The Essence of Christianity

Here’s the thing about Orthodoxy: once you’re in, it can feel like you’ve hit distilled Christianity. This might seem like a strange claim to my Evangelical/Exvangelical friends, many of whom imagine that pure Christianity is something that’s distilled or abstracted from the Scriptures, particularly the Gospels and the Epistles: the basic teachings of Jesus, for instance, which are themselves a distillation of the entire Hebrew Law. Or the essence of Christianity is the “Romans Road to Salvation,” which is the blueprint for so much Western soteriology. Or perhaps the essence of Christianity is a “personal relationship” with God through Christ (“it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship,” as they often say about Evangelical Protestantism). The idea that two thousand years of extra stuff—no matter how true or beneficial it may be—represents Christianity in its elemental form is a little odd to the Evangelical imagination. All the details and objects of Orthodoxy—the feast days, the lives of the saints, the vestments, the incense—can feel like exotic accoutrements, like so many add-ons. It may be beautiful, useful, and filled with the Spirit, says the liberal-minded Evangelical, but is all that really the essence of the faith?

Yes. I’ve learned that it is.

I’m currently reading Laurus by the Russian medievalist and cultural critic Eugene Vodolazkin. The novel is set in fifteenth-century Europe and begins in Russia in a small cabin where the protagonist and his grandfather practice both herbal medicine and Orthodox Christianity. Their faith is as elemental and pure as it gets: God and basic Christian principles animate every aspect of their lives. They view nature, their vocation, their relationships, the wider world, beauty, sickness, and death through the lens of Christ and the Church. But although they are both literate, they don’t read from the Bible (or, more accurately, they read proverbs from the Bible alongside sayings from other wisdom books and bits of history: a literary patchwork that Vodolazkin expertly sews together, capturing the spirit of the medieval imagination). The Gospels are not necessarily present in their lives, although the Gospel certainly is. Paul never comes up. And not because they lack the capacity to read or understand. As Vodolazkin makes clear, their minds are expansive and their powers of memory are prodigious. The protagonist learns from his grandfather the names and medicinal powers of every bit of flora in the Russian ecosystem. They read aloud and commit passages of wisdom to memory. They participate in the complex Orthodox liturgies. But they don’t carry a Bible around with them. It’s not practical, nor essential.

What is essential is what Orthodox theologians call the φρόνημα (phronema), or “mindset,” of Christianity. The Orthodox Christian Information Center has an entire multi-page section dedicated to this topic. They quote Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos: “[Phronema means] in the biblico-patristic Tradition the whole turn of mind which prevails in a man from the way in which he lives, and from the relationship which he has with God. And literally, if the nous [i.e., the spiritual intellect, not to be confused with “reason”] is darkened, then the whole mind is carnal. But if the nous is illuminated, which means that is has the Holy Spirit within it, then the whole mind is a mind of spirit and, of course, a mind of the Church….” The Christian phronema (what Paul called having the mind of Christ) is not merely essential to Christian faith: it is arguably the essence of the Christian faith. We acquire such a phronema through our relationship with God (something Evangelicals tend to emphasize) and through our everyday works, the way we live our lives (something Protestants tend to deemphasize, at least in doctrine, because of their logic of substitutionary atonement). Metropolitan Hierotheos continues:

We must say at this point that the theology of the Church is ascetic, that is to say, it defines the methods of cure in order for man to attain deification….So the dogmas express the revelation and the life which the Church has and they also cure man and lead him towards deification. They are spiritual road signs. In this sense we can say that the dogmas save man and sanctify him. This happens because they cure him and give him the right orientation on his way towards God.

This language of “curing” calls to mind the famous quote (variously attributed to St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, and Dear Abby) that the Church is “a hospital for sinners.” A popular meme among Orthodox Christians that attributes the quote to St. John Chrysostom adds: “She does not condemn on behalf of sins, but grants remission of sins.” Now, some grumpy Protestants might ask, if the Church offers remission of sins, why not keep sinning? (Google the phrase “the Church is NOT a hospital for sinners” and you’ll get loads of results from some contrarian Protestants who find all kinds of exegetical reasons for debunking this feel-good quote.) The answer is simple: in order to acquire a the mind of Christ, we must stop sinning. In order to be transformed, we must be cured. In order to adopt a Christian phronema, which is the essence of the Christian life, we must “die to sin,” as St. Paul puts it. The Church is an essential part of that process. And so to find the essence of Christianity, we must first find the Church.

The Evangelicals I grew up with were obsessed with discovering and replicating “the Early Church.” The Early Church, we supposed, was as close to the “true Church” as you could get. Today, I’d say to any Evangelical who wants to recover the Early Church: first, get rid of your Bibles. The Early Church didn’t have them. Sure, the Church in Corinthians had St. Paul’s letters to them, but they lacked the letter to the Romans, a misreading of which is so essential for so much Western theology. Most Early Churches don’t seem to have had letters from St. Paul, at least not letters that survived. And of course, the canon of the Christian Bible wasn’t even agreed upon until the fourth century.

Of course, telling a Protestant to give up the Bible is akin to telling them to abandon Christianity altogether. How can you be a Christian without a thorough understanding of the Bible? Well, either it’s possible, or the overwhelming majority of Christians in the West before Gutenberg (and the overwhelming majority of Christians in the East until Bibles and literacy became common, not until the nineteenth century in most places) were not actually practicing Christianity. (Unfortunately, it’d be relatively easy to get some Evangelicals to agree with that.)

For the Orthodox, the Bible is absolutely foundational and essential for determining correct doctrine and dogma. Along with Tradition and the Holy Fathers, the Bible forms the basis of our knowledge about God. But when it comes to living a Christian life, knowledge of precise Pauline soteriology or the books of the minor Hebrew prophets are not essential. Imagine living as an illiterate medieval peasant: true, you could always rely on your priest for intimate, properly contextualized knowledge of the Scriptures, but is that really the essence of a Christian life? I don’t believe so.

This is where the accoutrement of Orthodoxy comes in. Dismissed by Protestants as extra-Biblical folkways and superstition, the apparently “extra stuff” of Orthodoxy actually vivifies the Gospel and makes possible the practice of Christian life. Repeating prayers that others have prayed, participating in the liturgy and feast days, going to confession, ritualistic fasting, &c., all create the foundation of a concrete lifestyle and relationship to God, which in turn generate a Christian phronema.

For more thoughts along these lines, I recommend Dr. Eugenia Constantinou’s book Thinking Orthodox: Understanding and Acquiring the Orthodox Christian Mind. My priest described it as a software reboot for the mind. Constantinou explains the Orthodox perspective in extremely clear terms and helps distinguish what is essentially Christian about it.

Also, as someone who is newly Orthodox, I should clarify that I still struggle with my Protestant mindset. I’m constantly removing layers of Protestant film from my brain. I’ll probably always have an Evangelical “lizard brain,” to one degree or another: my intellectual reflexes are pretty thoroughly Protestant. Constantinou compares acquiring an Orthodox phronema to learning one style of martial arts your entire life, then trying to master another. You may spend years on the second style, but when it’s time to use what you’ve learned in the real world, you’ll frequently slip back into the original style. It’s difficult. It takes time. It takes a lot of practice and hard work.

In closing: several of my readers have recently donated money to help me keep this blog going in its current format. I’ll offer more personal responses to you each via email, but I just wanted to say thanks to everyone who gave! It means so much to me, and it’s truly, extremely helpful in allowing me to manage this blog as best I can. I’m going to try to post more regularly over the next several months, especially thoughts on what I’m reading, and I hope you enjoy where I take this blog from here.

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