What is my blog is all about:

Anything and everything good, true, beautiful, perplexing, mysterious, unfair, painful, funny. In short: the human condition

Monday, February 21, 2011

Journey To Orthodoxy (Part 1)

My sister-in-law and I were commenting on our children the other day and she laughingly made the observation that her two youngest sons often argue over concepts in which both of them are somewhat correct (“you are wearing a uniform” “no I’m not I’m wearing a shirt!”) but neither of them fully grasp in their nuances (it’s actually a uniform as well as a shirt). She laughed at how both of them become very stubborn and, since they each have some legitimate grounds for their particular claim, find it very difficult to yield any ground to the other at all. The discussion usually finds resolution with a fist fight as you can imagine with two young boys. We then observed that we “grown ups” often do this in matters of faith. While all of us only “see through a glass darkly” we often find ourselves polishing each others’ glasses with our own breath. I say this to hopefully set the tone of this narrative and curb my own demonic tendency “judge another man’s servant”. I have struggled over the last few months with the appropriateness of writing this letter. Would writing a treatise on my journey through various churches cause more hurt and disunity than help? Every Sunday in Divine Liturgy we Orthodox Christians pray for the unity of the church. Christ uses the terms “body” and “bride” to describe the church and I can think of no more intimate images a man could use to speak to how precious something is to him. So Christ must guard His church jealously and I tread softly when criticizing any part of it, no matter how much I may think that part in error. How Christ will gather His bride in the last day belongs to Him alone and I believe it is a grave sin to speculate too much on who belongs to the “true church”. Further, can one even “explain” the nature of faith and their journey to faith(Kirkegaard warns against trying)?
The short answer to why I am Orthodox is this: I am an Orthodox Christian because I believe that the Orthodox Church is the true Church of the apostles as proscribed in Scripture and established by Christ Himself. I believe it is the church that has fulfilled the commission of Scripture to “hold fast to the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or our epistle” as well as has maintained the practices and structure given to it by the Apostles themselves and handed down to faithful men who have safeguarded them to the present day.
But I should first begin by explaining why I am no longer an evangelical, or more broadly a Protestant. Until my mid to late 20s I had no real categories for any type of Christianity other than conservative Protestantism and really fundamentalism since I was born and raised in a devout Christian home by sincere and godly fundamentalist parents. The journey began as a series of moments in which I identified what I no longer believed before I actually discovered a faith I could embrace.
I would have to say that my initial shift as a human was (and continues to be) away from rationalism as the gold standard to ascertaining all truth. Russian authors such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky wetted my appetite for a more mystical view of the world. The films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman also became hugely influential in giving me categories to think like anything other than a modern 20th century individual that views the best knowledge as that that can be verified and proven through evidence and logical argumentation. I cannot overstate the effects these men’s films had on my constructs of reality and I highly recommend them to anyone who finds modern Western culture somehow lacking in its ability to fulfill or even elucidate the human experience. These film directors didn’t so much give me “answers” to modernity’s woes as show the devastating consequences that a rejection of the spiritual and supernatural has had on modernity. And after viewing these films I began to wonder if modernity has arrived at such a state of unbelief in part due to the Church’s inability to maintain her identity as the “pillar and ground of truth”. Many of the criticisms that Tarkovsky and Bergman level at society could also be leveled at the Protestant church, both liberal and conservative. And so I began to try to determine what exactly the root cause was for the fact that the modern 20th century church holds very little influence in today’s secular culture and find a church that could somehow speak to modernity’s brokenness.
What became immediately discouraging and frustrating to me as I was seeking for the Church was that one can find as many different variations of Protestant churches as one can find variations in philosophies. In my reading of Scripture I was captivated by the promise that Christ would preserve His church such that the very gates of hell could not prevail against her. The beautiful imagery of the Church being the body and bride of Christ I mentioned in my introduction gave me the firm belief that if Christ found the Church so infinitely precious she must be out there somewhere in a visible form. I began to search the small church streams trickling in all directions around me in the hopes of following them back to the mighty river from which they flowed. And all along the way I heard its roar in the distance.
