C. S. Lewis once famously remarked that “mere” Christianity, as he conceived of it,
…is… like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms…[and] it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable. It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. When you do get into your room you will find that the long wait has done you some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and panelling. In plain language, the question should never be: ‘Do I like that kind of service?’ but ‘Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular doorkeeper?’
By contrast, a Reformed friend of mine (no lover of C. S. Lewis, I should note) opined thus recently:
“Postmodernism, the school of ‘thought’ that proclaimed ‘There are no truths, only interpretations’ has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for ‘conversations’ in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster” (Dennett). Christians[, therefore], should beware those who constantly talk of “narratives,” “conversations,” “discourse,” “viewpoints,” and “faith traditions,” lest they find themselves speaking as postmoderns and not as Christians.
And then there is the recent series of comments on this recent O&H post, which includes examples such this:
In order to know what “Church” tradition teaches, one must (as you pointed out in the OP) first determine *what is the Church* and subsequently *which is the Church*. Or said another way, in order for your solution to be “located ecclesiologically”, it would seem that you would first need to have a principled means of locating the ecclesia. If one cannot make those identifications in a principled, non-circular way (avoiding, for example Q1: “who is the ecclesia” A1: “All those validly ordained clergy who adhere to Orthodox teaching”, followed by Q2: “Where does one go to learn Orthodox teaching” A2: “The ecclesia”); then how can one identify the locus and scope of authoritative “tradition” with respect to proper interpretation of Scripture? […] [T]he problem of “who’s the final arbiter of Orthodoxy?” seems to present a significant ecclesial (and therefore interpretive) problem. If those who identify as Orthodox Christians cannot offer a coherent account of how they, themselves, identify who or what counts as “the Church” for purposes of establishing the scope of authoritative “Church” tradition, then “Orthodoxy’s” solution would indeed seem to be yet another riff on solo scriptura – just “bumped up a level”… [H]ow [can] an Orthodox Christian… avoid the charge that “They still just get to decide for themselves what they will listen to and what they won’t” because they ultimately decide the limits of who or what counts as constituting “the Church” for purposes of locating authoritative “tradition”?
And this, from O&H’s own Eric Jobe:
I have never quite been able to escape the irony that, in seeking to be under the authority of the Church, I nevertheless chose which church I was to subject myself to. I “chose” Orthodoxy for a variety of reasons, some theological and historical, and some aesthetic, but It was all a bit like falling in love. I no more “chose” Orthodoxy than I choose what women I am going to be attracted to or the one I will eventually fall in love with and marry. So then, our best attempts at epistemological certainty based upon reason or some such is often overridden by the simple attraction we feel toward this or that church and how we “get along” with that church during the initial period of courtship.
At some point, however… I find that the search for the “true Church” is wrong-headed altogether, for the search for the “true Church” is not a problem that confronted most Christians throughout history, to whom the choice was never presented. To convert to Orthodox solely because one comes to reason that it is the true Church may carry with it certain pathologies that we are all familiar with. That estimation is easily changed once new data are presented.
I suggest, then, that one convert to the Gospel, and that one “choose” a church where the Gospel is preached and the presence of Christ is found. I want to remain Orthodox because I perceive that in it the fullness of the Gospel is found and I know the presence of Christ within it.
The problem that Christianity in general has, not just the Eastern Orthodox Churches, is choice within the context of a pluralistic society. Religious authority, being something you have to “opt-in” for, is really no authority that is binding unless you want it to be. Christian pluralism means that being a Christian is something you choose, and even choosing to be a Christian means you can then tailor whatever version of Christianity you find compelling to what you believe are your own needs. You can dress it up however you want; magisterial authority, scriptural authority, authority of tradition, authority of the Church — your assent to that authority is entirely a matter of individual choice, and any argument for the validity of that authority is made entirely on individual, that is to say, subjective, and ultimately circular. I believe the Bible/the Pope/the Church is the locus of authority; I know this because the Bible/the Pope/the Church tells me that, I believe them because they are the locus of authority, and — here’s the kicker — I have changed my mind about what I find authoritative because of this claim.
Lewis wants to get around this problem of pluralism with “mansion theory”, which sort of amounts to a version of branch theory; these are all rooms in the same house, and we’re all guests anyway, so we have to get along as such. There’s still a problem of the individual having to decide which room is “the true one”, where the individual finds holiness, where the individual is being driven by conscience. My Reformed friend uses an atheist philosopher, ironically enough, to argue that, no, there’s no pluralism to “solve”; that’s a lie of Satan. There are only two categories, Christian truth and the deceit of sin, so there are no branches, no rooms, no “getting along”; you either Get the Right Answer and can show your work as to how you got it, or not, and I’ll know if you Got the Right Answer because if you did, you’ll be at my church. My friend and colleague Eric effectively works his way back to Lewis, although with a careful factoring out of Lewis’ criterion of “truth” as being irrelevant; he sort of re-articulates Lewis’ idea of “conscience” as “falling in love” — in any event, in both cases it comes down to a gut feeling that one cannot rationalize. There remains, then, the rational problem of my being able to “fall in love” with a different church than somebody else. He also winds up with a bit of “Orthodoxy is where we know the Church is; we don’t know where it isn’t” at the end.
It doesn’t stop there, though. For cradles of whatever stripe, then there is the advantage of pointing to something external to belief as the reason for identifying as one thing or the other, a force that is bigger than the self. Then, however, the problem is this — how do “we” (whoever “we” are and whatever the reason is “we” may have a right to ask) know that such people actually “are” (whatever that means) what they identify as, or if they’re “just” nominally going along with it for reasons of family or culture? Ironically, the existence of something outside of self-directed will that provides a reason to be Orthodox or Catholic or Lutheran or whatever or another diminishes the authority that communion is perceived as having; you’re just part of the “tribe at prayer”. If you’re a convert, then you went church shopping, and what you brought home isn’t any cooler than I what brought home. If you’re a cradle, then you’re not a “believer” in the same way, so I don’t care.
