by Reader John
I’ve been blogging now for more than seven years, and religion has been a frequent topic. But I’m pretty sure I’ve never set out an orderly account of my religious pilgrimage or explained just what my beefs are with the Christian traditions I’ve left.
I intend to remedy that right now. I considered serializing this, but that seemed ostentatious. The result is a longish blog, but one blog seems adequate.
I structure this under four epiphanies for the simple reason that it genuinely seems to me that there have been four major turning points in my Christian life, and that each involved an “Aha! moment.”
I’m not going heavy on hyperlinks here. If you don’t understand some theological term, you may need to “Google it.”
A religious mini-biography necessarily starts with parents, our first conscious or unconscious religious instructors.
Mine were conscious and conscientious. They had been brought up nominally within small-town mainstream Protestantism. I gather it meant little to either of them. But during World War II, my maternal uncle had a spiritual awakening, and the people he trusted in such matters steered him in a decidedly fundamentalist direction. (I’m not using “fundamentalist” loosely or pejoratively.) He awakened my parents spiritually in turn, and they, too, took fundamentalism as the real deal, getting their spiritual formation, as intentional adult converts, in a fundamentalist Baptist church or two. (I was but a gleam in the eye at the time, so I’m summarizing events I never saw.)
Upon my father completing the professional education the war had interrupted, and “hanging out his shingle” professionally, however, my parents established themselves within an Evangelical Covenant Church that definitely dialed back any capital ‘F’ Fundamentalism. Churches of that denomination would baptize your baby if you liked, but wouldn’t scorn you if you thought your children should make a decision for Christ before baptism — my parents’ position.
Our family life include prayer before meals, Church twice on Sunday, midweek Prayer Meetings (I don’t think they were ever mandatory for the children) and Bible Stories and prayer at bedtime. The Bible Stories were from a Christian Reformed source, and pretty sober. No fire and brimstone there.
So when it hit me that clobbering my kid brother to steal a toy was one of those “sins” I’d heard about — the first notable epiphany of my conscious religious life — I thought of sin as disappointing Jesus, not of making Him lethally furious with me. And as folks later in my life might have said, I “got saved” right then and there. Whether or not I “got saved” sub specie aeterni, I have always marked that as the beginning of my conscious Christian life.
As hormones and peer pressure began kicking in some years later, I began misbehaving sneakily. When my parents found out, they didn’t approve — but then neither did I. Eventually, we decided together (I emphasize that — I was not “sent away”) that a change of scenery would do me good, especially as it put a distance between me and the friends around whom I seemed powerless to behave well. So on Labor Day 1963, at age 14, I was off to an Evangelical Christian boarding school, Wheaton Academy.
We were right. It did me good. But it was far from perfect. I don’t even know if my parents would have agreed to my going had they known of the theological remaking I would undergo.
I assumed that “Evangelical” was univocal, a mistake I suspect my parents made as well. I assumed that what I learned at that school was the “gospel truth,” and that my parents would really endorse it. The subject really didn’t come up that I can recall.
So it came to pass, in the shadow of Wheaton, Illinois, the Evangelical Jerusalem, that I began to think of the Christian life as a matter of following certain rules — a tendency strongly reinforced by a list of specific Evangelical taboos at that school (and, at the time, at Wheaton College, too):
- Secular movie-theater movies.
- Playing cards.
- Secret societies (like fraternities, sororities and lodges).
Still further, I was first exposed to a version of dispensational premillennialism that had what I now consider a lurid and very unhealthy urgency. It boasted that we could, with discerning eyes, watch Bible prophecy being fulfilled every day in the newspapers. Potentially the most damaging dogma was that the generation that saw the return of Israel to the Promised Land would not die before Christ’s Second Coming — and that a Biblical “generation” was 40 year.
That’s the closest I ever came to date-setters. Since I was born in the year the modern nation-state of Israel was founded, I assumed I’d never see age 41. In fairness to the school, this mostly came from one teacher, but he went unchallenged.
