Sunday, January 08, 2006

Faith as Encounter

Being alums of Oral Roberts University who converted to the Orthodox Christian faith has made my wife and me, along with the many others who've come in with us over a period of about five to ten years, pseudo-celebrities of sorts when visiting other parishes. "Oh, you're one of them!" we seem to hear more often than not. And it's true, it is notable that several students from one of the most well-known protestant/charismatic universities in the world moved from that lifestyle to embrace the ancient faith of the Apostles. Yet, something has been happening lately to some of us that has made me thoughtful. It all started with a conversation on AIM a few weeks ago...

I was talking with one of my fellow ORU converts, who told me quite frankly that he wasn't really attending church anymore, that he wasn't really any kind of a Christian anymore. He named several people from "our group" (we all, of course, bonded well there in Tulsa, going through our similar situations as we were) who felt much the same way, according to him: scattered attendance, general lack of interest in Orthodoxy in particular and Christianity in general. And while this was not, by any means, characteristic of the whole group, the fact that it was more than just a handful bothered me. I began to ask myself why a move to Orthodoxy (or any purposeful move from one confession to another) would, in fact, hinder spiritual growth rather than help it.

Without judging the individuals who converted with me, I'll just speak from my own experience, and from general trends I've noticed. Converting to Orthodoxy from, say, Evangelical Protestantism, as I did, requires that one receive--either through a priest's patient catechism or one's own reading--the equivalent of a couple of courses in Christian Church History and/or the Early Church Fathers if one is to intelligently understand and be able to defend one's move. Things like sacraments--specifically,
  • that baptism is not just a motion gone through in obedience but rather the moment where our initial faith is fully kindled and blossoms,
  • that confession to an apostolically-decended priest or bishop is also a part of confession of one's sins, that individual confession, while good, is not enough,
  • that communion is not just a "memorial meal" of mere bread and wine but the very Body and Blood of Christ,
  • that one cannot simply "be called" to start his/her own denomination with varying degrees of agreement with other groups, but that one must be appointed by the abovementioned apostolically-succeeded bishop,
--all these are traced back and shown to be cruicial doctrines of the first Christians, and insisted upon by converts as things that were lost along the way by many other Christian confessions. I know many of my friends who can go on for hours about doctrine, about St. So-and-so who said this-or-that as proof of how denomination x is wrong...but they don't pray, at home or at church, and their allegiance to the Church is mostly cerebral, bound up in books and prooftexts. This much has been admitted by said friends of mine, and I admit, I have felt the tug of "cerebral Orthodoxy" myself from time to time.

What is it, then, that keeps my faith, personally, from going the way of the dusty textbook? Of course, God's grace, for some reason, has been given to me again and again (Why? Anybody's guess), and has initiated, followed and (Lord willing) will complete my journey of faith, as I walk along with Christ. There is, however, one specific characteristic of my faith (as contrasted with "cerebral" adherance) that, I believe, is absolutely necessary for Christians (of any stripe, but particularly those with "much ornamentation" like us Orthodox) to keep in mind in order to continue in a personally meaningful relationship of faith with the Holy Trinity: Faith as Encounter.

For example: Why do we have icons in our churches? Is it merely because St. Theodora decreed that icons were to be used in churches, thereby ending the centuries-long conflict between the iconoclasts and the iconodules (the latter personified by St. John of Damascus) through empirical decree, the commemoration of which on the Church's calendar is the first Sunday of Great Lent? Or is it something more? Is it because God uses windows to meet us? Is it because His holy ones, worship--really worship!--our God with us through their presence in their windows? Or, to compare it another way: Are icons simply "a visible manifestation of the Church's awareness of the Incarnation, of Christ's being the eikon of the invisible God," or are they also a celebration of the fact that the command against making images of the deity has been forever and irrevocably reversed, for we can now know that God is with us, and the fact that we can have His precious image with us, at all times, joyously complete, bears glorious witness to this truth that should transform our lives, make our lives "windows into heaven"--in short, make us into living icons?

