Why I’m not "Big O Orthodox"

Conversation over at the Ooze has been fairly fruitful of late. I’ve advocated for academic study bibles, tried to give an account of some feminisms’ potential for Christian theology, and discussed an archaeological approach to theology.

As I’ve discussed these things, I’ve once again come into some degree of conflict with converts to Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, and I’m starting to get a handle on why my own intellectual and theological convictions in the end won’t likely make a very good fit to the ancient episcopacies. That’s not to say that mine is the only way or even a good way, simply that if I’m honest, and if my honesty ends up serving a role in the larger life of the Church, it’s going to serve better outside of those traditions. So this will be an honest account, my own, of the differences between theirs and my stories of Jesus and the world.

Every history of theology is also an account of Jesus’ place in history. Orthodox and Catholic Christians (especially those who have converted into those traditions) tell a compelling story about the Incarnation and intellectual history. When God sends Jesus into the world, intellectual conditions (within the sects of Judaism and in the larger Greco-Roman contexts) were just perfect for the Gospel to emerge. The rites of first-century synagogue and temple life translated well into Christian liturgical forms, and Hellenized Alexandrian Judaism and middle-Platonic forms of thought served as handy wineskins for the new wine.

Yes, I did just stack the deck there. You’re very clever for catching it.

Thus philosophical questions that seem to have arisen in the centuries after the first CE (or AD if one prefers) are at best rehashings of the oldies but goodies and at worst direct attacks on the contexts and forms that best sustain the intellectual life of the faith. Questions of race and class and gender, to the extent that they call into question old formulations, are invitations to sinful resentment. Epistemological inquiry might look like a denial of the very possibility of truth. And so on.

Thus the history of the Church’s intellectual life is one of conservation and of corruption, and not much else.

Oops. You caught me stacking the deck again. I’m not so clever after all.

I tend to see Christian intellectual theory differently. One of the images that most readily occurs is the rending of the temple curtain. Whatever the primary symbolism of that action in the aftermath of the crucifixion, it evokes some fear and trembling: the most holy place isn’t the same place it used to be.

The point of this bit of theatrics is that Jesus, as I imagine Jesus, is a man and a phenomenon too grand to be grasped in one generation. I doubt that many would dispute this in the abstract, but in more practical terms I mean that a reliance solely on those first two centuries is likely going to miss something. Theological data, like scientific data, are theory-laden, and if we Christians rely solely on the theoretical frameworks constructed in Platonic and Stoic times and places, we’re going to be stuck with dead theories about a living God. Inventing new content to supplement the self-revelation of the Trinitarian God is not what I’m after; instead, I hope that people in different times and different places can see different things that might have been hiding behind their temporal and spatial neighbors’ bad philosophies.

This is not to say that any generation is going to have any sort of direct access to an un-theory-laden Jesus or an unmediated crack at the Biblical texts; it’s simply to say that as frameworks change, this era’s contribution to the grand conversation might be to open up space to see what a Trinitarian God looks like apart from the Platonic insistence of some sort of “atemporal” realm. Or perhaps a hopeful and critical look through Wittgensteinian linguistic philosophy might let us evaluate more helpfully our reifications and too-tight categories.

Of course every generation is going to have to discern, through the indwelling Spirit, the harmful and helpful in every time and every place. Nobody that I know advocates an unthinking embrace of every new kind of thought. On the other hand, if the Church, extended in time and space, needs my generation’s critical faculties in order to clarify this or that bit of divine revelation, I can hardly ignore the cloud of witnesses waiting to see how I’m going to run that race.

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2 responses to “Why I’m not "Big O Orthodox"

  1. Lucas

    Excellent Post!!! That resounds with me quite well, and as I think about it, is probably the main reason why I’m not “O”rthodox, although I have a high regard for “O”rthodoxy and have lerned much from it.

  2. FDR

    Hey Nate!

    First of all, I want to say how much I admire and respect you, and that I count you among the “Friends of the Orthodox.” (We need as many friends as we can get!)

    I think your thoughtful post deserves a response….

    {{{{I’m starting to get a handle on why my own intellectual and theological convictions in the end won’t likely make a very good fit to the ancient episcopacies.}}}}

    This idea that one has to “make a good fit,” certainly testifies that you are not ready (I won’t get into “probability forecasting! ;-> ) to consider becoming Orthodox. One must feel compelled, know within his heart that he can do no other, even if it is a matter of God “dragging you in kicking and screaming.” AS long as there are other “options” or “ways of looking at things,” or “ways of being saved,” then you are right, Orthodoxy is not for you.

