Why I'm still not Orthodox (besides the silly hats)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Pretty much all of my theology is very much in line with the Eastern Orthodox church. For example I have an understanding of sin as bondage and sickness rather than as transgression. As a result, I have an Orthodox 'transformative' understanding of salvation rather than a Western 'judicial' one, meaning that the real object of salvation is God effecting an inner change in us. Again, the model of atonement I have is an Orthodox one of recapitulation, rather than appeasement. In other words, the need for the atonement was not to satisfy a need God had for punishment, but rather to recreate in us the image of God that we had lost, and to free us from the bondage of sin. I also share with the Orthodox church the focus on theosis - our participation in the divine life which changes us into the likeness of Christ. In that sense I see salvation not as a one time act, but as a growing relationship with God. I also think the Orthodox church is right in their understanding of original sin, not as inherited guilt, but as our inheriting the consequences of living in a sinful world.

So if I agree with the Orthodox church on original sin, recapitulation, theosis, and the relational transformative focus of salvation, why am I not Eastern Orthodox? Besides my not liking silly hats, tacky bling-bling, and zz-top beards of course (see the above picture). There are a few reasons. the biggest one is that I feel my roots are deeply in the Evangelical church. That same focus on transformation and theosis can be found in Wesley, and it can be found in Luther too. Luther writes that God pours Christ into us so that "he is entirely humanized (vermenschet) and we are entirely divinized (vergottet)". A clear expression of theosis. As a result Luther says in his Commentary on Galatians, salvation entails a real change in us, not just a legal one, "These changes are, so to speak, not verbal; they are real. They produce a new mind, a new will, new senses, and even new actions by the flesh." As I've argued before, I also believe that Luther represents one of the most clear and lucid expression of the Orthodox understanding of Christus Victor out there. So everything that the Orthodox church says, I also see as being completely compatible with Evangelicalism, particularly the central thrust of Evangelicalism rooted in Lutheran Pietism, revivalist Methodism, and the relational-transformative focus of Pentecostalism. That 'Pentecostal-flavored' branch of Evangelicalism is without a doubt (ie statistically) the largest and fastest growing part of Evangelicalism world-wide. What it is at odds with (as am I) is a certain brand of Calvinism. But that's a big can of worms I don't want to open right here. What I want to focus on is Orthodoxy.

I think by biggest beef with the Orthodox church (beside those hats which I just can't seem to get over) is their lack of focus on being born again. Luther (and Wesley) stress both our need for justification, and our need for sanctification (which is the same as theosis). That means that while we do need to enter into a life-long transformative relationship with God (sanctification), we need to enter into that relationship. Leaving that out is like talking about the importance of married life, but never mentioning the need to get married. And even bigger than that, it is absolutely essential that we know that the whole point of theosis - and I mean here an Orthodox understanding of theosis - is that it is not done through our works, but through grace. We need to be sanctified through God living and working in us. That is not something that we work our way into. The whole point of getting "saved" from this transformative model is that God enters into our lives and embraces us unconditionally (that's what grace means). We need to enter into that relationship with the God who is there, active, communicative, and real.

Yes, the focus needs to be on relationship, instead of on a legal transaction. Yes, this means an ongoing transforming relationship, and not a one time experience. Yes there are many experiences in that deepening relationship with God beyond conversion. Yes, yes, yes. But if may speak personally, I was not raised to know God, and I did not know that you can really know God's love first hand in a living relationship. When I encountered Christ it turned my world upside-down. So I'm really big on conversion. Not on making people feel guilty or bad, (that's where I think Luther and Wesley get it wrong), but on letting people know that they can really know God personally, that they don't need to work and strive to get there, but that God can enter into their lives and change everything, because being loved does that to you. God loves us in all of our brokenness and ugliness and lostness, and that experience of being loved by the God of the universe changes everything, it changes you.

Now while that relational-ontological experience of conversion is so much in line with the Orthodox big picture of salvation, that experience is something I just never hear the Orthodox church speak about. I don't ever hear it preached, I don't encounter it in any of their theology. If anything I hear it being de-emphasized, denied, and rejected, usually in the form of rejecting a cartoon caricature of the worst and most trivial form Evangelical conversion. But the very fact that their understanding of conversion is only in this negative cliche form does reveal a lack of a deep first-hand understanding of that experience.

Now I don't want to say that this silence means that this experience is not a reality for the Orthodox. But I do want to break the silence. It really does not make any sense. It's absence is completely at odds with the whole thrust of their own theology. And it is a non-negotiable deal-breaker. There are other things that bug me too - their lack of healthy self-criticism (this is changing), that women are excluded from leadership (this is not), and yes, those goofy hats. But above all I see the biggest lack in their silence about justification - about our need to enter into a relationship with God through being born again.

check out part 2

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