What I Love Most About the Orthodox Church... and What Makes Me Uneasy
Reflections on the Church I Hope to Soon Call My Own
Last Sunday was an interesting day.
My wife came to liturgy with me for the first time in a few months. This was also the first time at the new church I've been visiting. I've come to really appreciate the priest there, and the people have been very welcoming and kind. I feel like this may be the place where I can officially begin my catechumenate.
But visiting Orthodox parishes with my wife is difficult. She, first and foremost, is not the least interested in Orthodoxy. She grew up as a nominal Catholic which has left her with a lot of negative emotions towards formal, liturgical, "older" expressions of Christianity. Her "born-again" experience was largely the result of her relationship with me in high school, and having come from an initially Lutheran background myself and having my "born-again" experience in a Charismatic Protestant denomination (EFCA for those in the know), I have never been too fond of the "old stuffy zombified" Christianity that I experienced in my youth.
So our relationship, marriage, and subsequent church attendance have usually been at least secondarily related to us not wanting to do things like we used to. When I became Reformed---around six years ago---there was a little uneasiness in the sense that I began to desire a more liturgical style of worship, but still largely centered around lengthy, exegetical sermons. My wife has largely followed me wherever I go, and so we explored some different Reformed churches. We moved across state lines and continued looking for Reformed churches.
During this time, while I was more drawn towards liturgical services, I became more vitriolic in my disdain for ancient Christianity (though particularly Roman Catholicism). As many readers will know, there's a history of tension between Rome and the Reformers, and those in the conservative wing of the Reformed movement---as I was---are adamant that the Reformation continues today. Hatred for Rome is part-in-parcel to much of Reformed thinking, even still.
I've been drifting towards Orthodoxy for nearly 2 years now. It has been just over 1 year since I rejected the label of "Reformed" for myself. Ironically, it was the 500th anniversary of the Reformation on which I finally realized that I wasn't really in that camp anymore. Since then, I've been trying to find an Orthodox church home through which I can enter the Church. My desire has been to find a place where my wife will at least be willing to attend with me, but after this past week, I'm not sure that's really a viable option anymore.
In addition to her past experience in the Catholic Church, and my negative influence on her against the ancient Church, my wife is also not a fan of incense. By this, I mean that she has a violent physical reaction to it. The very scent of it immediately triggers migraines for her, and while she has toughed out a few services to attend liturgy with me, it usually ends prematurely, with us leaving after the homily. The subsequent car ride home is usually the same, as it was this past weekend: she complains about how much is going on, how the walls are cluttered with "idols"---I correct her every time saying "icons", and she always retorts, "there's a difference?"---the incense is too strong, the singing is difficult to understand, etc. This week she questioned how someone like me could go from being raised Lutheran to being a Baptist Pastor to "basically going back to being Lutheran."
It was difficult to explain as I was driving us home, but I wanted to gather my thoughts here. As such, I give you the list of reasons as to why a Baptist Pastor has decided to "basically go back to being a Lutheran", as well as a few things that still give me pause.
Orthodoxy's view of Salvation makes much more sense to me. The concept of penal substitution has become more and more problematic as I think on it, and Orthodoxy's view of sin as a medical problem sits better with me. Not that I have a problem with God being judge, but the concept of sickness in need of a cure just fits better with the Biblical narrative and what we're taught about God in the Scriptures.
Orthodox worship is lively. I have yet to visit a church where the congregation mumbles along in singing. hymns are always lead by the choir, but even then, it is rare for me to experience a service where the rest of the people simply sit and listen. Everyone is engaged. Contrasted with my Protestant years, for the churches where you are afforded to the ability to hear those around you apart from concert-volume productions, where the people next to you did everything they could to not be heard, Orthodox worship is a welcome and vibrant change.
Orthodoxy appreciates the Church Triumphant. Obviously, the focus on the Saints can be seen as criticism by many (members of my family included), but I have come to appreciate it. The legacy of the Christian faith is deep, and remembering the saints on their feast days, singing hymns in honor of them, and yes, even praying that they intercede for us is a constant way for us to simultaneously honor them as well as remember that our faith is not simply lived now, but is the continuation of history in Christ. I'd argue that even Protestants have their saints---Charles Spurgeon was a favorite of mine (and still is at times if I'm rather honest with myself)---and certain titans of various theological camps are always fondly remembered by all sorts of Protestants. Usually, these do not include anyone born after 1450, and the entire era of the Apostolic Fathers is given little more than lip-service. Unless it's Augustine, that is.
There's a shocking amount of autonomy in Orthodoxy. One may think of any sort of episcopal church stricture as a necessarily top-down kind of organization, but there seems to be a large degree of freedom for each Bishop within Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is organic and is passed down by the people. When Saints are canonized, it starts by local parishes. When the Church is persecuted, individual families continue the prayers of the Church for generations until a time when they can come out of hiding.