The church experience of my youth was what I would call the “romantic” variation (in the sense of the Romantic Movement). Worship was a highly-personal activity in which Scripture was combed, looking for private meaning to guide everything from which specific college one was to attend to which particular person to marry. Worship services employed the use of emotionally manipulative music and persuasion techniques to generate an emotional response. Any kind of liturgy was considered bad because it was, by nature, not “from the heart” and therefore inferior to spontaneous worship. While the Bible was upheld as the only authority and guide for faith, in reality the individual (or certain very charismatic pastors) became the authority for determining Scripture’s meaning. Not surprisingly, this form of Christianity was also full of innovative interpretations of Scripture that had no precedence in church history (King James only ism, dispensationalism, novel eschatologies, aberrant ideas about the nature of faith and works). And I found it intellectually soft as well as full of self-contradictions. While claiming to be uninfluenced by wordly culture and free from the “deadening” effects of liturgy I found that what was really happening was that cultural trends in things such as music, fashion, social constructs were really just the trends of about 50-100 years ago. With no tradition to inform these churches and no orthodox liturgy to protect them from cultural influences, the tradition and liturgy (however minimal and ineffective) of these churches became whatever people were doing in the previous generation. The same gospel songs were sung over and over (a type of liturgy in and of itself) and forms such as song service followed by a message followed by an invitation were strictly observed.
I was then attracted to what I call the “bad rationalist”(in the sense that these churches use rationalistic techniques but are not consistent with applying them) type of Protestantism in which the scientific method and the rationalistic use of reasoning to lead a person to faith was employed. I felt I had a mandate to use my reasoning skills to determine the validity of any truth and then decide whether or not I would assent to it. Books such as “Evidence that Demands a Verdict” by Josh MacDowell I scarfed down as a college students in the hopes of showing that Christianity is as valid as any humanist truth claim on the campus. This type of book assumes that one must be convinced that Christianity’s claims are reasonable before one can embrace them. I was taught that in dealing with an unbeliever I first had to convince him or her that Christianity was plausible so that person could then put his or her faith in Jesus. And this appealed to me for a very long time. I wanted to show my college professors that their belief systems were self-contradictory and if they would only use rigorous reasoning along with intellectual honesty they would find that Christianity was really the most sound of all philosophical systems. This desire held strong, that is, until some of aspects of the Christian life (such as the suffering and death of innocent people, Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son-Kirkegaard's book "Fear and Trembling" addressing this passage of Scripture blew me away, what I could understand of it anyway) ceased to be reasonable by any stretch of my intellect. As I thought more deeply, I began to realize that there were plenty of aspects of religious experience that could not be accepted as “reasonable”. But this construct of Christianity only seemed to acknowledge this when they ran out of explanations. This form of evangelicalism had “all the answers” until they had to explain why a group of kindergarteners were blown up by a suicide bomber or why an earthquake killed hundreds of innocent people. In these matters I had to “accept things by faith”. In short, faith started to feel like a cop out when logical explanations ran out. Calvinism had a brief appeal in that it had some logically consistent responses (God ordains suffering as a means to glorify Himself which is a higher good). The problem with this view is that God is essentially a cruel monster that puts His own glory above the good of His creation, knowingly creating a world that He would eventually largely destroy.
I was then briefly interested in what I call “thorough-going rationalist” Protestantism, mainly because I was growing more and more uncomfortable with American Evangelicalism’s apathetic social conscience toward the poor and oppressed in our society. Also, liberal Protestantism at least was more honest and consistent in its use of reason as a tool to inform faith. While conservatives like Josh McDowell and Francis Schaeffer embraced rationalism as long as it served their purpose and supported their pet premises, at least liberals were willing to apply it evenly to all of Scripture and followed the argument to its logical conclusion. The only problem for me was that applying the scientific method consistently seemed to make faith superfluous as well as transform traditional understandings of bedrock doctrine. And both conservatives and liberals seemed to have made a series of theological compromises that has led to modernity’s rejection of God altogether ( I do not want to get too off track at this point as this topic is very extensive, so I will give a book reference and move on. “Without God, Without Creed: the Roots of Unbelief in America” by James Turner).
A type of evangelical church that never held much attraction to me but I will mention because it is so ubiquitous in the Protestant movement and particularly distasteful to me is the mega-church. This version of evangelicalism, more than any other version, has lead to my rejection of Protestantism because it illustrates so clearly how vulnerable Protestantism is to societal influence. The materialism of the mega church along with its unapologetic adoption of marketing strategies to further its purposes convinced me that Protestantism is a movement that, by its very nature, conforms to the cultural norms and philosophical movements of its environment. The mega-church movement is modeled after American capitalism to such an extent that capitalism itself is mistaken for a Christian virtue. This has lead in the United States to an inordinate identification of American evangelicals with the Republican Party. Indeed, the evangelical wholesale support of the GOP so much that they have actively supported an unprovoked war (look up Chuck Colson and other evangelical leader’s formulation of the “Land Letter”), defended the use of torture in violation of the Geneva Conventions (a poll showed that evangelicals supported the use of torture more than any other demographic group in the US), and often approve of legislation that hurts the poorest members of our society (deregulation of corporations, blocking health care reform) would have been enough to cause me to stop identifying myself as an evangelical.
