Finding Your Way in Online Orthodoxy

© Copyright Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License
© Copyright Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License

A recent online debate (not linked to here for privacy reasons) has once again shone the spotlight on the phenomenon of online Orthodox communities, which unfortunately are all too often places where heated arguments, angry personal attacks, and prideful arrogance take the place of simple, reasoned discussions. What purport to be sources of information and answers for troubling questions provide disinformation and lead to even further confusion. Nevertheless, people very often find the answers they are looking for and benefit from information shared in these fora. In this post, I would like to explore the usefulness of such fora and point out some of the more dangerous ideas and attitudes often encountered in these places, and what an Orthodox Christian or inquirer can do to make sure they are getting the right information about the Orthodox faith as they navigate their way through these online communities. For another look at this question by another O&H author, follow this link.

 

Where do I go to get the best information and answers to my questions?

Most of these fora rightly point their members to talk to a priest at a local Orthodox parish. It almost goes without saying that Orthodox Christianity is embodied in its members within a parish community. The local church, centered around the celebration of the Eucharist, is the place the Gospel is preached and consumed toward salvation.  It is absolutely vital that people attend the services and develop relationships with the clergy and laity of a parish, developing a sense of family belongingness where love forged in real, face-to-face relationships informs the way we seek and dispense information about Orthodoxy. Questions regarding the spiritual life, with its struggles and successes, should be a part of an ongoing relationship with a priest-confessor.

It is often the case that information gathered from a particular priest at a particular parish may differ from the next one down the street or in the next town over.  Some priests give good advice and good information, and some occasionally do not, for this is the unfortunate reality of our fallen condition. Nevertheless, it is important to consider the fact that, while we share a common Orthodox faith, our faith is by no means monolithic, rigid, incapable of variation or of having different approaches, especially when “grey areas” are involved. A person might go to their parish priest with a question or seeking spiritual direction only to find that it contradicts something they heard elsewhere. What is one to do in such a case?  Perhaps the best practice is to ask other members of the parish community, such as godparents, elder members, and people who are generally regarded as being faithful and pious Orthodox Christians. A life lived through experience, through years of trial and error, is often the best source for answers. It is vitally important to develop relationships with these people, for this indeed is how the Tradition of Orthodoxy is transmitted, from one yiayia (Greek for “grandmother”) to the next.

Particular theological questions should be approached from respectable sources. Consulting standard manuals introducing the Orthodox faith is the best way to gain information. Your parish library might be a good place to look for these resources, or browse the catalogues of reputable Orthodox publishers. Avoid subjective opinions from people who are not degreed, trained by the competent authorities, or have no demonstrated expertise in Orthodox theology or Biblical studies. Go to the library or consult respected and official online repositories for such information.

 

What about the Fathers and the Hymns of the Church?

The textual element of the Orthodox Tradition is fantastically massive, ranging from the two dozen or so standard volumes of hymns sung during the Church year to the vast treasure of the Greek and Latin Fathers of the Church.  Much of the theology of the Church is found in the services themselves. The hymns and prayers of Vespers and Matins offer most of the theology and spiritual direction that one will ever need to live a full, Orthodox life.  Nevertheless, it is often the case that one cannot attend these services or they may not be offered regularly at a local parish.  They may even be sung in a language other than English or chanted in such a way that they cannot be easily understood.  One can consult online editions of the various books of hymns, but one should at least have a prayer book that contains the basic hymns of the Church throughout the year. It should be noted, however, that many hymns are designed to fit into regular thematic patterns and so can be redundant. Such hymns are generic and can be applied to many different saints. Some hymns can also be very unique to the time when they were written, for example hymns that pray to God for victory over barbarian invaders or deliverance from earthquakes.

It is important to approach the writings of the Fathers very carefully. The Fathers are not inerrant, neither are they authoritative in the same way that the Bible and the decisions of Ecumenical Councils are.  The Fathers may at times contradict each other or otherwise contain content that is questionable or difficult to understand. Many of the Fathers were intellectual giants of their age, who engaged in specific theological debates with other theologians regarding important theological issues and the threat of heresy. As such, one does not need to read the heavy theological writings of St. Maximos the Confessor or St. Gregory Palamas in order to live a faithful life in the Church. The best way to approach the writings of the Fathers initially is through anthologies, handbooks, or introductory material. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers and the collection usually called The Apostolic Fathers are two of the most popular gateways into patristic literature, and the excellent series by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Popular Patristics is a wonderful place to start as well. These small handbooks contain proper introductions written by reputable scholars which can give the proper historical and intellectual context.

