Last night I attended an engaging lecture at Calvin College by Dr. William Abraham of the Southern Methodist University Perkins School of Theology. Abraham, whose religious background is Irish Methodist and who is now a minister in the United Methodist Church and the Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins, gave a presentation titled, “The Treasures and Trials of Eastern Orthodoxy.” As someone who was once an outsider to the Orthodox Church and is now an insider (as much as a former outsider can be, I suppose), I can say that Dr. Abraham’s lecture highlighted many things that I see in the Orthodox Church myself as well as bringing others into focus, in particular five treasures the Orthodox bring and four trials that they face in our current, global context.

Dr. Abraham began with his own background: how had he come to discover Eastern Orthodoxy? Years ago, when he first came to the United States, he experienced something of a scandal: his impression of the Methodism of America was that it significantly differed from that which he had grown accustomed to in Ireland. It was as if they had forgotten Charles Wesley’s rich, doctrine-laden hymns. He met people who did not believe in (or at least did not care about) the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation. The scholarly focus was entirely on discussions of method: epistemology and metaphysical questions, which though important failed to say anything positive about the God we worship, the Savior who gave himself for us, and the faith that we have inherited. In his assessment, the liberal Methodism he encountered, however, did not really lack piety — the people he met were quite sincerely religious — but rather they had burdened themselves with an impossible commitment to revisionism. As a result, they were “not only intellectually thin but spiritually hopeless,” said Abaraham.

It was in the midst of a personal, spiritual crisis at this time that he first encountered the Russian Orthodox Slavophile Alexei Khomiakov, in particular his work “On the Western Confessions of Faith.” Reading this had a profound effect on him. At this point his experience of Orthodoxy was that it was “a spiritual treasure trove.” He attended Vespers, and the services of Great Lent and Holy Week and was especially moved by the Lamentations service of Great and Holy Saturday (observed the previous night on Good Friday), which he described as like an Irish funeral for Jesus. Furthermore, he found that the iconographic tradition of the Orthodox helped him pull away from a purely intellectualized conception of his faith. In particular he mentioned his fondness for an icon of St. Seraphim of Sarov, who is known to have said, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace, and thousands around you shall be saved.”

Sometime after this he visited Russia and Romania and discovered — as many do — that there are differences between the Orthodox Church on paper and in actual fact. He saw a Church that was (and is still) struggling to rebuild after the devastation of communism, in which many were martyred and many clergy who remained in some cases unfortunately compromised their integrity with the regimes of the day. (Notably, Patriarch Alexei II of Moscow later publicly repented for the sins of the Russian Patriarchate during the Soviet era. Earning the trust of the Russian people once again has certainly been a struggle, however.) Nevertheless, Abraham also recounted his relationship with Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas of the Orthodox Church in America, saying that he was a true pastor and “a saint.” Thus, while he does not have any idealism about the Orthodox, he nevertheless has seen the tradition in its best light, not only on paper but in reality.

After this introduction he went on to isolate what he sees as five treasures and four trials or challenges of the Orthodox today:

Treasures:

  1. The Orthodox enjoy a close proximity to the Church fathers. They are not merely subjects of study but friends. The Orthodox read their works not idealistically but with a hermeneutic of gratitude and love. As Abraham put it, they “bind up the wounds of the fathers.”
  2. The core of the Orthodox faith is the Holy Trinity. Questions of methodology and metaphysics are not elevated above their place (though perhaps they are valued too low [see Trial #4 below]). Instead, the Orthodox faith has preserved the importance and centrality of the question: who do we worship? And the answer is clear and uncontested: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  3. Orthodox piety fosters a natural connection between knowledge of God and knowledge about God. That is, through the Orthodox spiritual tradition one’s relationship and communion with God is not disconnected from doctrinal teaching about God. Abraham especially noted the simple, meditative prayers “Lord, have mercy” and the Jesus Prayer. I would add that many of our prayers and hymns contain vitally important theological concepts (some of which were matters of piety before doctrine), such as homoousios, Theotokos, and Chalcedonian Christology, among others. These teachings are taught organically through the prayers of the Church just as much as through catechesis.
  4. In theology, the Orthodox hold together a twofold emphasis on the kataphatic and apophatic methods (known as the via positiva and via negativa in the West). That is, after one has said all that can be said about God, the proper response is a silence in which “language will not work” anymore to describe the indescribable being of God. In Abraham’s experience, the liberal American Methodists he had encountered when he first came to the United States were too quickly kataphatic: they simply had nothing to say about God at all, yet the silence was not so much inspired by awe as methodological distress.
  5. The Orthodox have a much broader understanding of the term “canon.” While the Greek word kanon can mean “list,” such as a list of the canonical books of the Bible, it also can mean a criterion or measurement. Thus, the Orthodox have not only a canon of Scripture but of doctrine, saints, icons, fathers, theologians, and so on. Abraham related this to his studies of the early Church in which there was no official canon of Scripture or revelation (or even of the Atonement or the relationship between faith and reason), but they did canonize an ontology: they cared above all about having the correct answer to the question, “Who is God?” They began with the Holy Trinity and other canonical areas unfolded from there.

