How I became Orthodox

Doug Masson, responding to this post, poses a question:

So, for those of you who have made a conscious decision about a denomination or religion, I’m wondering what it was that made the sale.

I’m replying over here because there are more editing tools here than I know how to use replying on Doug’s site. (Could this become a Mobius blog?)

I’m going to try being very scrupulous about trying to tell the way it happened rather than a fictitious way that makes me look better. I’ll do that althought  people have looked at me over the last 13 years with blank incomprehension as I told my story plain and true.

First, some preliminaries:

  • Contra Doug’s recollection, I started Evangelical (Wheaton College style), then became a committed Calvinist in my late 20s in conscious rejection of rampant dispensational premillennialism in Evangelicalism.
  • I had a pre-existing commitment to Jesus Christ, made very early in life and renewed at age 19. That’s another story, but the circumstances of that commitment to Christ comprehended commitment to Church — “assembling yourselves together,” as Christ’s Apostle Paul put it.
  • I had a pre-existing commitment to trying to follow the historic Christian faith rather than novel versions of it. That commitment wasn’t strong enough to make me seriously study Christian history, but was strong enough to give me a reassuring feeling, for instance, when I moved from Evangelicalism (18th & 19th century roots) to Calvinism (16th Century roots and — I thought at least — 4th century roots as I made ad hoc connections between St. Augustine and certain strains of Calvinist thought. Augustine, by the way, was an outlier in several senses, significantly out of sync with the Eastern Fathers.)
  • I thought there was a common Christianity captured in the ecumenical creeds, which I professed with, I thought, no mental reservations.
  • I was by modern standards very traditional about worship. I wanted to sing hymns to God, not gospel songs hyping how wonderful I felt and how goshdurn confident I was that God and I were best buddies. It was getting hard to avoid the latter even in my relatively conservative denomination.

Around 1996, I invited out to lunch a young Greek businessman in town, Pete Zarras, who bought the computer retail business from Von’s (John VonErmansdorf) and who was in a business networking group with me.

Making small talk, I commented on his Greek ancestry and asked if his family had been Orthodox. (The Greeks I knew in Lafayette were Roman Catholic, presumably for lack of an Orthodox option.) He responded “We are” (present tense). I assumed that he was driving to Indianapolis or to Northwest Indiana, so continuing small talk, I noted that that Lafayette was growing fast, and I’d heard rumors of Orthodoxy growing fast with converts like a bunch of wild and crazy guys from Campus Crusade for Christ who went to Orthodoxy by a circuitous route of some sort, and “I bet there will be an Orthodox Church in Lafayette within 10 years.”

I won that bet. His response floored me: “There is.”

As foreshadowed, I was at the time an elder in the Christian Reformed Church, a Calvinistic tradition with strong connections to Dutch immigrants. I prided myself on being religiously knowledgeable, and I concluded that if there was already an Orthodox Church in Lafayette (Sunday liturgy was being celebrated in the chapel at St. Elizabeth Hospital; our current location is almost as invisible), it was time for me to figure out what the differences were between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism so that I would know why Orthodoxy was equally wrong.

Small talk aside, in other words, if the Orthodox Church was going to pick up converts in Lafayette, I did not want Christian Reformed people falling for it, spiritual guidance being part of my role as an Elder.

So I began my investigation respectful but having no doubt that I would find errors, arm myself personally and as an Elder, and move on with my life as a committed Calvinist.

* * *

That’s not how it worked out. As I studied, I had a couple of “epiphanies.”

  1. Trying to base everything in religious life on the Bible – one of the rock-bottom fundamentals of the Reformation (“sola scriptura!”) – was causing schism after schism after schism, making mockery of Christ’s high priestly prayer for unity of his followers. I know people who are committed to sola scriptura who say that today’s version of that principle is a dumbed-down version. But Luther had schismatics from his doctrines almost immediately. And on close inspection, the favorite prooftext for “Bible-only Christianity” doesn’t teach what Bible-only’s proponents attribute to it. As so often is the case, amateur (and professional) Bible students have underlined some things and ignored others.
  2. The Nicene Creed, one of the ecumenical creeds we used occasionally at the Christian Reformed Church, confessed belief in “one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” I was stunned to learn that nobody in the first 1500 years of the Nicene Creed thought “one holy catholic and apostolic Church” meant we were all somehow, despite our obvious divisions, one big happy spiritual family (which is contemptuously but justly called “invisible Church” ecclesiology). Until the last few hundred years, when the schisms became so numerous and glaring as to be undeniable, nobody ever thought Christ’s Church was the invisible unity of everyone who really loved Jesus, no matter what body they belonged to and even if they “worshipped” at the golf course on Sunday. Today, folks go even further than “invisible church ecclesiology,” making a virtue (Diversity! A Church for every different taste!) of necessity (“We can’t help splitting over hair-splitting interpretive differences, so let’s enjoy what we share — the word “Jesus” with little content — and thus paper over our deep disunity.”) The way I was wired, I was going to have to find Christ’s Church or stop saying the Creed.

