it can be argued that this is a valid development of the patristic theology. (I'm inclined to that view myself.) But the idea that it isn't a development at all, I find quite unbelievable.

Kacie said...

This is interesting, as I haven't yet read about hesychasm or the controvery surrounding it. It was interesting - I found one nicely laid-out page briefly outlining Orthodoxy in contrast to Roman Catholicism, points of agreement and disagreement, etc. It clearly stated that the 7 councils were their authority.... and that hesychasm became official doctrine in 1300-something. That was the only listed exception.