Why I am Orthodox: The Nature of Truth
Many people, in their various manners peculiar to them, have expressed interest in why I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian. Some phrase the question in rather benign terms: “why do you attend a Church that appears to be based in tradition or rituals?” or “Why do you go to confession?” or even “why don’t you got to x church anymore?” Others are more forceful, “how could you endanger your salvation? Why do you worship idols and pictures now?” I prefer the former as compared to the latter. Having had many email, personal message and face-to-face conversations with these sorts of questions (the opportunity of which I am incredibly thankful) I think it would be profitable to discuss my journey from one form of Christianity to another.
However, if I was being honest, I think it is better described as a journey from what is a modern and post-modern reconstruction of Christian religion to the religion as handed by Christ to the Apostles, who consequently handed it on for future generations to possess. From the outset this sort of classification can seem controversial, particularly for those who can read between the lines. In a seemingly antagonistic and oppositional manner, I am effectively decrying Protestant expressions of Christianity as “reconstructionist” and “not the faith as handed down by Christ”. It seems to establish a groundwork of correct vs incorrect, or right vs wrong. This, I think, highlights the distinction between two fundamentally different ways of looking at the world, or at least, looking at religion and worldviews, and thus sets the foundation for my posts to come.
Truth is important:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. John 1:1
“God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” John 4:24
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:31 – 32
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6
Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” John 18:37 – 38a
It seems a fairly self-evident claim to say that truth is important. The problem with seemingly self-evident truths is that we have a tendency to forget why they are important or where they come from, and thus are susceptible to being questioned in their own self-evidentiary nature. The simplest reason for truth’s importance is that what is real matters and truth is those claims or ways of being which point to and encapsulate what is real. To deny truth is to deny what is actual, and to deny what is actual is to live in contradiction to the fabric of existence itself. This implies something existentially radical: if we know how things are in their reality (as far as we are able to do so) we must both strive to search and understand this reality, and we must bring ourselves into consonance with it. We must both find out what is real but allow what is real to tell us how we are meant to really live.
This is encapsulated in ancient ideas of ethics, where virtue and happiness are intimately connected. Right living is understood as living in accordance with right reason, understanding the world as it is and living in consonance with this reality. It is in living in consonance with this reality that one is said to gain happiness (eudaimonia as Aristotle would put it; perhaps a better term would be contentment or wellbeing) because one is living in harmony with the forces and designs of nature and its creator. Truth is the criterion for ultimate meaning both in an abstract intellectual sense, but also in a relational and emotional one.
This idea is also thoroughly Christian: our allegiance is to truth and ultimately truth. As the above quotations in St John’s Gospel reveal, Christianity is intrinsically laden with claims about the Christian’s relationship to truth: Christ is the Logos, the Word, or rational, ordering principle which undergirds all of nature and gives it its structure and meaning; we are called to relate to God in worship in spirit and in truth; living as God intends is a mechanism by which we are freed to truly be human, and in fact is the only way by which we can come to know God; Christ, the centre and object of our faith, is a living witness to truth, and to comprehend truth is to comprehend Him. The difference to be noted, of course, is that truth in the Christian sense constitutes an I-Thou relationship with a person (and in fact, with many people) rather than a purely abstract reality that the Greek philosophers of yesteryear had posited.
The point that I am trying to make, if I were to put this all in another way, is that everyone’s ultimate allegiance, Christian or non-Christian, spiritual or materialist, pagan or agnostic should be to truth. Our highest pursuits and goals should be ordered to both discovering truth and ultimately to that which is true. This does not mean that all people should be philosophers, scientists or researchers in terms of formal employment, but it does mean that everyone has a responsibility for individually and communally enacting these roles in order to live in consonance with the world around them. The contemporary problem is that we’ve seem to have forgotten this in a lot of ways, and this has direly affected Christianity in the West.
The Cart Before the Horse
It is not uncommon to come across individuals who will espouse views that can be summarised in pithy statements of popular wisdom akin to: “do what’s true for you” or “pursue your truth”. In a related manner, common sentiment in parenting is that the mark of an ideal, good parent is the one who looks upon their children and supports them in their decisions “as long as they are happy”. These statements and this type of thinking are, undoubtedly, pursued in good intentions, in the name of tolerance, love and patience, but have occurred as a result of an inversion of the ancient (and Christian) way of thinking mentioned above. Aristotle or Christ would have said that being in right relation to truth is happiness; people today would say that happiness is the best way to gauge truth. There are a multitude of historical and philosophical factors which have contributed to this which I don’t the will to go into, sufficed to say that we now live in an age where ideas of overarching ultimate truth are questioned and are viewed as arrogant. To say that certain ways or ideas are better than others, in many differing circumstances, is at best pigheaded and misguided and at worst a violation of a sacred principle tolerance. Disregarding the irony of this position, how it is in itself a violation of its own principle, there is a fundamental reality being concealed by such a position.
Truth is intrinsically arrogant.
