Catholic philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue), has presented perhaps the most cogent account of our modern cultural landscape. It is not an account of how one set of ideas gave way to another set of ideas, but how a once-upon-a-time consensus gave way to our current collection of competing truth-claims and world-views. Indeed, he demonstrates (Whose Justice, Which Rationality) that our present confusion is not primarily represented by competing groups and sub-groups, but within most individuals. A person, in the course of a single argument, will likely cite any number of disparate and mutually-contradicting propositions. This is not simply the plight of the uneducated – it is a pattern that MacIntyre demonstrates occurs even in the most carefully crafted statements, such as a Supreme Court decision. This lack of consensus is perhaps the greatest hallmark of our age.
We disagree. In truth, we not only disagree about conclusions, we disagree about the facts, about how the facts are to be considered, what, indeed, constitutes a fact, what constitutes considering, and so on. We are a fragmented society whose fragmentation is becoming a major spiritual force in the lives of its people.
We do not want to disagree. Despite the fact that we do it so often, even constantly, we find it exhausting and unpleasant. This fact heightens the importance of affinity groups in our culture. We want people around us with whom we share a common vocabulary and enough general agreement that we can find rest from the constant social warfare. Of course, this does not mean that we find groups of people who have abandoned the mutually contradictory inner world of MacIntyre’s description. We rather find people who share an affinity for the same contradictions.
This situation is not normal within the span of human history. Most cultures have shared a broad consensus of the most basic assumptions about the world. A common narrative, common values, common perspective are only to be expected. Our own society is a successor to such a culture of consensus. The sacramental world of the Middle Ages in the West, is the foundation of pretty much all modern thought. It has not disappeared, but as multiple narratives and critiques began to take their place beside it, the consensus has eroded. However, none of the positions we find in our culture can be rightly understood without seeing in them an argument with what came before. Cultures are not created out of whole cloth.
The darker side of our fragmentation can be seen in the many varieties of attempts to assert some form of control. Whether it is political correctness on a college campus (or workplace), or simply trolling and bullying on social media, sheer assertion of the will is substituted for reason, conversation and persuasion. The last form of consensus that remains in a culture is the agreement that gives way to violence. The loudest, meanest, most legal, etc., assert their will over others as a means of silencing them, and in the forced silence, declare victory.
Christianity has, at certain points in time, been a form of consensus within cultures. At the healthiest of those moments, it has been a true consensus (con-sensus, a common mind). St. Paul urges us:
Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom 15:5-6)
Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. (1Co 1:10)
Finally, brethren, farewell. Become complete. Be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. (2Co 13:11)
…so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of your affairs, that you stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel, (Phi 1:27)
…fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. (Phi 2:2)
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, (Phi 2:5)
Being of “one mind” (consensus) is clearly considered normative in the life of the Church. To a fairly large extent, it has been historically true as well. The fragmentation of the modern mind (even within itself) is just that – modern. Of course, a new consensus has been suggested: that we all agree that not agreeing is normal. Stanley Hauerwas places this at the very heart of the meaning of modernity:
By modernity, I mean the project to create social orders that would make it possible for each person living in such orders “to have no story except the story they choose when they have no story.” Wilderness Wanderings, 26
This is proving to be the most destructive aspect of the modern world. “To have a story” requires that someone else consent to the story – we do not live alone (even when we pretend that is our story). The only means of generating a consensus that has no basis other than “the story I choose,” is coercion. The social cohesion of consensus is being replaced by various versions of coerced agreement. We are angry.
This is not a game Christians can win, nor is it a game Christians should want to play. The Christian witness is not to a story we choose. Our witness is to things as they truly are. We truly were created out of nothing. We truly are sustained in our very existence by God Himself. Christ truly is God-made-man. He was truly crucified for our sake and truly rose from the dead. None of this is a story that we have chosen. It is the true story we have received (1 Cor. 15:3).
The fundamental orientation of our spiritual life is towards tradition (that which we have received). It is not towards what we choose. The world is not our own creation – it has been given to us. The reality of creation and God’s action within it is our strong argument. Even in our silence the eloquence of that reality speaks unhindered by the false stories of our voluntary modernism. More than this, we live among fellow human beings who, regardless of false choices, are created the same as ourselves and share the same reality whether they acknowledge it or not. It is madness of a sort to live in one reality and yet seek to coerce another. God does not coerce – He woos.
The Christian faith is apocalyptic. It reveals that which is hidden. The Church is the revelation of reality (or it is nothing). To live its life is to live as a revelation of that which is. All of creation agrees with that revelation and utters its yearning “Amen.” If the Church were silent, the rocks themselves would speak their agreement.
You cannot create consensus – it is the gift of God. The Christian vocation is to receive the gift and to live in a gifted existence. This restores us to sanity and unites us with the God who is the only ground of reality – the “author of our being and our God.”
Timely post considering that today is the first presidential debate. I wish our politicians would consign to reality. Only in a non-fallen world.
