On Becoming Eastern Orthodox

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by Hal Freeman

In my last entry I engaged in some preliminary considerations of politics. I decided to take on the area of religion as well. For some of you a discussion of religion is at best tangential to Russian/American relationships. Maybe it’s tangential to a lot more than that. On the other hand, the two countries have strong religious backgrounds. And, yes, I am aware of “don’t discuss religion and politics.” But before I look at the differences between the American and Russian expressions of Orthodoxy, I think some background for what undoubtedly colors my observations is in order. I do not write as a “cradle Orthodox.” I have never gone through any Orthodox schools. My understanding, as I will point out, has been shaped by readings, catechumen classes, and conversations with priests and others who helped me understand it. So we’re not talking expert analysis here.

I was raised right in the middle of the Bible belt of southern (American) religion. My dad was a Baptist preacher. Most people in that part of the south were Baptist. Dad’s views were, well, very conservative, but according to Jerry Falwell’s definition of a Fundamentalist, dad was not a Fundamentalist. As is commonly known in these circles, Falwell responded to a reporter’s question on the difference between a Fundamentalist Christian and a conservative Christian: A Fundamentalist is a conservative who is mad about it. We were not mad about everything, but we did protest. That is what Protestants have done for centuries. In my early small town childhood churches, we couldn’t be like Luther and protest against Catholic hierarchy because there wasn’t one around. We couldn’t protest against the Lutherans because we didn’t have any of them either. We could’ve protested against the liberal Episcopalians, but you had to go to Greenville to see one. So we Baptists protested against the Presbyterians because they didn’t believe in free will. Then we protested against the Methodists because they did believe in it.

After forays into other faiths and no faith at all, I ended up right in the middle of Baptist life. I am frequently asked why I left the Protestant faith, particularly the Southern Baptist denomination in which I was trained and taught. I mean, I actually made a living teaching in a Baptist University. I did not leave because I was mad about anything. In one of those seemingly random purchases I bought a couple of books containing some really old writings and reflections by Greek and Russian Orthodox writers. It was a bad time in my life. I was no longer the man I wanted to be. It was, in the words of Kris Kristofferson, “back when failure had me locked out on the wrong side of the door.” Self-help, devotional books, pop psychology never did do anything for me.

The writings of Theophan the Recluse, a Russian monk (1815-1894), had a powerful impact on me, however. It seemed like he knew me. Then there were others. I had absolutely no contact with any actual living person who was Eastern Orthodox until after I had “met” a lot of dead ones. Scripture and Christian history for them seemed a consistent stream of divine revelation, not points to be argued about. So I then started reading some Orthodox writers who happened to be still alive, chief among them Kallistos Ware. Now, I had read a lot of theology in my seminary days. The first thing that struck me about Ware was he wasn’t arguing with anyone. He did not set forth a bunch of views, evaluate the positive and negative features of each, then qualify the terms until they died the death of a thousand qualifications. He wove together Scripture, church councils and traditions, and the teachings of the “elders” in a way that seemed seamless.

The freedom of Protestant thought has opened the door to a lot of different and differing views. Because there are so many variations of “Protestant thought,” one has to qualify terms, clarify presuppositions, and the like. A lot of different people with very different ideas become Protestant. What became clear to me in my classes and conversations on becoming Orthodox is that they stuck with the first eight ecumenical councils of the Church. If you could not hold to those, for whatever reason, then you do not need to be Orthodox. There is no pretending and there is no exalting of the view that one person’s opinion or interpretation of Scripture is as good as another person’s. So as far as I can tell at this point you do not have a “liberal Orthodoxy,” or a “social gospel Orthodoxy,” or a “fundamentalist Orthodoxy.” Some, no doubt, see this as a vice and others as a virtue. But the parameters are there when you come into the Church.

After sneaking off and attending Vespers and then Liturgies at a local Orthodox Church, I began to see worship differently. In my Protestant world, worship was focused on how good the music was or how good (or long) the sermon was. If one had an inspiring time then that meant the worship was good. This approach was corrupted by not a few who “planned” worship around what would be most liked by the most people. Of course, the rationale was you could win more people to Jesus that way. Being privy to some behind the scenes discussions led me to believe that was not always, or usually, the motivation, however.

Along came the “worship wars” between Protestants who preferred old hymns with an organ and piano and those who liked new songs with guitars and drums. “Old” is a relative term, however. They did not mean old in the Orthodox sense. “Old” was in the sense of what two generations ago sang. When I went to the Orthodox Church there were no instruments. What they were doing was not clear to me, but what was clear was that they weren’t doing it to please anyone or entertain anyone. There was a homily in the middle of the liturgy, but for the most part it was completely directed toward God. I felt that approach strangely attractive.

I say strangely because there were other aspects of the liturgy that were, well, different. First, when you enter the place where you worship (the nave) you are facing the icons and the altar. Things looked a lot different from my childhood churches which had that pulpit, choir area, and then the baptismal with a picture of Jesus by the river painted on it. (I won’t go into the “preacher’s chair” behind the pulpit.) Second, you stand during an Orthodox service. There are a few pews in the back if you need to sit. But most stand—for almost two hours. You are in the presence of the King of the Universe after all. There was also a “laid back formality.” It is a formal atmosphere in that a liturgy is followed, but because you are standing if someone needs to leave or take a child out it is not a disruption like getting up when you are sitting in the middle of a pew and stepping over everyone.

There is an altar in the church, but it clearly is not like a “stage” as it turns out to function in most Protestant churches. You don’t really see the choir. The building where the Orthodox Church worshiped where we attended in South Carolina had been converted from a Methodist church building (I think). There was an area to the side where the choir assembled, but I could never figure out where the boundaries for choir and rest of the congregation were. The priests move around up front at the altar, but clearly there is no hint that one is “performing” a song or giving a performance as part of the liturgy. My family followed me there and after two weeks then six year old Gabriel summed it up:

“Dad, I REALLY like this Orthodox Church.”

I figured if a six year old sensed it then it was time to make a move.

Since I was raised in such a devout Baptist home and my wife was raised in such a devout Communist home, neither one of us knew what to do or when to do it. There is a “physicality” to Orthodox worship, that is, you cross yourself, you bow, and sometimes you prostrate yourself (repeatedly)—and I’m talking actually all the way to the floor. Some of the congregants were brought up in the Orthodox Church. Others were not. Most all of them realized, it seems to me, that there is a good chance that visitors may have come from a Protestant background. So there is a certain freedom. If you don’t cross yourself at that expected time or if you have to mumble the confessions of faith or the prescribed prayers in a way that it becomes obvious that you are really just mumbling in general because you do not know the right words, no one stares at you. Or if you keep shifting from one foot to the other frequently or groan in a slightly audible manner about an hour and fifteen minutes into the service they are okay with that. They know eventually you get used to it.

Now, the move to Russia is demonstrating to us the variations within Orthodoxy. The small town Baptist from America and the small town Communist from Russia are learning about how Orthodox faith is both the same and different in the two “worlds” of Russia and America.

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On Becoming Eastern Orthodox




Comments

  1. Thank you for writing these words, they express how I feel too. Nazareth background

  2. Thomas Uttecht says:

    I want to move and live in Israel….

  3. There are certainly magnificent Orthodox churches and monasteries there.

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