You may notice that both of these points could just as well have led me to Roman Catholicism as to Orthodoxy. Since the little light went on, I’ve several times seen these points (especially the first) argued by Catholic apologists on EWTN. And the truth is that Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy have a lot in common because we were one Church for the first 1000 years of the Christian Era. Both are “Apostolic” in the sense that their Bishops know which Apostle ordained their remotest episcopal predecessor, and that’s a sina qua non of the Creed’s affirmation of apostolicity.

You may even have noticed that “trying to find Christ’s Church” is something lots of people could claim as part of their pilgrimmage to places other than Orthodoxy or Catholicism, including trying to go back to the Bible more faithfully. But see epiphany 1. That door was closed to me. I didn’t even think God told us through His Apostles to attempt such a thing.

Why, then, Orthodoxy rather than Rome?  Here I can only try to list some influences, trying to avoid anachronistically reading back into my story things that I in fact picked up later:

  • I was immediately comfortable in the Orthodox liturgy. Here was real worship. Nothing in the service was self-referentially about me. I knew that the Catholic liturgy had been compromised to differ little from Protestant worship — and arguably was worse than high Episcopal liturgy.
  • My old objections to most Catholic doctrine gone, I nevertheless felt that Rome had over-analyzed some things,
    • answering questions that I wasn’t asking and I thought no sensible person would ask. For instance, “transubstantiation” to explain how bread and wine become Christ’s body and blood, or “Immaculate Conception” to explain how Mary could bear a child unstained by Adam’s sin.
    • answering other questions where I thought they were claiming more knowledge of God than humans could legitimately claim even though God has revealed himself as much as He can. He’s still God; we’re still creatures.
    • along the same lines, a terminological difference weighed in favor of Orthodoxy in my mind: Rome has “Sacraments;” Orthodoxy has “Holy Mysteries.” The latter seemed humbler, acknowledging human limits.
    • The three prior points all boil down in theological terms to (or to the vicinity of) Orthodoxy being more apophatic than Catholicism. Having been quite dogmatic about my faith, and (I now realized) quite wrong about many of my dogmas, for all of my adult life, I was suddenly comfortable with saying “I don’t know” or “No, God’s not like that, though what He is like is hard to capture in words.”
  • There is a constant refrain in Orthodoxy that “God is good (or “gracious”) and loves mankind.” Everything about the liturgies reinforced this. Terrifying “Dies Irae” text and music have no place (that I can recall) in our service cycles. “God is love” made sense here.

I probably could, if I reviewed lots of things, recall a few more factors. But I believe these were part of the “calculus” or “sealing the deal” as Doug puts it.

Tying my story to the prior commitments I first outlined:

  • Pre-existing commitment to Jesus Christ: Yes. Orthodoxy has deepened my devotion to Him and my amazement at his kenosis. See, for instance, this.
  • Pre-existing commitment to trying to follow the historic Christian faith: Holy Smokes, yes! We were one Church with Rome from the beginning. Now even Catholics tend to fault us for not changing or “developing” the faith, which they have come to see as a virtue (John Henry Newman defended it; various dogmatic pronouncements of the past two centuries practice it.) I find it perversely confirmatory that our critics grope for adjectives like “stagnant” to describe the constancy of Orthodoxy.
  • The ecumenical creeds, believed without mental reservations: yes, now even including Orthodox ecclesiology.
  • Worship: Although I’m working out my salvation with fear and trembling, the Liturgy is “Sooooo not about me.” There’s no “Worship Committee” planning what songs to sing that will fit the pastor’s sermon text (which the pastor picks based on personal taste in most churches, thus furthering divisions and creating crazy, imbalanced stuff like annual “Prophesy Conferences”) and that will emotionally move people (emotion isn’t worship).

That’s how it happened. If I labored much longer, I might remember a few more snippets.

Thanks, Doug, for asking.

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