Do You Have to Be Anti-Western to Be Eastern Orthodox?
TJ Humphrey’s latest article, Why I Didn’t Convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, is making the rounds on the internet as voices on social media and elsewhere join in to echo his main critique. The enthusiasm with which this article was received is indicative of a failure on our part as Eastern Orthodox Christians in general and a failure of Eastern Orthodox Christian converts in particular. What this calls for is not a defense of Holy Orthodoxy but an apology: Dear TJ, (and all others), please forgive me, an Eastern Orthodox convert who is not free from guilt.
TJ’s article touches on a number of topics but the main theme which took hold—in the article and in the mind of the commenters—is the elitist and triumphalist attitude adopted by many Eastern Orthodox Christians. TJ comments that,
It wasn’t the theology or the worship which soured me. What soured me was an elitist attitude that several Orthodox embody and what these particular people expected of me . . . I was expected to renounce and reject the entirety of my Christian past. All things Protestant were to become an anathema to me. My Orthodox acquaintances were baffled that I didn’t hate all things Western and Protestant as much as they did. I simply couldn’t disqualify all of the grace that I had experienced as a Protestant. I couldn’t bite the hand that had fed me for so long.1
It’s true. A hatred towards Western Christianity can be found within certain adherents to Eastern Orthodoxy. And it has been exacerbated in recent times by the influx of tech-savvy Orthodox converts and the rise of “internet Orthodoxy.” I am not writing here to defend anti-westernism or arrogant triumphalism in Orthodox Christians but rather apologize to those hurt and frustrated by it. In addition, I would like to address this question begged by TJ’s article: does Eastern Orthodoxy proper, Her spiritual practices and Her liturgical life, require a hatred for all things Western and arrogant triumphalism in all things Orthodox?
TJ writes in his article that he is “not seeking to critique all Orthodox Christians” and that his article “is not a reaction to the whole of Orthodoxy” but to his “very limited interaction with it.”2 While his critique is a direct reaction against “an attitude within parts of the Eastern Orthodox community” with which he “had direct personal contact,”3 the article’s thesis seems to assume that in order to be an Eastern Orthodox Christian you must latch onto an anti-western mentality and speak with an elitist tone. This brings me back to the question above: do you have to be anti-Western and adopt the “anti-Western tirade that is launched by so many Orthodox converts”4 in order to be Eastern Orthodox? The answer to these questions is an unequivocal no. This is a crucial distinction that is missing in TJ’s article—though I do not think its exclusion was purposeful or his fault. Let me explain.
I was stunned and saddened to find that TJ’s first experience with Orthodox Christians who do not embody triumphalism and anti-western mentalities was actually with Orthodox commenters in discussion of his own article (which is worth checking out, by the way). The fact is that most of TJ’s real-life experiences with Eastern Orthodoxy involved interactions with Orthodox Christians who launched countless polemics against Western Christianity. Had TJ continued in those circles it is quite possible that he would have been influenced by their anti-westernism. But he refused to be involved in it—and for this he should be applauded, and we Orthodox Christians should learn from his example.
WHY THIS ELITIST ATTITUDE?
It is a fact that the Eastern Orthodox Church has a rich spiritual tradition and heritage. But, one might ask, if Orthodox Christians drink from so deep a well, why are many filled with such an unChrist-like attitude? This is a good question—and to answer it I will put forth an opinion that may or may not be sound. Many Orthodox Christians, converts especially, are filled with an intellectual zeal for the Orthodox faith. This is often called “convert zeal” because of its frequency in new converts and Ortho-interested-almost-converts. People filled with convert zeal seek to “evangelize” the whole world—especially those in their former tradition—into Orthodoxy. A lot of the time it comes across as arrogant and elitist—especially when the people sought by the convert are resisting what he “knows to be the path to union with God.” But if he is following the path to union with God, and is drinking from the deep well, why is he so arrogant? Doesn’t this discredit him and the effectiveness of the Eastern Orthodox Christian path? No, it does not. It means only that he is a sinner who is still at the beginning of his journey.
Elder Sophrony (who wrote one of the books TJ devoured: Saint Silouan the Athonite) was always reticent to make generalizations about the Christian life. But he did define, quite broadly‚ three stages that everyone goes through on their spiritual journey. First, we experience the “coming to ourselves,” like the prodigal son, and the grace and enabling of God to begin the journey. Second, the grace of God retreats and we experience a spiritual desert. Finally, the grace of God returns to those who “proved themselves” in the desert—whose faith was tested and found firm in their “first love.”5 According to Elder Sophrony, the first stage can last anywhere from a few days to seven years and the second stage is where we spend most of our lives as Christians (persevere!). Some die in the desert before reaching the third and final stage—which is when, after much struggle and perseverance, when we are “begotten as sons.”
