Sunday, October 28, 2012

Journey to Orthodoxy (part 3)

In the previous post I listed some of the issues that were the impetus to my exploring Orthodoxy seriously. The first thing this meant was securing a better understanding of the Early Church and its own self-understanding, which in turn meant reading the Early Church Fathers. The first place I turned was the Cappadocian Fathers (St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, and especially St. Gregory of Nyssa, given his influence on David Bentley Hart). I also read some of the earlier fathers like St. Irenaeus of Lyons and Justin Martyr, as well as re-visited Augustine.

While I was reading more of the Church Fathers, I also began listening to podcasts at Ancient Faith Radio. Many of the programs there -- such as Our Life in Christ, At the Intersection of East and West, Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, and Faith and Philosophy -- focus on issues of the Orthodox church in America, and often the sorts of things that Protestants looking to better understand Orthodoxy would be concerned about. While the content at AFR was (and is) stellar -- addressing issues such as Church history, ecclesiology, the sacraments, and the differences between Orthodoxy and other Christian denominations -- just as importantly, it introduced me to a variety of voices within the tradition, which I found to be extremely favorable not only on matters of the Church, but how the shared tradition seems to shape their convictions in positive ways.

Listening to some of these podcasts dovetailed nicely with reading the Fathers because the programs revealed high esteem for the Fathers and a deep congruence with their thought on many levels. The theology and ecclesiology that I was being exposed to had a very venerable provenance, but also happened to address many of the issues I had felt as deficiencies in the non-denominational evangelical tradition.

One of the central, large differences the Orthodox church has with Protestantism is its understanding of the Church, authority, tradition, and scripture and the relationship between them. Orthodoxy sees a very organic, mutually enforcing relationship between these things and no contradictions. The Orthodox Church sees authority as flowing from  Christ of course, but also from the Church itself, which is in-dwelt with the Holy Spirit, and who not only wrote, but decided upon the canon of scripture. And the scripture inherits its authority from the Church, the body of Christ. While the evangelical tradition sees the Bible itself as the ultimate authority for Christian life and practice, as distinct from the Church, with the Holy Spirit having worked to create the Bible through human beings, but not necessarily through the Church as a single, concrete, visible, distinguishable historical entity. While the Orthodox Church also sees the Bible as authoritative and divinely inspired, it believes that the way the Church reads Scripture, and Scripture's place in the whole life of the Church is similarly authoritative. This is a large difference, though it may seem like a fine one to some. The Orthodox understanding is crucially at odds with the foundational Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura.

Now, I had not ever had a problem with sola scriptura, but then I never gave much countenance to alternative views before and so I started to question the position. Or really, to think through it for the first time, since in the tradition I grew up in, even though sola scriptura was tacitly affirmed, it was not something that was ever much preached about or taught explicitly but rather assumed.

Is sola scriptura an absolute doctrine or just a local, temporal principle? After all, if it was a doctrine that all Christians throughout the ages should have held to, what were the scriptures that the Church held to from Pentecost to the year 397 AD, when the New Testament canon of scripture was established at the council of Chalcedon?  Almost 400 years is a long time for Christians to go without any authority to turn to. Did God abandon the Church during those 400 years (or at least the years from the time the last apostle died)? Further, given the evangelical emphasis on individual scripture reading and interpretation, in light of your conscience, what about the next 1000 years of lay Christians, before the printing press was invented? Also, isn't sola scriptura somewhat self-contradictory since that principle isn't itself found in scripture?