Deep knowledge of the writings of the Holy Fathers is not necessary in order to live a faithful Christian life, and most Orthodox Christians throughout history have not had the luxury that we do today of convenient access to their writings. They heard occasional homilies from the Fathers or came across a quote here or there, but the wisdom of the Fathers was always transmitted far more through interpersonal relationships, between spiritual fathers and their spiritual children.

 

What about “Deeper” Things?

A faithful Orthodox Christian may want to go deeper into the study of the Fathers or the Scriptures, and this is always a laudable pursuit if it is pursued with the right intentions. As St. Paul said, “Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies” (1 Cor 8:1). Studying Orthodox theology, the Bible, or the Fathers can be very edifying, but it can also lead to pride, which can be used in arrogant ways to engage in fruitless arguments and disputes. Make sure that your decision to study is coming from a real desire to gain knowledge for your own edification, not to engage in meaningless debates. It is especially important to avoid using knowledge that you gain to wield spiritual power over others. Avoid giving spiritual advice when it is not asked for, and refrain from claiming that you know what “the Fathers say” unless you have gained the necessary knowledge and intellectual formation required of such broad statements. Quoting the Fathers, just like quoting the Bible, can be a double-edged sword: It can be well-intended, but it can cause a lot of harm as well.

The “deeper” things come from the well-spring of the heart. It is in the “deep heart” that we encounter the “deep things of God.” A Psalm says, “Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfall” (Psalm 42:7), indicating the deep heart of mankind that calls out to the deep heart of God in response to the “waterfall” of grace. St. Paul says that “God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:10). Pray in your heart to God, and there you will discover the deep things of God as He reveals them to you.

 

What about Places that Claim to be “Traditional”?

Online fora and even churches that specifically claim to be “traditional” or “genuine” are often fraught with a specific spiritual pathology that should be avoided—the anxious and even neurotic concern about being “right,” “correct,” and “Orthodox.” While we have a responsibility to preserve our Orthodox faith and faithfully receive and transmit Holy Tradition, an overly wrought concern for being right or upholding what one perceives to be Orthodoxy is extremely dangerous. Who can be a competent spokesperson for what is Orthodox? The bishops and priests of the Church are specifically ordained by God for this ministry, so they are the ones we should look to in these matters. As a scholar, I become less and less sure all the time about what is and what is not Orthodox. Aside from the dogmatic definitions of the Ecumenical Councils, the Creed, and the liturgical services of the Church, much of what people claim to be Orthodox or un-Orthodox is difficult to judge rightly. I myself have fallen into the trap of declaring something to be un-Orthodox only to later find it in the writings of St. John Chrysostom! We become so sure of ourselves and our knowledge of Orthodoxy that we may rush to make proclamations that are untrue. It is important to exercise humility and to reserve judgment on these issues unless we are specifically instructed to do so and have gained the necessary education in Orthodox theology.

Of course not everyone (maybe not even most) people in “Traditional” online communities have this pathological tendency to assert their rightness and to misrepresent what is indeed Orthodox. Nevertheless, we should be aware that what comes under the guise of “Traditional” may in fact not be, and what is labeled “Orthodox” may in fact not be. It is always wise to consider the source and consider the medium of communication. A book published by a respectable Orthodox publishing house is probably a better source of information than the word of “some guy” on the Internet, and the word of a seminary-educated clergyman is probably a better source than a recent convert who has read a few books on Orthodoxy.

Beware of any claims to be more “traditional” or more “genuine” than another, for such claims are too often said from excessive pride and ignorance. Tradition and genuineness come from the God-instituted hierarchy of the Church and the authority that they have by means of their office. Anyone who attempts to undermine these canonical channels of Tradition should be regarded with suspicion. Of course, not every priest or bishop will be faithful in their responsibility to maintain and protect the Orthodox faith, but the witness of the greater whole will overcome the errors of a few.

 

Where to Go from Here

I have actually said very little in this post specifically about online Orthodox communities, and this is intentional, for there isn’t really much to say. There are so many tried-and-true ways of encountering Orthodoxy offline, that online encounters mean very little. You must make an informed decision for yourself regarding if and to what degree you will participate in online Orthodox communities, Facebook groups, and discussion fora, but little of it matters, and none of it is necessary in order to lead a pious and faithful life as an Orthodox Christian.

We at Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and indeed all of us at Ancient Faith Blogs, some of whom are experts in our given fields, hope to represent faithfully the Orthodoxy faith and provide a safe online community for people to come to in order to learn about the faith. We don’t make claims to know Orthodoxy better than another, but we do hope to offer some guidance in the difficult task of discerning Orthodoxy in our world today.

