If you missed the first installment, you can check it out here
. This time I'd like to take up where I left off by sharing some of the things I've been learning about personal relationship with God from an Eastern Orthodox perspective.
One thing that can be quite confusing in a dialog between Orthodox and Protestant believers is the two ways that the term "salvation" is used. In Protestant usage it commonly refers to justification
, and thus it is stressed that "salvation is by grace, not works." What this specifically means is that justification
is by grace not works. Of course just about everyone would agree that we need to respond in faith to this. So is that a "work"? No, because works are about earning and merit, and even if we accept a gift (the response of faith) we are still not meriting it. So far so good. On the Orthodox end "salvation" commonly refers to sanctification
and so the emphasis is on our participation
, our praxis, what we do. Again, just about everyone would agree that we do need to participate in our sanctification, through a life of obedience to God, devotional life, repentance, and so on. We do not do this to earn God's favor, we do this in God's favor, as a response to grace.
Both of these uses of the term "salvation" are legitimate, the Protestant "getting saved" type and the Orthodox "work out your salvation" (Phil 2:12) variety. But since one side is speaking about justification/regeneration (the inception) and the other about sanctification/deification (the continuation/fulfillment) using the same word it can get pretty confusing and lead to a lot of misunderstanding. Put in relational terms, we need to enter into a relationship with God (regeneration), and we then need to grow in that relationship (sanctification).
What I appreciate about Orthodox theology is that it is very much focused on the experience of a lived relationship with God. As Vladimir Lossky has said, "all theology is mystical theology". What that means is that all theology needs to be connected to our living it, to our being in a real transforming relationship. Theology always needs to be joined to praxis. In the end, the real meaning of "orthodox" is not "right doctrine" but "right worship" (as in dox
ology). Now of course we also find in the Orthodox tradition its share of head-theology entrenched in lots of metaphysics and formulas. One common categorization scholars make is between two schools in Orthodox thought - one of the "head" and one of the "heart". We find this same tug of war in the evangelical church as well of course, and what we need is a balance. We need to be smart about stuff, we need to use our brains, but we need to also have our feet on the ground and have our theology be practical. This sense of "pietism" (I see that as a good word) is very present in orthodoxy. We can see it in ancient writers like the author of the Macarian Homilies, or Symeon the New Theologian, and we can see it in contemporary theologians like Kallistos Ware.
Bishop Ware writes that, "All genuine theology must be mystical theology – something based upon a personal experience of God granted in prayer, upon a conscious awareness of the Holy Spirit."
What I find absent in all of this, as I mentioned in my previous post, is a lack of focus on being born again in the Orthodox church, or in other words, a lack of the initial expereince of regeneration. Not just as an assurance of forgivness for a guilty conscience, not simply as a judicial requirement, or as an end in itself, but as a way of entering into new life and lived
relationship with God as a way to begin living in grace, in the Spirit. The Orthodox understanding of salvation lacks this experiential beginning
, this initial experience
of God's indwelling presence and love to begin our participation of growing in
God and through
God. This expereince of "assurance", of God's indwelling presence and love, (which clearly is the end goal of ascetic praxis and mysticism in the Orthodox faith) was what turned the world upside down for Luther and Wesley (and for me), and I just don't find it in Orthodox writing. That is, I do find them speaking of our pursuit of union with God as the end of ascetic struggle, of experiencing this intimacy with God after struggle and seeking. I think that is all good. But what is missing is how we begin that pursuit of God with
God. How we, as Augustine said, at the same time taste of God, and yet hunger for more, how God allows us to experience his love and nearness, and that this embrace makes us long for more. A pursuit we do not embark on on our own, but with God and through God. "I tasted, and now hunger and thirst. Thou touched me, and I longed for Thy peace."
Now I certainly think we can learn a lot from the emphasis of the Orthodox on sanctification. But I also think it goes both ways, and that there needs to be a discovery of the relational transformative expereince of a born again conversion experience in Orthodoxy. New birth in conversion is often rejected by Orthodox Christians who associate it with a legal end, rather than as a relational beginning (Ware for example takes this position). But from the shared relational perspective of our two traditions, this initial experience of the indwelling of the Spirit calling out within us “Abba, Father” is vital, not only because of the transforming assurance of knowing who and whose we are, but because union with God is something that begins and ends in the Spirit, lived together with
God, and in
God. Despite the emphasis on experience in Orthodox theology, that personal experience of the indwelling of the Spirit previous
to, and thus as the cause
of ascetic struggle, is missing in Orthodoxy.