Pilgrims from Paradise:
At the end of the last podcast, I made the observation that many Christians in the broken Western tradition, have come to recognize that this shattered, individualistic world of their Christian heritage, cannot represent the true church. But I also pointed out that when they go looking for the true Church, the rationalism and idealism they have inherited as part of their Western culture prevents them from recognizing that true Church when they see it.
I want to refer to my own experience to explain what I mean. When I abandoned my evangelical Protestant heritage, I eventually turned to the writings of the early Church Fathers to help me discern the true teachings of the first Christians. What I was looking for in my quest for the early Church was its pure, unadulterated doctrines, its apostolic form of worship.
In other words, I was seeking the theological ideals of the Church—ideals that I could draw out from the experience of the early Christians and apply to my own life. You see, I thought that embracing and practicing their ideals—their ideals of doctrine, their ideals about worship—I thought this would make me part of that true and original Church. It was not until I confronted Eastern Orthodoxy that I discovered that this understanding of the Church was much more Platonic than Christian.
Yes, the Church possesses its pure doctrine, it owns a unique apostolic manner of worship, but the Church is not its doctrinal and devotional ideals. No, the Church is people—people bound together in a single, historically identifiable and enduring community which, by its outward identifiability, endurance and commitment to oneness, reveals the life of the Holy Trinity, which founds, energizes, and nurtures it.
I remember what a profound realization that was, to recognize for the first time in my life, that all my ideas about the nature of the Church were formed and colored by the brokenness of Western Christianity—brokenness that God never intended. I had always known in my heart that He never intended it. As a pastor in an evangelical church, I, frankly, was embarrassed to teach on those unity passages like John 17:20-23, 1 Corinthians 1:10, or Ephesians 1: 1-10. I just got tired of making excuses for the division in the Church, of making believe we are all one. But I kept on doing it simply because I did not know that there was another Christian world where the oneness enjoined by the scriptures and the early Christians is actually to be found. When I discovered Orthodoxy, I encountered the Church where oneness is, and even on those occasions when the Church struggles to be one, oneness is always the goal and it is always possible.
Yes, as I remarked earlier, doctrinal struggle and strife has been part of the Church since its beginning. The Church, today, continues to battle divisiveness, and a lack of moral and spiritual integrity in some places, but always, the common experience of the Holy Trinity’s life in Orthodox doctrine and worship, in its mysteries and asceticism, remains a unifying, divine touchstone for the resolution of all conflicts.
For some, the fact that there are conflicts in the Church provides sufficient reason for questioning Orthodoxy’s claim to be the one, enduring Church of Christ. Yet, in their criticisms, we can discern the very Western notion of the Church that we have just been examining. When the Church is understood as its doctrinal ideals, then only those who live up to those ideals can be considered members of the true Church. The fact that Orthodox Christians sometimes fail in their faith, and sometimes behave in anything but a unified manner, leads some to reject Orthodoxy and its assertions. However, when we realize that the Church is people, rather than ideals, we see things in a different light.
The Church is not a gathering of perfect individuals who worship in an idealistically perfect fashion. Rather, Orthodoxy knows the Church to be a hospital for healing the spiritual ignorance and sinful passions that divide us. Together with its perfect doctrine, its holy worship, its God-ordained mysteries, and its blessed asceticism, the Church possesses all the flaws that come by being populated by real people. Across the centuries, Christians within the true faith have waxed and waned in their piety and faithfulness. They have struggled and squabbled with each other over truth. They have made big mistakes. They have hurt each other. They have wept at each other’s feet in repentance. But, you see, that is just what happens when the perfect life of the Holy Trinity that grounds the Church meets imperfect human beings.
In the environment of this fallen existence, the true Church is not so much a place of perfection, as it is a place of perfecting. What marks holy Orthodoxy as the true Church, is that it is the community in which the struggles eventually get resolved. The Roman church abandoned that community in 1054 A.D. Five centuries later, the Protestant Reformation set the West on a path so divisive that it has led us to this tragic juncture in history where most people believe that Christianity is a purely individualistic faith, which is, of course, the complete antithesis of the oneness that God desires for us.
Orthodoxy is that ongoing, enduring community in which for 2000 years the Spirit has wrestled with human ignorance and passions until oneness has overcome. This historically identifiable community, whose succession of bishops reaches back to the apostles, continues to preserve the life of the Holy Trinity in the world—a divine life, chiefly identified by its genuine unity.
That is an extremely important distinction, given that everywhere else in Christianity, those struggles just bring new denominations, new non-denominations, or more commonly these days, the adoption of a purely personal Christianity that needs no Church. This is the great spiritual sadness of our modern age.
So, what does one do who really longs to get back before Augustine? The key is to follow that path which the Handbook of Living Religions observes, “is marked by a sense of continuity, of embodying the ancient in the modern world, of being living antiquity.” That is how the Handbook of Living Religions characterizes the path of Eastern Orthodoxy.
What makes the Christian East special, according to this encyclopedia of religion, is the fact that it, “has no middle ages”—those middle ages which gave to the West its self-concerned God of order, and its punishment-based theories of salvation—those middle ages which gave the West a God who dwells far from us, on the opposite shore of a great gulf of being, a God who can only be reached with our minds—those middle ages in which the seeds of today’s purely individual Christianity were sown, a Christianity in which believers gauged the strength of their faith by the personal fulfillment it brings them, rather than by the self-denying humility and repentance is produces in them—of all this, the Christian East is free.
To get back before Augustine does not require the arising of some new, monumental theological movement, and a new set of celebrated, insightful theological pioneers. No bold trek back through history in order to uncover the ancient secrets of the early Church is necessary. Christianity, as it was before Augustine, exists here and now in its completeness. All one must do to know it, is to embrace the ancient apostolic Orthodox faith. May all seeking souls find their rest within its holy arms.