This is only one example, but I hope I've been clear in my illustration: we, as Orthodox Christians (and, I would add, especially converts like myself who come from confessions with fewer or no "liturgical accoutrements"), have to be wary of the idolatry of seeing the priest's stole in confession as merely an end in itself, of seeing icons as no more than the proper response to a historical and christological (read: largely academic) dilemma, of seeing the Real Presence and Baptismal Regeneration as only fidelity to apostolic doctrines--instead of seeing all these things as very real keys to our life in and with Christ, who gives us the Holy Spirit, who brings us blameless to the Father. All our "things" and doctrinal stances in Orthodoxy, beautiful and tangible and physical though they are (and must) be, must also "become transparent"--or, rather, be connected with the spiritual reality that is the Kingdom of Heaven--so that we may revel in the grateful knowledge that "of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen." (Rom. 11:36).

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

I've been very curious about the 'retention' rate for us converts to Orthodoxy. I suspect that this is the dirty little secret of the Orthodox convert boomlet.

I have my theories about this. I think that it's because we converts can become so incredibly gung ho that the religious 'fervor' can't be maintained long term.

I also suspect that all of the jurisdictional wars play a part. It's hard to be continually gung ho about Orthodoxy in light of all of the infighting.

Jacob Aleksander said...

Unfortunate as any "jurisdictional wars" are they cannot be blamed for a person's lack of dedication.

And by the way an excellent post. I've had my own ups and downs with 'convertitis' and with God's grace I will one day be cured.

Mimi said...

I agree, it's a very interesting statistic.

I'd *think* though that really the fault can't be placed on Orthodoxy, it's about your relationship with God, getting through the dry spells and working towards your salvation.

I don't know, though.

I've heard the retention rate is quite high, but I've never heard numbers.

Aristibule said...

I chalk it up to convert burnout - I've noted many folk in the parishes I've visited who converted years ago, did nothing for a decade or two, then came back. So in the end - it doesn't worry me, though it might trouble or sadden me. Eventually, they'll find their way back (we hope.) We also have to remember that we don't know what all is going on with them - many had religious abuse before Orthodoxy, and have difficult times not recreating the same in Orthodoxy.

I'd also note that most of the converts are single, in their 20's: when they do marry... how often to Orthodox? And, how will raising children change their view about attendance? I've often thought that the 'triple-threat' for most converts is hedonism, disappointment over expectations, and ennui (seemingly inherent in the 'tech'-generation.)

Aaron said...

hmmm...i have trouble with this. The church hopping that i did as an evangelical was astronomical...coupled with the change from denom to denom...coupled with the "i don't want to go to church" phases often labeled with various and sundry spiritual excuses. I've watched people come to zealous faith in each and every one of the groups i was apart of and "go go go" for a couple years only to fizzle and move in with their girlfriend or adopt some love of higher criticism and deny the faith. This is all very sad, but is it anything to do with Orthodoxy exclusively? I'm really asking here...why do we conclude this consistent problem with American Christians is the Holy Church's fault?

David Bryan said...

Aaron,

I think you may have misread me (or I miscommunicated; very possible). I'm not concluding that "this consistent problem with American Christians is the Holy Church's fault." If you look back, I said this trend could be seen in "any purposeful move from one confession to another." This is, simply, just a failure to see and experience Christ in every aspect of the faith.

Aristibule brought up another point, saying that it was due to a disillusionment with expectations. That can be true, too, especially with those from a charismatic background who are so used to expecting loud (and, therefore, "fervent"), blaring experiences with the Holy Spirit that they can't hold on to the faith when all that is given (and this, I believe, is the norm, though there are exceptions) is a still, small voice to grab hold of and focus in on for our spiritual life.

owen white said...

Forgive me for this long comment.