From these five treasures of the Orthodox Tradition, he moved to four trials that he believes the Orthodox need to face, not only in the West but simply in our more globalized context in which all of us must interact with one another.

Trials:

  1. In Abraham’s view, the Orthodox are underdeveloped in ethics and moral philosophy. While noting some positives, especially the Orthodox pastoral approach to divorce and marriage, he believes there is much work to be done here by modern Orthodox writers.
  2. The relationship between Church and State needs a lot more attention. I have already noted the struggles of the Orthodox to rebuild after Communism, during which times there were many compromises made with the atheist, Soviet governments. Certainly articulating a healthy yet traditional and Orthodox understanding of the relationship between Church and State is something that deserves more thoughtful reflection and practice.
  3. Abraham, who himself is an expert in the field, isolated evangelism as an area that the Orthodox need to focus more on today. In particular, he mentioned the post-Christian trends of Europe. “Europe needs to be re-evangelized,” Abraham said, and “we need all hands on deck.”
  4. Lastly, in his assessment the Orthodox are “hopelessly behind the times” in the area of epistemology, another topic of his own research. In particular, he highlighted apologetic concerns: the challenge of an aggressive atheism and a new encounter with Islam in the West. The Orthodox have the resources to address these challenges, but “they need to get to work” according to Abraham. “I wish they’d help us,” he said. Too often, however, in his experience contemporary Orthodox writers tend to unfairly dismiss such important intellectual challenges related to epistemology as Western “rationalism,” and as a result they miss an opportunity to add their voices to a discussion that has radically changed since the 1970s, highlighting the work of the Reformed philosopher Alvin Plantinga in particular.

“You need to face up to these challenges,” said Abraham, “and join the conversation.” On the whole, I would agree. While work has been and is being done in these areas (the work of David Bentley Hart comes to mind with regard to Trial #4), we certainly could do a lot more, and living in the West as many of us do will require us to face these challenges, whether we are prepared to or not.

Happily, I can say that nearly every one of these four trials were the subject of lectures at Acton University this year. Fr. Michael Butler talked on Orthodoxy, Church, and State as well as Orthodoxy and natural law, Fr. Gregory Jensen lectured on asceticism and consumerism, and Fr. Hans Jacobse’s session on the importance of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn had a clear emphasis on evangelism and apologetics. Those who are interested can stream those lectures at Ancient Faith radio here.

Abraham is very right that much more can be done, however. For my part I hope that the Orthodox will have ears to hear his call, not only here at the Acton Institute but through the work of the Sophia Institute in the United States, the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris, and many other institutions and publications worldwide as well.

Dr. Abraham is the author of several books in the fields of philosophy, theology, and evangelism among others, which can be found here.


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  • http://palamas.info/ Fr Gregory Jensen

    Dylan,

    Thanks for posting a summary of what sounds like a very interesting lecture. I am sorry to have missed it–the Q&A must have been amazing.

    Dr Abraham is spot on in his assessment of the treasures and trails of the Orthodox Church. Trails 1 & 4 are of special concern to me both as a parish priest and a college chaplain. Our shortcomings in moral theology and epistemology are evident in both pastoral situations. Moral and religious relativism are a serious problem among Orthodox Christians and our lack of a well-developed moral theology is especially harmful.

    So, thanks again to you and kudos to Dr Abraham!

    In Christ,

    +FrG

    • Dylan Pahman

      Thank you.

      Kudos to Dr. Abraham, indeed.

    • frjohnmorris

      I am quite puzzled by the accusation that there are shortcomings in Orthodox moral theology. It seems to me that a clear sense of right and wrong and commitment to traditional Christian moral values is one of the great strengths of Orthodoxy. Like every other American religion, we have to deal with the negative influence of the moral relativism on our people, especially our youth, but the teachings of the Orthodox Church are hardly influenced by moral relativism. Our major problem is that the rest of society largely ignores us. I cannot think of a single time when I have seen a discussion of moral issues on a television program or read an article in a major magazine or on the internet that has included a representative of the Orthodox Church. I have no doubt that in two weeks the Antiochian Archdiocese to which I belong will pass a resolution condemning the legitimization of same sex marriage at our convention like we did at the last one two years ago, but the secular media will take no notice of it.

