Why I Did Convert to Eastern Orthodoxy

An article  recently started making the social media rounds, that describes the reasons why an individual elected to not become Orthodox. I started writing a response that was going to argue against his piece.  It then dawned on me that perhaps the better approach would be to simply capture why I did convert and how to address the Episcopal Church from which I had come.  In that, perhaps I could address some of his concerns.

My conversion process was ultimately a conversion from pretty serious agnosticism.  The conversion began when, during a particularly difficult period in my life, I decided to go to church one Sunday morning.  As it turned out, there was an Episcopal church in walking distance from where I lived at the time.  Since I was raised in the Episcopal Church, it seemed like a reasonable place to go.  I became a member and joined the choir along the way.  Fast forward a couple of years, and I started dating a girl who challenged my level of commitment as a Christian.  I took that as a challenge and began to attend bible studies with her, and started digging deeper into the historic faith.  Since the Episcopal Church, and in particular, the AngloCatholic subset to which I belonged, expressed a strong belief in Tradition, I felt it appropriate to begin studying history.  This all led to me ultimately joining the catechumenate program as, at first, a student, and ultimately as the lead instructor.  During that process, we changed the program from a long weekend to almost a full year with multiple retreats.

I explored the history of the Church in more and more depth, and kept landing first in the Roman Catholic Church, then the Orthodox Church.  Without getting into a lot of detail, the Orthodox Church won out on the basis of Tradition.  Rome had been guilty of changing doctrine.  Not simply clarifying, but actually changing.  Although it is frequently related that at the various Ecumenical Councils doctrine was being established, what was happening was doctrine was being declared based on what had been handed down.  New doctrines were not created.  When England broke with Rome, they didn’t return to Orthodoxy, they established their own Church with new doctrines.  Some remained the same as with Rome, others were derived from the various Reformation groups on the Continent.

So I became convinced that the Church of England and the Episcopal Church needed to return to Orthodoxy.  I attempted this on the inside, but was ultimately led to the conclusion that I needed to leave.  I addressed this many years ago in this article.  You’ll note at the end of that article that there was a vast theological chasm between the two Churches.  That is quite true.  The question is, is the chasm one of full vs. not full (i.e., where one faith has simply not developed all the way), or is it a matter of contradiction?

If you read my old article, you’ll find many examples of teaching in our parish that was at odds with Orthodoxy (or even historic Anglicanism).  Anglicanism, itself, teaches things contrary to Orthodoxy.  Whether its the filioque (which is, simply put, erroneous), the canon of Scripture (the Anglican Church argues that the so-called Apocrypha are not scripture) or the nature of salvation, or any one of a number of doctrines, there is conflict between the two.  It is not a case of Anglicanism having a more primitive type of the faith and it simply has not developed all the way, so Orthodoxy completes it, or fills it.  Rather it is mistaken.  If you convert to Orthodoxy, you must, in the interest of intellectual and spiritual honesty, reject the doctrines of Anglicanism that are incorrect.  That is not to say that everything they teach is erroneous, but you cannot agree to the doctrines of both churches.

The same is true for Roman Catholicism and every variety of Protestantism.  The author of the article belongs to a reformed church.  That means he believes in sola scripture, sola fide, and predestination.  All of these are incorrect.  If he attempted to join the Orthodox Church and still hold to these teachings he would have been living a lie.  Unfortunately, as much respect as I have for Met. Kallistos, he and others who play the “fullness” card in the interest of not offending non-Orthodox do both sides a disservice.




What Debates in Other Faiths Reveal About Their Theology

I’ll begin this by saying that I mostly try to ignore what is going on in the Anglican world.  I am no longer a member of the Episcopal church(ECUSA), so I have no stake in their internal disagreements.  On the other hand, perhaps mine is not the right attitude.  I still have a number of people that I care about who are still in that group, and so, perhaps I should care about what is going on there more, especially as it pertains to mistaken doctrine, and even simply mistaken attitudes that would be dangerous for those still there.

At the same time, reading things coming out of the ECUSA can also provide an opportunity to reflect on what the Orthodox perspective would be, both on the subject, and on the arguments being made.  Just such an opportunity was afforded me last week when the latest issue of the Diocesan Messenger from the San Diego diocese arrived (for some reason, I seem trapped on their mailing list in perpetuity).  Apparently there is a topic up for debate, at least at the Diocesan level, or perhaps at the national level, and the Diocese felt it appropriate to have several pastors from different parishes in the Diocese write their  arguments regarding the topic.  As they were not responding one to another, you were presented with four different position papers, which seems like a reasonable way to hold a discussion without it devolving into an argument.