The thing is, all of these various solutions have something to them. Lewis is right that your questions about a church must go beyond ones of aesthetic preference and address issues of truth (although I have an emergent-ish friend who is adamant that, for purposes of our day, Lewis is absolutely wrong; the only intellectually honest and Christian choice, he maintains, is to stay in the hallway and not make yourself comfortable in one of the rooms). My Reformed interlocutor is right that the effect of treating religions as they are on a level playing ground is that too often it seems that we’re reduced to the language of folklore (which is really the language of safe distance at best and Orientalism at worst; “Oh, how cute/dangerous! That’s what they do in their tradition! They even think traditions still mean something!”) and advertising (“Come to the church where you’ll find no better religion!”). It is ironic nonetheless that my Reformed friend must look to Dennett, one of the so-called “Four Horsemen of New Atheism”, for help on this point. And Eric is right that, to a certain extent, our questions are answered when we find our reason overridden by a sense of the truth of the Gospel and the presence of Christ, although he doesn’t really define what either of those things mean.
It really is a lot easier when the emperor and patriarch can just work in symphonia, isn’t it?
So what is the solution? How are the truth claims of Orthodox Christianity any different from the truth claims of sola Scriptura? Is there a way to prove Orthodoxy’s truth claims logically without an appeal to self-willed subjectivity?
I’ll go ahead and say it: no. There isn’t. I’m a historian, and I think there’s a historical argument, which is why I’m Orthodox. Nonetheless, every historical argument has its contingencies and assumptions, and so I have to acknowledge that reasonable and faithful people can come to different conclusions about the history in intellectually and spiritually honest ways. If I take it upon myself to contend with them about it, it isn’t going to bring them any closer to Christ, necessarily.
So, what are we left with? The experience of the saints? Well, sure, but even there the categories are fuzzy. We Orthodox love St. Isaac the Syrian, ostensibly Nestorian, but quickly claim agnosis when it comes to Latins like Francis of Assisi.
Within all of this concession, I might suggest a way that Orthodox Christianity’s truth claims are different from sola Scriptura, however. Orthodox Christianity’s claims, if true, do not bring you into a relationship with a book; the Truth in Orthodox Christianity, properly understood, is not a book, but in a Person, Jesus Christ. The Scriptures are true for no other reason than they point to Christ for the benefit of His Church, His living worshipping community; Christ is not the Truth because of the witness of the Scriptures. Orthodox Christianity is not a rational assent to the contents of a text, in other words; it is a relationship, rather, in the context of community, with the Divine Person who is the Truth. The community is important, even if we don’t understand this in 2014 American life. Unus Christianus, nullus Christianus, as is attributed to Tertullian; no Christian is a single Christian. Sola Scriptura would seem to preach a very different idea. Orthodox Christianity’s truth claims point to the Body of Christ (in multiple senses); sola Scriptura has Scripture pointing to itself. Even the demons know Scripture and shudder.
This is still unpersuasive, however. It’s a fair point, maybe, but how is that any different from the claims any other communion might make? Great, Christianity requires a church, but why does it have to be the Orthodox Church? People have argued about that for centuries, and I’m not going to solve it here. So, instead, let me conclude with a joke:
A Protestant missionary visits a village in the Middle East, and starts talking to a local about the Good News. “Well, thanks,” the man says, “but a missionary already came, and this village is Christian.”
“Is that right?” the missionary says, excited. “Who was it?”
“I’m not sure,” the man says. “Let me go ask one of our elders.”
The local goes off for a few minutes. He reappears and tells the missionary, “Well, according to him, it was Paul.”
Ha ha. The point is, ecclesial truth claims, particularly in an American context, can become an exercise in soothing anxiety about the lack of historical roots that are present in the humblest village churches in places like Greece and Syria. “Stop asking if saints like Basil, Chrysostom, and Nicholas are in your church, and ask if you’re in theirs!” is a way this gets expressed. It’s not that there’s nothing to that, but for Americans, the disembodiment of the church is, I think, fundamentally tied to the fact that the world in which we live has no ties to the culture and historical epoch that produced those saints. The pious idea that St. Brendan went to North America is one way some people try to solve that; Mormonism bypasses the saints problem entirely by claiming that Jesus himself came here. It’s not a new problem, really; Constantinople had to deal with it, too. Byzantium was an upstart city in an established network of major cities that became the imperial capital by fiat but with no real political, cultural, or ecclesial capital otherwise (see what I did there?), and the legend that St. Andrew provided the apostolic foundation for the Church of Constantinople was nothing short of lame. Ultimately the Virgin Mary turned out to be a better, more interested patron than St. Andrew, but the Theotokos’ physical intervention in a battle probably isn’t going to be how Orthodox Christians in America shore up our truth claims.
So, my suggestion is this. America is America. It is not an Orthodox country. It’s not even really a Christian country, although it is culturally Protestant. The Orthodox renaissance that Anglophone Orthodox would like to see happen in this country, if it is to happen at all (and I am dubious of that), is not going to happen because of our arguments. In my experience, you’re not going to convince anybody of anything that they aren’t already inclined to believe in some way, or without God’s intervention. Therefore, stop trying to convince people with arguments. To go back to Tertullian again, consider what he said about what made truth claims not just authoritative for the world in his day, but self-evident:
But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how [Christians] love one another, for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how [Christians] are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves will sooner put to death. (The Apology 39.7)
If we Orthodox want to make an authoritative truth claim, if we want to say that we’re part of the church that Paul (or Nicholas, or Chrysostom, or Basil, or Tertullian for that matter) established we have to back it up with that level of love and self-sacrifice. If we’re not willing to do that, airtight rational arguments aren’t going to get very far.
Make your choice about Orthodox Christianity. Do so out of love for Christ, do so because you believe it is true, do so because you could make no other choice. However, having made that choice, remember that the Church is incarnational — She is the body of Christ on earth, in a very literal sense, and as one of Her members, your actions mean something in terms of witness to the world; you don’t need to look to externals to see Christ’s action, because you are part of His body. Shoring up your manner of disputation is an easy way out of that; acting accordingly out of love and self-sacrifice is much harder, but it is what will be more authoritative than trying to establish that your arguments are less circular than sola Scriptura.
Thanks Richard…much good stuff here…to be digested and applied. Lord have mercy.
Thank you. Lord have mercy indeed!
Two recollections came to mind when reading this: In his fascinating book “The Illuminating Icon” Anthony Ugolnik relates visiting a Russian Orthodox priest at his small church in the Finnish outback. The priest said that if the Church weren’t there the local people would not have the opportunity to see the Gospel. C.S. Lewis said that a Christian is a statue come to life. When the world sees us Orthodox do they see the Gospel of Jesus Christ or do they hear us describing a statue?
(1) Do you think that people in America are in a different epistemic situation with respect to religion than those in first century Rome who had to choose whether to become Christians upon hearing the gospel preached by the apostles?
