Wednesday, June 28, 2006

two Serbian writers on 20th-c. councils

I've been reading a lot of Serbian writings lately. (Not in Serbian--that's one language I don't happen to know, although it's on the list that I would like to learn.) I guess it started with finally getting the Life of St. Sava (by St. Nikolai of Ohrid) from the library. I forget now exactly what reference I'd come across some time ago, but the book was not available on my past few visits. I followed that up by looking for more writings by St. Nikolai. I couldn't find anymore translated books in area libraries, but I did find some shorter pieces online, including an excellent collection of prayers that I'm still reading through.

The collection includes an introduction by Fr. Justin Popovic, which got me looking for more of his writings. One that I came across was a letter to the Serbian synod about plans that were going on in the 1970s toward a "Great Council" of the Orthodox Church. I liked his treatment of the issues and thought in passing that I might mention something about it here. Then today I saw a new article on the Orthodox England website, run by Fr. Andrew Phillips of Felixstowe. He has kindly translated a piece by another Serbian, Priest Srboliub Miletich, on Meletios Metaksakis, onetime Patriarch of Constantinople, and his influence on the current state of world Orthodoxy. There is a lot of overlap between the two, and I couldn't resist mentioning them both.

I try not to get too caught up in the internal politics of Orthodoxy. It is dangerous, I know, for someone in my position, who's not even Orthodox yet, to focus too much on these things. At the same time, I often feel like it is impossible for just someone in my position to avoid them altogether. I was talking to Fr. Gregory about the calendar issue in one of our meetings, and he mentioned that he personally favors the old calendar but simply follows his bishop in using the new. For someone who is already Orthodox and already part of a parish (especially a priest, who by virtue of his office is attached to a particular bishop), this kind of approach makes perfect sense. Likewise, for someone who lives in a geographical area with only one Orthodox jurisdiction, the matter is quite simply one of following the bishop's lead. Here in America, however, where just about every Orthodox jurisdiction imaginable is represented within one set of national boundaries, and particularly in a large, urban area, where I can just as easily drive to an Antiochian parish as to a Ukrainian or ROCOR, it's not quite so simple. At some point, I'll have to pick a parish in which to convert. In the meantime, I have to pick some calendar to follow for fasting and readings.

So all that's to say that I'm still in this weird netherworld, where acting Orthodox will keep me Evangelical and acting Evangelical will make me Orthodox. I like to say that converting to Orthodoxy is the last Evangelical act I will ever perform. I mean that in the sense that Evangelicalism (in theory) expects me to make my own judgments about faith, while Orthodoxy is about submitting to the faith of the community. In my case, as with anyone who converts this way, the act of becoming Orthodox will be a final revolt against my present community--an act that is only justifiable if I put forward my independent right and ability to choose for myself what I will believe. So until that point arrives, I still have no choice but to do some things like an Evangelical, including shop around for the type of Orthodoxy that makes the most sense to me and where I would feel most at home. On the other hand, I don't want to embrace Orthodoxy in a schismatic way, by choosing one jurisdiction at the expense of others. I find myself torn between these two poles, but more often than not I see the best hope for real unity among Orthodox, and a real universalism, in the death of some of the divisive innovations that have plagued the Church in the past century.

Aside from that, I have a lot of respect for Serbian Orthodoxy, which has suffered more consistently than most Orthodox groups in recent history. The same goes for Russian Orthodoxy. This is not to say that they are perfect and everyone else is out to lunch. Nor is it to minimize the suffering of the Church in Asia Minor and other parts of the Greek Diaspora. Another interesting (and heartbreaking) piece I've read recently goes through a lot of this. But the political dynamics have been different, and I'm sure I'm influenced to a great extent by my distaste for Western imperialism. So there you have it--my biased take on issues I shouldn't even be thinking about. But the point was simply to put the links out there, with a bit of explanation on why I find them interesting. I suppose I've done that and more.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

confess your faults to one another

Last night, I learned what is probably always a painful lesson--the importance of having a human confessor. This is something that I haven't really experienced so far with Orthodoxy (will a priest even take confession from someone who's still just searching?), but in principle it makes sense to me, and I've felt the lack in my own religious experience.

What happened last night had nothing directly to do with Orthodoxy or with Christianity in general. I just think God used the experience to drive home an important spiritual point for me. I was admitted to Ph.D. candidacy two years ago. I was never particularly happy with the rate of progress I was making, even during the first year. But during this second year, it's gone from bad to worse. The last time I met with my advisor, or had anything more than incidental contact with anyone in the department, was over a year ago. For much of that time, I've gone weeks, even months, without touching my dissertation. It bothered me, particularly since it's not cheap to stay in the program, but I just couldn't get myself motivated. Probably a couple of months ago, my wife asked me (for the first time in I don't know how long) how things were going, and I told her honestly that I wasn't even sure it was worth continuing. It was a difficult conversation, needless to say. But it did motivate me to focus a bit more, and lately I've been back in "good intentions" mode, where it's always somewhere on the agenda, but I'm always getting one more thing out of the way so I can spend some serious time on it. I haven't got much further, mind you, but at least it was back on the radar.