Some years ago I worked for a bookstore in Minnesota which sold rare and out of print theological books. One of my duties was to travel about purchasing books from individuals and institutions. On one such bookbuying trip I bought the personal library of the man who claimed to be the first convert to Orthodoxy at Wheaton college. You may recall that in the 90's there was a big stir regarding the large number of Wheaton students who had become Orthodox (at one point 10% of the student body were either Orthodox or Catechumens), to the point that Christianity Today and Books & Culture both had articles on the Wheaton/Orthodoxy phenom. Well, this fellow was the president of the Student Theology Club or some such thing, he converts to Orthodoxy, several of his friends follow, they get a mission going in Wheaton for the students, mission gets a priest, and soon enough there are 200+ Wheaton students there at every Divine Liturgy. The books that I bought from this gentleman included many that were inscribed to him from well known convert priests in American Orthodoxy today. However, the reason that he was getting rid of his books was that he had become an apostate. He left the Orthodox Church, denied all forms of Christian faith, divorced his Christian wife, and married a Muslim woman, though he himself was not a muslim, but an agnostic bordering on atheism. He was preparing to leave the U.S. for the UAE. This was before 9/11. Ironically, during this time he was working for Billy Graham's people in MPLS as a translator. He told me that his reason for rejecting the Christian faith was that he "kept reading." His studies in Christian history and patristics had led him to the Alexandrian fathers, which gave him the intellectual reasons to become Orthodox, but he claimed to have "kept going" and discovered that Christianity is actually nothing more than an aberrant from of neo-platonism, etc., etc. He also had wild stories of the Freemasons controlling all the Russian semenaries and other wierd justifications for his decision. He told me that of the original 40 or so converts at Wheaton who got the whole thing going, only a few were still Orthodox. Most had returned to the Evangelicalism from whence they came, and some had denounced all Christianity as he had. This seems to agree with reader David's observations.

I knew enough about neo-platonism and Christianity then to know that he was wrong, and there have been several great books out in the last few years that demolish the position that he held. I wonder if he has come across any of them, though I doubt he cares anymore. He was the sort of young man who fancied himself much more clever than he actually was. I remember very clearly the strong impression of a perverse intellectual sterility that he gave.

When I walked from his condo and got back into my truck, I began to flip through the radio stations. It landed on the Christian station and I heard (for the first time) Fernando Ortega's song, Give Me Jesus. That song is a typical example of the minimalist spirituality of Evangelicals, but I will never forget the contrast of the simple faith expressed in that song with the complex apostasy I witnessed in that man whose books I had bought.
The whole event caused me to delay my own conversion to Orthodoxy for some years.

Aristibule said...

Could it be an unwillingness to put away the 'theory' of Christianity, and in all obedience begin the 'praxis' of prayer, humility, and worship? The consistent point of seen made by so many spiritual fathers is that the convert does need to simply *stop* all the constant activity, theorizing, etc. and simply live the faith. Its such a simple thing, but the very step it takes to simply follow through seems to require more than some are willing to do (or, find themselves unconsciously sliding back into.)

Aaron said...

Sorry BP...you're right.

I guess my overall point was i saw much more fall-out as an Evangelical. I agree with Aristibule as I've seen it at our parish...the return to the faith with a renewed committment...it is most refreshing to see this amongst the cradle college aged kids who seemed to check out in high school and have now come back with a gracious zeal.

David Bryan said...

Owen,

Don't worry about the long post. It was great.

I remember your sharing that story of you working in the bookstore, but I don't think you mentioned what was going on with Wheaton or that guy in particular. Wow.

That story prompts two thoughts:

1) "He told me that of the original 40 or so converts at Wheaton who got the whole thing going...Most had returned to the Evangelicalism from whence they came, and some had denounced all Christianity as he had." I say: may God grant them mercy, and in that mercy may they find peace and a greater love for him in Evangelicalism than they (for whatever reason) could find in Holy Orthodoxy. May He grant us all mercy who think we can stand, for we too may fall away.