The politicians are reflections of who we have become. People should take a cold, hard look at themselves. This is what fragmentation looks like. They are not opposing arguments. They are both a mass of inner-contradictions. As such, argumentation has been replaced with the will to power. And that’s all we will see. Two opposing wills.
Yes. This is true. When we choose our politicians, they become reflections of who we have become. We forget that it is God who chooses our nation’s leaders. I have been reading St Ephrem’s hymns and in the ones where he talks about Julian the Apostate, I am reminded that the one whom actually is in control of everything is God. Julian’s reign was short because God had intended to bring him down eventually.
Likewise, with Nebuchadnezzar who was warned he would have to eat the grass like a wild beast. What we have done to ourselves is we’ve forgotten we are created in the image of God. That it is God who gives us life.
I haven’t even read your words yet. I’m still captivated by the photo:
1. What was the occasion?
2. Do they actually have their heads in the sand?
Now I have read the words. Two things came to mind:
1. The “Un-man” in Perelandra arguing against Ransom, how he continually manipulated and twisted the words so craftily. It became apparent to me at some point that the Un-man had no actual beliefs himself, only the desire to destroy his opponent’s beliefs.
2. You said, “We do not want to disagree. Despite the fact that we do it so often, even constantly, we find it exhausting and unpleasant. ”
I was reminded of situations on the tip of my mental tongue that I have seen both in fiction and in real life where people are bound to do something that could from a distance seem to be driven by their own will – and yet upon closer inspection can be seen to be actually against it.
In fact addiction comes to mind. The gambler who knows he’s going to lose when he suddenly comes up against his better but just can’t stop placing bets. The alcoholic is an easy one.
This pastime of contradiction seems to be just that. And its attraction lies in the usual influences:
–Everyone else is doing it.
–It difficult to relate to those around you unless you engage in the sport.
–There’s not much else to do (or that’s the impression we’re given).
My amateur theory is that the evil one has largely trained us to stop doing things worth doing, with the aim that our lives are stunted and put on hold until death takes us. We’re once again being filled with “styrofoam pellet” activities that mean and achieve nothing until we finally starve to death.
Having real conversations are easy to avoid because…
–They humble us and make us vulnerable.
–Nobody around us is having them.
–We’ve frankly forgotten what they even sound like.
More and more I am struggling with pressing out the Orthodox discipline of “nepsis” or “wakefulness.” It is the willingness to “wake up” from delusion and obey reality that is at the heart of my spiritual struggle. Reality as opposed to delusion – this is my fight.
Drewster, yes. It’s a photo from Australia, I think, protesting against Climate Change Denial. But it says a lot about something that you can get that many people to stick their heads in the sand to make a point. It’s easier than discussion.
The enemy is only using what we give him. He doesn’t give a fig what your position on anything is, as long as you hold it by your passions. I’m watching Orthodox lose their souls through a passionate approach to Orthodoxy. If there is not peace in it, then beware.
“The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” James 1:20
What you said rings so true!! I love it!!!
(grin) just kidding to emphasize your point
No, I totally agree with you. Once again though this truth is very anticlimactic. We want so strongly to FEEL the truth – no matter how wrong it is – that we are willing to swallow about anything. Because anything is better than cold, hard, boring, ordinary reality.
Now you may be quick to point out that true reality is actually anything but boring. In fact it’s more vivid and satisfying than any fiction. Yes…but not at first. At first there is a period of detox. In fact it seems to be a cycle:
–deflation, depression (purification)
–emptiness followed by understanding (illumination)
–love and acceptance of the truth (union)
And the act of not holding the truth by your passions is also made more difficult by the fact that it’s not your position anymore; it’s simply the truth, no matter how you feel about it. This means you no longer control it (you at least had the illusion of control before, though it went unspoken). This leads to a lack of impetus because we’re used to driving something, putting our life force behind it, playing a savior role for it.
It’s deflating to have the revelation that you play no role in ruling the world – or even making it a better place. The deflation is good and necessary, but it makes this route a hard-sell for those used to being pandered to.
How do you believe the faithful can healthily live a life that responds to the Truth recieved communally in a way that is also particular to each of us?
I see many, whether believers, atheists, or “nones”, giving in to a “My Story” narrative because our society provides little to no picture of the robustness of community lived in Paul’s vision. They see unity and think uniformity.
I’ve actually been thinking about and wrestling with the topic of obedience for a long time. I think what you speak of can roughly equate to what we used to call “listening to your conscience”. It’s broader than that, but it’s a start.
Delusion is waking up in the morning and waiting until you feel like it to start the day, i.e. give me my hot shower, cup of coffee, good breakfast, etc. and THEN I’ll gladly get going.
Obedience is waking up in the morning and doing what’s on the schedule – no matter if the comforts and stimulants are present or not. Obedience doesn’t preclude the practice of a nice cup of coffee, but it doesn’t depend on it either. It continues to abide by the truth it knows whether the coffee is there or not.
For me this is where the true lying down on my cross and dying on it occurs. There is no burning house to rush in and save someone from, just a morning to start where no one will cheer for me if I do the right thing. God have mercy.
Your posts are always challenging and enlightening!!! Thank you!!!