I maintain that most Eastern Orthodox converts, or enthusiasts, who begin to display anti-western tendencies and arrogant triumphalism do so when they get the first taste of God’s grace—perhaps something they never experienced in their former tradition. And this experience, of course, rocks their world. During this period of time, prayer and fasting come easily. The Jesus Prayer is always on their tongue and repeated in their heart. They may be constantly aware of death and copiously shed tears of repentance. All of this reaffirms their decision to convert to Orthodoxy. This is where the Orthodox inquirer, filled with convert zeal, comes in. He has found this “new, ancient path” and is experiencing grace upon grace. And so, when someone crosses his path that does not believe it or will not yield to Orthodoxy, he takes great offense and lashes back.
One might wonder, again, how an Orthodox Christian experiencing such grace would (or could!) speak to his brother in arrogance and anger. It is because the grace that he is experiencing was received as a foretaste to sustain him in the desert. But he has not yet striven for, and taken by force, the Kingdom of heaven (Matthew 11:12)—he has been given special grace that he might “remember his first love” when things get tough. In short, he has not yet been perfected.
Unfortunately, graces experienced in the first stage can be misappropriated to confirm a hatred for the “ineffectuality” of his former tradition. This is not always the case, but when someone in the first stage takes this position, it expels the grace of God, leaving the man with little love and a quickly-fading spiritual fervor and zeal (though the “bang people over the head with Orthodoxy” kind of zeal may remain). When the grace of God is withdrawn the man may wonder what is happening and begin to doubt—especially if he is unaware of these three stages of the spiritual life—and, all too often, either fall away from the Christian faith entirely or drift into robotic mode, continuing down the line of anti-Westernism. But Eastern Orthodoxy proper does not, and will never, lead to anti-Westernism. And this is why, I believe, Eastern Orthodox Christianity—or Christianity in general—cannot be written off.
TJ experienced the underbelly of Eastern Orthodoxy—the dirty laundry, as one commentator put it—and it pushed him away. The fact is that there will always be an underbelly, wherever you end up. Another commenter noted that elitism is not found only within Orthodox circles—it can just as much be found with Protestantism. And as one who used to believe all Roman Catholics were bound for hell (Lord forgive me), I can personally attest to this fact. Just like the Westboro Baptist Church does not represent Protestantism as a whole, the triumphalism and arrogance of many young converts should not be seen as representative as Orthodoxy as a whole. And neither should it be seen as a prerequisite for being an Orthodox Christian, because it certainly is not! Sure, there will always be tares among the wheat. There will always be Christians who don’t love like we are instructed to; there will always be Christians who act downright unChristian—a fact that has produced countless atheists. But does that mean that we should reject Christianity?
Up to this point we have thrown around words like “anti-western,” “triumphalist,” and “elitist,” without any substantial definition. What do we mean by these terms and what do we not mean—specifically within the context of this article? Anti-westernism in Eastern Orthodoxy seems to find seed in the demonizing of Augustine of Hippo, who is often used as an all-around whipping boy, so to speak. The flaws in Blessed Augustine’s theology, and their development and impact on Western Christianity, are then traced through the fabric of Christian history and conflated for use in dramatic, hyperbolic sentences. It is an attractive oversimplification of a complicated issue—especially so to Eastern Orthodox converts who are “scarred from and enthusiastically pissed off about”6 their spiritual upbringing. “Triumphalist” and “elitist” are terms that carry with them the idea that the only meaningful relationship, or interaction, with God is through the Eastern Orthodox Church—and all other communities are fruitless and all-around worthless. But these three terms are sometimes used flippantly by Evangelicals frustrated by the exclusivity of Eastern Orthodoxy and are not always rightfully applied to the Eastern Orthodox Church (I am not talking about TJ here). So a little explanation is needed.
