In the US, Protestant Evangelicals are angry about identity politics. One could reasonably chuckle at this, not only because they are usually white males who are not under threat, but also because Protestants made spiritual identity a sport of Olympic proportions. If anyone should sympathize with issues of identity, it should be us for whom the slightest change in eucharistic practice requires another label.
Like those who counter “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter,” many Protestants who are tired of their divisions proclaim, “All denominations matter.” Like its counterpart, this does not elevate everyone’s identity, but rather erases their differences out of existence, to everyone’s detriment. As Brian J. Walsh and Steven Bouma-Prediger note in Beyond Homelessness, if one erases distinctions one becomes a stranger, because distinctions are constitutive of identity (51-52). When distinctions of identity are erased, people will wander aimlessly without identity or security.
My family’s faith was based on emotional response, reading the Bible, and going to church; which church, as long as it wasn’t a Roman Catholic church, was probably fine. “Non-denominational” sounds to some like a wonderful compromise, which incidentally is appealing to anyone pursuing ministry who wants to keep their options open.
However it is because of this pursuit, that distinctions between Christians do matter.
I desire to, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on [me], live at peace with everyone” (Rom 12:18), not only for career reasons but why cause unnecessary division? But Paul knew what he was talking about. “If possible,” which comes with the implication that it may not be possible! But more importantly, “as far as it depends on you,” and the problem for anyone entering ministry is that issues such as who you work with, how you work, who you serve are no longer dependent on you, but on the community and tradition which you join yourself to.
In joining myself to Christ, I find my home in the Christian tradition, but being raised non-denominational leaves me with the proverbial postmodern religious cafeteria to choose from. A.J. Jacobs in his autobiographical work, A Year of Living Biblically, observes:
…”Cafeteria Christianity” [is] a derisive term used by fundamentalist Christians to describe moderate Christians. The idea is that moderates pick and choose the parts of the Bible they want to follow.… The year showed me beyond a doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion…. Fundamentalists do it too…. But the more important lesson was this: there’s nothing wrong with choosing. Cafeterias aren’t bad per se. I’ve had some great meals at cafeterias…. (327-28)
For those who are anxious, however, the plethora of choice can be paralyzing. Furthermore, what kind of food I get will determine whom I sit with, and vice versa!
The pressure to find one’s own identity sends many young Protestant men like myself into the arms of the Orthodox Church.
Being raised as a non-denominational Evangelical, one is raised with a belief in the importance of the Bible. What is most interesting is that some of these Evangelical kids like myself will actually obey their parents and read their Bible voraciously, but find at the end of it all that the Bible—while beautiful and awe-inspiring—is not the source of the coherence and clarity of faith we were hoping for.
We needed to explain away every contradiction; consider every passage about a topic for our ethics; examine every prophecy about the future being about our future; but after all that, the title of “Bible teacher” no longer seemed as authoritative as it once did.
The inerrancy of Scripture is one thing, the idea of Scripture alone, or sola scriptura, is another entirely. The Orthodox Church has always known that sola scriptura would leave one wanting the guidance of the Church and of tradition, and it was only Protestant arrogance that could have thought otherwise.
Thankfully for the Orthodox Church, most Protestants are too Protestant to ever become Roman Catholic. Unfortunately for Orthodoxy, most Protestants—including myself up until the end of my undergraduate degree—have no clue what Orthodoxy is.
As we begin to assess what being a “Christian” means, however, we discover a whole other third of the Christian tradition known as Orthodoxy, who because we’ve never had a direct confrontation with, we know nothing about.
Why learn about Orthodoxy as opposed to the tomes of St. Thomas Aquinas? Fyodor Dostoevsky. After reading The Brother’s Karamazov, which portrays the life of a monk who leaves the monastery to love the world, and whose exploration of the political perversion of Christ’s message by the Church in “The Grand Inquisitor,” were more prophetic and spiritually elevating than any Evangelical preaching I have ever experienced. If Dostoevsky was Orthodox, I wanted to learn what Orthodoxy was.
If my exploration has been following the right map, some pearls of Orthodoxy I rejoice over are:
- Contrary to Protestant belief, Martin Luther did not restore us to original faith; rather, since the earliest centuries, the Orthodox have preserved the earliest form of worship in their tradition.
- It harbours the original Syriac churches and manuscripts which bring us closer to the historical context of Christ, the Middle East.
- It truly believes and practices reading Scripture alongside those Church Fathers who read them first.
- It has never formally condemned the doctrine of apocatastasis or universal salvation, which has been made more appealing since Rob Bell.
- It is filled with a strong, healthy tradition of monasticism, and “holy fools” that would make Shane Claiborne weep with joy.
- Finally, it does not embrace the penal substitution theory of atonement, which portrays Jesus as saving us from God.
As beautiful as these things are, I do have some questions with regards to the Orthodox tradition:
- Why is your Church still divided along gender and ethnic lines? I thought Paul made it clear that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile…nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
- Icons? Aren’t human beings themselves the “image of God” restored in Christ? Why such reverence to physical objects when we are to encounter Christ through the Church?
- Why do you keep so closely to yourselves and make your tradition impenetrable to those that may not speak Greek or Romanian or whatever else? Why don’t you evangelize or do outreach?
- Lastly, how do you look at other Christianities? As those who have met Christ but have yet to come home? As dangerous heretics in need of reproof exclusion? As other perfectly valid traditions?
As I continue to search for my ecclesial identity, may I not be found outside of Christ.
Caleb David Upton holds an MTh from the University of Edinburgh, specializing in the Book of Revelation. He is currently pursuing his MDiv at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. He has written for Political Theology Today and blogs at calebdupton.