One of the most important realizations for me is to begin to see the problems in my life as not ‘out there’ but ‘in here, in me’. At the heart of my own journey, and perhaps the journey of many of us in this time/place is overcoming pride. Your quote below
‘By modernity, I mean the project to create social orders that would make it possible for each person living in such orders “to have no story except the story they choose when they have no story.” Wilderness Wanderings, 26′
accurately captures this pride and the seductive power of how our culture (and I) have repositioned self centeredness from a fundamental delusion into a redeeming virtuous act of freedom and self determination.
As you know, there are many, many quotes in the Psalms which could be used to capture this pride and its commonality with those who have come before us:
“He opened a pit and dug it, and he shall fall into the hole which he hath made” (Psalm7)
“Our tongue will we magnify, our lips are our own. Who is Lord over us?’ (Psalm 11)
“For Thou wilt save a humble people, and Thou wilt humble the eyes of the arrogant” (Psalm 17)
“Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we will call upon the name of the Lord our God” (Psalm 19)
Solomon’s timeless words in Ecclesiastes seem a proper compliment to your message of returning to the Gift and the Giver of Life as we let go of the mistaken belief that we are spiritually in anything other than a very well trodden pit of destruction and prideful separation from God:
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be among those who come after.
Much love in Christ
A timely post and one well worth considering in all its implications. This inner anger that Christians can develop over others beliefs is a warning horn. Some of the many things that attracted me to Orthodoxy were the consensus of belief, the lack of conflict between the Faithful over doctrines and the deep and abiding peace I found within when I was exposed to the truth. I am still stomping out contradictions within my own learned beliefs from the past, but I find the path easier when this is done in obedience to the Church and its consensus of belief.
It is frustrating when well-meaning, well-intentioned (Protestant/RC) Christians pick and choose from the practices of Orthodoxy in an attempt to regain ground lost to modernity. At best they neither understand that Orthodoxy is of a whole cloth (or it becomes just one competing idea among many) nor do they see the contradictions in their thinking. At worst it is outright thievery, done perhaps in ignorance, but reaping the poor fruits of theft nonetheless. When I hear them say “I’ve read the ancient texts in Greek” – and then proceed to raid the Orthodox treasury, I hold on to my seat, because though they “speak with the tongues of angels and men” they have no love of Truth. Truth requires obedience and acceptance of what we have been given. Lord have mercy on them and especially on me as I continue to work among them.
“I’m watching Orthodox lose their souls through a passionate approach to Orthodoxy.”
Father, could you say a bit more about that?
The Orthodox faith should be held in an Orthodox manner in order to work for our salvation. Some feel deeply that they must “defend” Orthodoxy, and are easily distracted by the sins of others. If the sins of others make you angry, there is already a problem. The Orthodox way is through prayer, fasting, abstinence, generosity (alms-giving), repentance (the bearing of shame in confession), and the right use of the sacraments. It is easy to make of Orthodoxy just another human ideology that you advocate and defend like any other set of opinions. If you hold Orthodoxy in the manner of an opinion, it will only work for your condemnation. If someone’s Orthodoxy is not demonstrably the crucifixion of the self, then it is working for condemnation.
Since God is God, we don’t have to be Him.
I am a priest. Sometimes I fall into a disagreement with another priest. There is, thankfully, a fairly strict code of conduct between priests. There is always the assumption that you might be mistaken in your judgment of another, and, even then, an approach that is deeply respectful and meek. I’ve seen this violated, but I’ve most often seen it observed. If laity would observe this towards one another (and towards priests) and even towards the heterodox, they would accomplish a great deal more.
When I started this blog in 2006, one of my reasons was because the internet was often quite dangerous for people with questions. Either the answers were wrong, or their own mistakes would get them crucified by others. Orthodoxy, both then and now, has a deservedly bad reputation on the internet. There are major exceptions – but we have some of the meanest trolls on the planet.
As someone who raided the treasures of Orthodoxy for many years – I hear your words with regret for my past. It became increasingly clear to me, over the years, that cherry-picking was fruitless. May God help all the pickers out there!
Fr Stephen / Joy – yes, I raided Orthodoxy for awhile before converting, but realized ultimately that, when I was taking Orthodox things outside Orthodoxy, I was merely cutting flowers off from their root and removing them from the garden of Orthodoxy. The result was predictable – the plucked flowers will eventually wither in the vase and die. But, in my case, I realized I had to either permanently enter the Garden or quit raiding. Sometimes God uses the raiding to reveal to those outside the need to enter. Temporarily having the flowers sometimes creates a desire for the permanence for which we were formed. I look back with a mix of regret and gratitude – being allowed to raid was the thing that brought a little taste of grace into my extra-Orthodox life, and prompted me to acknowledge the Truth.
Father you have described to a T the Nietzschean vision of the destruction of the consensus, the “Thou Shalt” and the coercive imposition of the will to power. The Nietzschean eschatology produces the Superman whom Christians know as the anti-Christ.
There will indeed be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Lord have mercy.
