Tuesday, January 12, 2010

I finally finished reading The Orthodox Way by Ware

My posting has been so sporadic, it's ridiculous. I promise, I have so many things to write, but on this blog sometimes it's so hard to formulate them into actual posts!

Well, over the Christmas break I finally read The Orthodox Way by Kallistos Ware. Basically anytime you talk to anyone about Eastern Orthodoxy, they tell you to read this book. Isaac read it in undergrad and I have been wanting to read it since then. It's not even that long or hard to read, I just have a tough time motivating myself to read through theology books when there's so much fantastic fiction to read!

In any case, I really enjoyed the book and I did a lot of underlining and trying to understand. The book is not about the history or origins of Orthodoxy, nor is it defining the differences of Orthodoxy in comparison to Catholicism or Protestantism. Instead, it is sort of a "basic orthodox theology" book. That means you have to read with your antennae up to catch the points in which Ware is presenting something that the rest of the Christian world would disagree with or at least challenge. I'm no expert, so I may well have missed a lot.

For the most part, I come away thinking that there's much that I like about Orthodoxy. I don't see anything at first read that I am absolutely unable to deal with. Some of it I love. Some of it, particularly the "Jesus Prayer" and hesychism, I find rather obscure and I wonder if it really needs to be such a big deal.

So - here's some points I noted as well as a few quotes. This will be divided into two posts because... well... I'm tired and want to post this half now! This is also my interpretation... please don't think I fully know or understand what I'm talking about! Thus the many direct quotes...

1. Mystery and Symbol. The Orthodox emphasize that God is a God of mystery, far beyond our comprehension. They push back against the Western tendency to over-analyze and over-define everything. Because God is beyond us, they often come to a point of theology that the West has debated and exegeted and split over, and they simply say..... we don't know and we don't have to know. This is beautifully refreshing to me. To Isaac it is maddening because it seems to preempt discussion, and discussion isn't bad, and we ARE meant to know God and truth, right? In any case, because of mystery, Orthodoxy emphasizes symbols much more than the West. Much of their theology is symbolic - they use pictures and images to portray truth (understanding that this method is limited), whereas we in the West would attempt to fully convey and explain.

"A mystery is... something that is revealed for our understanding, but which we never understand exhaustively because it leads into the dept or the darkness of God. Our eyes are closed - but they are also opened."

2.Knowing God
I was intrigued by this, since I didn't know what to expect. Evangelicals seem to think we're the only ones that believe in personally having a relationship with God. The Orthodox, at least through Ware's portrait, definitely emphasize the importance of not simply but believing, but knowing and being in relationship with God as a person. This is held in a mysterious tension with the fact that God is beyond us and fully transcendent.

The Orthodox emphasize that we can't know or see God in his essence, because He is God and He is transcendent. However, they say that we can know Him and experience Him in His energies. In this, they emphasize that we actually participate in God.... but not in God's essence, only in His energies. This is one of those obscure things that the East and West have debated about for forever, and I just can't seem to actually CARE about it. I'm sure the theologians would shoot me.

"By the essence of God is meant his otherness, by the energies his nearness"

"When a man knows or participates in the divine energies, he truly knows or participates in God himself, so far as this is possible for a created being."

"Thus the essence-energies distinction is a way of stating simultaneously that the whole God is inaccessible, and that the whole God in his outgoing love has rendered himself accessible to man."

3. The Trinity, and the Person of Christ. The Orthodox Church is ... well... orthodox on these matters. Every since Isaac took a class on Trinitarianism I have taken such joy in reading about the Trinity. I love how the Trinity is praised in every aspect of their church practice and liturgy. It's beautiful. The one area where the West argues with them is that the West says the Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son, and the East says the Spirit proceeds only from the Father. That does not in any way change the "three persons, one essence" part of things.

"The Trinity is not a philosophical theory but the living God whom we worship; and so there comes a point in our approach to the Trinity when argumentation and analysis must give place to wordless prayer, 'Let all mortal flesh keep silent, and stand with fear and trembling.'"

"By voluntary choice God created the world in 'ecstatic' love, so that there might be besides himself other beings to participate in the life and the love that are his"


I love that there is an entire chapter about God as creator, and they never broach the topic of how to interpret Genesis 1-2. It's beside the point. Ware specifically identified that humans are created with free will. There is also great emphasis put on the created world, and our responsibility to take joy in it and to be drawn to God through it. And then... to reshape and alter the brokenness of the world to imbue it with meaning and beauty through our creativity and redeeming acts.

"Each, being free, is unrepeatable; and each, being unrepeatable, is infinitely precious."
"In God's heart and in his love, each one of us has always existed. From all eternity God saw each one of us."

"If we find people boring and tediously predictable, that is because we have not broken through to the level of true personhood, in others and in ourselves, where there are no stereotypes but each is unique."


The Orthodox differ from Protestants pretty distinctly on this point. They do not believe in inherited sin. They do believe in the original sin in which mankind fell from the perfect created world.

