Choosing Orthodoxy

The Calling of the Apostles

There is a critique in Orthodox convert circles, especially in what one reads on the Internet, of the “problem” of converting to Orthodox Christianity. Part of the problem, the argument goes, with American culture is its emphasis on conscious choice, that is, consumerism. We are bombarded nearly non-stop by our advertisement culture to make various selections which will be sure to enrich our lives and (most critically) the stock values of corporate shareholders. This mindset finds its way into everything, and religion becomes boutiqued, bourgeois, commercialized, smorgasbordized (if I may).

As such, someone who chooses to become an Orthodox Christian is still really just continuing in his consumer approach to personal life, culture, religion, etc. He may seem to be becoming Orthodox, but because he made a conscious choice to do so, such an act is inherently heterodox and therefore, well, wrong. Ergo, we must conclude that converts really are not truly Orthodox. The norm, you see, is Holy Russia, Imperial Byzantium, etc., where one true religion was the norm, no one made a conscious choice of it, and faith was never commercialized. There may even be some lauding for the compulsory side of this whole business and how much more authentic that really is.

I’ll be quite frank and say that I think that idea is utter garbage.

For one thing, it’s mostly converts who seem to advance this argument, and any argument that necessitates self-loathing is immediately suspect. (And one must ask how these people know what they’re saying to be true, since, by their own definition, they’re not really Orthodox.) But of course I believe the critique has its merits, which is why it seems to have some life and gets repeated every so often. The consumerism of America is a serious problem, and its siren call to put the Almighty Me at the center of everything is indeed a vicious and spiritually debilitating evil. But our problem isn’t the choosing. Our problem is bad choices. My problem is choosing Me.

The norm is not some mythical Holy Nation. The norm, if there is one, is the time of the Apostles, a time where every single Christian made a conscious choice to be one. In the first few generations, relatively few were baptized as infants. Instead, what we see are thousands upon thousands of grown-ups making deliberate choices to become Christians. There was no compulsion to it—indeed, compulsion tended to lead away from the Church. Compulsion was at the hands of the state, which was all too happy to butcher Christ’s followers.

The first Christians lived in a time when there was a lot of religion to choose from. It was pretty normal for most people in the Roman Empire to be poly-religious in one way or another. The notion of One True Faith was something new with Christianity. Monotheism, while on the scene before Christ, really was not a major worldwide force until the Apostles started making it one. So if you were a Gentile, you just picked from plenty of gods, whichever you happened to need for the moment.

But Christ sent the Apostles to call the Gentiles out from that vain world. But one had to answer the call, and in answering that call, converts made a deliberate, conscious choice. I really dare any of these self-loathers to tell me that people like the Apostles and those they converted from among both the Jews and the Gentiles were really not authentically Orthodox because they made a choice to become Christian.

A man who is a philanderer who gets married and settles down is not engaging in more philandering by virtue of choosing one woman to be his wife. He is leaving that life behind, choosing one woman to the exclusion of all others and continually making the conscious, daily choice to remain faithful to her.

Where this self-loathing argument fails is that it assumes we are meant for slavery and that freedom is the real problem. But Christ doesn’t call us to slavery, but to freedom. And in that freedom, we freely choose union with Him. And we have to keep choosing it. Faithfulness is not something one is born into.

Nor is the true Christian life authenticated by virtue of having no will of one’s own. Indeed, this is a kind of monothelitism, in which the will of God so swallows up the human will that the latter is utterly erased. But the Christian, like Christ, is to have a human will in obedience to the divine will. Even the monastic who “renounces” his will does not become an automaton. He still exercises his will to be obedient to his monastic superior.

If this claim regarding the inauthenticity of converts’ Orthodoxy may be likened to a kind of Calvinism, another distortion of Orthodox Christian spirituality is like a sort of semi-Calvinism common to Evangelicals. Many Evangelicals believe in “once saved, always saved,” that your will is operative in choosing Christ, but it immediately becomes inoperative ever after. In the “Orthodox” variant on this doctrine, which a friend of mine calls the “blessing culture,” you are permitted to choose to become Orthodox. But everything you do after that has to have a “blessing” from your “spiritual father,” who is probably your poor parish priest, who now finds himself responsible not only for hearing your confession and giving you spiritual advice, but also must weigh in on what job you will take, whether you will buy a new car, etc. And you must never do anything at all without his direct permission.

