(Note: This is part two in a series written as a draft for a chapter I’m contributing to the forthcoming Volume 2 of Turning East: Contemporary Philosophers and the Ancient Christian Faith (SVS Press). In this post, I talk about my early upbringing that set the stage for my interest in philosophy and in Orthodoxy. In part two (here) I discuss briefly the main considerations that drew me to become Orthodox. In part three (here), I will discuss how becoming Orthodox affected my practice of philosophy and how things stand for me currently with respect to both.)
Like no doubt many others, I can say that I “grew up in the church.” Unlike many others, though, I mean that literally. During my earliest memorable years, my dad was a pastor of a small Oneness Pentecostal church, and we lived in an apartment built into what was previously the attic of our church building. Going to church (multiple times every week, naturally) was just a matter of getting dressed and going downstairs. Obviously, this early upbringing, in what turned out to be a heterodox and at the time deeply anti-intellectual church, had an impact on my intellectual and spiritual development, playing a role in leading me both to philosophy and to Orthodoxy.
Let me begin by saying a bit about this upbringing and my subsequent religious journey. Then I can say more about how it led to the religious and intellectual identities that have come to mean so much to me. I’ll finish by saying a bit about how being Orthodox has affected my understanding and practice of philosophy, and the difficult situation with respect to both identities I’ve found myself in.
2. Early Life: From Oneness Pentecostal to Non-Denominational Protestant
My dad, as I said, was a Oneness Pentecostal preacher. He grew up in the South, mostly in and around Atlanta, Georgia, having a happy if not exactly idyllic childhood. Back then, many churches had bus ministries (as they probably still do in some places) that would drive vans through local neighborhoods offering to pick kids up and take them to church. One day my dad, on the cusp of his teenage years, was approached by such a van offering to take him to and from the local Pentecostal church (complete with a free Whopper from Burger King after). He accepted the offer, and in short order he “got saved.” Before long, he was singing in quartets, going to Bible School, and joining the ministry.
For those unaware, Oneness Pentecostals, like other Pentecostals, believe in the contemporary importance of “speaking in tongues”, a type of ecstatic religious experience that involves vocalizing words or speech-like sounds not in any known language. In the church my dad joined and I grew up in, it was believed that without this experience, one wasn’t yet fully Christian. But what is distinctive about Oneness Pentecostals is their rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity. They believe there is only a single person in the Godhead, who merely appears or is alternatively referred to as Father or Son or Holy Spirit. Consequently, they also reject Trinitarian baptisms, and insist that “Jesus” alone is the revealed name of God into whom we are to be baptized, following a formula they take from Acts 2:38.
Growing up, these beliefs did not seem strange to me: they were just presented as part of the Christian faith, and I didn’t even think of them, until much later, as things that distinguished us from nearly all of the rest of Christianity. What did pretty clearly set us apart were the “Holiness standards” that we were supposed to follow. These particular standards were distinctive to the United Pentecostal Church (UPC), the particular Oneness denomination we were a part of, though they have also been a part of other related movements. They amounted to a set of external rules loosely derived from the Bible that both regulated personal behavior and, as you might guess, gave great opportunity for self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and the judgment of others. Among other rules, women were only to wear long skirts or dresses, cover their shoulders, and keep their hair long. Men were to keep their hair short and only wear long pants. Watching secular movies or owning a TV were not allowed, nor listening to secular music (though as time went on, many of these rules became weaker).
It was these rules, and the hypocrisy and judgmentalism surrounding them, more than anything doctrinal, that first led my dad to have doubts about his faith and the UPC. He also began to have serious doubts about the exclusivity claimed by the church. Could it really be that no others who claim to follow Jesus are actually saved if they have not been baptized in the right way or spoken in tongues? Even other Pentecostals? As he, and the whole UPC denomination, struggled with these questions, he began to feel burned out with the day-to-day difficulties of pastoring a church, and decided to resign and pursue something else. At 37, he would go back to school and become a medical doctor.
