One of my long standing areas of interests is Eastern Orthodoxy. Sparked many moons ago in a course at Redeemer University College, I have continued in fascination for these many years. I was thrilled while at McMaster Divinity College we were given the assignment for Church History class to attend an Eastern Orthodox service. Having already done so in the past, I was looking forward to “skipping” church to be part of a worship service in the Orthodox tradition- worship which embraces beauty, tradition, wonder, awe and experiential grace.
I think part of the reason I find it so fascinating is that I find myself in a place of tension. I adamantly disagree with large chunks of their doctrinal positions (paedobaptism, praying to saints, among other issues). But then when I read the spiritual side, I am floored. The intimacy of the Holy Spirit and worship which is engaging of the whole self blows my Western trained mind. Outside of Scripture, the book which has most informed my spiritual development is Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Way, which outlines the basic views and practice of Orthodoxy. Particularly appealing is the chapter called “God as Mystery” which outlines the tension of a God transcendent yet imminent, omnipotent yet tender. Ware writes, “We see that it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery.” (Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003, 14). Further,
God is not the conclusion to a process of reasoning, the solution to a mathematical problem. To believe in God is not to accept the possibility of his existence because it has been “proved” to us by some theoretical argument, but to put our trust in One whom we know and love. Faith is not the supposition that something might be true, but the assurance that someone is there. (Ibid. 16)
While I hope that few protestants would find this objectionable, my struggle is the fact that Protestantism rose up alongside the rise of rationalism, and so we have this Westernized approach of making all things about the intellect. Am I an anti-intellectual? No, absolutely not. I love study. But I find it drab, boring and dull if it is not rooted in something tangible. A gospel which is an idea to receive my intellectual assent, or perhaps the sum total of doctrines I must adhere to does not appeal to me- and I find it dangerous. If the gospel is rooted in doctrine(s), then salvation rests on being on the right team, thinking the right stuff, and given Christians inability to find consensus, and our propensity for schism and anathematizing, I would fracture psychologically pondering whether I had the right doctrine or if the other guys were right and heaven and hell rested solely on this decision. I find comfort in knowing that my doctrine will always fall short, but my salvation rest on God’s character and my trust in that. There needs to be a place for Holy Mystery. Where we throw up our arms and say, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). We won’t “get” God intellectually. As Evagrius of Pontus writes, “God cannot be grasped by the mind. If he could be grasped, he would not be God.” The Orthodox apophatic approach to theology can be helpful- the idea that the human mind and language cannot fathom or describe God meaning we must then understanding that anything we proclaim about God is simply insufficient (negation to a positive effect). Of course, the Orthodox are without their own doctrinal debates and conflicts, but out of that has developed this understanding that even correct doctrine can only get us so far. God’s grace which extends down in revelation and experience, which is completely mysterious, is that which we can rest in.
Similarly, worship which consists of sing a few hymns, take up the offering hear a sermon, sing a song go home can get old very quickly. Orthodoxy when done poorly can be just as mechanized, some would argue even moreso. But when authentically lived out, Orthodox spirituality engages the mind while still being mystically oriented- we can experience and think about a God who is beyond us. Our worship “box”- the framework in which we feel at home can actually be limiting. The Orthodox liturgy may look mechanized or like vain superstitious repetition, but they understand each celebration of the liturgy to be an avenue for real grace- the actual worship of God is not the liturgy itself, but worship goes beyond- mystic union of the church universal gathering in recognition of the God who is outside time and space. Us baptists may affirm it in word, but seldom do we operate on that assumption. We simply do what we do because we get it.
I am a Baptist. There’s no way around that. But I have a love-hate relationship with my own denominational identity. My perspectives on baptism (more to come on that one- as I’m embroiled in some cool reading on Baptism in the early church), the priesthood of all believers, among other doctrinal issues leave me solidly within the Baptist community. However, I struggle at times, feeling like our doctrines don’t flow where they should, and don’t allow room for Holy Mystery, for authority of the called and gifted, and for a faith which rightly engages the mind and the spirit.
Luckily though, I’m also a Canadian and can, when necessary, play the fence, and enjoy the best of both.