Thursday, June 21, 2012

On Hiding Out in a Pre-Modern Church

Andrew S. Damick, an Antiochian priest, has put up a typically convert Orthodox posting on who's not a Christian. Now, I don't know the whole story of his conversion, but his capsule biography describes him as an Evangelical missionary kid; it's unclear on his degree of religiosity prior to his college conversion, though I am led to surmise that it was pretty high.

In discussing this I need to refer back to an earlier post of his on his personal blog, in which he discusses Peter Leithhart's "Too Catholic to be Catholic" criticism of closed communion of the Catholic Church. Orthodoxy of course is even more closed. Perhaps the center of all of this is in these words from Leithart:

Here’s the question I would ask to any Protestant considering a move: What are you saying about your past Christian experience by moving to Rome or Constantinople? Are you willing to start going to a Eucharistic table where your Protestant friends are no longer welcome? How is that different from Peter’s withdrawal from table fellowship with Gentiles? Are you willing to say that every faithful saint you have known is living a sub-Christian existence because they are not in churches that claim apostolic succession, no matter how fruitful their lives have been in faith, hope, and love? For myself, I would have to agree that my ordination is invalid, and that I have never presided over an actual Eucharist. To become Catholic, I would have to begin regarding my Protestant brothers as ambiguously situated “separated brothers,” rather than full brothers in the divine Brother, Jesus. To become Orthodox, I would likely have to go through the whole process of initiation again, as if I were never baptized. And what is that saying about all my Protestant brothers who have been “inadequately” baptized? Why should I distance myself from other Christians like that? I’m too catholic to do that.
In these discussions I find myself in the same position, minus the ordination. Damick responds:
As for how becoming Orthodox or Catholic reflects on converts’ former religious experience, Leithart seems not to be aware of something that is amply available in nearly any convert story out there. Most converts do not, in fact, see their previous religious experiences as wholly devoid of grace, as being defined by unmitigated darkness, but rather as having been in some sense a propaideia—a preparation for receiving the fullness of the Christian faith, a preparation for which they are usually quite grateful. I know very few who look on their former communions as Leithart fears they should. Of course they will look on where they’ve converted to as being better, else they wouldn’t convert. But Leithart would have someone whose convictions run that way stay where he is!
What I read in this is quite different. Yes, converts come up with these explanations for their past. The question is whether they are good explanations. The problem for someone who goes from being, say, a faithful Anglican to being a faithful Catholic is that a rationalization is practically demanded of him. The past has to be explained if it is to be talked about, and therefore there needs to be an explanation of the past that justifies the convert's former faithfulness. The other explanation, that the person was heretofore deluded by Satan into believing a false religion, is too dangerous to faith of any sort.

But if one's evangelical or Anglican or Lutheran churchgoing is a preparation for their Orthodoxy, then it would appear to follow that there is something providential in it. And this brings us back to the "who's a Christian" question, because in Damick's scheme the ersatz Christianity of the Protestants is only of merit if it leads on to Orthodoxy. But who can foretell such a thing? And I would note a subspecies of convert who is angry at his old church for its betrayals, and who indulges in the Cyprianite heresy in proclaiming that "there is no salvation outside the (that is, my present) Church." One can only get to this claim through a selective reading of the gospels, but be that as it may, often times these angry converts likewise take issue with their current church, and find some schism that rejects it, and so on through a serial Cyprianism of ever more questionable sects.

And it can work the other way. My sense of confirmation of where I am traces directly back the other weeks following Bishop Clark of the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware laying hands on me in my high school's chapel, and is so strong that I am not tempted by any church which rejects the reality of that confirmation. Why shouldn't the standards of that church prevail, rather than preferring my own taste for Eastern or Roman theology? If one is to believe in the reality of the Church, then why not be guided by the empirical reality that people of faith and grace are found without distinction to rite or hierarchy? I do not trust that the reasoning of theology is a good enough guide for this, or else the One True Theology would have won out centuries ago. Reason isn't unimportant, but it's also obviously inadequate to the task. One's intellectual taste in theology is nearly as questionable as one's taste in music or vestments.

Pre-modern churches are attractive if one is tired of fighting liturgy battles or listening to supposedly postmodern rationalized doubt. But that very attraction is a potential occasion for sin. My reaction to the theological problems of my denomination is to want to reform it, to bring it back to the virtues it had when I joined it, and to perfect those virtues. I cannot hide out in the Eastern or Roman churches because I am not willing to purchase human assurances of salvation at the cost of my integrity. And I think that converts between denominations should, as a rule, be silent about their old homes, because they are too prone to a kind of slander.


Anonymous said...

If you don't already, I would recommend reading a few other Orthodox blogs where the author (priest or otherwise) is a convert - such as this one: Father Stephen Freeman is a former Anglican. Orthodox converts, particularly the ones who blog, can be a bit over the top, but there are plenty of exceptions - this is one.

