Why I am Orthodox – Part 2

Last Time we Met…

Last post, making the beginnings of an extensive reflection on why I am an (Eastern) Orthodox Christian in particular, I made comment on the nature of truth, its exclusive nature, and the necessity of us having to conform to it rather than merely settling for what we experience as satisfying. Whilst I suspect that, at least in principle, most people would agree with this idea, it is curiously notable that it is generally not extended towards religious and moral claims. When we start making ultimate claims about the very nature of existence – when we begin to think that there is a certain “should” which our lives must be shaped by – we conveniently retreat into platitudes and justifications surrounding the impossibility of knowing these truths (if they even exist). Perhaps, in the name of a so-called tolerance, we even claim that these very claims are ultimately bigoted, imperialistic, and/or wrong by their nature of being exclusive. The irony of this view has already been discussed: what is sufficed to say is that we tend to accept truth only insofar as we like it – so long as it doesn’t impose on us a duty to which we must respond.

Hinted at in that article was the suggestion that this philosophical baggage has now carried over through to Protestant Christianity to a startling degree. I will now be explicit in expressing this sentiment: it appears to me that Protestantism, as it functions now, problematically places limits on the degree to which we can truly know God and his will for humanity. Having limited this ability to know God and thus the definitional constraints of who He is and how best to approach Him, it has resulted in in an overly broad umbrella of supposedly acceptable “Christianities”. To put it another way, Protestantism’s fundamental assumptions and methods necessarily result in a load of veritable contenders applying for the position of being “Christianity” with no functional way of adjudicating between them. As such we are forced to accept a passive stalemate between them all, and this is dangerous.

My hope is that in this piece, I would be able to demonstrate that this problem exists (and that it is a problem) but not to demonstrate the core methodological reason why it does. That is, I hope to show that Protestant Christianity is diverse in the sense that I claim it is and that this is problematic. I will not be showing in this post why there is no functional way to adjudicate between them and why this is as a result of foundational assumptions within the system. These reasons why will be discussed next post.


Diversity is our Strength!

One need only repeat the oft stated factoid of the existence of over 33,000 denominations of Christianity to get a picture of the diversity within Protestantism, the concept of a denomination being a uniquely Protestant phenomenon. Even though this number may not be entirely representative – a more favourable estimate being perhaps a few hundred with these ultimately falling under a banner of perhaps five to twenty sub-categories – the fact of diversity remains. This diversity in denominational difference is reflective of the diversity of beliefs that come about. Different denominations exist since different Christians disagree with each other on what the true content of Christianity is. Interestingly, however, is the fact that these beliefs are often at odds with one another.

For instance, if I were to take a rather obvious comparison, compare Arminian belief with Calvinist belief. To oversimplify both systems, the former believes that God grants grace to individuals to believe in Christ of their own free will, and that God foreknows and predestines people to salvation on the basis of knowing how they will use their free-will. The latter, however, believes that God predestines people to salvation or damnation not based on their choices but based on his knowledge alone. People are saved because God explicitly chooses who will be saved before the foundation of all of creation, and likewise people go to hell because God chooses who will go to hell before the foundation of all of creation, without reference to the person’s own activity. (I write a bit about this belief system in an earlier post).

Or perhaps take another example, that of Communion. Lutherans say that Communion is the body and blood of Christ (though in a way different to Orthodox and Catholics). Low-Church Evangelicals (Baptists, certain Charismatics, Non-denominational churches, etc.) say that it is merely a representation of – a symbol to help us remember – Christ sacrificed on the cross. Those of a more Swiss Reformed background, would say that Christ is made spiritually present in Communion, not physically, but made really there in an invisible manner by the Holy Spirit, but not in the physical elements of Christ’s actual body and blood.

Or let us take a look even further, Pentecostals and Charismatics say that the Holy Spirit is alive and active today in the body of believers, gifting people with spiritual, miraculous gifts. The former particularly says that the Holy Spirit gives all people the spiritual gift of angelic tongues as evidence of a “baptism in the Holy Spirit”, a wondrous empowering of an individual for ministry and mission. Cessationists will say the opposite, that these sorts of gifts no longer reside in particular individuals for regular, daily activity as they did in the New Testament era, and that any such notion of tongues is a ludicrous one.

Note here, I am not explicitly critiquing any of these views, (of which I disagree with many quite vehemently) I am merely noting that they exist often side by side and that they contradict one another. It seems rather incoherent to me that if all these different Christian groups make up the Church, and the Church has all these views existing side by side, that we can say that the Holy Spirit has somehow led us into all truth (as noted in the last post). One could posit that these beliefs are insignificant, that they don’t constitute the truth that we’ve been promised to be led into. I contend that this view is incorrect and dangerous.