And so, after years of searching, reading, praying, and thinking I came to the conclusion that I was not a protestant. While I saw true redeeming value to all the churches I attended and met many godly and sincere people, there always seemed to be issues that violated my conscience. If I attended a “conservative evangelical” church I would be violating my conscience in relation to bedrock social justice issues that the church has stood for for centuries (and frankly giving up a great degree of intellectual freedom as many of these churches would label me a “heretic” for my political and theological beliefs). But if I attended a “liberal” church I would be compromising my stance on doctrinal issues that are foundational to belief. And I began to finally question the assumptions and premises that undergird all of Protestantism. To say it another way, Protestantism seemed to err at its very roots.
Perhaps the two main reasons that I am not a Protestant is that I no longer hold to the premises that 1.)the individual possesses all the reasoning tools (s)he needs to determine truth and is therefore the best determiner of what beliefs to hold and 2.)that Scripture alone is the only revelation of Christ to the believer
First, the idea that the individual is the best determiner of what he or she accepts as truth. The theological way to state this as articulated at the Reformation is “priesthood of all believers”. The Reformers, 1500 years after the birth of the church, adopted a kind of do-it-yourself, “common sense” approach to Scriptural interpretation and propagated the assumption that each individual was fully qualified because of his/her rational mind to decide Scripture’s meaning for his or herself. All of the sudden each Christian was given the mandate to take Scripture, read it, and formulate his or her entire doctrine from those pages based on those Scriptures alone.
But in my research I discovered that this concept was new in the church (a really good reason in and of itself to question its validity). The western church underwent a radical transformation and shift of authority during the Protestant Reformation (no honest church historian would dispute this). Until the 16th century, Christians accepted the right and mandate of the church to formulate doctrine. The explanation I was always given was that it was really just a shift back to being “biblical”, back to how the early church operated. But the idea of “priesthood of the believer” is not once mentioned in the writings of ancient church fathers such as Polycarp, Clement, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, or St Basil some of who studied under the apostles themselves. Instead, their writings are filled with teaching that points to the authority of the Church in guiding congregations in correct doctrinal formulation. The visible church with all of her offices are identified as the means of identifying false belief as well as correct doctrine.
Scripture itself sets the precedence for doctrinal formulation in the book of Acts. When the dispute over circumcision arose how was the issue resolved? Was each Christian told to pray about it, read the Torah for him/herself then follow individual consciences? If the Church had been following a Reformation model that is how it would have worked. By contrast, the book of Acts records that when disagreements arose the Apostles called a council of all the bishops (not just the 12 apostles but ALL bishops) and the issue was debated among the leadership. When a decision was reached by the bishops the decision became normative for all churches. And this Biblical pattern held true for formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity as well as the cannon of Scripture (not decided until the 4th century). For each of these foundational doctrines church councils were the means of determining what was orthodox belief among the myriad competing doctrines of the times.
By contrast, in churches where the doctrine of “priesthood of all believers” became the rule countless schisms and wranglings were unleashed which continue to this day. I think any Protestant who is honest would have to admit that one striking characteristic of the Protestant movement as a whole is division upon division upon division, something the Apostle Paul found reprehensible in the book of Corinthians. So I reject the idea that each believer is free to interpret Scripture apart from the guidance of the church. I instead hold to the belief that it is the Church as a visible working institution that has been given the charge to safeguard doctrine. Scripture guides all aspects of the church and is authoritative as the words of Christ, but the church through the use of church councils and testimony of church fathers elucidates Scriptures’ meaning for believers just as she did in the book of Acts.
Next the idea that Scripture alone is the means by which Christ reveals Himself, also known as “sola Scriptura”. This view has hugely transformed Protestantism’s worship. As a result of this view, the Lord’s Table is stripped of Christ’s mystical presence and is viewed as simply a remembrance (at least in the more revivalistic and baptistic evangelical circles). The Church (though called in Scripture the very body of Christ) is viewed as simply a collection of believers. All forms and symbols are removed and treated as taking away from the primacy of preaching in the church service. Church members are taught to look solely to the written word in order to enter into relationship with a living, breathing, present God.
Ironically, I find this view of Christianity not only degrading to the revelation of Christ in the Eucharist and in the Church but to Scripture as well. When Scripture is the only means of revelation, certain passages have to be ignored and/or explained away. Also, expectations are placed on Scripture that Scripture never claims to be able to fulfill because it becomes the great answer book. Looking outside of Scripture for guidance is unacceptable, so Scripture must be made sufficient to answer each and every question that the human condition can come up with. I endured years of conferences in which Scripture was scrutinized to disprove evolution, determine the age of the earth, disprove another Christian’s pet doctrine, replace psychological analysis, etc. There just didn’t seem to be any human topic the Bible couldn’t provide all the answers to.
