Wednesday, April 26, 2006

non-intellectual reasons to be Orthodox

As my wife and I have struggled with our differences in this area, we've sought out help from various sources. We started with the pastor of our Evangelical church, who met with us a few times, then got seriously ill and had to take an extended break from all ministry duties. Even since he's been back, he hasn't been up to full capacity, so we haven't met in quite some time. The last assignment he gave us was to both work on the question of what my non-intellectual reasons are for being attracted to Orthodoxy. This is most of the response I prepared and eventually gave to my wife. (I have omitted one extended illustration.) Again, I apologize for the length.

I guess the first thing that comes to mind in the way of a non-intellectual reason for my attraction to Orthodoxy is actually an anti-intellectual reason. Much of what I like about Orthodoxy has to do with the way it transcends my own intellect. Accepting Orthodoxy doesn't exactly mean checking my brain at the door--in fact, there's a great deal to think about within Orthodoxy. But it does mean that I submit my conclusions about faith to the judgment of the Church. I cease to be my own intellectual authority. Of course, the act of accepting Orthodoxy itself requires me to make an independent, intellectual judgment, but that's something I would do as an Evangelical. I think of it in these terms--that the last Evangelical act I ever performed would be to accept Orthodoxy. From that point on, I would follow the lead of the Church; but it's unavoidable that I must reach that decision on my own.

Not only is it an anti-intellectual move in that I surrender my intellectual judgment of faith issues to that of the Church, but generally speaking, Orthodoxy is much less intellectually oriented than Evangelicalism. This is not to say that Orthodoxy is intellectually shallow--if anything, the overall trend runs the other way around. Orthodoxy has amazing depth of theology, but it is combined with a long-established accommodation of different intellectual levels within the Church. More to the point, it operates with a less exclusively intellectual approach to religion. It has intellectual elements, to be sure, but they don't stand out quite as starkly as they do in Evangelicalism; they're more balanced by other elements.


Orthodox theology, as precise as it is, must always be intertwined with practice. If it does not express itself in practical behavior, if it does not tangibly affect the way the Church worships, it isn't really doing its job. So something like the use of icons grows out of a proper theology of the incarnation. The two are understood in Orthodox thinking to be fully integrated, so that a person who rejects the use of icons in worship has deficient theology. For those who aren't intellectually oriented, Orthodoxy can be almost exclusively about practice, and if it's managed correctly, right thinking will follow. Also, because of Orthodoxy's focus on the incarnation, the material always plays a role in worship. Things like the way one dresses, the posture one uses, motions, visual trappings, smells, and sounds, take on a significance unparalleled in Evangelicalism. They are the means through which truth is conveyed in a non-intellectual, experiential way. As someone whose tendency is to be very intellectual about most things, I long for an expression of faith that incorporates more than just intellect--that challenges me to live as a whole person before God.

Another angle from which I've tried to approach this question is in terms of the basic human needs for security and significance. The weird thing is that most of what I can come up with falls on the security side, which is supposed to be atypical for men. It also seems atypical for my unique personality, since I tend to be a lot less concerned with security and stability than with feeling like I'm significant. In this case, though, I am choosing a course that tends to diminish my own significance (in a sense) but gains mostly security. Where I tend to find significance in my intellectual abilities and achievements, Orthodoxy attracts me because of how it diminishes the role played by my own intellect, at least on the big questions. Instead, Orthodoxy offers security--security that getting the right theological conclusion doesn't depend on my ability, security that I am part of an authoritative community, security that the Church has always been more or less what it was meant to be. Of course, the inverse of all this applies as well. Being outside of Orthodoxy makes me feel insecure about the same issues.