I wasn’t oblivious or a zombie. I don’t think I’d have drunk the Kool-Aid had it been passed out. A lot of their rules struck me as unsupported by the Bible, and that prophecy stuff was a strain, too. I just assumed that’s what the tribe was supposed to believe and profess (I got the feeling I didn’t really believe in Christ’s second coming if I rejected that Rapture stuff), so I did believe and profess it — half-heartedly. Vulnerability to peer pressure hadn’t completely gone away.
Maybe the worst change, if subtlest, was that I started thinking of God, almost exclusively, as angry at sinners and of Christ’s atonement as penal substitution (though I didn’t yet know that term) — essentially atonement as cooling down God’s anger problem.
On the good side, God was on my mind a lot, especially by my Junior and Senior years. I kept a form of Christian faith, even if my environment mutated it. I was baptized at the Wheaton Bible Church, parents not present, on a chilly winter evening in early 1966.
As big a presence as that boarding school was and is in my life as I approach my 50th Reunion, it produced no epiphanies. Epiphany two still awaited.
College began for me the Summer of 1967. After four years of boarding school dorms, my college experiences weigh far less than that Boarding School on my emotional scales.
In the Summer of 1967, I hung around the Wheaton area to linger with my girlfriend, who was soon going abroad for a few months, and packed eight semester hours of Spanish into eight sultry weeks at Wheaton College. Then, in the Fall, mandatory ROTC, Men’s Glee Club, and the beginning of my pleasant, but not earthshaking, college experience.
After my first year of college, I followed my then-fiancé off to an second- or third-tier Christian college in the South. Our engagement broke off, there was an attempt at getting back together, then the final break after about six years of relationship.
It was there also that I found myself surrounded for the first time by brazen Christian segregationists. I got pretty sour on Christianity, thinking even of abandoning it (in favor of what I cannot recall. I don’t think I’d gotten semi-infatuated by Bahai yet) or at least abandoning the visible, corporate manifestations of it and becoming a Lone Ranger Christian.
And then, just when I seemingly needed it, major spiritual epiphany number two of my life: Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead. (Unsurprisingly, a book did it. It was revised and renamed in 1982.) If you’d been there as a fly-on-the-wall (if you’d been a soldier, you’d have been overcome by sleep), you might have seen an angel rolling back the stone, or maybe it would have looked as if the stone was rolling itself back. Then you’d have seen Christ coming out somehow more alive than ever, not staggering out half-dead. It was that real, not story-real.
What followed from that, in my mind at least (don’t carp about it; it was my epiphany), was that Jesus was actually God, and that if he told us through his Apostle Paul not to “forsake not the assembling of yourselves together” or something like that, then by golly I’d better not skip Church.
I couldn’t skip Church even if some others there were racists/segregationists. And I never since have stopped going to Church on Sunday.
I wish I could remember the name of the teacher who had us read that book, because epiphany number two is all of real worth I took from that school (which has improved considerably since then, from what few signs I can see). It was decades before I could appreciate any of the virtues of the South, like Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor, who not only were southern by accident of birth, but were southern to their core, from whence arose their distinctive greatness.
But I’m running ahead of myself. I got chased out of that university after the Administration learned I’d filed for conscientious objector status. (It was a fairly high point in dissent over the Vietnam conflict, but the university’s wealthy patrons or patron-prospects apparently were thought to be univocally in favor of our involvement.) “Shut up or get out” is how I remember it, though it probably wan’t that succinct. To this day, it amuses people to hear that I was once considered a dangerous leftist in even a strange, twisted corner of this cosmos.
Thus, six-and-a-half years after entering the first of three Christian hothouses, did I come at age 21 to a “secular” university in January 1970.
I found myself attending, then helping to lead, an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter. I decided that an awful lot of objections to Christianity were hollow mimicry, and that the objectors had no clue whereof they spoke. (There was some truth in that, but I may not have been really listening, instead of just hearing and then shooting back.) I had peripheral contact with Campus Crusade for Christ, which somehow didn’t quite suit me. But I was emboldened in my faith in ways unlikely ever to have happened in the “hothouse.” And I found myself excelling academically and, though I was not in a particularly intellectual major, thinking of myself as a sort of intellectual (probably “autodidact” fits better).
