Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A City with Foundations

What I discovered about Orthodoxy genuinely surprised me. I went looking for a traditional community that took seriously its interpretive role, and I did find that. But even more, I found that this was God’s plan all along. He had established the Church, even before giving the New Testament, to be the controlling voice for interpreting the Bible. I had envisioned the Bible as a text divorced from its author, now irretrievable through the passage of time, and incapable of true dialog. But in the context of the Church, it remains part of a living dialog, because the same tradition that gave birth to the Bible continues to speak. Because the Spirit indwells the believing community, the very author of Scripture speaks in the reading community and shapes the reader’s perception in conformity to God’s will. This is the role that tradition was always meant to play, and the role that it did play until the Reformation. I realized that, where the Reformers thought they had found a useful tool with which to critique the flawed tradition of the West, they actually got more than they bargained for and unleashed a force that could only lead in the end to pure relativism. Liberal theology went that way long ago, and it is only the conservative impulse of Evangelicalism—that boundary that seemed misplaced to me in seminary—that prevents it from doing the same. But Evangelicalism is living a contradiction; the best of its theology it retains from a tradition it no longer accepts, and the more it embraces its fundamental notion of sola scriptura, the more fragmented it becomes.

So Orthodox Christianity provided the answer I had been seeking. But could I accept everything that went along with it? Remember, one of my obstacles with Judaism was that converting would require me to accept everything implicitly. Not that there is never room for disagreement or independent thinking within a traditional framework; there can actually be quite a bit of freedom, and the boundaries are more logical than in Evangelicalism. But I still think it’s rude to convert to a belief system with a whole stack of conditions and exceptions. Part of what had sent me looking in the direction of Judaism was a feeling that it involved less, or less offensive, baggage than traditional Christianity. The prayers in the siddur might not have anything about Jesus, but they didn’t have anything about Mary or saints, either. Not that it’s all subtraction to get from Evangelicalism to Judaism, but at least the additions haven’t been the subject of a major protestant movement in my own ecclesiastical background. Eastern Orthodoxy has some advantage over Roman Catholicism, in that it is not guilty of some of the specific abuses that provoked the Reformation. It also shares Protestantism’s opposition to papism and such Western doctrines as the immaculate conception of Mary and the need to pay off temporal debts for sin in purgatory. But Orthodoxy has a lot in common with Catholicism from an Evangelical standpoint—the use of images in worship, veneration of and prayer to saints and Mary, acceptance of the Apocrypha, priestly orders, and sacraments. Then there are the trappings—candles, incense, liturgical format, and signing the cross. Surprisingly, these things were not as difficult for me to get over as I would have thought.

I had done some reading about Orthodoxy a few years earlier, back when I was looking for information about Coptic Christianity and found Eastern Orthodoxy as a convenient bridge to the more obscure Oriental traditions. So I had encountered explanations of some of these practices before, and some of them had made quite a bit of sense at the time, even though I didn’t think much about changing my own practice. For instance, Orthodox apologists argue that their form of worship involves the whole person. Not just the mind, but all five senses are used—the taste of the bread and wine, the smell of the incense, the sight of the icons and candles, the feel of kissing icons and relics, the sound of bells and chants. There is also more action on the part of the congregants—lighting candles, venerating icons, chanting along with most of the service, bowing, crossing, etc. This made a lot of sense to me, and the fact that OT worship set a similar precedent suggested an appropriateness I had not considered before. Also, the notion that icons stand in for persons who are physically absent but spiritually present, which is grounded in a concept of the church that includes both the living and the dead in a very real way, seemed to me a proper response to the belief in an afterlife that most Evangelicals would share. I could accept that an icon represents a spiritual reality and is not an object of worship in itself, that the incarnation of the Son added a physical dimension to worship that is appropriately expressed now, as we recognize the divine and spiritual through the human and physical.

As I came back to investigate Orthodoxy again, I was reminded of these arguments that had made sense to me before. I also recognized that the justification of icons at the seventh ecumenical council really was a continuation of the Christological focus of the earlier councils. If Jesus is fully God and fully human, then it is appropriate to contemplate him in a physical way when we worship. Also, as I have tried it out for myself, I have found the practical benefit of adding a visual component to worship. Where praying with my eyes closed still allows my mind to conjure inappropriate or distracting images, keeping my eyes focused on an icon provides positive reinforcement of the task at hand.

My already strong focus on community made it easy to accept other aspects of Orthodox practice. I can recognize the importance of the saints, as champions of the faith, whose lives guide us much like Paul said to imitate him, and who pray ceaselessly for Christians. If they prayed for others on earth, how much more do they pray before the throne of God in heaven? We honor them for the mighty ways in which God has used them, and for their significant role in the life of the Church. If we give honor to celebrities and political leaders for their accomplishments in this world, how much more should we honor those who have shown us Christ so vividly with their lives? I can also see the importance of the priesthood in the life of the community. What ministries and blessings belong to the Church belong to all of us collectively. But distinct roles are necessary for some types of experience. For instance, private confession before God is well and good, but on a very human level there is something different about confessing aloud to another person who is vividly present and responsive. The priest can stand in this role, to receive our confession as God’s representative.

The sacraments were also easy for me to accept. Of course, God wants to sanctify our whole existence, including the material world around us. Of course, the incarnation shows this intention most clearly. Sacrament is nothing more than an extension of the incarnation, as the Spirit of God works through things in the world around us, allowing us to experience grace with our whole persons, both spiritual and physical. Where Evangelicalism tends to separate the spiritual events from the physical, Orthodoxy keeps them together as a mystery, without analyzing them to death as in scholastic Catholicism.

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