On trying to be an Orthodox Philosopher (Part 2 of 3)

(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 part one (here), I talk about my early upbringing that set the stage for my interest in philosophy and in Orthodoxy. 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.)

3.2.1 Authority and Tradition

The question of authority is one that is often fundamental for Protestants who become attracted to Orthodoxy or Catholicism, and for me it was no different. Initially, the question was primarily about adjudicating between competing claims. I had been raised to think that the institutional church had made serious theological missteps not long after its inception, and, therefore, that most Christians for most of the last two thousand years had been deeply wrong. Now that I began to question that, I was met with a bewildering number of denominations with disagreements on basic matters of doctrine. How could one choose between them? Who, if anyone, had the right to speak for the Church?

Two things seemed clear to me. First, the current situation, with thousands of disagreeing denominations, had to be unnatural, couldn’t have been the ideal of Christ or his earliest followers. The second was that Scripture alone could not solve the problem. My time as a Oneness Pentecostal showed me that there were many people who were morally better than me, more serious followers of Christ, who knew the Scriptures much better than me, and yet who came to conclusions about fundamental issues of theology diametrically opposed to the early Church Fathers and most Christians throughout the ages.

Now that two thousand years of Christian thought about God and the church were suddenly open to me, where should I start? A natural place seemed to be the early Church.  These were men who were closer to the time of the apostles, who shared more of their cultural and intellectual background, and who were in many cases willing to die for what they saw as the understanding needed of a Christianity that could save mankind and the world. Surely those things should make them at least a bit more trustworthy on fundamental issues. And if not, perhaps I could at least find where they had gone wrong.

What I found surprised me. First, I was surprised by the deep and beautiful theology of the church fathers. But I also noticed that for the main writers from the earliest post-apostolic times and for the next more than a thousand years, there was a surprising uniformity of faith and practice, at least compared to the present situation. For example, between, say, 400 and 1000 AD, Christian practice and understanding would nearly universally involve things like a hierarchy of deacons, priests, bishops, and patriarchs; a veneration of relics and holy places; an understanding of the centrality of the Eucharist and Christ’s real presence therein; a special respect for Mary as the Mother of God; following a calendar which includes regular mandated fasting; and ritualized and highly symbolic liturgy (to name just a few).  Most of those things play no role in the faith of many Protestants and are viewed by them as, at the very least, unnecessary.

And what was the foundation of this unity? From the time even of those who knew the apostles, two things, apostolic succession and following apostolic tradition, took special prominence. Thus, St. Ignatius of Antioch, one of the Apostolic Fathers writing in the first century, says: “Let no one do anything that has to do with the church without the bishop. Only that Eucharist which is under the authority of the bishop (or whomever he himself designates) is to be considered valid. Wherever the bishop appears, there let the congregation be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 8:1-2).

Or consider another Apostolic Father, St. Irenaeus, who tells us

…to make choice of the thing pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the tradition of the truth. For how stands the case? Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches? … Now all these [heretics] are of much later date than the bishops to whom the apostles committed the Churches… since they are blind to the truth, and deviate from the [right] way, they will walk in various roads; and therefore the footsteps of their doctrine are scattered here and there without agreement or connection. But the path of those belonging to the Church circumscribes the whole world, as possessing the sure tradition from the apostles, and gives unto us to see that the faith of all is one and the same…  (Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 4; Book 5, Chapter 20).

On reading things like these and reading more about the history of the church, I was struck by the unique (which is not to say static) continuity of the Eastern Orthodox Church. By the sixth century, the Christian Church throughout the world was organized as a Pentarchy, with five major episcopal sees spread out among the most important cities in the Roman Empire: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. When the Great Schism finally occurred, all of the major sees except Rome continued into what became Orthodoxy. The many cities mentioned in the New Testament, with their churches founded by the Apostles, have continued to the present day, and they are nearly all Orthodox. Churches in Damascus, Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, even those Bereans beloved by the Baptists, are still around, and they are most all Orthodox.

This discovery was not only of intellectual interest to me. It also proved to have existential importance, too. My Christianity for most of my life had been very individualistic, focused on personal salvation accomplished primarily by having the right beliefs. I began to find this unsatisfying, and found in Orthodoxy an alternative picture, where being a Christian was less about believing the right things and more about being a living part of a living Body, a body with still living roots in the times and places in which Jesus and his disciples walked and taught.

3.2.2 Liturgy

Like many low-church Protestants, I was raised with an instinctive distrust of too much ritual or pageantry. I was taught that it was a distraction at best and a temptation towards idolatry at worse.  We worshipped with song and learned about the Word and that was enough. There was no need for such distractions and temptations.

The first turning point for me was reading evangelical-turned-Catholic Thomas Howard’s book Evangelical is Not Enough. He helped me to see that my earlier views about ritual were not just inaccurate but a form of self-deception. Nothing we do together is not governed by ritual to some degree. (I would later become more convinced of this point by my studies in Confucianism.) The Pentecostal and evangelical churches I attended did not lack ritual and symbolism, they were just unselfconscious about it. They had a liturgy that communicated what was important in their theology and practice just as much as the Catholics and Orthodox do. The barrenness of the walls is itself a theological statement. The fact that the central place is not occupied by the altar, where the bread and wine are blessed, but by the preacher’s podium, is a symbol of Protestant distinctives. The often lone image or statue of the cross, the pride of place given to the sermon: these are expressions of modern approaches to theology and anthropology.  And so on. So the question is not, cannot be, whether we should have ritual and symbolism in worship, but in what that ritual will be and what picture of God and man it expresses.