ORTHODOX BELIEFS ABOUT HERSELF AS THE CHURCH
There are a number of Eastern Orthodox beliefs and practices that may step on Evangelical toes. For one, the Eastern Orthodox Church practices what is called closed communion—we do not allow anyone who is not Orthodox to partake of the Holy Mysteries, the body and blood of Christ. In addition to Christians of other traditions, the Orthodox Church may withhold communion from certain Orthodox Christians for a number of reasons. Participation in the Holy Mysteries require both unity in mind, spirit, and dogma as well as an active participation in the life of the Church (fasting, almsgiving, confession, etc). Another thing that generally elicits disdain from Western Christians is the belief that the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church contains the fulness of Christian dogma and practice. Where other Christian traditions disagree with Orthodox dogma, those traditions err. An Orthodox Christian will likely believe that there are some non-Orthodox Christian communities that are close to the Truth (in belief and practice) and perhaps some Christian communities that are far from it, all the while maintaining that the Holy Spirit has safeguarded the dogma and spiritual practices of the Eastern Orthodox Church which is in the fulness of Truth. This is certainly far from the American ideal: “I’m okay, you’re okay.” There are certain things (many things) on which the Eastern Orthodox Church will not budge. And this bothers a lot of people. But (and this is a big but) none of these beliefs and practices require the Orthodox Christian to hold the West in contempt. These beliefs, in themselves, are not anti-western, triumphalist, or elitist—and neither is the Eastern Orthodox Church—even though those titles may be falsely attributed to Eastern Orthodoxy because of our firm belief that these differences (between Eastern Orthodoxy and any other tradition) are significant.* As long as there is “dialogue across Christian Traditions” there will always be things we disagree on. So when we do disagree with a Christian of any tradition (or non-Christian!) it should be charitably (Conciliar Post was built on this principal). This is key. But the main point is that you do not have to be anti-western in order to be pro-eastern. You do not have to shun your friends who aren’t Orthodox when you become Orthodox (please don’t!).
A SUGGESTION TO MY ORTHODOX BRETHREN
Earlier we talked about Saint Augustine and how he is sometimes disregarded and disdained by Eastern Orthodox Christians. Some Orthodox Christians would even go so far as to call him a heretic. But the obvious flaw in this way of thinking is that the Eastern Orthodox Church formally recognizes Augustine as a Saint. In fact, Fr. Seraphim Rose, an extremely conservative Orthodox priest, wrote an entire book, entitled The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church, in order to defend the Orthodox Church’s recognition of Augustine as a Saint against the anti-western ethos prevalent at that time. While we do not agree with everything Saint Augustine had to say, we do admire him for his piety and as a model for repentance. And this is how, I suggest, we view our Western brothers and sisters. In many cases these men and women walk circles around us in their spiritual life (they do around me at least—I am thinking here of my Protestant parents and siblings and Roman Catholic friends). After all, every Sunday, right before partaking of the Holy Eucharist, we affirm that we are the “chief of sinners.” But no one can truly confess themselves to be the chief of sinners if he is focused on the failures of his brother.
This is where the rubber meets the road. Orthodox often herald Orthodoxy’s spiritual path as a way to healing and a true transformation (it is!) and we hold up the saints as our examples. But our lives, as Orthodox Christians living today, should be a witness to this transformation. We should be glowing with the light of Christ. We should be Christ to everyone we meet. And in this area we have failed TJ and many others.
I have failed you.
Forgive me.Show Sources
**Now, it seems, it would be appropriate to make a few distinctions. Depending on which Christian, or non-Christian tradition, you come from when you enter Orthodoxy, you will be required to yield, or give up, some of the things you used to believe. For instance, a Southern Baptist would have to yield to belief in “one baptism for the remission of sins” and come to terms with infant baptism. The distinction here is that, while there may be some things that are rejected (e.g., former beliefs, thoughts, or opinions from another tradition no longer adhered to or believed) you do not have to reject your Christian history as a whole. There is a very fine line here and requires a spiritual father and director (I am not one). There may be some cases where certain seeming “Christian experiences” turn out to be demonic delusion—as one might consider “Holy Laughter” or other potentially dangerous or harmful spiritual experiences and practices. But again, this requires a spiritual surgeon—your father-confessor.
1. Humphrey, TJ. Why I Didn’t Convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. N.p.: Conciliar Post, 2016. Web. 18 Aug. 2016. <https://conciliarpost.com/journeys-of-faith/to-my-eastern-orthodox-friends-am-i-really-a-heretic/>.
5. This is a summary of what Elder Zacharias says in his book, Remember Thy First Love, about Elder Sophrony’s three stages of the spiritual life.
6. Humphrey, TJ. Why I Didn’t Convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. N.p.: Conciliar Post, 2016. Web. 18 Aug. 2016.