A Modern Conversion

baptism3A few years back I had a very enlightening conversation with one of my Russian parishioners. I had Baptized her and her family some years before.  In the conversation I referred to her and her family as “converts.” She bristled and quickly spoke, “I am not a convert!” My thoughts were running ahead. I did not say what I was thinking but was mindful of the fact that I had catechized and Baptized her.

“Converts are people who choose,” she said. “I have always been Orthodox. But I was not yet Baptized.”

It was a revelation. “Converts are people who choose.” I had never heard the word used with such disdain. No American would ever think less of someone for making a choice. Indeed, some American converts imagine that their Orthodoxy is superior for the very fact that it is chosen.

It is a clash of civilizations. Not simply Russian versus American, but, more to the point, Classical Christian versus the Modern World.

In the previous article I noted this understanding: In the modern project, human beings are autonomous centers of consciousness whose choices and decisions bring about their self-actualization.

We consider ourselves to be the product of our choices and therefore value them almost above all else. We not only value our ability to make choices – we value the people who make them. “Decisioners” (a “Bushism”) are paid more in our culture than others. The people who make the choices are thought of as the most valuable people, those worthy of being paid the most.

American Christianity very early on began to adapt itself to the culture of choice. The Great Awakenings (late 18th and early 19th centuries) pushed a theology of choice to the forefront of Christian existence. To be a Christian is to “make a decision for Christ.” “God has no grandchildren!” the revivalists proudly proclaimed. Those who were born into the Christian faith and Baptized as children, but had never made a conscious “decision for Christ” were considered less than Christian. Baptism as sacrament was treated as “empty” ritual. The “personal decision” became everything.

As time has gone by, this thinking has effected much of the modern Christian world. Many contemporary Christians would think that my above description is “traditional” Christianity – even normative, with the notion of infant baptism being a cultural innovation of the Middle Ages and a degeneration of “true” Christianity. However, decisional Christianity is less than 250 years old, and is simply an example of the Modern Project in Christian disguise. It is not the faith of the Fathers (once delivered to the saints).

Doubtless, there is no human life without choices. My Russian parishioner certainly made a “decision” to contact me and make arrangement for her family’s Baptism. Why did she not see this as a choice?

It is not choice precisely that is the issue between the Modern Project and Classical Christianity – it is the nature and power of choice. Within the Modern world, choice is seen as foundational, the primary driving force of history and of reality itself. We are who we choose to be, and the world is as we choose to make it. In Classical Christianity, choice is peripheral, an incidental requirement in the course of life.

The modern convert sees his/her choice as constituting their existence. “I am Orthodox because I choose to be Orthodox.” Classically, a convert accepts what they already are. “I am Orthodox and I accept Baptism.”

In the Orthodox service of Baptism, the candidate (or sponsor if a child) is asked, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” It is interesting that the question is not, “Do you choose to unite yourself to Christ?” In the Classical understanding, it would be similar to asking, “Do you breathe the air?” We give assent to our union with Christ, just as we rightly give assent to breathe. To unite ourselves to Christ is to give assent to our true life. The notion of choice utterly fails to do this justice.

For the Modern Project, our choice presumes that there are multiple, viable options. I may shop at this store or that store. Where I shop is my own decision. I have actually heard contemporary Christians say that denominationalism is something that God brought about so that all people could have a Church that suited them!

The Classical Christian understanding is that the nature of our life is not a choice but a given. Our lives are contingent and only exist because they are rooted and grounded in God. Rightly understood, the “choice” for Baptism, is simply the acceptance of existence.

Life in Christ is inherently the right-ordering of our existence. It is not one out of many options. There are certainly many options for how to live in a manner that is contrary to true existence – but only life in Christ is true life.

Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself (John 5:25-26 NKJ).

The nature of conversion in the Classical model is probably best illustrated by the  structures of the catechumenate in the early Church. Those who wanted to be united with Christ were first enrolled as “learners” (catechumens – mentioned in Galatians 6:6). The period of learning included instruction in the gospel but primarily in the life of the Church. This period could extend for one or more years. Interestingly, catechumens were not instructed in the Holy Mysteries (Baptism, Eucharist, etc.) until after Baptism when they began the Mystagogial Catecheses (learning in the mysteries). The Creed itself was not even taught to Catehumens – but “traditioned” to them as part of the liturgy of Baptism!

Choice was seen as something playing a fairly minor role in the Christian life. It certainly had a part in everything – but the entire process was geared towards formation, not towards decision-making.

To this must be contrasted the modern Christian practice in which decision-making is everything and “joining” (however it might be sacramentally expressed) rather anti-climatic. The notion of formation is quite beside-the-point.

Many inquirers are put off by what might at first seem a reluctance on the part of Classical Christianity (Orthodox or Catholic) to admit them into the ranks of the Church. Classes must be attended, and some keep waiting for the “sales pitch” (that may never come). They will be told that “Orthodoxy is a way of life.” How do you choose a way of life?

Our choices do not make us better or worse. The kind of persons we are comes through the patient practice (or neglect) of the spiritual disciplines  in the life of the Spirit. Those who engage in choice as a spiritual discipline only become proficient in shopping. I have found in modern missionary work, that catechumens must often be made to “slow down,” so that their “shopping instincts” can be thwarted. It is good in our present circumstance if someone is allowed to “become” Orthodox rather than to “choose” Orthodoxy.

For many, particularly those who still live largely in the consciousness created by the Modern Project, this talk of “becoming” rather than “choosing” will seem odd or merely semantic. For those who have begun to “become” Orthodox, the distinction will be clear. These words of Christ seem appropriate:

 You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you. (Joh 15:16 NKJ)

Next article  Obedience: Learning not to choose