Learn how to use conventional methods of learning about the faith.  Read the standard works of respected Orthodox theologians and thinkers. Find well-trodden channels on the Internet if you desire, and please, oh please,

Be kind.

Eric Jobe

About Eric Jobe

Eric Jobe earned his Ph.D. in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. He specializes in Hebrew poetry, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Second Temple Judaism. He is also an instructor of Bible and biblical languages for the St. Macrina Orthodox Institute.

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20 comments:

  1. I witnessed a good bit of the online debate mentioned here, but didn’t read all of the hundreds of comments. At times it was so over the top that it would have been funny if people weren’t being so serious. I didn’t join in on that debate for several reasons, but one of the largest being that I felt both sides were making valid points…it was people’s pride that was wrong.

    We can learn so much from our brothers and sisters in these online forums (I know I have), but I think we would all be better off if we made an attempt to spend more time reading the Fathers than we spend online.

    Pride seems to be the biggest problem. We have a tendency to think we know more than we really do, as you mentioned, Eric. I used to participate in these forums much more frequently, but I have found that for my own prayer life and even salvation, it is best I stay away from the debates. It creates within me a tension and distractions that are hard to shake when I am in prayer.

    I hope the results of this debate will be that people on both sides of the debate reflect on how they interact with other people in person and online.

  2. –“Read the standard works of respected Orthodox theologians and thinkers.”

    Where would be a good starting point? Do you know a recommended list of introductory books? I have read a couple of Fr. Damick’s books and find them very informative but as far as general works by “respected Orthodox theologians and thinkers”, I am afraid I am completely lost.

    1. A great starting point is the daily scripture readings according to the calendar. oca.org has posts them daily as well as a summary of the lives of the saints for the day.
      I hope this helps.

  3. I also find it difficult as inquirer to know where to read when “reputable sources” are decried by traditionalists as corrupting the faith. Any idea of what differences would be raised in the U.S. in terms of books vs. books written out of majority Orthodox nations?

  4. All online forums and offline forums are subject to and transcended by Holy Tradition. The built in assumptions of this article are that the currently “respected” and “tried and true” theological writers are indeed tried and true. The great Holy Fathers of the Church are the ones who are actually “tried and true”. Recent theological writers may be later revealed to be problematic. The must desired ” context’ of the Holy Fathers is provided by the Holy Fathers themselves. Everyone is responsible to learn the faith to extent that they are capable of doing so. This article is simply a call to mediocrity. The Holy Fathers call us to perfection and holiness. Test the spirits for not every spirit is of God.

    1. Fr. Maximos, yes, the Fathers are “tried and true,” but they are nevertheless often difficult to understand when dealing with high theological concepts. Some of their writings are very heavy and difficult for beginners to apply. For example, my priest absolutely forbade me for a time to read St. John Climacus during lent. It takes the context of *experience* lived within Orthodoxy in order to fully understand and properly apply the Fathers. Also, historical context is often needed to understand the arguments and debates that the Fathers were responding to in their writings. The Fathers are wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but beginners should approach them appropriately, and modern introductions, anthologies, and theological introductions are a great place to start, rather than, say, a catechumen jumping head first into St. Gregory Palamas’ Triads.

      1. Forgive me, but your article seems to argue that a catechumen jumping straight into Triads is better than that same catechumen listening and learning from “Traditional” groups.

        1. I never made such a comparison… but, yes, I would prefer a catechumen read something of that nature than spend 5 seconds on a “Traditional (canonical)” forum. The pathologies found in such places are astounding.

          1. Yes, I can attest. I’m still an inquirer, but even I can detect this. It reminds me of the hyper-legalistic Protestant fundamentalists…same spirit in each. I do not desire to be harsh or insulting, but I’ve seen enough of both groups to see the similarities in their manner.

  5. Since others seem to be discussing potential sources of good materials on the internet, though I have no expertise and anybody taking my advice is doing so at their grave spiritual peril (caveat lector), I would note that the OCA website has Fr Thomas Hopko’s excellent catechetical “Rainbow Series” available for free: http://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith

  6. “As a scholar, I become less and less sure all the time about what is and what is not Orthodox.”

    Then how can one convert?

    1. The context makes it clear: “Aside from the dogmatic definitions of the Ecumenical Councils, the Creed, and the liturgical services of the Church, much of what people claim to be Orthodox or un-Orthodox is difficult to judge rightly.” There are definitive guides to Orthodoxy, namely the councils, the creed, and the life of the Church. Take your definitions of Orthodoxy from these sources, not endless debates on the internet. How does one convert? Through the witness of the Gospel! I will say this, to convert to Orthodoxy for the sake of Orthodoxy, for the sake of rightness, is misguided. Convert to Orthodoxy because you find Christ in it.

