My childhood was surrounded with very committed Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians. Street preaching was quite common and even expected. In the downtown, the bus stopped in front of the Dollar Store before it made its trip to the Southside where I lived. Those waiting for buses were a captive audience. Saturdays especially brought bright young men with floppy Bibles and crew-cuts. They were largely students from Bob Jones University. They expounded a version of the gospel, often punctuated with the question, “If you died tonight, do you know where you would go?” I never liked it.
In my late teen years, I became a Jesus freak, at least, that’s what Time Magazine called us. We looked like hippies (long hair, jeans, beads), but we were into Jesus rather than drugs. And we did our own street work. Not unlike the friendly approach of panhandlers in the park (“Hey, man. Got any spare change?”), our question to the unsaved was kind, “Do you know Jesus?” When everything was said and done, the methods of salvation would have been the same – admitting you’re a sinner, professing faith in Jesus Christ and asking Him to enter your heart. That’s just how it was done.
I have never lost sight of that question and think it was indeed the right way to describe the human problem. I have long ago abandoned the assumptions behind the Evangelicalism that fed the question, however. The question has matured. It is still, “Do you know Jesus?” But it also asks, “Which Jesus do you know?” as well as “How did you come to know Him?”
Speaking about knowing is almost impossible. But “knowing” itself is not. For example, most adults know how to ride a bicycle. It is actually an amazing feat, requiring careful balance. But if anyone asked you “how” to ride a bicycle, you would be without words. There are simply not words for that sort of thing.
Knowing God is much closer to knowing how to ride a bicycle than it is to knowing the multiplication table. God is not a fact – but neither is riding a bicycle. The insight of Orthodox Christianity, derived from Scripture and the Traditioned-life of the Church, is that we know God through communion with Him. Christ’s words to His Father are filled with reference to this communion:
Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me. And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them. (John 17:24-26)
But how do we have this communion? Frankly, it is also similar to how we know how to ride a bicycle. We learn to ride by riding. I well recall my older brother running along behind my bicycle, holding me up, then telling me he was holding me up (after he had quit!). We ride with help, and then we fall. We get up and ride again and do this until we know how. We can do it because it is a knowledge for which we were created. It is the kind of thing we can know.
We were created for communion with God. And though many “facts” about God, and the depths of theological reasoning, are beyond the grasp of many, actually knowing God is possible to all.
Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. (1Jo 2:3-4)
Knowing God involves doing something. Keeping the commandments of Christ is paramount. But so is prayer and fasting, generosity to the poor, and learning how to repent.
Perhaps the most awkward thing about Orthodox Christianity for an outsider is how much stuff we do. We do not go into Church, find a seat, and wait passively for the service to begin (though that temptation is always present – everywhere). But normatively, we enter the Church, light candles and say prayers before the icons, etc. The “etiquette” of all of this can be extremely off-putting for a visitor. No one likes to be anywhere and not know what to do – much less, not know what it means or if it’s the sort of thing they are allowed to do, or if they are certain that they believe in doing it!
But this is the ancient instinct of our faith. The things we do help us learn what we must know, particularly God Himself. And this is actually how we know almost everything in our lives. Riding bicycles, driving cars, writing words, typing, reading, eating a lobster, dancing, making love, and the whole panoply of our lives is learned by doing. Thinking about most things can be done, but no amount of thinking will ever teach them.
A great mistake was made at a certain point in Christianity. That point was the reduction of the faith to a set of facts. Preaching was elevated to first place. Congregations became audiences and worship became lectures. Over time, sheer boredom and Christian competition have modified the utterly tedious character of lecture-style Christianity. At present, our entertainment-based culture is now populated with entertainment-oriented Churches.
I tell inquirers and catechumens in my parish to expect to be bored in Orthodox worship. It has no intention or expectation of entertaining them. What takes place is an offering to God. But if they will engage in the opportunities it offers and “do the service,” then, over time, they will come to know God in an Orthodox manner, which is to say, as He has traditionally made Himself known in the Christian faith. We will also learn that being entertained is not terribly important. The virtues learned in that exercise will also help in keeping the commandments. The “virtues” (which are actually vices) nurtured through entertainment make keeping the commandments ever that much harder and it shows in our culture.
No Christian can keep the commandments of Christ (and thus know Him) if their primary concern is the comfort of themselves and everyone around them. The error put forward in modern religious revival movements (1st and 2nd Great Awakenings and later) has been the knowledge of Christ as a sudden experience acquired by choice or decision. I am not at all certain what is acquired in such an event, but it is not the knowledge of Christ as described in the New Testament. What is gained in such actions can be understood in emotional terms, or in terms of loyalty, but it is not the saving knowledge promised by Christ.
The early Church required converts to undergo a period of preparation, often lasting for three years, before receiving Baptism. This was not an extended period of information gathering leading to a decision. It was a period of teaching and formation through certain practices of the faith that culminated in Baptism, Chrismation and full participation in the Eucharistic life of the Church. Converts were first taught to keep the commandments and then given what the Church described as “illumination,” i.e. Baptism.
Much of modern decisional Christianity supports its model by a careful selection of Scriptures, particularly from the Book of Acts, to invent a modernized version of Christian initiation. Acts serves a particular purpose in describing the successive missions of St. Paul. However, it is not a “how-to” guide to Christian initiation. The “born-again” process so common in Evangelical circles is an 18th-century Protestant invention that was resisted by the mainline Protestant Churches at the time. Its worldwide success is a testament to its marketability, but not to its theological pedigree or reality.
I do not mean to suggest that those who cite the “born-again” experience do not know God. But if they have come to know Christ in their lives, then it will have been through keeping the commandments and the slow, patient practice of the faith.
In Orthodox practice, candidates for Holy Baptism are asked, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” The question is put to them three times. The response is, “I do unite myself to Christ.” In Baptism, they receive Holy Illumination (the light of Christ). But the One Who is birthed in them makes Himself known in the slow, patient work of the Christian life. It is how we learn everything else in our life. It is how the Creator created us. It is how His Church teaches us to know the Lord.