2) "He told me that his reason for rejecting the Christian faith was that he 'kept reading.'" What's funny about this (in it's own, tragic way) is that reading can either have the effect of complete apostasy from Christianity as a whole, or of a rush headlong into "hyperdoxy," where one continues to hop from one fringe-dwelling splinter group to the next in a never-ending search for "doctrinal purity" as it exists in the person's (usually his) mind. Calls into question our own searches, doesn't it? How is it that we can justify our own wadings into Church History as being thorough and necessary, yet claim that others "went too far" and just "needed to stop." Where is that magic "point of no return" we are supposed to read up to and then not pass? A dose of humility that'd do us all some good to take.

Ari,

I like that thought: praxis instead of theory. Good stuff.

Aristibule said...

I got it from Father George. ;)

Anonymous said...

"I've had my own ups and downs with 'convertitis' and with God's grace I will one day be cured."

I checked out your website and see that you've had some "downs" with convertitis. The "Frankish" church? Seriously, Fr. Romanides doesn't even begin to understand Roman Catholicism.

David Bryan said...

Ari,

Not surprised!

Christina said...

Being a cradle Orthodox I have seen people come and stay and people come and go. I think a lot of it has to do with our American/Western mindset which is very difficult to let go... when something goes wrong, we move on. When we don't like our spouse, we get a divorce and marry again. When we don't like our job (or problems arise in our work), we quit and find a new one. Life happens in waves, there are up times and there are down times whatever your faith. But many people choose to not ride through those down times and decide that it is not for them. I hope that no one takes offense to this next comment BUT... my husband (who is also a cradle Orthodox) and I have a rule when picking god-parents for our children... they have to have been Orthodox for a certain period of time. Just something that we do in order to insure that our children's god-parents will be there for them in the future:) And we belong to a mostly convert Greek parish.

David Bryan said...

Hey, Christina.

Thanks for posting! I didn't know you were blogging again; I had taken you off my blogroll! I think your policy on godparents is very wise.

Xenia Kathryn said...

Hey Bryan Peter,
I appreciated this post. After being an inquirer for five years and being chrismated at age 19, I was ready to just "be Orthodox." You know, there comes a point in all of our convert walks when the excitement of our new faith simmers down, and we have to ask ourselves, "What's the next step?" Do I skip on to the next exciting church/spiritual experience, or do I start to live the reality of the Orthodox life: that of (as Ari mentioned) praxis, suffering, faith.

Sadly, we've all seen folks choose to follow the yellow brick road of spiritual thrills and whatnot. And you're right; who's to say we're not succeptable to it ourselves (Lord have mercy)? Too many of us former protestants are used to the idea of "well, if I don't like my church, I'll just move on!"

Anyways, I liked what everyone here had to say. Let's keep on striving.

The young fogey said...

I'm curious about the retention rate in the convert boomlet as well. From what I can tell it's not nearly as revolving-door as the megachurches.

ORU, eh? For a few years when I was a kid, before my parents started going to an old-fashioned Episcopal church when I was 12 (I was baptised Anglican), Oral Roberts on the box was church! He seems to have the strengths and weaknesses of a lot of charismatics: weak on systematic theology (divorce and remarriage apparently are made OK when your son does it), strong on belief in miracles. And as that movement is partially an offshoot of Methodism (OR is a Methodist) it's not surprising to find a basically optimistic view of human nature (cheesing off the more Calvinistically orientated among evangelicals - Arminianism and Methodism were a move Catholicwards away from them) and OR has written beautifully about there being healing in Holy Communion. For all his alleged chicanery, I've got to give him credit: his prayer cloths, etc. were an introduction to the sacramental principle (something Protestants usually aren't too keen on) and he's right that miracles can and do sometimes happen!

As Aristibule can confirm there apparently has been a trickle of high-church converts from ORU including into the Orthodox convert boomlet.