I was recently passed on a question by my grandmother from some of my non-Orthodox relations who live out in the mountains of Western North Carolina. The question was whether, in my preaching, there is room for a “personal Gospel.” I must be honest that I don’t know exactly what that phrase means, but I cannot imagine they are asking whether I am “allowed” to make up my own doctrine. After all, they are fairly conservative Evangelical Protestant believers who no doubt believe that truth is truth and that relativism is utter bunk. (There, we very much agree.)
But perhaps what is being asked is really about freedom. My mind has dwelt in this area again of late, as I have become occasionally aware of debates raging between Protestants regarding an “emergent” preacher who at least seems to be espousing the doctrine of universalism (that every person will be saved by God no matter what they do or believe). Those who oppose him are claiming “orthodoxy” as their authority, while those who support him (or at least oppose the opponents) mock orthodoxy, though they mock it as the West understands it—absolute adherence to formulaic, conceptual systems. This gives rise to the attitude sneered at by those who oppose it, “dogmatism.” Thus, the “orthodox” are those who “think they know everything.” As a friend of mine once put it to me: “It must be so exhausting to be so right all the time!” For him, orthodoxy was about “being right.”
I also thought about this question of freedom and what being Orthodox actually means when the subject has again risen to the forefront of the national consciousness of the question of same-sex marital unions (due to the passing of a law by the state of New York). (Of course, it is important to have some perspective here. 41 out of 50 American states have either explicit constitutional (29) or statutory (12) bans on same-sex marriage. In the 28 states that have put up constitutional amendments to a vote, it has passed in all 28. So who knows how long this latest bit of news will really last?)
The issue, for me, has come down to this question: How “Orthodox” do you have to be in your mind in order to be Orthodox?
Is Orthodoxy about thinking the right things? Is it about saying the right words? Is it about signing on to a list of dogmatic and moral precepts? Is it about a fundamental lack of freedom?
I think that, for most of the world, that is, indeed, what the word orthodoxy means, that it is a synonym for another word denoting something hateful, dogmatic. Given my love for language, though, I am not willing to cede this linguistic territory to them. Orthodoxy doesn’t have to mean that, and for the Orthodox Christian, it doesn’t.
Orthodoxy really is a glorious word (literally!). The orthos literally means “straight,” but of course it metaphorically means “true” or “reliable.” The doxa portion of the word can mean any and all of the following: notion, opinion, teaching, glory, worship, praise, reputation, judgment (i.e., a discernment), expectation, imagining, fancy, dream, vision, effulgence and splendor. And I daresay that for the Orthodox Church, orthodoxy means all of those things together. Orthodoxy is the straight/true/reliable notion/opinion/teaching/glory/worship/praise/reputation/judgment/expectation/imagining/fancy/dream/vision/effulgence/splendor. Those who think orthodoxy is really just about a set of concepts and words are either ignoring or unaware of the rest of this vast universe of meaning.
And that bring us to my response both to my relatives and to the general feeling about dogma and orthodoxy that seems (a pun here on dogma, which comes from the Greek for “it seems”) to be out there in the culture. Orthodoxy as it is known and practiced by the Orthodox Church is not a set of concepts or teachings. Those teachings are just one element of what Orthodoxy is. Fundamentally, the commitment to Orthodoxy is not commitment to a position paper but rather to a particular community, to communion.
Therefore, of course when I preach I use my own words to express what needs to be said, and they are specifically tailored to the community who is worshiping with me, which is one with the worldwide, particular and historic communion of Orthodoxy. I can indeed make use of a “personal Gospel” if that is understood to mean that I bring my own personal experiences and expression to the fore when communicating the faith. But what I should be communicating is the faith, not my private opinions. I am not “free” to make up doctrine or to reimagine it such that it contradicts or alters the deposit of faith once delivered to the saints. The truth is the truth, and the Apostles were given all the truth, not a portion of it that later needs to be debated or expanded upon.
Freedom truly is not a question of getting to do or say whatever I want. That’s really about licentiousness. Freedom is rather power to do something, specifically, to do what God created me to be able to do. As I become more and more like Him, my ability to be truly natural grows. If I decide to become less like Him, then my power dwindles. Yes, there is a sort of “freedom” in that, in the sense that I am free to find a prison and lock myself up in it.