Again, this is a form of slavery, and it is not worth the dignity of man. God did not create us to hand over all responsibility for our lives to another person, to turn off our minds. The authentic Christian is not the lobotomized man, but the man whose mind has been transformed by renewal. Again, even a monastic who is obedient to his superior makes the choice to stay in the monastery and to keep on keepin’ on.

Be a man, I say (with no apologies to the women, who know what I mean)! Your life is yours. You can use your will to choose Christ, to choose holiness, to choose to dive into the great depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God. Or you can choose to live hellishly. He’s calling you. Are you listening? Will you respond?

You gotta choose.

9 comments:

  1. Thank you for writing this, Father.

    Having come recently out of the so called Emergent dialog where very much hand wringing is done about how to avoid commercializing the message “the way all those mega-churches have done”, and before that having been a convert to the RCC and before that having been raised UMC, I have spent a lot of time over-thinking whether or not my journey into Orthodoxy, rather than being a tear-filled coming Home after 20 years of wandering on the brink of despair, was instead nothing more than the clinching evidence of just how cliched an American I am as I shop til I drop through the Galleria of Churches.

    I know. Deep down, I know. I was thirsty, and now I have water to drink. I was hungry, and now I have bread and wine to sustain me. I was alone, and now I have an army of Saints defending and encouraging me. I know.

    But I think too much. Of course, it was thinking too much in the first place that put me on the journey which eventually led me Home. So thinking too much isn’t really the problem; like choosing and bad choices, it is what and how I think about not the thinking itself that causes me to doubt.

    I may have chosen, I may even have made, God forbid, a consumerist style choice, because being a consumer may be all I know, right now.

    But I know that I am -done- choosing. This is the last choice about religion I will ever need to make. And -that- is what makes becoming Orthodox fundamentally different from American consumerism. Consumerism tells you that next year, next season, next month, you’ll need The New Model. You have to keep choosing, keep buying, keep consuming.

    Orthodoxy may be something we choose, but it isn’t something we consume.

    Thank you again.

  2. Well done. Excellent and welcome piece.

    Now if you can only deal with the Drawbridge Syndrome that’d be good, too, ’cause it may be at work here as well. DS is where we make our conversion, and then raise the drawbridge to keep the rest of the riff raff out. It’s as if now that we’ve found the last pristine bastion of vacation land, suburbs, or yes… even a church… it was okay and fine for us to come, move in and do our thing because there was still an opening, but somehow the magic of the “perfect balance” will be upset if we have to take on one more… and then the whole place goes to hell. Heck, someone might even have to lift a finger besides the priest? Ya’ think? There’s something about preening one’s self-image by requiring higher standards of the next guy.

    In fairness, there is something in our DNA and American character that I guess found crowds an issue, and kept folks moving West back in the day… and it wasn’t just cheap land. Might be some of the toughness involved in the hard realities of loving one’s fellow man.

    As I read somewhere the other day: Some folks love the idea of other people more than the reality… we need folks who love the reality. And this rubs hard up against the pattern of silence, of withdrawal and stilling the old man that is so much a part of things here. So it may be we simply have a problem adapting a linear process to a multi-tasking environment where we can’t all just up and withdraw to the forest or desert for 40 years, before returning with peace and equanimity. Thus, maybe our problem isn’t self-loathing so much as confusion.

    May be something to put in the old pipe and smoke over. I sure don’t have any answers on it. Seems to support Abbot Meletios Webber’s comment that between monasticism and marriage both are hard, but “marriage is probably harder”. Hmmmmm.

    1. There is a counter-problem now, in both our country and in too many churches, in reaction to the we-can’t-even-one-more problem: the we’ll take anybody with a pulse problem. Churches taking in people who are proudly unrepentant of obvious sins (I’m trying to delicately avoid the big red hot button issue explicitly here), and people insisting our country should have no boundaries or borders and anyone and everyone can show up whenever they please and join the crowd.

      As with almost everything, there is a correct way somewhere between the extremes.