I must say, there's a clear snowball effect here. Even after the talk with my wife, I wouldn't follow her suggestion of contacting my advisor. I wanted to work for a while first, so I had something to show him. I just couldn't bear to show up with nothing. And that's pretty much how this year has gone. The longer I went without accomplishing anything, the less I wanted to talk to anyone about it. Even when I got back on the horse, I'd feel like I needed to make up some ground before saying anything. Then I'd slip right back into the old pattern, and since I'd lost even more time, I would be even less inclined to bring it up. It hasn't helped that I seem to have completely lost the taste for it. Who knows whether I'll ever find a job in my academic field that can beat what I'm already doing financially? With the changes that have come in the past couple of years, I'm not even sure I have that much interest left in my field anyway. And a thousand other things, not least of which is my exploration of Orthodoxy, have shown up as higher priorities. You might have noticed, BTW, that I happened to become a candidate right around the same time I got interested in Orthodoxy. One has not been particularly good for the other.

So, last night I got an e-mail from the chair of the department. It was brief and to the point--haven't heard from you, haven't seen anything, are you still working? (Not those exact words, but it doesn't take much more to turn them into complete sentences.) Ouch! More like, Auggh! How do you respond to that? I basically had two options--ignore the e-mail and pretend that I never saw it, or respond honestly. It was in that moment, when I literally felt physical pain at the time and money that I'd wasted, and the laziness I'd exhibited, that I realized why a human confessor is important. It takes a human to ask you pointedly about what's going on in your life. And however well-intentioned we might be, it sometimes takes a human to rip open the wound, so the recovery process can start. I also needed a human to hear my confession, so I could really begin to move forward. I could use that kind of thing in other aspects of my life, as I think we all could.

Where does it go from here? I don't know. I'm not expecting a particularly sympathetic response. I doubt that I'll get much help or guidance with how to balance the various demands on my time, or how to rekindle my enthusiasm for the work I'm doing. At best, I might get some useful input on the measly amount that I've done so far and some ideas for moving forward. But if nothing else, I can hopefully get someone regularly checking on where I'm at, holding me accountable. I guess I'll find out soon enough.

Monday, June 19, 2006

prayer and fasting

It's good to be fasting again. I've felt overstuffed and lazy most of the time since Pascha, and especially during this past week without fasting at all. I really need to work on my self-control when it comes to how much I eat. I usually do pretty well following the formal fasts, but when I'm not fasting, I usually disappoint myself.

There's a bit of sadness hidden in this season, though. It feels to me like the Apostles' Fast marks the annual parting of ways between Old and New Calendarists within Orthodoxy. As much as I appreciate the opportunity the two calendars afford me to fit special observances into my schedule, I appreciate much more the season of the movable feasts and fasts, from Pre-Lent to Post-Pentecost, when most of the important occasions are synchronized across Orthodox jurisdictions. We will all start the Apostles' Fast together, but we will end it separately, and for the rest of the year until we prepare for Lent once again, we will go our separate ways. This is what bothers me about the difference--I don't consider the choice of calendars that big a deal; I just don't like the way it divides Orthodox practice. As awkward as it may seem for Orthodox to celebrate Christmas out of sync with Western Christianity, how much more awkward is it that we celebrate it out of sync with one another? I suppose it's not as big a deal when you're definitively part of one parish or another, but it's hard not to let it become a factor in the already difficult choice I will one day have to make, as to where I will convert and where I will attend. In the meantime, while I divide my experience between two or three parishes, I constantly have to choose between my preference for the Old Calendar and the practical realization that I will probably end up in a parish that follows the New Calendar. And in the case of the Fast, I will follow the New Calendar as well because it is easier on my family if we eat separate foods for a week and a half, rather than the longer option.