But as I said, Orthodoxy is a community, not concepts. There is a great deal of freedom within that community to express the one faith in a multitude of ways. Life in any household can be surprising and variable, and it grows and changes over the years. But we cannot walk out on the Father of the house and say that we are still members of the household. We cannot live in active defiance of the Father of the house and say that we are still members of the household. We cannot go build a new house, set ourselves up as the father, and rightly claim that it is the same household. Dogma is simply the outer boundaries of what the household is, and because dogma is fundamentally about a Person—Jesus Christ—and not about concepts, then transgressing those boundaries is not a “thought crime” but a break in relationship.
So does that mean that the Father wants to control even our thoughts? When do the personal opinions of church members—even if they contradict the teachings of the Church—put them outside the household of faith? Traditionally, the Church’s approach to this question is only in terms of those who set themselves up as teachers, specifically as teachers who are in opposition to the teachers whose task it is to hand on the one faith from Christ. That is what heresy is, choosing to be in opposition and most especially seeking to lead others in that opposition.
I’ve known plenty of people who are formally members of the Orthodox Church who believe that abortion is perfectly acceptable, that homosexual acts are perfectly acceptable, that it’s okay to gamble, to lie, to steal, to cheat, to commit suicide, to commit euthanasia, etc., etc. And these beliefs sometimes affect their behavior, as well. Most of the time, all of these things are addressed within the private, pastoral relationship between them and their confessor. The question of excommunication usually only ever comes up if they take these teachings and use them to create a disruption in the Church.
In looking at the canonical tradition of the Orthodox Church, one notes that the canons almost never address beliefs or opinions. They are mostly concerned with behavior. But where they do address beliefs, it is in terms of “those who teach,” not “those who believe” or “those who think.” But even their approach to destructive behaviors is about the path to restoration, not the path to exclusion.
After all, we are all sinners. Every single one of us. I may not be tempted by a particular sin, but I’m sure tempted by a lot of others. And I fail constantly. The difference here is not between the sinners and the non-sinners, but between sinners who choose to struggle against the fallenness we have inherited from Adam and Eve and those who set up that fallenness as the “new normal.” We are all called to be perfect.
So we have the choice of striving toward perfection (probably not to achieve it in this life, but quite possibly in the next) or deciding not to strive. It seems to me that the free man is the striver. Yes, there are beliefs proper to the Orthodox Christian, but they are not a system of concepts but rather the experience of a Person. If we say that Orthodoxy believes that the Son of God is of one essence with the Father, it is not because we are holding up some academic concept that has little bearing on real life. Rather it is because that is how God has actually revealed Himself, and because we want to know Him for Who He really is, not for what we’d like Him to be or what we think He is. After all, life eternal (you do want life eternal, don’t you?), is about knowing God, not about adherence to concepts. And the more we know God, the freer we become.
My experience of Orthodoxy is that it is very much characterized by freedom. Though there is instruction on the beliefs of the Church, no one goes around telling people what to think, mounting up witch hunts to see who’s committing thought crimes and holding wrong opinions. (There’s also plenty of instruction on what to do, but what did you expect? What’s the point of religion that doesn’t have any standards?) Yes, there is a clear shape to the life of the household of faith, but there are many ways of living within it. No, not all the ways the world has in mind will work within the household. But that is not because there is no freedom. It is because those ways lead to enmity and destruction. Those ways are not bad because they’re “wrong.” They’re bad because they’re counter to the design the Father put in place when He created everything. If you’re trying to glue thin pieces of balsa wood together, a hammer is not the right tool for the job. No one is violating your “freedom” if they say not to use a hammer and instead offer you some glue and a vise.
Orthodoxy isn’t about limiting anyone. It doesn’t chain people. Orthodoxy grants wings. Orthodoxy grants vision. Orthodoxy fuels the great fire within humanity, allowing it to blaze with the uncreated light of God Himself. Anyone who thinks that’s limiting has either never really touched it or really has a thing for the, ahem, “other side.”
The evidence of the freedom of the Church’s life is to be found in the saints. Sin, like all addiction, is boring, repetitive, ugly, and destructive, while the holiness of the lives of the saints is characterized by glorious variation. Their lives are a peacock’s panoply of color, of all the amazing and curious possibility that human nature may achieve.
Note: This post is not about whether same-sex marriage should be legal, about whether or not Orthodoxy actually teaches traditional marriage (it does!), etc. Comments along those lines won’t be published, not because I’m a censorious meanie, but because there are many thousands of other places online to discuss such things, and I don’t care to make this one of them. My house, my rules.