  3. Fr. Andrew,

    I wonder whether the poor argument you mention isn’t sometimes confused with the real problem of choosing Orthodox Christianity as one of ‘several legitimate options’, albeit the one that appeals most to me. Either a xenophilia or best-case-scenario refuge from one’s previous confession.

    I tell my catechumens that whatever initially drew them to Orthodoxy, the only reason to enter–and stay in–the Orthodox Church is because we believe it to be the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. At this point, personal feelings on liturgical arts and theological talking points (aka ecclesiastical brand identity) begin to melt away in the gravity of what it is they are really undertaking.

    I wonder if some of what is unfortunately presented to inquirers is more of the brand-identity type of church marketing. Orthodoxy (c) is the best-case scenario, yet implicit is the idea that we are simply the best of several viable options. The problem with this is not choice, but the understanding of just what it is one is choosing, and what one is leaving behind.

    1. Yes, precisely.

      There is of course also the problem with those who become Orthodox and then apostasize. The problem there of course may well be that the person never understood his choice to become Orthodox correctly, or it may be that he did and that he changed his mind. Whatever the case, the problem isn’t a Fatal Flaw of Choosing, but rather of making the wrong choices.

      When I speak with potential catechumens, I always make it clear that we accept them as catechumens on the grounds that they’re doing this for life and that they are willing to be corrected by the Church in cases where something doesn’t make sense or they don’t agree. They all agree to that, of course. That doesn’t stop some from bailing out at some point, nevertheless. But we have to accept the good faith in front of us.

      Christ accepted Judas, after all, even though He knew exactly what the outcome would be. And most of us are not dealing with outright traitors to the faith but rather simply with the variability of the will that comes with the Fall. This is ultimately what Maximos the Confessor is talking about when he locates sin the the gnomic will, i.e., the will that is given to wavering and choosing. That we have to make choices is indeed a product of the Fall, but it is not inherently sinful to make them. Rather, we are called with God’s grace to make them in such a way, to train ourselves ascetically in such a way that we get to the point where we don’t have to make them any more, where our wills behave according to the created design for our nature and not against it.

  4. Father, I have a question that is semi-related to the whole idea of choosing the Orthodox Church. I am interested in converting to the Church, and when this comes up in conversation with people, I try to explain why I am doing so. People usually interpret this explanation as “Well, I’m glad you found the best fit for YOU” with the implicit “You better not say that any other denominations are ‘not true’ or ‘any less Christian.'” How do I convey that I believe the Orthodox Church is the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church without falling into a relativistic position or sounding “judgmental” or condemnatory of other denominations?

    1. How you approach this will depend greatly on the relationship you have with the person. It also depends significantly whether they’re really interested in questions of what is true and what isn’t.

      Assuming you have a good relationship, and also assuming they have some readiness to encounter truth that makes one accountable, I find the best way is usually to begin the discussion by talking about “historic” Christianity. Before I was received into the Church, I became convinced that the Church the Apostles were in wasn’t the one I was in, and I wanted to be with them.

      It may also be helpful explicitly to say things like, “I can’t take the journey for anyone else, nor am I judging anyone else’s sincerity or eternal destination. But I know that this is right, that it is the right thing to do, not because it fits with me, but because I have to fit with it. Some things are bigger than my personal preferences.”

      But some people will always feel “judged” if you say that this is right and that is wrong. If you want someone else to be the bad guy in saying that stuff, feel free to send ’em the direction of my Orthodoxy & Heterodoxy podcasts. 🙂 (Or the forthcoming book!)

  5. I find this very interesting because I come from a traditional Anglican background when the old 1662 Prayer Book was still in use.
    Worship was about saying the Lord’s Prayer, reciting the Creed, chanting or singing the psalms, singing ancient hymns that had real depth, and partaking of Communion.
    The Anglican Church has abandoned all that.
    When I came to Orthodoxy, it was more like ‘coming home’ than a ‘conversion’ because I understood that what I had grown up with was actually a muted form of Orthodoxy.
    It is a relief to be able to pray and worship as I did growing up, but even more so in Orthodoxy.
    I experienced Evangelical Christianity as it is always in the background, but it has always felt inauthentic to me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *