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:
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.