Of course, defenders of sola scriptura have thought about these issues and can offer their defenses, but in my case the way Orthodox ecclesiology addresses these issues, and the way it feeds into so many others, made it a very attractive solution. And a Biblical one! In 1st Timothy 3:15 St. Paul writes that "the church is the pillar and foundation of the truth." While this mostly does away with sola scriptura, it resolves so many other issues, and is such an elegant solution that does justice to the majestic claims of the New Testament that the Church is Christ's beautiful bride; that she is Christ's body. If the Church is such a highly exalted reality, then why should not the life of the church -- her oral and written traditions, liturgical life -- be authoritative? And was this not the understanding of the nature of the Church as professed by the Fathers, who were directly taught by the Apostles? In 2 Thessalonians 2:15 Paul writes to "stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle." Paul doesn't say to hold fast only to that which is written down, excluding the oral tradition of the Faith of the Apostles.

This understanding of the Church addresses many problems, such as the one that was raised in part 2 of this series of blogs regarding unity. It doesn't resolve that problem entirely without remainder, but it does significantly narrow the scope of the problem. The Orthodox Church conceives of itself as uniquely the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. The primary question therefore becomes how to maintain the unity of the Orthodox church, rather than ecumenical efforts with heretical and schismatic sects, which aren't the Church divided as much as simply not-the-Church (or, at least, are not in the fullness of the Orthodox faith). This is a much more realistically manageable goal, while the ever proliferating division of the Protestant church offers little hope on this count. Of course, the non-denominational tradition offers an alternative solution to unity, but one that requires theological imprecision and a lowest-common-denominator approach to unity, which is extremely unsatisfying by my lights.

Another question that arises is, if Christians recognize the Christology and Trinitarianism of Nicaea as authoritative, and properly see Arianism as heretical, why do Protestants only acknowledge the authority of the first two Ecumenical Councils and their production of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed, and the canonization of Scripture established by the synod of Carthage in 397 (in concert with the mind of the Church on the matter), but disregard the Ecumenical Councils on many other matters? The Apostles established the normative practice of calling councils to settle disputes within the church in Acts 15, so why pick and choose in this way? Well, the Orthodox don't.

When approaching Orthodoxy I was aware that the Orthodox had a high sacramentology, which in my readings I had found to be consonant with venerable, historical Christianity. However, while what I thought was absent was a proper recognition of the centrality of the Eucharist to the worship of the church, as well as a full comprehension of the Eucharist itself, I was not aware just how integral it is not only to Orthodox worship, but to the entire life of the Church. For the Orthodox, it isn't simply a matter of celebrating the Eucharist rightly, but of developing a sacramental worldview, which is intimately tied with the Church's view of creation and the human being and how they relate to God. Some of which I dimly intimated before becoming acquainted with Orthodoxy, and which I began to gain a more robust understanding of by listening to some Ancient Faith programs, but which I really grasped (to the extent the Holy mysteries can be grasped) when I read Fr. Alexander Schmemmann's book For the Life of the World, on the Orthodox view of the sacraments.

Yet another fundamental difference that I recognized in Orthodoxy, and which I truly began to see when I started attending an Orthodox parish and observing the liturgy (which I will describe more of anon), is the manner in which the core Christian doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity intimately shape the form of Orthodox worship and piety. Which is a large change from the tradition I was raised in where, for example, the Trinity is rarely even invoked (though it is affirmed). Along with this, and along with my greater appreciation of the nature of the sacraments, I began to understand 'worship' itself anew. Of course, scripture speaks of offering your body as a sacrifice of worship in Romans 12:1, and gives a picture of what true worship is, and teaches that we are creatures who were made for worship. This was head knowledge I've always had, but the Orthodox Church presented this as a living reality in a way I had never experienced. It's frankly something that is difficult to really put into words, and certainly impossible to encompass in a series of blog posts, so for now I will leave it at that.

These are just some of the real fundamental shifts in comprehension that started to reform my understanding of everything else. In the next post we will look at some more specific implications of these convictions, and touch upon my experience of going from a church of no formal liturgical tradition, to experiencing the highly liturgical Orthodox tradition. And perhaps briefly look at early medieval Church history and why I never gave Catholicism much consideration (partly unfairly). Ultimately this series will bring us up to the present, where I'm currently worshiping, studying, desiring to enter the catechumenate, and seeking the spiritual guidance of Fr. Josiah at St. Andrew Orthodox Church in Riverside.


