Why I’m Orthodox; or, About Other Christians

It’s been a while since I’ve posted an update. I have yet to finish my review of Live Not by Lies, which I promise I will do, soon. A lot has been changing in my world, and I’ll divulge more about that at a later date. In the meantime, I recently posted the following tweet:

I was half-joking, although the spirit of the tweet reflected thoughts I’ve expressed before, particularly in my post about Joshua Harris. Actually, the tweet was inspired by a recent comment on that post. The reader wrote:

As another protestant looking curiously at Orthodoxy and feeling quite drawn to it, I’m curious – how have you reconciled the Orthodox church’s view of itself as containing the fullness of the Truth with your general openness to all Christian traditions? Or more specifically…. has the Orthodox view that ultimately, all other Christians should become Orthodox been challenging to deal with?

How do I square my apparently ecumenical mindset with my Orthodox beliefs? This is one of the reasons I’m glad I’m not a priest or a theologian: I’m not a shepherd who must cautiously navigate these issues with the souls of my flock in mind. But I do also feel responsible for the ideas I have, especially when I express them on this blog. So I wanted to devote a post to answering this reader’s question.

I’m absolutely open to all authentically Christian traditions (by “authentic,” I’m excluding stuff that I don’t really consider small-o orthodox Christianity but that a secular religious studies professor might consider Christian in origin—the Heaven’s Gate cult, for instance). As Father Andrew Stephen Damick frequently says on his podcast, insofar as Catholics or Calvinists or whomever get something right, he agrees with them. I’m open to any tradition that declares Christ, that more or less adheres to the Nicene Creed, that belongs to the large mainstream of small-o orthodox Christianity. I think most Orthodox Christians feel this way; for this reason, C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity is extremely popular in the Orthodox Church.

But I do believe that Orthodox Church is the authentic Church, that it contains “the fullness of the Truth.” I don’t think this belief prevents me from remaining open to other Christian traditions. I can respect their histories and their evolution, their interaction with the Truth of Christ, all while I maintain the fullness of the Truth that is the Orthodox faith.

I like the way this gets expressed on the Orthodox Christianity subreddit. In the FAQs, the editors write:

The statement that the Orthodox Church is the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, is not a statement about anyone’s ultimate salvation or damnation. A common saying is “we know where the Church is, but not where it isn’t.” The Holy Spirit works however it wishes, through whomever it wishes. The Orthodox Church however, has the fullness of Christian life and teaching, nothing less and nothing more. It is to everyone’s benefit to be a part of the Orthodox Church, but not necessarily to their damnation if they are not.

This makes a lot of sense to me. To deny that it’s to everyone’s benefit to be part of the Orthodox Church, to give up the (cheeky) notion that other Christians ought to be called “not-yet-Orthodox,” would undermine the integrity of my belief in and relationship to the Church. Besides, to say that there’s no essential difference between my beliefs and your beliefs, between my church and your church, would more or less invalidate (or, at the very least, disrespect) the integrity of both my beliefs and yours.

That being said, I only know where the Church is; I am not so wise as to say where it isn’t. I can recognize Orthodoxy and I can identify deviations from Orthodoxy. But I can’t pronounce on anyone’s salvation, and I can certainly recognize, respect, and honor the many, many points of overlap shared by all Christians.

There’s an irritating trend among online Christian commentators, who post videos about their own traditions vis a vis other Christian traditions by explaining why they’re not Orthodox, Catholic, Reformed, Pentecostal, whatever. Here are just a few examples:

I can see the value in some of these discussions. But the way they get framed—particularly the “why I’m not” formulation—bothers me. In some cases, the commentators focus on differences that ultimately don’t add up to much. The first video above, by Lutheran theologian and minister Dr. Jordan B. Cooper, focuses on fine details of Orthodox theology that, really, don’t have much to do with the average Orthodox Christian’s faith. Apophaticism or Neoplatonic theosis don’t factor very largely in the lives and spirits of most Orthodox Christians, not even in the life and spirit of someone as intellectually inclined as me. This stuff just doesn’t come up a ton. These issues can help you distinguish between Orthodoxy and other traditions, but it’s really only good for that, and doesn’t tell you much about how Orthodox Christians believe and live. (To Dr. Cooper’s credit, he basically admits this, and admits the pitfalls of such “why I’m not” videos, in his video.)

