Its been a few months now since the wife and I decided/were lead to turn back on our exploration of Orthodoxy. We've looked around at some other churches, had some good discussions about what we feel like is important in a church and have just gained some perspective on the whole thing. Here is a brief sketch of my current thinking and the insights I've gained over the course of this last year. (And it is just over a year since we moved here; August 5th, my birthday, was the one year mark.)
--Really, I don't consider our current direction to be a 'turning back'. We're continuing forward with a different heading, but its a heading we could have never found without first moving through Orthodox territory. I have found new vistas, new mountains and new roads for having come this way, and I think they will only lead me to a greater and deeper faith. As a caveat, I am not intending this post to be taken as an attack on Orthodoxy - it is a Tradition I admire and love, and I know that it preaches the Gospel. And God may lead us back there someday, so these are really thoughts-in-process and nowhere near a final conclusion. I also know that I am no expert on Orthodoxy; these are simply my impressions based on time spent at 2 different parishes, a fair amount of reading and interacting with Orthodox Christians online. They could also do with a great deal of expansion and will probably each be followed up by multiple posts.--
After gaining a little perspective on what the church is, I think it is both much more and much less than what Orthodoxy recommends to us. First the "more." Orthodoxy views herself as the "one true church" and looks questionably upon other Christian groups. Depending on the zealousness of the parties involved, that view ranges from a warm, benign regard as Christians who are well-meaning but at least partially wrong-headed, to a cold, dismissive regard as so-called Christians who are entirely on the wrong track and likely to not end up in heaven. No matter where the opinion falls, non-Orthodox Christians are viewed as outsiders and are not welcome to commune. And from what I understand, Orthodox Christians are not allowed to commune elsewhere (without special permission, at least.) While I am no advocate of an open table that includes non-believers, I think that a closed communion among Christian groups that subscribe to the Nicene creed is deeply troublesome. Orthodoxy is not the only group to set such boundaries, so this is not an Orthodoxy-only problem. I know there are slippery-slope arguments to be made, that various groups don't agree in other important areas and that there are certainly good, historical reasons why these restrictions are in place, but I just don't like 'em. I don't think they contribute to the unity of the body of Christ, which is a clear biblical imperative. The "less" refers to the hierarchical nature of the Orthodox church. While there are clearly defined roles within the NT portrayal of the church and early church history also points to the episcopal structure, I don't find it particularly clear where the "priesthood of all believers" enters into the Orthodox structure. I also struggle with the fact that Christ spoke rather strongly against the hierarchical Temple system, and yet it seems to be duplicated in Orthodoxy. There is a rigid structure that decidedly keeps non-clergy at a certain remove, putting them back into dependence onto others to participate in their faith.
After gaining a little perspective on the sacraments, I think they are meant to be more accessible. This really struck me on our first visit to a Lutheran liturgy, wherein Communion was taken quite seriously but without all the attendant ritual action & language of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy. I generally felt during the DL that things moved along quite well until after the homily when the liturgy transitioned into the preparation of the Eucharist. At that point, I almost always seemed to get tripped up somehow and had to struggle to remain focused. I know this is purely subjective, but it affected the way I thought & felt about Orthodoxy. Why was all of this necessary? What did it add to our worship? What positive effect did it have on us? Now, I'm not advocating a man-centered worship by any means, but Christ states quite explicitly that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. Worship is God-directed but it benefits us by allowing us to commune with our Creator, to adore our Redeemer and to move deeper into the Spirit. Without taking too utilitarian a tone, how does all that ritual action help us to do those things? I think there is an uavoidable tension in worship between God and man. Is our worship pleasing to God and is it beneficial to us? Many Protestant churches obviously stray much too far in trying to fulfill the latter but I think Orthodoxy may tip too much in favor of the former. There is much, much more to be said on this subject, which I'm sure will generate future posts, but this is a good summary of where I'm at right now.
After gaining a little perspective on theology, I think the utter seriousness with which Orthodoxy undertakes it is dead-on. This is especially true in light of many Christians drinking deeply at the well of postmodernism, and thus being lead into the miry clay of relativism. I've heard more than a few such Christians refer to theology as nothing more than "God-talk" with absolutely no positive correspondence to the reality of God. Further, many speak of Christ as if He were merely the way our culture seeks God and other's cultural expressions are therefore equally valid. Even for those Christian groups not investing in postmodern theology, there are more than a few that are struggling with other deviations, like the "prosperity Gospel" or any of the charismatic movements that crop periodically in the Pentecostal churches. And overall, there is a spirit that denies the importance of theology, of teaching theology to the church or that theology affects our daily lives. This is one of the things that the wife and I are most stringent upon as we have attended churches over the last few months - is the teaching good and meaty? Or is it merely baby formula? I, of course, recognize that what separates theologically serious churches from the rest is the dreaded (in evangelical minds) specter of tradition, cue ominous music. Without making that tradition as authoritative as Scripture, and largely without consciously realizing it, solid churches hold fast to the faith of their fathers, reacting instinctively against novelty and innovation. I think this will be one of the areas where I learn and grow the most in the coming months and years; the interplay of Scripture, tradition and the challenges of each new generation.
As I read through this, I think the major theme that runs through my present feelings & thought is balance. How do we find it, how do we lose it and what can we do to maintain it? Not easy questions, I know, and many will likely come up with very different answers. But will Christians be able to find that balance together, or stand on the status quo that keeps us separated?