Is Orthodoxy a cult?

At the risk of revealing how oddly my synapses fire at times, a story (see here, here and above all here) about Daniel Harper, a Cameron University (Oklahoma) student started me thinking: how would young Harper assess Orthodox Christianity by his criteria for identifying a cult? Does that tell us something bad about Orthodoxy, something bad about Harper, or something deficient in his criteria?

My point is not to beat up Harper, and I won’t beat him up. I hope and (with Eugene Volokh fully expect) that he will trounce his university in his lawsuit. My point is to reflect on how Orthodoxy differs from Evangelicalism so much that an Evangelical might mistake it for a cult – as some of them certainly have.

To start off with, and based on my own experience, I think an evangelical superficially acquainted with Orthodoxy might indict us for (from Harper’s criteria):

  1. “They say they have the ‘truth,’ which can only be found through their group.”
  2. “Group claims special or elite status.”
  3. “They hide their core teachings.”
  4. “They encourage meetings to ‘study,’ rather than telling you things up-front.”
  5. Real Religions
    1. “Information offered up front.”
    2. “Works within society. “
  6. Cults (Destructive Organizations)
    1. “Exploits/ manipulates its members with mind control techniques.”
    2. “Discourages autonomy and pushes for conformity to the group.”

First, I note that this (and much of Harper’s other criteria) mashes up religious and sociological meanings of “cult,” leaning toward the latter. When I was a young Evangelical, the focus of the term among “my people” was mostly on religious error, not secretiveness or “cultic” mind control. I recall from my parents’ bookshelves, for instance, a tome titled The Chaos of the Cults (full text here). Its list of “cults” was very politically incorrect by today’s standards, leaning toward the abberant Protestantisms (i.e., <snark>those whose foundational interpretations of scripture were more recent than the 17th Century</snark>):

  • Spiritism Thesophy (And The Liberal Catholic Church)
  • Rosicrucianism
  • Christian Science
  • The Unity School Of Christianity
  • Baha’ism
  • Mormonism
  • Destiny Of America (Anglo-Israelism)
  • Seventh-Day Adventism
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses
  • Buchmanism (Moral Re-Armament)
  • Unitarianism Modernism
  • Swedenborgianism

I was in college when the emphasis started shifting, with families “intervening” and “deprogramming” their kids who’d gotten into, say, Hare Krishna or the Unification Church, both of which seemed (and probably were) sinister. The meaning of “cult” now generally leans toward the sociological use, the old usage, which really didn’t have much more substance than “any religion newer than mine is bogus,” having died a well-deserved death.

But that point aside, let’s look at the criteria. Bear in mind now, that Harper self-identifies as an Evangelical, yet tacitly endorses relativism by criticizing believing that your group is really right (his point 1, of which I suspect point 2 is duplicative). If you don’t think your group “has the truth,” why are you in it? Because it’s comfy? Well, in any event, Orthodoxy qualifies under his criterion 1. We don’t think we’re perfect, but we think the true light, the true faith, has been traditioned (passed on) to us. And Harper might think that unjustifiably makes us feel special or elite.

Point 6.1: incense, chant, candles, icons – pretty mind-blowing for a Protestant, let alone an Evangelical.


6.2: Orthodoxy puts high emphasis on humility and obedience to legitimate authority, particularly that of your Spiritual Father (though you typically find your own Spiritual Father if you’re diligent; I don’t know of them being appointed). 5.2? We’re kind of counter-cultural. Lots of home-schoolers, folk music fans, and otherwise dissidents, especially among the converts I know.

Above all, Point 4: we encourage people to come and see rather than trying to tell them. That also makes us suspect under points 3 and 5.1. Surely that’s a reliable marker of a cult, right?

Wrong. It’s just that some of Orthodoxy is ineffable. You have to see it to believe (or really to disbelieve) it. Yeah, we can point to the Nicene Creed as what we believe, but so can many others. That’s not a complete description of what we believe, or tend to believe, though. It’s a fence set up by Ecumenical Councils when people were falling off particular cliffs.

We don’t treat the Creed as “the essentials” and all else as optional. We have no “fundamentals” or “core beliefs” to be fundamentalist about. We have no “minimum necessary” beliefs, nor anything I’d call “least common denominators.”

We are a maximalist faith. We want to know/practice the fullness of the Christian faith. And some of that just isn’t cognitive or propositional. Some of it, you eat.

This is a great blessing, but as I was approaching Orthodoxy it was a great frustration.

I wanted to line up my Calvinist beliefs in Column A, what I took to be Roman Catholic beliefs in Column B, and Orthodox beliefs in Column C, so I could compare and contrast across the lines, sitting as judge. I jumped on the title “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” and then was disappointed that it didn’t really seem to deliver – not in the categories I wanted it to deliver in. Just look at those chapter titles. Sheesh!

  • That the Deity is incomprehensible, and that we ought not to pry into and meddle with tire (sic) things which have not been delivered to us by the holy Prophets, and Apostles, and Evangelists.
  • Concerning things utterable and things unutterable, and things knowable and thinks unknowable.
  • Concerning the nature of Deity: that it is incomprehensible.
  • Concerning the place of God: and that the Deity alone is uncircumscribed.

(Emphasis added) Which leads to this: much of Orthodox theology is apophatic:

Apophatic theology — also known as negative theology — is a theology that attempts to describe God by negation, to speak of God only in absolutely certain terms and to avoid what may not be said. In Orthodox Christianity, apophatic theology is based on the assumption that God’s essence is unknowable or ineffable and on the recognition of the inadequacy of human language to describe God.

It has been said, roughly, that if you really want to know what Orthodoxy is, you need to take a year, attend every single service that’s appointed (this probably means spending the year at a Monastery, since you’re not going to find a parish that serves everything appointed), pay perfect attention, make the prescribe prostrations, metanias, and other physical gestures, commune, be annointed, etc. and then you’ll know what Orthodoxy is. Because much – most? – of what we believe is in the hymns we sing, the prayers and litanies we pray, the acts we do, the acts that are done to us, and the entire multi-volume set of books with those services.

Yet you cannot become Orthodox by reading those or any other books. I was drawn to Orthodoxy by books. There came a point where I could have populated “Column C” somewhat. But that couldn’t and didn’t make me Orthodox. I had to “come and see.” And I count it a blessing that my role at the Parish requires me to be in more of those services than anybody except the Priest and maybe our Subdeacon.

And if “come and see” sounds like “we’re not going to tell you until we’ve trapped you,” I’m sorry but you’re hearing it wrong. We can’t (not mustn’t) tell you.

The old Evangelical saw was “Christianity isn’t a religion; it’s a way of life.” Think of it in those terms and maybe you’ll see why we couldn’t tell you if we tried.

* * * * *

“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

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