A recent post by Fr. Stephen Freeman reminded me of just how common it is for we Orthodox to paint with a broad, reductionistic brush when it comes to the West. He opened his post on “An Illegal Christmas” by saying:
“The great advantage to thinking about God in legal terms, is that nothing has to change. If what happens between us and God is entirely external, a matter of arranging things such as the avoidance of eternal punishment or the enjoyment of eternal reward, then the world can go on as it is. In the legal model that dominates contemporary Christian thought, the secular world of things becomes nothing more than an arena, the stage on which we act out our moral and psychological dilemmas, waiting only for our final grades to be issued when we die.
In the contemporary world-view, Christ’s death and resurrection change nothing within the day-to-day world. Their effect is entirely and completely removed from this world and reserved for the next. This is a great advantage for Christian thought, for everything of significance becomes theoretical, removed from the realm of practical discussion. Not only does Christ’s work change nothing in this world, it changes nothing within us other than by moral or psychological suasion. And we therefore need argue or labor for nothing other than abstractions. The inert world of secularism is left intact.
This is to say that if “accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior” only brings about a change in my eternal disposition, then it is largely meaningless in this world. Everything Christians do in this world would be but tokens of eternity.
But this is not the teaching of the New Testament or classical Christianity.”
Frankly, I don’t think it’s the teaching of anyone, though the “once saved, always saved” crowd probably does come close to this. Yet, I don’t think that crowd alone is meant by the “contemporary world-view.” That’s left undefined, unfortunately, but it seems to apply to “other Christians” or even “the other Christians.”
But Fr. Stephen Freeman is not alone. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick makes a slight error in how he presents Luther as well in a recent post on his site also. He gets Luther partially right. Luther was reacting against a system that encouraged the likes of Tetzel, who went around selling time out of purgatory. And yes, Luther does speak and write in places about faith as opposed to works, but if that’s all one gets out of Luther, one read him way too quickly (if at all). Luther himself actually saw good works as flowing out of faith and as free will even existing in this kingdom (his “two kingdoms” approach also applies here–read up on it if you haven’t encountered this before). Fr. Andrew wrote, “Luther was wrong that the story was “faith versus works.” No, it’s “faith and works” on both sides of the question. The real difference is which faith and works you’re going to follow.” Thing is, Luther would have agreed with the second and third sentences too. Although a full treatise of Luther’s faith and works is beyond the bounds of my writing here, this extract might help produce a more appreciative view of what Luther was trying to get at.
The two Frs. Stephen are not alone nor is it just an Orthodox blogger problem. I’ve mentioned Orthodox Constructions of the West before on this site. It really should be a must-read. In fact, at some point soon I’ll write a post giving a list of “must reads” for Orthodox Christians. One of the upshots of that book is that it shows just how prevalent our caricatures often are. Popular Orthodox writers can tend in this direction regardless of whether they are blogging about it. It can also happen around the coffee hour table. For example, how easy is it to find simple dismissals of Augustine and Anselm by Orthodox, even well known Orthodox writers?
Now, I am standing on the belief that such reductionist generalizations are not good and appropriate, at least not when perpetuated by people who are educated leaders and influencing the way others interpret fellow non-Orthodox Christians around them. So, in light of that, what are some things we can do? Well, one will be to read the books I’ll list in my next post. Reading those will provide one with a more nuanced and informed view. Another thing we can do, though, is easy, and if done by the likes of Frs. Stephen and Andrew and other Orthodox bloggers and writers, could be quite effective. We could articulate our theology and spirituality primarily as standing on it’s own, not needing a heretical “foil.” So, in Fr. Stephen’s post, his discussion of “transformation” was good and enlightening and a positive expression of what our Orthodox faith is (at least in part) about. Fr. Andrew’s discussion of good works and faith works quite well without needing an overly simplistic view of Luther thrown in. Both blogging priests have good things to say to us, as do other Orthodox bloggers and writers. Heck, now and then, even I might hit the mark (and I hope I am here). I think if we present Orthodoxy as a positive rather than as a reaction to something, it will help us.
Take fencing. I mentioned “foil” above, so I hope this will work. If my whole strategy is only to parry your attack and riposte it, and that’s all I ever do, you’ll pick up on it. You’ll notice I have a rather simplistic approach to fencing. You’ll even believe that if that’s the only action I ever do, I don’t even really understand fencing and you’ll want to be instructed by someone else eventually. On the other hand, if I add attacks and feints and counter attacks and indirect attacks, you’ll see I have a more complete understanding of the sport. You’ll have to fence me more carefully and, if you’re learning the sport, you might just stay with me as a coach. Yes, even in fencing, one has an “area of expertise,” and that area might well be certain parries, but to be succesful, one needs to be able to create situations that lead to those parries succeeding. Right now, we Orthodox need a more complete game. It’s too easy to find caricatures of the West in popular Orthodox writings, whether online or in print.
This hurts us, for it gives us a reputation as ignorant, uneducated, knee-jerk, chip-on-our-shoulders, etc. At least educted and informed non-Orthodox will conclude that and why shouldn’t they? We’d conclude something similar if we encountered simplistic dismissals of Orthodoxy. It also hurts us because it means we are not preparing ourselves or our fellow Orthodox for real meaningful encounters with non-Orthodox. It hurts us because it limits our audience. We end up preaching to the Orthodox choir. To take the two blogs I just mentioned, for example, I highly doubt Ancient Faith wants its podcasts and blogs and such only heard and read by Orthodox (but maybe I’m wrong here). It also hurts us because we set up converts to deconvert later if they come to see their reasons for converting as simplistic and even false. If we truly believe our church has a rich tradition and a spirituality that is open and beneficial to all, why risk that?