Speaking of gnashing of teeth, we get a front row seat tonight at a premiere example of the destruction of consensus at the debate. This is promising to be an expose of what we are discussing. I plan to be doing my reading in the OT for the challenge instead of participating in that.
Having encountered my fair share of Internet trolls over the last decade and probably come perilously close in my new convert zeal to actually being one myself on more than one occasion in the cyber sphere, I will be forever grateful for your genuinely Orthodox endeavor on the Internet, Father. It has truly been a spiritual oasis for me. Thank you!
Thanks! There are lots of temptations out there. I am so grateful for the delete button. I have probably deleted more of my own comments than anyone else’s.
Christus Victor Delete Button: You enter someone’s computer and delete and erase all their bad stuff.
Penal Substitutionary Delete Button: Your stuff is not deleted, but we’re going to act like you never said it because, well…
Exemplarist Delete Button: I’ll delete mine so you’ll feel better about deleting yours.
Hindu Delete Button: You get to keep pushing it until you learn not to say those things.
Buddhist Delete Button: Mind your button.
Zen Delete Button: Ham sandwich
You might get some critics of syncretism regarding your last comment Father 🙂
I was feeling whimsical…
These comments make me wonder, as I hadn’t wondered before, would you prefer that those of us who are neither Orthodox nor consciously journeying toward Orthodoxy stop reading your blog, Father? I’m Protestant, currently attending an Episcopal church, so I’m quite far removed from Orthodox obedience or from participating in the work of gardening. And, though I can’t predict what God is going to do with me in a decade, I’m not currently planning to become Orthodox. Is there a way for someone like me to learn from you, or other Orthodox sources, that you would not perceive as cherry-picking in your orchard?
I have been thinking of my time here as a respectful visit to someone else’s garden (what I take away surely doesn’t leave less for anyone else), and things you have written have changed the way I relate to my husband, my daughter, my church, my colleagues, and my students (repentance, willingly bearing a little shame, being silent more, talking myself up less). Again, I cannot say these fruits will never wither outside the Orthodox context, but this year, they have been life-giving. I don’t quote your blog, much less the Philokalia, to others, or talk about “Orthodox theology” as though I know Orthodoxy (that, I *would* consider inappropriate). However, if I’ve been unwittingly engaging in thievery, or even just inconsiderate trespassing, I’d like to know that.
I can’t speak for Fr Stephen but these conversations have happened here in the past. I typically stop reading the comments and focus on more on what Fr Stephen writes on the blog when they go down this route.
This orchard is certainly available for cherry-picking. I certainly encourage everyone towards Orthodoxy – but how, when, or if that is so is beyond me and lies between God and a reader. I “cherry-picked” Orthodoxy for 20 years prior to my conversion, for the simple fact that I found it to be life-giving. In many ways, the very practical questions that resulted in my conversion were deeply agonizing – so much so, that I cannot judge anyone else who might have a different outcome. I had no virtue in my conversion at all – embarrassingly so.
As odd as it may sound, my conversion and the wonderful “fruits” of Orthodoxy that I enjoyed for so many years almost seem like two completely separate things. My conversion was painful, and brought me a protracted period of trial and inner winnowing (it felt like the bulk of my life had been little more than chaff). In time, the fruit returned and became a very different meal on the table.
God is active in every life, everywhere, for its salvation. And that work of salvation is quite deep – beneath the surface of things. The reality of Orthodoxy lies in its sacramental reality, and I would not wish for anyone to be deprived of it. But I also wouldn’t want to portray that reality in terms of which team we belong to. Our lives are so much more complex and deeper than that.
What I am certain of is that God is at work in your life for your salvation. If what you read here is of any help, then I rejoice.
It is all too easy, when the Orthodox speak to each other, to hear a superiority or something that should not be there. Orthodoxy is its own peculiar misery – and anyone who doesn’t understand that has yet to embrace it on its deepest level. I say “peculiar misery” because there is only salvation found in the Cross. Being crucified is a great and peculiar misery. It’s more – ever so much more – but mostly it is misery at first.
I have written about the fragmentation of the modern world. Becoming Orthodox often only increases the sense of fragmentation. It alienates you from many people and things around you. It’s odd. It’s often deeply inconvenient. It is far from perfect and often adds an awareness of ethnic and historical realities that are more annoying than anything else.
Fr. Georges Florovsky once wrote about an Orthodox vocation to experience and gather-up the “crisis” of the Western world into itself. When Orthodox is at its best, in each individual life, it is doing that very thing.
I assure you that I carry your Anglicanism within my heart at all times. It torments me sometimes with a remembrance that only God can reconcile with my present life. I could never live there now, but I cannot live here as though I had not lived there. Life is never so neat and clean.
I urge you, pick and enjoy as you will. And I pray that the fruit will nourish you – and above all – make you continually hungry for paradise.
St. Therese of Lisieux once said that after she died, she wanted to become a “burglar of paradise.” She wanted to “burgle” favors from God and send them to her friends in this world. I rather like St. Therese for many, many reasons. If it is possible to burgle paradise, then surely someone can burgle my blog – even if the fruit here is so little in comparison to the strong reality of paradise itself.