And I met my wife, wedding her in May of 1972. (Spoiler alert: yes, we’re still married.)
As we began our married life together, I continued following InterVarsity Press, typically buying half or so of their new releases.
When a new release came along titled The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, I bit, leading to spiritual epiphany number three: there was a venerable tradition called Amillennialism, opposed to the sorts of lurid prophetic speculation I’d learned in high school. Indeed, I learned that nobody under the sun had believed in the Rapture and the dispensationalist scheme of things until (at least) the 19th century (I think the Rapture may have been a 20th Century heresy, proving that once in a while there really is something new under the sun) — which was an almost total disqualification of those views in my mind. Although there had been a milder, saner version of premillennialism since the earliest days of the faith, such “chiliasm” was frowned on from the beginning as well. I embraced Amillennialism.
The proponent of Amillennialism in that pivotal book was Anthony Hoekema, a professor at Calvin College or Seminary, so I also went off into an exploration of Calvinism more generally. Up until then, all I knew was the Christian Reformed dads of my boarding school classmates smoked and drank, which made them a bit suspect, and that their worship seemed rather formal.
I had to read through explanations of the TULIP soteriology (a/k/a 5-point Calvinism) several times before I could recall and defend it. It made sense, by my lights, the first time I read it, but somehow didn’t stick to my mind or heart.
While Prof. Hoekema was pretty sane and mainstream, my exploration of Calvinism led me to some voices that were, or had become over time, kind of fringe-figures. Were I treading that path in 2017, they would be today’s “discernment bloggers.” I hung around with some crackpots and was in danger of becoming a crackpot myself.
Instead, I settled into mainstream, 5-point infralapsarian Calvinism, a posture in which I remained for roughly 20 years, becoming an Elder in Hoekema’s Christian Reformed denomination. I thought, as do many Calvinists, that I could discern proto-Calvinism in the writings of St. Augustine, the closest thing I knew to an Early Church Father. So as far as I was concerned, I was now firmly in touch and continuity with the early Church, and that was where I had inarticulately long longed to be.
I also was no longer comfortable being called an Evangelical. I had abandoned their novel-but-ubiquitous dispensationalist eschatology and augmented by 400% their one-point Calvinism, I reasoned, so how could I still say I was still of their tribe? But I didn’t want to be scorned by them as a mainliner or liberal, either. My ambivalent relationship with Evangelicalism in those decades has been a recurring aside in my blogs on religious topics.
Then, around 1996, I invited a young Greek-American computer retailer (who I’ll call “Pete” because that was his name) to lunch to get to know him better, and struck up a conversation that went like this:
Me: So, you’re Greek. Was your family Orthodox?
Pete: We are.
Me (surprised because all the local Greeks I knew had become Roman Catholic): Well, I’ve heard that Orthodoxy is growing in America, and our fair city is growing, so I’d almost bet there will be an Orthodox Church here within ten years.
Pete: There is.
Me (astonished, since I thought I knew my fair city’s churches): No! Where is it?
Pete: We do our Sunday Liturgy at the St. ____ Hospital Chapel (one block from my church).
That dialog begs for a sort of flashback, doesn’t it?
What I thought I knew about Orthodoxy was that it was ethnic and its clergy wore beards and funny hats. I also had sung some music of the Russian Orthodox tradition in the Wheaton College Men’s Glee Club, and it was transcendently beautiful — but I was too dense to have made the beauty/truth connection yet.
What I’d heard about Orthodoxy growing was basically what you can read here, the story of Peter Gillquist and compadres from Campus Crusade puttin’ on liturgical airs over a decade or two and eventually becoming frankly Orthodox. Though I had not read that book yet, the same story arc had been covered as news along the way by Christianity Today. My reaction at the time was along the lines of “Oh, my! Leave it to those Campus Crusade for Christ guys to do something attention-getting with robes, smells and bells!”