(2) Bryan Cross, from the Catholic perspective, took up this objection you deal with a few years ago here:
Seems Cross’ answer is historical (as you hint that an historical argument can be made).
1) Yes, I do; as I posted in a comment elsewhere — Rome wasn’t pluralistic with respect to religion; it was syncretistic. You’ve got your gods? That’s cool, probably they correspond to ours, so we’ll add ’em to the mix. Make sure you also participate in the civic religion, too. The Jews had a special case dispensation, as it were, for being exclusively monotheistic, which is part of why people resented them — they were seen as intentional outsiders, people too cool for the religious common room. The choice to be a Christian made you rather neither fish nor fowl where this matrix was concerned, and probably meant you were rebelling against other parts of the cultural system, too. There were default circumstances that you were choosing against if you were a Christian, and those things mattered quite a bit.
In 2014 America, pluralism is a problem because one cannot monolithically speak of “Christianity”, and each version of “Christianity” is competing for influence over the narrative of “contemporary Christianity”. This is confusing from a mission standpoint and confusing from a standpoint of building and maintaining a culture. Authority is an issue, and history is an issue, but what range of both and from what perspective? Do we choose a memory that doesn’t go back any farther than the ecumenical movement, so that if you don’t look like you’re playing along, you’re the problem? Do we choose a memory that goes back to when everybody, including Anglicans, practiced closed communion? Do we choose a version of Christianity that mandates you get in the face of people who have different views on social issues than your pastor does? Do we choose a version of Christianity that rather affirms that people have to make their own choices and stand before God by themselves? Do we choose a Christianity that pretends the Enlightenment never happened? And so on. These are issues that people have stakes in, and “sola Scriptura” is part of the discourse that is used to justify various stances.
Contrast this with, say, the Chalcedonian controvery in the fifth and sixth centuries. Bishops got deposed, people were branded as heretics, but Alexandria, Antioch, and other churches in Syria and beyond continued to be treated as part of the same church as Rome, Constantinople, and Jerusalem until Jacob Baradeus ordained a parallel, separate set of bishops for the anti-Chalcedonians. Now there was a whole separate “Church” in a way there hadn’t been before. Today, it’s simply assumed that there are lots and lots of churches, and you’ll either choose the one that’s Right For You, or you’ll stick with the one you were born in for cultural purposes, or you’ll stop going to church altogether. It’s a very, very different cultural framework.
I agree that there is a historical, discoverable Church, although I concede there are, basically, two (maybe two and a half) possible answers depending on how you go about the inquiry. Although even there, in 2014, you have Anglicans, Restorationists, and Mormons, all of whom arguing historical legitimacy from a completely different angle. But the whole presumption that there’s an ecclesiological conclusion one must come to is specific to our particular circumstances. You don’t just go down the street to the neighborhood church to be baptized; you have to make a choice about which church to go to, to which clergy member you must speak, etc. And that looks a whole heck of a lot to the world like church shopping for “what’s right for you”, no matter what broader, historically-rooted ecclesiological authority you think you’re affirming. I’m talking about external perception here.
Let’s put it another way: my friend who would rather stay in the hallways of C. S. Lewis’ mansion once said to me about Orthodoxy, “There are some really cool traditions there, and if I bought into them sufficiently I could become Orthodox, but in the end I just don’t see how I get any more Jesus that way.” The perception of Christian pluralism that is the problem is that all the different brands offer the same Jesus (or “no better Jesus”, to once again borrow a line from aspirin advertising), it’s just flavor of tradition that’s different, so why is your preference for peanut butter authoritative over my preference for chocolate? Great, you like bishops with beards and in funny hats, icons, Marian devotions, saints’ lives, and music with drone. Cool. I like my Bible, guitars, and middle-aged overweight guys in Hawaiian shirts and jeans, and I don’t see the need for Mary. The differences are all either personally or culturally located, right? (Although, not really, since I think you’re probably going to hell for praying to Mary.) After all, you say you like bishops with beards and funny hats because… why? A bishop with a beard and a funny hat told you his church was the true one? Well, the guy in the Hawaiian shirt and the headset says that, according to the Bible, the church that proclaims the Bible alone is the true one. I guess we can’t get there from here, can we?
To be absolutely clear, of course, granted, we Orthodox don’t see it that way (theoretically, although I could name some who do), but the way we see is it is on one side of the lens of our Tradition; we’re on the inside looking out, so to speak, which is necessarily a different viewpoint than being on the outside looking in.
2) Of course, the historical answer is only going to be persuasive if one is convinced that the Church is historical.
The man in the hall is not taking communion; not getting ‘any more Jesus’ must rest on an idea of non-sacramental Christianity. Or he is taking communion with such congregations as permit it without membership, which is not quite living in the hall. IOW, he has made more of a decision about what the truth is, and where the True Church is, than the plan and statement indicates.
The non-sacramental view, as well as the occasionally taking Communion anyway (or at least presenting oneself for it and letting it be on the clergy’s head what to do about it), are both the case here, I think.
I myself feel that pluralism is the price we pay for the greater good of religious freedom. You cite the example of the Oriental Orthodox; the Roman Empire made life very difficult for the Coptic speaking community and their Syrian do religionists after the schism; only those fortunate enough to live in Armenia or Ethiopia were allowed to practice their religion freely, presumably at the expense of Chalcedonians. When we look at the pure misery that resulted from that tragedy, I think that the benefits of pluralism become evident, and the confusion that this causes is simply a side effect that the Church has to live with.
As a fellow academic (PhD in Islamic history) and a Lutheran strongly attracted to Orthodoxy–this article hit me more than anything else I’ve read on the topic. Thank you.
Thank you for your kind words!
Great article with many wonderful points.
The only concern that I have with it is your assumption that St. Isaac the Syrian was a “Nestorian”. For that I would like to share the below wonderfully researched articles about this particular topic by Protopresbyter John Photopoulos:
(follow the links at the bottom of each section to go to the next part).
Forgive me a Sinner,
Thank you for pointing this out; I should note that it is not my assumption. The case of St. Isaac the Syrian is indeed complex, which is why I used the word “ostensibly”.
I did not seek out the “true Church”, I sought out the Christianity I learned about in the scriptures.
There was always a great disconnect in my mind and heart between what was practiced and taught in whatever group I joined, and what I longed for in what I read in the scriptures.