P.S. I hasten to add as a disclaimer that I haven't even officially begun my catechesis yet, and so I may be mistaken or imprecise about many of these points and my understanding of them. Indeed, Orthodoxy teaches that true understanding doesn't even really begin until one is participating in the life of the church fully, which I'm not. Lord have mercy.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Journey to Orthodoxy (part 2)

While I didn't mention it in my last post, I hope it is clear that the first stage in my journey to Orthodoxy was initiated due to a level of discontent with the tradition I grew up in. Here are some specific examples of  what seemed to be absent, under-emphasized, or over-emphasized in the non-denominational, evangelical tradition, given the general convictions regarding ecclesiology and pneumatology I had begun to arrive at.

  • Lack of authority and consequential divisions in the church 
  • Low sacramentology and view of creation
  • Low ecclesiology
  • Low view of tradition
  • Inadequate recognition of the implications of the Incarnation
  • A strain of Gnosticism in the church
  • A strain of 'moralistic therapeutic deism' in the church (with Christ's name pegged on)

There are probably other things, and if it's requested of me, I would elaborate on any of these (in the comments or elsewhere), but I'd rather not belabor the point of the catalyst to explore other denominations and traditions, and instead transition into that exploration itself, which will in turn illuminate some of these matters.

Given my general dissatisfaction with non-denominational evangelicalism, my inherited, inchoate Romophobia, and my admiration of the Reformers, I initially believed that some form of Lutheranism or the Reformed tradition would best address these issues for me. Around this time I also stumbled upon the work of David Bentley Hart -- specifically his writings for First Things magazine, a predominantly Catholic publication -- an Eastern Orthodox theologian who I found to be utterly brilliant. While I quickly read everything of Hart's I could find, not much of his material was on the subject of Orthodoxy as such, but his Orthodox sensibility while addressing particular topics exposed me to aspects of that tradition. Which put another option on the table for me to explore, though I didn't seriously consider it an option at first because of its remote and 'exotic'-seeming nature, which was so far afield of my own experience.

My investigation of Lutheranism and the Reformed tradition never went very deep, I should confess. I read a lot of Luther and some Calvin, as well as theologians from later centuries within those traditions, and I felt I had a fairly firm grasp on the main features of their thought and the traditions. But when it came to actually investigating the churches in existence today, the plethora of strains of Lutheranism and Reformed churches was a bit dizzying -- where do I start? I could quickly discard the liberal strains of Lutheranism, of course, but where to go after that? It was a bit overwhelming, and so I sort of stalled out in my exploration (to my discredit).

While the issue of 'church unity' essentially never even came up when I was growing up in the church, even when I became aware of it, it didn't interest me much. 'Church unity' is guaranteed because there's a mystical, invisible Church which consists of all those who belong to Christ. Why fret about it? It can't be thwarted, ultimately, after all. But eventually this very process, and the proliferation of divisions in the Protestant church it brought to my attention, did cause some consternation for me, especially in light of Christ's high priestly prayer in John 17.

This brought to the forefront the idea of a 'pre-denominational' church, which essentially both the Catholic and Orthodox claim to be, and seem to be the only ones who could possibly make such a claim. I was already somewhat familiar with the bare basics of the history of the Church, and so with the character of the Early Church, also in a very limited way. I knew that the Great Schism occurred in 1054. But if there was a pre-denominational Church, which was it? How did schism come about, exactly? Being familiar with much of the anti-Catholic polemic of the Reformation, as well as with having my own objections to the Catholic Church today, my first inclination was to suspect that Orthodoxy might uniquely, legitimately make this claim to being the original church. This suspicion was somewhat bolstered by my admiration for the Orthodox thought of David Bentley Hart. In my next post we will (finally) begin to look at Orthodoxy itself and see what drew me to it, as well as shine light back on what bothered me about my own tradition, but which I couldn't see except in the light of Orthodoxy.