His denominational bible college was not nationally accredited, and so this meant going back and doing undergraduate work from scratch. He rose to the challenge, and was able to graduate college (the first in his family) with a 4.0 GPA while also working full time and having at that time three kids at home (myself and my two sisters). A love and passion for learning was awakened in him that he would never lose. A turning point in his life, that has resonated into mine, was being assigned for a class to read the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. A key theme in the book is ignorance as a tool of slavery and learning as a path to freedom. Though of course his experience was not a true slavery like that of Douglass, he immediately saw and felt parallels to his experience in the UPC, where any sort of intellectual questioning or independent learning was actively discouraged. He realized that by refusing to think seriously and critically about his faith, he was allowing others to control him. He began a lifelong journey not to be in that situation again. And he tried, in some ways, to pass that lesson on to us. I still vividly remember him assigning me to read Frederick Douglass one middle school summer, and a (not entirely successful) family meeting where he tried to teach us about some basic logical fallacies. These were seeds that would grow.
He went on to medical school, and then to a residency as an emergency physician in Florida in my high school years. There I joined an academic program called International Baccalaureate, where I met and fell in love with my wife, Francesca, and was required to take a class called Theory of Knowledge. It was my favorite class in high school, and it happened to be a philosophy class, though nobody ever told us that. I did well in school, though I was never particularly studious, and I decided to study music in college, having only recently started to play the classical guitar. (Not as naturally talented musically as the rest of my family, I think the newfound love for music was a side-effect of falling in love, a clearly Platonic resonance.)
Throughout this time, my family had transitioned to more or less non-denominational evangelical Christianity, attending various churches but never fully doctrinally settled. (For example, coming to grips with the Trinity would take many years.) I had not really come to think for myself yet, theologically speaking, but merely accepted the implicit leadership of my dad as he went on his own journey. In college, my intellectual and religious journey began to take its more individual shape.
3. Towards Philosophy and Orthodoxy
3.1 From Music to Philosophy
And so I began my undergraduate studies at the Florida State University. As I said, I had decided to major in music. This wasn’t a decision that resulted from a lot of deep soul searching or any analysis of future job prospects. It was simply what I was most passionate about pursuing at the time graduation came around. However, Florida State has a very good college of music, and I quickly realized that as a mostly self-taught musician with only a few years experience, I wasn’t nearly as qualified as most of those around me. I wasn’t good enough to be a performance major, and I didn’t particularly feel called to being a music teacher. Nor was I able or willing to dedicate the five or more hours of daily practice required to become a performance major.
Luckily, other options soon presented themselves. Francesca and I began attending an Evangelical Free church soon after arriving in Tallahassee, and one Sunday it was announced that a philosophy professor at FSU, Tom Crisp, who also attended the church at the time, would be teaching an apologetics class (i.e., a class about rationally defending the faith) for those interested. My dad had been interested in apologetics in my late high school years and had even had me read a couple books before coming to college, so I was excited about the opportunity to learn with an expert. And I absolutely loved it. Understanding the arguments came easily to me, and I found the whole project exciting.
So when the next semester rolled around, I looked to see what Professor Crisp was teaching and immediately signed up. It happened to be an epistemology class, and I quickly realized that the content was all a more in depth study of the same topics we had taken up in Theory of Knowledge, my favorite class in high school! Again I found that the material both excited and came relatively easily to me. The importance my dad had placed on thinking clearly and questioning one’s views had been working on me subconsciously for years, and I saw how it had changed his own life and the life of our family. Now I found there was a whole discipline dedicated just to doing this as well as possible. I was hooked. I decided to switch majors and do what seemed the clear next step: apply to graduate school.
Unsurprisingly, my main interest was in the philosophy of religion, but I was counseled that specializing in religion might hurt my job prospects in the future. Luckily, there were several professors who were well known authorities on free will and moral responsibility, so I worked with them to get a good writing sample. After sending out many applications, I decided to pursue my Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley (mainly because it happened to be the highest-ranked program that accepted me). I finished the Ph.D. in 2017.
3.2 From Protestant to Orthodox
Throughout my time at college and into the beginning of graduate school, I remained fairly happy as a non-denominational Protestant Christian. My views on certain things changed over time (e.g., I went through a now much-regretted “Reformed Baptist” phase), and I continued to think about theology and philosophy of religion in my spare time. But not being a Protestant of some sort never even occurred to me. Like many others raised in fundamentalist upbringings, I had absorbed a level of skepticism that Catholics were even really Christians. And I had never even heard of Orthodoxy.