      We are almost totally ignored by the American media. Two weeks ago the Syrian rebels who are receiving money and arms from our government tried to assassinate the Patriarch of Antioch, yet there was no mention of it in the American press. Several months ago the rebels kidnapped the Antiochian Orthodox Metropolitan and Syriac Orthodox Bishop of Aleppo and there has been no mention of it in the American press.

      • http://www.acton.org/ John Couretas

        We are ignored, Father, because we don’t care to get involved. Please forgive me if what I am about to say offers any offense, but as a long-time observer of church engagement in the Public Square, I have come to some unhappy conclusions about the current state of the Orthodox Church here in America.

        I must first express my gratitude to William Abraham for his insightful, charitable and helpful analysis. We Orthodox owe him a debt of gratitude for such clear thinking.

        What you say about Orthodox moral theology is true, but it isn’t taught or preached. Certainly not to those in the pews. For example, I cannot recall a single instance of a Greek Orthodox priest (my own jurisdiction) ever preaching on the subject of the sanctity of life. Or talking to a Sunday School class about it. Or casually mentioning it during coffee hour. Instead, what we ordinarily get in preaching are history lessons. We cling to a threadbare triumphalism and constantly prate about Orthodoxy being “America’s best kept secret.” I suspect we like it that way because it relieves us from the hard work and accountability of real social engagement.

        The Greek Orthodox, the largest, wealthiest and most politically connected jurisdiction in America, has defaulted its social engagement to the National Council of Churches. Talk about a strange marriage of dogs and cats there. That makes me, what?, an Eastern-Rite Social Gospel Progressive? No, thank you.

        But the GOA is very active politically. Only it is focused on “Greek national issues.” See:

        Archbishop Demetrios of America on Faith and Politics
        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UWSWkRXc_fE&feature=player_embedded

        We have an Orthodox bishops assembly but it is practically inert on anything to do with the American Public Square (yes, to their credit they’ve been active on the Syrian bishops kidnapping). But the assembly’s church and society committee, led by the leftist Greek Orthodox bishop Met. Savas of Pittsburgh, hasn’t met in three years. Has it not discovered any social problems in America?

        See:

        Orthodox Bishops Assembly Silent on Moral Issues. By John Couretas
        http://www.aoiusa.org/blog/orthodox-bishops-assembly-silent-on-moral-issues/

        Chris Banescu, Bp. Savas and the Dust Up. By Fr. Hans Jacobse
        http://www.aoiusa.org/blog/chris-banescu-bp-savas-and-the-dust-up/

        Go the bishops’ website and look at the Krindatch demographic work. What do we find?

        Compared to Roman Catholics and Protestants, the Orthodox are …

        — Wealthier

        — More educated

        — More politically liberal

        — Just as ‘flexible’ in re-interpreting Church doctrine: 68%

        http://www.assemblyofbishops.org/news/research

        So, yes, we have the moral theology to do the hard work in the culture if we care to. But we’re paying the price for not bringing it forward and applying it to tough issues that face us today. In the Tradition of the Church, our bishops are the teachers and preachers of this Tradition. Where are they?

        • frjohnmorris

          The situation that you describe is not
          one that I have experienced. I certainly have preached on moral
          issues in very specific terms. I very strongly condemned the recent
          US Supreme Court decision against DOMA and overturning the vote of
          the people of California against same-sex marriage. I have also
          heard our Antiochian Bishops speak out on social issues such as same
          sex marriage in very unambiguous terms. We certainly try to teach
          our youth proper Orthodox sexual morality in our summer camping
          program, and in the youth group. I wrote an article on the gay issue
          that was published a few years ago in THE WORD and is still available
          on the web site of the Antiochian Archdiocese. I know that there was
          no hint of relativism in the moral theology that I was taught at
          Holy Cross by Fr. Harakas. That does not mean that we must not be ever vigilant in defending our moral beliefs and teaching our people to live according to them.

          I do not know about the other
          committees of the Bishop’s Assembly, but know from direct personal
          experience as a consultant to the Ecumenical and Pastoral Practices
          Committees that at least these two committees are hard at work. Only
          Bishops are actual members of the Committee, but every Committee has
          clergy and lay consultants who meet with them.

          • http://www.acton.org/ John Couretas

            Father: I know that there are good things happening at the parish level, and there are faithful priests and laypeople doing good work. That doesn’t, however, get us an answer to the question: Why are we ignored?

            We are famous for being unresponsive, passive, unconcerned. The bishops’ website doesn’t even have a phone number to call. Good grief!

            http://www.assemblyofbishops.org/contact/

            I would conjecture that most mainstream reporters (and not a few American Orthodox) aren’t even aware that we have a bishops’ organization. When reporters think about the Orthodox, they think food festivals and celebrating Pascha out of sync with the West. They don’t look to us for insight on faith and culture. Even less for insights on current issues.

