Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy

October 27, 2011 Length: 13:15

Nicholas Chapman reviews Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: Exploring Belief Systems Through the Lens of the Ancient Christian Faith by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, published by Conciliar Press.





It’s now two years since I moved to a town in upstate New York of about 7,000 people, and one thing which would have been very helpful to me on the day that I came here, and still would be helpful, is a map of the town so I could begin to find my way around. One particularly striking characteristic of this small town, as I’ve got to know it, is the number of churches and the temples of other religions that can be found in such a small place. We have two Orthodox churches, which is pretty exceptional, to begin with. We have Episcopal churches, Catholic churches, Methodist, Baptist, a Jewish synagogue, many different kinds of non-denominational churches, and, I strongly suspect, a whole number of churches and other religious temples that I don’t even know about.

And whilst it would be unusual to have a directory of just the temples that were in this area, there is a book which has been published recently which is the subject of my podcast today, which seeks to provide a road map to the complex scene of different Christian churches and religions that can be found in America today and indeed throughout most of the world. And that book is called Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, the subtitle Exploring the Belief Systems Through the Lens of the Ancient Christian Faith, and the author is Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, a priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese in North America, and it’s being published by Conciliar Press.

Fr. Andrew does indeed provide us with a very, very large map and overview indeed. He begins by discussing the approach of Orthodoxy to other churches and religions, and so the essential attitudes that we find—and I’ll come back to that in a minute—how those outside the Orthodox Church are viewed and what are the essential doctrines and understandings of the Orthodox Church. Having laid out that measuring stick, he then seeks to look at other churches and religions in the light of the yardstick of Orthodoxy.

He devotes quite a large amount of tension and space to the Roman Catholic Church, which is understandable given its size and, if you like, high profile in the West. Then, of course, to all the different churches that came out from the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century right up until modern times. Then he gives less time, but still considerable attention, to a variety of what he terms “non-mainstream” Christian denominations, which I suppose, broadly speaking, are groups that in some way see the result as referring to Christ but don’t recognize God as a Trinity of three Persons or Christ as being fully God, and thus deny even the broadest of very basic common Christian beliefs.

Then, moving on finally beyond that, there’s a consideration of quite a wide range of non-Christian religions including well-known ones such as Judaism and Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, but also much much less-known and even relatively small groups such as Zoroastrianism, albeit ancient but very small, and then even a religion I had never heard of under that name, which is Yazidism, I think you pronounce it, which I had heard about before. It’s a fascinating group because they claim relation to be the followers of John the Baptist who continued in the Middle East.

And then finally he looks at some very modern religions which are barely or possibly even doubtful to be described as religions in the fullest sense of that word. And finally he brings it all together with some very helpful conclusions which once again sum up a particular view, the particular understanding of Orthodoxy and truth. And he gets off on a very strong foot in that regard by explaining in his introduction why doctrine matters. He writes:

In most areas of life, we are all concerned with the truth. A cashier has to make sure he knows how much change he’s giving. A nurse has to apply just the right amount of medication to a patient. A mathematician checks and rechecks his proofs. A jury listens closely to all the facts to sort out the truth in the trial, etc., etc., etc. In all of these cases and more, what’s important is not opinion; rather, it is truth.

So this is a very important way to look at things because, as Fr. Andrew then goes on to point out, in the modern world, it’s become very fashionable, as far as anything to do with religion or God is concerned, to deny that there is any absolute truth or absolute right and wrong, and one could say perhaps the only absolute truth has become the fact that there is no absolute truth and religion has become a matter of personal experience: “What is something to you?” as Fr. Andrew puts it. “Who is God to you?” Not that God has any objectivity, any empirical reality, if you like, but is simply a question of different people’s thoughts and feelings about some rather unspecified being or otherwise remote from us.

Fr. Andrew also stresses the importance in this introduction of understanding truth, as something which you don’t hear enough of, which is the importance of purity of heart. He quotes the Lord as saying, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” and therefore, in coming to understand truth, truth is actually seen to be intensely personal. Jesus Christ is the truth, and without purity of heart, it will always be a struggle to understand the truth rightly and to live by the truth.