But my Church had some Campus Crusade type personalities, so after my conversation with Pete, I decided it was my job to figure out how Orthodox wrongness differed from Roman Catholic wrongness (which I thought I had figured out through what I now recognize as hostile and secondary sources), the better as a Calvinist Elder to protect my flock from this strange, attractive, but obviously mistaken “Orthodoxy.”
Here my narrative becomes jumbled. If I had known I was beginning a personal revolution, I’d have paid better attention. I just can’t recall for certain in what order I did the following:
- Mucked around the internet (including the listserv firstname.lastname@example.org — anyone else remember that one?) for information.
- Read some Orthodox books (and Daniel Clendenin‘s remarkably fair and insightful book from an Evangelical perspective, too).
- Attended a Liturgy.
My first experience of Liturgy shocked me. I found myself immediately making a clumsy sign of the cross and genuflecting toward the Catholic hospital chapel’s altar, like a Roman Catholic.
It felt good. It felt as if those bodily gestures had been bottled up and were now breaking out. They felt natural. That probably made the rest of my disorienting first experience of Liturgy, even entirely in English, much more tolerable.
Maybe I should call those feelings “epiphany number four,” but it didn’t impress me quite that strongly at the time. And there’s a reason I blog under the rubric “Intellectualoid”: I tend to discount feelings as a reliable guide.
So back to the more cerebral stuff.
I was very lucky, because nobody like the discernment bloggers had yet taken up misinterpreting, misrepresenting, and provincially vilifying Orthodoxy, nor had anyone else I was aware of. I think I started on the internet — an approach I wouldn’t recommend in hindsight, because there were and are Orthodox equivalents of discernment bloggers, but it was free. I probably would have stopped with a Calvinist discernment blogger’s reckless misunderstandings and provincial slanders if I had encountered such, just as I had been satisfied with secondary sources on Roman Catholicism.
Instead, I came across a longish article titled Sola Scriptura. Its argument was spiritual epiphany number four, or maybe I should call it “4(a)”: Sola scriptura as practiced in my Christian circles had produced denominational chaos. 1 Further, sola scriptura is not, ironically, taught by scripture. 2 The problem, I hasten to add, is not “scriptura,” but “sola.” 3
I also soon found Becoming Orthodox and Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Way, both of them primary and sympathetic accounts of the Orthodox Church, one by recent Evangelical converts to it, the other by a presumably Anglican convert of many decades. Becoming Orthodox, frankly didn’t do much for me beyond
- showing that the Campus Crusade guys weren’t looking for a gimmick; they were looking for the earliest Church.
- showing that you didn’t have become a make-believe Greek, Russian or anything other than American to become Orthodox — a tacit message that may have made conversion 4 significantly more thinkable.
I had long called myself “orthodox with a lower-case “O.” I was, I thought, a “Mere Christian,” which I described as “believing the ecumenical creeds of the Church without mental reservations.”
Then came epiphany 4(b): “One holy, catholic and apostolic church” in the Nicene Creed was not the invisible spiritual kinship of all true Christians. And it was not a passing remark; it was one of the “I believe ins” of the Creed.
That was as big a gut-punch as the sola scriptura epiphany. My recitation of the Creed had been infected with, if not a mental reservation, a Reformational reinterpretation of “church.”
Ceasing to recite the Creed wasn’t an option. Reciting it with mental reservations wasn’t an option. I was primed by longing for primitive Christianity to trust what the Fathers of Nicea meant over what I’d meant by those words. (Reciting it without mental reservations in a congregation full of people with unacknowledged mental reservations didn’t even occur to me, and it would have produced its own cognitive dissonance, as in “How can a church that doesn’t believe in ‘one holy, catholic and apostolic church’ in the visible sense be that church?”)
I was now convinced I should become Orthodox — except for the part where I kind of wondered whether I was having a really weird, slightly delayed mid-life crisis and whether I should take another look at Roman Catholicism. I didn’t shelve my inquiry, but resolved not to rush too much.