The topic being discussed is what they are describing as “Open Communion”.  I’ll start by noting that Open Communion, as commonly understood, refers to permitting Christians who are not members of that particular denomination to receive Communion.  When I was young, that was the debate ongoing in the ECUSA.  However, in 2016, to the ECUSA, the term refers to permitting non-Christians to receive communion.  The four pieces revealed some interesting insights, both into the theology of the four pastors, as well as the position of the ECUSA within the Christian milieu.

Some Background on the Parishes Involved

The four parishes involved, or rather the three parishes and mission, are Holy Cross and St. Michael’s in Carlsbad, All Soul’s in Point Loma, and St. Andrew’s in Pacific Beach.  Given the level of theological diversity allowed within Anglicanism, it is not surprising that these parishes represent very different theological foundations.  For instance, Holy Cross, which was founded as a mission by St. Michael’s was, like St. Michael’s used to be, rather Anglocatholic.  That is, believing in doctrines that would cause little to separate them from Roman Catholics of perhaps two or three centuries ago.  Since I left the Episcopal Church a decade ago, Holy Cross underwent a significant shift when its Vicar and many parishioners left for the continuing Anglican movement in 2006.  Similarly, St. Michaels also shifted.  Although their rector is a graduate of what historically had been an Anglocatholic seminary, the seminary has been under the leadership of a priest who had come from the Charismatic (i.e. Evangelical) movement.  Drawn to the conservatism, I suppose, of Nashotah, he really had never been an adherent to Anglocatholicism.  I’m not sure that he changed the seminary as much as his being hired reflected how much it had changed.  At any rate, the current rector at St. Michael’s never really struck me as particularly Anglocatholic.  Yes, he likes “tradition”, yes he is a bit conservative, but like Munday, his perspective always felt more Evangelical than Catholic.  When the more Catholic elements in the parish either left for Orthodoxy (at least a handful) or the larger exodus to Rome, all that was left was basically Evangelical leaning, or, more traditionally Protestant if not Evangelical.  Holy Cross now appears to be a typical modernist mission, St. Michael’s a traditional leaning Evangelical parish, and the other two I’m not entirely sure of.  Their pastor’s positions then reflect this diversity.

The Mind of the Church

The goal within Orthodoxy is for everyone to obtain and operate with the “Mind of the Church”, or phronema.  This encompasses not only the doctrinal elements but also the more practical life lived within the practices of the Church, and seeking to grow in our likeness to God, and the continued acquisition of the Holy Spirit (Met. Hierotheos Vlachos).  Decisions about what is acceptable reflect, then, this mind.  It is a common misconception that Church councils always just reflected a voted based on opinions of the bishops present.  What happened, instead, especially beginning with the first ecumenical council, was that the bishops were seeking to understand the mind of the Church as reflected by what had been believed and practiced since the time of the Apostles.  Doctrines live and die by the degree to which they reflect the received tradition across the board.  This tradition is most notably transmitted via the liturgies and hymns as those represent the communal life of the faithful.

Thus, a question such as the one posed, would be addressed by priests and bishops in the Orthodox Church by reference to the canons that had been passed at the various councils.  Then, if that was not sufficient, we look to the liturgical traditions and the hymnography for more guidance.  For instance, we know that the historical practice was for all non-baptized individuals to be sent out of the Church before the part in the service when the Holy Spirit is called down onto the bread and wine to turn them into the Body and Blood of Christ.  Although this no longer happens, the liturgy retains a call by the Deacon to attend to the doors (that is close them so that only the faithful remain) prior to the recitation of the Creed.  Given this, there is no question that non-baptized would not be permitted to participate.  Further, we also know that those who had separated themselves over doctrinal matters (heretics, although the word has become unpopular) would also not be permitted in until a suitable period of penance had occurred.  So even the question of baptized Christians who do not belong to the Orthodox Church is answered.

This answers the question in part, but of course, if one wants to understand at a deeper level, we would reflect on the nature of the Church and the nature of the Sacrament, which I will do a bit further down in response to specific points raised in the article.

I should point out here that this notion of the “Mind of the Church” figures into the question of Apostolic Succession. In order to be in that succession, besides needing to be ordained by an ordained/consecrated bishop, as agreed to universally, the Orthodox Church understands that the bishops and priests under discussion must also still exist within the Mind of the Church. That is, they cannot have left the Church in some fashion and yet still claim to be in succession.

