Radical Shifts

June 28, 2010

I’m currently reading Surprised by Christ by Rev. A. James Bernstein. Fr. James was raised by Orthodox Jewish parents, went on to become a Christian who helped found the “Jews for Jesus” organization and later he became an Orthodox Christian. It’s an interesting path, and I am especially interested in it in light of recent conversations I’ve had regarding Messianic Judaism. I am hopeful that the book will spur some interesting discussion here, but for now I want to highlight the foreword written by Metropolitan (then Abbot) Jonah:

Theologically addressing basic presuppositions, Fr. James shows that Orthodox Christianity has a vision of God and salvation radically different, and far more healthy, than the culturally conditioned presuppositions of American popular religion. To become an Orthodox Christian is not a matter of accepting a few additional doctrines, like the veneration of Mary and calling salvation “theosis.” Conversion demands a radical shift, not only in which church one attends, but in the very ways we think about God. How we think about God conditions our experience of Him. Conversion to Orthodox Christianity means that we have to change our basic presuppositions in order to open ourselves more fully to the great mystery of God’s Presence, love and mercy. We have to discard the old ways of thinking about God and salvation, which, insofar as they are erroneous, block the experience of God and present obstacles on the path to salvation.

My husband and I have been hearing a very similar message from our priest. We are to be converting, not merely adjusting. Since we were lapsed Protestants, our conversion does feel very much like a real conversion. We find that we are seeing the world from an entirely new perspective. It’s actually really exciting – kind of like have back-to-back lightbulb moments for the past year or so. We have experienced some of the radical shift that the Metropolitan mentioned, but I think it’s still just the tip of the iceberg.

Thanks to Rod Dreher for bringing to my attention this post from The Oclophobist:

Any text about God which seeks to form our thinking about God can easily distract a person from God, and this includes Orthodox texts. It is simply more ironic, and sad, when the text which distracts one from God is a text teaching the reader about the dangers of texts distracting one from God.

…Years ago, some ROCOR monks I met at, of all places, the International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo (an academic conference), told me that if one really wants to learn Orthodox theology, the first step is to cease to self-consciously attempt to learn Orthodox theology – for such is a dangerous reversal of the right ordo. The first thing to do is to learn how to pray, and if you are not to a point where you are ready to learn that sort of prayer which takes real effort (an actual prayer rule), you might start with doing the dishes for the people you are responsible to love, or trying to speak with kindness, or other similar things basic to living a human life (the idea being that it takes some softness of heart to begin any serious regimen of prayer). It seems rather common (though I know this primarily through literature, thus, I don’t really know it) that when a monk comes to the monastery, he spends years doing rather mundane things before they let him anywhere near theology.

…Without doubt or hesitation I can say that the persons I have known whose lives struck me as the least prayerful were those who cared a great deal about theology as a ‘subject,’ and that includes Orthodox whose beloved secondary literature tells them of the dangers of approaching theology as a ‘subject’ even as these very texts teach this by way of subjectivizing theology. There is such a thing as an addiction to theology as ‘subject,’ and it is ugly, turning the sufferer into a wraith. Becoming Orthodox and reading books about the dangers of approaching theology as ‘subject’ seems to have no bearing on the likelihood of developing such an addiction. Every would be theologian thinks his or her ideas are the safe ones.

This is somewhat similar to what I was trying to say in my post “I’m right and you’re wrong.” I have witnessed certain people who have so much head-knowledge about God and they are quick to let you know it, sometimes even in not-so-nice ways (admittedly, this may take place more often on the internet than in-person). I have seen people who seemingly know a lot about God, and yet I can’t help but wonder if they really actually know God. How can one know so much about God, and yet so clearly lack the fruits of the Spirit? That is what I try to shy away from. Right now I am keeping a lot of my thoughts fairly simplistic, partly because I am a mother of a toddler and I have limited time on my hands, but also because I can see the same fate befalling me.

If you’ve recently heard about Orthodox Christianity and you want to learn more, then you are exactly where I was just seven or eight months ago!

I was researching Christian (Protestant) denominations and I knew I had to investigate Orthodoxy after reading this on Religion Facts:

Culturally, the Greek East has always tended to be more philosophical, abstract and mystical in its thinking, whereas the Latin West tends toward a more pragmatic and legal-minded approach. (According to an old saying, “the Greeks built metaphysical systems; the Romans built roads.”) 

I was quickly blown away by just how very little I knew about Christianity. Despite growing up in a very Christian household. Despite all the apologetics training I had as a teenager. Despite the many books I had read.

The resources that were most influential for me were those that were written from the perspective of former Protestants. If this isn’t your background, then these might not be quite as interesting for you as they were for me.

