When an Orthodox Christian is asked questions about the faith, there is often a hesitation. The questions that come to mind are: “Where do I begin?” and “How much do I try and tell them?” For, in many ways the amount of information includes about 2,000 years of history and an encyclopedia’s worth of teaching, practice and customs. Sometimes, in the middle of such a conversation, the other person’s eyes become dull and a rebuke comes, “I think the Bible is enough.” The drive to simplicity has long been a temptation, and, sadly, has been the source of numerous heresies and distortions of the faith.
Perhaps the oldest such “heresy” is that of Islam. Some might protest that Islam is not a Christian heresy, but another religion entirely. However, the Christian Fathers writing at the time of the rise of Islam, clearly understood it to be a heresy. Islam is unintelligible apart from Christianity. Indeed, the Koran mentions Jesus more times than it does Muhammed (surprise!). There are also significant passages concerning the Virgin Mary, including the teaching that she was a Virgin when she gave birth to Christ. From an Orthodox perspective, Islam is best understood as a heretical attempt at simplification rather than a new religion. It is also an understanding that puts most non-Orthodox treatments of the Christian faith in proper perspective.
This drive towards simplicity is a common hallmark within almost all deviations from traditional Orthodoxy. No one, it seems, ever wants to make things more complicated than they already are within the tradition! But there’s the rub. The nature of Orthodox tradition is its commitment to the unchanging fullness of the faith. In that sense, the faith is everything. It is not a small set of religious rules and ideas set within the greater context of the world (that is the essence of modern, secularized religion). The faith is the whole world. Rightly spoken and understood, it must account for everything.
I have little use for bumper-stickers or meme’s that proclaim, “Orthodoxy Christianity – Since 33 a.d.” It represents a failure of understanding. St. Paul describes the Church in this manner:
…having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth– in Him (Eph. 1:9-10)
And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all. (Eph. 1:22-23)
The Church is the “fullness.” That fullness is nothing less than “all things gathered together in one in Christ Jesus.” Indeed, the fullness is even more than “all things.” We should understand that the Church comes into existence at the words, “Let there be light!”
Of course, it is difficult to speak in the manner of “all things.” We are much more comfortable speaking in reductionist terms, in a manner that reduces our concerns to something tribal and immediate. We are prone to abbreviations. A smaller, almost mechanical God can be presented with much easier suasion. Who wants to be bothered with everything?
But this is the task of being Orthodox. “Orthodox” should not be reduced to “correct teaching,” but the “teaching about everything.” This is the actual point of being “correct”; it’s about what is real and true. This is also the reason that Orthodoxy (when rightly spoken) must be silent from time to time. If we don’t know it, there’s no need to say it. Silence is sufficient. Silence should never imply that what is not spoken is unimportant. Indeed, it is so important that saying it incorrectly matters, hence the silence.
Thoughts about all of this came to me last week as we celebrated yet another feast day involving the Mother of God. She is generally found embedded in every expression within the Church. This is a matter of fullness. If our Christianity can be spoken just as well without mention of her, then we are not speaking the fullness. The same must be said of the sacraments. Any account of the Christian life and the path of salvation that omits the Holy Eucharist is simply incomplete or false. Indeed, growth in the faith must be marked by an ever-increasing sense of the all-encompassing reality that is salvation – “til we come to the fullness of the stature of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13)
This aspect of our life is a primary reason that the ultimate expression of evangelical welcome must be, “Come and see.” In fact, you’ll have to come and see and wait patiently. As we make that patient journey, we are joining ourselves with everything, in the great in-gathering that is God’s good will for all creation.