    {{{{Thus the history of the Church’s intellectual life is one of conservation and of corruption, and not much else.}}}}

    Please explain. I truly don’t get it….

    But, it is true that I did not become Orthodox for the intellectual life. Its because I knew I needed to, to be saved. The intellectual smorgasboard was a bonus to this one who didn’t evfen realized he had been malnourished by the Charismatic intellecutal wasteland……

    {{{I tend to see Christian intellectual theory differently. One of the images that most readily occurs is the rending of the temple curtain. Whatever the primary symbolism of that action in the aftermath of the crucifixion, it evokes some fear and trembling: the most holy place isn’t the same place it used to be.}}}

    And that of course is the good news of the Gospel.

    {{{{The point of this bit of theatrics is that Jesus, as I imagine Jesus, is a man and a phenomenon too grand to be grasped in one generation. I doubt that many would dispute this in the abstract, but in more practical terms I mean that a reliance solely on those first two centuries is likely going to miss something. Theological data, like scientific data, are theory-laden, and if we Christians rely solely on the theoretical frameworks constructed in Platonic and Stoic times and places, we’re going to be stuck with dead theories about a living God. Inventing new content to supplement the self-revelation of the Trinitarian God is not what I’m after; instead, I hope that people in different times and different places can see different things that might have been hiding behind their temporal and spatial neighbors’ bad philosophies.}}}}

    Nate I think YOU have missed something. Sure Contemporary Orthodoxy has a debt to Roman/Hellenic/Byzantine thought ANS praxis…as we do to Judaic though AND praxis. But it does no end there. The rich culture of Holy Rus is immense in its contributions to the Faith. Add to that the Serbs, the Arabs, the Copts, etc…. How about the French in their Theological academy of St. Sergius (Russian to be sure, but the French influence cannot be discounted.

    And as Holy Orthodoxy puts down roots in America, the rich heritage that Evangelicals bring, certainly CANNOT be ignored, even if it is fought against in some Orthodox quarters. For the Holy Spirit is stronger then the sinful human beings within and without the Church.

    And that is it right there. Either the Holy Spirit IS leading the Church into all Truth, or He isn’t. If you are doubtful that that claim is true, then be honest about it. No one would pressure you in the least bit to accept something you don’t accept. If you see the Holy Spirit’s guidance elsewhere, then by all means pursue it.

    But I reject that notion that it is about “fit,” as if Truth were a commodity on the marketplace. Its OK with me if you reject Orthodoxy as not being true. At least we are then in agreement that there is such an animal, even if we differ on what or where it is.

    {{{ it’s simply to say that as frameworks change, this era’s contribution to the grand conversation might be to open up space to see what a Trinitarian God looks like apart from the Platonic insistence of some sort of “atemporal” realm. }}}}

    Really? And our current paradimgs and pressupositions place in that much BETTER a postion ar contemplating Truth? Your whole point is showing that we are not, as you are betraying an Aquinian insistence on the Trinity being something that can rationally understood. Maybe you are aware of that. But what of your presuppostions that you are NOT aware of?

    I just don’t see how throwing out the 2,000 years of the Holy Spirit working in the lives of Christians can be or should be discarded as to be be better able to “get at truth.” Just sounds like more Individualistic that is so rampant in our society.

    If I have your trust to offer a reccomendation it would be to check out the conversation between Gregory Palamas and Barlaam. It is the quintessential dialogue of East vs. West, and indicative of the problems we Doxies have w/ Scholasticism and the rationalism of the West.

    {{{{Of course every generation is going to have to discern, through the indwelling Spirit, the harmful and helpful in every time and every place. Nobody that I know advocates an unthinking embrace of every new kind of thought. On the other hand, if the Church, extended in time and space, needs my generation’s critical faculties in order to clarify this or that bit of divine revelation, I can hardly ignore the cloud of witnesses waiting to see how I’m going to run that race.}}}}
    The Church DOES need your critical faculties. But they are useless if they do not use the starting point of revealed Truth, and the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

    Forgive,
    Fr. Dcn Raphael

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