Saturday, my wife spent the day with a friend who will be leaving the area at the end of the month. I kept the car, so my son and I could attend Vespers. I was glad for the opportunity, which I wasn't anticipating, but it was another difficult choice. The tiny ROCOR parish had a conference last week, and their numbers would be swelled by the participants, making their already crowded facilities much worse than usual. If I'd been by myself, it would have been one thing, but I decided not to navigate it with my son. Instead, we went to the more familiar parish, where the priest was on vacation, for Reader's Vespers. I decided not to pressure my son to face forward, since all the action was in the back of the room. Attendance seemed significantly lower than usual, so it was definitely the less crowded option.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Road Goes Ever On

So there you have it. That's where I left off, apparently about a year ago now. A lot has happened since then. I attended Pentecost Divine Liturgy and Kneeling Vespers back at the first parish I'd visited. (I think that was a Father's Day treat that my wife allowed.) That summer, while we were at the beach with another couple, we all visited a small mission parish for Saturday Vespers, which was my wife's first Orthodox service of any type. It wasn't a great experience, since there were more of us than there were Orthodox people. I've managed to get her to two other services since, but her impression hasn't changed much. Over the past year, I've tried to catch special services. I've also met with Fr. Gregory--the priest from that parish I visited on Good Friday last year--perhaps every couple of months. Each time we've met has provided another opportunity to visit a service.

I met a guy at work who's Russian-American and attends a ROCOR parish. I've managed to visit there once, and a smaller ROCOR parish that's closer to where I live on a few occasions. They had an open house several months ago, so I went to that and stayed for Vigil afterward. I went back there during Lent this year while my wife was out of town and met with Fr. George. I'm torn between the two--good people and good priests at both, each with its unique characteristics. But thinking about my wife tends to push the balance away from the ROCOR parish. It's quite small, which she generally doesn't like in any church, the services are longer, and if I could get her to meet with a priest, I think she'd probably butt heads with Fr. George. For now, though, I like the fact that I can often catch a holiday service by picking from two options, with one parish on the Orthodox calendar and the other on the Western.

I've done a lot of reading, a lot of praying, got to know some good Orthodox people, and I now have no doubt that I would convert as soon as my family situation allowed it. I've asked both priests about converting on my own, and they're pretty reluctant. So I press on. I've talked to quite a few Evangelical friends about it. There was the couple we vacationed with last summer, two different small groups at church--one last year, and one this year--one-on-one conversations with two or three good friends, and another scheduled for this Friday. I've brought one friend to a regular service, and three other friends came with me to the Pascha service this year. In general, our conversations are positive. They might have some personal reservations, but for the most part they don't have much objection to my interest. I'm starting to feel more comfortable about bringing it up in various circles. Just this week, I bought a few icons for my station at work.

One way or another, I still have a long road before me. But I'm encouraged by the way it has gone so far, and I look forward with hope that Christ will lead me exactly where he wants me.

The Road is Difficult

I suggested that it was probably time to consult with our pastor, both so he would know what was on my mind and could determine what he thought it would mean for my ministry and presence at our church, and so we could get some guidance on our situation with each other. I figured my wife would appreciate having someone on her side and might be more willing to discuss issues than in a situation where she felt like she was alone. I was also willing to take whatever advice we could get about working through this kind of difference, since we’d never had to deal with anything similar in our relationship. Opening up to him was a big step for me, because although I had considered conversion before to differing degrees, until this point I had never talked to anyone in my Evangelical sphere, other than my wife. I didn’t want to introduce the problem by phone or e-mail if it could be avoided, so I set up a brief meeting with him to explain the situation and give him some time to think about what we should do next. He agreed that the three of us should meet and advised that we start from what we had in common, which was still quite a bit.

Our pastor also mentioned that two visits wasn’t much to go by. I’m not sure what he meant by that, but I took it to mean that if I was serious, I ought to be visiting Orthodox services more often. Before the three of us could meet together I got another opportunity when my Orthodox acquaintance from school invited me to join him for a Good Friday service. It was a wonderful experience—still no epiphany, but this was my first time in a real Orthodox church building, which made a significant difference in the effect. The music also had a somewhat more Eastern flavor than what I’d heard before, and there were no rows of chairs to obstruct movement. I had thought before that I would prefer these elements, and I was glad to find that I in fact did.

The Gate is Narrow

So on the belief front, I moved pretty rapidly to a point of complete acceptance. I can say now that I know of nothing in the dogmatic teaching of Orthodox Christianity that I would disagree with, and I am fully prepared to accept whatever the tradition might have left to teach me. In terms of practice, however, I am still just getting started. Initially, I followed something like the same strategy I’d used with Judaism. I picked up an Orthodox prayer book and began to use it as regularly as I could manage. For quite some time, that was about as far as it went, but I was getting good exposure to the core ideas of Orthodoxy and growing accustomed to things like crossing myself and prostrations. My wife had not thought much of my idea about becoming Messianic Jewish, and although she was glad to hear that I was giving up on that idea, she was even less enthusiastic about Orthodoxy. I understood her prejudices, because I’d had the same objections myself for years without ever giving them a second thought. I had been highly motivated to learn otherwise, but she was not. She was quite content with her faith and spiritual life, and to a certain extent, I was reluctant to upset that. While I had drifted far and wide in my thinking about Christianity, desperately seeking some peace and fulfillment, she had had these things all along. No matter how much I felt that I had found the truth, I could not shake the suspicion that it might not be what I thought, and I would have to go on to something else. I did not want to ruin what she already had for the sake of what I might or might not find.