Personal Opinion

Now that we’ve addressed the general issue of the mind of the church, we come to the first piece, which is penned by the Vicar of Holy Cross. After she finishes praising the “roominess” of Anglican theology, she then moves on to the discussion at hand. The purpose of the discussion of the roomy theology is to simply argue that there is no formal Eucharistic theology in play from an Anglican perspective and thus opens the door for her to “share my own Eucharistic theology.” Although she briefly asserts a shared perspective with Augustine (without any support), the entire article is based on her views, her feelings, etc. There is no attempt to engage the mind of the church. This is very much consistent with the modernist thread of Anglicanism, where personal opinions and feelings are as valid as any doctrine or received tradition, if not more so. Besides being inconsistent with any Christian worldview older than the 16th century, it also smacks of the sort of lack of humility that is spiritually dangerous for all of us.

Catholic or Not?

The piece by the rector of St. Michael’s also quickly touches on a personal opinion about the rightness of what he refers to as the “Anglican” view that communion is to be offered to all baptized Christians regardless of denomination. I’m not entirely sure that this is an Anglican view as much as it is strictly an Episcopalian view, but to be sure, it is not a catholic view. Yet, immediately after this comment, he trots out the famed Vincentian Canon (named for St. Vincent of Lerins), using it to state that the “catholic faith which we profess is described… as, “that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all”. This then becomes the foundation for his argument that to offer communion to non-Christians would be non-catholic. He leans on Fr. Alexander Schmemann representing Orthodoxy, then St. Irenaus, representing the ancient church to defend his position. However, his argument is without merit, as he just finished proclaiming the modern and erroneous practice of communion to all baptized Christians, regardless of denomination. How can he use catholicity to prevent one practice, while ignoring it to support another one? At best, this is some form of special pleading, at worst hypocrisy. He furthers undermines his case by a veiled reference to 1 Corinthians 11, where St. Paul indicates that partaking of communion in an unworthy manner can result in illness in death. Instead of agreeing with his assertion, he creates a straw man argument that God will not strike someone dead for taking communion when not baptized (did St. Paul say that? no), but by dismantling the straw man he effectively denies St. Paul’s teaching. Once again, he seems to be disagreeing with the very catholic faith he asserts should drive this decision.

The Sacrament Itself

Both of the first two writers seem to believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It is at best unclear about the remaining two author. The rector from All Souls discusses what the Eucharist is at great length before finally indicating that perhaps he thinks it is the body and blood of Christ (what he actually says is the “desire … (of someone else) to receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ”, so it is unclear). He discusses a great many things about the Eucharist, that it is mechanism by which we are united, by which people receive God’s grace, etc., all of which is true, but I don’t think he really accepts that God is, in fact, actually present in the Sacrament. The rector of St. Andrew’s doesn’t even come close.

The sense that God is truly present in the Sacrament would, you think, give everyone great pause and concern that people are prepared to receive it. In the Orthodox Church, even though we are baptized members of the Orthodox Church, we are expected to prepare to receive the sacrament each week, by special prayers, fasting, and periodic confession. Such practices are consistent with the view that God is present.  The issue is not so much that God would “strike us dead” as St. Michael’s rector asserts, but that our state would mean that we would not react well to His holiness.  Following is a quote from a lecture given several years ago by a doctor and lay theologian from Greece that expresses the essence of the Orthodox view of judgment:

God is Truth and Light. God’s judgment is nothing else than our coming into contact with truth and light. In the day of the Great Judgment all men will appear naked before this penetrating light of truth. The “books” will be opened. What are these “books”? They are our hearts. Our hearts will be opened by the penetrating light of God, and what is in these hearts will be revealed. If in those hearts there is love for God, those hearts will rejoice seeing God’s light. If, on the contrary, there is hatred for God in those hearts, these men will suffer by receiving on their opened hearts this penetrating light of truth which they detested all their life.

All four authors support some level of open communion. the Vicar of Holy Cross is the most clearly in support of this. I was pondering why this was the case. Especially since she proclaims a belief in the real presence. Then it occurred to me, after listening to a talk on heresies and their manifestation today, that perhaps she doesn’t actually believe that Christ is God. Then his presence in the Eucharist wouldn’t raise questions about being worthy to approach.

Patristics and Context

As a final note, a couple of different quotes of St. Augustine are trotted out. In both cases, I’m pretty certain that the authors have not actually read the sermons that those quotes are from (the Vicar from Holy Cross wrongly asserts that her quote was a standard part of St. Augustine’s liturgy). Both miss the fact that the reference to becoming what you see is in fact a reference to the Orthodox understanding of theosis. The rector of St. Andrew’s asserts that St. Augustine’s phrase “Behold what you are” indicates that we are “fully accepted” by God, the phrase fully accepted is usually taken to mean, wallowing in our sins without need of repentance. Instead, he misses that the “Behold what you are” is a reference to the body of Christ, which is what we, as baptized, professing members of the Church are.

