Recently I was asked the following question from someone who listens to the podcast version of this blog. The question goes like this:
I have been trying to figure out where Jesus Christ, His Work, and the
Gospel message fits within all this inner work stuff.
Is a right understanding of God necessary for this inner work to take place?
Or is a person’s best understanding of God all that is needed to begin the
I hope my question make sense. For example, if I have a new Age
understanding of God and I heard this podcast about transformation and inner
work, could I just jump right in or would I put myself in spiritual danger
I don’t know the religious background of the person who asked this question, but my guess would be that the person comes from a Evangelical(ish) background. Maybe I think this because the question is so similar to the kind of question I might have asked thirty years ago when I first encountered the spiritual writing of many Roman Catholics and indeed of some of the earlier Church Fathers (I didn’t encounter contemporary Orthodox fathers until several years later).
As an Evangelical, I had been taught that everything that is really important (spiritually speaking) has to do with introducing people to Jesus Christ. Presenting Christ was almost everything. I believed that once one was reconciled with God through Christ–which I understood to be a legal transaction–everything that was really important in one’s relationship with God had been taken care of. This assumption, or something very like it, pervades Evangelical writing.
My criticism of much writing published by Evangelical publishing houses is very similar to my criticism of the theological writing published by East German theological journals in the 1960s and 70s (my undergraduate degree was in German, focusing on Luther). While the author of a theological article in a religious journal published in the DDR may have had something very interesting and insightful to say, he or she had to imbed the insight between bookends praising the glories of the communist state. Similarly, I am sometimes frustrated by the writing of some Evangelicals who seem to think that every insightful idea about God, theology or the inner life must lead to an altar call of some sort or another. Nonetheless, this seems to be what Evangelicals are used to.
Consequently, just focusing on the issue at hand may seem strange to those who are used to hearing theological ideas expressed in such a way that they always lead to a so-you-have-to-accept-Jesus-Christ crescendo. However, if one is assuming an already Christian audience, and (even more significantly) if one assumes that the human problem is not legal, but is best understood using medical metaphors, then there is no need for the Evangelical crescendo because the whole message is evangelical (i.e. according to the teaching of and about Jesus Christ). It is evangelical not because it aims to solve one’s problem with sin getting them to accept an altered legal state before God, but because it strives to heal the soul by applying the teachings of Jesus Christ, assuming that death has been conquered through Christ’s death and resurrection.
But let’s move on to the question at hand. Does one need to have a proper theological understanding to begin applying the teachings of Jesus Christ as they have been understood and proclaimed by the Orthodox Church? Well to begin with almost all Orthodox spiritual writers assume that their readers are already very devout Orthodox Christians. But even if we grant this, the reality is that the theological understanding of any particular devout Orthodox Christian could range widely. I know many heterodox Christians (i.e. out of communion with the Holy Orthodox Church) whose theological understanding is much more Orthodox, more solidly in tune with the actual teaching of the Holy Orthodox Church, than is the theological understanding of many devout, communing Orthodox Christians. Memorizing the Creed is no guarantee for understanding it.
If God waited for us to understand Orthodox theology correctly before He began healing our soul, I don’t think anyone would ever be saved. In fact, it is only as we begin to draw near to God (in response to the work of the Holy Spirit) that we begin to be healed (mentally, morally, spiritually–in all areas mangled by sin). And as we are healed, we are actually able to understand–no that is not the right word–we are able to know God more and more as God Himself is (insofar as God can be known by human beings). And we also come to know ourselves. Which comes first is a kind of chicken or the egg problem.
But, you might ask, what if a person with an Islamic or a New Age or even an atheist theological perspective came across Christian spiritual writing? Would there be any danger in him or her trying to apply it? Well, on the one hand, of course there would be danger. There is always danger when we approach God. St. Isaac the Syrian, for example, issues many strong warnings to those who read his words, warnings written to people he assumes are already right-believing Orthodox Christians. I would imagine that if one has absolutely no idea of the basics of the Christian Gospel, spiritual writing written for Christians might prove to be even more dangerous. However, on the other hand, Jesus did say that if anyone would do his will, he will know the teaching (John 7:17). Doing seems indeed to precede knowing–at least according to John’s Gospel. I know several Orthodox converts who began their journey to Holy Orthodoxy not by understanding its theology, but by practicing its spirituality. I’ll grant, however, that all of these were already Christians of some sort when they began.
I don’t know what might happen if someone from a New Age or Buddhist or animist background began repenting of behaviour and attitudes that he or she already knew were sinful, began begging Jesus for mercy (saying the Jesus Prayer), fasting, giving alms to the poor, and seeking advice from an Orthodox spiritual father. Who knows what might happen. I haven’t seen it yet. Certainly, he or she would probably experience a great deal of delusion (but I don’t know if it would be any more delusion than he or she is already experiencing). But then again, everyone’s growth in their relationship with God and the healing of their broken lives and minds is a process, a journey. I know I have experienced a great deal of delusion along the way, and I still have a long, long way to go. Perhaps someone beginning with a New Age theological perspective would experience even more delusion than I have (although that’s hard to imagine). But even if that were the case, I’m pretty confident that God could handle that. I’m pretty confident that the same Christ who has shown mercy to me is able to show mercy to anyone who asks for it.