This claim is somewhat hyperbolic and inflammatory, admittedly. It is impossible for an abstract noun to be “arrogant”, when arrogance is a characteristic of people, a disposition exhibited by certain behaviours. Only people and what they do can be arrogant. What I mean is this: truth is exclusive. Reality, as it is, does not care about tolerance at the end of the day. Human societies need tolerance so that we can understand what is true, most assuredly, but tolerance is not a function of reality, tolerance is merely a means to facilitate a means of approaching reality. Reality is structured in a particular manner, and whilst this reality may be complex and intricate requiring a synthesis of many views into one unifying view, it is what it is to the exclusion of other possibilities which contradict it.
That is, if reality is x it is impossible it for to both be x and not be x at the same time. It is not arrogant to say a position is wrong or that another position is right, simply on the basis of the fact that people feel strongly about a particular view. Tolerance does not call for saying all views are right, but that we need to allow for the possibility of a right view to come from anywhere. Yet somehow tolerance has been warped to mean that all views are equally right, or that we cannot know if any position is true, and to oppose this is arrogance. To this I merely reiterate the position above: this is a contradiction and that positions might be arrogant in their presentation or in the one who holds it, but the view itself cannot be arrogant. It is either wrong or right to varying degrees. It might not be binary in its rightness or wrongness (it certainly is in some cases), but it is meant to be judged and measured in terms of its accuracy, not on its supposed arrogance.
Naturally, this raises the question of how we are meant to know what is true, as there is a difference between the reality x and what we believe about x. And this draws me to my point: 21st century Protestant Christianity has largely seemed to have forgotten the fact that truth matters and functions in this manner. Now, it hasn’t totally forgotten this (certainly its most liberal wings have), but it certainly has abandoned this perspective when evaluating other versions of Christianity. To the extent that Protestantism has tried to be Ecumenical, it has been swept up in line with the cultural and philosophical movements which have possessed the last century, and this present one.
We have assumed that the above fact about truth can be applied to every other realm of knowledge except about discussions within Christianity. We can have contradictory statements about the nature of the Triune God, about Christ, about salvation, and be fine with it, going so far as to consider one another as brothers and sisters. This is buttressed by falling back into ignorance, claiming that the necessary information, or the means of gathering this information, doesn’t exist, and to claim otherwise violates all notions of unity. Of course, the notion that one can have unity between people who have two disparate views is as absurd as suggesting that red and blue are the same by virtue of both being colours. Neither are remotely the same shade and if one was to try combining them, neither retain their individual integrity as the colours they are and instead become something else entirely (though personally, purple is my favourite colour).
To summarise this in another way: Protestantism thinks it can have its cake and eat it, that it can have unity by hiding the fact that there are significant differences in belief in God under the proverbial rug, whilst also still claiming that it believes in truth. It’s incredibly hard to maintain that there is such a thing as unity when you peel back the carpet to find mutually exclusive contradictions laying everywhere you look, and it is equally as difficult to claim that there is truth when these same groups seem to claim that these differences don’t matter, which is what a proclamation of unity is. We might say that we simply can’t know what is true, or at least, we can’t know all that is true. The former is an absurd statement: if it was the case why bother being Christian at all? The latter is more reasonable and is true to some degree. And it raises the question that I effectively hope to explore in these series of blog posts: what is the limit of our knowledge of God? How do we know Him?
Questioning our Beliefs:
This raises the necessity of questioning. Questioning takes us to the limit of what we know an understand and pushes us to what we take as fundamental to everything – to the core of our being, our lived experience, how we interpret and view the world. It enables us to justify what we believe and to challenge the assumptions that underlie them. However, as much as questioning may be valued in common discourse (where questioning in itself is seen as a good rather than a means to a good) it can only take us so far. There is a point where questioning can no longer take a person any further as we reach the bedrock of existence itself. That is, it takes us to those belief which form the core of every other belief; it takes us to our axioms, and axioms, in and of themselves are unjustifiable beliefs which we take on trust – on faith. We need to reason as best as we can until we get to our fundamental axioms and at which point we need to realise that we just say “I believe it because I trust it to be true”.
However, this line of reasoning leads us to discover potential blindspots: considerations that were previously lacking before the present moment. When these blindspots are exposed we find that our initial starting point of reasoning produced unseen contradictions and nonsensical ideas at the limits of our belief. As such, we need to adjust our thinking so that these are resolved as best as possible. If the system is fundamentally untenable by virtue of the axiom we have taken, we need to adjust the axiom so that we have a consistent system that accounts for these considerations. We either need to find if there is another step back we can go – an axiom behind what we used to have as our axiom – or perhaps abandon the project, undergo a revolutionary paradigm shift, and find an alternate starting point altogether. At this point it is utterly insufficient, not to mention intellectually lazy and dishonest, to say “I believe it just because I believe it” without attempting to resolve these problems. This is the terrible burden of truth – truth does not care about what we believe, it simply is, and we are left with no excuse if we choose to ignore it and hide. We sound as hollow as Pilate’s own questioning of truth as it stood there in front of him.
I finish this first entry with a challenge: are we prepared to go wherever truth leads? As uncomfortable and scary as this might be it is the only way to live a true existence. After all the only valid reason to believe anything at all is if it is true.