And, once again, this view does not have strong precedence prior to the Protestant Reformation. Prior to the Reformation the Church taught that the Lord’s Table was, in a mystical and unexplainable way, the real presence of Christ Himself. Men such as Polycarp and Clement (who studied under the Apostles themselves) unequivocally preached the mystical presence of Christ at communion and roundly condemned the gnostics for teaching otherwise. In my next post I will explain my current view more exactly, but I will close with the conclusion I came to even before becoming Orthodox or leaving my Protestant church. As I studied more thoughtfully the meaning of Holy Communion along with how it is expressed in Scripture and defended by Church Fathers, I came to the sobering realization that, in relation to the Lord’s Table, I was a liberal. The same premise that liberal scholars make to reject a bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead was the same premise I was using to reject the real presence of Christ in Holy Communion (it doesn’t make logical “sense”, it is only a remembrance so therefore completely rational, any mystical view is left over medievel superstitions). This view requires no faith at all since it is something I could do for, say, a fallen war veteran to remember his service to his country.
To summarize my current understanding of authority, I hold to the belief that Christ reveals Himself to the faithful through Scripture, the Church, and the Lord’s Table. Remove any one of these means of revelation and worship becomes distorted and loses its ability to be truly Christ centered.
Since being a Protestant means that I am personally responsible to interpret Scripture for myself without regard to the teachings and traditions passed down for centuries, and that Scripture alone informs belief, my rejection of the two premises excluded me from being a protestant. I clung to the hope that this did not exclude me from being a Christian.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Resurrection and NT Wright

A family in our parish recently sent us a beautiful letter. After groping for words of comfort, this lovely family ended with "We have no words of comfort for you except 'Christ is risen!' ". Another dear friend who was present the night Chloe died posted some great insights on his blog. He said that in some ways death is harder to deal with as a Christian. His reason was that for a Christian we deeply understand the injustice of death. We know this is not the way it is "supposed to be". Death is not just a natural end in the "circle of life" and it is simply not beautiful. Anyone who was at our house the night Chloe died knows it is the ugly, present triumph of evil over good. Death is not just a person shedding off this old worn out coat and going "to a better place". It is the demonic destruction of God's creation. It is the fullest manifestation of sin's effects on God's world.
So how are Christians to relate to death? Certainly not with hopeless, crippling despair. This would demonstrate a woeful lack of belief that God keeps His promises to His children. But an equally wrong response is to shrug off death and grief with the justification that "she is in heaven. We should be happy". More and more I see this as religious escapism and a form of gnosticism. Actually "she" is not completely in heaven. Her body is rotting under the ground. To look at my beautiful baby and determine that her soul is more important than her body and therefore ignore the ugly reality of her body's current condition is to ignore the truth that Christ's resurrection was a bodily resurrection. His redemptive work was complete only when He rose from the dead. Chloe does not get a free pass. Her redemption will not be complete until she bodily raises from the dead. And here is where the life of faith really collides with this material, rationalist world. Do I stand by Chloe's grave and weave happy stories of her running around in heaven, bouncing on her grandpa's knee. Do I comfort myself by imagining her picking flowers while angels float around her playing harps? While this may give me a degree of peace I do not think it meets the requirements of hope. Hope is not wishful thinking. It is the strong conviction that Chloe's story is not completed and that the present reality (that we MUST be honest about in all its horror) is not the final word . Her "3 days in the grave" are not over but they will come to a glorious end. God's redemptive plan is for her physical body just as it was for Christ's body-restoration, an undoing of sin's decay. The Christian's response is nothing short of declaring that that body will come out the the grave, stand whole and perfect on this earth. That is admittedly a little harder than saying "she is happy and in a better place." But it rings truer.
One of the ways that God provedentially prepared me for Chloe's death (I believe) was in my reading of NT Wright's book "Surprised by Hope". Long before I even knew Chloe was sick I had been interested in what I felt was the paradox of loving the physical world and "believing in heaven". I just couldn't figure out why there seemed to be so much redeeming value to art, nature, human endeavor and yet supposedly (at least in Western protestant teaching) that was all going to some day be scrapped and we would all be zapped up to heaven. This book turned out to be a good corrective to that view as well as essential preparation to dealing with Chloe's death. I read this book before become Orthodox and I found in the Orthodox church this belief solidly central. I highly recommend this book to anyone. This is also a good segway to my next post. Many of you are interested in hearing why I joined the Greek Orthodox faith. I am currently on page 5 of "My Journey" and am still hanging out with the Presbyterians:) Obviously I have some summarizing to do before posting!