Apostolic Succession and Anglicans


The Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) recently was invited to Russia to meet with the Patriarch.  Kevin Allen at Ancient Faith Radio, after this meeting, interviewed Keith Ackerman, a bishop in the ACNA, and Fr. Chad Hatfield, Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary.  Both are actively engaged in interfaith dialogue between Anglicans and the Orthodox, and Ackerman had attended the meeting in Moscow (I’m unclear as to whether Fr. Hatfield attended or not).  As time permits, there are a few points raised during the interview, that I hope to address.  For now, I will limit myself to one point.

Kevin raises the question of the branch theory and Apostolic Succession.  He wonders if the ACNA still holds that it is, in fact, one of the branches of the original church.  This theory is widely held by Anglicans, and in particular by Anglocatholics, of which Ackerman is one (or at least used to be, I haven’t spoken with him in years).  Ackerman responds by saying he is, in fact, looking at his apostolic succession while participating in the interview.  That is, he is looking at the line of bishops, presumably leading back to the apostles, and beginning with the bishop who ordained him as a priest in the Episcopal Church (ECUSA) many years ago.

This points to an issue that will prove to be a major problem.  You see, the Orthodox Church does not accept that Ackerman, or any Anglicans are in the “Apostolic Succession.”  Even Rome doesn’t accept it, and they hold to a view of Apostolic Succession somewhat more in line with the Anglican view.  The Anglican perspective is that Apostolic Succession is merely about the laying on of hands by subsequent generations of bishop.  That there is something magical in that act that keeps one perpetually a member of the historic church.  This goes along with their belief that once you are ordained a priest you are always a priest.  Nothing you do changes this.  If you were to become a bishop, then decide to become a buddhist, you would still have the ability to pass along this apostolic succession to someone else – even, presumably, if they were not Christian.  Anglicans would argue that it is nothing “magical” but rather God’s grace, but the Orthodox don’t believe that God’s grace is permanently affixed to someone such that they can’t turn away from it and leave it behind.

The Orthodox perspective on Apostolic Succession includes the laying on of hands, but also requires a continuation in the teaching of the Apostles.  Following is from a piece by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Vlachos on Rome, but it applies here:

Apostolic Succession is not simply a series of ordinations, but at the same time it is the sharing of revealed truth.  When a church cuts itself off from the trunk of the Orthodox Church because of doctrinal differences, this means it no longer has the mystery of the priesthood.  That is, when revelatory truth is lost and heretical opinions are adopted, this has implications int he Apostolic Succession.  The Apostles transmitted the gift of the priesthood, but at the same time they gave, through regeneration, the entire revelatory tradition.

In his book on the Person in the Orthodox Tradition, he goes into some more detail, and I will attempt to post some of that later.  However, this requirement to continue in the revealed truth is then problematic for the Anglican churches.  Ackerman can claim that he holds entirely Orthodox beliefs (which obviously he doesn’t, at least not on this count), but in order for him to still be in succession, the requirement is that he be continuing in that stream.  That is, nobody in his line of succession cut themselves off from Orthodox doctrine prior to their laying hands on him.  I think he would be hard pressed to establish that all of his predecessors held even AngloCatholic beliefs, let alone Orthodox, so there is no practical way for him to still be in that line of succession.

As an addendum, we have several instances that I was aware of back in my Anglican days, where an individual would wander off and establish his own branch of Christianity that bore little semblance to historic, Orthodox Christianity.  For amusement, you may want to read this.  You can see several examples of sects arising out of this mistaken notion of Apostolic Succession, to whom the word heretic could be applied, but that might not go far enough.

A Critique of “Seeds of the Word” by John Garvey

Fr. John Garvey has written a book on Orthodoxy and other world religions that has apparently become quite popular in various parishes in the United States.  A friend had suggested that we should carry the book in our bookstore, which led me to obtain a copy to review before placing in the store.  We generally don’t carry books we haven’t read in the store, with a few exceptions (mostly among some of the children’s books where we know the work of the publishing company well).  While we don’t have a specific set of criteria for any book to be included, I can summarize the basics of what we are looking for.  The book should be about some aspect of Orthodoxy, reflect the teaching of the Orthodox Church, and should be something we are comfortable with placing in the hands of our parishioners.  This last category is a bit fuzzy, but we avoid selling books that would make us feel as if we need to provide a warning with the book.  Unfortunately (I say that somewhat tongue in cheek, because I think actually that it is quite fortunate), there is nothing akin to an Imprimatur or Nihil Obstat within the Orthodox world.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer my thoughts, both after an initial read, and after a deeper reading of specific sections of the book.