That was well-stated Fr Stephen! I think often times in pride we miss out on how our own wealth of tradition can help lead others even if they may not get it all or at all. It is as St Paul said, “how shall they believe what they have not heard”.
Thank you for your generosity to a grateful burglar 🙂
Father, Yes, being Orthodox even a little bit is all of the things you say: inconvenient, often isolating from the world and a barrier to friends.
But, in spite of all that, maybe because of all that, being in the Church inexorably draws the disparate pieces of my own being into a greater wholeness.
Being stitched together often means the breaking of adhesions left by old scars and wounds. Or even reopening of old scars so that infection can be healed. No matter how often I keep shooting and stabbing myself, falling and injuring myself.
I would be no where else because in the midst of the pain is where both joy and peace seem to lie often in wait.
“There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.”
Hebrews mentions the afflictions that arise after we have been illumined. I keep praying that the afflictions will at least lessen, but that does not seem to be 30 years and counting.
Wow! This is so timely and so helpful. Thankyou Fr. Stephen and God Bless You.
We Orthodox often say “The last thing the thief on the cross stole was Paradise.”
Not everyone – in fact, most people – never realized their need for Christ (or His one true Church). That never stopped Christ from giving, nor does it stop His Orthodox Church. You are prayed for at every Orthodox Liturgy, 24/7/365. As Father Stephen said, “burgle away.” May what you receive bring you closer to Christ and His Church. If the flower withers, come receive another. Without judgment, criticism, or condemnation.
This discussion of raiding flowers reminds me of Saint Euphrosynus the cook (Sep 11). As his monastery’s dish washer and bus boy he was held in low esteem. One godly monk there dearly wanted to behold the joys of Paradise. As he slept one night he was transported to Paradise where he saw Euphrosynus in the garden of Paradise enjoying the fruits there. When he asked the kitchen helper where they were he replied it was the garden of delight where those who know the forgiveness of their sins are granted by God to live. He gave the monk three apples.
When the monk awoke from his sleep at the call to Matins he smelled a delightful scent and found the apples in his cassock. When the monk related to the others what has happened, Euphosynus fled from the monastery to avoid the praise of the monks.
The ‘raiding’ of fruit from God’s garden seems to have been going on for some time. It has been reported that those who enjoy it have been infected with an almost irresistible desire for more.
Blessings to my fellow pilgrim! I love these sorts of stories. They break out of the usual theoretical discussions of doctrine and ascesis and playfully introduce us to the real inner world of the Church. I’m sure there are many out there who think “You can’t burgle paradise!” They have very little fun as Christians. The saints are everything except boring.
All this talk about taking fruit from orchards reminds me of the Christ’s body on the Cross/Tree of Life symbolism in the hymns, but also of trying to reconcile that problematic slogan “no salvation outside the Church” and Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s comments in For The Life Of The World about exiting the Liturgy bringing the Church out into the world for its salvation.
If what’s described here is what is meant by theft, then I think it’s good to treat that one of the ten commandments on the same level as the rule about not eating pork! 🙂
“You can’t burgle Paradise!”
-You can when God bequeaths you the One Ring.
(Then you make it in with nine fingers).
Seriously, is there any OTHER way to attain Paradise than to fling yourself at it with the Pleromicly Kenotic desperation of a burgular?
As someone new to learning about Orthodoxy (I suppose I am a thief…), I appreciate Jessica M.’s question and your response, Fr. Stephen.
I do not know how to understand the variances between the denominations. Yes, I know some of the history, but that doesn’t explain God at work in different places with what often seem like opposing theologies. You did address that in one comment above. I find it confusing, disheartening, and upsetting when one ‘christian’ group disparages another. There are pride and arrogance among every group of Christians I’ve ever met.
We just left a church of reformed leanings. It is a painful thing to leave a community where we participated fully for nearly a decade. This is where God has brought us. Even sadder to me is knowing they would question my mind and heart if they knew I attended an Orthodox Divine Liturgy service (sorry if I have the language incorrect) for the first time last weekend.
At the core, I want to know the Lord better, to worship Him with my whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. I want to see Him where He is working, even if it does not always look right according to a particular set of cultural and theological distinctives. If He is working here, I want to see Him. If that makes me a thief in someone’s eyes, so be it. In my eyes I am a child longing for her Father.
Fr. Stephen, is there a place where you have written the story of your conversion? Of how you saw things prior to that? I would love to read about your path.
I’ve never shared my story in anything like a complete form. Many aspects of it are about deep conflicts in my soul…a process that simply is the excruciating process of salvation. I’ll give a brief sketch.
I think I believed the Orthodox faith to be the truth from the moment I learned of it while a student in college. I was an Anglican and had been taught the “branch theory” of the Church (and believed it). That theory holds that there are “3 branches” of the historical, traditional Catholic Church – the Roman Catholics, the Anglicans, the Orthodox. And I recognized that there were real issues. But the notion holds that these 3 have maintained the Apostolic Succession and true sacraments. It’s actually a 19th century Anglican theory, popular among High Churchmen.