I knew I had to attend an actual service, so I found a nearby parish and, with my wife’s consent, I visited one Sunday morning. It was unfamiliar and a bit awkward, but certainly more palatable than I had expected. I had no visions, no realization that this was exactly where I needed to be. It was just a so-so, vague experience that didn’t seem to mean much of anything one way or the other. I continued reading and praying occasionally, but not much happened for the next few months. I didn’t want to pressure my wife, but I also didn’t want us heading in two different directions. More and more, though, I felt like I had to do something, so eventually we had to revisit the issue.

On the advice of an Orthodox acquaintance at school, I had been focusing on the cross during prayer, and it seemed like it was time to see about getting some icons. I had read somewhere about people carrying diptychs when they travel, and I thought that might be the best option. Since I knew my wife would find it offensive to have a full icon corner, this way I could put the icons away when I wasn’t using them. I asked her about it, and she ended up going along with the idea (although reluctantly, and with the stipulation that she didn’t want to see them), but she admitted that she’d been hoping I would just lose interest in Orthodoxy. I explained that that wasn’t likely, but we left it at that.

It happened a little later that I’d lost track of time while thinking about whether I would fast for Lent or not, and when I realized that Orthodox Lent was about to begin, I figured God was giving me a second chance. (If you don’t know, some Orthodox still follow the old Julian calendar, which puts all of their feasts out of sync with the West, but pretty much all Orthodox observe a different schedule for Pascha and the holidays that are linked to it.) When my wife went away for a week to visit some family, I figured it was a good opportunity to attend an Orthodox service again. This time, I prepared by reading through the liturgy and listening several times to a recording. It ended up being a much more fulfilling experience, and I felt comfortable even with prostrations at the end and going up to venerate the cross. I also got to hang around afterward and talk to some people. Several of them had gone through periods when one spouse was Orthodox but the other was not. I found it encouraging that my experience was not unusual and that there was some hope that my wife would eventually come around. When I talked to her about it later and said it had given me some hope, she said there was no hope, and that led to further discussion. I tried to explain how serious I was about this, and how she’d at least have to accept that this was what I was doing. It was obvious, though, that we had to start finding a way to communicate better about the situation.

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.

Passing through Samaria

This desire for real tradition, however, was not what pushed me over the edge. Oddly enough, it was a film review written by a Sephardic Jew that led to my final break with Judaism. Like, I suppose, many others, our church decided to capitalize on the release of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ by scheduling a few discussion sessions for those who had seen or were interested in the movie. As adult Bible study coordinator and resident expert on Aramaic, I was naturally part of the group that organized the sessions. Because of my association with Judaism, I offered to prepare some material on anti-Semitism in the movie. I knew I would be able to gather a list of the possible criticisms from several posts that had appeared on the Jewish e-mail lists that I read. By far, the most insightful review that I came across was written by David Shasha, editor of the Sephardic Heritage Update, an electronic newsletter devoted to issues of concern to the Sephardic Jewish community. I subscribed to his newsletter and went looking on the Internet to see if he had written anything else or perhaps had his own Web site. What little I found included an editorial he had tried to publish in a newspaper but ended up instead having it posted on an e-mail list called shamireaders. Discovering this list marked a major turning point for me in both the political and the religious arenas.

shamireaders is a distribution list with over 1000 subscribers. It is used by Israel Shamir to post his writings and other writings that he thinks his readers might appreciate. He also runs a discussion list with a much smaller membership called togethernet. I read a little bit and decided to subscribe to both. Israel Shamir is an Israeli journalist—a Russian Jew by birth, but recently a convert to Orthodox Christianity. With the beginning of the second intifada he started writing in English to protest the policies of the state of Israel and advocate a one-state solution to the conflict. Through his writings, I was reminded of some things I ought to have known. Christianity has long been a part of Arab society, while Ashkenazic Jewry is something completely foreign to the region. As Shasha frequently points out, Israeli policy is dominated by Ashkenazic, not Sephardic Jews, the latter of whom generally got along quite well with their Christian and Muslim neighbors before the Zionist venture. Shamir stresses the environmental and social destruction of Palestine by Zionism and the closer relationship that ought to exist between Christians and Muslims, who at least agree that Jesus is a prophet, that he was born of a virgin, was taken to heaven, and is coming back at the end of the world. His position is exaggerated in some respects, but it seems to me that this is intentional embellishment, to counteract the prejudices of the West.