The fundamental purpose of this book is to provide both a guide, if you will, to the manner in which Orthodox Christians should approach other religions, and a primer on many of the major world religions.  The author plans on addressing how we should approach other religions by providing a survey of historical contacts between Orthodoxy and these other religions, as well as looking at some modern interactions.  Fr. Garvey is careful to never suggest that he will establish “the” Orthodox approach, as there are not many situations where there is a singular Orthodox approach – as his historical analysis reveals.  It is, perhaps, somewhat interesting, however, that the friend that recommended the book feels that this is precisely what he did, and thus it is disappointing that we wouldn’t carry a book that establishes the Orthodox view on any topic.  This speaks, to some degree, on precisely why we try to be a bit cautious about the books we carry.  After I discuss the areas where I feel the author to be mistaken, I hope you can understand why I wouldn’t want people to buy this book from me with the mistaken view that Fr. Garvey’s perspective is historically Orthodox or worse is “the” Orthodox perspective.  I should note that Fr. Garvey, while not directly purporting to establish “the” Orthodox approach, does intend to demonstrate what he feels is a consistent Orthodox approach.  I agree that he does that, but the approach he demonstrates is not entirely the one he intends.
The book is clearly not intended for an academic audience.  It is fairly short, covering a mere 126 pages, and although has a decent sized bibliography, no attempt is made to footnote the many quotes and assertions in the book.  Further evidence of the intended audience can be found in the numerous caveats and qualifications placed in the book anytime the topic of interfaith dialogue comes up.  Fr. Garvey knows that the readers of his books would not be academically trained theologians, so he is clear to reiterate, again and again, that we are not to adopt a relativistic approach.  However, it is the very need for so many warnings that indicts this text as one that perhaps should have been left unwritten.  If a product needs too many warnings in order to be used safely, the benefit better be significant.  In my opinion, one of the reasons for the warnings is that Fr. Garvey is proposing, at least in part, an approach to interfaith relations that is beyond what we have seen historically.
My Issues with the Book
In the introduction, Fr. Garvey reveals what he believes is one purpose for interfaith dialogue, which is to help us learn more about our faith, and to possibly even learn new truths which can be absorbed into Orthodoxy.  At one point we are promised that, “as we will see, the history of Judaism and Christianity has shown that the Christian tradition can absorb truths from other religions and grow from that contact.” (p. 18) , and then we are told that  “a dialogue is necessary and can help us to sharpen our appreciation of our own Orthodox heritage.”  Of course, this is followed with another warning that we can’t be relativists.  That is, we can learn new things from other religions, but we need to do so while reminding ourselves that our religion has the fullness of truth, and theirs doesn’t.
I have three major problems with this perspective(beyond the incoherency of the position).  The first is that such an approach to other religions is not at all reflected in the history of Orthodox relations with other religions that is surveyed.  Although there is a promise to demonstrate how Christianity has absorbed truths from other religions, it remains unfulfilled throughout the text.  There are three different events he brings up that he might think fulfilled this promise, but none of them actually do.  One of these is a story, taken from one of the several collections of sayings of the Desert Fathers:
Abba Olympus said this, “One of the pagan priests came down from Scetis one day and came to my cell and slept there.  Having reflected not he monks’ way of life, he said to me, ‘Since you live like this, do you not receive any visits from your God?’ I said to him, ‘No.’  Then the priest said to me, ‘Yet when we make a sacrifice to our God, he hides nothing form us, but discloses his mysteries; and you, giving yourself so much hardship, vigils, prayer and asceticism, say that you see nothing?  Truly, if you see nothing, then it is because you have impure thoughts in your hearts, which separate you from your God, and for this reason his mysteries are not revealed to you.’  So I went to report the priest’s words to the old men.  They wee filled with admiration and said that this was true.  For impure thoughts separated God from man.” (p. 87)
Fr. Garvey interprets this to mean that the elders needed to learn something from the pagan priest, or that the monk in the story needed to.  I did not read that story as meaning that at all.  Instead, it seemed to me that they elders were filled with admiration that a pagan had such insights.  That impure thoughts were preventing the monk from seeing God was hardly a new concept to the men and women of the desert.  It is found throughout their writings.
Another event might be the legend of Sts. Barlaam and Josaphat, which, it is purported, is simply a re-telling of the story of Sidartha. Although now accepted by academics, I find the foundation for this view to be a bit tenuous. Be that as it may,let’s assume that it is the case.  It still doesn’t point to some deep truth that Buddhism holds that we needed to learn.  Rather, it is a useful sort of morality tale where, in spite of a fathers desire to keep his child away from Christianity, the child becomes a Christian and converts the father.  I suspect there are many such stories within Christian history,
I think, however, that the event that is being proposed as an instance of Christianity learning from another faith, is the possibility that the concepts of life after death and resurrection entered Jewish thought as a result of contact with Zoroastrianism (p. 55 ff).  He is clear to point out that this is still only a theory, but let’s assume that it is, in fact, true.  Can we then proclaim that Christianity learned of the resurrection indirectly from Zoroastrianism?  I have two issues with this.  The first is that there was not one monolithic view within Judaism regarding life after death.  Thus, there was no necessity that Christianity should follow one school or the other.  More importantly, though, is the fact that Christianity learned about life after death and resurrection from Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  We cannot suggest that Christ needed to learn something from Zoroastrianism.  If he did, then he clearly wasn’t the Son of God.  No, Christianity is a revealed faith, not one that grew from something else.  Remember that the apostles, all of them (including Paul, just later) spent several years learning from Christ himself.
What we see in the history of interaction between Orthodoxy and other faiths is not an interest in learning, but either a defense, or an attempt at evangelization.  St. Paul does not engage the philosophers at the Areopagus because he thinks they have something to teach him.  No, he engages because he has a gospel for them to hear.  If we move forward in time, skipping perhaps over the more polemical writings, we never find a case where the Orthodox were seeking to learn about another religion to enhance their own understanding.  Perhaps one of the longest interfaith exchanges we have in history is between the Tubingen Scholars and Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople.  As we read through the exchange, we are never left with the feeling that the Patriarch is seeking to learn something from the Lutherans at all.  Rather, he is politely engaging them and attempting to correct their mistaken notions so that perhaps there can be a restoration of them to Orthodoxy.  The first instance that I’m aware of, and that Fr. Garvey refers to, of Orthodox dialoguing for the sake of dialoguing, or for the sake of learning something new, is in the 20th century ecumenical movement, which is precisely why it is viewed so suspiciously by a large number of Orthodox.  It is interesting to note that among all of the quotes we find from Archbishop Anastasios, a representative of modern Orthodox views on interfaith relations, we never see any sign of such a belief.  He only seeks a more irenic approach when we are interacting with, and hopefully evangelizing, others.