Orthodoxy has gotten me out of my own head. For years, Christianity to me has been a series of propositions which can be deemed either sound theology or rank heresy. There was little room---and little grace in delineating--- between the two. As I drifted into the Reformed tradition, I became less and less interested in the emotional side of Christianity. Bible study was often just a way of forming arguments for me that I could use the next time someone dared to speak of "free will" or say something wrong about baptism. There was a joke I loved once: "Why do Reformed people have bodies? ...so that something can take their brains to Church on Sunday." So much of my faith for a very long time has been what I think about things. I've always been a thinking-over-feeling kind of person, but with matters of faith, it was even worse. Truth be told, my intellectual prowess, a philosophy degree, and my desire to always learn created a perfect storm to make me into the worst kind of Christian: a genuine asshole. Yet, when I attend Liturgy, I feel like that's where I belong. When I pray from my prayer book, I feel connected to past generations of Christians who prayed those same prayers in all sorts of different circumstances. When I read the Orthodox Saints' reflections on the spiritual life it makes me feel an element of the Christian faith that I never knew existed. Just the fact that I feel anything still gives me pause because for so long I was convinced feelings regarding faith were either irrelevant or inaccurate.
Orthodoxy has given me a prayer life. I initially wrote "Orthodoxy revived my prayer life", but I've come to realize that in over a decade of being a Christian, I have never had a very robust prayer life. It was always something that seemed to elude me. This was even worse during my years in the Reformed community when prayer seemed almost impossible and sometimes felt useless given what I believed about God's knowledge and my will. I've always been introverted and discovering a Church that has an unashamed love for the hermit who prays just the same as the gathering of believers was refreshing. Very often in Protestantism, extemporaneous prayer is the norm. It is also difficult for some people, and a way for others to show off their spirituality. Honestly, with the pressure to come up with new prayers each time, it can feel like enough pressure for some people (for the longest time, myself included) to simply forego the process entirely. Orthodox prayer books have helped me take my attention off of developing prayers for myself and have given me the intellectual capital to ingest prayers as they're being read. Additionally, the practice of the Jesus Prayer has been a tremendous benefit in my life. It is a great way to break apart the monotony of my day job. I steal away for a few minutes to a quiet room and pray during the day. At the end of the day, I pray it with my four-year-old son when it's bedtime. Some nights when I'm putting him to sleep he asks me to pray the Jesus Prayer for him until he falls asleep. And so I pray with my son and I can do so as long as it takes him to fall asleep without needing to think of numerous different things to pray about. They can all be summed up simply: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me.
The Church seems to place monastic life above marriage. I want to be careful with this criticism, as I have grown to love the fact that Orthodoxy (as opposed to Protestantism) actually has a legitimate path of sanctification for those who are single in the Church. However, when I look at all the Godly examples of Saints the Church recognizes, there's a massive difference in the number of faithfully married people and the number of monastics. I'm not one to instantly assume such "gaps" are meaningful in and of themselves, but I in Orthodox discussions of monasticism and marriage, I often hear it said that both paths are equally valid and good for our salvation. If that's the case, then it seems obvious that---according to the Church---salvation is just as attainable as a spouse as a monastic, but the same is not true of Sainthood. Perhaps there are deeper reasons for this that I have not yet discovered (a possibility I have considered for each of my 'cons' on this list).
Many Orthodox people tend to have a strange aversion to economic freedom. I find it odd that for a Church to have survived the persecution of communism less than a century ago to have so many people in her ranks that decry free markets and economic freedom. I've made it no secret that I am a libertarian and a capitalist as far as economics is concerned. I find Orthodox Christians' simultaneous concern for the poor and the criticism of the most successful economic model in human history at eliminating extreme poverty strange. In this same vein, the Church will glorify a simple pauper who lives in poverty and gives away all that he has so that the lives of a few dozen people in his village are made better. This is noble and good; I am not criticizing this kind of life or the recognition of it. However, the same people who will praise the pauper will then condemn a Christian business owner who provides jobs to hundreds. As someone interested in economics and their global effect on poverty, it seems like something is seriously missing here.
I find the Orthodox position on divorce and remarriage confusing. Like many things, there's a difference of opinion on this subject, and it's generally an "ask your priest" topic. Though, I've never understood how anyone can read the New Testament and come away believing that divorce and subsequent re-marriage are acceptable. Bear in mind, I come from a divorced household. Both my parents are re-married. I'm not in the business of condemning anyone over divorce, and I believe that God's grace is big enough to cover the sin of adultery (which is what the Bible says marriage after divorce is). Perhaps I'm just over-reacting to my previous tendency to oppose so-called "liberal" theology, but it seems like on this issue the Church is deviating from what Christ taught.
I flat-out disagree with the Church's teaching on hell. This is still the biggest obstacle for me as I seek to join the Church. Oddly enough, it was the Orthodox view of the end times that first drew me to the Church. Through personal study, I came to the very Orthodox position of heaven and hell essentially being different responses to the same active presence of God. Where I deviate is in how this affects the damned. I won't go into too much detail here except to state that I reject the notion of eternal conscious torment. Of any Protestant "left-overs" that may prevent my joining the Church, this to me seems to be the biggest one. One by one, I've seen almost every theological objection I've had to Orthodoxy answered as I continue to study the Bible, speak with priests, and read the Church Fathers. This one area, though, has been the same.
So there you have it. I have been able to put into words what exactly has drawn me to the Church, and what still gives me some pause. More than anything I've written so far, I'd love to hear from you in the comments on this one. As one man once said, "I believe, help my unbelief!" ---Mark 9:24