November 16 is the 25th anniversary of my reception into Orthodox Christianity, from a background of Calvinism (proximate) and generic evangelicalism (20 years remote).
This post isn’t meant as an apologetic, though if it convicts someone that they should give Orthodoxy a look, I’d be glad. It’s also not intended to be a comprehensive story of why I didn’t, say, become Roman Catholic, or how all the little things, not just a few big things, pointed toward Orthodoxy. Something closer to a comprehensive story, or at least a complement to this post, is here.
I can’t give a neat connect-the-dots account of going from Christian Reformed Elder to Orthodox layman because I don’t remember everything I read or in what order I read them. But I tend to mention Peter Gilquist’s Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith, The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity by Timothy Ware (later Metropolitan Kallistos Waare), and the monograph Sola Scriptura by then-Deacon, now Priest John Whiteford.
The first made conversion fairly “thinkable.” The second familiarized me with Orthodoxy at a basic level. The monograph disenthralled me of sola scriptura, the battle cry and foundation of the Protestant Reformation. When pondering why I remain Orthodox, I think of this monograph and say “there are some things you just can’t un-see.”
For some reason, I too rarely mention C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, which played what feels like a very important (if idiosyncratic) role as well — perhaps because it was not a direct apologetic for Orthodoxy.
If you’re not familiar with The Great Divorce, you can fix that in one evening. Summarizing, many in Lewis’s tale of a day trip from hell to heaven, where they were given the option of staying, found that heaven was just a bit too real, or too little about them, or too inhospitable to their petty grudges, and so got back on the bus for hell.
Re-reading it a bit more than 25 years ago, I for the first time saw in myself hellion habits that could lead me back onto that bus, though I was offered heaven and had thought my salvation eternally secure. I asked myself: “What are you doing to become the kind of person who would stay in the hyper-real place, who wouldn’t get back on the bus to the grey city? Are you certain that some post-death miracle is going to eradicate a lifetime of cherished vices and self-regard? Shouldn’t you be starting a bit of self-mortification now?”
So what does that have to do with Orthodoxy? Orthodoxy is, so far as I know, uniquely urgent about the necessity of cooperating with God in our salvation (synergy). Most Protestant traditions I know seem utterly unable to distinguish cooperation with God from “earning salvation,” which they rightly believe is impossible. So they have nothing to offer one who wants to know how merely to cooperate.
It helps that Orthodox worship is distinctively “not about me” — if not uniquely, then at least counter-culturally. Decades before I found Orthodoxy, I was dissatisfied with most of the music we sang (in the whole succession of Churches I attended in my very mobile younger year), the gist of which was how God makes me feel — i.e., they weren’t really about God.
But “[w]e are homo adorans, creatures capable of self-transcendence through worship. Without this ability and capacity for worship, we are not fully human; even in our pomp we are like the beasts that perish (Psalm 49:20).” (Fr. Lawrence Farley)
Not even fully human without worship. That rings so very true to me! Whatever my faults, and they are many, inconstancy in Sunday church attendance has never been one of them. Because I need it — need to worship, and (I now recognize) need this stiff and willful stuff called “me” to be molded into a godlier likeness.
More than rejection of any particular Protestant doctrine, the awareness of the need — in this present life — to grow toward God, to become more Christlike, to work out my salvation with fear and trembling, has guided my past 25 years.
For some reason, I thought you might want to know that.
One more thing, not at all unrelated:
I believe the greatest heresy of all is the belief of some Christians that they are “saved.” If we believe we are categorically and without question already saved, it is a good sign that we have been dominated by demonic pride. St. Paul’s statement, “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9), must be read in the context of Christ’s words: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
Vassilios Papavasiliou, Thirty Steps to Heaven
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