The next problem I have is that such an approach presumes that the person engage in the dialogue is well schooled in their own faith, so that they can discern the truth in the other religion from the falsehood.  If we grant that, regardless of the historic approach of our faith, that Orthodox should talk with non-orthodox for no other reason than to learn something new, then shouldn’t such dialog be restricted to those who know their faith well?  We occasionally receive works by non-orthodox from some of our friends on various topics.  Sometimes, much of what is said can be consistent with Orthodox teaching, sometimes, much of it isn’t.  It is important, then, for me to sift through these items and separate wheat from chaff.  What if I don’t know my Orthodoxy that well (and to be honest, I have a lot to learn)?  What if I read something, think that it sounds good, and yet it is somehow in contradiction with Orthodoxy?  Is it healthy for me to have read that?  Or should I, rather, focus my spiritual reading on Scripture, the hymns of the Church, the Fathers, etc.?  Once I’ve exhausted all of those resources (which I suspect would take me the rest of my life, and then some), then I can read through writings from other religions.
The third problem I have is perhaps just an extension of the previous issue.  That is, the thought that we, as Orthodox generally, have anything to learn from other religions.  Certainly, they may have elements of the truth, but the only way we know that is by vetting a belief or insight against the vast deposit of faith that is Orthodoxy.  But then, this wouldn’t be a new truth.  Of course the argument will end up being more nuanced.  The truth from the other religion merely helps us see what we already know more clearly.  Perhaps this could happen, but again, I would be hard pressed to imagine the case where the same insight and more cannot be found within the vast resources available to the Orthodox.  At the same time, one would need to be cautious that the new insight isn’t, in fact, a movement away from the truth.
I was also a bit bothered by the handling of Islam, and in particular the term jihad.  When he introduces the term, he immediately implies that only extremists hold the view that jihad means holy war.  By doing so, he therefore implies that it has never legitimately held that meaning, but that the term was hijacked by Islamic extremism that arose in the 20th century.  Yet, two sentences later we learn that, in fact, “jihad can refer to a war waged for a religious cause”(p. 47).  I fear that the casual reader will be left with an incorrect notion that only some small group of extremists have held the view that jihad is related to a notion of holy war.
However, jihad clearly meant holy war, or at least armed struggle, and perhaps only meant that, for at least the first three centuries of Islam’s existence,  as we can see in this intelligence analysis,* and is frankly obvious to anybody with only the barest knowledge of world history.  After that time, we see the rise of those proposing an alternate sense for the word.  That this represents a feeling that the word was misunderstood before, I doubt somehow.  I suspect, rather, that it represented the reality that as the borders of the empire grew, greater and greater numbers of Muslims would never have the opportunity to engage in armed conflict, so an alternative meaning was needed.
Although there is a limited amount of depth that anyone can go into with any sort of survey text, this is a case where the topic could have largely been left alone.  Instead, a mistaken impression is created about what is a key piece of Islamic history.  Are similar mistakes present elsewhere in the text regarding other religions?  Again, such an issue gives me pause regarding a book we will sell within out store.
Is There Nothing of Value?
So, does this mean that the book is of no value?  Not at all.  All in all, I think it does an adequate job giving at least a broad brush overview of other world religions.  Of note is that he addresses Sikhism and B’Hai, both of which are probably fairly mysterious and relatively unknown religions to most people.  While everyone by now is probably familiar with the Sikh turban, which has led them to be viewed by the uninformed as possible terrorists, few probably know much about their faith.  Additionally, to the degree that I have much understanding of either Buddhism or Hinduism, I found his treatment accurate, and sufficient for what is clearly a book aimed at providing an overview.
One area which he addresses in some detail, and think quite correctly, is when he juxtaposes to different potential approaches to other religions on the part of the Orthodox.  One, as I have noted is basically a relativism which sees other faiths as merely other equally valid paths to God, which he is quick to point, is not a valid Orthodox position.  The other approach is the one that states that all other faiths are entirely wrong and potentially evil.  While you would like to think that such a view is more of a caricature than a view legitimately held by anyone, it is, in fact, not entirely uncommon, especially within more conservative branches of American Evangelicalism.  Holding to such a view, besides simply being incorrect, has two fairly negative outcomes.  The first is that you effectively remove a key avenue of evangelization, as I noted earlier.  A more Orthodox approach, exemplified in this book by Archbishop Anastasios, and exemplified elsewhere by this great book on Taoism (written by a monk from a very traditionalist monastery here in the US), is to see where an understanding of God, because it exists at a basic level in all humans, is present in other religions.  St. Paul tells us that Christ came when he did, in the fullness of time.  The time when humanity was perhaps more ready to hear His message, than at any time prior, or any time since.  The time, of course, was one devoid of any universal religion.  Instead, there was an abundance of religions that all intersected within the Roman Empire.  It was the presence of some element of truth in each of these, that allowed the seed of Christ’s teaching to take root and grow.
The other outcome is that such a view can easily lead to a dehumanization of adherents of other religions.  In the worst case, it could lead to persecution, either directly or via some tacit approval of the actions of others.  It doesn’t take long in a history book of the 20th Century to find examples of this.  Even if persecution isn’t the outcome, the dehumanization is an incorrect Orthodox perspective.  If we fail to accept the fundamental humanity of all persons, what would be the point of the Divine Commission?
So, the book is worth reading for these elements, it is just important to be aware of those areas of concern I addressed earlier.  As I said at the outset, we do not sell books with warnings, so we avoid those texts.  This has even led us to not carry books I really like, such as this one, even when it is the only text in English on a core Orthodox teaching, simply because the way the text is written could easily lead to erroneous conclusions.
*It’s important to note that the analysis begins by saying that jihad does not mean holy war, by which, the author is pointing out that the word does not directly translate to “holy war”, but rather translates to the word “struggle” with the implication that it is struggling in the way of Allah.  However, that the term had the sense of holy war, is made clear shortly thereafter:
Muslims themselves have disagreed throughout their history about the meaning of the term jihad. In the Qur’an (or Koran), it is normally found in the sense of fighting in the path of God; this was used to describe warfare against the enemies of the early Muslim community (ummah). In the hadith, the second most authoritative source of the shari’a (Islamic law), jihad is used to mean armed action, and most Islamic theologians and jurists in the classical period (the first three centuries) of Muslim history understood this obligation to be in a military sense.