"He no longer looked upon the world and other human beings in a Eucharistic way, as a sacrament of communion with God. He ceased to regard them as a gift, to be offered back in thanksgiving to the Giver, and he began to treat them as his own possession, to be grasped, exploited, and devoured."

"Original sin is not to be interpreted in juridical or quasi-biological terms, as if it were some physical "taint" of guilt, transmitted through sexual intercourse."

"[Original sin] means that we are each of us conditioned by the solidarity of the human race in its accumulated wrong-doing and wrong-thinking, and hence wrong-being. And to this accumulation of wrong we have added ourselves by our own deliberate acts of sin."

Why do we all suffer for Adam's sin? I love this, actually:
"The answer is that human beings, made in the image of the Trinitarian God, are interdependent and coinherent. No man is an island. We are "members of each one another" (eph. 4:25), and so any action, performed by any member of the human race, inevitably affects all the other members. Even though we are not, in the strict sense, guilty of the sins of others, yet we are somehow always involved."
Okay, so apparently this is totally in line with Western theology, but it made my head hurt. Ware emphasized that Evil is not a thing or a person, because in the beginning there was only God, and so evil is, "Not a substance but the absence of good, just as darkness is nothing else than the absence of light." (Evagrius) It is, "The twisting and misappropriation of what is in itself good. Evil resides not in the thing itself but in our attitudes towards the thing - that is to say, in our will."

Ack. That is too deep into philosophy for me to understand that and all of the implications that come from it.


Young Mom said...

That perception of sin and evil is so so different from the reformed perspective.

Rae said...

I love this post.

I don't actually care about most of the East/West fights either. And I think that there is a good case for them not being that significant since it has always been politics rather than theology that is decisive in the schism/reunification.

I am under the impression that different Orthodox theologians have different interpretations of what original sin is, but I like this one. It actually seems like the Eastern equivalent of structural sin... at least in some ways.

debd said...

I also don't care much for theological hair-splitting. I certainly know a lot of Orthodox who love to spent loads of time debating theology... I just don't tend to go to their blogs so much. So, it's there - but I bet it's mostly the Western Orthodox convert who enjoys it.

But, I *loved* your synopsis. It makes me want to go back and read this book again with fresh eyes. I haven't read it in 9 years.

I'm wondering... have you visited a service before? Orthodoxy is about experience and relationship... come and see.

Kacie said...

Young Mom - you know, I was surprised to hear that the arguments about not being an entity are totally shared by Augustine, and much of Protestant philosophers. I think it just doesn't trickle down into the whole community because it's so heady and difficult to understand. However, the reformed idea of inherited sin nature is certainly a clash with the East!

Debd - do you have any of those hair-splitting blogs to recommend? I would like to show them to my husband because he thinks very analytically and philosophically and he has this impression that the Eastern church tends to shut out theological discussion in preference of mystery. I think perhaps you rather strike a healthy balance, but I would like to be in on a few discussion blogs in order to see what current discussion is about! :)

I have visited an Orthodox service before - my husband and I lived in the Ukrainian Village in Chicago, and I visited one of the gorgeous local Russian Orthodox cathedrals. It was gorgeous, but .... in Russian... and very nationalized. Isaac did the same at a Greek Orthodox church in another neighborhood we lived in. I have never seen an English service, though, and would like to.

Togenberg said...

Love it! Go Kacie!

Evil as the absence of good business seems to me a copout, at least as Augustine formulates it; logically consistent but rather odd. (Actually I don't 'get' what anyone steeped in Platonism, neo-Platonism, etc is talking about really.)

There is a needed balance between mystery and analysis and stuff, spirit and logos and body. So many Protestants have no sense of mystery whatsoever as if ultimately things could be figured out. In the end I think reason is of tremendous importance but if over stressed will dessicate and create a house of cards. Much of what Augustine says about sex comes to mind, or of how original sin is passed on. Or poor Descartes, trying to defend orthodoxy in an age of burgeoning rationalism, and if anything handing the torch to later mechanism and positivism. Or another example would be militant Young Earth creationism, which uses rational rhetoric and conceptual categories to explain something that is patently absurd; something that *could* be true, for God is God, but something you'd never ever know if embracing the methods and presupposition of Fundamentalism; mystery is implicitly rejected and then demanded!

Kacie said...

Love your thoughts here, Troy, I agree. And I also agree about Platonism. I know the basic concepts but just don't get it.

Rae said...

I know that your question was addressed to debd but...

All of the Orthodox hair-splitting blogs that I know of are by former Protestants. Do those count? I think that those who were raised with Orthodoxy as children have much stronger cultural connections/associations with the faith and thus see converting an American of Western European descent to Orthodoxy as akin to converting them to being Greek or Russian or whatever.

But if converts count then here are a few links:


Kacie said...

Hah, thanks Rae. Indeed, the author of "Facing East" discusses the difficulty of "cradle Orthdox" accepting converts from the West. In Chicago there are many Greek, Russian, etc Orthodox churches, but there are also some simply American Orthodox churches. Those churches are growing and attracting lots of Protestant converts. Apparently the autocephalous (new word for me!) Orthodox church in America was formed in 2008 - it'll be interesting to see the development in that area.