Becoming Orthodox: the actual theological problem
I couple of weeks ago I wrote about the 25th anniversary of our family being received into the Orthodox Church, and mentioned some of the problems I had seen in Western theology which seemed not to exist in Orthodox theology.
One commenter asked: do you articulate what the actual theological problem was?
And my reply was that the problem was the tendency to argue about the gospel rather than proclaiming it… in Western Christianity I felt caught between those who wanted to update the gospel on the one hand, and those who wanted to defend it on the other.
I said that perhaps that deserved a blog post of its own, and this is that post. Actually it probably needs a whole series of posts, but this will have to do for now.
As I said in the previous post, there were two things that sparked my initial interest in Orthodox theology: attending Holy Week and Easter services at St Sergius Institute in Paris, and reading and re-reading the catechetical address of St John Chrysostom, which was read there, in terms of which I interpreted the whole experience. And secondly, reading a book by Father Alexander Schmemann, The world as sacrament, which articulated very clearly the dissatisfaction I felt with Western theology, and presented the Orthodox alternative.
To understand this, however, one needs to go back to the 1960s, when there was a theological ferment in the Western world. To explain it, I will quote some contemporary documents that influenced me, and try to show how they linked together, in my mind at least. That will make this post rather long, and it may need to spill over into some other posts.
There was liturgical reform, in which various liturgical reformers (mostly Anglican and Roman Catholic) were trying to show that that worship was something done by a living Christian community, and not something done to a group of religious consumers.
There were dangers in this. Some of the dangers, from a Roman Catholic viewpoint, have been pointed out here On liturgy, ritual and false choices | A vow of conversation. An Anglican slant on it comes from John Davies, in a paper read to an Anglican student conference at Modderpoort in the Free State in 1961:
…the Communion is our best example of the nature of God, if it is taught and done evangelically. God is “I will be present as which I will be present” – not by man’s conjurings (which is what the doctrine of transubstantiation seems to lead to) nor just because man’s feelings cause him to be there (receptionism) but by his own initiative and covenant. The Communion, like Baptism, is not really a religious rite at all, it is God’s activity, not man’s. But does it look like it? Does the way we usually do the Eucharist look like anything more than a rather optimistic attempt by man to do something to God and to himself? And the same with Baptism — a private affair, when everyone else has gone home, or an inconvenient afterthought slipped into the “ordinary service”. The Mass a jumble of prayers said and things waved by a queerly-dressed Sundays-only character at a God who lives in the East wall — is this God in action? Yet these are the evangelical sacraments. The sort of thing suggested by contemporary liturgical reformers can easily become just another religious trick to gratify our cleverness, but at least it is trying to let the Mass speak.
In the event, some of the things done by contemporary liturgical reformers did tend to become religious tricks. In some ways they threw out the baby with the bathwater. If the old rites did not show clearly enough that the church was a Christian community meeting God, in the new rites often both God and community were absent, and only religion remained.
An important point here is religion. The statement that “Christianity is not a religion” has been turned into something of an ideological cliche by some Western Evangelical Christians, who tend to use it as a slogan without explanation, but back in the 1960s there was, among Western Christians, serious discussion about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s call for “religionless Christianity” and what it meant.
I soon discovered, when I went to the UK for postgraduate study in theology, that Bonhoeffer’s call was interpreted very differently in England from the way in which we had interpreted it in South Africa. John Davies had said that the title of his paper should rather have been God versus religion: it is all about God’s initiative, not man’s:
In Christ we have the culmination of the purpose of God, the most complete example of God’s initiative, pictured in the parable of the lost sheep – the shepherd takes positive action and searches for and claims the lost one. Religion is man’s search for God — Christ is God’s search for man, and man doesn’t care overmuch about being searched for. Being asked to perform a religious act is one thing, following the Son of God is another, and the encounter between the Son of God and Peter gives a good example right at the start of the gospel — Peter’s reaction is “Get away from me” (Luke 5:8). Religion attracts — Christ offends, and goes on offending; on the cross, in loneliness, Christ bore the penalty of the offensiveness of God, when God took the offensive. Gesthemane, and the cry of dereliction (Mark 14:32 ff; 15:34), are the most completely self-authenticating points in the gospel, for no one who wanted to invent a new religion could possibly have devised them, and they show the cost of religion to God, for it was religion that put Christ on the cross, religious authorities who couldn’t face the fact that the dream had come true, that the future had become present, who couldn’t face the judgement of God on a religion that divided man from man, righteous from sinner. Christ drew the line at no one, and paid the cost of doing so. If you draw the line at anyone, Christ will be on the far side, and not on yours. “Christ wants no honour for himself as long as our brother is dishonoured”.
In Britain, however, theologians were debating the nature of God. “Our image of God must go”, trumpeted one newpaper headline, describing the latest controversial book by an Anglican bishop. They didn’t want a religionless Christianity, they seemed to be more interested in a godless religion.