My journey into Orthodoxy started as a somewhat bitter, desperate separation from and rejection of anything I could no longer honestly and sincerely profess to believe and experience as Christian. This lead to a rather hyper-sola-scriptura faith, doubting whether The Church still existed at all.
Most of my prayer consisted of confessing my doubt that God and any authentic Christianity even existed, and then crying out “Lord have mercy” anyway.
My faith and practice is not much better today, but I do believe I have found historic, authentic Christianity in Orthodoxy.
Thank God for that!
Patrick, many elements of your experience are very similar to mine. Thank God, indeed, He allowed me also to discover Orthodoxy. I shudder to think what the alternative would have been in my case–a ship out at sea without a port in sight, or to borrow and adapt a metaphor Jarislov Pelikan used of his journey to Orthodoxy, a plane forever circling looking for an airport at which to land and (unlike him) finding none!
“Rome wasn’t pluralistic with respect to religion; it was syncretistic….Make sure you also participate in the civic religion, too.”
I don’t think America is nearly as pluralistic as you want to indicate. Before WWII, the “protestant consensus” held everything together, though Christianity was de facto subsumed under the state even if it was given a large voice in the public square. With the breakdown of the protestant consensus following WWII, we are starting to see the rise of a very sycrenistic “civil discourse” and public square. Christianity is “tolerated” as long as it’s “private”. Our “civic” government schools, abortion mills, etc. are all indications that this “tolerance” and “pluralism” only goes so far (which is not very far at all). As we are starting to see by what happened in Houston and Idaho recently, law in the name of “tolerance” is starting to be used as a form of honest to goodness persecution.
It probably won’t be a robust/classical Christianity that changes any of this either, as there just are not enough of us and we are very poor evangelizers (many of us still speaking in “church slavonic” and the like) to our culture. If what is happening in western europe is any indication (e.g. France will be “Francostan” between 2050-2100) it might be the Mohammedans who fill in the gaping hole of our culture…
As to the main point of your article, I think you have “reasoned” yourself into a corner here. Yes, one can not reason oneself to epistemic certainty – but then Christianity has always recognized this (except the very modern forms of “liberal protestantism” which really aren’t Christianity at all). That is why it (as Judaism before it) a REVELATION (which comes from outside the world and into it, and is not a product of reason) is what is required, not an act of discursive or dialectical reasoning. This seems to be your main point, but you spend so much time “outside” you don’t seem to indicate that this is not really a problem except in the sense that we are called to PREACH (not reason, as in “reason alone”) the GOSPEL (and not some dialectical conclusion). The rest is up to God – for him to break through the demonically inspired self will (which is really what the rationalists are doing when they rely on their gnomic will) and sin which is the root of all the various forms of falling away from the Church (and into the so called “church’s”). In other words you seem to have stepped into their shoes and grown comfortable, so that you are seeing their problem as your own.
I myself grew up as a Unitarian Universalist, which in many ways is the very pinnacle of the modern altar of modern “rationalism”, “pluralism”, the “volunteeristic self” which “chooses” it’s own reality, to say nothing of what it chooses to perceive as “true”. God bless the Unitarians, because they taught me to think! But even the modern self willed rationalist and “chooser” can come to the logical conclusion of his philosophy (going as far as at least Nietzsche who saw the emptiness of it). The Church, the Spirit is incarnate, not “bodiless” and thus an ideal of the rational/dialectical mind. All these scenarios you put forth never get beyond that, and into the real incarnate Church. Perhaps that is all you mean to say, is that one can not use a limited and broken instrument (gnomic will) to discern the Truth – it has to be revealed with a personal encounter with the Risen Lord. Perhaps I am misreading you here…
“Therefore, stop trying to convince people with arguments….Shoring up your manner of disputation is an easy way out of that; acting accordingly out of love and self-sacrifice is much harder, but it is what will be more authoritative…”
If you would indulge me and allow me to add to my already too long post above. I take the above to be your point (a variant on St. Sarov’s “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved”), but in one important sense I have to disagree. As everything has it’s place and time under the sun, one will have to admit “rational argumentation” has it’s place in any effort to preach the Gospel (as anyone familiar with the NT will have to admit). Indeed, with liberal protestants/secularists it is mainly on this “level” or “plain” that much work needs done, because they are (as all modern people are) primarily idealists – they live in their heads. They might like to think of themselves as “materialists”, but they aren’t, there the most idealist people who ever lived. One has to address people where they are (anything else makes your approach an “idealism” of one sort or another). We have to get them to take their suppositions to their logical conclusions, which is of course the emptiness of self created/willed nihilism. Then, they will have a “broken spirit and heart” which God of course will not despise – He will break through their broken idealism and speak to their hearts, which is of course where the real work of salvation begins. Modern protestants are really no different, in that all their ideas about the Church are idealisms…
Thanks for your comments; what I’ll say for now is that I’m neither bemoaning the lack of epistemic certainty nor adopting it as “my own” problem (whatever you meant by that). I was asked to write about the difference faith in the Church as the final authority and Sola Scriptura. What I take as my starting point is that both our intellectual and philosophical framework and postmodern cultural context no longer include shared assumptions about Christianity, and neither do they really allow us to objectify or logically prove a revelation (see, for example, the various takedowns that are out there of Lewis’ “Lord, liar, or lunatic” argument as question-begging). This presents a bit of a Gordian knot for distinguishing, intellectually and rationally, between one religious truth claim and another, reducing everything to a question of personal preference, so it would seem.
Now, whether or not I successfully cut through the Gordian knot is certainly an open question, but I am addressing the question from the starting point of how this is “proved” to people who aren’t already inclined to believe it because that’s the piece I was asked to write, no more and no less.
As a relatively small aside:
I think the problem is not that we live in a pluralistic society, but precisely, that we do not. We live in a monolithic society, united on the premise that, as Hauerwas puts it “[each I] should have no story except the story that [she] choose when [she] had no story.” If we were a truly pluralistic society, that is, one that recognized that there is a large Jewish community, and a large Orthodox community, and a large Muslim community, and large Catholic community, and a large Daoist community, etc. and that each individual owes loyalty to his own community, prior to any loyality he may have to himself, or to the collective community; but worked to allow all the different communities to live together in (outward) peace, then we would have a truly pluralistic community. And converting would be a truly momentous choice, since it would involve something of a rejection of one community, and an acceptance of a different one.