Though I held that belief, when I encountered Orthodoxy (in writing), I knew I was seeing something at a level and a depth that went beyond anything I knew and was, in fact, the authentic thing. That first encounter was reading Vladimir Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. I followed that by reading pretty much everything St. Vladimir’s Press published at the time (which was probably less than a shelf’s worth of books).
I visited the Greek Church but found its all-Greek liturgy and culture to be sort of a looming wall. I concluded then and there that my “Orthodoxy” would have to be lived out in my Anglican branch however I could.
I went to seminary after college, and studied under a theologian who had done his doctoral work under Georges Florovsky, the great Russian theologian, and he directed my reading and encouraged my Orthodox interest. I studied and was ordained and assigned to a Church in SC. There were a lot of things in my young life. A wife, a growing number of kids, a very fast growing parish. It was easy to just do my days and not attend too much to a sort of empty place within myself. I continued to read. I also dabbled in other things – renewal movements, some Jungian nonsense, etc.
I had a personal crisis about 8 years out that concluded with me leaving the parish to pursue a PhD in theology. I went to Duke and began to seriously concentrate on Orthodox theology. It was the only place I had ever found what seemed to be reliable answers within the depths of the Tradition. I never had any intellectual hesitancies about Orthodoxy. Ever.
My life was still not without its own internal crisis. An outcome of that (in a very complicated story) is that I left my residency at Duke and returned to parish life in a parish in Tennessee. I decided to turn my course work into an MA (short of a PhD) and write my thesis. I did that on the topic of the theology of Icons.
At the same time all of that was going on, my inner crisis of faith was doubtlessly growing. During my thesis defense, Stanley Hauerwas, one of my committee members, asked me, “Do you believe the veneration of icons to be necessary to salvation?” I hesitated.
Anglican priests take a solemn oath in their ordination that they “believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to contain all things necessary to salvation.” Hauerwas knew that. It was an amazingly insightful, and deeply personal question (which surprised me in what I had simply expected to be an intellectual event).
My hesitation surprised me. First, I was unable to simply repeat my ordination vow. After a silence, I said, “I know what my ordination vows say, by I believe the veneration of icons to be necessary to its fullness.” It proved to me an existential explosion in my heart.
The next morning, when I woke up, I knelt by my bed and prayed, “Oh God, make me Orthodox.” I meant by that two things: first, I want to become an Orthodox Christian. Second, God was going to have to make me do it…and I was giving Him permission.
That began a period of 7 years in my life of great difficulties. The Russians have a phrase: “Tvoya Dusha.” It means to have “two souls.” I won’t describe all the details of my inner tortures. I knew that I was not who I truly was. I was, in many ways, now living a life that was no longer authentic. I had children to feed, etc. My wife and family and I, after several years of this, were introduced to the OCA, the Orthodox Church in America, which is the jurisdiction to which I now belong. It is the old Russian jurisdiction, but was given its independence from Moscow in 1970, and is probably the most American of all the Orthodox in the US.
Four years before I converted, I met the late Archbishop of Dmitri of Dallas and the South. He was probably a living saint. He welcomed me with deep, paternal love and was very kind and patience with my situation. He always addressed me as “Father Stephen,” and never treated me as anything other than a faithful brother in Christ. I wrote a formal letter to him asking to be received into the Church. It was a very tortuous 4 years before the path of that reception opened up.
My family and I were received in 1998. I think of my conversion as beginning at my Chrismation. The larger part of that work was (and is) the healing of my “tvoya dusha.” The soul is our very life. I can see that my experience of this double soul was probably a theme of my life. Living, getting by, doing what was necessary, pleasing people, trying to succeed, but all the while sheltering this secret within my heart that I was afraid to embrace in its fullness.
The near 19 years of my Orthodox life have not always been smooth. Probably the most profound inner changes have only taken place during the latter part of this period.
Orthodoxy was always like a steady rock in my life from the moment I first encountered it. Everything else was argument and discussion. Orthodoxy was like a large silent place of the presence of God. But a burning Presence – like a refiner’s fire.
That’s kind of the story – at least as it seems to me today. It’s a good thing to be in the Fire. He is a good God and loves mankind.
Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for your kindness in sharing your story with me. I appreciate your honesty with deep struggles of the soul. At times it seems as if I go from one deep soul struggle to the next, with brief periods of respite between…sometimes!
The distance I have to traverse to understand anything of Orthodoxy is a bit longer than yours, from independent Bible churches, both Armenian and reformed, all opposed to high liturgy and tradition (with the exception of the doctrines of grace that reformed people sometimes think they own). The greatest lack I see is a rejection of mystery in these churches. I think that’s what first drew me into learning about Orthodoxy, that and a gentleman who speaks about Christ in ways I long for and find very rare. He is Orthodox.
I am tempted to ask, ‘What should I read?’ It seems as though the best route is to simply seek the Lord and ask Him to guide my steps, however He chooses.
Thank you again. I think your post dredges up more questions for me.