Knowledge of Religion

A recent Pew Forum survey demonstrates what appears, at first blush, to be an embarrassing lack of knowledge of things religious by Americans who claim to be religious. There are a few problems with the way this is being reported, not the least of which is the fact that believers appear to be more knowledgeable about their beliefs than non-believers, although they know less about other religions. It is this latter realization that I think may prove to be quite dangerous.

In general, for the living out of life as an Orthodox Christian, knowing that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, or that most people in Pakistan are Muslim, serves little purpose. Surprisingly, knowing the order of books in the Bible isn’t very important either. Knowing who Moses is, or Job, and being familiar with the ten commandments, those are all very important. More importantly, knowing that Christ died for us, and rose again is important. That Martin Luther triggered the Reformation isn’t.

As I blogged about recently, there has been a growing tendency, as a result of the ecumenical movement, to believe that all religions are essentially the same. Certainly many act that way. I think there is a relationship between both the stated tendency, and this demonstration of the lack of religious knowledge. If someone, particularly someone who acts as if they are knowledgeable, that a certain item is fact, in the absence of any independent knowledge of my own, I am likely to believe them. In general, it is the job of our shepherds to guide us in these issues, much as St. Theophan the Recluse did in this work. Unfortunately, these days it is frequently the hierarchs that are engaged in much of the ecumenical behavior. So, instead of protecting the faithful, they are leading them astray. It is only a strong knowledge of our own faith, and faith of others, that will allow us to see the truth.