After two years of this, I was preparing for my final exam in Christian doctrine. It was conventional wisdom that the way to guarantee a pass was to read the magic book. In this case the magic book was Doctrines of the creed by Oliver Quicke, who happened to be the immediate predecessor of our professor of dogmatic theology at Durham University.
In the end I opted to read another book, a scathing indictment of Western academic theology and its exponents, Include me out: confessions of an ecclesiastical coward, by Colin Morris. Colin Morris had been a Methodist missionary in Zambia, and was moved to write his book when a Zambian dropped dead outside his front door. He had died of starvation. Among other things Morris wrote:
That phrase Revolutionary Christianity is fashionable. But what it describes is more often a way of talking than a way of walking. It is revolution at the level of argument rather than action. We take daring liberties with the Christianity of the Creeds and the traditional ideas about God. We go into the fray armed to rend an Altizer or Woolwich apart or defend them to the death. We sup the heady wine of controversy and nail our colours to the mast — mixing our metaphors in the excitement! The Church, we cry, is in ferment. She has bestirred herself out of her defensive positions and is on the march! And so she is — on the march to the nearest bookshop or theological lecture room or avant garde church to expose herself to the latest hail of verbal or paper missiles. This is not revolution. It has more in common with the frenzied scratching of a dog to rid itself of fleas than an epic march on the Bastille or the Winter Palace. Revolutionary Christianity is so uncomplicated in comparison that it is almost embarassing to have to put it into words. It is simply doing costly things for Jesus’ sake.
And in another place Morris wrote:
My grandstand view of the martyrdom of the Church in the Congo Counter-revolution taught me to distrust those conventional labels we pin on our fellow Christians. Over three hundred missionaries, mostly Roman Catholics and extreme fundamentalists, were killed. They not only bled the same way but whether they died clutching crucifixes or Scofield Reference Bibles they died for the same reason and the same Lord. When the chips were down in that tragic mess, men and women stood revealed for what they were, their theological labels abandoned with the rest of their possessions. Some theological radicals, fond of booming about relevance and involvement were not to be found. Their presence was urgently needed elsewhere. It was often Bible-punching conservatives who believed literally in Adam and Eve and damned drinkers and smokers and swearers to hell who stood up to be counted. Your theology, fancy or plain, is what you are when the talking stops and the action starts.
The first theological essay I had to write in England was on “Jesus and the demons”, and when I had finished reading it, the principal, who was a fan of the demythologising German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, said, “But you haven’t told me whether you think that demons exist or not.”
I didn’t know what to say. Having just come from South Africa where Liberals and the Security Police were engaged in a conflict whose roots reached down to depths where angels and demons were locked in mortal conflict, how could you explain this to the principal of an English college, comfortably seated in the armchair of his study, on a pleasant autumn day with the cathedral bells tinkling outisde? “And is there honey still for tea?” The term “armchair theologian” took on a whole new meaning. Don’t get me wrong; the principal was a nice bloke and I liked him, but when it came to theology, we came from different galaxies.
I didn’t know what to say, when he said I hadn’t told him whether or not I thought that demons existed, but Father Alexander Schmemann, the Orthodox theologian, articulated what I wanted to say, when describing the exorcisms and the blessing of the water that precede baptism in the Orthodox Church:
According to some modern interpreters of Christianity, ‘demonology’ belongs to an antiquated world view and cannot be taken seriously by the man who “uses electricity.” We cannot argue with them here. What we must affirm, what the Church has always affirmed, is that the use of electricity may be “demonic,” as in fact may be the use of anything and of life itself. That is, in other words, the experience of evil which we call demonic is not that of a mere absence of good, or, for that matter, of all sorts of existential alienations and anxieties. It is indeed the presence of a dark and irrational power. Hatred is not merely absence of love. It is certainly more than that, and we recognize its presence as an almost physical burden that we feel in ourselves when we hate. In our world in which normal and civilized men “used electricity” to exterminate six million human beings, in this world in which right now some ten million people are in concentration camps because they failed to understand the “only way to universal happiness,” in this world the demonic reality is not a myth (Schmemann 1973:69f).
I saw two opposed tendencies. On the one hand there were those who wanted to change the gospel to make it “relevant” to the world, and on the other those who wanted to defend the gospel against tendencies in the world (and in the church) that they thought threatened it. Schmemann describes the two tendencies as “spiritualist” and “activist”.
What life is both motivation, and the beginning and goal of Christian mission?