            Note the assembly’s complete lack of engagement on the HHS mandate and the Supreme Court DOMA decision, among other issues. Either we prefer to have Catholics and Protestants do the heavy lifting for us, or we don’t — institutionally speaking — think engaging with the culture in a unified way is of much importance.

            You’ve heard of the project called “Evangelicals and Catholics Together”? When are we going to hear about “Orthodox, Evangelicals and Catholics Together”? Not any time soon, if the assembly’s passivity continues.

            My models for episcopal engagement are Archbishop Iakovos, of blessed memory, and Metropolitan Jonah of the OCA. But Iakovos’ march with King was now almost 50 years ago. And Jonah, who was both active on the culture and very ecumenical, was removed in a culture war putsch.

            Who will take their place?

      • http://palamas.info/ Fr Gregory Jensen

        Thank you Father for your comment.

        I’m not sure we are saying different things–yes, we have a clear moral tradition but, as you point out, this hasn’t protected us from the culture’s moral relativism. The same, however, can be said of Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants and Evangelical Christians. We (largely) share the same moral tradition that is clearly articulates the difference between what is morally right and morally wrong. But no matter how rich the tradition, if it is not clearly and systematically articulated and upheld, it is powerless to save.

        As both you John Couretas point out in his own response to you, many Orthodox Christians have accepted the culture’s moral relativism. This is unfortunate but not unexpected. What makes this situation tragic is that many of our faithful, and even our clergy, will defend this relativism as part of the Church’s tradition with the airy assertion that “Orthodox Christians don’t judge.”

        The Pew Charitable Trust US Religious Landscape survey points out that not only are we more inclined to be Pro-Choice than the general American population, Evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics, we are also less supportive of the Pro-Life position (my post on this is here: http://palamas.info/%E2%80%9Corthodox%E2%80%9D-moral-reasoning/).

        John is right I think in his observation that we are ignored “because we don’t care to get involved.” But even when we do get involved, we sometimes are not as clear as we might be.

        Take for example the OCA’s response to the recent SCOTUS’s decisions (http://oca.org/news/headline-news/holy-synod-issues-affirmation-of-the-mystery-of-marriage). It’s a good letter as far as it goes in that it re-affirms the Church’s teaching on the Mystery of Marriage. Unfortunately, the Court wasn’t addressing the the sacramental status of marriage but it’s civil definition. I don’t think the Holy Synod of the OCA supports same-sex marriage in any shape or form. Unfortunately there are Orthodox Christians who do and who do so based on a misapplication of the distinction between civil and sacramental marriage (for example, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-j-dunn-phd/eastern-orthodox-gay-marriage_b_894982.html).

        Maybe I’m wrong here, but it seems to me that as Orthodox Christians we must oppose BOTH the crowning of same-sex couples in the Church AND the re-definition of civil marriage to include same-sex couples.

        Maybe to be clearer what I should have said is while our moral tradition is clear and as binding as our dogmatic tradition, we tend to invest less resources in moral theology than dogmatic theology. Granted since I trained in moral theology I may have a bias but I do think that Abraham is correct in saying we need to do a better job in ethics and moral theology.

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  • Melissa McCutcheon

    Such a clear delination of our strengths and weaknesses as Orthodox Christians is of great importance. As a lay person working with people who struggle with both spiritual and psychological problems, having an inner focus on these truths is a great tool to help others with their healing processes. Thannk you for the summary and I look forward to hearing more! Melissa McCutcheon

    • Dylan Pahman

      Thank you. And thank you for your work. I guess I’ll have to attend more lectures by such perceptive and well-informed speakers.

  • Wemedge1

    I’ve been living in the original Orthodox nation, Greece, for a quarter of a century, Unfortunately, in Greece, at least, there is shocking ignorance of the Bible among the Orthodox clergy here. One reason for that is the over-emphasis of study of the Greek fathers in seminary. There’s just too much to learn. The Orthodox in Greece would never think of evangelism as sharing the gospel message of redemption. If they think of it at all, it is in terms of converting people to Eastern Orthodoxy. There is also a tremendous amount of pre-Christian superstition which has never been jettisoned. I’ve heard that US Orthodoxy is different because it has been influenced by a lot of the more Bible-centered faiths there. The Catholic clergy, on the whole, are far better educated than the E.O. clergy in Greece.

    • http://www.acton.org/ John Couretas

      Thanks for the comment. Would you mind elaborating on this? “There is also a tremendous amount of pre-Christian superstition which has never been jettisoned.”