There are many things worth reading, depending on your background. I like the story and explanations in Peter Gilquist’s Becoming Orthodox. Timothy (Met. Kallistos) Ware’s The Orthodox Church is still the best general introduction.
Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for the recommendations!
I’ll say that general information books can be dry, or fail to actually communicate what if probably most important. Often, something off the path of generality captures the ethos of Orthodoxy and can be quite striking. There’s no one book I would point to for such a thing. The Way of a Pilgrim is that for some. The Father Arseny books are another.
For me, when I first read Vladimir Lossky way back in college, it wasn’t nearly so much what he said (I didn’t understand the half of it). It was rather that he was even saying it. He seemed to write and say the very things that I read when I had been reading the early Church fathers. And, I think, that was the thing. It didn’t seem that he was talking about something past, as though he were a historical theologian. He was speaking very much in the present just as they did. And it was the discovery that the actual living faith of the Fathers was actually alive and well that so struck me. And it is very much so.
The worldview of all that, a sacramental world, and its thought world, what some describe as an “ontological” approach to theology and the world, simply spoke to the depth of my heart.
At about the same time, I was with my wife one evening, when the local public radio began to play music of which I had never heard the like and it made me both want to weep and to express ecstatic joy. I thought, “This is the music of heaven!” It was my first hearing of Rachmaninov’s Vespers. We don’t always sing like that, but he utterly captures the content of the Orthodox faith within those musical settings.
So, don’t neglect the music, nor books that are not nearly so much “about” the Orthodox faith, as simply are the Orthodox faith. It was, for me, like discovering there actually was a real Narnia, and aching ever so much to go there. Of course, Narnia is not a utopia. But there is a reason that we dream of it.
God be with you!
Thank you for sharing your story. So many things to comment on but I will just focus on a couple.
I have struggled with how to engage others (both Christian and not) since my conversion. My own inner struggle has sometimes led me to be defensive but I know that is not the right response.
I have often thought of the scripture you mentioned that God’s righteousness is not accomplished by the anger of man and another one in the book of James that talks about the fruits of heavenly wisdom being peace loving and full of mercy.
I agree with you that some of the most angry folks out there are in the Orthodox internet world. It presented a real stumbling block for me in my inquiry and catechumen phase. I finally disengaged from social media save for some helpful blogs, yours very much included.
Thanks for creating and maintaining this space where actual discussion takes place.
If I may, I will add that one of the first books I read, although not the very first, in my journey to Orthodoxy was Frederica Mathewes-Green’s At the Corner of East and Now.
It’s very gentle, even a bit folksy, but also very informative and was a great help to me in my early readings.
And I goofed! I meant to include a link to it:
Fr. Stephen thank you for your response. I had to smile…it never occurred to me that Rachmaninov was Orthodox! And how I love, just love, Dostoevsky. Only recently did I realize how deeply his Orthodoxy permeates his novels.
I did start reading a book by Vigen Guroian, who teaches religious studies in Orthodox Christianity at UVA. I met him last summer and asked if his book, The Melody of Faith: Theology in an Orthodox Key, would be a good introduction. He explained it is less a theology text and more a conversation. I haven’t gotten far yet, but there’s a rhythm and beauty there. It seems to be a book not so much about the faith, but is the faith, as you described.
Byron, thank you your suggestions. I read an article by Frederica Mathewes-Greene about things to know prior to attending an Orthodix service. It was very helpful and I would like to read her book. Thanks for the link.
And to everyone, thank you for making me feel welcome here. I am sure Fr. Stephen’s kindness attracts kindness of others. I pray the Lord’s blessings on you.
Guroian’s Incarnate Love has been his best read for me…and an important one. It has a long story that I’ll relate someday.
Kristen, I will also put in a plug for reading or listening to Met. Anthony (Bloom). Some of his talks can be found in video form online, and his small book, Beginning to Pray, is one of the most helpful on the subject I have ever read. He was ministering around the same time as C.S. Lewis and to a lot of the same audience I suspect (on BBC radio after WWII). He is reminiscent for me of Lewis in his apologia for the Christian faith and life in that he uses everyday words, experiences and images (not Christian or Orthodox jargon) through which to describe spiritual reality from an Orthodox Christian perspective. Beginning to Pray includes an introductory biographical interview with Met. Anthony that describes his background, which is very nice to have, and concludes with a short meditation on the Mother of God. You could also read the whole book in one sitting–it is that short, but if you’re like me you will probably want to linger over some parts and return to others.
Good evening, everyone.
Here we go again, I’ll talk again about my friend, Dostoevsky.
“Fr. Stephen thank you for your response. I had to smile…it never occurred to me that Rachmaninov was Orthodox! And how I love, just love, Dostoevsky. Only recently did I realize how deeply his Orthodoxy permeates his novels.”
Oops, I was just to indicate the old and dear Dostô for you.