Beliefs and Worship

As noted above, it appears that the closer one looks at the various denominations, the more one begins to see how utterly dissimilar they all are. It would also be incorrect to say that these differences are insignificant. Firstly, note each of these beliefs: they are not the least bit insignificant to forming a composite image of who God is and how one is to live now. The first category of beliefs has to do with perhaps the most important topic in Christianity – the very nature of salvation. How exactly does God act in granting humanity salvation? Does he create us as being able to participate and cooperate with Him? Are we able to respond to his grace through an act of our volition? Or is God an unchallenged and unmoved determiner of all? Is God in fact a God who derives pleasure from indiscriminately choosing who goes to heaven and who goes to hell? One answer will give you a certain picture of the type of God you believe in as will the other.

The second series of beliefs has to do with the nature of grace as we experience it now, and our life as Christians in the church: does Communion actually give us grace and form our spiritual existence in a physical manner, or is it merely an opportunity used as a means to introspectively reflect? Is God really present in particular physical activities and rituals or does he only act on us in our inner dispositions and thoughts?  One answer will give you a picture of the human person and how they are meant to interact with salvation, as will the other.

In the final case it has to do with how we live as Christians now: does the Holy Spirit really work in miraculous ways now? Does God work in a manner now that enables us to encounter the wondrous works of God in the present? Might we be able to perform these or is it too high an ideal and too much to expect? One set of answers will give you a picture of how God is involved in the world today, the very conception of the supernatural and the natural, as will other sets of answers.

To call each of these issues as secondary or unimportant would be, I think, to denigrate and trivialise the very force of the claims being made by each of these. And I have only begun to touch the surface on different beliefs in this system. The true danger, however, is in how this affects the more serious and foundational issue: that of worship. The centre of Christian life is not the beliefs we believe but rather the worship which we offer unto God. This is because the core of Christianity is intimacy and relationship with the living God which is brought into being through the medium of worship. Beliefs, then, are ultimately subservient to this purpose – to ensure worship (which is consequently why the scholar is always less important than the priest). Beliefs intrinsically affect how one worships and who one worships. It therefore cannot be said that they are a trivial matter. As the ancient Christians used to say, lex orandi lex credendi: the rule of prayer is the rule of belief. What we pray and how we worship is what we believe, and what we believe is how we pray and worship.

This is indeed what we see happens: Pentecostals worship differently from Baptists, who worship differently from Lutherans, who worship differently from Anglicans and so on. The forms of worship exist to act as living statements of mutual contradiction, saying different things about God and about his plan of salvation for the world. Whilst there will certainly be some level of commonality between them, the degree to which this diversity exists in this mutually contradictory fashion should cause us to raise an eyebrow. I would go so far as to say that that the distinctions between some of these groups should raise the question as to whether they exist within the same genus of worship at all.


Diversity is our Strength… Right?

Some might look at the list of different beliefs mentioned above and say, “Well, yeah, this is a good thing! Thank God for this diversity in belief and worship practise!” and thus might take the diversity in practise to be the norm. This assumption a priori assumes that diversity in and of itself is a good thing (or at least a good thing in this context). Unfortunately, diversity in and of itself is not a good. This is a piece of common contemporary wisdom which simply is not true, having more in common with a pithy proverb which tows the line of political correctness rather than saying anything meaningful. Diversity is only a good depending on its context and even then, depending on its intended end. In a university, for instance, a diversity of ideas is good as it, theoretically, secures the pursuit of truth by subjecting ideas to a dialectical peer review process, ideas being refined by fire. Notice that in this context diversity is only good because of what it attempts to ensure, truth, not because having a diversity of answers is necessarily valuable in and of itself.

Likewise, if we claim that there are a diversity of answers to a maths question on an exam, it may be trivially true in the sense that lots of different answers will be given by different people but it will also be more substantially false in the sense that only one answer (or a very narrowly constricted range of answers depending on the question) will be correct. The possible number of solutions to the issue is ultimately restrictive in its character, and therefore means that not any solution is true or valid.