Changing sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict was a paradigm shift for me that radically re-aligned my thinking about religion as well as politics. Shamir’s preference for Orthodox Christianity over Evangelicalism (which he characterizes as Christian Zionist) also pointed the way to another tradition that I ought to explore. As I came to realize that I would not fit very well into a Messianic congregation as an anti-Zionist, it also occurred to me that Christianity had already been through this once before. No one denies that Christianity and Judaism started closer together than they are now. And there probably were those who wanted to take the kind of path laid out by the Messianic groups. So why didn’t Christianity in general go down that road? I figured if anyone had a response, it would be in the patristic tradition, which was yet another reason to look at Orthodox Christianity. I found this answer (in the writings of Justin Martyr, for one), and I also found that Orthodoxy took what I considered to be a more appropriate stance toward Middle East peace issues than most of what I saw in Evangelicalism. But the more important question was whether it could be the authoritative, traditional community that I sought.

From the Desert of Paran

This focus on the community came together with some other things going on in my life at the time. I have always struggled on and off with my prayer life, and I had tried some different strategies to revitalize it. I tried what essentially amounted to Orthodox Christian fasting. (My intention was to mimic Coptic Christian fasting, but I could find only limited sources on that in particular, and the difference is somewhat negligible anyway.) I tried praying with a Jewish siddur (prayer book). These strategies would help for a while, but eventually the strain of doing them on my own, with no communal support, would become too much, and I would give up. I had also noticed how it seemed that Evangelicalism is afraid of tradition—that it will not admit when it has a tradition, and often changes its strategy so as not to create what might look like a tradition. Similarly, it calls itself non-liturgical, but the same general set of songs is sung regularly, the service is configured more or less the same way from week to week, and the prayers use similar language and themes. I thought that a community that took more seriously the role of tradition and its own influence on the way its members read would at least be more honest. So it came into my mind that if I were ever to make any real progress, I would need to seek out and join myself to a traditional community.

Orthodox Judaism was a natural first place for me to look. I had had some interest in Judaism from an early age anyway, and it had grown significantly in recent years. A friend had introduced me to Chaim Potok’s books, which portrayed for me a world in which study was devotion—not entirely unlike Evangelicalism, but with a great deal more depth. Also, I was studying Semitic languages, so the idea of praying in Hebrew and studying the Talmud in Aramaic appealed to me. If I had to pick some tradition, this seemed like a good candidate. I started to gather information—browsed what I could find on the Internet, signed up on some e-mail lists—even concluded that if I were going to convert, it would have to be an Orthodox conversion. But I never really took any meaningful steps. Perhaps if I had bothered to deal with the New Testament the way I had with the Old, I would have concluded that Jesus was probably nothing more than a popular Jewish teacher whose followers got carried away after he died. But I could not really see myself rejecting Jesus as Messiah, and it seemed inevitable that I would be expected to do so explicitly, since I was coming from such a strong Christian background. I also knew that my wife would never go along with it, and I was not prepared to give up the expert status I had earned within Christianity to start over as a convert who was expected to absorb and accept, not to question and challenge.

I thought for a while that Messianic Judaism might be a suitable compromise. An acquaintance had introduced me to a type of Messianic Judaism that teaches Torah obedience for all Christians. I figured I could get at least some of Jewish tradition, including Talmud study (since there’s no comparable Christian source to consult for the application of Torah to daily life) and prayer in Hebrew, without giving up faith in Jesus or asking my wife to leave Christianity. Since I wouldn’t have to go through any type of formal conversion, I could keep my expert status and jump right away into the debate over what faith and practice ought to look like. The one nagging problem that I had with the idea was the role of tradition. In this respect, Messianic Judaism would not be much different from what I already knew. It would pick and choose from Jewish tradition whatever was determined by individual study to be appropriate. And the whole system was based on a reconstruction of early Christianity that depended on sufficient scholarship and might one day be overturned as easily as it had been established. I thought for a time that I could get past this problem, but ultimately I could not.

A Wandering Aramean

My own wandering started toward the end of seminary. Oh, there had been other minor ventures before that. I always liked to be different. I was about the only outspoken Evangelical in my high school, and I liked debating ethics and science with my classmates and teachers. Even in church, most people believed in eternal security of salvation, so I didn’t. That changed in college, but after one of the professors was fired for holding a somewhat extreme view on a picky theological issue, I ended up adopting the same view. I specifically chose a seminary with a very conservative doctrinal position, but then I went and got caught in the middle of a theological controversy. Through all of this, though, I never seriously questioned anything central to Evangelical Christianity. It was only once I got into the role of an adjunct professor that the serious questions began.