But since we are a community dedicated to the universal proposition that each I has no story except the story she chooses when she has no story, converting is, precisely, perfectly allowed by the monolithic community, since the conversion is a choice that my I freely makes–choosing to “consume” this or that community’s goods.
In this environment, I think it may be most important to create strong “we”, that I am merely a part of. That is, to pull out an important aspect of Tertullian’s quote: That they see the love that characterizes us, as a people, in our articulation of the past and the future, and in our interaction with outsiders, and our articulation of an internal “we” through communal singing.
And on that note, some of the strongest resources, it seems, may be from Jewish sources like Levinas and Rosenzweig: People who discuss how we are not individuals, but are radically bound by our neighbor, who brings us demands we cannot realize (that’s Levinas), the importance God’s address to I, ‘Thou shalt love’ and our response to Him ‘Hallelujah’, which creates I and us (that’s Rosenzweig, though Levinas was a Rosenzweigian, and it’s in Levinas too).
This is a great article, and it makes me think you may be able to understand something that has puzzled me about Orthodoxy, both before and after my conversion.
When I was exploring Eastern Orthodoxy as a seeker, one of the things that confused me was why people kept giving me resources to make an informed judgment about the claims of the Orthodox Church. I was referred to Ancient Faith Radio, to the writings of the church fathers, to history books and all manner of resources. This confused me.
The reason this confused me was not because I eschewed making a well-informed judgment on the claims of the Orthodox church. Rather, the confusion lay in the fact that the same people who were giving me these resources were also telling me that I couldn’t trust my thinking. At least half a dozen people shared with me how they had themselves converted to Orthodoxy only after recognizing that their private judgment was utterly unreliable.
I remember going out for coffee with the man who later became my godfather and sharing the basic problem. “If our private judgment is utterly unreliable,” I said, “then how can I possibly trust myself to make an accurate decision concerning the various historical issues at stake?” This was also a question I posed numerous times to my zealous Orthodox friends throughout the period in which I was exploring Orthodoxy, both in letters and in conversation. But I never got a satisfactory answer. It never seemed to occur to my well-meaning friends that there was anything inconsistent with claiming that the rejection of Orthodoxy was a lamentable act of “private judgment” while the decision to accept Orthodoxy was somehow immune from the inherent problems of private judgment.
Some of the people I talked to told me that “private judgment” was wrong when it came to the interpretation of scripture, but inescapable when it came to matters of history. But again this seemed bizarre: if I could not be expected to draw inferences for myself about the meaning of scripture, how could I trust myself to draw inferences on the much more complex historical issues that go into adjudicating between Eastern Orthodoxy and other groups that claim continuity to the early church?
For me this problem was more than purely intellectual. Looking back over my life as a Christian, I could remember numerous occasions where I fell into serious error, yet at the time was fully convinced that I was in the right. At each point, I had evaluated evidence and reached what I thought was a well-informed judgment, only to find out later that I had been dead wrong. If there was anything that my thirty-eight years of being a Christian had taught me, it was that I couldn’t trust my judgment, that I should have a healthy sense of humility about my own theological and historical convictions. This being the case, how could I trust myself to accurately assess all the evidence necessary for adjudicating between Orthodoxy and its competitors? Who was I to think that reading a smattering of books about Orthodoxy and some selected writings of church fathers qualified me to adjudicate between the claims of the Orthodox church and all the other traditions that also claim continuity to the early church? Given my lack of intellectual confidence, the notion that private judgment is inherently untrustworthy resonated deeply with me. Yet ironically, those who concurred the strongest with this healthy skepticism about our own judgments were the same ones who invited me to make personal judgments in favor of the Orthodox church when evaluating historical resources.
Now don’t get me wrong. There is a genuine critique of private judgment, as it is practiced in the protestant communions, that needs to be made. In reading Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, I’ve been impressed by the way the doctrine of Sola Scriptura caused the Protestant movement to splinter, leading them to almost immediately start fighting amongst themselves about contested readings of scripture with the same virulence that they originally had for Roman Catholics. In restructuring the church’s relationship to Holy Tradition, the Latin West, and later Protestant Europe, did create the conditions for a certain level of hermeneutical anarchy. At first I assumed that this is all my Orthodox friends were referring to when they pontificated against the errors of ‘private judgment.’ But it began to be clear to me that, on ground level, much of the anti-private-judgment polemics have a much larger application. I will share about that shortly, but first I’d like to make a few comments about the social condition of Orthodoxy in America to create some context for my observations.
Eastern Orthodoxy struggles to find its way in America, not simply because it is a minority faith, and not simply because there are so many religious competitors. Significant as these factors are, a more significant reason why Orthodoxy struggles on American soil is because it is completely antithetical to the values of individualism and personal autonomy that remain foundational to the psyche of the American people. The religion of personal autonomy finds significant clash, not just with specific teachings of Orthodoxy, but with its entire spirit, ethos and rationale. In traditional Orthodox countries, at least prior to the advent of hyper-pluralism, religion would have been something that was received. While a person would have an opportunity to either submit or reject the faith that was handed down, the categories of fashioning one’s own spirituality independent of inherited structures would have been largely absent. That is why it was important even for heretics to try to demonstrate that they were operating within the context of the traditional church. While a person might have been able to make a decision between Christianity and Islam (for example, during times of Islamic dominion), the nature of Christianity was not up for grabs; and least of all, it was not up to me to determine its essential nature. This contrasts sharply with the hyper-pluralist conditions we find in contemporary America, where choosing our brand of Christianity is rather like choosing what football team to support. Accordingly, this affects the type of commitment we can give to the religious communities with which we choose to identify. We may submit to a certain ecclesial body, but in the back of our minds we know that we can always move on once it fails to suit our tastes. For those of us who have embraced Orthodoxy as converts, this creates a certain irony. In itself, Orthodoxy may stand against this type of hyper-pluralism to which we are accustomed, yet it comes to us within a hyper-pluralistic social context in which it exists as a range of options among many. As much as I might like to think of Orthodoxy as the default option once I have given up the project of creating a religion in my own image, the fact remains that I am still having to choose Orthodoxy as an individual, and that this choice is presumably based on the fact that Orthodoxy meets my needs and seems right to my private judgment. As Richard Barrett pointed out in the above article: “The problem that Christianity in general has, not just the Eastern Orthodox Churches, is choice within the context of a pluralistic society. Religious authority, being something you have to “opt-in” for, is really no authority that is binding unless you want it to be. Christian pluralism means that being a Christian is something you choose, and even choosing to be a Christian means you can then tailor whatever version of Christianity you find compelling to what you believe are your own needs. You can dress it up however you want; magisterial authority, scriptural authority, authority of tradition, authority of the Church — your assent to that authority is entirely a matter of individual choice, and any argument for the validity of that authority is made entirely on individual, that is to say, subjective, and ultimately circular….”