At our recent Greek Festival, we had a lot of great conversations with folks from other faiths at our booth. Frequently, though, we would have someone who was Roman (or in some cases Eastern) Catholic come and tell us how we were basically the same. The problem is, that we really aren’t. Superficially that may appear to be the case, but Rome has established doctrines that are at odds with the historic faith, and declared key elements of historic Orthodoxy to be, themselves, heresy. Unfortunately, many people are not sufficiently knowledgeable about their own faith to know this. They certainly aren’t knowledgeable enough about other faiths in most cases to know what the teachings actually are.

If this is truly the case, which is what the Pew survey suggests, and if the shepherds will not guide the flock any longer, how can they continue to follow the Way? Thankfully, not all of the shepherds have given up their responsibilities. There are still many holy bishops and priests to guide the faithful, and we have the tradition as found in our prayers and hymns and liturgies. We have the Monks and Nuns who have long been a source of nourishment for the Church. Finally, and most importantly, we have Christ as our head, and the Holy Spirit to guide us.

However, in this modern era, when the teachings of our Church are so readily available to those seeking them, we shouldn’t merely be content that God will protect the Church over time. As in everything else, we must be ready and willing to assist. We do this first and foremost by looking after our own education.

Interfaith Interest

One of the biggest phenomena on the religious scene in the past century has been the ecumenical movement. The goals of the movement are certainly laudable. People who know each other, and understand each other (to some extent) are less likely to kill each other. I suppose that presupposition warrants some exploration (given that one set of data indicates that 77% of people murdered are murdered by someone they know, with 30% being murdered by family members), but it does seem reasonable.

Now the question that needs to ask is, what is the point of the various religious groups in question? For the Christian, the point is salvation, although the definition of salvation varies a bit. For a more detailed understanding of the Orthodox view of salvation, you can visit the “Glory to God for All Things” blog. Other religions have somewhat similar goals. The hallmark of most of these, and certainly most forms of Christianity is that these groups feel that they have the means to achieve salvation (or nirvana, or entrance into heaven, etc.). Orthodoxy, for instance, believes that salvation comes from Christ, and via the Church that he established. It is important to remember that what we now call Orthodoxy or Orthodox Christianity, was originally called “The Way”. It was a process, not merely a set of doctrines. Since we firmly hold to this, and further hold that salvation is the most important issue facing humanity, it stands to reason that we would not want to do anything that causes confusion about salvation, and that may lead people – either our faithful, or others, to no longer seek out Christ and his Church.

The Ecumenical movement has, in my opinion, resulted in just this sort of confusion. Meetings where different representatives discuss their faith are fine. However, these turned into joint prayer services – in other words, joint worship. The Orthodox Church has long had canons against those activities, largely because we understand that worship is done by a community that is of “one essence” – in fact we state in the liturgy that our ability to recite the same creed somehow reflects our love for one another. I think that there remains that sense among most people, although it is beginning to fade, that of course you wouldn’t worship with folks who hold beliefs significantly different than yours.

I was recently provided with a copy of an article in the Chicago Tribune about an “interfaith” seminary being started up by the Unitarian Church. Given that the Unitarians do not believe that any one religion is necessarily true, one has to believe that this belief is part of what the program will be attempting to teach. Therefore, they will effectively be sowing the very confusion I was speaking of. In addition, I think that such teaching actually serves to denigrate the very religions they claim to be supporting. For instance, Christianity makes some very serious claims – that Christ is the Son of God, that he is the truth and the way. Islam makes similar claims about being the one true way, while at the same time claiming that those who believe that God had a Son are foolish, and that to hold that Christ is God, and that God is a trinity, is blasphemy. Maintaining that both religions are true really means that neither one is. Rather, some generic form of spirituality is true. So, instead of the intended goal of supporting all religions, this interfaith program demeans most of them.

Perhaps getting different religious groups together for a purely social gathering, in the interest of promoting peace, would be a good idea. Certainly there is nothing in Orthodoxy that supports harming members of other faiths. Similarly, if one group is interested in learning about what another group believes, I think it is perfectly reasonable for the one group to make a presentation to the other. It is when ecumenism drifts into either acting or teaching that all religions are basically the same, that the trouble begins.

The best example of the manner in which Orthodox should handle ecumenism, is to provide the kind of loving feedback that this priest provided at the National Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. That is, love everyone, and tell them the truth, in love.