by Fr. Apostolos Hill
This excellent article comes to us from the excellent blog Again And Again In Peace.
I’ve been enthralled over the last few days with a book sent to me by an associate of mine, an out-of-state Protestant minister who has been investigating Holy Orthodoxy and whose travels have taken him into the Denver area a couple of times. More about the book later in this essay, but the pastor himself has already paid a price for his interest in the Orthodox Church. Seems that once his denominational leadership discovered that he was seriously investigating the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church they summarily dismissed him from his congregation as an apostate.Stop to consider this for a moment; this pastor hasn’t yet received formal catechesis (though his knowledge of the Faith grows by leaps and bounds, fed by an insatiable hunger for the Truth), he hasn’t been chrismated or yet received into the Faith, and yet he has already paid a very stiff price for his curiosity.
And in speaking with this pastor it is inspiring and humbling to witness the extent to which he “counts it all joy” and is happy to undergo these trials if the outcome is to have entered
“this holy house with the fear of God, with faith, and with love.”
How many rank-and-file Orthodox church-goers today would be sitting in the pews on Sunday if the price of admission had been their livelihoods? And while I am inspired on the one hand by such devotion and intensity I am disheartened and nearly scandalized by the cavalier disregard with which many lifelong Orthodox Christians simply set aside the teachings of the Church, painstakingly acquired over two millennia of diligent practice, whenever the Church’s teachings fail to comport with their privately-held opinions.
It had been and interesting week, one full of such examples of highly-customized pseudo-faith. And the range of issues ran the gamut from gender indistinctiveness (one chap even affirming that gender confusion actually anticipates the eschaton!), sexual fluidity as a normative state, confusion over Orthodox funerary customs, and the ever-present pre-marital cohabitation epidemic.. I get dizzy just trying to keep up anymore.
I once had a young bright-eyed seminarian regale me with his newfound knowledge that since creation ex nihilo is mentioned specifically only in the deutero-canonicalbook of III Maccabees it can now be safely called into question in the airy halls of academia. Other topics included ham-fisted and highly-politicized regurgitations of conservative and liberal talking points concerning gay marriage, immigration, economic policies… how dreadfully tedious!
And this was very interesting since the book I’d received from my associate spoke about this very trend; that of the highly-individualized and commodified American religious experience wherein ultimate spiritual truth becomes little more than an aspect of how the casual adherent happens to “fe-e-e-l”about a given subject. Any appeal to a coherent religious tradition is only referenced when the Church can show herself enlightened enough to support the individual’s half-baked and highly-malleable opinions. In such a case, well, then the Church truly is the
“pillar and bulwark of the faith”
as St. Paul wrote to his spiritual son Timothy (I Tim.3:15) and hence should be enthusiastically defended and championed! But should the Church have the audacity to not affirm the private opinions of the casual religious adherent, opinions most likely formed these days by a 3-4 minute radio piece or a 3-4 paragraph news story (conveniently written at a 3rd-grade level in order to cater to the American reading audience), well, then it is archaic, outdated, patriarchal, anachronistic, in need of reform, if not downright sinful!
In such instances of Ecclesial intransigence, the casual religious adherent then tries to neatly bifurcate the “true gospel,”that is, the one that affirms his or her private opinions, from the narrow,bigoted, close-minded, and hateful misrepresentation peddled by those rascally priests and pastors! Thus did a famous national writer last week when the Roman Catholic Church to which she, at least nominally, belonged failed to conform itself to her views on some particular political subject. And she stated that she was “leaving Christianity” but that she still believed in Jesus. This kind of chicanery and verbal sleight-of-hand might play well in the blogosphere but as Orthodox Christians we should certainly know better. Orthodox ecclesiology (which from all outward signs seems to scare us to death!) affirms that the Church is nothing less than the Body of Christ, the (to borrow the language of St. Justin Popovich) Theanthropic reality of the presence of Christ made manifest through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, which indwelling we refer to within Orthodoxy simply as “Holy Tradition.” Thus to try to maintain one’s faith in Christ while rejecting the Ark of Salvation provided to us for our salvation is nonsensical.
But how quickly the Ark of our Salvation is taken for a ship of fools when we feel our opinions aren’t being sufficiently catered to by the Church. And this sad tragedy of heterodox pseudo-faith is totally self-reinforcing in our parishes today for the simple reason that we manifestly refuse to invest the time and effort that truly learning our faith would require! Entrenched as we are in the cozy confines of our highly-opinionated ignorance, this is unlikely to change.
I know this next part will ache a bit.. but it really must be stated that we 21st- century media consumers aren’t smarter than the Church! And when we find ourselves in the tenuous position of holding opinions on one of the many hot topics bandied about the airwaves today as “exciting new academic research” struggles to mainstream aberrance as co-normal with traditional ways of being, for the one who would be Orthodox, the response must be one of humility and repentance! A church that is flexible enough to bow down in homage to our private opinions or that bends to conform to the political gale that sweeps the country today is not one worth belonging to. And a God that is so small as to be made to serve the finite and dim-witted opinions of poorly-educated and entertainment-enslaved casual religious adherents today cannot save and must not be worshipped!
The solution to this mess is pretty simple and time-tested; REPENT! Repent of the audacity that would pit our opinions against the Revelation of God to mankind in the Person of His Son Jesus Christ, as witnessed by the Apostles and proclaimed to the world, as affirmed by the rapid expansion of the Faith in the face of relentless Imperial persecutions, as ratified in the Ecumenical Councils, as expounded upon by the Holy Fathers and revealed Saints of Church, and as lived through the liturgical heritage and life of infused prayer made available to every practicing Orthodox believer.
And then, having repented, we need to develop a great deal more discernment about the many nefarious and outright noxious teachings and beliefs emanating from the heterodox world today. The Faith must not bow to the anemic outlooks espoused at all points along the socio-political spectrum. And finally, we need to trouble ourselves to become educated about our own Faith and become intentional about it for perhaps the first time! Rather than celebrate our ignorance of Holy Scripture and ofthe writings of the Holy Fathers, we need to undertake a rigorous program of education and illumination.
So long as we are scheduling our parish involvement around all the other “real” priorities in our weekly routines we are not yet living our faith deeply enough for it to transform our lives. St. Paul wrote to the Romans;
“Be not conformed to the world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
And salvation for us lies along the path of transformation and not in seeking to compel the Holy Church of Christ to conform herself to our unrenewed minds and opinions.
Fr. Apostolos Hill is the proistamenos of Assumption Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Denver, CO.