I confided in my Christian Reformed pastor, a good man who I liked, and he tried as best he could to dissuade me. I met frequently with the mission parish’s priest, a former Episcopal priest and school teacher, who came out of retirement, moved to my town, and never regretted it. I spoke with a Roman Catholic Priest I knew from the pro-life trenches to see whether I was missing something, and should become Catholic instead of Orthodox.
I had my qualms about some specifics, like the Theotokos, who is a hangup or blind spot for many low-church Protestants. But I had reached the point where I trusted the Church’s dogma (the title “Theotokos” is a dogma of an Ecumenical Council) more than I trusted my own, likely-skewed, judgment.
In June or so of 1997, my local Christian Reformed Church, having undergone a semi-friendly “worship wars” split (euphemistically styled as planting a sister church), decided to reduce the size of the Church Council, including the number of Elders. I wrote my letter of resignation from the office of Elder and for the first time apprised my fellow Elders and Deacons of my intent to become Orthodox.
Before that, the only fellow members who knew what was going on were my wife and pastor. There was a “Form of Subscription” in the Christian Reformed Church whereby Elders and Deacons vowed not to avoid or deny doubts, but to keep them within proper channels, and not to broadcast them. In addition to signing the Form of Subscription, I heartily supported it. But honoring it until my exit made my exit look impetuous or ill-considered to all but those who had needed to know earlier — a mild but prideful regret I admit having felt.
I never went back to the CRC after delivering that letter of resignation. I was immediately admitted to the Orthodox Catechumenate, and on the Sunday after my 49th birthday, received Holy Chrismation to complete my Baptism of 32 years earlier.
My transition into the Church was complete. My formation of an Orthodox mindset (phronema) had barely begun.
I hope you’re not feeling gypped or misled. The title promised “A life in a string of epiphanies” and all I’ve talked about is religion. Where’s the rest of my life?
But that is my life! Other things matter, but nothing matters more.
I cannot extricate my worldview from my faith or vice-versa. To some extent, that has been true since epiphany number one, but I think it has intensified. That I’ve likely already lived 3/4 or more of my life tends to focus the mind: not on avoiding God’s wrath, but on becoming the kind of person who can face with joy an eternity where I matter little or not at all, but where Christ is all in all. 5
Having settled in for a few decades, what have I found uniquely true about the Orthodox Church?
It’s hard to put into words. That’s why Orthodox evangelism tends to consist of “come and see.”
Harder still for me personally, I need to find words for feelings and tendencies that an intellectualoid has trouble trusting — things that may be true but approach ineffability. I have a Dostoyevsky “Beauty Will Save the World” sticker on my office window, but long habit and self-image keep pulling me back toward “Spock-like logic (think of that tidy, air-tight 5-Point Calvinism) will save the world.”
But here goes. Turn on your feeler.
- I’ve found, again, the love of God. Over and over and over and over we hear liturgical exclamations “for You are a gracious God and love mankind.” There’s no contrary stream of wrath that I’ve noted. The steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.
- I’ve found true worship of God, which was something I longed for and agitated for in my prior Evangelicalism and Calvinism, as best as I then understood worship. For instance, I wanted no “hymns” in worship that were addressed to encouraging one another rather than praising God. Yet somehow bathos kept cropping up, and emotionally manipulative gospel songs kept elbowing out too many hymns. I really had no idea what real worship looked like, but my longing was wholesome. I am very much a member of homo adorans.
- I have found sobriety and balance. The Christian Reformed Church was on the right track when it aspired to “Catechism Preaching,” an effort to tie sermons to the prescribed portion of the Heidelburg Catechism appointed for that Sunday, rather than letting pastors riff on whatever they read in Saturday’s newspaper or National Review. But Catechism Preaching was a tradition honored more in the breach than in the observance. I have found the Orthodox liturgical cycles (very complex and overlapping) to produce sobriety and balance in homilies, but more, in the entire service (hymnody, Epistle and Gospel readings, etc.)
- I have found a hard path which, if I faithfully walk it, 6 will make me more Christlike — a nice Protestant way of referring to becoming a “partaker of the divine nature.”