In graduate school at Berkeley I attended a wonderful Reformed church that really taught me to appreciate at a visceral level the importance of liturgy. I also came across a book during that time by a Reformed philosopher at Calvin, James K.A. Smith, called Desiring the Kingdom, which had an even bigger impact. Smith takes the ubiquity of liturgy even further than Howard. He argues that we are liturgical animals and that even culture itself can be seen as nothing but a set of (often competing) liturgies. He memorably analyzes these cultural liturgies and their striking correspondence to Christian liturgy. For example, think of the mall as a ritual space akin to a church. There are icons of saints depicting the good life adorning the walls (advertisements), we often enter with friends and community and thereby order our relationships a certain way, the decorations change following a set calendar of shopping holidays, we come to the altar of the cash register with the hope of redemption through consumption. Or think of professional sports, with their alternating calendar and heroic figures, the way cheering for a team forms a community and takes us out of ourselves, the singing and pageantry involved in attending a game, etc.

Smith’s book was primarily aimed at overturning the worldview thinking that had become standard in evangelical circles for Christian formation, the idea that making people good disciples was primarily about inculcating a certain and distinctive set of beliefs about things. This is too head-focused, according to Smith, and leaves out the heart. It forgets that we are desiring creatures first and foremost. And liturgy is what shapes our desires. Given all that, Smith asserts, if we really care about being formed as Christians, we need to focus a lot more on liturgy in general, and the distinctive liturgical practices of the Christian tradition in particular. This is especially true because our culture, as I mentioned, is full of competing liturgies, liturgies of consumption, that subconsciously form our desires in ways contrary to the gospel.

This all seemed to me to be right. But where does it lead? I was worried that even the wonderful Sunday liturgies of the Reformed Church I attended wouldn’t be enough. We are bombarded by icons of the consumerist gospel everywhere we look. Where are the Christian icons to counteract them? The average Christian can tell you all about any given handful of recent celebrities or sports stars. But how much can they tell you about St John Chrysostom or St Maximus the Confessor? We are told everywhere all the time to consume, consume, consume. But how many are told that now it is time to fast? In other words, it came to seem to me that if we really need a Christian version of liturgy that could counteract the non-Christian cultural liturgies all around us, the Orthodox Church was our best hope.

3.2.3 Beauty

More important than these theoretical considerations about the liturgy, however, the liturgy attracted me with its beauty.  Anyone who has been to an Orthodox liturgy knows that beauty is taken seriously, though of course some churches succeed better than others.  In many of the bigger churches, there are icons (traditionally stylized religious paintings) wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling.  Candles, representing prayers of the people, are burning in several places. The texts are ancient and deep and almost entirely chanted. There is pageantry and incense and varying degrees of lay participation – I’d say that the average person crosses themselves at least a dozen times during each liturgy, in addition to venerating the icons, lighting candles, listening, and singing along.  It all culminates in Communion, consuming the sanctified bread and wine out of a common cup.  There is not a single sense that is not appealed to and incorporated. I still remember walking into my second liturgy ever, at Elevation of the Holy Cross (OCA) in Sacramento, hearing the small but talented choir singing Psalm 103, and my eyes filling immediately with tears.

In fact, the idea of beauty has perhaps been more important than any other in drawing me to and keeping me in the Orthodox Church. It is not only the liturgy that I have found beautiful, but the witness of so many of its saints, and the depth of its theology. The conception of God is not as some discrete being located somewhere inside or outside of the universe, but as the transcendent source of being itself, identical with the Good and the Beautiful, only by participation in which all else exists.  In a wonderful passage, for example, St. Gregory Palamas says that God is “the Being of all beings, the Form that is in all forms as the Author of form, the Wisdom of the wise and, simply, the All of all things.” Several saints say that God is both inside and outside of everything, and St. Dionysius says that “Beauty is the source of all things” and that “there is nothing that does not have a share in Beauty-and-Goodness”.  God is also, of course, taken somehow to be a loving communion of three Persons. All of these claims have, I think, startling ethical implications.  The universe must be seen as pervaded by God and shining with his Glory.  Every person must be seen as an incarnate icon of Beauty itself.  The fundamental feature, cause, and end of all existence is the loving communion of persons in relationship. Whether totally unique or not, these beautiful ideas first came alive for me in Orthodoxy.

The martyr St. Pavel Florensky took beauty to be the distinctive and fundamental mark of Orthodox ecclesiology. Following other twentieth century Russian thinkers, he associated Catholicism fundamentally with the idea of hierarchy, and Protestantism with text, whether of specific confessions or the text of Scripture itself. For the Orthodox Church, however, “…the life of the Church is assimilated and known only through life – not in the abstract, not in a rational way. If one must nevertheless apply concepts to the life of the Church, the most appropriate concepts would be not juridical and archaeological ones but biological and aesthetic ones. What is ecclesiality? It is a new life, life in the Spirit. What is the criterion of the rightness of this life? Beauty.”[1]

[1] The Pillar and Ground of the Truth. An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters, trans. by Boris Jakim, Princeton NJ, 1997, pp. 8–9.

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