There is a critique in Orthodox convert circles, especially in what one reads on the Internet, of the “problem” of converting to Orthodox Christianity. Part of the problem, the argument goes, with American culture is its emphasis on conscious choice, that is, consumerism. We are bombarded nearly non-stop by our advertisement culture to make various selections which will be sure to enrich our lives and (most critically) the stock values of corporate shareholders. This mindset finds its way into everything, and religion becomes boutiqued, bourgeois, commercialized, smorgasbordized (if I may).
As such, someone who chooses to become an Orthodox Christian is still really just continuing in his consumer approach to personal life, culture, religion, etc. He may seem to be becoming Orthodox, but because he made a conscious choice to do so, such an act is inherently heterodox and therefore, well, wrong. Ergo, we must conclude that converts really are not truly Orthodox. The norm, you see, is Holy Russia, Imperial Byzantium, etc., where one true religion was the norm, no one made a conscious choice of it, and faith was never commercialized. There may even be some lauding for the compulsory side of this whole business and how much more authentic that really is.
I’ll be quite frank and say that I think that idea is utter garbage.
For one thing, it’s mostly converts who seem to advance this argument, and any argument that necessitates self-loathing is immediately suspect. (And one must ask how these people know what they’re saying to be true, since, by their own definition, they’re not really Orthodox.) But of course I believe the critique has its merits, which is why it seems to have some life and gets repeated every so often. The consumerism of America is a serious problem, and its siren call to put the Almighty Me at the center of everything is indeed a vicious and spiritually debilitating evil. But our problem isn’t the choosing. Our problem is bad choices. My problem is choosing Me.
The norm is not some mythical Holy Nation. The norm, if there is one, is the time of the Apostles, a time where every single Christian made a conscious choice to be one. In the first few generations, relatively few were baptized as infants. Instead, what we see are thousands upon thousands of grown-ups making deliberate choices to become Christians. There was no compulsion to it—indeed, compulsion tended to lead away from the Church. Compulsion was at the hands of the state, which was all too happy to butcher Christ’s followers.
The first Christians lived in a time when there was a lot of religion to choose from. It was pretty normal for most people in the Roman Empire to be poly-religious in one way or another. The notion of One True Faith was something new with Christianity. Monotheism, while on the scene before Christ, really was not a major worldwide force until the Apostles started making it one. So if you were a Gentile, you just picked from plenty of gods, whichever you happened to need for the moment.
But Christ sent the Apostles to call the Gentiles out from that vain world. But one had to answer the call, and in answering that call, converts made a deliberate, conscious choice. I really dare any of these self-loathers to tell me that people like the Apostles and those they converted from among both the Jews and the Gentiles were really not authentically Orthodox because they made a choice to become Christian.
A man who is a philanderer who gets married and settles down is not engaging in more philandering by virtue of choosing one woman to be his wife. He is leaving that life behind, choosing one woman to the exclusion of all others and continually making the conscious, daily choice to remain faithful to her.
Where this self-loathing argument fails is that it assumes we are meant for slavery and that freedom is the real problem. But Christ doesn’t call us to slavery, but to freedom. And in that freedom, we freely choose union with Him. And we have to keep choosing it. Faithfulness is not something one is born into.
Nor is the true Christian life authenticated by virtue of having no will of one’s own. Indeed, this is a kind of monothelitism, in which the will of God so swallows up the human will that the latter is utterly erased. But the Christian, like Christ, is to have a human will in obedience to the divine will. Even the monastic who “renounces” his will does not become an automaton. He still exercises his will to be obedient to his monastic superior.
If this claim regarding the inauthenticity of converts’ Orthodoxy may be likened to a kind of Calvinism, another distortion of Orthodox Christian spirituality is like a sort of semi-Calvinism common to Evangelicals. Many Evangelicals believe in “once saved, always saved,” that your will is operative in choosing Christ, but it immediately becomes inoperative ever after. In the “Orthodox” variant on this doctrine, which a friend of mine calls the “blessing culture,” you are permitted to choose to become Orthodox. But everything you do after that has to have a “blessing” from your “spiritual father,” who is probably your poor parish priest, who now finds himself responsible not only for hearing your confession and giving you spiritual advice, but also must weigh in on what job you will take, whether you will buy a new car, etc. And you must never do anything at all without his direct permission.
Again, this is a form of slavery, and it is not worth the dignity of man. God did not create us to hand over all responsibility for our lives to another person, to turn off our minds. The authentic Christian is not the lobotomized man, but the man whose mind has been transformed by renewal. Again, even a monastic who is obedient to his superior makes the choice to stay in the monastery and to keep on keepin’ on.
Be a man, I say (with no apologies to the women, who know what I mean)! Your life is yours. You can use your will to choose Christ, to choose holiness, to choose to dive into the great depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God. Or you can choose to live hellishly. He’s calling you. Are you listening? Will you respond?
You gotta choose.