Is there a solution to this? If I understand what Barrett is arguing, there is not. He effectively demonstrates that even Orthodoxy does not evacuate one from the epistemological burden created by the hyper-pluralistic moment.
This confirms findings of scholars who have studied the psychology and sociology of conversion. They have found that American Orthodoxy exists within the stream of American pluralism and the marketplace of ideas that characterizes it. Amy Slagle’s 2008 dissertation “’Nostalgia Without Memory’: A Case Study of American Converts to Eastern Orthodoxy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania” (now available in book form as The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity), shows that “conversions to Eastern Orthodoxy must be understood within the framework of contemporary American religious and cultural life, not as simple reactions against it. She writes, :… the subjective self remains the sole seat of religious authority and enactment, even in an individual’s humble yielding to the moral and spiritual guidance of ‘ancient’ Christianities.” Slagle’s research was conducted with interviews of converts to Orthodoxy in the Pittsburgh, using a computerized qualitative data analysis program to code her interview transcripts. Her findings fit with what sociologists have found in other parts of America, namely that “vital components of choice-making, active knowledge acquisition and self-reflexivity lend shape to religious conversion.” She continues: “At each point in their conversions, from initial religious seeking to settling into life as Orthodox Christians, Orthodox converts in Pittsburgh consistently relate a kind of on-going negotiation between self and other, as they research religious differences and experiment with practices and dogmas. Such processes virtually ensure that converts arrive at the ecclesial doors of the Orthodox Church with these marketplace, choice-making skills and attitudes fully intact and ever more deeply engrained and habitualized in their lives.”
Welcome to hyper-pluralism. The fact is that because we do not live in sixteenth-century Russia or eighteenth-century Greece, we cannot evacuate ourselves from the epistemological burdens created by hyper-pluralism. Specifically, this means that converting to Orthodoxy involves the exercise of private judgment amidst a religious smorgasbord of options. To choose to embrace Orthodoxy is to make a choice that Orthodoxy and not Pentecostalism, Presbyterianism or Coptic Christianity, is what will best help me to grow closer to God. To choose to become Orthodox is to decide (based on my fallible and limited reason) that there is evidence that Orthodoxy has continuity with the teaching of the church fathers in a way that Eastern Catholicism or Oriental Christianity or reformed Presbyterianism does not. To choose to become Orthodox is to exercise judgment in concluding that the Holy Spirit is leading me here and not elsewhere.
These choices are inescapable for anyone living in a society dominated by pluralism, and to pretend this is not the case would be like living in a nation controlled by Muslims yet refusing to acknowledge the challenges that Muslim rule presents to Orthodox believers. Recognizing the reality of hyper-pluralism and the epistemological burden this creates for those who have not been raised Orthodox (and even for those who have), we can take action to buffer our children against the cacophony and confusion of pluralism. There are various ways we can do this. Visiting traditional Orthodox countries is one way. Visiting monasteries is another. Still another way is to naturally incarnate Orthodoxy in the life of the home to such an extent that competing voices feel alien and Orthodoxy feels emotionally, psychologically and intellectual normative. In such a case, we can hope that our children never have to assume the burden of needing to decide for themselves which Christian communion they can trust in the religious marketplace of ideas. Despite these steps we can take to diminish the effects of hyper-pluralism, many of the children of converts need to take the journey that we did; they will want to investigate the claims of Orthodoxy in much the same way as we did when we were exploring it from the outside. They may need to ask “Am I Orthodox simply because my parents are, or do I believe it for myself?” If that happens, it is hard to have sympathy for our children if we have romanticized the epistemological basis of our own conversion.
We romanticize the epistemological basis of our conversion when we represent it as being an abandonment of private judgment instead of the ultimate act of private judgment. For example, in the testimonies of those who convert, I often read statements like this: “Orthodoxy was the default option once I realized I couldn’t trust my private judgment.” The problem here should be obvious: how does one reach the conclusion that Orthodoxy is the default option, if not by private judgment? Or again, I often come across people saying that “The problem with all my studying and investigation was that I was trying to figure it for myself as an individual; but then I realized that the Orthodox Church had already figured it out and so I didn’t need to.” Again, the problem should be obvious: how can we know that the Orthodox Church can be trusted to have figured it out unless one engages in some level of study and reflection accompanied by judgments about the content of those studies? Or again, I have heard people say “Since I can’t trust my own judgment about anything, my choice was between Orthodoxy and total skepticism; my ability to know anything was on the line.” But if non-Orthodox have zero rational basis for knowing anything, then on what basis were those of us who convert able, as non-Orthodox, to make thoughtful well-informed decisions to accept the claims of Orthodoxy? And if we were not able to do that, then how is embracing Orthodoxy anything other than an arbitrary act of blind faith that has no more warrant then embracing Mormonism?
These problems only arise when dealing with those who imagine that when they chose Orthodoxy they were not choosing Orthodoxy, or those who pretend that when they made a judgment in favor of the Orthodox church that they were not exercising private judgment. Or these problems arise from convert, like the one Brad Littlejohn mentioned in his article ‘The Search For Authority and the Fear of Difference’ (http://ow.ly/E2Cxy), where we feel the burden of having to make up our own minds about religion and then imagine that making up our own mind that there is warrant for accepting the claims of the Orthodox church is somehow not another instance of making up our own mind about religion.
There is a reason why we are tempted to romanticize our journey to Orthodoxy, as if the choice of Orthodoxy is qualitatively different than the process by which we all draw inferences and make judgments. You see, recognizing that I exercised private judgment in choosing Orthodoxy is to recognize that I trusted myself to discern the Holy Spirit’s leading; it is to acknowledge that I had enough intellectual confidence to study history and draw conclusions about the claims of the Orthodox church relative to the claims of the Roman Catholic church. But any belief or decision that is downstream of trusting oneself, any belief that is downstream of us exercising a degree of intellectual confidence, can seem tenuous to one who has been worn down by the hyper-pluralism of the contemporary moment and the skepticism that often seems to arise as its natural corollary. So we fear that recognizing these realities might diminish the level of confidence and certainty we can attach to our beliefs. So instead we opt for the fanciful illusion that our journey to Orthodoxy was the only alternative to total skepticism, that it was an act of epistemological necessity once we realized the terrible burden of private judgment. That type of Orthodoxy feels more secure, yet as I have found in dialogue with those who take this path, it is an illusory security that can easily come crashing down. Wanting a type of security that promises to lift us out of the epistemological turbulence of our pluralistic moment, we romanticize our journey as if our experience is somehow immune to the epistemological processes that go into all sound thinking; as such, we have the tendency to describe our journey in a way that is psychologically reassuring while being ontologically inaccurate.
