Friday, October 26, 2012

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.

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