As someone who has crossed the Bosphorus from the TEC, I'll resist the temptation to justify the move. Suffice to say that there are more reasons than gay Bishops, priests fiddling with the liturgy, and doubt masquerading as sophistication preached from the pulpit. For me, the questions of who is a Christian and who isn't, and what is Church (I more or less follow Kallitos Ware's formula 'We know where the Church is, but we don't know where it isn't) are above my pay grade.

Your comment about your confirmation, and the experience immediately following it, intrigued me - my assumption is this was something profoundly spiritual, an exceptional moment of clarity. You are indeed fortunate to have had such a powerful experience, the remembrance of which confirms your desire to stay where you are and be a radical voice for the reform (in the etymological sense of returning to the roots) of Anglicanism. Not everyone is this fortunate.

My stay in the TEC was not nothing. I was baptised as an adult there, and this baptism was accepted as valid upon entering the GOA (this is normally the case with all but the ROCOR Orthodox - as long as the Baptism has a trinitarian formulation, rebaptism usually is not done). I learned the basics of the Christian Faith there, and I try to be grateful for the good things I received during my stay, and get over the disappointments about what could have (or should have) been. Probably not always successfully.


Fr. Andrew said...

And this brings us back to the "who's a Christian" question, because in Damick's scheme the ersatz Christianity of the Protestants is only of merit if it leads on to Orthodoxy.

I didn't say that, and I wouldn't say that.

There's a difference between affirming that the Orthodox Church is the one, true Church and saying that the faith of people outside its visible boundaries is without "merit."

In any event, I didn't become Orthodox to "hide" from anything in my previous religious experience (which was really pretty good, all in all). I became Orthodox because I became convinced that Orthodoxy alone has preserved the faith of the Apostles.

Jon in the Nati said...

"Pre-modern churches are attractive if one is tired of fighting liturgy battles or listening to supposedly postmodern rationalized doubt."

Add to that pastors and bishops who deny the Christian faith at every turn, and you have pretty much the reasons I left ECUSA/TEC.

I understand the desire to "reform [the church], bring it back to the virtues it had..." Many people believe this is impossible in the case of ECUSA; that the denomination has strayed so far from anything resembling orthodox Christianity that no recovery is possible. While I agree that ECUSA has strayed, I cannot say that recovery is impossible. Ultimately, though, I decided that the battle it would take to reform the church, to constantly defend theological orthodoxy and uphold the prayerbook and tradition in the face of a church run by clerics who overwhelmingly just don't care, was not the battle I wanted to spend my life fighting, whether as a cleric or a layperson. So I left. It was possibly a cowardly act, but I stand by it. In the end, I much prefer the kinds of battles we fight in the Catholic Church over the battles we would have fought in ECUSA. I prefer to be in a place where orthodox belief does not make one an outcast.

rick allen said...

I think you're absolutely right that changing one's religious affiliation is a serious matter, and not to be done if one feels it's a matter of mere comfort or an abdication of responsibility.

I was raised Presbyterian, and became Catholic about 30 years ago, in the strange days when no one imagined that a man could marry a man. I am extremely grateful to the Presbyterian Church for forming me in a good 95% of what I believe. I didn't leave because of any great dissatisfaction, but because of the convergence of two imperatives.

First, some years of reading and study of the Fathers and Scholastics in college revealed an affinity with the Catholic Church, and a close reading of Calvin's Institutes while in law school left me unsatisfied with his compelling but severe account of the Christian faith.

Then, like many, what impelled me to make a decision was the very common situation of falling in love with, and marrying, a Catholic girl, and suddenly wondering how to raise the (anticipated) children.

I write this only to note that, I imagine, most inter-Christian conversions are not "crisis-driven." The fact that I was not re-baptised, or "re-anythinged" in the Catholic Church was undoubtedly important to me. I was not converting, or becoming a Christian for the first time, but coming into full communion with the one Church spoken of in the creed I had long recited. In that sense, the affirmations of Vatican II's Lumen Gentium were a positive factor, for me.

I appreciate the imperative to stay where you were put and fight for what is right. And I appreciate the irony that the Catholic Church is now considerably closer to what I was raised to believe as a Presbyterian than the current Presbyterian Church. So I was rather spared the dilemma that you find yourself in.

Still, I must agree, too, with your other respondents, that there is no "hiding out" in the ancient Church. I am routinely called "bigot" and "homophobe" and "hater" for occasionally peeping up for the old Christian virtue of chastity. I am getting used to being asked if I enjoy supporting the world's largest child-raping society. I have no illusions about the state of the Catholic clergy or laity, and can only take comfort in the fact that history tells us that it has always been so, that God's grace has always come to us through seriously flawed vessels. But I also see that the gates of Hell have not prevailed, and believe they will not.

So we all have what is comfortable (in the lazy and commendable sense), and we all have our battles and responsibilities, I would say.