What began to change everything was a series of conversations, over the course of more than a year, with my cousin, who has always been like a brother to me (in fact, our mothers are identical twins, so I’ve always thought that, genetically, we might as well be). Like me, he had grown up Oneness Pentecostal, and had recently been finding his way out of it. Naturally, I tried to steer him towards a garden variety evangelical Protestantism, and it seemed to be working. Somehow, though, he found himself among a group of Catholic apologists that soon had him seriously joining them. We began to debate some of the theological issues, and, to my chagrin, he was becoming more and more attracted to the Catholic church. However, he soon realized that he was especially attracted to the Eastern Catholic churches in his area, and this led him to discover Orthodoxy. He spent a significant amount of time trying to decide between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, and I spent a significant amount of time trying to advise him against either. At some point in 2010, he was baptized into the Orthodox Church. Though it would take me three more years to get baptized myself, and though I had not yet set foot in an Orthodox church, I was pretty much fully intellectually convinced at that point that I should do so as well.
There wasn’t any decisive argument that convinced me. In fact, other than the usual Protestant hang-ups over the veneration of the saints and the Virgin Mary, I hardly remember all the topics we discussed or in what order. All I know is that at some point Orthodoxy seemed to me a strange, isolated, and theologically problematic institution, and then at some later point seemed to me most to contain the fullness of Christ’s Church.
Though I don’t remember the details of our arguments, I can say that there were three pretty clear sets of considerations that were most important in motivating my conversion. These can be grouped together under the categories of (1) authority and tradition, (2) liturgy, and (3) asceticism or self-cultivation. In each of these areas, I found in Orthodox theology and practice help not just in resolving intellectual or philosophical problems, but also, for lack of a better term, existential ones.
 This is the ancient heresy of modalism, or Sabellianism.
 ‘Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ From this verse, they derived their three-fold understanding of what is necessary for salvation: repentance (faith/belief), baptism invoking Jesus’ name, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the evidence of which is speaking in tongues. As you can see, by these standards, very few people who call themselves ‘Christians’ really count as such.
 I hope the story so far has not been overly dominated by the personality of my father. He obviously looms large in my self-consciousness, and my story owes much to his. As I grew, the influence became more mutual, though of course there were many important issues we disagreed upon. Influenced in part by my conversion to Orthodoxy, he and my mom later became members of the Roman Catholic Church. He died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2021 and I deeply mourn his loss.
5 thoughts on “On trying to be an Orthodox Philosopher (Part 1 of 3)”
Jeremy! I read this with utter interest and appreciate your sharing with me. What a gift your father was to you! He was my Christian brother and I feel his loss today. How well I know the value of a father’s authority – of unwavering faith expressed in love and security! Your candor flows as a fresh stream, although the topic is as a mighty sea. So one wave at a time as you write on, eh?! To have a mind of one’s own is not rebellion, nor is it self -centeredness. We have been warned against leaning on our intellect to the exclusion of faith in The Lord, may I submit for it is a snare to every Pilgrim such as we are in making progress in The Way may I submit. The manifestation of one’s growth and development, as one’s life unfolds requires careful reflection nevertheless. May The Lord continue to prosper you and your family; all your future endeavors; and use you Mightily to draw others unto Him.
Your father sounds like a great man and role model. Intellectual integrity and honesty is to be admired wherever found and unfortunately that is a quality that is often missing in the more fundamentalist strains of any religion or ideology.
Your journey sounds quite interesting so far, it’s fascinating how certain conversations never really leave you and continue to have an impact months and years after the fact. Though I am not an orthodox Christian myself, I do see a lot of beauty in the tradition and I love the emphasis on sanctification and theosis. I don’t think Christianity as a religion and philosophy can offer much transformation without those two ideas and I think the proof is in the behaviour of the majority of Christians.
My heart swelled as I read this. Life has its twists and turns and I believe God has led our family into the essence of His grace and mercy. I loved your writing and also your reference to your Dad who led us all into a search for truth and a deep desire to know Jesus Christ more and more. I pray you will keep using your talents to share the goodness of God. Mark 12:30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.
This made my heart glad. You did a beautiful job expressing how you feel, what you’ve learned and what we as a family have been through. Speaking of your father warmed my heart. His search for truth has brought us into a deeper understanding of the mercy and the grace of God. I pray you will continue to use your talents in writing (as well as your many other gifts) in living out Mark 12:30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.