Throughout high school and college, I accepted the standard Evangelical view that right study of the Bible and right theology always go hand-in-hand. That was the point of going to Bible college—so I could learn the Bible better, which would lead to better understanding of theology, which would produce better ministry. At least, that was the logical way it ought to have worked. In practice, it never did. We started learning systematic theology and studying the Bible in English at the same time. What biblical material we started with was less theologically significant narrative—less significant in Evangelicalism, that is—so by the time we got to Paul’s letters, where the real meat of doctrine was found, we already had a solid foundation of theological training. The last step in the process was that which should have been first—the study of biblical languages. I thought at the time that it was unfortunate but practically necessary. Looking back on it now, it seems more revealing of a fatal flaw. Our theology was shaping our understanding of the Bible, because it had to. I don’t know how many of our teachers knew that, but it is obvious to me now.

Perhaps the single most important lesson I learned in seminary was that the process could be reversed. It was possible to study the Bible intensively (now on a foundation of Biblical Greek and eventually Hebrew) and to draw conclusions that didn’t necessarily fit with any particular theological system. My job was simply to understand the Bible for what it said and shape my beliefs and conduct accordingly. The lesson was idealistic, though, as I began to see when theological controversy erupted and I found myself on the wrong side. Yes, there was freedom to follow my own reading of the Bible, but only within certain rigid boundaries. These boundaries bothered me, and I began to look outside at what lay beyond. I had decided to pursue a career in academics, so I was looking for Ph.D. programs. I determined that I would not attend another seminary but would get my degree from a university. I needed some fresh perspective. I also began to read outside my tradition. I had dabbled throughout seminary—enough to take pot-shots in assigned position papers. But now I was starting to realize that there was genuine value to be found in the work of other scholars. As I prepared to teach classes, I read a wider range of viewpoints than ever before, and I found in it much that made sense.

There were a couple of particular issues in biblical scholarship that got my attention. One was the set of literary approaches referred to somewhat erroneously as rhetorical criticism. (It includes genuine rhetorical criticism, but it includes several other areas as well. The problem is in the history of the discipline, since “literary criticism” was already in use for the parsing of texts into historical sources.) The other was the so-called “minimalist” historical controversy. What I think drew me to these two viewpoints in particular was that they both ran somewhat counter to the historical-critical arguments I had been taught to despise. The literary approaches were unified by their treatment of the biblical text in its final form—as a cohesive literary whole, without immediate concern for its historical development. Granted, it was generally assumed that the text was based on earlier sources, and if anything, its date of final composition was even later and its contents even less connected to the past events than in the theories I disliked so much. But I still felt like I had found an ally, in that we could put aside our disagreements, sit down, and talk about the biblical text as it is. The historical minimalist camp might seem like a less likely association for an Evangelical, but their arguments generally required them to repudiate the standard model of the historical development of Biblical Hebrew. Granted, they concluded that the material was generally late, rather than early, but the shared opposition to finding direct evidence of a long textual history in the language seemed to me like a good thing.

As I read more and more about these two approaches, particularly on the literary side (although this is a somewhat artificial distinction, since the minimalist position also stresses the literary quality of the texts), I was introduced to, and found much to like about, postmodern literary criticism. I didn’t get much chance to deal with such things in my university classes, but in my spare time I was getting acquainted with literary analysis both inside and outside of biblical scholarship. My conviction that meaning comes mostly from the reader was steadily growing, and the implications were beginning to weigh on my mind. Initially, I thought that perhaps such a view could be reconciled with biblical inspiration by simply allowing that God gave us the Bible to use, even if that sometimes means we learn from critiquing the Bible rather than accepting what it says. But I saw that this notion could only lead to relativism, since one’s critique would come from various personal factors that may or may not be from God. I realized that the reading community had to play a significant role somehow in the process. I could see that this happened whether by intention or otherwise, as for instance it happened that most Evangelicals accepted the views taught by their church leadership, even if the Bible was supposed to be the source of authority. The sharp disagreements between different Evangelical communities were not normally a problem, because they never bothered to look far enough outside to notice them.

Seeking a Homeland

It’s always difficult to know where to start. Pick a point in time—some event or first thought—and inevitably something that precedes it will show up as significant in getting there. Our lives are part of one ever-flowing river that begins and ends in God. Let me take as one example the wandering impulse that runs through my maternal grandparents and their descendants. For all I know, it might go back further than that, but this is my story, and two generations back is far enough. My grandparents have lived in over 100 places—not because of military or job transfers—they just move around a lot. My aunt has tended to do the same thing, and so have my parents. We lived in eight different places before I was a teenager, and most of our moves were out of state. It seems weird to my wife, but for me it was all I knew. I adapted well for the most part, although I can’t say I was much for building long-term friendships. We did stay put throughout my teenage years, but after I got married, my parents started moving again and haven’t really stopped.