One particular passage that struck me was in the chapter on Revivalism, because when it comes particularly to describing the churches of the Protestant Reformation, it would be a vast book that could name each denomination formed from the Protestant Reformation by name, given that we’re to understand this number in excess of 20,000. So Fr. Andrew, if you like, gets around that problem by grouping these under broad ideologies which underpin the different groups that derive from them.

One of those ideologies which seemed to me to be one of the most prevalent in terms of religious understanding in America is what Fr. Andrew terms “Revivalism.” He states:

For most Revivalists, history also makes no difference to the Christian life, yet what is Christian history but the continued Incarnation? The Church must have no concrete reality to it either. There is no place or person or act one can point to and say, “Here is the Church.” Rather, the Church exists only as an invisible reality, a collection of all true believers everywhere, who might disagree profoundly over doctrine and practice over the very meaning and application of the Gospel, and yet are somehow still all the Church.

That, to me, does seem to be a very common and prevalent understanding which has the Christian manifestation, if you like, within this Revival, this tradition, whereby as long as we all believe in Jesus, “everything is okay,” even if we understand what the Eucharist is differently, if we understand the reality of baptism differently, etc., etc. And the secular parallel, of course, being what I mentioned earlier, namely, that ultimately that there is no such thing as ultimate truth, rather only the individual’s personal experience or perception of what truth is.

Given those kind of prevalent mentalities in our day, I think Fr. Andrew’s conclusions are particularly important, because one thing, of course, which we all have to deal with is the temptation of pride and of arrogance. If we’re concerned with the mission of the Church and that actually making known the truth of the holy Orthodox Faith, then if we do that in a way that is prideful and arrogant, quite rightly we’re going to alienate the very people we claim to wish to win over.

So in his conclusion, Fr. Andrew speaks about the important distinction between religious tolerance and religious compromise, and again between firm religious belief and religious violence. And he states that:

These distinctions are often blurred in today’s world which is marked by relativistic ecumenism as well as religiously motivated terrorism. Nevertheless, the sober-minded Christian must both keep these distinctions in mind, firmly knowing and practicing the Christian faith while also genuinely loving others.

He also then goes on to point out that whilst we claim the fullness of the truth within the Orthodox Church, this doesn’t mean that we cannot perceive a measure of truth in other belief systems and indeed see the Orthodox faith as being the fulfillment of all things, that all that we can truly recognize good and truthfulness in all peoples and in all places, and we can point towards their fulfillment in Christ.

Again, the final thing is that whilst we claim to have this truth, as I said this is not a matter of pride, because in reality, the truth does not reside in me or you, but rather the truth actually resides in the Church as the body of Christ.

Yet each of us as Christians, working out our salvation in fear and trembling, can come to knowledge of Christ by many means. The clearest and most direct way is within the Church, but a Christian functioning within the Church may be exposed to the Church’s truth even outside the visible boundaries of the Church. That is why each of us needs to remain open to transformation and personal change, because none of us here on earth has yet attained the fullness of our salvation. But because all truth is God’s truth—after all, truth is Christ—whatever truth we encounter is ultimately not a contradiction to the Orthodox faith, but rather an expression of it. If it seems to contradict the faith, then we have misunderstood either what we have encountered or the faith itself, or else we have mistaken fullness for truth.

All of which to me points to the imperative of discernment. Again, it’s seeking wisdom within the community of the Church and not simply relying on my own reasoning and understanding.

One other thing Fr. Andrew mentions, of course, that in seeking to portray the beliefs of others, there is always the risk that one misrepresents these, and perhaps even more so when space is limited, and the time that can be given to either the history or present state of a particular group is really not there in a volume of this size, but this really is an ideal volume, as I said, to provide just an overall road map and picture of what the different peoples and history and belief systems that have arisen and that still exist both in America and stemming in the Middle East and the Far East and so on.

Once again, the title of this book is Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: Exploring Belief Systems Through the Lens of the Ancient Christian Faith, and the author is Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick. The all-important ISBN number for ordering purposes, Google searches, etc., is 978-1936270-132, and the book is, of course, available from the publishers, Conciliar Press.