      1. Mr. Jobe in this you speak rightly: ” I will say this, to convert to Orthodoxy for the sake of Orthodoxy, for the sake of rightness, is misguided. Convert to Orthodoxy because you find Christ in it.”

        Without such an encounter, within the context of the life of the Church as one lives it, the rest is indeed confusing and meaningless.

        I have been in the Church for 28 years. I am an intelligent and reasonably well educated man. Yet I have still be largely unable to read such works as the Philokelia and other monastic works because they simply fail to make much sense to me and/or overwhelm me.

        The Orthodox faith can be practiced without formal learning by being obdient (listening without contrary opinion as well as doing what your priest of bishop or spouse asks of you without complaint), fasting, praying, worshipping, giving alms, forgiving and repenting. The more one practices such things in the context of one’s own community the more deeply the faith is revealed and imbedded in one’s heart (not one’s sentiments).

        Although I remain fascinated and attracted to Orthodox theology and it certainly plays a part in my on-going conversion, it was/is the experience of Jesus Christ in the acts of faith that does the work. By telling my priest of any out of the norm experience I hope to avoid going in the wrong direction. Usually he tells me, “Oh, yes, that is not uncommon.”

  7. Thanks for this important post.

    I’m wondering if there should be some sort of voluntary disclosure in which reputable Orthodox bloggers could participate. Perhaps a standard could be developed where certain important information would be posted: the blogger’s seminary training (or lack thereof); if they have the blessing of their priest and/or bishop, what field in which they have expertise; if the content of the blog is being reviewed by a priest/deacon/bishop; etc.

    I bring this up because I know of a prominent blog where the primary author/editor is still a relatively new Orthodox convert with no seminary training and no supervision by a priest/deacon/bishop (at least at last check). Yet many of the posts on this blogs speak very authoritatively about many things “Orthodox.” This blogger is an excellent writer and most of the posts seem OK. But there have been times when the content was somewhat troublesome – in at least one case, I showed the post to my priest and he was appalled.

    As my current priest recently told me, “Direct inquirers away from most blogs on the internet, it is just too dangerous.”

  8. I came to Orthodoxy after being brought up very, very fundamentalist. I was in the “madrasa” from kindergarten through 8th grade. I rejected it and Christianity in general due to the lack of love and hypocracy. After a long period as a Buddhist I felt that I should come back to Christianity. I knew that Protestants and Catholics didn’t feel right” so I stuudied. I started at the earliest non-Biblical writing and went forward. I stumbled over an encyclical of Archbishop Iakavos and thought “Hmmm this guy sounds like an actual Christian” I then focused my stiudy on Orthodoxy. I found “The Orthodox Way and “The Orthodox Church” By Kallistos Ware…at the time Timothy were very good in explaining the basics. There are also several books by Anthony Coniaris that are excellent and easy to read.

    I have found that “yiayia” gets rather stuck on the “little t” traditions, confusing them for the “Big T” Tradition. There are regional and jurisdictional differences in the “little t” that have nothing to do with Holy Tradition but yiayia insists that they are. That’s one of the big reasons for the inability for the various jurisdictions in North America to unite and be the Holy Orthodox Church in a patriarchal Canonical way. Too many think that the “little t” is the “Big T” and won’t compromise.

    Many times I’ve asked my priest a question and he say “that’s to deep a theology for me” or “You need to ask an expert on that” He is a very well regarded priest. So sometimes you may have to do a little digging.

    One thing I do know is that Orthodoxy is the most dynamic of any other thing labeled “Christian” that I have dealt with. A big red flag for me is when someone is rigid, uncompromising and show a lack of love.

  9. “It is important to approach the writings of the Fathers very carefully. The Fathers are not inerrant, neither are they authoritative in the same way that the Bible and the decisions of Ecumenical Councils are. The Fathers may at times contradict each other or otherwise contain content that is questionable or difficult to understand.”

    I’m glad somebody is out there saying this. We gripe about the Pope’s supposed infallibility, which is really quite limited according to Catholic dogma, as an obstacle to the RCC’s restored union with Orthodoxy yet there are tons of people claiming that all of the Fathers are infallible. The assumption is that if there is an apparent discrepancy between two Fathers, it simply cannot be and we are misunderstanding them. Where does this assumption come from? Granted, there’s a lot of material out there to read, but I’ve yet to come across any of the Fathers claiming this infallibility for themselves or others. The few quote mining attempts I’ve seen mustered up online, if read in context, are referring specifically to the Fathers present at Ecumenical Councils and the declarations made there. My 2 cents!

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