I call him Dostô (strangely you would speak ‘Dostow’ or, more accurately, ‘Dosty’) because he is my friend. Yes, he really is my friend, one of my best friends in the world. Dostoevsky is a dear friend, one I love to read, to dive deep within his books, his stories, his long, labyrinthine narratives. Above everything, he knows me, my soul, my sufferings, spiritual crisis and emotional breakdowns. I know him, his issues with his father, his deep reflections about the West cultural decadence, the death Christ continuously have to suffer due to the inhuman rationalist and utopian schemes, plans and engineering projects, his life, his loves, his family, his immense, tender and sweet sadness… we’re friends.
I’m quite fond of saying ‘Brothers Karamazov’ converted me to Orthodoxy, even always knowing the ‘political’ Orthodoxy presented by the saint slavophile Prince Michkin in ‘The Idiot’ was quite charming. But that is to fall short from the truth. I converted when I saw myself crying to my knees, reading Fr. Zossima (don’t know how is his name in an English transliteration, I’ve read all his books in Portuguese translations, which made them closer to me than usual Orthodox theology) story about his brother, and his last moments and death.
It took time and a little reading of Bakhtin to actually understand what Dostô really was about. I never could understand completely, only that his books are deeply Christian and essentially Orthodox not because he’s talking about Russia, startzi, monasticism, Westernizing criticism, Orthodox doctrine. In fact, there’s very little ‘Orthodox stuff’ in his books. Christ lives in his books, just like He lived in his heart. He lives there and speaks, through his disciple, to all the readers.
Who has ears to hear these News?
But Christ is there, not as a doctrine, not as criticism, not even as a God. Christ is there as an Eternal Dialogue, a deep and revealing conversation, the Orthodox Church in-process, ascension of the heart discovering its christness, its loving being. A true meeting in the infinity. It’s been around 5 years… and I never ceased to meet him in the infinity. In Christ.
Christ is among us!
I’ve had a question on my mind about the post-modern times we live in. There are the Postmodern Christians, such as John D. Caputo’s Weak Theology and ideas of the Emerging Church. I am wondering how we should respond to these ideas that are influenced by the philosophical schools of post-modernism and whether or not they point to anything that we already affirm.
I’ve not made a study of those identifying as “post modern” Christians, such as Emerging Church, etc. To me, they are only one of the recent permutations of a disintegrating Protestantism (it has been disintegrating since its inception). There’s always something “new,” etc. Somehow, it’s never about true repentance and returning to the obedience of the life handed down to us in Christ.
You cannot invent (or re-invent) your own salvation.
You could say that post-modernism can be defined as the philosophy of desintegration.
Nicholas, Father, Caio
I go to one of these “Emerging” or “missional” Protestant churches (were it up to me, I wouldn’t, but that’s a long story), and I will say that it is a mixed bag. I can only speak from my experience, since I think they are all very different. But the people in my church and I think other of these so-called emerging churches, generally are aware of the poverty of the Protestant theological tradition and eschew it to some degree. We are also aware of the riches of the ancient church, but are not willing to submit to the Tradition itself; thus it remains nothing more than an “influence” at best, and at worst cherry-picked to form a part of the mish-mash of traditions that are put in service to some idiosyncratic spirituality. We want to make peace with post-modernism, but I think we are not really aware of the degree to which post-modernity sets the table in terms of assumptions. There is something like Caputo’s account in the background… the “event” of God must always be liberated from the various historical names which have been given to it, which leads to a state almost of perpetual revolution.
The good is that my church leaders have good instincts about relationships, and the value of actual, concrete relationships, which is quite helpful in a number of ways. It is hard to be anonymous, at least in my church, and the people in my church aim at sincerity and authenticity as much as possible. However, the lack of communion grounded in, well, communion is also telling. The best way I can put it is that there is not a hidden-ness to relationships- without a grounding the mystery of Christ, relationships need to be grounded in some visible experience. This seems to be problematic.
Father, I agree that repentance is not part of the way of life of the Emerging church; rather, we are often in thrall to solutions. However, I think we are willing to sit in the ambiguity a bit more than typical of Protestant churches. I hope, anyway.
Not really sure. It’s a philosophy that is coming out of a culture of disintegration.
Protestantism has been disintegrating since it’s inception. Now there is a thought.
Would you say Father that the temptation to engage in such dis-integration, is a major battle for all of us?
Is it not the opposite of Atonement?
I know I run from the Cross when I engage and am engaged by my passions whether they manifest emotionally, intellectually, spiritually or physically.
The question the becomes how do we counter dis-integration does it not?
The history I’ve been reading, The Unintended Reformation, does a very good job of describing the disintegration. The new “Tradition” or consensus that was offered to replace the Medieval Catholic consensus (which had much in common with Orthodoxy), was Sola Scriptura. But from its inception, there was disagreement between Protestant leaders over key doctrines. Sola Scriptura has never worked. Ever. It was a principle that was flawed from the beginning and has continued to spawn disintegration. It’s not the only thing.
I do recommend the book. It’s a powerful, nicely complex, account of the disintegration that gives us modernity.
Union with Christ is the opposite of disintegration and is the path to salvation. It is found by true communion with Christ in the fullness of the Tradition, the living presence of Holy Spirit revealed in the life of the Church.