Ancient Faith Radio – I can’t remember how we learned about it, but we quickly became huge fans of AFR. The first podcast that we listened to was an interview with the founder of AFR. The first part of this podcast is John Maddex’s background in radio and I recommend skipping to 8:40 unless this is something that particularly interests you. At that point he gets into his own conversion story which was extremely influential for both me and my husband. In particular John discusses his presuppositions and how the standard he used to judge a belief was based upon the beliefs of the people that he respected. He realized that this was the wrong approach and that he needed to start from the beginning (the early Church) and move forward. Another interesting comment is one that his wife made about the Church: “if this isn’t it – then nothing is.” My husband and I have both had the exact same sentiment. There is no returning to Protestantism. It’s Orthodoxy – or it is nothing.

After listening to that I quickly bought one of the books mentioned, Becoming Orthodox by Fr. Peter Gillquist. This is the story of an en masse conversion of evangelical Christians to the Orthodox Church. This book is a great place for the Protestant to begin. It’s a quick read and gives a general synopsis of the Church’s major positions. I really enjoyed it, but in retrospect I offer a few caveats. First, it is rather simplistic. But I think it is such as to not overwhelm those unfamiliar with Orthodoxy. Second, there is a rather drawn out account of how this group came to be accepted into the Church. This might be interesting to some people… but frankly I haven’t met those people. I’ve given this book to three or four people and they’ve all said they were bored with that part. I’m the only exception – I found it somewhat interesting, but it is rather much considering that the reader of this book knows next to nothing about the Church.

Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells – I started this book immediately after Becoming Orthodox, so in my mind the two are linked together as stepping stones. The first book was an easy step, interesting but not too much to think about. The second book was a more challenging step and offered many things to ponder. This was another conversion story but the author went into far greater detail. Among the major themes that I recall are the Protestant doctrine of sola scripture, and Protestant rationalism and relativism. He also discussed many of the major themes in the Church, again going into greater depth than the first book did. As I read many things began to really click for me. I really enjoyed this book and plan on reading it again. I highly recommend this book and so do others – check out the Amazon reviews!

After reading the above (and listening to a few more podcasts) we attended our first Liturgy. Find a church near you here. We visited a ROCOR (Russian) parish before settling on a parish affiliated with the Orthodox Church in America.

I continue to find the OCA site to be extremely helpful. In particular I enjoy the Q&A section as well as this section that I am using as a catechism of sorts.

Reason #2: Truth matters

March 26, 2010

This is part of a series of posts highlighting reasons why I am converting to the Orthodox Church. These reasons are posted in no particular order. Some are big, important reasons; others may be small, wonderful but non-essential reasons. I hope they offer food for thought.

As I learned about the early church and the ecumenical councils that helped shape Christian doctrine and drive out false teachings, I realized that the church had long ago addressed the issues that Christians today still grapple with. Arianism, gnosticism, and other heresies had already been addressed and a determination made. It was of imperative importance to determine which beliefs were true and which were heretical because Christ founded one Church, and it was important to keep true, right beliefs within that Church. Without the right belief – what really is the point? One must understand who Christ is and what He taught. If our goal is to know God and to be like Him, then we must know who He is.

Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick put it like this in his excellent podcast on Orthodoxy and HeterodoxyIf there really is a God, then who He is and what He wants from us is more important than anything else. If we adopt a consumer-style understanding of faith, where various options are offered as a sort of religious buffet where the choice is left up to the consumer, then the logical conclusion is that beliefs about God are not very important – we can pick and choose as we like.

As I began learning about Orthodoxy, I realized that within Protestantism there is a high degree of accepted relativism. One could be a Presbyterian, another a Baptist, another a Pentecostal. They all have very different beliefs. They all see God in a different light. We can even go so far as to say that they are all worshiping a different version of God, which causes one to wonder if these groups are even talking about the same God. Some of them have beliefs or influences that were condemned as heretical by the early church. And yet we are supposed to accept the idea that they are all still part of the same “church?” The Church that Jesus founded? If the Church is the body of Christ, how can you have one part of the body doing one thing, and another part doing a completely different thing?  We can’t all be part of one body when we are clearly disjointed in our beliefs.

I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name—the name you gave me—so that they may be one as we are one. John 17:11

Many evangelicals will say “all that matters is that you believe in Jesus and that He died for you.” This is extremely simplistic and one who makes this kind of statement will quickly run into problems. Who is Jesus? Was He God? Was He man? Who is God? What is His character? How can we know Him? How does Jesus relate to God the Father and the Holy Spirit? How does one understand the Trinity? What does it mean to be a Christian? And on. And on. And on. There is so much more than just “believe in Jesus.”

