I\’ve been on a bit of a religious journey lately…lately as in the last year or two. This is distinct from a faith journey, as what I believe isn\’t changing, but how I believe and what I do seem to be.
Something has drawn me to explore more liturgical Christian traditions outside of my (apparently) evangelical bubble. It all goes back to Fr Stephen Freeman, really, and his excellent blog and podcast. Prior to that I\’d had a passing interest in the Orthodox that never materialized. Fr Stephen presented to me a lot of cool Orthodox ideas I had never been exposed to before. Even hardcore Protestants admit that the Orthodox have a real grip on Christian cosmology, and it was Fr Stephen\’s \”one-storey universe\” that began to agree with me and nudge me towards an exploration of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Since that time I\’ve been reading a lot of Orthodox and Roman Catholic literature and peeking into \”Liturgical Protestant\” traditions, like the Anglican communion. In short, I might be a cliche soon. Many men and women my age who were brought into the Protestant/evangelical thing at an earlier time of life have felt the pull of liturgy and vestments and candles and smells and bells, though others still take it the other way around. Many people I know have worked their way through the gradient, from Protestantism to \”light\” liturgical churches (like the aforementioned Anglican church) and landed in Orthodoxy, or at least Orthodox-affirming positions.
I haven\’t landed yet. I don\’t know where I\’m going to land and that is both terrible and encouraging.
What\’s been on my mind recently is the idea of conscience. Mr. Pahman over at Ancient Faith put to words the things that have been stewing in me for a long while now. Many of those who land in the Eastern Orthodox (EO) church, or the Catholic church for that matter, sometimes cite this very thing: all the reinterpretations and schisms and theological confusion throughout Christian history draw them backwards in time to the church that hasn\’t changed over the years and is, apparently, not subject to human conscience.
That\’s putting it broadly because both EO Church and (especially) the Roman Catholic church have room for personal opinions and movements of conscience, but they are all contained within the boundaries of the Church and her doctrine/dogma (not real clear on the difference between those two yet). As Pahman affirms, the role of the human conscience is important, even within the ancient Eastern Christian faith.
My question, as if it were utterly important and I couldn\’t just submit to the religious ideas of somebody somewhere who\’s already sorted this stuff out, is where do the lines of personal conviction and conscience end and those of tradition and authority begin? Because that\’s the big one, the real frontier between dogmatic liturgical traditions and the last 500 years of Reform vacillations. It\’s easy to twist scripture to agree with your conscience or cultural convictions, so when do we submit our conscience to what other people think and when do we resist?
For a contemporary evangelical, the only fence we know is the Bible and how we (and our conscience and experience) interpret it. For all other Christians (traditional Protestants included), their church is right and everybody else is missing something.
I\’ve studied the Orthodox Church most extensively so I can say that there is a lot of \”wiggle room\”, as it were, for other traditions and even Christians abiding within the dogma of the Church. The Orthodox simply regard their faith as the \”most complete\” revelation of God, while other religions (even non-Christian religions) are simply \”incomplete.\” That\’s a nice way to put it and can help steer members way from the hatred that often gets thrown around between differing faiths; for the Orthodox, other religions shouldn\’t be a threat. Within the church itself, you have to go a long way to actually be a heretic, though some (mostly YouTube commentators) seem eager to throw that term around. Archbishop Alfeyev said that there are lots of things outside of Church teaching that fall into the bounds of \”personal opinion\” and they generally are not in conflict with the dogma of the Church. In other words, it\’s okay to have your own ideas as long as they don\’t directly conflict with doctrine.
Fr Stephen Damick said, or probably quoted, that in the Orthodox Church when you bump into something the church teaches that you don\’t agree with, you don\’t say, \”I don\’t believe that.\” You say, \”I don\’t believe that yet.\” The idea is that you don\’t have to agree with something just because the Church teaches it (which seems to be less the case in the Catholic church and in certain Protestant realms), but you do have to recognize that the Church is the authority on the issue and that they have made the final judgement (probably 1000+ years ago).
A co-worker of mine, in a discussion about our individual ramblings within the Christian tradition, said that the path we\’re meant to be on finds us. This is a very Orthodox idea, as it\’s God who comes to us rather than the other way around. You hear this kind of talk a lot in conversion stories. Even the title of this post was taken from the autobiography of an Orthodox monk, describing how he felt when he made it into the EO church. But the Orthodox church is The Church, right? It\’s not just \”your heart\’s\” home, like some subjective thing, right? Such talk of subjectivity lends itself well to parody, where the only thing that matters in a church or a theology is if it\’s right \”for me.\”
So, the EO church is everybody\’s home, right? The paths we\’re meant to take should lead us all to the Orthodox Church…right?
Or does God (even the God of the Orthodox) move and guide us into the church/theology we\’re supposed to be in at the time we\’re supposed to get there? Is God \”subjective\” about where He puts us? Is He the one guiding our consciences, albeit in a dogmatic context? Does that explain why some bounce from Catholicism (or Orthodoxy) to Protestantism (or non-denoms), and vice versa?
Again, I defer to the Orthodox. A local priest who I\’ve been fortunate enough to speak with about these things told me, as a response to my expressed confusion about where God is leading me, that if what I think I want doesn\’t come to pass it is for my salvation. I don\’t know if this priest\’s kind, generous, and thoughtful response is a reflection of the greater priesthood, but I found it incredibly freeing and hopeful. Wherever I go, whatever God has for me, is for my own benefit, for my salvation.
He will use my conscience, holy scripture, the lives of the Saints, the Church (both here and beyond) to direct my steps. I think the phase of the journey I am on now may be the part where I figure out how to accept that. And that is terrible and encouraging.
As a post-script, I\’ll elaborate on the \”terrible\” part in an attempt at transparency that might encourage someone. It\’s terrible to feel adrift and pulled and pushed by every passing current. Every podcast or book I see demands my attention, even briefly, because it has to be considered. I\’m trying to be free of this overload and spend more time in God\’s presence (the Jesus Prayer has been very helpful in this regard), but it\’s terribly difficult. I just want to land and feel okay in my belief system, but that\’s not happening right now. There are too many questions. Have we really gotten better at this Christian thing since the Reformation? Is the Bible and the Christian life to be subjected to modern ideas and evolve along with society? It sucks and it\’s hard. At the same time, the journey is a gift and for my salvation. What else can one do but wait until the answers come?
I have a lot more to say on the subject, so we\’ll see if a follow-up is in order.