Developing an Orthodox Mind
by Fr. John Whiteford
Fortunately for us, Fr. Anthony Nelson had prepared us for the fact that converting to the Orthodox Faith was not the end of the road, but rather the end of the beginning of a long spiritual journey. You never reach the end of that journey in this life, but he especially impressed on us that it took a couple of years before one really began to think in an Orthodox manner. And so while I had been accustomed to teaching and preaching, I did not so much as teach a children’s Sunday School class until I had been Orthodox for 3 years.
You could describe this process in terms of a worldview shift, or a paradigm shift.
A worldview is a set of mental paradigms with which we evaluate our experiences. Our worldview is the way that we think. It is the way that we look at things, process information; it is the paradigms in which we sort things through. Our worldview determines our expectations of reality, and our expectations largely determine our perception of reality. If we are faced with something that does not fit into our paradigm, then we are likely to be blind to it, or to try to make it fit artificially into our worldview. For example, in some cultures they only distinguish between two or three colors, bright and dark let’s say – so to such a person, blue and black are both just dark, the distinction is missed. Or for an example that is more close to home: what our culture’s predominant worldview would call an emotionally disturbed person, another (such as that of the Bible) might call demonized (which is of course not to suggest that all such cases would be).
The expectations of these worldviews will either open or blind a person to certain possibilities. An animist would be blinded to the role that germs play in sickness, or that a head wound or brain damage might play in mental illness – an animist would see everything in terms of spiritual forces. A modern Empiricist, on the other hand, would be completely blind to the very possibility that spiritual forces could even play a part in such things as sickness or mental illness.
When people come to Orthodox Christianity from a pagan background (by which I mean either an irreligious background, or from a religious background that is neither Christian, Jewish, or Moslem), in many ways they have an easier time accepting our Faith and practice without distorting it, because what they are embracing is so radically different from what they knew previously. They have a lot less to unlearn before they can properly learn the Orthodox Tradition, and they don’t think that they already understand words or concepts that they really don’t, in the proper Orthodox Christian sense.
When I was studying Martial Arts in High School, the style I studied was a form of Chinese Kung Fu. Now in my Martial Arts school we had a number of “converts” from Tae Kwon Do, who had for some reason decided that they wanted to learn Kung Fu. What was interesting though, is a neophyte could walk in off the street and they would have an easier time learning to do the forms and stances correctly.
The problem was that many of the stances and forms, as well as punches and kicks were very similar – but just different enough to make it very difficult to learn to do it the Kung Fu way. But when it came time to put these techniques into practice – when we sparred – this problem became even more apparent. With time, many of these “converts” learned to do the stances and forms correctly (though the Tae Kwon Do influence could still be seen at times) but when they would spar – many of them would spar as if they had never studied Kung Fu at all. The instructor would often stop the action, and tell such people,
“Look, Tae Kwon Do is fine, if you want to learn Tae Kwon Do, but you’re here to learn Kung Fu. If you want to learn Kung Fu, you’re going to have to put what you know about Tae Kwon Do aside and use the techniques that you’ve learned here.”
The reason these people reverted back to Tae Kwon Do while sparring is simple – when you’re sparring, you’ve got to think and act fast, and Tae Kwon Do was what came natural to them – in fact it was preventing them from arriving at the point at which Kung Fu would become natural, and so until they could come to the point at which they would lay aside their Tae Kwon Do techniques – little progress in Kung Fu could possibly be made.
Similarly, in the Orthodox Church today there are many converts from Protestantism, who have seen in Orthodoxy that which they found lacking in their former Protestant experience, but very often they speak and act in very Protestant ways still. This doesn’t mean that a convert from Protestantism can never really become authentically Orthodox, but it does mean that he has some additional hurdles to overcome. I should also point out, however, that many “cradle” Orthodox who have grown up in America’s Protestant culture, often think in Protestant ways, and so many of them also have to go through a conversion process of sorts, if they are to acquire an authentically Orthodox mindset… and here, they can be even more disadvantaged than a former Protestant, because at least a former Protestant knows that he once was a Protestant. Too many of those born into Orthodox families are completely oblivious to the influence that Protestant thinking has had on them.
Former Protestants have the advantage of being more familiar with the Scriptures, and knowing much of Orthodox terminology, but often they do not move beyond their Protestant understanding of these things to an Orthodox one, or else they revert back to it at times in a pinch. The convert from paganism, doesn’t think he has already understood something that he has not – and so is more easily instructed. What I had to realize is that while I may have been a black belt Protestant, I was a white belt in the Orthodox Church, and so I had to learn the Faith from the beginning, and not assume that I already understood things.
This was not a comfortable transition. When people I knew would ask me about what the Church taught, if I knew for sure what the Church taught I would tell them. However, if they asked me about something that I was not sure of the Orthodox answer, I had to learn to give tentative answers:
“I think the answer is such and such, but I am not sure. I’ll have to do some digging on that.”
The constant question I had to ask myself was whether what I thought about something was really Orthodox, or whether this was simply my previous Protestant learning filling in the gaps. And I should say that after nearly 23 years in the Orthodox Church, I still at times find myself asking that question, and still have to give that same tentative answer, pending further study.
Obviously reading about Orthodox doctrine and Tradition is an important part of the process, though back when I converted there was a lot less available in English then there is today. Now, if you know which sites to go to, you can find a wealth of information with a few clicks of a mouse, but back then there were only the books that were in print (which you couldn’t generally find at your local library, and so had to purchase), and there were a number of Orthodox periodicals that I subscribed to. One thing that I found particularly helpful was reading the novels of Feodor Dostoyevsky. His novels conveyed the spirit of Orthodoxy in a way that a dry text about Orthodoxy generally cannot. But one body of Orthodox literature that inquirers into Orthodoxy and new converts often overlook is the reading of the lives of the Saints, and this is one of the most crucial things that we should devote our time and attention to. Bishop Peter (Loukianoff) says that St. John of Shanghai greatly stressed the importance of the lives of the saints, and often when asked a question about some matter of faith or practice, he would answer by citing something from these lives, which he had extensive knowledge of.
And all the reading about Orthodoxy in the world will be of little help if you do not regularly attend the services, fast, pray, and live out the Orthodox Tradition in your daily life. St. Maximus the Confessor said
“Theology without practice is the theology of the demons”
[For more on this see the text of a talk I gave on this subject in 1995].