P.S. It should be noted that this process I'm describing is more clean and simplified than it actually was, as there were many subtle factors, events, and ideas that contributed to me heading in this direction. I'm streamlining and simplifying to some degree to make the story manageable and coherent.

Journey to Orthodoxy (part 1)

Over the course of the last few months I've begun preparing to convert to Orthodoxy by joining the catechumenate at St. Andrew Orthodox parish in Riverside. While I don't often blog about personal topics, cataloging my journey to Orthodoxy seems like it would be a beneficial enterprise, for myself if for no one else. This will be the first post in a continuing series on the topic.

Being raised in a non-denominational, evangelical Protestant home and church in America, and having had no formal religious education, I was mostly oblivious to church history, the origins of Christian denominations and traditions, and the differences between them growing up. Nor did I have much interaction with those outside the stream of my own evangelical tradition. Also, a prominent feature of non-denominationalism is the belief that most other denominations (well, except Catholicism) are basically alright, as long as they believe in Jesus as God and savior, and as long as they don't have any of a few core Christian doctrines dreadfully wrong in some way. So there wasn't much of an incentive to look into anything else, as everything else was an optional addition to my 'mere Christianity'.

But something along the lines of what C.S. Lewis writes in the preface of Mere Christianity had started to dawn on me (though not as a result of reading it -- I had read it as a teenager, but this passage hadn't stuck with me).
I hope no reader will suppose that "mere" Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions — as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. 
It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall, I have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not 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 the room you will find that the long wait has done 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 paneling. 
Of course, non-denominational evangelicalism could be said to be a room of its own, in a certain way, but in hindsight it always felt somewhat more like the hall. Which is probably partly due to my own sinfulness and non-submittal, I should readily admit, but also seemed to be due to the inherent nature of non-denominationalism.

Along with this realization was a development of love for rich theological reflection -- whether it was from the patristics, the medieval period, the Reformers, or contemporary Christians -- and an interest in the history of Christianity. The more I read on these topics, the more I felt the deficiencies in my own tradition. Not as much in what was believed and confessed -- though I would later see problems on that level as well -- but in the disconnect between what was confessed and the praxis of the church. Which is not to echo the banal complaint that I felt my tradition was hypocritical -- because I mostly didn't and still don't -- but that the theology didn't intimately and rigorously shape the form of the life of the church, in my view. Or at least not in the way that seemed called for. And that this fact has negative consequences.

In addition, while there was a proper high reverence for Holy Scripture in my tradition, there seemed to be an improper disconnect from historical Christianity. My reading led me to the conviction that, while the Holy Spirit has been given to the church, the Spirit doesn't normally alight here and there upon individual believers, or even upon groups of them, in a haphazard fashion, but that the Holy Spirit was bequeathed to a specific, concrete, historical entity at Pentecost called the Church of Christ. And that His work is done among and through this concrete, historical reality. This doesn't mean the Holy Spirit's work is strictly confined to the Church, but it does mean that that is the one place where He always is, is always working in, and will never leave.

These general, ground-level convictions revealed a variety of specific deficiencies in my own tradition which I will discuss in the next post.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Evidentialist Atheism

If you traffic in atheistic circles, online or elsewhere, you'll notice that the primary objection lodged against belief in God is the evidential objection i.e. "I believe things based on [usually 'scientific'] evidence (and others ought to as well); in the absence of evidence for some proposition, I withhold (and others ought to withhold) belief in it; there is no evidence for God's existence that I've ever seen; hence I can't justify believing in God (and neither can anyone else)." Not only is this the primary objection, it's virtually becoming the sole objection. There are many weaknesses to this argument, but I just want to examine one of them in this post. Namely this: for someone who adopts this stance, what would count as evidence of the supernatural or of God? And if it turns out there is not any sort of event, fact, datum, or combination of facts that would count as evidence of the supernatural or of God, then how is this stance distinguishable from a priori atheism, rather than a result of a survey of the pertinent evidence? And if it is indistinguishable from a priori atheism, why countenance the objection seriously at all?