The existing answers follow two general patterns. There are those among us for whom life, when discussed in religious terms, means religious life. And this religious life is a world in itself, existing apart from the secular world and its life. It is the world of “spirituality,” and in our days it seems to gain more and more popularity. Even the airport bookstands are filled with anthologies of mystical writings. Basic Mysticism is the title we saw on one of them. Lost and confused in the noise, the rush and the frustrations of “life,” man easily accepts the invitation to enter into the inner sanctuary of his soul and to discover there another life, to enjoy a “spiritual banquet” amply supplied with spiritual food. This spiritual food will help him. It will help him to restore his peace of mind, to endure the other — the “secular” — life, to accept its tribulations, to lead a wholesome and more dedicated life, to “keep smiling” in a deep religious way. And thus mission consists here in converting people to this “spiritual” life, in making them religious.
There exists a great variety of emphases and even theologies within this general pattern, from the popular revival to the sophisticated interest in esoteric mystical doctrines. But the result is the same: “religious” life makes the secular one — the life of eating and drinking — irrelevant, deprives it of any real meaning save that of being an exercise in piety and patience. And the more spiritual life is the “religious banquet,” the more secular and material become the neon lighted signs EAT, DRINK that we see along our highways.
But there are those also, to whom the affirmation “for the life of the world” seems to mean naturally “for the better life of the world”. The “spiritualists” are counterbalanced by the activists. To be sure we are far today from the simple optimism and euphoria of the “Social Gospel.” All the implications of existentialism with its anxieties, of neo-Orthodoxy with its pessimistic and realistic view of history have been assimilated and given proper consideration. But the fundamental belief of Christianity as being first of all action has remained intact, and in fact has acquired a new strength. From this point of view Christianity has simply lost the world. And the world must be recovered. The Christian mission, therefore, is to catch up with the life that has gone astray. The “eating” and “drinking” man is taken quite seriously, almost too seriously. He constitutes virtually the exclusive object of Christian action, and we are constantly called to repent for having spent too much time in contemplation and adoration, in silence and liturgy, for not having dealt sufficiently with the social, political economic, racial and all other issues of real life. To books on mysticism and spirituality correspond books on “Religion and Life” (or Society, or Urbanism or Sex…). And yet the basic question remains unanswered: what is this life that we must regain for Christ, make Christian? What is, in other words, the ultimate end of all this doing and action? …
… Whether we “spiritualize” our life or “secularize” our religion, whether we invite men to a spiritual banquet or simply join them at the secular one, the real life of the world, for which we are told God gave his only-begotten Son, remains hopelessly beyond our religious grasp.
These two tendencies have been given different names. Some called them “conservatives” and “liberals”. Others called them “pietists” and “activists”. Some called them “evangelicals” and “ecumenicals”, and various other things as well.
I found myself caught between these two. Someone, I forget who, once said that both sides were “right in what they affirmed, but wrong in what they denied”. I could agree with that to a certain extent. I could agree with evangelicals on the importance of a verbal proclamation of the gospel; I could agree with the social activists on the need to change the unjust structures of society. What I could not agree with was the assumption by many on both sides that these goals were mutually exclusive.
Some people who had held that they were mutually exclusive did sometimes change their minds. John Stott, a well-known Anglican evangelical, came to acknowledge the importance of social action, and came up with a formula: Mission = Evangelism + Social Action.
But that was a bit like putting a bottle of wine and a bottle of furniture polish in the same packet at the supermarket, and carrying them out together. They were two separate things, in the same packet, but entirely unrelated to each other. Again, John Davies said it twenty years before John Stott came up with his formula:
I am seriously afraid that if the Church does not quickly act to shatter this impression of being a company for the organizing of religious activities, an association for the propagation of a localized mystique which attracts people who like dressing up but has no real impact on society, if it does not more effectively become what it is and possess its possessions, if it doesn’t more effectively reveal what happens in the Eucharist and live that action out in the broken world that Christ came and died to save, if it does not show that the `political’ utterances of its leaders are no personal crankiness, but arise directly out of the new birth in water and the Spirit and the four-fold action that takes place on every altar, then the people to whom we are sent will say more and more, `What have these people got that we can’t do ourselves?’, they will more and more count Christianity as merely a religion among religions, a superstition among superstitions, the Zionists will take all hearts and lives, and our so-called mission work will die of inanition – and that will be part of God’s judgement.
In saying this, I am not saying that Orthodox Christians have somehow managed to solve all these problems, and by their theological acumen have honed the church into an instrument to transform the world into a perfect image of the Kingdom of God. As St Paul put it, we have this treasure in earthen vessels — fragile, sometimes cracked and dirty, and utterly unworthy of the treasure we have been entrusted with.
The problem I found with much Western theology was that many wanted to throw away the treasure, and modernise the earthen vessels by exchanging them for polystyrene cups.
Notes and References
 Religion versus God, a paper read at the conference of the Anglican Students Federation of South Africa (ASF), July 1961.
 Many of the words and phrases I have used, even in the bits that are not directly quoted from others, are not original to me. I’ve tried to create an impression of a time, a Zeitgeist, and to show what drew me to Orthodoxy in the 1960s. Some of the tendencies I have described have persisted to the present, though with some changes too.