- I have found a Church that really is a hospital for sinners instead of a club for self-styled saints. Some patients have more embarrassing ailments than others, but we’re all chronic cases; sacramental confession helps to drive that home. Not one of us is a hopeless case: the lives of the Saints help drive that home. Some check out of the hospital against medical advice, but we don’t do involuntary discharges of anyone who knows (s)he’s sick and wants to get well.
Today, Calvinism seems to me to uphold God’s sovereignty at the cost of imputing capriciousness and malevolence to Him, and depriving us of truly “free will” (a term I’d actually come to sneer at when I was Calvinist). It also seems too confident about being able to systematize mystery.
I say, and mean, that “Calvinism is a good tradition to come from,” because its sobriety was admirable, and ironically its menacingly sovereign God makes me love Orthodoxy’s loving God all the more.
It’s in the nature of epiphanies that they come unexpected, so it should be no surprise that I expect no more epiphanies until “What’s that light? Why am I in this tunnel? Who’s that coming?”
I’ve found, I’m betting my life, the Church that goes all the way back to the Apostles, not just to Saint Augustine, and that I believe “stayed the course” in the Great Schism while Rome veered off.
I’ve found the Ark of Salvation.What more could I want?
* * * * *
1 R.C. Sproul Jr. says (in close paraphrase) that Roman Catholics and eastern Orthodox objections to sola scriptura typically miss the point: their energies more often than not are aimed at the Anabaptist error that we call solo Scriptura.
If so (which I admit only for the sake of argument), then I’ll admit that my Protestant life was shaped by the Anabaptist error, as I was never in a mainstream Protestant church until my joining the Christian Reformed Church in my early 30s, and even that is not the middle of the mainstream. I never heard the Baptists talking about “soul competency,” but “me and my Bible” was in the air I breathed at some formative points in my life.
But note that the Anabaptists arose almost immediately after Luther and the other seminal Reformers opened Pandora’s box by declaring sola scriptura,. Soon, Luther was supporting the magistrate’s persecution of them, and the Calvinists were deploring their heresies and anarchy in the Belgic Confession. Dare I suggest that the Radical Reformation and every schismatic sect since is an embarrassing bastard descendent of the Magisterial Reformation?
Further, while the original sola scriptura view, presumably held by the more mainstream denominations, may have been less fissiparous than the Radical Reformation, it has not been notably successful at avoiding rank apostasy — witness the Episcopalians, United Methodists, PCUSA, etc. Sproul’s argument thus reminds me of bitter-enders insisting that true Communism hasn’t really been tried.
2 While some Protestants incredibly have never even heard the term, it’s a universal mark of Protestantism to live by some version of sola scriptura. Some defend it vigorously (here, here and here for instance), but I don’t intend to digress into arguing with them. This is the story of my spiritual life, not an exhaustive apologetic.
The arguments that scripture teaches sola scriptura all seem to me to boil down to “Scriptura + Scriptura + Scriptura + Scriptura + Scriptura + Scriptura + Scriptura = Sola Scriptura.” In other words, they’re cumulating praises of scripture, but are bereft of any definitive argument, so they resort to theological synthesis.
3 We Orthodox don’t do sola anything, or try to figure out the minimal standards. We’re always going for the fullness — maximalists, not minimalists. Contrast the four-bare-walls-and-a-black-Bible prototypical Calvinist Church with the iconic riot of an old Orthodox Church and its bejeweled Gospel book if you want to visualize it.
4 I cannot resist calling my embrace of Orthodoxy a “conversion,” unlike my change from baptist and reluctant Dispensationalist to Reformed and Amillennialist. The term must be somewhat equivocal, though, since my embrace was from a different perspective “just a change of Christian tradition.”
I think “conversion” seems to fit because my faith in Christ and my faith in his Church is now one act of faith, not two — the late Richard John Neuhaus’ description of an “ecclesial Christian.” That’s huge.
6 I’m not saying that “going through the motions” suffices. What I’m saying is more that we are both body and soul, and what we do with our bodies, including some asceticism, matters spiritually — to our benefit if accompanied by right attitudes.