I have written in numerous posts about various aspects of conversion to the Orthodox Christian faith. Oftentimes there is an unspoken agreement between myself as writer and those who read in which we assume that we understand each other – that when I say “conversion” we all know what I mean.
On reflection there are several very distinct kinds of conversions – though each has a relationship to the other.
There is a conversion that simply refers to leaving a Christian Church that is not Orthodox and being received into the Orthodox Church. Essentially, the questions that surround this conversion are ecclesiological – largely concerned with the Church, its nature and its history. It may very well be the case that the whole story of such a conversion includes coming to understand Christ or certain doctrines concerning Him in a new way. Part of the formal process of receiving the non-Orthodox into the Church may include the specific renunciations of certain heresies. It is certainly a matter of asking, “What is the truth,” but the range of that question may be somewhat narrowly defined.
There is also a conversion that would apply to any reader that I might have – whether Orthodox or not – and that is the question of our on-going conversion in relation to the Truth of Christ Himself. I am certain that should my life continue beyond this moment – I want it to go deeper into Christ than I am at this moment. I want it to be freer of sin than I am at this moment. I want to know God and be united with Him far more fully than I am at this moment. That conversion, by God’s mercy, should not stop until we stop. As one of the desert fathers said, “Prayer is struggle to a man’s dying breath.”
And then there is the larger question (or it seems larger to me somehow) of conversion to belief in Christ for someone who does not profess to be a Christian. This, it seems to me, is a very large question – one that has captured my heart repeatedly over the years.
I grew up in a city that was very well acquainted with American Christian fundamentalism (of the modern, Protestant variety). It is the home of Bob Jones University, which generally makes Liberty University (Jerry Falwell’s creation) seem like a bastion of liberalism. I can recall frequently seeing pamphlets attacking Billy Graham (for his ecumenism) during my childhood. Street preaching was alive and well, though for some reason it seems to have declined in recent years. As a teenager in the late 60’s, wearing long hair, I was a walking target for street evangelists. Somehow I have never considered St. Paul’s admonition in I Corinthians (11:14) to be a great introduction for an evangelist. My long hair was probably as much a political statement as anything – and the street preacher’s recitation of Corinthians was equally political. He should have just called me a communist and gotten it over with…
I was much more impressed by the first “Jesus freak” I met. I was working in what was popularly known as a “head shop” (merchandising for hippies) when this guy from the West coast came in. I don’t think the term “Jesus freak” had been coined as yet by the media but that’s what he was. His question to me, after looking around at some of the merchandise was, “Do you know Jesus?”
Somehow the question did not seem like an insult. (“If you were to die tonight do you know where you’d go?” – that was a common leading question and always seemed to presume that I was going to hell). My response to this visitor to the shop was, “Yes, I do.” And then we had a friendly Christian conversation – not very churchy – just friendly.
As years have gone by, the question seems to me to have stood up as genuine and important. “Do you know Jesus?”
The other questions that I grew up with, I have come to understand, were largely driven by a legal metaphor and were largely trying establish a relationship with God on that basis. Thus, asking for your legal standing with God seemed entirely proper.
The other question, that of knowing Jesus, presumes a more “mystical” basis, if I can use the term for a few moments. It presumes relationship, but does not necessarily carry any legal baggage. The metaphor can be that of knowing in a more participatory sense – which is far more at home in the language and theology of Orthodox Christianity.
Of course, asking someone if they know Jesus, and telling someone how they can know Jesus, particularly in the manner in which the word to know is used in the Gospel of John, for instance, are two very different things. My experience over the years has been that there is never a simple formula for how you can know Jesus. It is not at all the same thing as an experiential version of the Four Spiritual Laws. As I think of my own story and those of many others that I have known, the answer to the question of how can be very varied.
And yet there are common elements – elements which have a grounding in the gospels themselves. One such grounding that quickly comes to mind is Christ’s statement: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32). Most often the end of that statement is quoted out of context. The entire statement makes knowledge of the truth contingent upon “continuing in my word.” Later in the same gospel Christ says much the same thing: “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (John 14:21). The “continue in his word” is the same as “keep my commandments.”
Matthew the Poor, the contemporary Egyptian monk, made the point in one of his books that taking a single commandment and keeping it with all the heart would take you into the kingdom of God. It sounds true to me. Thus if someone is seeking to know Christ a place to begin might include several things: prayer (seek, ask, knock), reading the gospels (they are a “verbal icon” of Christ), and keeping His commandments. If someone is in a quandary as to which of the commandments – obvious places to start are to “remember the poor” or to “forgive an enemy.” “Do good to those who dispitefully use you,” etc. Prayer and almsgiving are almost always paired in Scripture and in the writings of the Fathers.
One of the difficulties of reason and almost any mental activity is that taken alone they almost always become circular. I liken them to a “dog chasing his tail.” Every argument for something can be countered with an argument against. Every thought can be followed by another or derailed by yet another. It is the action that accompanies the thought, the reason, the prayer, that tend to nail things down and bring an impetus to our words. Thus it is that Christ tells us to keep His commandments if we are to know Him.
In my late teen years – post high school and pre-college, I chose to go to work rather than be a student. It was a detour that lasted two years. For a good portion of that time I lived with another Christian friend and then with a lot of Christian friends. What happened began with myself and my friend. After prayers one day, we decided that we should keep Christ’s commandment to give things away and follow Him. In all the zeal of youth we took the commandment as literally as we could manage. I think we each kept one change of clothes. The rest of what we had (which I have to admit wasn’t much) we gave away. As the months went by we continued to practice this commandment and eventually ended up living in a communal fashion with about 20 or so other Christians. Things changed – we were under no vows. A time came and I entered college and moved out. But the experience of prayer, coupled with action was deeply beneficial. There were things that became a part of me then that have never left me. Indeed, it was this same Christian friend with whom I began that effort who first gave me a book about Orthodox Christianity, Vladimir Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. It is not the book I recommend as a first read for others – but it planted a seed that never left me and eventually bore fruit (25 years later).
“Do you know Jesus?” It is still a very good question – and the answer can be pressed as far as the heart will bear.