In other cases, discussions like these can turn very negative. By focusing on why you aren’t part of a particular tradition, you inevitably focus on the downsides of that tradition. Often, critics of Orthodoxy focus on ethnicity and nationalism. Several of the videos above bemoan the ethnic character of Orthodoxy, with all its Greek, Russian, Antiochian, Serbian, etc., churches. Dr. Scott Hahn uses the term “denominationalism.” These commentators talk about visiting Orthodox churches and feeling unwelcome because they (the commentators) weren’t Greek or Serbian. And…that just hasn’t been my experience. At all. Perhaps it was true in the United States at a particular point that most Greek Orthodox churches were overwhelmingly Greek, but in my experience, Orthodoxy has grown much, much more diverse. The church I attend and the churches I’ve visited are overwhelmed with converts to Orthodoxy from all ethnic backgrounds.

Also: show me a church that isn’t “ethnic.” Most Lutheran churches in my region are overwhelmingly German or Scandinavian. Most Catholic parishes represent the ethnic majorities of their region: overwhelmingly German in my hometown, overwhelmingly Hispanic in other places, overwhelmingly Korean in other places, overwhelmingly Italian in Italy, etc. You can’t escape ethnicity. That being said, my own church is extremely racially mixed: we say the Lord’s Prayer each Sunday in Greek, Slavonic, Spanish, and English. Our church serves members who come from across Africa, the Middle East, Russia and its neighbors, and the Americas. So again, this idea that the Orthodox church is straightjacketed by ethnicity just doesn’t resonate with my experience. If anything, the ethnic demarcations within the organization of Orthodoxy admits the particularities of human experience into the faith and balances out the universalism (catholicism) of the Orthodox creed: one can engage one’s own particular space in the world and one’s universal human nature at the same time in Orthodoxy. It’s pretty awesome, if you ask me.

Anyway, as many of these commentators seem to innately understand, it’s far more useful to explain why you are something rather than why you’re not something else. So, why am I Orthodox? When I try to answer that question intellectually, I stumble. I’m still very Protestant in my mindset. Protestant tradition is my tradition, its people are my people, its history is my history, and that means a lot to me.

Meanwhile, the logic, tradition, continuity, charisma and organization of the Roman Catholic Church (particularly the extraordinary form of the mass) is very appealing to me. I continually struggle with the issue of the Pope, not because I don’t recognize the Bishop of Rome, but because I’m almost convinced of the scriptural basis of his authority. So intellectually, I’m very drawn to Catholicism.

But I didn’t convert to Orthodoxy on the basis of my intellect.

My wife and I are currently considering a big move, and I recently asked myself, “What if the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church reunited? What if I had to find a new church and could choose between a Catholic church and an Orthodox church? Which would I choose?” Without any hesitation, I would choose the Orthodox church: its history, its tradition, its liturgy and other forms of worship, its national character(s), its style, its substance, everything, draws me. It’s where I find the fullness of the truth and the fullness of Christ’s Bride, the Church. If I could choose to identify as either Catholic or Orthodox, I might very well choose Catholicism. But when it comes to where I’d choose to worship and practice my faith, I’d choose the Orthodox Church every time.

And then there’s the whole business of not having really chosen the Church; it chose me.

But I’m not so arrogant to say I’ve discovered the Absolute Truth or that others who worship Christ are outside the Body. I’m reminded of the scene in Mark 9: the disciples say to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone who does not follow us casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow us.” Jesus replied, “Do not forbid him, for no one who works a miracle in My name can soon afterward speak evil of Me. For he who is not against us is on our side. For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in My name, because you belong to Christ, assuredly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”

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