I’m getting ahead of myself, but let me finish this out. I now look at my parents’ moving around from a few different perspectives. Personally, I don’t want the same lifestyle. It’s possible that I may have no choice but to move around for a career or other circumstances. But if I could have my way, I would prefer a more rooted existence. To be born, raised, live out my life, and die in one valley sounds to me like paradise. I’m speaking here of physical location, but there’s another perspective more relevant to the matter at hand—in my mind, something very similar has been going on. I have wandered far and wide, and now I am passionately searching for rootedness. Was my mental wandering my own way of living out the same impulse that runs in my family? Perhaps. At least, it helps me to sympathize with my parents and provides some beginnings of an explanation for my own condition. The account might be cleaner if I didn’t have to bring it up, but something would probably be missed in the process. But it’s time that we got down to the real point of this narrative.

Coming Home: Why I Have No Choice but to Be Orthodox

I started writing this story of my journey to Orthodoxy a while back. I say "started," because my journey is far from over, so I never expected it to remain static. I thought it would be worth sharing here. It's kind of long, so I'll post it in sections. Here's the introduction:

I have a general conviction about telling stories, that there is no universally right way to tell them, and that this is generally a good thing. Particularly in the case of telling one’s own story, the process is much like memory itself—ever-changing, sometimes more lucid than others, and usually influenced by present circumstances. This assessment should not be taken as an excuse for blatant dishonesty, but only an apologetic for inconsistency. I experienced my past as it came to me, and I experience my recollection as it comes back. I do not stay the same, and neither do my memories. All I can promise is that I will tell them in the most sincere way possible.

On one hand, this conviction leads me to eschew writing my stories. Better to retell my past as I understand it at any point in time, whenever the need arises. Writing it all down would impose consistency that does not really exist. It would give the impression of authority, simply by being static. On the other hand, to codify one version of my story, if understood correctly, can usefully preserve what I was thinking at the time that I wrote. It can reflect an earlier me—not as early as the me that went through the events in question, but earlier at least than some later me that might need a reminder of what once was.

There is also a utilitarian concern, in that writing saves me the time and trouble of articulating over and over again the same answer to the same question. Of course, there will inevitably be follow-up questions, and the detachment of referring an inquirer to some written text tends to suppress the voicing of new concerns. A text that seemingly answers the major issues might appear to be sufficient—so much so, that lesser questions are left unasked. If no real dialog was necessary to cover the bulk of the answer, why bother starting one after the fact? Being a firm believer in the importance of dialog, I want to counteract this impulse right now. If I have referred you to this text for an answer to your question (or, for that matter, if you have simply stumbled across it somehow, and I happen to be accessible), please understand that I want your feedback. I want this text to be a starting point for discussion, not the end of it. So by all means, read on. But think about what you read. Critique it. Question it. And when you have finished reading, let’s share our thoughts and see where they take us.

Monday, June 05, 2006


If you're hunkered down for the day until it's no longer 06-06-06, the following points just might be encouraging enough to get you out the door:

1) The number of the Beast is not 06-06-06. It's not even 6-6-6. It's 666, as in six hundred sixty-six. It's a number, not a string of digits that happen to look like that number in our writing system. In Greek numerals, the digits don't even match each other: χξςʹ.

2) Hardly anyone still writes dates in the format 06-06-06 anymore, at least not by any consistent rule. There's no good reason to do so in this case, except that it looks more ominous than 6/6/2006.

3) Any date-based superstition is susceptible to the problem that we don't all write the numbers in the same sequence. In America, the standard tends to be month-day-year, but in a lot of other places, it's day-month-year. Now, it happens that in this case it doesn't matter which order you write the numbers in, but this would be fabulously encouraging if we were talking about something more like the phenomenon observed when it was 01:02:03 04/05/06. Aside from the difference in time zones, the moment had to be observed on completely different days around the world because some thought it was April 5 and others May 4.

4) There's no intrinsic reason that June should be the sixth month. Just because we consider January the beginning of the year doesn't mean it has always been so or will never change in the future. The Orthodox ecclesiastical year starts Sept 1, so if it makes you feel better, call June month number 10.

5) Better still, who says it's even June or the sixth? On the Julian calendar, which was used from before the time of Christ (named after Julius Caesar, don't you know?) until the late 16th c., it's only May 24. After the Reformation, a group of Catholic scholars came up with a correction to the calendar, so it would stay on track with the solar year. Their scheme was to drop leap day whenever a century year was not divisible by 400. Only the Catholic countries adopted it until the 18th c., when Protestant countries started to follow suit. Who knows--if England had waited a few more decades, we in America might never have adopted it, just to avoid doing what the Brits did. Historically Orthodox countries followed even later, in the 20th c., and it was later still that some Orthodox churches decided to abandon the Julian calendar. But now that I think about it, Martin Luther knew the Antichrist was Catholic, so maybe the Gregorian date is the most significant after all . . .