Romanticizing our journey in this way comes at a heavy cost. The cost is felt in how we approach those coming into the church, or our children if they go through a period where they doubt or need to explore other options in order to make Orthodoxy their own. Those for whom Orthodoxy is rooted in a priori certitude are in danger of becoming to their children and to other seekers like someone who has quit smoking is to other smokers. Having imagined that Orthodoxy is true axiomatically as the alternative to total skepticism, we think that a seeker who needs to study in depth and ask lots of questions only imagines that these processes are necessary for her, and maybe we will be patient for her sake even though we know that there is a preferable short-cut. Accordingly, the very idea of telling someone who wants to become Orthodox that they need to study longer (perhaps going through an entire liturgical cycle) seems strange. Having romanticized the epistemological basis of our own journey, we give new seekers the message that they have to stop thinking and just trust. As such, Orthodoxy comes to resemble a cult, and the quest for epistemological certainty actually turns into a functional fideism.
The convert who attacks private judgment is like the man who climbed a ladder and then kicked the ladder away once he reached at the top. We exercised private judgment in coming to Orthodoxy, only to turn around and attack it. More worryingly, denying that Orthodoxy is a choice is a strange bedfellow with a type of rationalism that treats it as exceedingly obvious to any thinking person. This is because we can deny that we have exercised private judgment in choosing Orthodoxy only by fostering the illusion that Orthodoxy is the only option, an illusion fostered by the spurious epistemological paradigms mentioned earlier. Thinking that Orthodoxy is the only option, we then imagine that the veracity of Her claims should be obvious to any thinking person. One who enters the Orthodox church on such grounds falls easy prey to the worst type of superiority and pride, helping to foster an atmosphere that more resembles Protestant fundamentalism than historical orthodoxy.
Another cost of epistemological romanticism is that it creates a condition akin to what certain reformed friends of mine experienced when they embraced “presuppositional apologetics”. Epistemological romanticism does to Orthodoxy what presuppositional apologetics did for Christianity in so far as it removes its grounds of warrant from the realm of history and locates it instead a priori categories that then become the precondition to all knowledge. The fall-out goes beyond mere philosophical incoherence: once Orthodoxy is removed from the realm of history it is no longer truly Orthodoxy, but a dehistoricized shell of the same. But there is no short-cut to doing history; it is ultimately on history that Orthodoxy stands or falls, not epistemology.
Recognizing that the claims of Orthodoxy are rooted in the complexities and messiness of history, not the tidy categories of an a priori epistemology, should lead to a gentler Orthodoxy. We can be softer with our children if they begin questioning Orthodoxy, we can let seekers take whatever time they need before converting, without ever imagining that these processes reveal bondage to the error of “trying to work things out for yourself.” Above all, we can respect private judgment as friend rather than foe because we recognize that we also exercised private judgment when we chose to convert, and every day when we choose to remain in the Orthodox faith we are exercising private judgment.
Another cost that comes with this epistemological romanticism is that it can lead to a low tolerance to ambiguity, a discomfort with the grey areas within Orthodoxy, and a fear of uncertainty concerning those areas where the teaching of the church raises more questions than if offers answers. The epistemological romanticism is a way of escaping from the ambiguities and confusions of the modern world by retreating into a mindset that promises to offer absolute clarity. But Orthodoxy is not a religion of absolute clarity. It is a religion of mystery, paradox and intellectual messiness. Similarly, our respective journeys into Orthodoxy are often messy, ambiguous and even illogical. This reality is in danger of being denied if we fall prey to the type of crude apologetics that absurdly presents Orthodoxy as the necessary alternative to total skepticism and the default position once we recognize that private judgment is suspect.
Those who have been worn down by the Protestant “heretical imperative” may find it hard to acknowledge that the marketplace of ideas is inescapable. Yet I have suggested that without such an acknowledgement, we are in no position to understand the challenges that face us and our children. But we are also not in a position to appreciate the advantages afforded by the religious marketplace. Think about it: if it were not for the fact that America is a hyper-pluralistic religious marketplace, most of us converts would never have discovered Orthodoxy. If we were born in Puritan New England, where our religious tradition was received without us having any meaningful choice of options, would that be a good thing from an Orthodoxy perspective? Without pluralism, without the internet, without the religious smorgasbord that makes up American diversity, Eastern Orthodoxy would not be the fastest growing Christian group in America today. Similarly, if it were not for the fact Americans are used to making choices, that religious conversion from one place to another place is part of the modus operandi of what it means to be American, Orthodoxy would not occupy the place that it does in American life.
Before closing, I would like to share one more drawback to the mentality that I have called ‘epistemological romanticism’ The drawback is that we create obstacles for those who aren’t Orthodox by practically inviting the reductio ad absurdum. I speak here from experience, because for years I avoided Orthodoxy in part because of this very inconsistency that seemed central to Orthodox apologetics. Every few years I would visit an Orthodox church and feel hungry to go deeper into it, only to have my enthusiasm dampened by well-meaning Orthodox enthusiasts who told me that I couldn’t trust my private judgment. “Well,” I thought, “if I can’t trust my private judgment then there is no point in me studying Orthodoxy further since, by its own criteria, I will never be able to reach judgments about its veracity.” This problem featured centrally in the anti-Orthodox polemics I engaged in at the time, as anyone can see by consulting the archives on my old blog. For example, in a post from 2008 at http://ow.ly/E2Brx I interacted with one Orthodox apologist by saying, “You suggest that meeting the conditions necessary to know that the Orthodox Church is the true church does not historically refer to private judgment. Let me ask you a question: when you decided to leave Protestantism and join the Orthodox tradition, were you exercising your private judgment? When, after reading the church fathers, you realized that God wanted you to leave Anglo-Catholicism and join the Orthodox Church, were you exercising private judgment that your interpretation of the fathers was correct? When you realized that because we are all sinners we need an infallible interpreter, how do you know that you picked the right infallible interpreter? You may have had good reasons for choosing the Orthodox Church as the right infallible interpreter, but in the end you exercised private judgment in making an informed choice. If you didn’t, then why are we having this conversation?”