My suggestion at hand is that this is the case with worship: that it is akin to a mathematics problem in the sense that there is a true worship and is thus narrowly defined and constrained. Worship is an objective truth at least as much as it is subjectively true and experienced, and so therefore should be primarily understood in this sense, with the subjective being conformed to the objective. Whilst it may be possible for a certain variety of solutions to be available, they will hold to a narrowly constricted framework as there is an objectively true answer to the question of “what is worship?” and logically cannot be mutually exclusive or contradictory.  Christ himself said that those who worship God must worship him in spirit and in truth (John 4:22-23).

When one sees the diversity of possible forms of worship within Protestant Christianity and sees how divergent they are from one another, it should make us ask what exactly the restrictive criteria should be, and how we determine these criteria. We cannot simply trivialise the nature of worship and say that they are all acceptable unless we do the hard work of determining whether these confirm to true worship. Diversity in worship, after all, is not a safe affair. If carried too far “diverse worship” is merely a euphemism for “idol worship”.


Concluding Thoughts and Clarifications

To summarise what I am attempting to say (and have hopefully communicated) Protestant Christianity is widely diverse in its beliefs often being mutually contradictive. This therefore manifests itself in its worship in much the same way. To deny or lessen the extent of these differences is to miss the force of the claims being made and to trivialise them, because each group is fundamentally proclaiming a very different picture of God, and therefore act in different manners to enter into relationship with that particular conception of God. As such, we cannot reduce worship to a purely subjective conception, because beliefs ultimately determine who you worship and vice-versa. There needs to be some constraining criteria which determines what is objectively correct worship.

At this point one might raise the following objections:

  • How would we guarantee that we have a true belief or true worship?
  • Don’t we all have incorrect beliefs about God? It’s pointless to try and have “perfect” worship as we’re all wrong to some degree.
  • Doesn’t this overlook the grace of God? Surely God isn’t going to punish us for not doing everything exactly correct?
  • Those examples that you raise above, they all have similarities in their common beliefs and worship practices: they only disagree on secondary issues on no the essentials!

These are some fair objections. I hope to tackle them in my next post when we look at the fundamental methodological reason why Protestantism has fallen into the above predicament and why it cannot provide for itself an answer. Simply put, one might suggest that the way out of this problem is by making sure we are appealing to Scripture – that we make sure we have Scripture as our highest authority in answering these questions as in all theological matters (known as Sola Scriptura). I will be arguing that this is the fundamental methodological flaw that Protestantism makes, and this no more fixes the problem so much as what exacerbated and caused it (or at least was a significant causual factor). However, I will leave this for next time.

There is much more I can say on this topic, but I think I will finish with some closing thoughts and leave the rest to another time. What I would like to draw attention to is the personal relevance of this discussion. One of the questions that precipitated my conversion to Orthodox Christianity was the issue of true worship. I found myself in a circumstance where I was unsettled by the lack of a coherent definition of worship. I was facilitating a young adults’ event at my previous church, where we were having a group discussion on the nature of worship. It occurred to me in that discussion that in no sense was worship conceived of in an objective manner. Worship was primarily seen as a subjective occurrence, an individual interaction with the divine which depended mostly upon how the individual was constructed and how they ‘identified’ with God, rather than on any objective notions of who God is and what He requires and asks of us.

There is some merit to this, I suppose. Not everyone is the same and not everyone’s experience of reality is identical, so it stands to reason that an all power and loving God designed people in different manners and will interact with them in different manners. However, it seems nonsensical to me to make this the foundation of worship. An overreliance upon subjective identification with God seems to misunderstand the very nature of the God we worship and the very nature of people as people. People are sinful and their subjective experiences, thoughts, feelings, and contexts are not always correct in determining truth. Likewise, if classical Christian thought is to be believed, God is totally other and necessarily provides a very real and external way to interact with him. It would make sense then if the former conformed to the latter – the objective needs to take priority and thus grounds the subjective.

Consider the forms of temple worship in the Old Testament, for instance. In Leviticus in particular, God was very specific with regards to the external practises which people were to perform so that they might be in his presence and in relationship with Him (how to worship, in other words). So important was adherence to these objective forms that people could be, and were, killed for violating these. There was indeed an objectively correct way to worship God – why, then, should we expect the same God to change in the New Testament? Certainly, the bringing in of the new covenant by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus would change individual details about how we worship, but it would not change the fundamental character behind the worship itself, right? The character of God as revealed in the Old Testament seems to reveal an insistence upon external, objective and correct ‘forms’ of worship, where the importance of “getting” worship correct cannot be understated and therefore requires a great level of care and detail required in practising these forms. Why should these fundamental characterologically driven ideals be changed? Surely God no less cares about worship in the same ways now than He did then?