There is a deep nagging sense in our culture of the “need to know.” We want to know government secrets, intimate details of private lives, pretty much everything. I think this felt need is often present because we lack trust in those who are keeping secrets. We want to know what they’re up to. The secrets of other lives, however, are interesting to us, primarily out of envy and a strange curiosity. But there is another strong sense of the “need to know” that is religious in nature. It is an artifact of our Protestant heritage. The Reformation created an ethic of suspicion. All religious claims were subjected to careful critiques and the demand for an authoritative source. Confidence required a text.
This becomes a problem for many converts to the Orthodox faith and for many Orthodox who have grown up in a culture that was shaped in a Protestant milieu. Much of the Orthodox life has no Scriptural “proof.” Make no mistake, Orthodoxy is suffused with Scripture, but it is also filled with things for which Protestants will draw a blank. The details in the life of the Virgin Mary, most of which are marked by various feast days, have very little Scriptural reference. They often have Biblical “types” in the Old Testament (passages that are interpreted as pointing to them), but typology is beyond the pale of Protestant sensibility. What is a poor convert (like me) to do?
For one, you begin by examining the assumptions behind the “need to know.” There is a democratization of authority within Protestant thought. Each person seeks to verify for himself what will be believed or accepted. With this comes a breakdown of authority and a shattering of spiritual relationships. The community inherently undergoes a fragmentation. What you yourself accept may not satisfy your neighbor. The ethic of suspicion infiltrates everything. As a result, contemporary Christianity is stripped bare of many traditional elements. Rock ‘n Roll in Church seems normal, while incense demands Scriptural proof.
But the entire democratization of knowledge is a false consciousness. There are any number of activities that all people engage in that involve a tradition, most often not recognized by the participants. The simple act of attending a movie in a theater involves actions and decisions that we know through our participation in a cultural tradition. We understand how to line up for tickets and wait our turn (something that is not as obvious as one might think). We understand making our way into the theater and how to find a seat. Those who ignore the social rules that are commonly practiced are seen as disruptive. No one is sorry to see them removed. And only the most alien stranger would need to ask for directions or help.
Such a mundane thing may seem obvious to us – but it is nothing of the sort. I recall a Romanian friend who told me of his first visit to an American Protestant Church. He had never been to anything other than an Orthodox Church. He said (with amazement), “Their narthex looked like the foyer of a hotel!” He understood, to a small degree that he was to follow others making their way into the “sanctuary,” and managed to find a seat. But he was greatly disturbed. He saw no altar, no icons, nothing that indicated for him that he was in a Church. He had something of the same experience for the entire Sunday. “Why do they do that?” he asked.
The same question is asked, of course, by a Protestant after his first visit to an Orthodox Church – only the customs are far more complex and perplexing.
My point is that we do many things without “thinking” or having a “reason.” In an Orthodox Church, you’ll see parents helping a child learn to kiss the icons and to light a candle (children love lighting candles in Church!). Within their pre-school years they will have learned how to attend an Orthodox service and they will never forget. Of course, when a Protestant friend asks, “Why do you do that?” they may have no answer. And though this may seem sad from the standpoint of an outsider, it is no different than a Protestant not knowing why he sits when someone prays (the Orthodox would never do this).
Many things that arouse questions are simply explained as a matter of origin. Why do the Orthodox kiss icons? Because Orthodox Christian practices evolved in the Mediterranean. And those practices were exported and became a hallmark of Christian cultures across the world.
The point is that life is not lived “by the book.” There is no proof-text for breathing. And the bulk of the Christian life is and should be as natural as breathing. But there are texts that matter and doctrines that are believed. If those doctrines are to be lived, however, then they must move from the realm of idea and proof-text to living expression. And this is the true explanation for “why the Orthodox do what they do.”
Celebrating events in the life of the Virgin Mary is what belief in Christ’s Incarnation looks like. It is not the only thing that expresses such a belief. But if such a belief is real and true and accepted in the fullness of its meaning, then venerating the woman by and through whom that most singular of all events occurred, is perfectly natural. What is not natural is the willful disrespect (and lack of respect) of the Mother of God that marks most of contemporary Christianity. It is difficult to see anything in contemporary Christian expression that indicates belief in the Incarnation. An anthropologist might suggest that contemporary Christianity believes in the primacy of entertainment.
Human culture is not chaos. Despite everything, it tends towards order. We want to know what to do and how to behave. And though we are not creatures of habit, the most common activities are done repeatedly and in a repetitive manner. We do not want to think about how to sit in a chair every time the occasion arises.
Orthodoxy is a complex practice of very normal, human actions. Kissing, bowing, lighting candles, making the sign of the Cross are not exotic. What seems strange is the assembly of persons as an audience and engaging in no discernible actions that seem remotely religious. Doubtless, religious thoughts are occurring, jumbled together with all of the other thoughts that mark human consciousness. But the same behaviors could be seen at a sporting event or a movie. The anthropologist might be right.
The obvious question to ask is, “What difference does all this make?” The answer is simple. Cultures and civilizations are constructed from the artifacts of human behavior. They are not natural events that occur on their own. To travel through Western Europe is to travel through the remains of a civilization now passed. It’s Cathedrals, place names, calendar details, and foods can still be found, though most people will have no idea of their origin.
To travel through the United States is largely to wonder if Christianity ever had a place here. Church buildings remain, though many cannot be clearly identified as such. The collapse of Christendom and the rise of secularism has caused hardly a ripple on the practices of the average American citizen. We live as though there were no God.
We have inherited a deep need to know. But in terms of religion, there is very little left to be known. Secularism is a Christian invention. It is surprising that some are just now noticing that they don’t like it.