I suspect that this preference for security is somehow bound up with at least two elements of my own personal background. As I've said before, I see a correlation with my nomadic childhood and the way I've reacted in adult life to my parents' rambling lifestyle. One of the things that initially prompted my interest in Orthodoxy was not an intellectual issue but an article I read on flux and sumud. It had to do with the conflict in Palestine, and the author was arguing that Israel is an agent of flux, which dominates the Western lifestyle--change, rootlessness, universality, etc.--while Palestine is more characterized by sumud--an Arabic term that refers to a rootedness that keeps one attached to three stabilizing entities: family, religion, and culture. Without going into the details, it happened that this person was writing from an Orthodox perspective, and I saw a clear difference between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism in this respect--that Evangelicalism sets up individual judgment as primary and therefore tends toward isolation and flux, whereas Orthodoxy emphasizes the collective, authoritative judgment of the community and gives the individual a religious home base of sorts. I saw that in my life, I lack all three elements that contribute to sumud--I live in an area where there is no real local culture, I have only loose ties to family, and I am part of a religion that minimizes the authority of the community.

The other element from my background is in fact the intellectual journey I have taken. I'm not going to say much about it here, since I'm supposed to be looking at non-intellectual issues; but I bring it up here in the context of looking at my whole person, where intellect is just one piece of the puzzle. I went so far down the path of intellectual individualism that I found myself stranded and completely alone. I lost confidence in my ability as an individual to find the truth through reasoning, and I longed for some standard that could guide my thinking. An authoritative community like what I found in Orthodoxy looked like the only viable option.

Finally, I really think there is something to what I discovered from reading this latest Stephen Lawhead book. I won't say God spoke directly to me, but it was one of those epiphany kind of experiences. To reiterate, I realized that much of what I've always liked about his books is the way he reconstructs Celtic Christianity. I suspect that what it mostly comes down to is an Evangelical longing for something more than Evangelicalism but refusing to find it in Catholicism or Orthodoxy because of a prejudice that they are wrong. So in his books he rejects the faith of the institutional Church but reconstructs a form of Christianity that incorporates all the major elements that he's really looking for--a core of right doctrine, with appropriate rituals, liturgies, and traditions that speak out of a living community. By drawing these things from Celtic paganism, he avoids the off-limits territory of institutional medieval Christianity, which amounts to recreating the same thing in a more palatable form. I loved the outcome for the same reasons he did--because I shared his bias against Catholicism, but I was longing for a more "catholic" version of Christianity. Of course, at the time I didn't know enough about Orthodoxy to have any idea where it would fit in all this, but looking back I can see that I was really longing for--and finding in an imaginary world--something that existed all along in Orthodoxy.

Indeed, something similar can be said about much of what I looked at before Orthodoxy. I distinctly remember that when I taught the elective on Jewish prayer I explained to the group the advantage of using a Jewish prayer book over something from the Christian tradition. My argument was that in a lot of ways Jewish prayer only lacks elements that as Christians we would want to add, as opposed to Catholicism, for instance, which adds elements we would need to remove as Evangelicals. But the point I want to stress here is that all my experimentation with Judaism was intended to be a "safe" alternative to exploring the traditions that already existed within Christianity. It was a misguided strategy, as I see now, but at the time it was all I was ready for. So the longing for something more than what Evangelicalism typically offers has been there for much longer than I could really recognize what it was. It's just taken me a rather winding road to find what I was looking for.

C. S. Lewis has a theme in his writing--it comes up in the Chronicles of Narnia to a certain extent and somewhat more overtly in the Pilgrim's Regress. You can see a land from far off, and it's clearly somewhere you want to get to, but you totally misunderstand the path to go by. Sometimes it means you waste a lot of time and energy on a lot more roundabout path, and when you finally get there you're able to see the shortcut you could have taken. That's what I feel like where Orthodoxy is concerned. I could have traced back through Church history, to follow where Protestantism split off from Catholicism, and where Catholicism broke with Orthodoxy. But I was not ready to take that path--my biases in that direction were too strong. Instead, I had to look outside Christianity first, which ironically seemed like the safer direction to go, but served only to teach me that the answer was closer than I thought.

I suppose this all seems very intellectual, but I think that's more my way of expressing it than what it actually is. It involves an intellectual journey, but it's grounded in deeper longings that go far beyond intellect. At least, that's the way I understand it.

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