I am only interested in right belief, true belief – why would I accept anything less? Jesus said that the Truth would set us free, and I want the whole Truth. We left Protestantism because it represents only a piece of the puzzle, and not the fullness of faith that we were looking for.

Our path to Orthodoxy

March 8, 2010

I’ve been working on an introductory post, but it’s getting too long to be of any benefit to anyone. For now I will attempt a brief overview.

Both my husband and I are from devout Protestant backgrounds and we both have found these experiences lacking. David has felt this way for as long as he can remember, and he went through a very intense period of cognitive dissonance shortly before we began attending Liturgy. In fact it was the Church that pulled him from the dark state that he was in. I’ve experienced a cognitive dissonance of sorts for the past ten years or so. This is where we were when our son was born and when we began to feel that maybe we should start attending church.

My husband initially learned about Orthodoxy through a comment made by N.T. Wright. (The particular comment is here – begins at about 35 second into the clip.) He also had noticed mention of it on one of his favorite websites, reddit. His interest was piqued. I began reading about Orthodoxy and although initially I was skeptical, in the end I was hooked.

As we read more about the early church and also the Protestant Reformation, it became clear to us that no matter what happened, we could no longer consider ourselves Protestant.

As I mentioned earlier, we never considered Roman Catholicism.

We are knowledgeable about other religions but we have never considered any of them.

We were left at a point where it was clearly either the Orthodox Church or nothing. We’ve both been down the “nothing” path before and have found it lacking. We were searching for Truth and meaning, and the “nothing” path has literally nothing to offer in this regard.

We were drawn to the mysticism of Orthodoxy. We were relieved to find that we didn’t have to try to explain God. We were accustomed to Christian traditions that try to find an answer to everything, and we personally found many of these answers wanting.

We were drawn to a church service where worshiping and communing with God is first and foremost. This was also different from the tradition we were accustomed to; a tradition of “four bare walls and a sermon.” A tradition with too much empahsis on one earthly man (whoever was preaching that day). A tradition without any visual aesthetics. A tradition which has all but forsaken the Eucharist.

We weren’t religious when we discovered Orthodoxy. But it clicked for us almost instantly. For many others I know that the conversion process takes much, much longer. That’s perfectly ok and I think it’s even a good thing. Nothing worth having comes easily, and that which is easily acquired is easily forsaken. I feel like David and I have been on the path to Orthodoxy for a long, long time – we just didn’t know it yet. Now we are starting on a new portion of this path as catechumens. It feels good and it feels overwhelming. We are so happy to be here and we wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Glory to Thee, O Lord, Glory to Thee.

When my husband and I first learned about Orthodoxy we initially brushed it aside as “too Catholic.” We saw pictures of Divine Liturgy at a nearby parish and I told him in an email “Don’t think I could get into this. Maybe I could if I lived in Europe and had an old-world kind of lifestyle.” The pomp and circumstance of the Liturgy just seemed so far from what I was accustomed to in my modern suburban life. As a Protestant I couldn’t relate to a style of worship that contained anything visually ornate.

We had read a lot about Orthodoxy and I think we could have continued down the path of mere scholarship for quite a long time, but several different people gave us the advice to jump right in by attending Liturgy. Divine Liturgy is meant to be experienced, and we were going to miss the main event if we only focused on scholarly pursuits.

I became determined to visit. David also wanted to visit but he was nervous – mostly afraid of the unknown of a new situation or of making a faux pas. We decided to attend a nearby parish that a friend had visited before. As we pulled into the parking lot, we were a bit nervous. As we made the decision to get out of the car, we were still nervous. As we stood inside the building but just outside the temple, we were really nervous! We had read Frederica’s 12 Things I Wish I’d Known and it was extremely helpful but we still weren’t entirely sure what to expect. We stood in the narthex for a minute or two, undoubtedly looking completely bewildered. A nice lady saw us and before we knew it we were inside the temple and observing our first Liturgy.

The next week we decided to try a different parish (OCA). We’ve been going back ever since.

If you are looking into Orthodoxy, you really must attend Liturgy. The Orthodox Church is so amazingly rich and you are doing yourself a disservice by not attending Divine Liturgy. If you are nervous like we were – don’t be! You can duck into the back of the temple and stand to the side and be completely anonymous if you would like. Just soak it all in. The next time you visit, you might want to look around and see if there is a copy of the printed version of the Liturgy. It is immensely helpful to be able to read along – so much is happening during Liturgy, it is easy to miss some of the words.

After our first Liturgy, David commented that it was almost hard to believe that this was the same religion that we had grown up in. Divine Liturgy was so different from anything that we had experienced. As the weeks and months pass by, we continue to be drawn to Orthodoxy both in scholarship and in practice. If you have not yet attended Liturgy, please consider doing so soon!