If an atheist can give criteria for what would count as evidence for God or the supernatural, and a good reason for adopting whatever particular criterion they choose, then they can be rationally justified in their unbelief if they have never been confronted with the sort of evidence they require. The vast majority of atheists I've encountered  adopt the 'scientific' criterion for belief. That is: they will believe in those things which are deliverances of scientific method and nothing else. Now, this doesn't mean that some atheist somewhere couldn't adopt some other criterion, in which case I would have to address whatever criterion that would be, but in this post I will be content to address the criterion that the vast majority of unbelievers appeal to.

If 'science' is that certain sort of investigation of natural phenomena via a particular systematic method of observation and experiment, then immediately one must ask why this criterion for knowledge should be adopted to answer a question necessarily outside its purview i.e. the question of the existence of the supernatural. Could the supernatural theoretically exist and never be isolated and observed in material phenomena, with conditions necessary for repeatable, controlled lab experiments? Not only could this be the case, but if anything supernatural did exist, then this would necessarily be the case: science as traditionally understood and practiced, could not be performed on said phenomena. So we are left with no sensible, justifiable reason to think that the scientific criterion for knowledge is capable of addressing the question of whether anything supernatural exists. Anyone who demands 'scientific evidence of the unscientific (or a-scientific)' makes a nonsensical demand.

This problem seems to bear itself out practically in my experience with atheists. Ask them what would theoretically constitute scientific evidence for God and most of them will struggle to think of something that would count. Recently, I tried to help them out and posed the following hypothetical: suppose the famous double-slit experiment revealed that, on the sheet behind the slits, the particles arrayed in a pattern that spelled out 'YAHWEH WAS HERE' or 'JESUS CHRIST IS THE ETERNAL LOGOS', rather than dispersing in the way that they actually do. Would this count as extremely strong scientific evidence for belief in God? The immediate reaction was that they would suspect a hoax, so I clarified that the results were repeated and confirmed in numerous independent peer-reviewed experiments and accepted by the scientific community at large as legitimate. "Very powerful aliens could be controlling that reality", "Could be a mass delusion", "Could still be a hoax" etc. came the responses. In other words, even paradigm-shifting evidence of God's existence, literally written into the fabric of existence, would not count as evidence for God or the supernatural. At which point we can properly accuse atheists of this sort of holding to an a priori atheism that isn't the result of insufficient scientific evidence, but which is entirely impervious to scientific evidence of even the most radical sort.

In the case of atheists who hold to the scientific criterion of knowledge as solely legitimate, but who would accept this theoretical sort of evidence as persuasive (and so avoid being properly accused of evidence-independent atheism), there is another problem. Namely, that those atheists don't apply the scientific criterion of knowledge to many things that they hold to be true. An atheist who ate toast for breakfast, for example, will believe that he ate toast for breakfast if you ask him about it that evening, and he will believe it to be so on no other basis than his own memory. No repeatable experiment results, no test of any sort, no peer-review, just his memory. And, of course, it's rational for him to do so as it's a properly basic sort of belief. Same goes for that which we currently apprehend with our senses. There's no scientific way of demonstrating that these constant sources of beliefs are reliable, but the atheist (rationally) cleaves to them nonetheless, and so breaks his own standard for what counts as knowledge.

An atheist who holds to the scientific criterion of knowledge as merely the best, but not exclusive, criterion of knowledge, and who acknowledges some sensible minimum standard for what would count as evidence for God mostly escapes this particular critique but -- lucky for me -- mostly doesn't exist. I'll rationally withhold belief in such a creature until presented with evidence of his existence.