6) The fact that it is 2006 depends upon a Western medieval calculation of the date of Christ's birth. Most Bible scholars these days would say the calculation was definitely off, but regardless the Byzantine empire continued to count years from the date of creation. By that system, the year is 7514, at least until Sept 1.

So, since it's actually 24-09-7514, go out and have some fun. The Antichrist might be out there somewhere, but there's no reason to think he'll get you today rather than tomorrow.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

finding a patron

Something I've struggled with on and off throughout this journey is finding a patron saint. I guess at this point my strongest inclination would be to go with my middle name, Michael. I've never thought much of my middle name. My first name is unusual enough that I don't really need one, and it's always seemed kind of plain to me. But it would be economical to avoid adding anymore names to what I already have, and it would be nice to give some special meaning to this name that my parents gave me. Also, I read somewhere that it's good for converts to stick with a Christian name that they already have, since that saint has already been praying for them and bringing them along to the place where they would accept Orthodoxy. I'm not sure whether there's anything to that or not, but it sounds good at least. There are several saints named Michael, but none of them is so well known that my non-Orthodox parents could possibly have had him in mind when they named me. The only logical choice, then, aside from simply creating my own significance, is to assume that it means the Archangel Michael, who I'm told is a very popular patron.

There doesn't seem to be a saint in the West or the East with my first name, although I think it may be related to the name of a Celtic tribe that used to live in Gaul and that established its capital in a German city that still bears a form of its name. There have been several saints associated with that city, but they all seem to have been bishops, priests, or monks who were assigned there. So the likelihood that they actually came from the original Celtic tribe is slim. On the other hand, there is also a commemoration of marytrs from that city under Diocletian, at least some of whom probably preserved the blood of the original tribe and could therefore be associated with my name in some fashion. It's a stretch, I know, but it's another option I've considered. I'm not sure that one can ever have as an actual patron saint a collection of martyrs, though.

At one point I thought about Sigfrid of Vaxjo, who was a Western saint just before the schism. He was English, but he worked in Sweden, which captures about three quarters of my heritage. Although she couldn't be my patron, I've also developed something of an affinity for Anna of Novgorod, who was a Swedish princess but married a Russian and became a devout Orthodox. My wife's middle name is Anne, so who knows? Then, I was born on Dec 17 in the Julian calendar, which is the commemoration of Daniel and the three Hebrew Children. I've always had a thing for Daniel, so that's another connection I've looked at.

Of course, those are all fairly arbitrary associations--when I was born, the names I was given by my parents, my ethnic background, etc. I guess I shy away from having to pick a patron for myself, so I'm looking for something that was already set for me. I could see myself picking a scholarly type--a theologian or a council father--since my tendencies lean that way. Maybe someone like Athanasius, who stood almost entirely alone, or like John of Damascus, who fired volleys at the iconoclasts from within the Islamic empire, of all places, or like Mark of Ephesus, who stood firm at the Council of Florence. But I could also go with just a plain martyr. Out of the American saints, I find myself drawn to Peter the Aleut--perhaps because he was actually born, raised, and died in North America, or perhaps because so little is known about him except that he would not deny that he was already a Christian.

I guess the problem is that there are so many excellent saints to choose from. I don't know how one gets to feel a special connection to any one of them. Maybe Philosophus, a martyr from Alexandria. He might be the first saint I've actually discovered from reading his life on his commemoration day and then noticed when I came back to him the next year. Part of his torture was to be tempted by a prostitute. To keep himself from sinning, he bit off his tongue (his hands and feet were bound) and spit it at her. But it's still hard to pick one.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

good to be back

I finally got to my first Orthodox service since Pascha. Yikes! It's been a long time, especially after going so frequently during Lent and Holy Week. It was good to be back. I went to the Antiochian parish I was at for Pascha. I'm feeling more and more like I need to pick one parish as my "home" (even though I really don't belong anywhere just yet). I'm starting to meet people there--actually able to put names with faces now. It helps that I've been able to share some meals with them. I was only half-expecting that there would be a meal last night, since it was a fast day and evening liturgy. It turned out there was, and since the guy who was supposed to preach didn't make it (a visiting priest) and the service ended a bit early, I stayed for a while after. I met some interesting parishoners and had some good conversations.

One interesting thing Fr. Gregory did say in his brief remarks at the end of the service--the Ascension isn't primarily about Jesus returning to the Father, since they were always together anyway. It's about him bringing humanity--even all creation--to heaven with him. Not that we're fully there just yet, but we're with him, and he is there. When we participate in the eucharist, we experience for a moment on earth the reality that is ours in heaven. I'd never really thought of it that way.

On a more disappointing note, the date my wife and I had planned to visit a service will have to be postponed. Fr. Gregory will be on vacation, and as it turns out the substitute priest they'd lined up will not be able to make it. I suppose I can wait another couple of weeks.