Similarly, in another post from 2008 (at http://ow.ly/E2Bxm) I quoted Douglas Wilson as saying: “As an epistemological question, private judgment is an inescapable concept. The only question is whether we will exercise it poorly or well, with knowledge or in ignorance. Roman Catholics exercise private judgment as much as the stoutest Protestant. But for various reasons, they just won’t admit what they are doing.”…
“As you are considering a return to Rome, I want to urge you to remember all the different ways in which private judgment will necessarily still be exercised by you. First, as you know, Rome requires you to “come home.” But, as your minister, I have required that you not go there, that you remain a faithful Protestant. Now, who makes the decision between these two competing authoritative voices? Who decides which voice is not genuinely authoritative? And incidentally, there are far more than just these two choices. Countless other groups beckon you as well. In all this, the ultimate decision will be made by you. This means that this is a dilemma that cannot be escaped. If I were to be asked by a Roman Catholic how I know my private interpretation is correct (over against the hubbub of all other private interpretations out there), I can reply with the same question. “Assume for a moment that we agree that we sinners all have need of an infallible interpreter. How do you know that you have picked the right infallible interpreter?”
Similarly, Kevin Johnson wrote at http://ow.ly/E2BQA that one of Robert Arakaki’s articles “is a thoroughly modern approach to the entire subject and betrays no small amount of private judgment in the first place in looking at these things” while someone else commented about another article (see http://ow.ly/E2BVc) that “you used your own private judgment to adjudicate the claims of Orthodoxy and Rome.”
It’s hard to avoid the fact that these critics do have a point. But they only have a point in response to the type of half-backed apologetics that have become fashionable within American Orthodoxy where we say “You can’t trust private judgment, so make a private judgment to become Orthodox, only don’t call it that…”
Suffice to say, we all exercise private judgment, so that should not be an issue. The question is whether our private judgment is well-informed by church tradition, or whether it exists in a vacuum of my own subjectivity. That’s the issue at stake. It’s a matter of HOW I’m using private judgment not WHETHER I am.
Does any of this make sense? Has anyone else encountered the types of constructions I am criticizing?
Robin, I think you make some good points about the unescapable reality that we have to exercise our reason in coming to any decision, although it has often been the case for those coming to Christ that experiential evidence trumps what might otherwise seem “reasonable” to the contrary, e.g., St. Paul’s encounter with Christ on the Damascus Road. Oftentimes in moments of real spiritual illumination, the “reasonableness” of our decision is less the product of an inner intellectual process of logical deduction than that of an immediate perception of the “reasonableness” of the Truth of Christ as He presents Himself to our awareness!
As Orthodox we recognize the responsible use of reason is necessary in proportion to each one’s rational capacity (but not sufficient in and of itself) to bring us to a growing knowledge of and encounter with the truth of Christ in His Church. This is true at least in concept for most Protestants as well. It’s likely there are Orthodox would-be apologists who make too much of the issue of “private judgment” among those in the Sola Scriptura camp. I think the real issue for those who embrace a Protestant understanding of Sola Scriptura is learning to recognize that it is not simply the words and authority of Scripture driving their understanding and choice of religious affiliation/disaffiliation (and Scripture’s interpretation), but certain traditions of Scripture’s interpretation and to learn to think critically about those as well. The issue of “private judgment” where this is a legitimate concern, it seems to me, is not so much a disallowing of the necessity of the responsible exercise of reason in processes of spiritual discernment, but a rebuke of the stubborn and prideful preference for one’s own idiosyncratic opinion in the face of a clear dogmatic ruling to the contrary and an idolatrous reliance on unaided human reason (which is so embedded in our rationalistic culture, it is often hidden from our view when we are doing this–especially if we embrace, at least in concept, that the Holy Spirit must also illumine us). In this sense, I believe a blanket condemnation of “private judgement” against most Protestants is unwarranted–since many of them are simply being faithful in submitting themselves to a received confessional doctrinal tradition deemed to be “apostolic” and “orthodox” as well. It would be well to acknowledge and respect that and just to give an answer when asked for the hope that we have in our Orthodox faith, always, as the Apostle Peter says, “with gentleness and reverence”, knowing that the conviction of the truth for another is dependent on the work of the Holy Spirit in his heart, not on the adeptness of our intellectual apologetics. Our job is to focus on our own faithfulness and repentance and leave to God to take care of that in another’s life (whether they are inside or outside the Church).
Aka makes a good observation in his first paragraph as well it seems to me.
I have heard these arguments and had these discussions for a long time, but they always seem to strike me as really smart people losing the forest for the trees and wrestling with a minute academic point because they do not (yet, immediately, rhetorically) fully understand how it fits with the whole. That’s not a critique of either you or Richard, really, it’s just always been my reaction to what a common conundrum, but only among those who have ever had recourse to use the word ‘epistemological’ in a sentence. 🙂
The best traditional, Orthodox example of when such a private judgement for authority and obedience has been exercised is the case of monasticism. I choose that life, at that monastery, in that land, under that spiritual father, etc. over and against any number of other lives.
The pre-modern world wasn’t so parochial, people moved around, and people ended up in all sorts of different places and roles than they were born into, though nothing like the kind of socio-economic mobility we have in the West. And while the choice between, say, Orthodoxy and Islam, or Orthodoxy and Catholicism, etc. may have been a more limited choice than we have today, it was really a difference in degree rather than kind. People have never simply been cattle born into a station in life and unthinkingly always remaining in such no matter what. – and that’s as true of things religious as anything else. We have not choice about what faith or situation or culture we are born into, but we have always had choices about how we react to that, what type or shade of the faith, what type and degree of religious practice, etc. All that preaching through time against sin, against impiety, against wrong belief, etc. was because those were realities in a every ‘golden age’ of faith and culture – just as they are today. Every prophet and every saint decried ‘these days’ in favor of ‘those days’ and that ‘day to come’, and these days are no different, even in Orthodoxy, even in America.
Since making those observations above, I have got a lot of helpful feedback from friends and have clarified my observations at http://www.salvomag.com/unpragmatic-thoughts/?p=775
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